THE EMOTIONS DUE TO CHRISTMAS BILLS.
IF the new doctrine of the rapid selection and sure inheritance of
artificial emotions adapted to the peculiar circumstances of men's artificial life be true, we ought to be finding in our children, even in the youngest of them, a special susceptibility and irri- tability in relation to pecuniary obligation, engrafted on that pride of proprietorship with which they regard their Christmas gifts. If the setter-puppy feels the impulse to set whenever that affection of his nerves which is due to the neighbourhood of game is set up, even though he may be under no authority which is expecting and trying to confirm the operation of this tendency in him, why should we not see in our children, long before the time comes when they bend beneath the weight of housekeeping liabilities, and are oppressed by the accumulation of those yearly bills which their parents had ever believed in their souls, and proudly proclaimed with their lips, that they dis- charged punctually week by week, the tendency to shudder at the advent of those long blue lists of parental liabilities ? Is it possible that the childish irritability which is usually ascribed to the cessation of the Christmas excitements, may really be due to a rudi- mentary consciousness of maturer responsibilities awakened by this onset of those ominous blue breakers, in which so many households' peace is wrecked ? If this be not so, we suppose we must ascribe the absence of any tendency to the generation of this periodic emo- tion, to the fact that new blood is constantly modifying the nervous system of class- organisations, and that the season which brings nothing but inadequately-estimated obligations to one class, brings perhaps less inadequately-estimated receipts to another. For of course, whenever a man whose ancestry have long been in the habit of suffering from the melancholia Januariensis,—that is, the despair and indignation with which they discover that after paying every- thing, as they supposed, weekly or quarterly, they have an innu- merable number of exclusively yearly obligations also to dis- charge, — marries into the class which reaps its harvest at the time when his ancestors have been accustomed to be reaped rather than to reap, the chances are that the tendency to the formation of this specific emotion will be suddenly neutralised ; and this perhaps suggests the true antidote for the dejection appropriate to the month now passing away. If we were but as capable as the Positivists aspire to make us, of " altruistic " emotion, we should feel a specific joy whenever we pay a long bill, not merely in getting rid of the sense of obligation, but in regarding the feelings with which our creditor will pay in the cheque to his banker's, and contemplate the swelling of the credit-account to which we have just contributed. And no doubt, if we could feel this as we ought, January would be a month of neutralised feeling on this head ; the unpleasant surprise with which we dis- covered that we owed what we had quite forgotten, would be neutralised by the pleasurable surprise with which we dis- covered that we had to confer a pleasure of the opportunity of which we were ignorant ; and the sense of discomfort with which we should contemplate the dwindling balance at our banker's, would be neutralised by the gratification with which we should think of the growth of our builders' or plumbers' credits at their bankers', and the satisfaction with which the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be watching the repletion of the Treasury. To disinterestedness of this kind, however, few men can probably at present layany claim, though the present writer does know a lady who was so shocked (sympathetically) at the smallness of one of her tradesmen's Christmas bills, that she bought something extra on purpose to swell the amount at the time she paid it. This, however, for most of us is a "counsel of perfection." And we suspect, there- fore, that if the theory of the rapid growth of artificial emotions of this kind be well founded, the intermarriage between families to which January brings large credits, and families to which it brings great payments, must be the explanation of our failure to observe any specific January melancholy apart from the pressure of individual claims.
Perhaps some one may say that the explanation is much simpler, that there is no tendency to the growth of a specific emotion of melancholy due to Christmas bills, because even in the class which has to pay in January without any special January receipts, so many are equal to the emergency, that no surprise and indignation of the kind we have described are felt. But if there be a man or woman who really does foresee all the claims which will arise in this way, and finds only what was foreseen, we feel sure that such a person is too good, or at all events, too exceptional, to live, and could not expect to transmit his or her virtues to descendants. Professor Huxley says that if he could be offered the choice of always going right and being properly wound up, on condition he should become a machine, he would embrace the offer at once,—but then if he did, of course he would be the consummation of the race. There would be no need for repeating copies of a perfectly regulated machine, one specimen of which is even better than a hundred, because it would take up less space in a museum ;—and a man who really finds his Christmas bills come up precisely to his expectations, must be a calculating machine neither more nor less.
Probably the pessimists have no case so strong for their theory that life is an evil so gilded by illusions as to look like a good, even up to the very end of it, as the perennial illu- sion with which men always say to themselves that this Christmas at least there will be nothing more than the ordinary quarter's bills to meet, since such and such a heavy expense which in former years has fallen due at Christmas, has this year not been incurred, or has been defrayed at the time. So we say every year, and every year brings more or less its heavy crop of
hardy annuals, in which the place of any deficient expense to which we had lovingly referred in anticipation, is sure to be sup- plied by two or three others, probably greatly exceeding it in weight. The same thing happens every year, and yet every year again the same illusion returns, only to be once more severely dissipated. Surely here, if anywhere, is an impression for which no experience can account,—since it is wholly contrary to experience, —yet so deep-rooted as to make it certain that it must be in some way advantageous to those who are under its spell, in their conflict for existence. While, then, the pessimist can boast of this constant illusion as one of the great verifications of his teaching that Nature so gilds all her pills as to make them seem grateful before they are swallowed, the stern moralist who says that truth must always be the best, and that illusion, as such, can only lead us astray, must be sorely puzzled by this strange provision of nature to brace us by airy and baseless hopes for the stern onset of the Christmas bills. Of course, such a one will say that if we had but known the truth in all its blackness,—if we had really foreseen the sum-total of all such bills as January, nay, even February, brings us, early in December, we should have been better provided for grappling with them, since we should not have cast away so much in preparation for Christmas. But nature knows better than these pedantic adherents of the advan- tages of realism. The truth is that what we call moral vitality seems to mean a certain over-supply and redundancy of motive for all we do, whether in restraint of action or in stimu- lating it. Thus we save because we are in a mild panic as to our expenditure ; and we spend because we are under some curious illusion as to the scope of our economies or savings. If we were never either over-frightened or over- bold, we should too often put off acting altogether till it was too late, and so lose half the lights and shadows of life,— that is, lose so much living. When are we so niggardly, so stony-hearted towards charities, so blankly indisposed to con- trive pleasures for our children or nephews and nieces as in the month which follows the great carnival of the shopkeepers? We suspect that some of the best saving of the whole year will always be found to occur in February and March, just on account of the despair with which January has filled our hearts. And a visible augmentation in the severities of this mood has certainly followed Mr. Lowe's inhumane legislation, which piled the payment of income-tax on the head of all the other Christmas bills in this mid-" winter of our discontent." Cunning philanthropists are now so well aware of this, that they would as soon apply for a fresh subscription or donation in the first month or two of the year, as they would call to ask a business man for assist- ance or advice just at the moment when he is opening his pile of worrying letters, and is at least as fierce over them as a wild beast is over his meat. Sir Isaac Newton used to try to explain the bright little optical phenomenon called "Newton's rings," by saying, if we remember rightly, that light had "easy fits of reflexion and transmission." That would be an admirable phrase to express the periodic feeling of the middle-class with regard to its money, except that just about the winter solstice the fits are rather too violent to be "easy'." That class has in the course of the ordinary year alternate fits of reflexion and trans- mission, but directly the rather spasmodic fit of transmission which marks mid-winter is passed, a fit of very deep and stern reflexion ensues, which is no " easier " than its immediate prede- cessor, and in the immediate results of that fit a good deal of the saving of the year is done.
And after all, as the severity of the frost gives a new beauty to the mild spring breezes which break it up, and turn all the rivers again into motion, who would care so much for the relaxa- tion of economic principle which is discernible towards May, but for the contrast it presents to the stern rigidity of the previous months ? We once heard a lady say it was no fun asking her husband for anything, because it was so easy to get it. She would value it more, if she knew what it was to fail in the matter. And that is the feeling of half the tradesmen, too. The first pur- chases into which they manage to seduce you after the Christmas bill is settled, are obviously to them the sweetest of all the year. It is not only that such purchases constitute the embryo of the new account, but that there is the consciousness of special tactics and strategy in the victory. They well know that their customers are making a great struggle to prolong the time of cancelled obliga- tions in which the old account can be thought of as cleared off and no new one has yet been opened, and they are just as determined to shorten it as the customer is to lengthen it. Hence the sweetness of the unexpected victory. Call it illusion if you will, what would life be without the changes of light and shade which—if it be illusion
—illusion makes ?—the changes of mood which break its mono- tony and render us tolerable to ourselves,—the see-saw of inter- changing obligations,—the overcharge of motive that makes
both action and self-restraint alike a pleasure instead of an effort,— -
the mere mental exercise involved in a complete change of parts ?
After all, Christmas bills are not a pure evil, even to those who have to pay them.