Mitchell on the “sex” and other “problems.”
“I agree with ‘T’ in last week’s Bulletin,” said Mitchell, after cogitating some time over the last drop of tea in his pannikin, held at various angles, “about what they call the ‘Sex Problem.’ There’s no problem, really, except Creation, and that’s not our affair; we can’t solve it, and we’ve no right to make a problem out of it for ourselves to puzzle over, and waste the little time that is given us about. It’s we that make the problems, not Creation. We make ’em, and they only smother us; they’ll smother the world in the end if we don’t look out. Anything that can be argued, for and against, from half a dozen different points of view — and most things that men argue over can be — and anything that has been argued about for thousands of years (as most things have) is worse than profitless; it wastes the world’s time and ours, and often wrecks old mateships. Seems to me the deeper you read, think, talk, or write about things that end in ism, the less satisfactory the result; the more likely you are to get bushed and dissatisfied with the world. And the more you keep on the surface of plain things, the plainer the sailing — the more comfortable for you and everybody else. We’ve always got to come to the surface to breathe, in the end, in any case; we’re meant to live on the surface, and we might as well stay there and look after it and ourselves for all the good we do diving down after fish that aren’t there, except in our imagination. And some of ’em are very dead fish, too — the ‘Sex Problem,’ for instance. When we fall off the surface of the earth it will be time enough to make a problem out of the fact that we couldn’t stick on. I’m a Federal Pro-trader in this country; I’m a Federalist because I think Federation is the plain and natural course for Australia, and I’m a Free-tectionist because I’m in favour of sinking any question, or any two things, that enlightened people can argue and fight over, and try, one after the other, for fifty years without being able to come to a decision about, or prove which is best for the welfare of the country. It only wastes a young country’s time, and keeps it off the right track. Federation isn’t a problem — it’s a plain fact — but they make a problem out of every panel they have to push down in the rotten old boundary fences.”
“Personal interests,” suggested Joe.
“Of course. It’s personal interest of the wrong sort that makes all the problems. You can trace the sex problem to people who trade in unhealthy personal interests. I believe in personal interests of the right sort — true individualism. If we all looked after ourselves, and our wives and families — if we have any — in the proper way, the world would be all right. We waste too much time looking after each other.
“Now, supposing we’re travelling and have to get a shed and make a cheque so’s to be able to send a few quid home, as soon as we can, to the missus, or the old folks, and the next water is twenty miles ahead. If we sat down and argued over a social problem till doomsday, we wouldn’t get to the tank; we’d die of thirst, and the missus and kids, or the old folks, would be sold up and turned out into the streets, and have to fall back on a ‘home of hope,’ or wait their turn at the Benevolent Asylum with bags for broken victuals. I’ve seen that, and I don’t want anybody belonging to me to have to do it.
“Reminds me that when a poor, deserted girl goes to a ‘home’ they don’t make a problem of her — they do their best for her and try to get her righted. And the priests, too: if there’s anything in the sex or any other problem — anything that hasn’t been threshed out — they’re the men that’ll know it. I’m not a Catholic, but I know this: that if a girl that’s been left by one — no matter what Church she belongs to — goes to the priest, they’ll work all the points they know (and they know ’em all) to get her righted, and, if the chap, or his people, won’t come up to the scratch, Father Ryan’ll frighten hell out of ’em. I can’t say as much for our own Churches.”
“But you’re in favour of socialism and democracy?” asked Joe.
“Of course I am. But the world won’t do any good arguing over it. The people will have to get up and walk, and, what’s more, stick together — and I don’t think they’ll ever do that — it ain’t in human nature. Socialism, or democracy, was all right in this country till it got fashionable and was made a fad or a problem of. Then it got smothered pretty quick. And a fad or a problem always breeds a host of parasites or hangers-on. Why, as soon as I saw the advanced idealist fools — they’re generally the middle-class, shabby-genteel families that catch Spiritualism and Theosophy and those sort of complaints, at the end of the epidemic — that catch on at the tail-end of things and think they’ve caught something brand, shining, new; — as soon as I saw them, and the problem spielers and notoriety-hunters of both sexes, beginning to hang round Australian Unionism, I knew it was doomed. And so it was. The straight men were disgusted, or driven out. There are women who hang on for the same reason that a girl will sometimes go into the dock and swear an innocent man’s life away. But as soon as they see that the cause is dying, they drop it at once, and wait for another. They come like bloody dingoes round a calf, and only leave the bones. They’re about as democratic as the crows. And the rotten ‘sex-problem’ sort of thing is the cause of it all; it poisons weak minds — and strong ones too sometimes.
“Why, you could make a problem out of Epsom salts. You might argue as to why human beings want Epsom salts, and try to trace the causes that led up to it. I don’t like the taste of Epsom salts — it’s nasty in the mouth — but when I feel that way I take ’em, and I feel better afterwards; and that’s good enough for me. We might argue that black is white, and white is black, and neither of ’em is anything, and nothing is everything; and a woman’s a man and a man’s a woman, and it’s really the man that has the youngsters, only we imagine it’s the woman because she imagines that she has all the pain and trouble, and the doctor is under the impression that he’s attending to her, not the man, and the man thinks so too because he imagines he’s walking up and down outside, and slipping into the corner pub now and then for a nip to keep his courage up, waiting, when it’s his wife that’s doing that all the time; we might argue that it’s all force of imagination, and that imagination is an unknown force, and that the unknown is nothing. But, when we’ve settled all that to our own satisfaction, how much further ahead are we? In the end we’ll come to the conclusion that we ain’t alive, and never existed, and then we’ll leave off bothering, and the world will go on just the same.”
“What about science?” asked Joe.
“Science ain’t ‘sex problems;’ it’s facts . . . . Now, I don’t mind Spiritualism and those sort of things; they might help to break the monotony, and can’t do much harm. But the ‘sex problem,’ as it’s written about to-day, does; it’s dangerous and dirty, and it’s time to settle it with a club. Science and education, if left alone, will look after sex facts.
“You can’t get anything out of the ‘sex problem,’ no matter how you argue. In the old Bible times they had half a dozen wives each, but we don’t know for certain how they got on. The Mormons tried it again, and seemed to get on all right till we interfered. We don’t seem to be able to get on with one wife now — at least, according to the ‘sex problem.’ The ‘sex problem’ troubled the Turks so much that they tried three. Lots of us try to settle it by knocking round promiscuously, and that leads to actions for maintenance and breach of promise cases, and all sorts of trouble. Our blacks settle the ‘sex problem’ with a club, and so far I haven’t heard any complaints from them.
* * * * *
“Take hereditary causes and surrounding circumstances, for instance. In order to understand or judge a man right, you would need to live under the same roof with him from childhood, and under the same roofs, or tents, with his parents, right back to Adam, and then you’d be blocked for want of more ancestors through which to trace the causes that led to Abel — I mean Cain — going on as he did. What’s the use or sense of it? You might argue away in any direction for a million miles and a million years back into the past, but you’ve got to come back to where you are if you wish to do any good for yourself, or anyone else.
“Sometimes it takes you a long while to get back to where you are — sometimes you never do it. Why, when those controversies were started in the Bulletin about the kangaroos and other things, I thought I knew something about the bush. Now I’m damned if I’m sure I could tell a kangaroo from a wombat.
“Trying to find out things is the cause of all the work and trouble in this world. It was Eve’s fault in the first place — or Adam’s, rather, because it might be argued that he should have been master. Some men are too lazy to be masters in their own homes, and run the show properly; some are too careless, and some too drunk most of their time, and some too weak. If Adam and Eve hadn’t tried to find out things there’d have been no toil and trouble in the world to-day; there’d have been no bloated capitalists, and no horny-handed working men, and no politics, no freetrade and protection — and no clothes. The woman next door wouldn’t be able to pick holes in your wife’s washing on the line. We’d have been all running about in a big Garden of Eden with nothing on, and nothing to do except loaf, and make love, and lark, and laugh, and play practical jokes on each other.”
“That would have been glorious. Wouldn’t it, Joe? There’d have been no ‘sex problem’ then.”
Henry Lawson, Over the Sliprails, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 145-151
The title of this story is given as “Mitchell on the “Sex” and Other “Problems.”” (as the chapter heading, on page 145), whilst it is given as “Mitchell on the Sex and Other Problems” in the book’s list of contents (i.e. the latter gives it without the use of quotation marks for the words “Sex” and “Problems”).
bushed = confused (may also refer to being lost, especially lost in the bush; not able to find the right direction; also, exhausted or very tired)
Cain = the oldest of the two sons of Adam and Eve (according to the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, Cain murdered Abel, and thus the word Cain became associated with murder)
cheque = in the context of employment, a cheque (American spelling: “check”) for payment for work carried out
Epsom salts = (also called “bitter salts”) hydrated magnesium sulfate, used as a purgative (laxative), although also used in some industrial applications
Free-tectionist = a literary combination of “Free-trader” and “Protectionist”, the two main economic ideologies in Australia around the time of Federation
loaf = laze about, idle away time
nip = a small mouthful, or a sip, of a drink, especially an alcoholic drink; a small amount of an alcohol drink
pannikin = a small metal pan, or a small metal cup
Pro-trader = a literary combination of “Protectionist” and “Free-trader”, the two main economic ideologies in Australia around the time of Federation
quid = a pound or a dollar; originally “quid” referred to a pound, a unit of British-style currency used in Australia (until it was replaced by the dollar in 1966, when decimal currency was introduced); after the decimalisation of Australia’s currency, it referred to a dollar
shed = in a shearing context, a shearing shed; may also refer, in a collective sense, to the men who worked in a shearing shed
spieler = someone with a glib and plausible manner of speaking, with a style that is intended to persuade, and often speaking at length, especially regarding a salesman giving a sales pitch (may also refer to an announcer on radio or television, particularly one who does commercials; a barker employed at a circus sideshow; or a swindler)
victuals = food, provisions
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
ain’t (aren’t; are not)
ain’t (isn’t; is not)
so’s (so as)