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"L'INTELLIGENCE DES FLEURS"
THREE years after "Le Double Jardin," in 1907, "L Intelligence des Fleurs" was published. In the English translation, entitled "Life and Flowers," the essay on Rome, which was excluded from "The Double Garden," now appears. In addition there are essays on the various instruments for measuring time, on immortality, war, social duty, "L'Inquiétude de notre Morale," the psychology of accident, boxing, "King Lear," the intelligence of flowers, and on scents and their manufacture. The volume resembles its predecessor in variety of subject and uniformity of tone. On any page may be found a phrase which suggests the whole book. For example, I might take, as the keynote, two sentences at the opening of "L'Inquiétude de notre Morale." In one he speaks of the "great truth," that it is the duty o! those who have to reduce themselves to the condition of those who have not; in the other he says that this is an "absolute impossibility." Well may he speak in this essay of examining the question like "the unbiased denizen" of another planet.
But he is not solely this. As in all the later essays, he frequently shows himself very much an inhabitant of this world. The combination is a remarkable one, and it produces what appears to be this -- worldly thoughts and descriptions somehow mysticized. The true inwardness of eating bread and cheese and pickled shallots and drinking a pint of stout would not be a surprising subject for this mystic man of the world.
"L'Intelligence des Fleurs" shows him experimenting for nearly four years in the hybridization of different kinds of sage; having his first "satisfying vision of happiness" in a country where nothing is cultivated but flowers for making scents; and admiring "a certain magnificent oak" so much that he says it would not be out of place in any paradise or after-life imaginable. He is still, as in "Le Double Jardin," fundamentally at ease with himself and such of the world as he must or chooses to see. He preserves the same starry urbanity when he remarks that it would be "interesting to calculate" whether a sudden bloody revolution would involve more or fewer evils than a slow, nagging one; and, having made the remark, he passes on to point out, in the same tones, that the human race now "seems to be in the decisive phase of its evolution"; but let it always be borne in mind that Maeterlinck is personally a kindly and charitable man. Perhaps a new reason for his comfortableness is that he now perceives that we are not after all "miraculous, unparalleled, and marvellously incidental beings" in an alien earth, as we used proudly to think, but that in reality we follow "the same road as the soul of this great world," where we are quite in place. This marks almost a revolution in his thought, but he makes no comment whatever upon it. Observation of the ways and thoughts of flowers has taught him to believe this, and the lessons of the flowers may, he thinks, be as nothing compared with those to come from the mountains, the sea, and the stars:
"Ils nous permettent néanmoins de présumer avec plus d'assurance que l'esprit qui anime toutes choses ou se dégage d'elles est la même essence que celui qui anime notre corps. S'il nous ressemble, si nous lui ressemblons ainsi, si tout ce qui se trouve en lui, se retrouve en nous-mêmes, s'il emploie nos méthodes, s'il a nos habitudes, nos préoccupations, nos tendances, nos désirs vers le mieux, est-il illogique d'espérer tout ce que nous espérons instinctivement, invinciblement, puisqu'il est presque certain qu'il l'espère aussi? Est-il vraisemblable, quand nous trouvons éparse dans la vie une telle somme d'intelligence, que cette vie ne fasse pas oeuvre d'intelligence, c'est-à-dire ne poursuive une fin de bonheur, de perfection, de victoire sur ce que nous appelons le real, la mort, les ténèbres, le néant, qui n'est probablement que l'ombre de sa face ou son propre sommeil?"
No one who has followed Maeterlinck's development will fail to see that here is, or should be, a prodigious access of reason for optimism; no one will fail to notice, and few will be surprised, that the new idea is one of those which are "purely ideas" to him. All now is right with the world. But what matters it? Maeterlinck is on another planet.
He is, however, as willing as ever to think of the case of mortals, and particularly of those to whom the old religions of the earth consciously mean nothing. He assumes, perhaps rashly, that we are in an exceptional position -- i.e., that we are abandoning one religion and have no other before us -- though it is by no means certain, first, that many pagans of the last three or four centuries before Christ were not in a similar position; and, second, that we are not really entering another religion half consciously, as pagan souls, naturaliter Christianæ, must often have done. He also exaggerates our "feverish elaboration" of a premature morality to take the place of religion. It is true that we discuss our morality more than ever, because we are more self-conscious; but in the morality that is really valid, that which controls our acts and our judgments of things near us, we are, with a difference, what men have been for some time, heirs of Christianity and of paganism. In spite of Nietzsche, we do not really ask ourselves if we are not dupes by practising a "noble morality" in a world which -- as Maeterlinck still says -- " obeys other laws"; or, if we ask this, we act without reference to the question, and as if it had never been put. Maeterlinck himself sees that we have, in our "mystic reason," a possession x? perhaps equivalent to a religion. What he means by this may be gathered from any book of his essays, from the first to the last; but here in the essay on our anxious morality he again makes it clear:
"C'est dans notre raison, consciente ou non, que se forme notre morale. On pourrait, à ce point de rue, y marquer trois régions. Tout au bas, la partie la plus lourde, la plus épaisse et la plus générale, que nous appellerons le 'sens commun.' Un peu plus haut, s'élevant déjà aux idées d'utilité et de jouissance immatérielles, ce qu'on pourrait nommer le 'bon sens,' et enfin, au sommet, admettant, mais contrôlant aussi sévèrement que possible les revendications de l'imagination, des sentiments et de tout ce qui relie notre vie consciente à l'inconsciente et aux forces inconnues du dedans et du dehors, la partie indéterminée de cette même raison totale à laquelle nous donnerons le nom de 'raison mystique.'"
He sees the" mystic reason" offered to the "good sense"
of a scientific age, here again perhaps exaggerating the novelty of "good
sense," which must be a kind of wisdom used since very ancient times by persons
without imagination, and even by those with it when they themselves were
not immediately concerned. Good sense tends probably to advance by additions
from the mystic reason, and the difference between the good sense of 1911
and 1811 gives this probability much support. Maeterlinck himself believes
in a spiritual wave, with ebbs and flows, "which seems slowly to overtake
and conquer we know not what in space," but does not think that the average
of goodness was raised by the movements in the Middle Ages when faith was
strong with a certainty like that of "our scientific certainties." And at
last he pleads for the preservation of a few "fancy pictures," herein reminding
us of the poet's speech in Mr. W. B. Yeats's "King's Threshold " --
If you are a poet,
Cry out that the king's money would not buy,
Nor the high circle consecrate his head,
If poets had never christened gold, and even
The moon's poor daughter, that most whey-faced metal,
Precious: and cry out that none alive
Would ride among the arrows with high heart,
Or scatter with an open hand, had not
Our heady craft commended wasteful virtues.
If we are no longer to be saints and martyrs, says Maeterlinck, we have need of their spirit, and he ends in confidence:
"Ce ne sont point les religions qui ont formé cet idéal; mais bien celui-ci qui a donné naissance aux religions. Ces dernières affaiblies ou disparues, leurs sources subsistent qui cherchent un autre cours. Tout compte fait, à la réserve de certaines vertus factices et parasites qu'on abandonne naturellement au tournant de la plupart des cultes, il n'y a encore rien à changer à notre vieil idéal aryen de justice, de conscience, de courage, de bonté et d'honneur. I1 n'y a qu'à. s'en rapprocher davantage, à le serrer de plus près, à le réaliser plus efficacement; et avant de le dépasser, nous avons une longue et noble route à parcourir sous les étoiles."
In this way, as elsewhere, he advocates the instinct, the imagination, the unconsciousness, by means of the intelligence which he esteems so far beneath them; he is, in fact, trying to persuade the intelligence to encourage its superior, to prove that there is a higher expediency in what may seem to it inexpedient. Nowhere is his use of the pure reason more remarkable than in the essay on immortality. He has not one profound intimation or conviction with which to support his argument. He begins by reminding us that nothing can perish. We are bound to survive, but can the manner of the survival be of any comfort or pride? What we wish to survive is that part of us "which used to perceive phenomena" when we were alive. If that goes we shall not know that we are. Yet this desire he compares with that of a sick man to continue in his sickness lest he should not recognize himself. He asks us to think of a man who is blind, paralysed, and deaf, but dreading death with a great despair; and to suppose that, by a miracle, he could suddenly see and hear the glory of the earth and move amidst it. "At what corner of his past" will this man "clutch to continue his identity"? Yet something -- "some sense or instinct " -- would tell him that he was the man who was blind, paralysed, and deaf. The power by which he would know this is lost in sleep, in pain, in intoxication, in moments of self-forgetfulness. In eternity should we not be loth, like Christopher Sly, "to fall into our dreams again" -- so Maeterlinck asks; and he asks, too, if many would not be glad to accept a sleep of a hundred years with the certainty of awaking at the end of it. Yet between this and death there would be small difference. Also he reminds us that many do not despair when they see others, or think of themselves, in the abeyance of our mental and physical faculties in old age, or even when they consider the disintegration of the body. He then reminds us of some of the "irrefutable" proofs that something does continue in some cases for a time after death. Also, if we do not perish we have lived before, yet we do not remember it, and the uncertainty of it is indifferent to us. He suggests that there is another consciousness which may be part of us before and after life, etc. It is entered in moments when --
"Il demeure en nous quelque chose d'absolument désintéressé qui goûte le bonheur d'autrui. N'est-il pas également possible que les joies sans but de l'art, la satisfaction calme et pleine où nous plonge la contemplation d'une belle statue, d'un monument parfait, qui ne nous appartient pas, que nous ne reverrons jamais, qui n'excite aucun désir sensuel, qui ne peut nous être d'aucune utilité; n'est-il pas possible que cette satisfaction soit la pâle lueur d'une conscience différente qui filtre à travers une fissure de notre conscience mnémonique?"
This is his nearest approach to an intuition, that there
may be an existence accessible, even during life, which is "more spacious"
than that of our ordinary consciousness, as if we had --
|The cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning's eye.
Let us admit this possibility, and strive to know what it is in us that will survive. This is no more than Richard Jefferies' belief in "a whole world of ideas outside and beyond those which now exercise us"; to cultivate the soul because, so long as it lives, "it matters not if the entire material world disappears." Jefferies in a passionate, if imperfect, mystic ecstasy, prayed for "the deepest of soul-life, the deepest of all, deeper far than all this greatness of the visible universe, and even of the invisible." He, like Maeterlinck, hated asceticism. He, like Maeterlinck, thought that there were other alternatives than the sequence of cause and effect. He also exhorted men "to do their utmost to think outside and beyond our present circle of ideas." He also marvelled that until now the soul, "the keenest, the sharpest tool possessed by man," had been left uncultivated. He felt a sympathy in the universe when he wrote: "The sea thinks for me as I listen and ponder: the sea thinks, and every boom of the wave repeats my prayer" -- a feeling which Maeterlinck does not reveal, His passionate autobiography has a force almost equalling a revelation: Maeterlinck's essay is a subtle and eloquent recommending of a cool possibility.
He treats another favourite subject with all his usual adroitness and subtlety in an essay on the psychology of accident. It is an elaboration of the idea suggested by the fact that a child or a drunken man falls with less danger to himself than a sober man who tries to save himself by his intelligence. He believes that we are losing this admirable instinct, and that a workman has more chances than his educated employer if both are in the same physical disaster. Here again he proposes that by "special study" the instinct should be educated and restored. He makes no suggestion as to how this can come to pass. To educate the instinct by means of a power which is overcoming it, and is jealous of it, may be a difficult task; and in the course of the essay a story is told to show how fatal may be this interference of the intelligence with the instinct. A cart full of women was rushing down a precipitous hill, apparently to certain ruin, and one woman thought to save at least her child by throwing it out. The cart fell over the precipice, but the women were all saved by the bushes on the face of the cliff: only the child was killed by its fall on the wayside. The instinct of the women saved them; the intelligent forethought of the mother destroyed her child. Such is Maeterlinck's account of the matter, and very good it is; but a few qualifications should be added. First, it was the venerable maternal instinct which interrupted the still older instinct of self-preservation, and caused the mother to throw out the child. Second, it might well have been expected that the child would fall right by instinct.
Third, if the woman had fallen over the cliff with the child in her arms, it is likely that the burden would have prevented her from acting perfectly according to instinct, and both would have perished. At the conclusion of the essay he makes a statement which may be compared with his new view that man and nature have the same methods and aims. He points out that, in an earthquake or a thunderstorm, or the fall of a tree, an animal rather than a man will be struck. This he oddly attributes first to man's reason and "more prudent instinct," and finally to the fact that nature "seems to be afraid of man," surrounding him "with a sort of manifest and unaccountable respect." If this were not a mere bland extravagance, Maeterlinck's thought would have followed very different lines. Compare with this another but more excusable extravagance, in a rhapsody of pure rhetoric, on the "Gods of War," viz. melinite, dynamite, panelastite, cordite, etc. Thinking of these, he says that man has abdicated; his reign is over; he is at the mercy of these "monstrous and enigmatic powers." But, except De Quincey or Victor Hugo, perhaps no other could have written it.
The essay in praise of boxing must rank with that in praise of the sword for ingenuity. It was written for the summer holidays, when it is fitting "to occupy ourselves with the aptitudes of our body, once more restored to nature." He admits that, in writing of the sword, his subject carried him away into an injustice to the fist. The fist is, he says, our natural weapon, like the bull's horns, and a wiser race would make it the only legal weapon, which would bring about "a sort of panic-stricken respect of human life." He paints a picture of a skilled boxer serene among enemies who cannot box:" The grossest insult cannot impair his indulgent smile," and if he is forced to use his power against "the most powerful brute," it is with a sense of shame and a regret for the "too-easy victory." This is by far the most genial and amusing thing Maeterlinck has ever written, but it leaves a doubt as to whether it was meant to be amusing. There is equal ingenuity in the essay on sundials, clocks, etc., and a graceful rhetoric which he has nowhere excelled. The following page is one of the best from his contemplative-descriptive writings:
"La pendule, le sablier, la clepsydre perdue donnent des heures abstraites, sans forme et sans visage. Ce sont les instruments du temps anémié de nos chambres, du temps esclave et prisonnier; mais le cadran solaire nous révèle l'ombre réelle et palpitante de l'aile du grand dieu qui plane dans l'azur. Autour du plateau de marbre qui orne la terrasse ou le carrefour des larges avenues et qui s'harmonise si bien aux escaliers majestueux, aux balustrades éployées, aux murailles de verdure des charmilles profondes, nous jouissons de la présence fugitive mais irrécusable des heures radieuses. Qui sut apprendre à les discerner dans l'espace, les verra tour à tour toucher terre et se pencher sur l'autel mystérieux pour faire un sacrifice au dieu que l'homme honore mais ne peut pas connaître. I1 les verra s'avancer en robes diverses et changeantes, couronnées de fruits, de fleurs ou de rosée: d'abord celles encore diaphanes et à peine visibles de l'aube; puis leurs surs de midi, ardentes, cruelles, resplendissantes, presque implacables, et enfin les dernières du crépuscule, lentes et somptueuses, que retarde, dans leur marche vers la nuit qui s'approche, l'ombre empourprée des arbres."
The long chapter on the intelligence of flowers is another exercise of the same kind. He says that he is merely going to recall "a few facts known to every botanist," but he proceeds to describe some of the adventures of plant-life in such a way that the description is an argument for the intelligence of the plants. One plant has "discovered," another has "calculated"; one is "restless," another is "thoughtless." The presumption of these words must be held unpardonable until it is believed, as well as stated in cold blood, that man's equipment and destiny are not singular among living things. Maeterlinck finds it consoling to observe that we follow the same road as the plants, "as the soul of this great world." The term "mystic" is not to be dwelt on too seriously, because it is now in an advanced stage of popular corruption. Yet the acceptance of science by a man to whom it is widely applied is remarkable. Maeterlinck is the first "mystic," though not the first mystical writer, to appear in the age of science; and he is all the more important because he really belongs to the age. He is-not, however, always a mystic and a man of science at once, and there are times when he seems to be striving to look at scientific facts in a poetical manner. Thus some of his passages are simply science in fancy dress. Yet his descriptions can be masterly, more brief and precise at their best than those of Ruskin, with which alone they can be compared.
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