Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


The Value of the Normal*


At first thought one is apt to fall into the popular error of confusing the normal with the average. But our care must be particularly to avoid this. The normal is no more the average than it is an extreme. In fact, by common standards of judgement it very often is counted an extreme. Think for a moment how great a difference there is between the normal and the average. The average hemlock tree, for instance, would never do for the normal type of its species. The average hemlock is gnarled, worm-eaten, splintered, storm-beaten, unsymmetrical. The average leaf is defective. It is true throughout nature that the average falls in every instance far short of the normal. It is only in rare instances that the normal is even approached.

Apply the same test to ourselves. We all have a fairly clear idea of the normal human foot, how serviceable and goodly it ought to be. But consider the average foot, deformed from infancy by the idiocies of fashion, cramped, misshapen, unstable, incompetent. And the average man or woman is not a great deal more praiseworthy. Our spirits are very much like our feet-shrunken, deformed, and atrophied. We are, indeed, so unaccustomed to freedom of habit that when necessity arises we are unprepared for the emergency.

To live normally is to live in obedience to the highest law. And if that course of conduct sometimes involves us in differences with accepted judgments, that should only make us the more careful in selecting our position. It is not easy in any case to determine what the normal is; but in the absence of any certain criterion of judgement, we may be safe in assuming that it is not the average. The normal the embodiment of the ideal; and as we approach it we tend to exhibit those fine and lovable qualities which we all agree to praise, but which so few of us possess. As we approach the normal we constantly tend to pull away from the unamiable characteristics we are unanimous in condemning. Progress might be defined as human aspiration gradually making itself manifest, while the normal is that ultimate goal of perfection which our aspiration seeks.

The pursuit of the normal does not involve license of the individual; far from it. For the normal perfection of beauty in person and in conduct, after which we are to strive, is not a type of perfection conceived by any single human being alone. It is a type of perfection forecast by the universal ideal, prophesied and longed for through the ages of mortal thought. It is the standard, still unrealized, evolved from hints and glimmerings of nature's purpose. For the normal individual self-effacement is one of the highest duties; he will prefer the preservation of the type and the development of still greater and better qualities to any mere indulgence of his own whim; he will hold his convictions lightly, as becomes the modest devotee; he will always willingly forego his own pet ideal when a better is shown him; he will be in the loftiest sense unselfish. So that in striving to be normal we are in no danger of falling into a gross and inconsiderate individualism. The normal man would be so imminently conscious of his spiritual relation with vaster forces than himself that he could not for a moment prefer his own will to the public or universal good.

To be normal is not to be wilful and self-indulgent; it is to be calm and loving and tolerant and self-effacing; to help forward the cause of beauty and goodness and kindness among our fellows. So the normal character will prefer not its own perfection but the perfection of general well-being which is advanced and augmented by self-denial and generosity. And if from time to time it insists on its own interpretation of truth, it will do so only because it perceives the public need to be for just that maintenance of a higher law, just that fresh revelation of an inspired sanction for conduct.

It is not our custom to value the normal. We are too content with fashion, too subservient to the popular sentiment of the hour, whatever it may be. It is the fatal defect of democracy that makes no allowance for the normal. Democracy is government by average. Democracies are the paradise for the average man; their whole care is for the benefit of the lower classes-to bring them up to the average, and to advance the average itself, no doubt. But, fine as this may be for all those below the average, it is equally deadly for all those above the average. And in so far as democracies are adjusted to the needs of the average citizen, just so far they are destructive to the needs of the normal citizen. Take the Unites States as an instance. If it can be said that there is a superior class in this country it can as certainly be said of those of that class that they are out of touch with the national life and out of sympathy with it. They find its atmosphere uncongenial and depressing, if not vulgar; they are conscious of the gulf that is fixed between themselves and the mass of their fellow citizens by whom they are governed. They perceive that in their native country there is no place for their particular energy. They are foreign and exotic. You may reply hastily: "So much the worse for them! Let them betake themselves elsewhere." But the supposition of our argument admits that they are our best citizens. So we must go on, securing not a government of all the people for all the people, but a government of the average person for the average person. In losing sight of the normal and the needs of the normal man we miss our opportunity for achieving distinction, beauty and true usefulness.

This is an inherent defect which democracy cannot remedy, but which anarchy has perceived, and, in theory, at least, would amend. For while it is the aim of democracy to reduce the normal to the level of the average, it is the ideal of anarchy to provide free development for all, thus freeing the individual to follow his own normal tendency. Meanwhile there is our own little idea of the normal to be examined and tested, and, if correct, to be followed. How much nearer perfection we might come, if only we were more careful of our best normal self, more heartily disregardful of average forms of thought and sentiment and conduct.

"The Value of the Normal," Commercial Advertiser, July 21, 1900 [back]