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great sage? We feel at once confusedly but forcibly that he is not one of those men whose presence is the salt of the earth. How many degrees could we not count between him and a Confucius, for instance? The mere idea of a comparison between him and a man of that height is so ridiculous as to be really unjust, and we must give it up at once. But besides the great sages who have been great saints, there is another class of men whom we may call, with various nuances, seers, prophets, theologians, or philosophers. These men seldom do but they often see great things. They were numerous in that most intellectual milieu the Greek civilisation. Socrates, though he talks too much, is almost a saint, but Plato is a great theologian, and Plotinus a seer of the type we have in view. With due differences a man like Coleridge-whom M. Maeterlinck has read-or even a man like our Diderot, should be placed in the same class. Charity does not devour them ; but their inner light makes not only for comprehension but for improvement. It is evidently beside the men in this second class that a writer who, like M. Maeterlinck, has devoted most of his life to mere literature and to the stage has to be ranked. But here, again, the moment we name men at all exceptional-let us think of Coleridge once more-he shrinks terribly. The characteristic of these intellectual seers, as well as that of most mystics, is that within certain limits their light never wavers. They often repeat the same things, but in indefinitely varied expressions, and each expression strikes us as fraught with the possibility of endless development and renewing. All these seers could appropriate the simple confession of Mme. Guyon to Fénelon : 'I could write for ever if my hand did not ache'; or that of Lamartine, to a friend : 'I never have to think; my thoughts think themselves.'
It is not so with M. Maeterlinck. If he had been possessed of this consuming but never consumed light, the few hundred pages
he has devoted to the conduct of life would not have satisfied-that is to say, exhausted-his longing to make men better. Real sages do not wait till they are twenty-eight to exchange trifling for wisdom, and do not desert wisdom long before they are forty to revert to pretty writing. Seek one in the history of nations who left a mark on the souls of men after acting so amateurishly, you will not find him. You will not find one either, no matter how inexperienced in the art of writing, no matter how abstruse, no matter even how remote from us by atmosphere and language, who can be taxed with vagueness. Their passionate
. desire to influence their neighbour for good inevitably results in clarity, were it the clarity of parables. Now, read all the critics favourable to M. Maeterlinck, they will uniformly tell you that his doctrine is difficult to sum up or even to reduce to principles ;
they will say that the only way of feeling its charm-charm is the phrase they always use, not virtue-is to read the books in their entirety without trying to condense their meaning. A terrible verdict lies under those formulas generally indicative of intimidation. When there is charm in a work—and I am by no means prepared to refuse charm to M. Maeterlinck's philosophical productions-but at the same time the elusiveness which baffles intelligence in this way, we are sure that the charm is more that of the garment than that of the body; there is more in it that is verbal—and almost inevitably verbose-than there is substance ; the thought is rather feminine than the reverse, and we can predict with certainty its speedy exhaustion if some foreign element does not restore its vitality.
In fact, M. Maeterlinck's philosophical works—the most successful one Le Trésor des Humbles especially—are distinctly unphilosophical and no less distinctly literary. Let me warn the reader that I am taking the latter term in its recent and uncomplimentary acceptation—that is to say, undue attention to effect and predominance of manner over matter. Taken as a whole, the books look terribly what they really are--the work of a young and very immature mind. Let anybody take up those essays—mostly published in small magazines—without being told about the present reputation of their author; if he has the least knowledge of what manly thinking and forcible writing means, he will be struck by the pleasure M. Maeterlinck takes in stringing words together, and by his indifference to the development of the idea from which he originaliy started. I have not the least doubt that M. Maeterlinck, who has since learned to write perfectly clearly, must be aware of this very unphilosophical fault, and perhaps uncomfortably conscious of the blindness of so many of his readers to it.
Here are a few instances :
The chapter on Ruysbroeck in Le Trésor des Humbles is a good one to begin with. It is a perfect nightmare, the second part being absolutely irreconcilable with the first, and hundreds of incoherent metaphors making it the more evident that the author did not know his own meaning.
Or take this definition of wisdom in La Sagesse et la Destinée, which ought to be one of the outstanding and consequently clearest parts of the book :
"La Sagesse et la Destinée, xxiv. I quote it in French as translators have an inevitable tendency to clarify the text they are translating, and also because the graphic English language has a curious way of improving the style of M. Maeterlinck. Further on, when I try to get at the author's real thought, I shall quote him in English.
Mais qu'est-ce enfin que cette sagesse dont nous parlons ainsi ? N'essayons pas de la définir trop strictement, car ce serait l'emprisonner. Tous ceux qui le tentèrent font songer à un homme qui éteindrait d'abord une lumière afin d'étudier la nature même de la lumière. Il ne trouvera jamais qu'une mèche noircie et des cendres.
'Le mot sage,' observe Joubert, le mot sage dit à un enfant est un mot qu'il comprend toujours et qu'on ne lui explique jamais.' Acceptonsle comme l'accepte l'enfant, afin qu'il grandisse en même temps que nous. Disons de la sagesse ce que Sæur Hadewyck, l'ennemie mystérieuse de Ruysbroeck l'Admirable, dit de l'amour: 'Son plus profond abîme est sa plus belle forme.'
faut pas que la sagesse ait une forme; il faut que sa beauté soit aussi variable que la beauté des flammes. Ce n'est pas
déesse immobile, éternellement assise trône. C'est Minerve qui nous accompagne, qui monte et qui descend, qui pleure et qui joue avec nous. Vous n'êtes 'vraiment sage que si votre sagesse se transforme sans cesse de votre enfance à votre mort. Plus le sens que vous attachez au mot sage devient beau et profond, plus vous devenez sage; et chaque degré, que l'on gravit en s'élevant vers la sagesse augmente aux yeux de l'âme l'étendue que la sagesse ne pourra jamais parcourir.
This is the oracle. Have we to do with a Persian sophist, who takes perverse pleasure in misleading those who ask him questions, or have we come hungry and thirsty to a man who can give us food and drink? The question which M. Maeterlinck answers in this page is, after all, the same which was asked of Christ : Good master, what good things shall I do that I may have eternal life?' Compare the plainness of the Divine answer with these conflicting metaphors, these bewildering quotations pretending to be illuminating, this exasperating jumping from Ay to Nay (* its deepest abyss is its most beautiful form,' followed with 'wisdom must not have a form'), this concatenation of nothingness ending in the tritest platitude : 'The more beautiful and profound is the meaning you attach to the word wise, the wiser you become.' But the rhythm of this short chapter is admirable ; and if there happened to be sense under the sounds it would be an excellent piece of writing
It would be worth while, too, to make a careful study of the most famous chapter in Le Trésor des Humbles, on 'La Vie Profonde,' which is said to hold the kernel of M. Maeterlinck's philosophy. But we should suppose this study made by a mind accustomed to solid realities, or, above all, by a mind in sorrow or doubt and looking for effective help. The subject of the chapter is stated clearly. It is the possibility for even the humblest of men to make their life high and beautiful-a commonplace in all the spiritual books and the A B C of Christian life. How are we to realise this possibility? By finding a superior life in the humble and inevitable everyday reality, answers M. Maeterlinck, very clearly and sensibly--that is to say, by becoming conscious of our
relations with the infinite. But how are we to become thus conscious? We become conscious of that relationon a day when the sky opens of itself, and from that moment dates the real spiritual individuality of our being. But with most men the sky opens so by mere chance. They are born of an accidental joy or sorrow, terror or thought. So far so good, though we already feel the approach of the formidable flood of metaphors. It bursts upon us when we want to hear more about the conditions in which that spiritual birth takes place. Here is the enumeration :
Some find out unexpectedly that they are not alone under the sky; others, while giving a kiss or dropping a tear, suddenly discover that the spring of all that is best and holiest from the universe to God (?) is concealed behind a night full of stars too remote’; another has seen a Divine hand stretching between his joy and sorrow; another, again, has realised that the dead are right. These are the statements with which we have to content ourselves. They lack precision, to be sure, but we see their drift all the same -- viz. stupendous revelations like those enumerated above are not necessary to our spiritual birth :
The wise man has no need of such violent awakenings. He watches a tear, the gesture of a virgin, a drop of water in its fall; he listens to a wafted thought, shakes the hand of a brother, draws near a lip with open eyes and with his soul open too. On it he can see uninterruptedly that which you have only caught a glimpse of, and a smile will teach him easily what a tempest or the very hand of death had to reveal to you. This is what the wise man does. He sees the truth in a smile and on a lip, in a wafted thought, in a gesture, in a drop of water, above all in a tear-oh, in a tear, one of those tears, those idle tears, with which almost every page of M. Maeterlinck is bedewed-but he is a very wise man, no doubt; and we foolish creatures who are, after all, as honestly as himself in quest of wisdom, how are we to get at it? Here, perhaps, comes the answer :
If you have loved deeply, you have had need of no one to point out to you that your soul was as wide a thing as the world ; that the stars, the flowers, the waves of the night and those of the sea are not solitary; that nothing ends and everything begins on the threshold of appearances ; that the very lips you have kissed belonged to a being much higher, more beautiful and pure than the woman you clasped in your arms. Yes, yes, no doubt; but suppose one is not in love :
If you do not love, or if you are not loved, but can, however, see with a certain force that millions of things are beautiful and the soul is great and life earnest almost (?) unspeakably, is it not as beautiful as if you lored or were loved? And if the sky itself is hidden from you, does not the wide starry sky spread all the same over your soul in the shape of death? All that happens to us is divinely great. But we ought to
accustom ourselves to live as an angel just born, or a woman in love, or a man at the point of death. That is the answer. It takes a certain force, as M. Maeterlinck says, to resist a great temptation to show up its ridiculous side and pass on. But we had better try to the end to elucidate rather than mock. This farrago means that the true way of raising our life above its poor level is to open our eyes with the freshness of 'an angel just born' to the beauty of the world. Humble man, it says, if thou desirest to rise above thy petty self, the method is easy; thou hast only to be a genius.
Is this the advice of a moralist or the fun of the Eastern sophist? Neither. It is nothing more than the rhetoric of an ill-advised youth playing at writing philosophy. Read the rest of the essay : you will find that the second part contradicts the first with great serenity, and can be summed up in one comforting but somewhat unexpected sentence : Those who think of nothing possess the same truth as those who think of God.' Words, words, words.
There is something humiliating in the sort of ex professo refutation or exposition I have just made of this so-called celebrated chapter. It seems as if one ought only to say : Read for yourself and see whether it is not through a gigantic farce that M. Maeterlinck has ever been regarded as an eminent moral guide. But the power of opinion, the tyranny of Doxa is so great, that an affirmation of that kind would leave in doubt many who could not read for themselves, and I do not regret the trouble I have taken.
I am persuaded that whoever can read a book with an alert mind will never look into M. Maeterlinck's without realising the hopeless emptiness of what people call his philosophy; but I do not flatter myself that I am able to convince everybody. With the millions, the objection invariably made by people who will not think for themselves will still be raised : 'You say that the literary success of M. Maeterlinck is responsible for his reputation as a philosopher, but how do you account for the belief which thousands and thousands retain in his philosophy? There must be more in it than you say.'
Certainly the phenomenon of M. Maeterlinck’s nominal and numerical influence exists, and we cannot disregard it; but we can
; easily qualify it at once. Does M. Maeterlinck influence those who count or those who do not?
This is an all-important question, the answer to which ought to be decisive in our examination of M. Maeterlinck's place in the world. Certainly there have been men who had to wait long for recognition. But those men lived unknown, and their books were unread. There is no example of a writer popular with the