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THE SOCIOLOGY OF AUTUMN

Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

ARGUMENT.—I. How everyday experience differentiates into the Arts
and Sciences ; yet how their progress is not only towards diversity, but
towards Unity. II. How this Unity may come into our experience, and
that from childhood. III. How cities may be viewed in Nature and her
Seasons. IV. How their prevalent political economy is that of Autumn.
V. Their literary and scientific culture likewise. VI. How decadent Art
and Literature normally develop their colour, and produce their decay.
VII. Decadence. VIII. How it passes into Renascence.

                                          I

BEHIND our castle sable its field argent of white
seething mist now lies later in the morning,
gathers earlier towards the night, and the sea of
swaying tree-tops from which its dark crags rise
is crisping and yellowing towards the fall. Along
the High Riggs on either hand, the distant
specks hurry in denser crowd ; and through the green lake-bed
deep below, the engine drags under its lingering cloud a
heavier train.

In some such phantasmagoria as may pass for each of us before
the windows of his life, there lie latent our main possibilities
both of Art and Science. Most of us, alas, are soon called back
from our outlook to the workshop or the book-room, to the bed
and table of our lives, and thence too seldom return. But now
and then some chosen or forgotten child stays by his window
all his life. Hence it is that at times we hear some strange

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voice of joy or sorrow and hail a new poet ; or if his gaze be
silent, but he make for us some colour-note of the phase of
beauty he has seen and felt, we call him painter. One tells us
of sky and trees, another sketches the passing faces, a third
the incident ; whence landscape, portrait, genre, and the rest
While all these mainly observe and feel, others observe and
wonder ; and thus your curious child wanders away from the
world of Art to re-discover that of Science. This also must
subdivide its field of observation, and this into narrower
specialisms than those of the artist, and in a stranger way.
One fixes his eyes upon the siege-scarred castle, and by and by
we call him historian ; another puzzles himself about the crags
below, and becomes a geologist ; another sees only the trees
and birds—the naturalist ; a fourth sits peering into the mist
and listening only to the wind—the meteorologist. So it is
that science develops that strange mental habit for which
plain folk at once and necessarily respect and ridicule the
‘strange professor-bodie’ —whose power of intensely seeing one
class of phenomena, yet only one, leaves him ‘absent-minded,’
literally, to all the rest

In such ways, then, we need not wonder that there has arisen
the marvellous heterogeneity of contemporary Art and Science ;
nor how each still goes on differentiating in its own way. Scien-
tific Congresses and Art Exhibitions must needs multiply, as
Science goes on isolating and analysing strange new fields of
minute detail. Art refracting subtler aspects of nature through
more individual moods of mind. Who now speaks of Leo-
nardo’s, Durer’s dream of reuniting Art and Science, save as
a mere echo of the days of alchemy ? Little wonder, then, if
our dreams of this should please few critics of either camp ;
yet, like themselves, we also speak that we do know, and
testify that we have seen.

For there is a larger view of Nature and Life, a rebuilding of
analyses into Synthesis, an integration of many solitary experi-
ences into a larger Experience, an exchange of the narrow
window of the individual outlook for the open tower which
overlooks college and city.

In such moments all the artificially isolated mind-pictures of

                                          29
mist and rock, of bird and tree, of man and his doings, reunite
their special ‘sciences’ into Science. Nor does one lose this
sense of unity when one descends again to one’s own habitual
outlook, but rather sees with new clearness all these diverse
‘ ‘ologies ’ of which the half-informed think as of mazes beyond
number, and within which even their special investigators are
so often lost, as but orderly and parallel developments upon
three planes—physical, organic, and social—which three are
themselves not only parallel, but united by the world-process of
Development, into a single Unity. The unnumbered descrip-
tive specialisms of all three, like the mosaic facets of an insect’s
eye, are uniting into a single presentment of the world. In
the science of life every one knows how of late years mind and
body are again coming together, so that the psychologist is
now also a physiologist ; and even in the anatomist, so long an
impenitent necrologist, the converse awakening has begun.
So it is with the science of energy on the one hand, with that of
society on the other; physics and aesthetics, economics and
ethics are alike steadily recovering their long-forgotten unity.
The age of mechanical dualism is ending; materialism and
spiritualism have each had their day ; that of an organic and
idealist Monism is begun. The studies of sun and stars, of
rock and flower, of beast and man, of race and destiny are
becoming once more a single discipline ; complex indeed, but
no more a mere maze than a mere chaos, no more a mere fixed
unity than a maze ; but a growing Cosmos, a literal Uni-verse,
of which the protean variety of Man and Nature are seen to
be orderly developments ; each a phase of being, of becoming ;
each at once a Mode and Mood of the Universal Energy.

                                          II

But this unity, the scientific man and the artist mostly agree in
saying, may be all very well on the abstract and speculative
level, but what can it do for us who are not content with philo-
sophy, who live and labour in the concrete world ? How can
your fine talk of synthesis help us with that? Leave philo-

                                          30
sophy, the answer is, leave for a little your exhibitions and your
congresses, and let us first begin with our children at school ;
for them all your descriptive sciences and much of your art
will be absorbed into their ‘Geography and History.’ —Dull
catalogues, you think ? But forget your own woful schooling,
and recall their real significance. Do they not cover Art and
Science if they tell us, or rather teach us in some measure truly
to imagine, the story of Nature and Man through Space and
Time?

Hence it is that the narrative of individual travel and experi-
ence, like that of Herodotus or Marco Polo, Robinson Crusoe
or Humboldt and Darwin, has at all times and to all minds and
ages so wide an appeal ; for here is the very stuff of experience
from which special science, art, and literature are made ; while
of their development into a higher and fuller unison there are
already some great masterworks in which the style is worthy
of the science. Such, for instance, are Buffon’s ‘Histoire
Naturelle’ in the last century, Elisee Reclus’ ‘Geographie
Universelle’ in this. In such an education as we are coming
to, instead of books innumerable and pictures few or none, as
at present, the books as in the ancient church will be few, but
the pictures well-nigh infinite ; and for this approaching de-
mand of the school walls of the world let the foresighted
painter be getting his imagination as well as his technique
ready.

Again, then, as of old the child shall know how the earth and
sun determine the seasons; these the plant and animal life ; and
thus also, indirectly as well as directly, our own essential life
and labour. Into this simple chain, henceforward unbroken,
all minor specialisms, their loose facts woven firmly into chains
of causation, shall be securely linked. To develop this simple
lesson, this House the Sun Built, all our specialists are needed,
astronomer and meteorologist, zoologist and botanist, economist,
writer, and critic. And (as in the educative initiations of the
ancient mysteries) the lore of the seasons furnishes the central
thread. Our glorious Autumn of harvest and woodland, her
pathos of fall and decay have indeed been familiar from that

                                          31
very dawn of art and poetry, which her wealth and wine, her
joy and sorrow, have done perhaps most of all the seasons to
awaken. Yet our special sciences thrown together into the
press yield new and rich elements to the old thought-vintage.
They tell us where the harvest wind was warmed by the long-
sunned sea, they signal from their observatories the Jotuns
mustering white upon the hills, and warn us of their stormy
breath ; they follow the migrating bird across the sea, the fish
into its depths, the seed into its appropriate soil. They follow,
too, more deeply, the way in which our own lives are adapted to
this Drama of Nature. They not only see as of old how the
grapes or com determine the autumn of the husbandman, or
the descending cattle lead their herdman home ; but ask if the
herrings the fisherman has to follow are themselves borne land-
ward upon a Salter wave, see how the roots of the forest tree
grow while the dryad seems in her winter sleep, or find how
there lie amid the decay of autumn the witch-dreamed secrets
of evil and good, sickness and wealth, disease and fertility.

Thus, too, our united physical and social geography will lead
us straight into the very philosophy of History and amid the
problems of Criticism. For it is the fundamental thesis of
Human Evolution (there is also a supreme one) that the sur-
roundings—the soil and climate, and hence the seasons—
determine all the primary forms of labour; this labour again
determines the nature of the family ; this the structure of the
society ; and all these the individual man in life and thought
That literature may arise from the seasonal work of life, all
see in the harvest dance or the shepherd’s song, in Virgil or
Burns, but few carry this far enough. Taine’s great history
of our literature has, of course, its errors (he was too much
before the days of Le Play and ‘La Science Sociale’), but his
general idea was sound. ‘Life the green leaf, say we, and Art
the flower.’ All the great flowers of literature and art rise
straight from their great rootstocks, each deep within its soil.
German commentators who teach, and critics who assume,
that thought may be understood apart from its underlying
life are, of course, not far to seek: yet such a view is untrue even

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for the most artificial flowers, false alike for the subtle devices
of the decadent poet, and the sarcasms of his reviewer.

                                          III

Yet the seasons—they may be all very well for trees and birds,
for oxen and for them whose talk (or even song) is of such ;
but our rock-built cities—surely these are independent of your
seasons—there is no place here for such rustic fancies! So
indeed men were wont to think of the rocks themselves, but
since Lyell determined certain ‘Principles’ we know how upon
these the winter rains and frosts and snows all tell most swiftly
and surely, albeit silently— ‘they melt like mist, the solid lands.’
And the city itself, does it really need anthropology and
culture-history to remind us that its very existence is largely
conditioned, its whole mode of life determined, by the approach
of winter, for why else the crowding street, the heavier train ?
What are our stone houses but artificial caves, what we but
the modem Troglodytes, who in our smoky labyrinths forget
the outer world, and think no more of the seasons (save in
society slang) because we have made ourselves a city life as
near as may be to a perpetual winter ?

We are indeed the New Troglodytes ; hence our restless and
ant-like crowding, our comfortable stupor of hibernation, our
ugly and evil dreams. Here is a main clue to the sociology
and psychology of those wicked fairies who are such character-
istic developments of the populations of the sunnier southern
cities, of those sullen gnomes so common in the gloomier
northern ones. So, too, we may understand much of the
physical degradation of their inhabitants. We know the secrets
of the metals, and forge new weapons and invent strange
mechanisms and cunning fables like the dwarfs of old. And
like them we are stunting ourselves anew.

                                          IV

But our winter cave is a store of provision, and if some lack
foresight, others have it overmuch. Hence arises the common
‘mania of owning things’ — a growing madness as of those

                                          33
American squirrel-millionaires that spend their lives in feverishly
heaping up great barns of plenty which they could not consume
in years, and which they must leave to moulder and rot.

But in most cases it is not excess but lack of foresight that
does the mischief. Population presses on subsistence, and
so arises the strangest and most characteristic biological
phenomenon of autumn, that keen competition at the margin
of (degenerating not progressing) existence, which our modem
cities have brought to that intensity of literally putrescent
horror unknown before in history or life, at which we com-
placently sniff and pass by as ‘merely an ordinary slum.’
The decaying leaf-heap of the garden, the manure-heap of the
stable, are preyed upon, each by its appropriate mould. This
swiftly digests all it can from the mass, scatters its multi-
tudinous progeny abroad upon the wind, and dies of hunger.
Yet not of hunger only, for meantime has been sprouting a
lower form which has the same history, and is in its turn
replaced; each generation thus expressing a lower stage of
competition, a more complete decay, a more thorough re-
burning of the ashes left by its predecessor.

In the same way it is to many minds of a quite clear and
rational, though surely somewhat limited type, that the sole
theory, nay, the whole practice also, of ‘economic progress’
lies in the steady development of a lower and lower life. Do
we not tell the wretched mill-girls of our Dundees and Oldhams
how they must speedily give place to the cheaper drudges of
Calcutta and Shanghai, or save themselves and slay these
by diving into a yet lower circle of poverty? So where can
we find a better opening for our capital than by removing it
to the East, or one in more obvious conformity with Nature ?
And what remedy is there? None that any one knows of—
in autumn. For now is the golden age of Competition, as of
Death.

                                          V

In the same way it is in the intellectual world. Ideas once
fresh from life wither and dry, but may still be utilised, infused

                                          34
anew, albeit in dilute form, by the help of commentaries. So
commentary succeeds commentary, and criticism is piled upon
criticism, copy upon copy; the lower industry must have its
lower journalism, its lower art to match—so at length the slum
newsagent’s window, full of the strangest parodies of the art
and science and literature of the educated classes. Are not
the ‘Police News’ and its French congeners at the very
fountainhead of Realism ? the ‘Family Herald’ or ‘Boys’ Own
Library of Romance’ ? Punch has surely not forgotten that
he came from the Naples crowd? ‘Tit- Bits’ is to the com-
mercial traveller exactly what ‘Chambers’s Encyclopaedia’ and
the ‘Britannica’ are to the better-informed classes, nay, the
British Association, the German University, with Cambridge
and Johns Hopkins to boot, to the learned ones—a well-
scissored chaos of interesting details, of ‘Speciellen Arbeiten.’
The culture of any city or period is really far more of a piece
than we like to believe ; yet the thought of the populace, like
its labour, is full of the future as well as of the past, its
literature of keynotes as well as echoes. And though the
learned see their lore is vulgarised to the people, and often, of
course, spoiled in the process, they seldom know the converse
truth. That is that the strength and the weakness of their
specialism are but a reflection and outcome of those of our
modem industrial world, of the division and subdivision of
labour, which have long kept so far in advance of the organisa-
tion of it.

Still harder is it to learn how the new synthesis we have seen
as incipient in the world of thought must grow with advancing
energy in the world of action. The wholesale social reformer,
indeed, loudly proclaims this. He promises us much of both,
but as yet lacks patience and skill to make much definite con-
tribution to either. On the world’s stage, as on the player’s,
labour and thought are indissoluble ; and as the first is folly
without the second, so the second is futile without the first.
Would we be successful playwrights, either on the great stage,
or on the small ? We have to be more than wrights or authors

                                          35
merely; we must organise our labour to orchestrate our
thought Hence it is that each Renascence of Culture is the
Story of a City.

                                          VI

Amid the many problems of city life and degeneration some
consideration of those of Sex is especially in these days forced
upon us. The naturalist student must here again, as always,
look below literature into the life from which it springs, and so
he sees, in all the strange phenomena of passion and horror
which the latter-day novelist so unsparingly reveals, the
extreme cases of Variation under Domestication.

For with food and shelter for winter, man becomes the first of
his own domesticated animals, and the consequences of domesti-
cation inexorably follow. First comes the extension of the
breeding season more and more fully throughout the year
(so distinguishing, indeed, domestication from mere captivity),
witness in varying measure all truly domesticated races, notably
cat and mouse, dove and rabbit That individuality blossoms
not with the self-regarding, but the sex-regarding life, the
development of child into Woman or Man is, of course, the
main example ; and here is a prime condition of intenser
and fuller development, of organic and psychical individuation.
Watch for a little your common doves at play, and see how
passion and desire inspire gesture, these pouting their bosoms,
and those spreading their tails. But in some, gesture has
become habit, and habit been established as variety; and so
fantails and pouters are the result—for most purposes distinct
and higher species. Domestication also involves precocity, and
other consequences, and with all these degeneration seems
more easy and frequent than advance. But we need not here
trace the ignoble side of the evolution of sex (say rather Evolu-
tion through Sex). We are but naturalists and rustics ; let the
fashionable novelist go on till the mad doctor is ready.

Domestication involves disease of all sorts, or at any rate,
increased liability to disease—again a matter in which breeder

                                          36
and physician are at one ; and we see how increasingly medical
treatment and hygiene agree in prescribing more and more of
that Return to Nature, which, even as it is, is our yearly source
of health and sanity.

                                          VII

It is time to come to another great doctrine of the Decadence.
We have heard abundantly of Art for Art’s sake, and we all
know how superior Art is to any restraints of morality—how
indifferent to any call to action. Well, so far true. The thesis
is not only defensible, but, on a fresh side, that of Science, of
which we have already noted the kindred limitations. ‘Here
is the germ of the disease,’ says the microscopist, ‘but do not
ask me for the remedy.’ ‘Je n’impose rien, je ne propose meme
rien, j’expose,’ calmly explains the student of social science,
despite the cry for bread. Artist and man of science alike can
but mirror the world without Hence it is that for the aesthetic
appreciation of the world – phantasmagoria, the questioning
intellect must be calmed, the call to action ignored ; the rich
variety and contrast of modem life must be impartially observed,
dispassionately absorbed ; and hence sheltered amid the wealth
and comfort of our city life our aesthete develops as never
before, his impressionist mirror growing more and more perfect
in its polished calm. So develop new subtleties of sense ; and
given this wealth of impressions, this perfection of sensibility,
new combinations must weave themselves in the fantasias of
reverie. Our new Merlins thus brighten our winter with
their gardens of dream.

Here then is the standpoint from which to appreciate that
keenly observant yet deeply subjective ‘Realism’ which has been
so characteristic of literature and art, as indeed also its com-
plementary movement, that strange and wayward subjective
Romanticism which has run parallel with it. So far both
movements amply vindicate themselves against the Philistine
criticism they have been wont to meet ; yet, alas, they too easily
make that step further which justifies it. For this attitude of

                                          37
life becomes fixed by habit, the lotos land is not easily left.
For the gentler natures a deepening melancholy suffuses life,
though in the stronger types passion may distil new subtleties
of art or song. In time, inaction rouses the morbid strain
latent in every life, and so the degeneration of the artist may
set in from the physical side ; and if strength remain, it must
find outlet, or be lulled asleep. So arise and increase the temp-
tations of the urban aesthete ; who not only like any other man
is no saint to resist them, but whose training we have seen
has steadily relaxed both the intellectual and the moral fibre
of resistance : and hence it is that the end of every epoch of
decadence has been the same—an orgie of strange narcotics
and of the strangest sins.

        ‘I did but taste the honey of romance ;
        And must I lose a soul’s inheritance ?’

                                          VIII

Is all aestheticism then evil, and only activity good? Has art only
been an ignis fatuus, and is the jeer of the coarse utilitarian,
the triumph of the joyless ascetic, to be the last word ? Not so :
the road of life ever lies forward, through the present phase of
evolution, not back from it, be its dangers what they may.
This so-called Decadence of literature and art which, as we
have seen, science fully shares, is no hopeless decline, but only
an autumn sickness, and one of rapid growth and adolescence.
For man is increasingly master of the world and of his fate ;
he does not merely rest in his environment and take its mould,
but rises superior to environment and remoulds it. So art and
science, which we have seen unite in imagination, find unity
in Action also, in that detailed reorganisation of urban and
rustic life into health and beauty, which is the ideal of the
Incipient Civilisation, and which distinguishes it from the con-
fusion of the Contemporary yet Disappearing one. Here in fact
lies the task of our urban autumn as harvest is that of the
field; and to this men return with health and hopefulness

                                          38
gained from contact with nature. Autumn is indeed in many
ways the urban spring, and spring, when we are weary with
city life, is the urban autumn. Thanks then, and even honour,
to the art and science of the Decadence, since from it we have
learned to see the thing as it is; it has even helped us like-
wise to imagine it as it might be : it remains only to ask if in
some measure we can make it as it should be, and here lies
intact such originality as is left open to us—that of Renascence.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose
under the heaven ; so in this rhythm of passive with active life,
of contemplation with constructive energy, lies the health and
the future of the Individual and of the Race.

Artist and aesthete, writer and critic in this social Autumn, this
ending of an age, all shrink from its active life, and indeed
rightly. What profit these men of industry who can but
mechanically construct, these men of science who but analyse,
these emperors and revolutionists who dream but to destroy—
Philistine decadents all I Little wonder that with the world-
weary theologian or pessimist they proclaim their passive
doctrine as final, their standpoint as permanent—and even as
they speak their flowers fade, their garlands fall ; then comes
despair and silence.

        ‘Some little talk awhile of ME and THEE
        There was—and then no more of THEE and ME.’

The first word of the Sociology of Autumn is of the beauty of
Nature, the glory of Life, both culminating (as our urban
culture only more fully teaches us) in their Decadence. Hence
there inevitably comes the second word, the pessimist antithesis :
yet a third—the vital one—remains. Amid decay lies the best
soil of Renascence: in Autumn its secret: that of survival
  yet initiative, of inheritance yet fresh variation—the seed;
   who wills may find, may sow, and in another Autumn also
     reap. This last word, then, leaves Omar’s death-song
          and returns to the prose of homely life.
               ‘II faut cultiver son jardin.’

                        PATRICK GEDDES.

MLA citation:

Geddes, Patrick. “The Sociology of Autumn.” The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, vol. 2, Autumn 1895, pp. 27-38. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, General Editor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/egv2_geddes_sociology/