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Why I Live in Tahiti

Condensed from The Atlantic Monthly (April '26)
James Norman Hall

URING a recent brief visit to America my Aunt Harriet showed deep concern as to my reasons for choosing a small tropical island in the mid-Pacific as a place in which to live. We talked through dinner, after dinner, and until far into the night-I warming to my theme, becoming all but eloquent regarding the advantages of solitude and a simple, fairly primitive way of living; my aunt asking from time to time very pertinent questions. At length she brought the discussion round to the question of one's duties, rights and privileges as an American citizen. I said that I would always recognize my duty to go to the aid of the country in time of war; as for the rights and privileges, I was willing to forgo them in order that I might live according to my own ideas of what constitutes living. My aunt was surprised that I had no deep feeling of patriotism toward America as a whole, but this seems to me natural, inevitable. Patriotism is based upon community of blood, language, tradition, ideals; and, needless to say, there is no longer such community in the United States, nor can it be again for centuries to come if ever.

"I see now what is wrong," my aunt said. "You're an anarchist! You may not admit it, but it's true. If you had your way you would live in a place where there is no government at all!"

But is there any reason why one should not seek out a place where one may at least play at anarchy? This is possible in Tahiti, which is one of the reasons why I live there.

In order to play at anarchy with any success, two conditions are essential: one must follow an art or profession or trade which provides the necessities of life; and it must be of such a kind that it may be practised,

for the most part, in solitude. I have such a trade. It is journalism.

How does one play at anarchy? One simply lives as though there were no government in existence. The conditions are almost ideal in a small island colony. But you must have no axes of any sort to grind, or exchange, or expose for sale. When that is the case you may have very pleasant relationships with those who do. They realize that you are not competing or trying to compete with them; therefore they reveal to you only the best sides of their natures, and at length you are all but convinced that they have no other sides to reveal.

"But you must find time hanging very heavily on your hands," you may say.

Never-but for the sake of absolute veracity it is well to qualify that. Boredom is a universal spiritual disease and all men suffer from it at times, no matter where they may be. But I can say, truthfully, that attacks of it grow increasingly rare in Tahiti. In America, the most virulent cause of boredom, in my own case, was to see multitudes of people engaged in useless, joyless occupations. To be sure, many of them did not appear to be aware of the awful tedium of their lives, but, being a sensitive man, I suffered vicariously for them. This is the least endurable of all suffering. In Tahiti I escape it, for, with the exception of the government employees, there is no one engaged in joyless work.

After a month or two of this quiet, uneventful life you find that you are losing your old conception of time. It never intrudes itself as something not to be wasted You do waste it,-prodigally, I suppose, in the high-latitude sense: that is, you no longer make unremitting use of it to your own ma

terial advantage-but I am not at all convinced that this is to be deplored. Often you will go for an all-day ramble up some grassy plateau which rises gradually toward the mountains, climbing on and on until you reach a vantage point where, on the one hand, you have a view into the depths of a great valley dappled with the shadows of the clouds; and, on the other, of the palm-clad lowlands and the broad lagoons beyond; and, beyond them again, of the sea-50, 60 miles of blue sea. There, listening to the silence, busy with your own thoughts or deep in fathomless reverie, you will sit until evening, surprised that evening comes so soon; and the strange thing—from the old, high-latitude point of view-is that such a waste of time brings not anxiety but peace of mind. It is easy to believe that you have been fulfilling, during those long hours of idleness, a small but important function in the scheme of things. On such days you are convinced that loafing is a virtue and that three-fourths of the unhappiness of the world is caused by the fact that men have forgotten how to loaf.

The strange thing, to me, is that so few people seem to want any solitude. They fly from it as though it were the wrath to come, and seem to have lost the capacity for being alone even during very brief periods.

Optimism is a crowd quality; and it is only fair to say that during my residence in Tahiti I have met but very few optimists. I have often wondered why it is that this small island should draw so many authentic pessimists. They are of all nationalities, from every walk of life, men of education, men of no education; but, diverse as they are in many respects, they have two qualities in common: they are all interesting men, and all are suffering from disillusionment. Almost without exception, these men are lookers-on at life, out of sympathy with the spirit of their times; and so, not being able to act with any enthusiasm, they talk.

Many of them, through years of practice, have become past masters in

the art of conversation, and it is this that makes them such interesting companions. I used to wonder why it was that even small gatherings at home were usually so tedious. To be sure, words flowed perpetually, but they had little significance or interest. We were bored with each other without knowing why. The trouble was, I think, that we did not know how to talk or what to talk about. Things and events alone had impor. tance as matter for conversation; 30 we discussed them, and, if you had had the courage and the patience, you might have sat through an endless number of those so-called conversations without hearing so much as a fleeting reference to an idea.

The best method of getting things done at home is to set aside a day for doing them. We have Mother's Day when we must think of our mothers, and Father's Day when we must think of our fathers. Well, why not have an Idea Day when those who are too busy during the rest of the year think and talk ideas to the exclusion of everything else?

My experience leads me to believe that good talk is likely to result, even in groups of quite ordinary individuals, when favorable conditions lead to favorable occasions. In Tahiti one has ample leisure, not only to talk, but to think between periods of talk. Men come together after weeks or months of solitude, their minds surcharged with energy, their opinions carefully weighed and sorted against the time when they may be brought forth in company. During their lonely meditations, they are seized by great convictions or great doubts, and to share these is as necessary to them as breathing. The moment two or three of them meet, the conversation im mediately centers around ideas, for things are conspicuous only by their absence, events by the rarity of their occurrence. What a satisfaction it is to escape the dominance of thingsnot to be perpetually reminded of them, stimulated to think of them or to want them, or to acquire them without wanting them! Very few people here have accumulated possessions.

As for the pessimists I have been speaking of, nearly all have achieved affluence in the Diogenic sense, estimating their wealth in terms of the things they can do without.

Although not yet among the truly opulent ones in this sense, I live much more cheaply than would be possible, even for a journalist, in America. In fact, my scale of living is about that of a small mechanic-even that of a day laborer at home.

My disillusioned friends are great readers, and this is another important minor advantage of living here: one has both the leisure and the inclination to read extensively. Most men would agree that literature is the finest of the arts, music alone excepted. If this is true, then the time one gives to the reading of good books should be considerable, and here it is so. In America, although I got through many books during the course of a year, it was reading with the eyes for the most part-rarely were mind and spirit fully engaged. There were too many distractions, and even when most deeply absorbed I was conscious all the while of the likelihood of interruption, so that I entered only halfheartedly the world of the imagination, like a doctor who goes to the theater expecting at any moment to be called away. For reading, one must have solitude and the assurance of freedom from interruption, and in Tahiti as nowhere else I have been able to fulfill both of these conditions. I have a small house which stands on a peninsula about an acre in extent. No road passes through it-only a footpath used by two or three native families. The house faces the sea, with a no thwest exposure, and the nearest neighbors in that direction are some 800 miles away. Those to the right and left are closer at hand,

but they are the most discreet and thoughtful of neighbors and never intrude. Often I see no one for days, and in the secluded, sunny silence of the place it is easy to imagine that I am living on an otherwise uninhabited island. Here, many a time, secure from interruption, I have read for a solid week-mornings, afternoons, evenings, living in books more intensely than I have ever lived in the world of reality.

There is one more reason for living in Tahiti which has great weight with me: in a small island world one may comprehend all individual, social, and political activity at a glance. This adds enormously to the pleasure of living. One is bewildered by the complexity of life on a great continent. Here there is diversity without complexity, a mingling of races comparable to that in America, but on a small scale. To visit the Tahiti market of an early morning is to see the world in miniature: Polynesians, Chinese, French, English, Americans, Russians, Danes, Scandinavians; and it is of endless interest to see how these diverse elements accommodate themselves to their environment and to each other. But the ultimate result of this mingling is already clearly apparent. Within 50 years the Chinese have conquered Tahiti as completely as they will conquer all of French Polynesia well before the conclusion of this century.

But the Pacific is wide, and spangled with islands as the sky with stars. Although there is but one Tahiti, other crumbs of land exist where the anarchists may still find solitude and peace of mind, scaling lofty mountains for a distant view of the world, or walking lonely beaches, deep in unprofit able thought.

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The tailor boss called him over to talk with us. The young fellow thrust his hand out at me confidently and he looked me square in the eye, smiling. He was the new American criminal personified; the laughing, 20th century, thrill-hunting kiiler of our great cities. He had gone to high school and had stood well there. his fall from honesty had been sudden. "Some of these young lifers," another warden told me, "keep on kidding and joking and don't seem even to realize they're in prison. And lots of them seem to think they're heroes because they are in prison."

But

They take nothing seriously, these new criminals. One warden, who, ac cording to prison rules, must censor all letters, read me a letter which a young "dude bandit," who had nine years of the penitentiary before him for robbery, had written to his girl in Chicago. There wasn't a serious word or a decent thought in that "love letter."

Warden Preston E. Thomas of the Ohio State Penitentiary, one of America's old-timers in prison work, described this new criminal to me: "The old-time safe blower or burglar took the greatest pains not to have a dangerous weapon on his person. He didn't want to kill. He didn't want a gun or even a large knife. He wanted to be able to prove to the police, if he was caught, that he had not intended to murder; that he planned to run away rather than fight it out with his victim.

"But these days it's different. The first thing these young fellows do is to get a gun. They intend to use it. They don't depend on their skill or their wits or their physical strength-

not these little hair-polished rats. They depend entirely on their revolv ers and on killing."

Even the old-time crooks cannot understand these young criminals. For instance, the old-time crook had few slang words that dealt with shoot. ing. The word "croak," meaning to kill, was about the only slang for murder.

A "rod" in the new slang, means a revolver. A "stick" means the same thing. "Unhook it" is a signal to shoot. "Give him the works" is an order to pour bullets into the body of a victim. "Step on it" means "pull the trigger." There is a terrible meaning behind each light and easy phrase of murder slang. "Can you walk?" is a question meaning "Are you brave enough to risk going to the electric chair?" To say you "can't walk" is to admit that you're afraid to kill.

"Capital punishment is a terrible thing," Warden Thomas told me, "but I believe there are times when it is justified. When three or four of these young new crooks get together, and talk about getting their 'rods' into shape and pick out the one of their number who is to give the signals and the one who is to pull the trigger which will give some citizen 'the works,' it seems to me that you have the highest possible essence of premeditated murder."

Warden Thomas describes our new young criminals as "young fellows who have lost their feelers." They seem without any of the attributes that come from emotion. "What's the matter with most of them!" I asked him. "They never had any home life," he answered.

A Binder, specially designed to hold twelve copies of The Reader's Digest, is supplied for the convenience of subscribers at cost price, $1.50 postpaid, returnable if it does not please you. It is strongly made of red buckram, with THE READER'S DIGEST in gold letters on the back.

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Bridging Schools with Life

Condensed from The Review of Reviews (March '26)
Charles A. McMurray, Peabody College for Teachers

HE curriculum of the common school has been growing like a mushroom, expanding from year to year with the influx of new studies. The result is that it is gorged with an excessive quantity of knowledge. Our children have no such omniverous appetite for learning. Besides, this overfeeding forbids proper assimilation. By common consent the first necessity is reduction or simplification.

Progressive schools are now blazing a new trail by organizing the course of study around a few thought-centers in the leading studies. Typical projects drawn from life constitute these centers. A miscellaneous collection of detached facts, no matter how numerous or how important, can never take the place of one of these strategic centers of organized knowledge. Such thought-centers, with their unity and broad perspective, furnish a means for mastering the world.

The Muscle Shoals project, as a hydro-electric power station, is dealt with (in the sixth or seventh grade) in a fully elaborated classroom treatment. The dam and power house are presented as an object-lesson in the control and use of river power for doing man's heaviest work. Agriculture demands the nitrates as cheap fertilizer for worn-out lands. The cities within a radius of 200 miles require cheap power for all kinds of manufacturing, lighting, etc. The railroads can use electricity for transportation. As a substitute for coal, water power is rising into vast importance. The dams and locks would open cheap transport for heavy freight on the Tennessee River. The South and, to some extent, the whole

country is affected by Muscle Shoals.

By comparing the power at Muscle Shoals with other water powers at Keokuk, at Niagara, at Great Falls, and on dozens of rivers, the national significance of hydroelectric power begins to reveal itself in full meas1re. An elaborate treatment of this important topic surprises boys and girls with a view of new forces at work in our modern world. We do not need to be told that these youngsters respond with open eyes and ardent minds.

The progressive school is thus beginning to deal with life problems in their full setting and in their native habitat. In this kind of study children are not trying to memorize words and phrases. They are getting experience. They are dealing with home and community interests at first hand. Their thoughts are taking root in life. They are getting a clear intelligence about necessary activities and arrangements in the surrounding world. The structure and organization of our modern society are gradually unfolding themselves to the minds of the children.

An illustration, drawn from school studies, is the steel industry at Pittsburgh. One of the large companies has its own iron mines in Northern Minnesota. Its operatives dig and load the ore upon the company cars and send it to Lake Superior ports. The company vessels transport it to Cleveland. From Cleveland it is transferred by cars to Pittsburgh. Unloaded at the steel works, it is fed into blast-furnaces and converted into pig-iron. Still molten, it is carried by ladles to the converters and changed into steel. Passing under great rollers it comes out in steel

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