AND SOME SUBJECTS OF THE DAY AND THE WAR
By L. LIND-AF-HAGEBY
AUTHOR OF "AUGUST STRINDBERG: THE SPIRIT OF REVOLT"
LONDON: GEORGE ALLEN & UNWIN LTD. RUSKIN HOUSE 40 MUSEUM STREET, W.C. 1
First published in 1917
(All rights reserved)
THE BORDERLAND 44
RELIGION IN TRANSITION 179
Freres de l'aigle! Aimez la montagne sauvage! Surtout a ces moments ou vient un vent d'orage. VICTOR HUGO.
I belong to the great and mystic brotherhood of mountain worshippers. We are a motley crowd drawn from all lands and all ages, and we are certainly a peculiar people. The sight and smell of the mountain affect us like nothing else on earth. In some of us they arouse excessive physical energy and lust of conquest in a manner not unlike that which suggests itself to the terrier at the sight of a rat. We must master the heights above, and we become slaves to the climbing impulse, itinerant purveyors of untold energy, marking the events of our lives on peaks and passes. We may merit to the full Ruskin's scathing indictment of those who look upon the Alps as soaped poles in a bear-garden which we set ourselves "to climb and slide down again with shrieks of delight," we may become top-fanatics and record-breakers, "red with cutaneous eruption of conceit," but we are happy with a happiness which passeth the understanding of the poor people in the plains.
Others experience no acceleration of physical energy, but a strange rousing of all their mental faculties. Prosaic, they become poetical—the poetry may be unutterable, but it is there; commonplace, they become eccentric; severely practical, they become dreamers and loiterers upon the hillside. The sea, the wood, the meadow cannot compete with the mountain in egging on the mind of man to incredible efforts of expression. The songs, the rhapsodies, the poems, the aesthetic ravings of mountain worshippers have a dionysian flavour which no other scenery can impart.
Yesterday I left the turmoil of a conference in Geneva and reached home amongst my delectable mountains. I took train for the foot of the hills and climbed for many hours through drifts of snow. This morning I have been deliciously mad. First I greeted the sun from my open chalet window as it rose over the range on my left and lit up the great glacier before me, throwing the distant hills into a glorious dream-world of blue and purple. Then I plunged into the huge drifts of clean snow which the wind had piled up outside my door. I laughed with joy as I breathed the pure air, laden with the scent of pines and the diamond-dust of snow. I never was more alive, the earth was never more beautiful, the heavens were never nearer than they are to-day. Who says we are prisoners of darkness? Who says we are puppets of the devil? Who says God must only be worshipped in creeds and churches? Here are the glories of the mountains, beauty divine, peace perfect, power unfathomable, love inexhaustible, a never failing source of hope and light for our struggling human race. I am vaguely aware of the unreasonableness of my delirium of mountain joy, but I revel in it. And I sing with Sir Lewis Morris—
More it is than ease, Palace and pomp, honours and luxuries, To have seen white presences upon the hills, To have heard the voices of the eternal gods.
The emotions engendered by mountain scenery defy analysis. They may be classified and labelled, but not explained. I turn to my library of books by mountain-lovers—climbers, artists, poets, scientists. Though we are solitaries in our communion with the Deity, though we worship in great spaces of solitude and silence and seek rejuvenescence in utter human loneliness, we do not despise counsels of sympathy and approval. The strife rewarded, the ascent accomplished, we are profoundly grateful for the yodel of human fellowship. And—let me whisper it in confidence—we do not despise the cooking-pots. For the mountains have a curious way of lifting you up to the uttermost confines of the spirit and then letting you down to the lowest dominions of the flesh.
"Examine the nature of your own emotion (if you feel it) at the sight of the Alps," says Ruskin, "and you find all the brightness of that emotion hanging like dew on a gossamer, on a curious web of subtle fancy and imperfect knowledge." Such a result of our examination would but add to our confusion. Ruskin's mind was so permeated with adoration of mountain scenery that his attempts at cool analysis of his own sensations failed, as would those of a priest who, worshipping before the altar, tried at the same time to give an analytical account of his state of mind. Ruskin is the stern high priest of the worshippers of mountains; to him they are cathedrals designed by their glory and their gloom to lift humanity out of its baser self into the realization of high destinies. The fourth volume of Modern Painters was the fount of inspiration from which Leslie Stephen and the early members of the Alpine Club drank their first draughts of mountaineering enthusiasm. But the disciples never reached the heights of the teacher. Listen to the exposition by the Master of the services appointed to the hills:
"To fill the thirst of the human heart for the beauty of God's working—to startle its lethargy with a deep and pure agitation of astonishment—are their higher missions. They are as a great and noble architecture, first giving shelter, comfort, and rest; and covered also with mighty sculpture and painted legend."
There is a solemn stateliness about Ruskin's descriptions of the mountains, which in the last passage of the chapter on The Mountain Gloom rises to the impassioned cadences of the prophet.
He could tolerate no irreverent spirits in the sanctuary of the mountain. Leslie Stephen's remark that the Alps were improved by tobacco smoke became a profanity. One shudders at the thought of the reprimand which Stevenson would have drawn down upon himself had his flippant messages from the Alps come before that austere critic. In a letter to Charles Baxter, Stevenson complained of how "rotten" he had been feeling "alone with my weasel-dog and my German maid, on the top of a hill here, heavy mist and thin snow all about me and the devil to pay in general." And worse still are the lines sent to a friend—
Figure me to yourself, I pray— A man of my peculiar cut— Apart from dancing and deray, Into an Alpine valley shut;
Shut in a kind of damned hotel, Discountenanced by God and man; The food?—Sir, you would do as well To cram your belly full of bran.
The soul of Ruskin was born and fashioned for the mountains. His first visit to Switzerland in 1833 brought him to "the Gates of the Hills—opening for me a new life—to cease no more except at the Gates of the Hills whence one returns not. It is not possible to imagine," he adds of his first sight of the Alps, "in any time of the world a more blessed entrance into life for a child of such temperament as mine.... I went down that evening from the garden terrace of Schaffhausen with my devotion fixed in all of it that was to be sacred and useful."
[Footnote 1: Life of Ruskin, by Sir Edward Cooke (George Allen and Unwin Ltd.).]
That profound stirring of the depths of the soul which Ruskin avowed as the impetus to his life's work is only possible when the mind is fired by a devotion to the mountains which brooks no rival. "For, to myself, mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery," he wrote in The Mountain Glory; "in them, and in the forms of inferior landscape that lead to them, my affections are wholly bound up." And he completely and forever reversed Dante's dismal conception of scenery befitting souls in purgatory by saying that "the best image which the world can give of Paradise is in the slope of the meadows, orchards, and cornfields on the sides of a great Alp, with its purple rocks and eternal snows above."
No lover of mountains has approached Ruskin in intensity of veneration. Emile Javelle is not far away. Javelle climbed as by a religious impulse; his imagination was filled by Alpine shapes; he, like Ruskin, had forfeited his heart to the invisible snow-maiden that dwells above the clouds. When Javelle was a child his uncle showed him a collection of plants, and amongst them the "Androsace ... rochers du Mont Blanc." This roused the desire to climb; the faded bit of moss with the portion of earth still clinging to the roots became a sacred relic beckoning him to the shrine of the white mountain. In the same way Ruskin, mature and didactic, yet withal so beautifully childlike, tells us "that a wild bit of ferny ground under a fir or two, looking as if possibly one might see a hill if one got to the other side, will instantly give me intense delight because the shadow, the hope of the hills is in them." Both lovers showed the same disdain of the mere climber. Javelle's Alpine memories record his sense of aloofness from the general type of member of the Alpine Club.
Whilst Ruskin's communion with the mountains found an outlet in prolific literary output, and a system of art and ethics destined to leaven the mass of human thought, the infinitude and grandeur of mountain scenery had a dispersive effect on Javelle's mind. I can so well understand him. He wandered over the chain of Valais—my mountains (each worshipper has his special idols)—the Dent du Midi, the Vaudois Alps, and the Bernese Oberland in search of beauty, more and more beauty. He ascended peak after peak, attracted by an irresistible force, permeated by a desire for new points of view, forgetful of the haunts of men.
And when, between times, Javelle tried to write a book, a great and learned book on rhetoric, he could never finish it. For seven years he laboured at preparing it, collecting notes, seeking corroborative evidence. His Alpine climbing had taught him the elusiveness of isolated peaks of knowledge. He saw that rhetoric is dependent on aesthetics and aesthetics on psychology and sociology and philosophy, and all on anthropology; that there are no frontiers and no finality and no knowledge which is not relative and imperfect. It was all a question of different tops and points of view, and so the book was not finished when he died, still in search of the super-mountain of the widest and largest view, still crying out his motto, "Onward, higher and higher still! You must reach the top!"
Beware, O fellow mountaineers, of such ambitions. For that way madness lies. I know the lure and the shock. As I write this I sit gazing across the valley upon the mountain on my right. It is known by the name of the Black Head; it has a sombre shape, it has never been known to smile. It towers above me with a cone-shaped top, a figure of might and dominion. For a dozen years it has checked my tendency to idealistic flights by reminding me of the inexorable laws of Nature. It is true it does not conceal the smiling glacier in front of me, with its ceaseless play of light and shadow, colour and form, but it arrests the fancy by its massive immovability. And yet, when I leave my little abode of bliss and wander forth into the heights above (ah, humiliation that there should be heights above), I find my black top subjected to a process of shrinking. As I reach the top it ignominiously permits itself to be flattened out to a mere ridge without a head, a Lilliputian hill bemoaning its own insignificance.
Such are the illusions of the mountain play. Yet the climb and the heights have ever served man as a symbol of the search for certainty. Lecky invokes the heights as the only safe place from which to view history and discover the great permanent forces through which nations are moved to improvement or decay. Schopenhauer compares philosophy to an Alpine road, often bringing the wanderer to the edge of the chasm, but rewarding him as he ascends with oblivion of the discords and irregularities of the world. Nietzsche's wisdom becomes pregnant upon lonely mountains; he claims that whosoever seeks to enter into this wisdom "must be accustomed to live on mountain-tops and see beneath him the wretched ephemeral gossip of politics and national egoism."
But the mountain-tops make sport of the certainties of philosophers as well as of those of fools. The safest plan is to ascend them without too heavy an encumbrance of theories. You may then meet fairies and goblins who beckon you to the caves of mystery, you may stray into the hills of Arcadia and meet Pan himself. "Sweet the piping of him who sat upon the rocks and fluted to the morning sea." You may even find yourself on Olympus, the mount of a thousand folds, listening to the everlasting assault upon the Gods by the Titans, sons of strife. And if you are very patient you may witness Zeus, the lightning-gatherer, pierce the black clouds and rend the sky, illuminating hill and vale with the fierce light which makes even the battle of Troy intelligible.
You may bathe your soul in that Natura Maligna which only reveals its blessings to pagans and poets. Byron is the chosen bard of the destructive might of the mountains—
Ye toppling crags of ice! Ye avalanches, whom a breath draws down In mountainous o'erwhelming, come and crush me! . . . . . The mists boil up around the glaciers; clouds Rise curling fast beneath me, white and sulphury, Like foam from the roused ocean of deep Hell, Whose every wave breaks on a living shore, Heaped with the damned like pebbles.
He had the nature-mystic's thirst for a touch of the untamed power of Nature, for communion with the magnificence of death, shaking the mountain with wind and falling snow, with leaping rock and earth-eating torrent. Such would fain die that they may experience the joys of being possessed by Nature. For they have entered on the marriage of life and death, heaven and hell, and out of the roaring cataclysm of destruction they rise winged with a new life.
Whilst the poets chant the awful power of the distant mountain, Byron comes to us out of the mountain, fashioned by its force, intoxicated by the wine of its wild life. Mountain climbers meet with strange and unexpected bedfellows in the course of their wanderings. In his cry for the baptism of the wild winds of the mountain, Matthew Arnold approaches Byron closely—
Ye storm-winds of Autumn . . . . . Ye are bound for the mountains— Ah, with you let me go . . . . . Hark! fast by the window The rushing winds go, To the ice-cumber'd gorges, The vast seas of snow. There the torrents drive upward Their rock-strangled hum, There the avalanche thunders The hoarse torrent dumb. —I come, O ye mountains! Ye torrents, I come!
Shelley sings exquisitely of its grandeur, its ceaseless motion; he voices the wonderment of man before the complex problem of Mont Blanc. But his mind has never participated in the revels on the mountain, he has not lost and barely recovered his soul in adventurous crevasses. He retains something of the old horror of the desolate heights—
A desert peopled by the storms alone, Save when the eagle brings some hunter's bone, And the wolf tracks her there. How hideously, Its shapes are heaped around! rude, bare, and high, Ghastly, and scarred, and riven.—Is this the scene Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young Ruin?
There is a trace of the same awe in Coleridge's deathless hymn to Mont Blanc—
On thy bald, awful head, O sovran Blanc, . . . . . O dread and silent mount!
Nearly all the poets have been moved by the primitive sense of their awe-commanding power. Wordsworth never forgets the blackness, though he is, above all, the bard of mountain light and sweetness, of warbling birds and maiden's haycocks. The poet does not lose the blessed gift of wonder possessed by children and savages. And nothing in Nature can startle the mind like the sight of a mighty range of mountains. They recall primitive feelings of fear before the great unknown, they tower above the human form with a colossal imperturbability which withers our importance and confuses our standards of value. Victor Hugo never quite freed himself from the mediaeval dread of the mountains or the mediaeval speculation on their meaning. His letters to his wife from the Alps and Pyrenees record his impressions with a painstaking and detailed accuracy which does not forget the black-and-yellow spider performing somersaults on an imperceptible thread hung from one brier to another. The emotion after an hour on the Rigi-Kulm "is immense." "The tourist comes here to get a point of view; the thinker finds here an immense book in which each rock is a letter, each lake is a phrase, each village is an accent; from it arise, like a smoke, two thousand years of memories."
Here speaks the true panoramic man, the man whose mind attains to fulness of expression on mountain-tops from which the whole landscape of life may be contemplated. And yet he notes the "ominous configuration of Mount Pilatus" and its terrible form, and writes of adjoining mountains as "these hump-backed, goitred giants crouching around me in the darkness." The Rigi appears as "a dark and monstrous perpendicular wall."
His mind is occupied with the presence of idiots in the Alps. He finds an explanation: "It is not granted to all intelligences to co-habit with such marvels and to keep from morning till evening without intoxication and without stupor, turning a visual radius of fifty leagues across the earth around a circumference of three hundred." On the Rigi his musings on the magnificence of the view are checked by the presence of a cretin. Behold the contrast! An idiot with a goitre and an enormous face, a blank stare, and a stupid laugh is sole participator with Victor Hugo in this "marvellous festival of the mountains."
"Oh! abysm!" he cries; "the Alps were the spectacle, the spectator was an idiot! I forgot myself in this frightful antithesis: man face to face with nature; Nature in her superbest aspect, man in his most miserable debasement. What could be the significance of this mysterious contrast? What was the sense of this irony in a solitude? Have I the right to believe that the landscape was designed for him—the cretin, and the irony for me—the chance visitor?"
The idiot and the mountain shared, no doubt, a supreme indifference to the commotion which their proximity had set up in the poet's mind. With his love of antithesis Hugo had seized the picture of the glories of the mountain wasting themselves before the gaze of the senseless idiot. Apart from geographical conditions and hygienic defects there is an interesting aesthetic problem connected with the presence of idiots in the mountains. It is not only the idiot who is indifferent to the beauties of the Alps; the sane and healthy peasant whose eyes wander over the glaciers and snow-fields as he rests for a few minutes from hoeing his potatoes is not moved by the sight to ecstatic delight.
I have many dear friends amongst peasants. They are richly endowed with common sense and kindness of heart; their brains can compete favourably with those of the folk of any other country. Their hard struggle with a rebellious soil has given them a quiet determination and tenacity of purpose which are the root of Alpine enterprise and resourcefulness. They possess character and independence in a high degree—mental reflexes of the peaks of freedom, ever before their eyes. But they, children of the mountain, born and bred amidst its beauties, are surprisingly insensitive to beauty.
I remember one exquisite sunset—one of those superlative sunsets that burn themselves into the consciousness with a joy akin to pain, and of which only a few are allotted to each human life. I stood watching the sinking sun throw a crimson net over the snow mountains as the shadow of night crept slowly up the hillside. The sky took on an opal light in which were merged and transcended all the colours of the day. Every pinnacle and rock was lit up as by a heavenly fire, the pines were outlined like black sentinels against the sky, guardians of that merciful green life from which we spring and to which we return. My old friend the goat-herd and daily messenger from the highest pastures stood beside me. "Beautiful, Pierre," I said, "and in this you have lived all your life."
"Yes," he said, slowly shifting the pipe from the left side of his mouth to the right; "the cheese is fat and good in the mountains, and the milk is not poisonous as it is in the plains, but it is hard work for the back to carry it down twice a day." He looked at me as if searching for better understanding. "But I will tell you something nice," he added, by way of stirring up my sluggish imagination; "the little brown cow has calved, and this autumn we are going to kill the old cow, and we shall have good meat all the winter."
Far be it from me to join in the thoughtless generalizations about the obtuseness of the Alpine peasant which have disfigured some of the literature of climbing. These climbers have shown infinitely greater obtuseness before Alpine realities than the peasants derided by them. True, a star may compete in vain with a cheese in suggesting visions of joy, but our supercilious climbers forget that their admiration of nature's marvels is generally built up on a substratum of cheese—or the equivalent of cheese—plentifully supplied by the labour of others. There is another class of climbers who idealize the peasant and the guide, and who write of Alpine peasant-life as if it were nothing but a series of perilous ascents nobly undertaken for the advancement of humanity.
I can understand the indifference of the peasant to the visions around him. After a hard day's scything or woodcutting on slopes so steep that the resistance of one's hob-nailed boots seems like that of soft soap, I have felt profoundly healthy and ready to go to bed without listening to any lyrics on the Alps. And even the thought of Tennyson's "awful rose of dawn" would not have roused me before the labour of the next day.
But we—how proud I am of that "we"!—who have chosen hard labour on the mountain know something which the mere visitors (though they be members of many Alpine Clubs) know not. We have a sense of home which no other habitation can impart—a passionate love of the soil, a unity with the little patch that is our own, bringing joys undimmed by any descriptions of other-worldly possessions. Our trees may be wrecked by an avalanche, our garden plot may be obliterated by a land slip; the stone walls we build up in defiance of the snow are always pulled down by mountain sprites. Our agriculture is precarious, and every carrot is bought by the sweat of our brow. The struggle keeps pace with our love—there is a tenfold sweetness in the fruit we reap. And when fate compels us to leave our mountains we are pursued by restlessness. We know no peace, no home elsewhere. We do assume the airs of Victor Hugo's cretin when we are placed face to face with the riches of Croesus or the splendours of Pharaoh.
We must reluctantly admit that the phenomenon of cold indifference to mountain scenery may occur without any corresponding degree of idiocy. In the Playground of Europe, Leslie Stephen told us that a man who preserves a stolid indifference in face of mountain beauty must be of the "essentially pachydermatous order." He commented at length on the peculiar temperament of those who have expressed dislike of his perfect playground—Chateaubriand, Johnson, Addison, Bishop Berkeley. Bishop Berkeley, who crossed Mont Cenis on New Year's Day 1714, complained that he was "put out of humour by the most horrible precipices." There is huge comfort to be drawn from Stephen's pages descriptive of the "simple-minded abhorrence of mountains," and from his categorical declaration that love of the sublime shapes of the Alps springs from "a delicate and cultivated taste." But we are puzzled by the presence outside the pale of some who cannot rightly be called "pachydermatous." I am turning over the pages of Sarah Bernhardt's autobiographical revelations. "I adore the sea and the plain," she writes, "but I neither care for mountains nor for forests. Mountains seem to crush me, and forests to stifle me." Strange that the high priestess of expression, the interpreter of every phase of human passion and sorrow, she who dies terribly twice a day, and mercilessly conducts us to the attenuated air and dizzy heights of intense emotion, should feel no kinship with the mountains. It may be that they are antagonistic to the fine arts of simulation and will brook no companionship of feeling that is not real. And her stage-worn heart is certainly not in alliance with Fiona Macleod's Lonely Hunter.
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on A lonely hill.
We might assume that the traditional wildness of the great tragedienne would have found a chord of sympathy in the avalanche or in the fierce torrent breaking over the rocks. Rousseau's hysteria and wild assaults on the conventions of Society and literature have been traced to the mountains. Lord Morley emphasizes that Rousseau "required torrents, rocks, dark forests, mountains, and precipices," and that no plains, however beautiful, ever seemed so in his eyes. There is naturally a complete divergence of opinion between lovers and haters of mountains as to their effect on the literary mind. We like to associate peaks of genius with peaks of granite. Ruskin found fault with Shakespeare's lack of impression from a more sublime country as shown by the sacrilegious lines—
Rush on his host, as doth the melted snow Upon the valleys whose low vassal seat The Alps doth spit, and void his rheum upon.
There are anomalies in the capacity for aesthetic enjoyment of mountain scenery which exclude some minds which we should expect to find amongst the devotees and include others for whom we might look amongst the scoffers. Dickens was profoundly affected by the mountain-presence. His letters show the true rapture. Of the scenery of the St. Gothard he writes: "Oh God! what a beautiful country it is. How poor and shrunken, beside it, is Italy in its brightest aspect!" He sees "places of terrible grandeur unsurpassable, I should imagine, in the world." Going up the Col de Balme, he finds the wonders "above and beyond one's wildest expectations." He cannot imagine anything in nature "more stupendous or sublime." His impressions are so prodigious that he would rave were he to write about them. At the hospice of the Great St. Bernard he awakes, believing for a moment that he had "died in the night and passed into the unknown world." Tyndall's scientific ballast cannot keep him from soaring in a similar manner. His Glaciers of the Alps contains some highly strung sentences of delight. "Surely," he writes of sunset seen near the Jungfrau, "if beauty be an object of worship, these glorious mountains with rounded shoulders of the purest white, snow-crested, and star-gemmed, were well calculated to excite sentiments of adoration." His wealth of words increases with the splendour of the views in which he revels; he becomes a poet in prose, he calls up symbol and simile, he strains language to express the inexpressible. The sky of the mountain is "rosy violet," which blends with "the deep zenithal blue"; it wears "a strange and supernatural air"; he sees clear spaces of amber and ethereal green; the blue light in the cave of the glacier presents an aspect of "magical beauty." There is true worship of the idol in the following lines descriptive of sunrise on Mont Blanc:
The mountain rose for a time cold and grand, with no apparent stain upon his snows. Suddenly the sunbeams struck his crown and converted it into a boss of gold. For some time it remained the only gilded summit in view, holding communion with the dawn, while all the others waited in silence. These, in the order of their heights, came afterwards, relaxing, as the sunbeams struck each in succession, into a blush and smile.
Tyndall holds the mastership of polychromatic description of the beauties of the mountain; he makes us feel his own response to their call to the depths of aesthetic perception in the human soul. Words gush forth from him in a fervour of gratitude for the pleasures of the eye. He may measure and weigh, he may set out as an emissary of cold scientific investigation: he returns hot with admiration and raving of the marvels of God upon the hills. But even he reaches a point where the realization of the utter inadequacy of expression paralyses the desire to convey the emotion to others. "I was absolutely struck dumb by the extraordinary majesty of this scene," he writes of one evening, "and watched it silently till the red light faded from the highest summits."
Verestchagin astonished his wife by painting his studies of snow in the Himalayas at an altitude of 14,000 feet, tormented by hunger and thirst and supported by two coolies, who held him on each side. She had the pluck and the endurance to follow him on his long climbs, but being a less exalted mortal, her sense of fitness was unduly strained by the intensity of Verestchagin's devotion to clouds and mountain-tops. "His face is so frightfully swollen," she tells us, "that his eyes look merely like two wrinkles, the sun scorches his head, his hand can scarcely hold the palette, and yet he insists on finishing his sketches. I cannot imagine," she reflects, "how Verestchagin could make such studies." There were, nevertheless, occasions when the inaction, following on intense aesthetic emotion, stayed Verestchagin's busy brush. One day, relates Madame Verestchagin, he went out to sketch the sunset:
He prepared his palette, but the sight was so beautiful that he waited in order to examine it better. Several thousand feet below us all was wrapped in a pure blue shadow; the summits of the peaks were resplendent in purple flames. Verestchagin waited and waited and would not begin his sketch. "By and by, by and by," said he; "I want to look at it still; it is splendid!" He continued to wait, he waited until the end of the evening—until the sun was set and the mountains were enveloped in dark shadows. Then he shut up his paint-box and returned home.
As I read these lines I find myself wondering how many paint-boxes have been shut up by the sight of the mountains. I know many have been opened, and, amongst these, not a few which might have served humanity better by remaining shut. But we may safely assume that despite the general tendency of mountain worshippers to attempt to paint—in colours strong and language divine—the effect on their minds, there are exceptional instances of noble and self-imposed dumbness. Not the dumbness which is practising the old device of—
Reculer pour mieux sauter,
but a genuine silence of humility before the mysteries of nature. We sigh in vain for a glimpse of these exceptional souls. They resist our best climbing qualifications and are as inaccessible as the mists above our highest tops. And we prefer, naturally, our talking companions, those who shrink not from the task of ready interpretation.
"The Alps form a book of nature as wide and mysterious as Life," says Frederic Harrison in his Alpine Jubilee, in one of those clear-cut and well-measured passages of mountain homage, which are balm to the tormented hearts of those who feel themselves afloat on the clouds of mystery. "To know, to feel, to understand the Alps is to know, to feel, to understand Humanity."
I am not at all sure this is true; it is probably entirely untrue. Humanity—in the abstract—is apt to suffer an enforced reduction in magnitude and importance when seen from Alpine heights. But it is one of those phrases which we hug instinctively as the bearers of food for hungry hearts. We do not want Leslie Stephen's reminder of metaphysical riddles, "Where does Mont Blanc end and where do I begin?" We do not want to be paralysed by philosophic doubt for the rest of our mortal lives on the hills. We prefer to be stirred to emotional life by those who are transported by love of beauty to the realms of unreason.
In the autobiography of Princess Helene Racowitza—the tragically beloved of Ferdinand Lassalle—there is evidence of such transport. She has but reached one of the commonplaces of tourist ventures. From the Wengern Alp she watches the play of night and dawn on the Jungfrau:
Again and again the glory of God drew me to the window. In the immense stillness of the loneliness of the mountains, the thundering of the avalanches that crashed from time to time from the opposite heights was the only sound. It was as if one heard the breath of God, and in deepest reverence one's heart stood almost still.
She beholds the moon pale and the summit of the Jungfrau glitter in "a thousand prismatic colours" from the rising sun:
Once more I was shaken to the depths of my soul, thankful that I was allowed to witness this and to enjoy it thus. A great joy leapt up in my heart, which more surely than the most fervent prayer of thanks penetrated to the infinite goodness of the great Almighty.
The sincerity of the religious feeling is enhanced by its simplicity. The more complex experiences of the true mystical nature retain the same intensity of devotional fervour. Anna Kingsford, whose interpretations of the inner meaning of Christianity place her in the foremost rank of modern mystics, was caught up to God by the beauty of the mountains. Her friend and biographer, Edward Maitland, describes their effect on one in whom a fiercely artistic soul did combat with a frail and suffering body. It was whilst near the mountains that she conceived her beautiful utterance on the Poet:
But the personality of the Poet is Divine: and being Divine, it hath no limits.
He is supreme and ubiquitous in consciousness: his heart beats in every Element.
The Pulses of all the infinite Deep of Heaven vibrate in his own: and responding to their strength and their plenitude, he feels more intensely than other men.
Not merely he sees and examines these Rocks and Trees: these variable Waters, and these glittering Peaks.
Not merely he hears this plaintive Wind, these rolling Peals:
But he IS all these: and with them—nay, IN them—he rejoices and weeps, he shines and aspires, he sighs and thunders.
And when he sings, it is not he—the Man—whose Voice is heard: it is the voice of all the Manifold Nature herself.
In his Verse the Sunshine laughs; the Mountains give forth their sonorous Echoes; the swift Lightnings flash.
The great continual cadence of universal Life moves and becomes articulate in human language.
O Joy profound! O boundless Selfhood! O Godlike Personality!
All the Gold of the Sunset is thine; the Pillars of Chrysolite; and the purple Vault of Immensity!
Anna Kingsford did not consciously seek the mountains to find there the release of imprisoned powers of utterance. The mountains sought her by their beauty and called forth the true mystic's ecstasy of communion. Mystics of all times and all religions have found inspiration and strength of spirit on the hilltops; they have forsaken the haunts of men for the silence of the heights, preparing themselves by meditation and self-purification to receive the Beatific Vision. They have gone up alone in anguish and uncertainty, they have come down inspired bearers of transcendental tidings to men. These messengers of the spirit have known the joys of illumination and the secret of the strength of the hills.
Others have sought in agony and mortification of mind the vision which was denied them. For in chasing away the images of sin they forgot to make room for the images of beauty. With Simeon Stylites, they point to their barren sojourn on the hills:
Three winters that my soul might grow to thee, I lived up there on yonder mountain-side, My right leg chained into the crag, I lay Pent in a roofless close of ragged stones.
It is to the rarefied perception of beauty that we may trace the quickening of spirit which artists and poets experience on the mountains. Heine, going to the Alps with winter in his soul, "withered and dead," finds new hope and a new spring. The melodies of poetry return, he feels once again his valour as a soldier in the war of liberation of humanity.
The process of unburdening hearts has been continuous since we discovered the boundless capacity of the hills to hide our shame and discharge our thunder. Petrarch set the example on the top of Mont Ventoux when he deliberately recollected and wept over his past uncleanness and the carnal corruptions of his soul. I never tire of that dearly sentimental mixture of world-weariness and nature-study which Elisee Reclus called the History of a Mountain. "I was sad, downcast, weary of my life. Fate had dealt hardly with me: it had robbed me of all who were dear to me, had ruined my plans, frustrated all my hopes. People whom I called my friends had turned against me when they beheld me assailed by misfortune; all mankind with its conflicting interests and its unrestrained passions appeared repulsive in my eyes." Thus he invites us to follow him towards the lofty blue peaks. In the course of his wanderings he finds Nature's peace and freedom, and as his love of the mountains expands, kind tolerance returns to his heart. He takes geological and meteorological notes, he studies men and beasts on the peaks, and never forgets to draw moralizing comparisons. The climb is to him the symbol of "the toilsome path of virtue," the difficult passes, the treacherous crevasses reminders of temptations to be overcome by a sanctified will.
I am afraid modern climbers show scant regard for Elisee Reclus' rules for moral exercises. Many are moved by an exuberance of physical energy which rejoices in battle with Nature. They love the struggle and the danger, the exercise and the excitement. They find health and good temper, jollity and good-fellowship, through their exertions. They glory shamelessly in useless scrambles which demand the sweat of their brow and the concentrated attention of their minds. They seek to emulate the chamois and the monkey in hanging on to rocks and insecure footholds. When they do not climb, they fill libraries with descriptions of their achievements, dull and unintelligible to the uninitiated, bloodstirring and excellent to the members of the brotherhood. They write in a jargon of their own of chimneys and buttresses and basins and ribs, of boulders and saddles and moraine-hopping. They become rampant at the thought of the stout, unworthy people who are now dragged to the tops by the help of rope-chains and railings. They sarcastically remark that they may have to abandon certain over-exploited peaks through the danger of falling sardine-tins. They issue directions for climbing calculated to chase away the poet from the snow-fields, as when Sir Martin Conway says that a certain glacier must be "struck at the right corner of its snout," and "its drainage stream flows from the left corner."
They do not hesitate to admit that they would continue to climb even if there were no views to be enjoyed from the tops. "I am free to confess," wrote A. F. Mummery, "that I would still climb, even though there were no scenery to look at." And Mrs. Aubrey Le Blond echoes this sentiment in a defiant challenge to their uncomprehending critics. "To further confound the enemy," she writes, "we do not hide the fact that were no view obtainable from the summit a true climber would still continue to climb."
Why do they climb? The motives are many—the result joy. Yes, joy, even in the providential escapes and the "bad five minutes," beloved by our naive scribes of the ice-axe, in the perils and death which they court for the sake of adventure and exploration. Sir Martin Conway speaks of the systematic climber as the man for whom climbing takes the place of fishing and shooting. How depressingly banal! Yet Sir Martin Conway has written some of the finest tributes to the glories of the Alps, and has shown himself a master of artistic interpretation of their wealth of beauty. Whymper excels in matter-of-fact history of climbs, yet there is an undercurrent of reverence for the mysteries of Nature's beauty.
The expert cragsman climbs to attain acrobatic efficiency, and may aim at nothing higher than inspired legs. Mrs. Peck climbed to establish the equality of the sexes. Mr. and Mrs. Bullock Workman climbed in the Himalayas with strong determination to name a mountain Mount Bullock Workman. They did, and the mountain, which attains 19,450 feet, is none the worse. Climbers are exceedingly human in their love of getting to the top before fellow-climbers. Here they follow the ordinary rules for human conduct in commerce, politics, and literature. There have been some loud and unseemly quarrels as to honours and fame attendant on the first successful conquest of a desirable peak. It has been generally held that if you cannot get a mountain to yourself you can at any rate devise a new route. But I cannot bring myself to speak harshly of such failings. The utmost I will say is that it were better if such enthusiasm were tempered with a little humour.
Mark Twain saw through that deadly seriousness of the pure climber. He saw the fatuity of mere peak-hunting. It impressed him strongly even on the Rigi-Kulm. "We climbed and climbed," he writes in A Tramp Abroad, "and we kept on climbing; we reached about forty summits: there was always another one just ahead."
But the pure climber is always a fountain of delight, even though he does not see himself as others see him. The pages of Conway, Mummery, Sir Claud Schuster, and Bruce abound in gems of nature-lore, ever fresh and ever alluring. As I search for more self-revelation in my books by mountain-lovers, I find myself observed through the window. It is only a cow on her way to the hollow tree into which the water courses out of the earth. But the cow brings me back to the strenuous Alpine life, and I find myself concluding, as I replace the books on their shelves, that I do not care why men climb so long as they climb in spirit and body.
This evening the blind man came up the path from the village. I was sitting on a stump of pine listening to the merry peal of the bells of the little village church below. He carried a milk-can, and felt his way with a long staff, with which he tapped the stones in front of him. He hesitated for a moment as he passed me, as if vaguely conscious of a disturbing presence. We have been good friends, the blind man and I, and have had many a talk on this, our common path. But to-night I sat silent, wondering. For a message had reached me that a friend had been killed in battle. A man strong and active in body, intensely alive and sensitive in soul. One of those whom we can never think of as dead, so wholly do they belong to life.
The blind man stopped at a little distance. He chose a place where the trees have been cleared and the snow mountains spread themselves for the feast of the eyes of those who can see. He put his milk-can and his staff on the ground, and stood for a moment with head bowed as if crushed by his infirmity. Then he threw up his hands and raised his head, as though a sudden vision had come to him—his whole body tense and expectant, like that of a man who strains every nerve to catch a message from the hills across the valley. For a minute he remained still, as if receiving something in his hands borne by the silence. Then he picked up his staff and his can. He turned round and faced me for a moment before resuming his journey. There was a smile on his lips and a strange radiance in his sightless eyes, and I wished that I, too, might see what he had seen.
For the darkness with which we are afflicted lay heavily around me, and seemed greater even than the blindness of the eyes. The war has brought the mystery of death to our hearts with pitiless insistence. Every bullet that finds its mark kills more than the soldier who falls. Ties of love and friendship are shattered hour by hour and day by day, as the guns of war roar out their message of destruction. We are all partners in a gigantic Dance of Death such as Holbein never imagined. To him Death was the wily and insistent enemy of human activity and hope, a spy watching in the doorway for an opportunity to snap the thread of life. We have cajoled and magnified Death until he has outgrown all natural proportions; through centuries of war and preparation for war we have appealed to him to settle our national differences. We have outdone the earthquake and the cyclone in valid claims upon his power and presence; we have outwitted pestilence and famine in our efforts to hold his attention. We, of the twentieth century, have attained mastery in the art of killing. We kill by fire and bursting shell, we kill by mine and gas. We dive under the surface of the water to surprise our enemy, we fly in the air and sow fire and devastation upon the earth. We have chained science to our chariot of Death, we have made giant tools of killing which mow down regiments of men at great distances. We send out fumes of poison which envelop groups of human beings, killing them gently, and emphasizing the triumph of art by leaving them in attitudes simulating life. We project shells so powerful that men disappear in the explosion, melted, disintegrated by its destructive force.
And when long-distance scientific methods of man-killing fall short of the passions of the fray or the exigencies of the fight, we return to the primitive ways of savages, and kill by dagger and knife, by bayonet and fist. Thus millions of men are slain in this war, which has achieved superiority over all other wars in history by the number of its dead and its gigantic destructiveness. And other millions of men and women are plunged into sorrow and mourning for the dead, and to them the meaning of life is hidden behind a veil of tears and blood.
There is an incongruity about death on the battlefield which assails the mind. The incongruity is there notwithstanding the probability that the soldier who faces the fire of the enemy will be killed. It defies the mathematical calculation of chances. It rises naturally as a protest against the sudden termination of life at its fullest. Death after a long illness, at the eventide of life, partakes of the order of falling leaves and autumnal oblivion. It may come softly as sleep when the day's work is done; it may come mercifully to end bodily pain and wretchedness. There are moments in every life when the ebb of physical force is so low that death seems but a step across the border—a change by which we desire to cure the weariness of thought. The soldier goes into battle charged with youth and life, buoyant with energy of muscle and nerve. Death seizes him at the noontide of life and leaves us blindly groping for other-worldly compensation.
The present war is being fought against a background of questions which cannot be suppressed by discipline or the mere fulfilment of patriotic duty. The old acceptance of the social order is passing away. The old acceptance of religious nescience is passing away; there is a new impatience to reach the foundation of things, a popular clamour for explanation of the riddles of life. Out of the decivilizing forces of war, its tumult and wreckage, there emerges a new quest for truth. Simple souls are troubled with a warlike desire for evidence of immortality. The parson's exhortations to live by faith and unreasoning acceptance of ecclesiastical doctrine fall on inattentive ears. "There is a shocking recrudescence of superstition and devil-worship," said a clergyman to me the other day; "people consult fraudulent mediums and fortune-tellers."
I listened to him and remembered an afternoon's visit to a bereaved mother. She is a charwoman endowed with the scientific mind. Her son had been killed by an exploding shell. Only a fragment or two had been necessary for the task. Jimmy had no chance. Courage and energy had never failed him. The spirit that dwelt within his thin and somewhat stunted body would have rejoiced in battle with a lion. But shells are no respecters of spirit. Jimmy had successfully fought poverty and ill-health; he had risen from a newspaper-boy's existence to the dizzy heights of a milkman's cart. His pale face with its prominent eyes and rich, chestnut forelock bore an expression of indomitable Cockney confidence in the ultimate decency of things. He had always been kind to his mother. "More like a girl than a boy," she said, "in the way he cared for his home and looked after me." And now Jimmy was dead: the message had come that he would not return. "And why is he dead," said the mother to me, "and where is he?" She was sitting in her kitchen, which bore its usual aspect of order and cleanliness. But her face looked as if some disordering power had passed over her. "I asked our curate to explain where Jimmy is," she continued, "and he told me that doubt is a sin, and that we shall meet again on the day of resurrection. And when I told him that I felt Jimmy quite close to me in this kitchen, a week after his death, and that I thought I heard his voice calling me, the curate said I ought not to think of such things. Faith and hard work were the best cure for such fancies, he said."
"But do you know what I did?" she added in a whisper, intended to deceive the curate, "I went to one of those mediums that Mrs. Jones knows about. I paid a shilling, and we all sat in a ring, and the medium saw Jimmy and described him, just as he is in his uniform and cap, a little over the right ear, and the scar across his nose—you know, the scar from the fall down the front steps when he was nine—and all smiling, and showing the missing tooth. 'Jimmy wants you to know that he is happy, very happy,' she said, and then Jimmy came and spoke through the medium. 'Mother,' he said to me, 'I want you to give my pipe with the silver band to Charlie, and don't make no bones about it.' Then I knew it was Jimmy, for Jimmy always used to say 'don't make no bones about it.' And now I feel he is alive somewhere, and I shall go again to the medium and find out more."
I thought of this when the clergyman complained of the prevalence of superstition and visits to mediums. I suggested that he should investigate the subject of spiritualism and the reasons for its appeal to sorrow-stricken relatives and friends of soldiers. The suggestion was indignantly rejected. Religion was to him a theory based on revelation vouchsafed thousands of years ago; it was now a system of stereotyped belief and conduct, strangely removed from the perplexities and anguish of the individual soul. His academic mind recoiled from the grotesque and trivial messages associated with seances and the performances of professional psychics.
We are wont to contemplate immortality in much the same manner as we contemplate the moon. It is something remote and incapable of active interference in our daily life and tasks. It sheds a pale and pleasant light on our earthly pilgrimage, and we in our turn render homage to the mellow beauty which it imparts to our poetic imagination. Only children cry for the moon. We know it is unattainable.
The rejection of the crude theories of spiritualism is not altogether the result of wilful blindness. In our innermost minds, in the region beyond the grasp of the brain and its ready generalizations, we hunger for inexpressible reality, for life beyond the stars. We have eaten of the tree of sense-knowledge: we have seen, heard, felt, tasted. We want a reality above the traffic and deception of the senses. Vaguely, but insistently we feel the call to the life of the spirit, and when its definition eludes us, we prefer silence and faith. It is then that the familiar prattle of the seance-room offends us. We sought freedom, light, absolution from the trammels of personality, and we are told that the dead appear in bodies and clothes, that they toil and fret, that they inhabit houses and cities. Our plains Elysian suffer an invasion of lawyers and physicians, of merchants and moneylenders. The weariness of repetition pursues us.
And yet we may be more completely the victims of illusion than our vendor of spiritualistic revelation. We who cherish the belief in immortality forget that death can be naught but the shedding of a form. The substance is unchanged. The fabric of the mind is woven day by day by impressions and ideas, by experience and action. Nobody questions the commonplace phenomena of the shaping of individuality and character. Habits, occupation, tastes, and desires mould a distinct personality out of the common clay. The experience of death cannot dissolve the personality. The death-process can neither whitewash a man's sin nor exalt him beyond his virtue.
And thus it is that he who dearly loved a joke may joke still, and he who thought he was collecting fine old pictures may still indulge his taste. Delusions! Not impossible or even unlikely. Kant demonstrated once for all our complete enslavement by phenomena and our inability to approach things-in-themselves. Spiritualistic interpretation of post-mortem conditions offers no exception. Imagination continues to master our souls. Spiritualism offends us by offering bread-and-butter when we expect moonshine.
We are loath to part with the belief that death transforms the character by one great stroke of spiritual lightning. Vanity, envy, meanness, greed, the foibles and frailties of human nature, repel us when we imagine their persistence in others after death. We infinitely prefer the thought that they should be purged and radiant with spiritual effulgence. We are not so sure about ourselves, for the objective classification of the qualities which go to form our own character is a difficult achievement. And the idea of dispensing with essential parts of our mental equipment does not commend itself to us. There is a point in all our philosophy where speculation seeks the natural repose of the unknowable. It is quickly reached when we attempt to probe the mystery of selfhood.
The plain question whether the dead can communicate with the living persists in spite of the imperfections of the answer. The war has made it paramount, and only second in importance to the crucial query: Do they live? There is a clamour for evidence, signs, messages, testimony. The human heart cries out for comfort. "Yesterday he breathed the same air, felt and thought as I do. To-day he lies dead, his body shattered, his hopes wrecked, his happy laughter silent. Does he know? Does he feel and remember? Is there an eternal gulf of silence between us?"
O! for the touch of a vanished hand, And the sound of a voice that is still.
The Church tries vainly to ban the new inquisitiveness. The intercourse with familiar spirits is condemned as a theological offence, a vainglorious and futile storming of the citadel of God. The secret of the tomb must be preserved, though the masses of Christendom have ceased to believe in the long and mouldering sleep of the centuries before the summons to the Judgment. They are no longer scorched by the threat of eternal fire, nor soothed by the hope of clouds and harps. The love that is in them would not tolerate the infliction of an eternity of torture on a fellow-soul, and their conception of the love of God cannot place Him below the promptings of human mercy. The reason that is in them is not attracted by the promise of a heaven of rosy inaction and strifeless rest. The contrast of heaven and hell, so powerful a corrective of human waywardness in mediaeval times, fails to impress the modern mind. The windows of experience and knowledge have been opened too widely, the powers and manifold possibilities of the earth lie open and tempt to the search for a super-mundane world, not poorer and more complex, but richer and more lavish in creative force.
The law supports the opposition of the Church and frowns on the practice of mediumship and clairvoyance. The law denies the possibility of spirit intercourse and forbids the exercise of supernormal faculties in exploring the untrodden realms of the future. Prosecutions are instituted under the old Witchcraft and Vagrancy Acts, and psychic practitioners are fined or sent to prison in the hope of stemming the tide of inquiry. The law and the spirit were ever at variance. But it is difficult to understand why those who mourn, and who ask questions, should be deprived of the comfort which they may find through visits to professional mediums. The risk of deception and false pretences is there, it is true, but that risk exists everywhere. There are lawyers, politicians, and physicians who tell "fortunes" and practise "witchcraft" of their own brand, decidedly more harmful and disruptive than the visions of the unlettered clairvoyant.
The magistrate, who sends a clairvoyant to prison because he is convinced that all claims to psychic gifts and to communion with discarnate spirits are fraudulent, is not troubled by his ignorance, and the evidence of psychic research is not acceptable in his court. He typifies the perpetual official, ever ready to suppress new and evolutionary thought. After all, psychic science fares no worse than the physical sciences in the judgment of respectable mediocrity. The progress of science in the nineteenth century was one long conquest of territory in the land of the impossible. Inventors and inventions have met with incredulity and mockery. Railways, steamships, aeroplanes, telegraphy, telephony and cinematographs have all emerged from the region of "impossibilities." Roentgen-rays and radium have descended from the sphere of miracles.
Experience should endow us with cautiousness in proclaiming impossibilities of the future. The study of psychic science has imposed no greater strain on my reason than the attempt to explain the mysteries of biology and astronomy. Observation and classification do not necessarily imply elucidation. The miracle of the foetus taking human shape and soul, or of the oak rising out of the acorn and the brown earth is to me as baffling as the materialization of a spirit. The marvels of the cell-life and the daily chemistry which maintain the body charm my attention as much as the mysterious clouds of light with which spirits are wont to signalize their presence in the seance-room. I have sat for hours on a summer night by the Mediterranean watching the phosphorescent waves throw a luminous spray over the shore, and meditating on the inexhaustible fertility of the sea. And I have watched with the same intense wonder the phenomena of the soul illuminated by the daimon of inner vision and the infinite manifestations of the power of spirit over matter. From the point of view of science there is no clearly defined frontier between the natural and the supernatural, the commonplace and the miraculous. All is soil for the plough, all defies our designs for complete explanation. From the point of view of religious emotion, there is the greatest possible difference between the sciences of psychic force and those that seek to probe the mysteries of the physical world. The question of the immortality of the human soul is infinitely more engrossing than that of the formation of the skull of neolithic man. The strictly evidential demonstration of communion between the living and the dead might be almost negligible in quantity, and yet the importance of one rap from the world of discarnate spirits, scientifically demonstrated, would outweigh tomes of theories in physics.
True, those who live in the spirit need no demonstrations provided by scientific investigators of psychic problems. The mystic consciousness with its intuition of immortality, its sensitiveness to the vibration of life on all planes and in all forms knows, and in knowledge transcends alike the boundaries of religionists and scientists. The mystic may smile at the labour expended during the last fifty years on establishing a strictly evidential basis for the study of transcendental facts. He has conquered the inherited blindness of our race, and sees spirit not as a supernatural demonstration, vouchsafed now and then to doubting humanity, but as the living Presence of which he is joyously a part. He does not fall into the common error of forgetting that we are spirits sheathed in flesh, but bearing within ourselves the power over matter which is destined to achieve the miraculous. He can dispense with a medium, being himself a fountain of light, and experiencing the wondrous self-illumination of which Thomas Treherne sang—
O Joy! O wonder and delight! O sacred mystery! My soul a spirit infinite! An image of the Deity! A pure substantial light! That being greatest which doth nothing seem! . . . . . O wondrous Self! O sphere of light, O sphere of joy most fair; O act, O power infinite; O subtile and unbounded air! O living orb of sight! Thou which within me art, yet me! Thou eye And temple of His whole infinity!
But the spiritual raptures of the mystics of all ages have not moved souls struggling in the outer darkness for tangible proofs of immortality. To them the application of the methods approved by reason and tested by scientific application will ever be welcome. They know that the mind of man has wrested secret after secret from the earth by observation, by experiment, by deduction. They know that the great generalizations of science—the theories of the indestructibility of matter, of gravitation, of the conservation of energy—are but counters of mind exchanged in default of elusive realities. They know that the pressure of research has reduced many of the lesser generalizations and theories to a fluid and amorphous state. "Immutable" laws have been turned into faulty conclusions, hastily drawn and readily abandoned before the advance of new facts. The fixity of the elements in chemistry, the undulatory movement of light, the stability of the planetary orbits, the indestructibility of the atom, are all abstractions which have been subjected to the reforming processes of new thought.
Progress in physics has been marked by bold hypotheses dealing with imponderable forces, and by experiments disclosing hidden properties of matter. The hypothetical ether has been as fruitful in the liberation of thought as the demonstration of the existence of the X-rays.
The application of methods of scientific accuracy to the physical phenomena of spiritualism involves no revolution in mental processes or reversal of the laws of logic. The publication of the results of the classical experiments in materialization undertaken in 1874 by Sir William Crookes with the medium Florence Cooke caused incredulous amazement, for the simple reason that the custodians of science had not applied themselves to the lessons afforded by the continuous shifting of their frontiers. Crookes' report that Katie King, the spirit who took material form during the seances, was a perfect, though mysterious replica of the natural-born human being, roused no general scientific interest. He asserted that Katie was physiologically complete. That she walked, talked, expressed intelligence and feeling, that she had a regularly beating heart and sound lungs. He further pointed out that the personality of Katie in appearance and character differed considerably from that of the medium, and that it was impossible to regard the materialized form as but a phantasm of the living. A stupendous discovery or a pitiful figment of a lunatic brain! But no flash of lightning rent the halls of learning; Sir William Crookes' researches into radiant matter could safely be accepted as workable intellectual ground, but not his researches into spiritual dynamics.
And yet there was no unorthodoxy in his methods of research; he imposed strict conditions of experimental control. There is a strange reluctance in accepting the necessity for "mediums" in psychic manifestations. If these things are possible, we are told, why not here, now, anywhere, in broad daylight? Why mystifying circles, cabinets, and subdued light? Our scoffers forget that scientific investigation always requires a medium and method. The need of the telescope and the microscope is not questioned, but the thought of the planchette evokes ridicule. The practical success of wireless telegraphy depends on the use of an adequate medium for the transmission of electricity. The most meagre training suffices to prevent the declaration that if wireless messages cannot be sent without apparatus they cannot be sent at all.
Notwithstanding the indifference of the majority of scientists, the problems of spirit intercourse have proved sufficiently attractive to stimulate a vast amount of experimentation and theorizing. The study of mediumship has necessarily become the study of consciousness and the occult powers of the human mind. In the centre a handful of fearless scientists: Crookes, Wallace, Richet, Flammarion, Morselli, Baraduc, Myers, Lombroso, Lodge, and Barrett; in the inner circle a number of academic investigators, disdaining alike the premature proclamation of phenomenal results and the obstinate denial of facts; in the outer circle an ever-growing mass of souls clamouring for the crumbs of evidence, hungry for something personal and soul-warming in our dealings with the Divine dispensation.
The annals of psychic science—in different tongues and of different continents—are largely devoted to the investigation of trance, clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, hypnotism, dreams, premonitions, automatic writing, visions, and messages from the dying, multiple personality, and all the phenomena associated with the subconscious self. Many students have dispensed with the spirit hypothesis as an unnecessary and embarrassing complication in a subject already overburdened with difficulties. Spirit messages are to them examples of the activity of the subliminal self, and a medium is a person gifted—or cursed—with extraordinary subconscious force and lucidity. Materializations, they argue, are produced through the effluvia of the living and controlled by the subliminal forces of the participators in the seance. Spirits are nothing but thought-forms. The painstaking investigation recorded in the Proceedings and Journal of the Society for Psychical Research has to a great extent been carried on by inquirers unencumbered by any bias towards "spookery." But the theories in elaboration of psycho-pathological vagaries and dissociation of personality which have been substituted for the spirit hypothesis certainly do not err on the side of intelligible explication. They have but deepened the mystery and show the vista of new and unexplored paths in psychic science.
Others, again, who are not unwilling to believe that the phenomena are produced by the action of intelligences other than that of the medium, abandon further study because of the meagreness of the intellectual results. They have waited on the visitors from another world, notebook in hand, plying them with careful questions intended to increase our modest store of knowledge. The replies were unsatisfactory, commonplace, sometimes ludicrous. Attempts to write a passable textbook on life in the spirit world have failed lamentably. The indignation of the sorely disappointed scientist was voiced by the late Professor Hugo Muensterberg, of Harvard, in his Psychology of Life:
Thousands and thousands of spirits have appeared; the ghosts of the greatest men have said their say, and yet the substance of it has always been the absurdest silliness. Not one inspiring thought has yet been transmitted by this mystical way; only the most vulgar trivialities. It has never helped to find the truth; it has never brought forth anything but nervous fear and superstition.
His denunciation embraces the whole subject of spiritualistic evidence and ends in utter pessimism—
Our belief in immortality must rest on the gossip which departed spirits utter in dark rooms through the mouths of hypnotized business mediums, and our deepest personality comes to light when we scribble disconnected phrases in automatic writing. Is life then really still worth living?
I have every sympathy with the complaint. But our psychologist forgot that life is largely made up of trivialities, and that the spirits of the dead, if they really wish to make themselves known to us, can do so with greater certainty of being recognized by reminding us of events and objects with which they are associated in our memory than by presenting us with a corrected version of the nebular theory. The average medium and the average gathering of inquirers are not distinguished by any great intellectual achievement. The general educational level may be low and the total capacity to sift and weigh evidence may fall short of that of an undergraduates' debating society. Yet the evidence produced may not only be entirely soul-satisfying to the participants, but perfectly acceptable to a critic contented with the average quality of evidence current in a court of law. It may even be true that the evidential value rises with the number of trivialities recorded.
And "the truth" which Professor Muensterberg sought in vain is demonstrated to others through the same trivial evidence, as is shown by the verdict of Alfred Russel Wallace:
Spiritualism demonstrates by direct evidence, as conclusive as the nature of the case admits, that the so-called dead are still alive; that our friends are often with us, though unseen, and give direct proof of a future life—proof which so many crave, but for want of which so many live and die in anxious doubt. How valuable the certainty to be gained from spiritual communications! A clergyman, a friend of mine, who witnessed the phenomena, and who before was in a state of the greatest depression, caused by the death of his son, said to me, "I am now full of confidence and cheerfulness. I am a changed man."
It is not unnatural that the answers given to those who ask for admittance to the closed door of the mysteries of the human soul should be pitched in the same key as the inquiry. Disappointment is not uncommon. I have taken part in seances of every kind, with cautious investigators devoid of all spiritualistic bias, with unsophisticated believers in a supernatural source of all psychic phenomena, with scoffers convinced that every medium is an impostor, and that nothing but a little common sense is needed for the exposure. The results have been largely dependent on the mentality of the investigators. Failure to understand this is responsible for much of the disappointment and contempt with which otherwise intelligent critics have dismissed the subject. The accumulated thought-power, the collective mind of those who participate, profoundly influence the medium and the quality of the communications received. One stubborn soul may wreck the meeting. I remember an evening at the house of Mr. W. T. Stead. There had been a series of highly successful demonstrations of "spirit voices," distinctly audible and perfectly intelligible. A well-known minister of the Church visible joined the circle—a man clothed in all the outward signs of spirituality, uniting clerical decorum with an emotional fervour in preaching which had made him a popular favourite. Though feeling has now and then led him into unconventional paths of theological thought, fate has surely marked him for the adornment of a bishopric. He came to study the alleged powers of the medium. He doubted everything and everybody. The easy faith and unquestioning acceptance of miraculous events of which he was not ashamed whilst in the pulpit had now been exchanged for vigilant suspicion and impatient analysis. He plied the medium with questions, bludgeoned her with requests for evidence that she was not deluded or deluding. He turned himself into cross-examining counsel, proud of his discrimination and his immunity against the insidious appeal of the supernatural. He succeeded. The medium was confounded, she lost her power; the phenomena did not occur. The atmosphere was chilled. Some of us felt we would rather have been visited by the village blacksmith than by this priestly exponent of sweet-faced materialism.
I do not deny that I have often been struck with the intellectual poverty of messages from the spirit world. They are often silly, and not seldom untruthful. The silliness and the untruthfulness are faithful reflections of common human failings, and only show that heavenly wisdom is as unattainable through the average spiritualistic channels as it is in the Houses of Parliament or the courts of law.
I can imagine a radiant and purely spiritual being attempting to convey a true description of the state of spiritual bliss to a circle of men and women representative of cultured thought, and practical efficiency in the affairs of the world. Let the circle include a few university professors, some successful men of business, a couple of judges, a sprinkling of journalists, an archdeacon or two, and some authors of repute. Let them all be actuated by a strong desire to obtain reliable information and to give a fair and unprejudiced hearing to the visitor.
The visitor is necessarily hampered by the necessity for a medium. It may be that the senior judge is gifted with psychic powers and that the method of communication chosen is that of trance.
The learned brain-cells would transmit the message up to a certain point, but when an effort was made to depict unfathomed depths and heights of transcendental experience, the judicial mind would rebel. The sense of logic would be strained. The conception of the possible would be violated. A fearful consciousness of being guilty of uttering lies would persist, in spite of efforts to subdue reason. Language would break in the attempt to find words for the inexpressible, the message would be blurred and incoherent. The judge might pull himself together, feeling that the turbulent thought-waves of contending counsel form a much safer ground on which to pronounce truth than the fourth-dimensional hurricane with which he had just battled. And the audience might turn with relief to the thought of dinner outside Bedlam.
By some wild flights of imagination we may picture another kind of circle. Let a poet be the medium; Swedenborg, Dante, Blake, Socrates, Jacob Boehme, Tasso, Milton, Eckart, Ruysbroek, St. Teresa, Joan of Arc, Emerson, Shelley, and a few more visionaries, and dreamers be of the circle. Let our Radiant Being try again. The vibrations of the combined psychic force would respond more readily to the world-strangeness of the visitor. There would be fewer mental obstacles raised by the sense of the impossible. The restraints of logic would be more easily overcome. The avenues of supersensual impressions would be open. The medium would transmit the message to a point far beyond that possible to our psychic judge, and the audience would encourage him by their readiness to grasp the revelations made. The language of mysticism, philosophy, and poetry would be strained to its utmost capacity. Then a sense of incompleteness, of deficiency, of hopeless relativity would overcome the audience. The medium had exerted every spiritual faculty to receive the truth. But the visitor could not convey celestial realities to terrene minds.
Every true artist in words, or colour, or sound is always haunted by the inexpressible—by spiritual impotence to overcome the laws of imprisonment in the flesh. He clutches at symbol and suggestion, at parable and fable, conscious of the truth that the unreal is the most real.
The goats have gathered round me as I sit musing in the gloaming. The leading goat is a handsome animal, generally respected and feared by the rest of the herd. He has excellent knowledge, inherited and acquired, of the uses of mountains, and his venerable beard adorns a head of undisputed male ascendancy in the tribe. I bear him a grudge. He is in the habit of eating my sapling pines, carefully planted by me and carelessly nipped in the bud by him. I have expostulated with him in a variety of ways—some gentle, others forceful, but he is incorrigible. He will not understand that my young pines are beautiful, and that they are expected to grow into fine trees. He has no sense of beauty, of symmetry, of fitness. He is only a beast. He has no soul—I pause, remembering the ineffectual attempts of my Radiant Being to inspire human souls with a greater vision. Are we not all goats before the gaze of more finely organized creatures?
The evolutionist need not be disheartened by the thought. Nature is unexhausted. Desire and experience are ever creating new forms, new organs. A child's book of beasts will supply the requisite suggestion: the neck of the giraffe, the stripes of the tiger, the tail of the beaver may, without offence, provide analogies for the faith in organic human perfectibility. The processes of natural selection and variation cannot have been brought to a standstill; they must be at work now and may yet—should surroundings and necessity create the demand—halve the neck of the giraffe, give snow-white lamb's clothing to the tiger, and turn the rudder of the beaver into the prehensile tail of the monkey. There is no biological completion, no finitude. It is only a matter of time—sufficient time—and our bodies may become as strangely interesting to posterity as are to us the dinosaurs and mammoths of the remote past.
Mind is not arrested by formal obstacles. It builds, destroys, and rebuilds. It may take a million years to fashion a useful organ. Slowness is no deterrent. The powers that shaped the genius of Michelangelo and Shakespeare out of the rude brain of savage man needed time, but the achievement was worthy of the labour. To-day there are signs and portents that psychic faculties once possessed by the very few are in process of development in the many, that new senses are awakened which will find contact with realities hitherto unperceived. The imperfections of mediumship and the remoteness of a psychic super-humanity, godlike in wisdom and ethereal in constitution, do not conceal the trend of mental evolution. The medium is often a strange blend of spiritual and carnal tendencies, of knowledge and ignorance, of delicate perception and denseness. Those who expect saintliness as the first attribute of psychic advancement will certainly be disillusioned. These gifts and graces may appear, not only without any corresponding degree of culture and learning, but associated with a certain vulgarity of thought and conduct. The psychic is essentially impressionable, liable to mental contagion, easily stirred by suggestion. The tendency to instability, to emotional excess, is part of this receptivity which culminates in the state of being "controlled." An untrained psychic who is mastered by his impressions, instead of being their master, may easily be induced to tell lies and give false messages by a visitor who is determined to discover fraud. The same psychic may rise to unaccustomed levels of spiritual clearsight in the presence of a visitor who demands the truth only.
The ladder of psychic development is long and arduous to mount. The number of the climbers steadily diminishes as the top is reached. Here, as elsewhere, there is a common crowd, content with the steps nearest the earth, in morals a faithful reflection of average humanity. They are neither better nor worse, they are merely different. They are the masons of the mind, a race of builders, addicted to a workmanship of their own.
To a discerning psychologist they are profoundly interesting, heralds of a new race and a new age; to an unsophisticated alienist they are merely insane, dangerous victims of sick brains. The whole fabric of evidence relating to lunacy would be broken up by the admission that these strange people who fall into trance and speak unknown tongues or convey messages from the dead are sane. Current theories of psycho-pathology would be hopelessly disturbed by the admission that there may be a super-sanity in which clairvoyance and clairaudience are normal and healthy manifestations of life. A person who professes to be an exponent of psychometry, who recalls circumstances and events from the "aura" of inanimate objects, such as a letter or a glove, is naturally classed with the insane. Hallucinations en masse are proffered as explanation of the physical phenomena which take place. Thus only can orthodox psychiatry remain unperturbed when heavy objects are lifted without any apparent cause, when unearthly sounds and voices are produced, when human forms take shape, are seen, and disappear.
The study of psychic faculties is above all a study of consciousness. Maeterlinck speaks of "the gravest problem that can thrill mankind, the knowledge of the future." The knowledge of the present, of the hidden powers and graces within our souls, is even more thrilling. I can imagine no science of greater importance, no investigation more worthy of devotion. The profundity of the problems is but an incitement. We have not hesitated to tabulate the stars, to weave precious conjectures as to their courses and destinies. Is the human soul more remote and inscrutable? We are assured that it has five windows and no more, that it is useless to look for others. But when an increasing number of explorers in the house of life tell us that there are six or seven or more, we may at any rate listen and follow their directions. Obscurantism is revelling in proclaiming prohibited areas of investigation.
I recognize that the problem is complicated by the mixture of truth and falsehood, of genuine psychic powers and counterfeit practices. There are impostors and parasites who by dint of glib tongues and nimble wit deceive the foolish and the credulous. Browning's Sludge is not entirely extinct. Honest workers who turn their gifts to professional uses and who depend on the patronage of the public are subject to peculiar temptations. They are visited by the worldly and the covetous, they are exploited by sensation-mongers and fraud-hunters, they are subjected to conditions entirely inimical to spiritual poise and lucidity. Some resort to fraud. The report that the medium failed to satisfy the client is apt to interfere with business, and failure is, therefore, shunned. But the law does not trouble to distinguish between the honest and the dishonest person who claims psychic gifts. From the legal point of view it is all pretence. It is imperatively necessary that genuine psychic gifts should be protected from the depredations of frivolity as well as from the interference of an obsolete law. We have some idea of protecting great and uncommon gifts in music, mathematics, and poetry, but we leave psychic gifts without help or training. An institute for the study of Psychic Science in all its branches, with facilities for training and assisting individual gifts, would remove some of the worst features of the present system. A genuine psychic should be the holder of some form of certificate or licence entitling him to use his gifts for the benefit of others.
Of course, the subject bristles with difficulties, but I do not see that they are more insuperable than those which presented themselves when first the idea of registering and licensing the medical and legal professions presented itself. And those who are indignant at the thought of the clairvoyant charging a fee may profitably reflect on the general assumption that the labourer is worthy of his hire. The deans and bishops who discourse so eloquently on the sins of the necromancers are not, I believe, renouncing the material benefits and emoluments of their priestly calling.
I do not look to visits to professional mediums for initiation into the higher mysteries of the human spirit. They may show the casket—precious as an indication of the contents, but of little value to those who are bent on finding the jewel within. And I agree that no advanced soul is "controlled" by a discarnate spirit, but rises through aspiration and self-restraint to union with higher intelligences. I can see no light or love in the attitude of those professors of Christianity who denounce all spiritualistic tendencies as anti-Christian. It seems to me that the whole Christian faith is spiritualistic in the widest sense of the word. The Old and the New Testaments are permeated with the belief in the reality of communication between the living and the dead. The injunction in the Old Testament against sorcerers and wizards was intended to check tendencies to unreasonable and dangerous superstition.
Moses may have had excellent reasons for forbidding occult practices amongst the Jews. Saul, who had put away those that had familiar spirits and the wizards out of the land, was not unlike some modern adversaries of spiritualism when in the day of his trouble and fear he consulted the medium of Endor. The accepted prophets of Israel were, after all, typical of mediumship. "And the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man." They practised bold fortune-telling in matters large and small, national and cosmic. To-day they would surely be imprisoned as rogues and vagabonds under the Vagrancy Act. The New Testament contains no direct prohibition of the use of psychic powers and many stories of dreams, visions, and premonitions.
"Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit," wrote St. Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. "For to one is given, by the Spirit, the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge, by the same Spirit.... To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues.... And God hath set some in the Church; first, apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues." The praises of charity and prophecy are sung by the Apostle—a strange combination in harmony to those who now seek to separate the Christian faith from its supernatural origins. Christianity exhorts us not to believe every spirit, but to "try the spirits whether they are of God," whilst the ecclesiastic bids us chase away the spirits, which he assumes to be of Satan.
The dull materialism which smothers all signs of independent spiritual experience is the negation of all the forces which animated the Master. The earthly life of Christ, with its supernatural manifestations, its miracles, and its wonders, was the supreme demonstration of the spiritualistic conception of the power of transcending matter. The appearance of Moses and Elias on the Mount of Transfiguration, whether regarded as a vision or as a materialization, was of the order of the phenomena which are now banned as anti-Christian.
No; those who, having wandered in the darkness of death and blindness, find a ray of light within their own being need not fear the judgment of the Mediator. Here in the freedom of the mountains I feel something of the inscrutable certainty, the joy of a secret conviction, that wisdom waits on our tortuous paths in the Borderland.
Of all generalizations—false and semi-false—the one dividing human beings into those who are content with the world as it is and those who wish to reform it is the most comforting to me. No division of sheep and goats was ever more blatantly simple. Some are born dull-witted, conservative, insensitive, unimaginative—they cling passive to the old planet, content to be whirled round in the purposeless dance of the heavenly bodies. Others are chronic sufferers from divine discontent—they open their eyes with critical intent, they are always conscious of the oblique, the unrighteous, the worthless in their surroundings. They have a sense of power, a will to change things. To them the world is a lump of dough, to be shaped and trimmed into good, serviceable bread.
I know the division is unreal and that reformatory ardour in one direction is not seldom combined with flint-hearted indifference in another. But the proposition is good and sufficient for everyday purposes, and acts as an admirable stimulus in the Camp of the Challengers.
Who can deny that reformers are more interesting than preservers? They vibrate with life and creative energy, they defy impossibilities, they carry enthusiasm aloft on their banners of assault on the existing order of things. Our preservers seem tame and stale indeed. They hobble about the borders of the well-cultivated garden of custom and propriety, they find admirable shelter against the fierce winds of revolt in the offices of bureaucracy. Officialdom is their divinity and respectability their key to life. They may be necessary—as buffers—but they depress us by their dulness.
Reformers can be dull too, but they are redeemed by the homage which they pay to spiritual adventures. They are narrow-minded, but their narrow-mindedness is relieved by intensity of purpose. They are not seldom aggressive, argumentative, unpleasant, but they refresh the dry world by being thoroughly alive. It seems, indeed, as if life were only made tolerable through the ferment of the desire to reform. Even the most stagnant pools of the human soul are sometimes stirred by the breeze of change. We all hope, we all look forward, we all grope for a future which will be better than the present. In some the hope is firmly rooted to earth and man-made conventions, in others it soars to other-worldly perfection.
The world teems with causes and movements that rouse the imagination and press human lives into the service of the future. The genesis and development of causes show similar features wherever and whenever they appear. A soul is astir with an idea, a resentment, a call for change. Others heed the message, respond to the cry for action, feel that this idea, this one idea, is the most important in the world. Societies and leagues are formed, opposition is encountered, and the leader becomes sanctified through abuse and resentment. The idea is embraced by hundreds and thousands; it becomes a doctrine, a creed, a mental atmosphere in which men live and have their being. Fierce battles take place between the adherents of the idea and the opponents. Blind prejudice and hatred are encountered. Martyrs are made. The crusade is hallowed by suffering and sacrifice. It becomes an impelling spiritual necessity, an expression of religion. Gradually the forces of the opposition are weakened. Concessions and compromises are offered. There are signs of the contagiousness of the idea even in the house of the adversaries. The triumph comes with time, and the turbulent waves of controversy recede into gentle ripples of approval. And for many a cause for which men have suffered and died, posterity has but a yawn. "Just think of it—all that fuss and all that turmoil over something so obvious."