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PHILOSOPHIC STUDIES: RUYSBROECK, EMERSON, AND NOVALIS
MANY of the conversations in the early plays, and whole characters like the old man in "Intérieur" and Arkël in "Pelléas et Mélisande," might have taught us that Maeterlinck was not a dramatic artist pure and simple. Side by side with his work of creation he was reading, if not far and wide, yet much and deep. In 1891 he published his translation of "L'Ornement des Noces Spirituelles" of the Flemish mystic, Ruysbroeck. Maeterlinck warns literary idlers against this book, which is "a boundless desert, where they will die of thirst." It was translated for "a few Platonists," fearless of the judgment which most: men will pronounce. They will think it the work of a deluded monk, of a pale solitary, a hermit, dizzy with fasting and worn with fever. In reply to such an opinion of the mystics, he himself avers that "they alone are the possessors of certainty," and this is exactly true, because the mystics alone have had a revelation unquestionable, if imperfect, which enables them to grasp the whole of things in a manner impossible to mundane intelligence or effort. Equally true is Maeterlinck's forecast of the ordinary reader's opinion of Ruysbroeck. The opening chapter, in particular, on the three comings of Christ, on the two kinds of humility in Jesus Christ, on the abdication of the will, on zeal and diligence, etc., are of an aridity which compels the question whether the words correspond to things at all; no trace is left in them of the life of the man in his hut at Grönendal, in the forest of Soignes, at the beginning of the fourteenth century. They make us think of a man fed exclusively on books, whereas in fact he knew no Greek and perhaps no Latin, was alone and poor. And yet, as Maeterlinck says, "He knows, though he is unaware of it, the Platonism of Greece, the Sufism of Persia, the Brahmanism of India, and the Buddhism of Thibet." He was one who knew the divine splendour which blinds all created vision and causes reason and all created light to cease; and knew that in this light, though the power of observation and distinction is lost, a man's eyes are truly opened in the stillness and emptiness of the spirit where he has lost himself in the love of God. The pure satisfaction of the heart was not only greater than any which earth could bestow, but greater for the body as well as the soul -- so great that, in its intoxication, one man would imagine that the whole world was partaking of it and another that he was the first to taste. He thought that the spirit was more exalted and nature more humbled in heavy suffering than in great works. Nor is it the only place where his limitations are clear, when he says that God does not will, nor counsel, nor effect in any man things which are contrary to the teaching of Christ and of the Church. He was a Christian who happened to be a mystic, not a mystic who happened to be a Christian. What is fundamental in his Christianity, and what Maeterlinck quotes from his other books, seems to show that his qualities were for the most part of a local and temporary kind. I shall quote an example from a book interpreting the Jewish sacrifices and the symbols of the ark of the covenant partly for its own sake, but more because it may reveal to us something of Maeterlinck. He is speaking of the offering of the poor:
"And they [the doves] shall keep near streams and beside clear waters, so that if any bird flies downwards to seize them or to do them any injury, they may recognize him by his reflection in the water and beware of him. The clear water is Holy Scripture, the lives of saints, and the mercy of God. We shall reflect ourselves therein when we are tempted, and so none shall be able to hurt us. These doves have a loving nature, and young doves are often born of them, for wherever, to the glory of God and for our own felicity, we think of sin with scorn and hatred, and of virtue with love, we give birth to young doves -- that is to say, to new virtues."
Doubtless Maeterlinck, like many another, could at one time envy the freedom from nature in this and many other passages -- a freedom so much more easy and complete than any achieved by him in "Serres Chaudes," as he must also have envied him "a language which has the intrinsic omnipotence of tongues which are almost immemorial." The Flemish dialect, he continues:
"The Flemish dialect possesses this omnipotence, and it is possible that several of its words still contain images dating from the glacial epochs. Our author, then, had at his disposal one of the very oldest modes of speech, in which words are really lamps behind ideas, while with us ideas must give light to words. I am also disposed to believe that every language thinks always more than the man, even the man of genius, who employs it, and who is only its heart for the time being, and that this is the reason why an ignorant monk like this mysterious Ruysbroeck was able, by gathering up his scanty forces in prayers so many centuries ago, to write works which hardly correspond to any scenes in the present day."
This last sentence contains a highly characteristic but perhaps not entirely original thought. And as to Flemish, it may be noticed here that a French critic has said that it is well for Maeterlinck to be a Belgian: "For he knows the language like a foreigner who is without a sense of the tradition. He has provincialisms, something slow and uneasy in his manner, awkward and inexact. Not finding the right word, he uses several of the second best. It is a style that trembles." And thus he is helped in giving an impression of mystery.
With this admiration for the primitive, and even primeval Ruysbroeck, should be contrasted his scorn for the excessively modern and purely literary. He knows that Ruysbroeck is obscure, he says, but believes --
"That a sincere and honest author is never obscure in the eternal sense of the word, because he always understands himself, in a way which is infinitely beyond anything that he says. It is only artificial ideas which spring up in real darkness and flourish solely in literary epochs and in the insincerity of self-conscious ages, when the thought of the writer is poorer than his expression."
He goes on, with the help of Carlyle's "Woe to us if we have nothing in us except that which we can express and show to others," and with · the help of Plotinus, to write a most eloquent piece of prose full of images peculiarly his own, comparing, e.g., some of Ruysbroeck's phrases with "transparent icicles on the colourless sea of silence." This introduction leaves us with a knowledge of Maeterlinck's interest in Ernest Hello, Plotinus, Porphyry, Novalis, Coleridge, Plato, Behmen, and Carlyle, and an admiration for his power of graceful and ingenious appreciation. It is the writing of one who perhaps could not write ill. But it is neither original nor profound, and it reveals chiefly a man of temperament. It reveals too the lover of "divine metaphysic," and in the numerous quotations it is not hard to see, not the source perhaps, but the impulse, of much later writing. Take, for an example, the following from another book by Ruysbroeck:
"But above all things, if we desire to enjoy God, or to experience eternal life within us, we must rise far above human reason, and enter into God through faith; and there we shall remain pure, at rest, and free from all similitudes, lifted by love into the open nakedness of thought. For when in love we die to all things, when in ignorance and obscurity we die to all the notice of the world, we are wrought and reformed by the eternal Word, who is an image of the Father. And in the repose of our spirit we receive the incomprehensible splendour which envelopes and penetrates us, just as the air is penetrated by the brightness of the sun. And this splendour is merely a boundless vision and a boundless beholding. What we are, that we behold; and what we behold, that we are; for our thought, our life, and our essence are closely united with that truth which is God, and are raised along with it. And that is why, in this pure vision, we are one life and one spirit with God; and this is what I call a contemplative life ....
If Maeterlinck had lived at Grönendal in the fourteenth century he would have written thus. Indeed, the hermit of Grönendal is to be divined more simply from "L'Ornement des Noces Spirituelles," than is the citizen of Ghent and the hermit of Grasse from "Le Trésor des Humbles."
In 1894 appeared I. Will's translation of seven of Emerson's essays into French, accompanied by an Introduction from Maeterlinck. These essays are "Confidence," "Compensation," "Spiritual Laws," "The Poet," "Character," "The Over-Soul," and "Fatality." The Introduction is a piece of Maeterlinck's work which is interesting because it shows us how naively he submitted himself to Emerson's influence: it is, in fact, little more than a very gracious variation upon an idea in "Spiritual Laws." "The child who meets me will not be able," says Maeterlinck, "to tell his mother what he has seen; and yet, as soon as his eye has taken me in, he knows all I am and have been as well as my brother and three times as well as myself.... He has known me, for a moment, as exactly as God." Then, again, he speaks of people in a room talking of the rain and the fine weather; but under this poor stuff their souls are holding such converse as no human wisdom could touch save at its peril; and this is why they have a kind of mysterious joy of their ennui, without knowing that which within them is aware of the laws of life, of death, and of love that pass like incorruptible floods about the house. He is going, he supposes, to see for the first time a friend whose work he already knows. This man comes in; behold! all the explanations which he has given us for years crumble to dust at the motion of the door as it opens upon him. He is not what he thinks himself; he is different from his thought. For we live only as one soul to another, and we are gods who ignore one another, and the strangest thing in man is the gravity and wisdom that lies hid in him. Beyond our involuntary agitations we lead a marvellous existence, still and pure and unerring, and this is hinted unceasingly by the stretching of the hands, the opening of the eyes, the meeting of glances. All our organs are mystic instruments of a superior being, and we know not a man but always a soul. He was not the poor beggar on my steps that I saw, but something else: in our eyes two destinies saluted one another kindly, and, as he put out his hand, the little door of the house gave a view, though for but an instant, of the sea. So far Maeterlinck, and it is charming. But he himself quotes the passage from Emerson where he says that his 'accomplishments and his money avail nothing with his child; what is in his soul alone counts. The disciple is careless, perhaps oblivious, of the fact that in his master's essay on "Spiritual Laws" the following passage occurs:
"A man passes for what he is worth. Very idle is all curiosity concerning other people's estimate of us, and idle is all fear of remaining unknown. If a man knows that he can do anything -- that he can do it better than any one else -- he has a pledge of the acknowledgment of that fact by all persons. The world is full of judgment-days, and into every assembly that a man enters, in every action he attempts, he is gauged and stamped. In every troop of boys that whoop and run in each yard and square, a new-comer is as well and accurately weighed in the balances, in the course of a few days, and stamped with his right number, as if he had undergone a formal trial of his strength, speed, and temper. A stranger comes from a distant school with better dress, with trinkets in his pockets, with airs, and pretension. An old boy sniffs thereat, and says to himself, 'It's of no use: we shall find him out to-morrow.'
"Always as much virtue as there is, so much appears; as much goodness as there is, so much reverence it commands. All the devils respect virtue. The high, the generous, the self-devoted sect will always instruct and command mankind. Never a sincere word was utterly lost. Never :magnanimity fell to the ground. Always the hi, art of man greets and accepts it unexpectedly. A man passes for what he is worth. What he is engraves itself on his face, on his form, on his fortunes, in letters of light, which all men may read but himself. Concealment avails him nothing; boasting nothing. There is confession in the glances of our eyes, in our smiles, in salutations, and the grasp of hands. His sin bedaubs him, mars all his good impressions. Men know not why they do not trust him. His vice glasses his eye, demeans his cheek, pinches the nose, sets the mark of the beast on the back of the head, and writes 'O fool! fool! ' on the forehead of a king."
This leaves Maeterlinck with little for himself. Emerson has exaggerated beyond the warrant of experience; Maeterlinck exaggerates a little more, giving the thought a turn of his own and a yet greater unreality. And even so he cannot conceal, though he disguise, his humble discipleship. Emerson has written: "I love and honour Epaminondas, but I do not wish to be Epaminondas. I hold it more just to love the world of this hour than the world of his hour .... Besides, why should we be cowed by the name of Actæon? 'Tis a trick of the senses -- no more." Then Maeterlinck, in this Introduction, writes: "There is no great life and no little life, and the action of Regulus or of Leonidas is unimportant when I compare it with a moment of my soul's secret life. Regulus and Leonidas replace Epaminondas." And he continues: "Emerson comes to affirm the equal and secret grandeur of our life. He has shown all the forces of heaven and earth busy in sustaining the threshold where two people are talking of the rain and the wind, and over the heads of two wayfarers greeting one another he has shown us a God smiling upon a God." Here he repeats himself, and varies a phrase in "The Over-Soul," where Emerson says "that somewhat higher in each of us overlooks this by-play, and Jove nods to Jove from behind each of us. Jove replaces God; nothing more. Emerson, at least, gives illustrative instances out of his experience or his reading; Maeterlinck's variations smack less of Ghent or Paris than his master's of Boston, and it is remarkable that, at the age of thirty, he should be incapable of asserting himself in the presence of another writer, and so uncritical as not to have observed or corrected correspondences at once clear and fundamental.
A year later, when Maeterlinck published, with an Introduction, his translation of "The Disciples at Saïs" and some of the fragments of Novalis, he gave a further proof of his naive submission to the thought of Emerson. In "The Over-Soul" Emerson had written:
"The soul is superior to its knowledge, wiser than any of its works. The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions. His greatest communication to our mind is to teach us to despise all he has done. Shakespeare carries us to such a lofty strain of intelligent activity as to suggest a wealth which beggars his own; and we then feel that the splendid works which he has created, and which in other hours we extol as a sort of self-existent poetry, take no stronger hold of real nature than the shadow of a passing traveller on the rock."
This passage Maeterlinck quotes in his introduction to the translations from Novalis, after he has been urging that "all that does not go beyond mere experimental and everyday wisdom does not belong to us and is not worthy of our soul," and has written as follows about "Othello":
"We listen to the dialogue between the Moor and Desdemona as a perfect thing, but without being able to put aside matters more profound. Whether Othello has been deceived or not by the noble lady of Venice, he has another life. Even at the moment of his most wretched suspicions and most brutal anger, events a thousand times more sublime must have been passing, in his soul and about his body, which his ravings could not trouble; and behind the superficial disturbance of jealousy another and impregnable existence maintained itself which, so far, the genius of man has only presented in passing.
"Does the sadness of the masterpieces spring from this? Poets could not write except on condition that they shut their eyes to the terror of the infinite, and enforced silence upon the too deep and thronging voices of their souls. If they had not done this, they must have lost heart. Nothing is sadder or more deceptive than a masterpiece, because nothing shows more clearly man's powerlessness to acknowledge his own grandeur and dignity. And if a voice had not taught us that the most beautiful things are nothing compared with what we are, nothing would have humiliated us more."
Maeterlinck soars up and away from his original in a beautiful manner, pointing out, for example, that if a being from another world came down and asked us for the supreme works of the human spirit, we should be unjust to offer "Othello," "King Lear," and "Hamlet." "No, we are not that!.., we are invisible beings .... We should have nothing to say to the heavenly visitor, and nothing to show him, and our most perfect works would suddenly appear to us like those poor family treasures that seemed so precious to us at the bottom of a drawer, but appear so trifling when for a moment they are taken out from their darkness before an indifferent eye." No, if anything could touch this imaginary visitor it would be the spectacle of a man praying, with "thoughts that have no name and lips that cannot speak," or of those whose works "border close upon silence "'; and he himself would not blush if the stranger surprised him reading Pascal, Emerson, or Hello -- "and perhaps he himself would thence have some idea of a fellow-being condemned to silence, or would know at least that we are not all satisfied with ourselves as inhabitants of the earth." It is as if Emerson had taken us to a favourable peak of earth from which to behold some miracle of cloudland, and Maeterlinck alone of the company had flown up to the clouds for a brief tour of inspection. It may be easy to exaggerate his indebtedness, but it is certainly apparent at many points. Here again, for example, he advances to a yet more dizzy height from Emerson's remark about the unconscious wisdom of a child in "Spiritual Laws."
"Put in the balance against the unconscious wisdom of that child passing yonder all the words of the great sages, and you will see that what Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Schopenhauer, and Pascal have revealed to us will not cause the great treasures of unconsciousness to rise up one hair's breadth, for the silence of the child is a thousand times more wise than the speech of Marcus Aurelius."
He adds, it must always be remembered, that "if Marcus Aurelius had not written his twelve books of 'Meditations,' part of the unknown treasures of this child would not be the same." A very impressive variation upon the same theme is where he says that but for Plato, Swedenborg, or Plotinus, the soul of the peasant who has never heard of them would not be what it is to-day. He calls Novalis an ecstatic and melodious child with a sense of unity. There can be little doubt that Maeterlinck is curiously aware of the inexpressible mysteries of life, but he has scarcely begun to show that he is aware of them with his own spirit, and not only through Emerson's, as through a telescope. His examples are still like those of Emerson, and might have been modelled on them with a difference for the sake of a difference. It is in his simple sense of mystery that he shows himself, if at all. We see, for example, the writer of the early plays in a phrase like: "We are slaves, who cannot preserve the love of life except by increasing, without being dismayed, the pitiless load of their chains," or where he says that it is hard to question the soul and to recognize "its little, childlike voice" amid the vain clamours that encompass it. We see him in his description of the mother of Novalis as one of those sweet and pious mothers who are content to be silent and to hide all they know and divine under "a pitiful smile of humility " -- un pauvre sourire humilié; yet he knows nothing of this woman, except that "it is the mothers that make men's souls." But for the rest, the writing is mainly dependent, if not imitative. If it has an airy, spiritual fervour it seems also to lack conviction. The "probably" in the following sentence betrays rather the caution of the intellect than the meek confidence of the spirit: "It is probably," he writes, "at the point where man seems to come to an end that he begins." But, having set up this "probably," he advances with equanimity, saying that the essential and steadfast parts of man belong only to the invisible, and that on the faint peaks where he dwells with the invisible are to be seen perhaps the lights which alone upon earth are beacons in the spiritual world.
Novalis does not so easily make a disciple as Emerson. He is less emphatic and less didactic, and no one is farther from being a professional writer and moralist. But we feel the presence of a kindred nature to Maeterlinck in his unearthliness, in the description of the child who was one of the disciples at Saïs:
"Scarcely was he there but the Master wished to resign the teaching into his hands. This child had great dark eyes with blue depths; his skin shone like lilies, and his locks like lustrous cloudlets at eventide. His voice thrilled through our hearts; we would have gladly given him our flowers, stones, feathers, all that we had. He smiled with an infinite gravity; we felt strangely happy to be beside him. One day he will return, said the Master, and live among us. Then the lessons will cease...."
"The silence of the child," as Maeterlinck says, "is wiser than the speech of Marcus Aurelius." Novalis had said that "the fresh gaze of a child is less bounded than the presentiment of the most pure of seers." But Novalis had none of the gift of Emerson and Maeterlinck for multiplication. Having said that" Philosophy is, properly speaking, home-sickness, the desire to be at home in the world," he says no more; having said that "If God became a man, He could also become stone, plant, animal, element, and perhaps in that way there is a liberation continually going on in nature," he says no more. He said: "Man began with instinct and will end with it," and Maeterlinck has multiplied the thought. Equally prophetic is he when he speaks of virtue disappearing and becoming innocence. He foresees poetry such as the symbolists tried to write when he speaks of
"Poems which are simply sonorous and full of impressive words, but without sense and cohesion, of which at most only pen-strokes are comprehensible, like fragments of the most diverse things. This true poetry might have, at most, a general allegoric sense and an indirect action like that of music. This is why nature is so purely poetical, like the call of a magician or physician, a nursery, a granary, a market, etc."
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