Red-Eye and the Woman Problem (by S.I. Hayakawa
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
* * *
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
And that's our problem.
Go to Hayakawa, contents here
, General semantics list
, all articles
, site home here