WERELD & DENKEN
 
 
Uit Language in Thought and Action, door S.I. Hayakawa.

Foreword Book OneRed-Eye and the Woman Problem

Once, long ago, tens of thousands of years before history began, people were worried, as they have often been since, about the chaotic condition of their lives. For in those days men took by force the women they desired. There was no way of stopping them.

If you wanted a woman but found that she was already the partner of another man, all you needed to do was to kill him and drag her home. Naturally, someone else might slug you a little later to get her away from you, but that was the chance you took if you wanted a woman at all.

Consequently there wasn't much of what you could call family life. The men were too busy suspiciously watching each other. And time that might have been spent fishing or hunting or otherwise raising the general standard of living was wasted in constant and anxious measures to defend one's woman.

Many people saw that this was no way for human beings to live. As they said among themselves: "Truly we are strange creatures. In some ways we are highly civilized. We no longer eat raw flesh, as did our savage ancestors. Our technical men have perfected stone arrowheads and powerful bows so that we can slay the fastest deer that runs. Our medicine men can foretell the running of the fish in the streams, and our sorcerers drive away illnesses. At the Institute for Advanced Studies at Notecnirp, a group of bright young men are
said to be working out a dance that will make the rain fall. Little by little, we are mastering the secrets of nature, so that we are able to live like civilized men and not like beasts.

"Yet," they continued, "we have not mastered ourselves. There are those among us who continue to snatch women away from each other by force, so that every man of necessity lives in fear of his fellows. People agree, of course, that all this killing ought to be stopped. But no one is stopping it. The most fundamental of human problems, that of securing a mate and bringing up one's children under some kind of decent, orderly system, remains unsolved. Unless we can find some way of placing the man-woman relationship on a decent and human basis, our pretensions to civilization are hollow."

For many generations the thoughtful men of the tribe pondered this problem. How could men and women, living peacefully together with their children, be protected from the lusts of the few, who went around killing other men in order to possess their women?

Slowly, and only after centuries of groping discussion, they evolved an answer. They proposed that men and women who have decided to live together permanently be bound by a "contract," by which they meant the uttering, before the priests of the tribe, of solemn promises, binding on their future behavior. This contract was to be known as "marriage." The man in the marriage was to be known as a "husband," the woman as a "wife."

They further proposed that this contract be observed and honored by all the people of the tribe. In other words, if a given woman, Slendershanks, was known to be the "wife" of a given man, Beetle brow, everyone in the tribe was to agree not to molest their domestic arrangements. Furthermore, they proposed that if anyone failed to respect this contract and killed another man to possess his "wife," he was to be punished by the collective force of tribal authority.

In order to put these proposals into effect, a great conference was called, and delegates arrived from all branches of the tribe. Some came with glad hearts, filled with the hope that humanity was about to enter a new era. Some came with faint hearts, not expecting much to come out of the conference, but feeling that it was at least worth a try. Some came simply because they had been elected delegates and were getting their expenses paid; they were willing to go along with whoever proved to be in the majority.

All the time the conference was going on, however, a big, backward savage called Red-Eye the Atavism, who was so loud-mouthed that he always had a following in spite of his unprepossessing per sonality, kept shouting scornful remarks from the sidelines. He called the delegates "visionaries," "eggheads," "impractical theorists," "starry-eyed dreamers," "crackpots," and "pantywaists." He gleefully pointed out that many of the delegates had themselves been, at an earlier date, women-snatchers. (This, unfortunately, was true.)

He shouted to Hairy Hands, who was one of the delegates, "You don't think Brawny Legs is going to leave your woman alone just because he makes an agreement, do you?" And he shouted to Brawny Legs, "You don't think Hairy Hands is going to leave your woman alone just because he makes an agreement, do you?" And he poured derision on all the delegates, referring to their discussion as "striped-pants kind of talk, like who ever heard of `husband,' and `wife,' and ,marriage' and all that double-dome Choctaw!"

Then Red-Eye the Atavism turned to his following, the crowd of timid and tiny-minded people who always found their self-assurance in the loudness of his voice, and he yelled, "Look at those fool delegates, will you? They think they can change human nature!"

Thereupon the crowd rolled over with laughter and repeated after him, "Haw, haw! They think they can change human nature!"

That broke up the conference. It was another two thousand years, therefore, before marriage was finally instituted in that tribe-two thousand years during which innumerable men were killed defending their women, two thousand years during which men who had no designs on their neighbors' women killed each other as a precaution against being killed themselves, two thousand years during which the arts of peace languished, two thousand years during which people despaired as they dreamed of a distant future time when a man might live with the woman of his choice without arming himself to the teeth and watching over her day and night.

* * *

Perhaps you find this little fiction depressing. Whether or not you find it so depends on what you abstract from it as the most important point. Red-Eye the Atavism, it is true, scored a victory on that occasion. But it is also true that marriage (however imperfect an institution that may be) was finally established.

However, as for instituting the social agreements to prevent international violence in today's world, we don't have two thousand years to find the solution. Indeed, we don't have two hundred years. Nor even twenty. Perhaps not even two.

And that's our problem.


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