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The Buried Temple
IN this volume of Essays, M. Maeterlinck manifests that sensitive perception and remarkable insight as to the things pertaining to the life of the spirit which were the charm and power of “The Treasure of the Humble" and “Wisdom and Destiny.” The rare and beautiful philosophy of life, the Mysticism, so characteristic of him, alike pervade the book and create an atmosphere of which the reader is conscious, stimulating his purposes and aspirations. The increased complexity of modern human society and the attendant opportunities for the cultivation of the intellect result in two things: a greater individual responsibility in general and a diminished opportunity for striking and remarkable individual careers. Hence there is no multiplication of the picturesque hero in these days, and, if he does appear, the keen clear light of criticism soon shows that his heroic trappings are in large part veritably mere tinsel. The world is fast coming to believe and know that the real heroism is found in meeting manfully our daily struggles, trials, and responsibilities. Emerson clearly saw that now and in the time to come the race would be forced to spend most of its efforts in the treadmill of a work-a-day life, and that such life, to be endurable, must be recognised not only as worthy but as ideal, having in it those elements which satisfy the inextinguishable aspirations after the truly heroic. This lesson, learned from Emerson, M. Maeterlinck has never forgotten, and in a preface, written by him years ago, to a French translation of some of Emerson’s Essays, he says, “There remains only the life of every day, and yet we cannot live without greatness.” The primary purpose of all his prose works has been to demonstrate that genuine heroism can be infused into and may glorify this life common to all.
Like other earnest thinkers of these later days, his is an attitude of earnest expectation of a coming spiritual renaissance, and he is possessed of a most refreshing optimism. “A spiritual epoch is perhaps upon us,” he has declared; and again, “I feel that a more pressing offer of spiritual freedom has rarely been made to mankind.” These expectant thinkers are alert to discover some spiritual truth that may become a basis of faith. “In the union of Mysticism with freedom of thought and inquiry will, I am persuaded, be found the faith of the future,” is the prophecy of another modern seer, and M. Maeterlinck has given us in the present volume a suggestion as to that which may be the source of the spiritual renaissance which he believes is at hand.
In the Essay on The Mystery of Justice, he deals with a subject more profound than any other that has hitherto engaged his attention; one vital and lying at the very foundation of man’s moral nature. It is not social justice that he has in mind, but a far more subtle and suggestive phase of the problem. His own words are, “We shall occupy ourselves above all with that vague but inevitable justice, intangible, and yet so effective, which accompanies and sets its seal upon every action of our life; which approves or disapproves, rewards or punishes.” Justice, which in the ages past mankind have believed dwelt with God, by whatever name known to them, and was manifested in created nature, he declares has its home in the human heart. No trace of it can be discerned elsewhere. He says: “Where had man conceived the mystery of justice to lodge? It pervaded the world. One moment it was supposed to rest in the hands of the gods, at another it engulfed and mastered the gods themselves. It had been imagined everywhere, except in man. It had dwelt in the sky, it had lurked behind rocks, it had governed the air and sea. It had peopled an inaccessible universe. Then at last we peered into its imaginary retreats, we pressed close and examined; its throne of clouds tottered, it faded away; but at the very moment we believed it had ceased to be, behold it reappeared and raised its head once more in the very depths of our heart; and yet another mystery had sought refuge in man, and embodied itself in him.”
There is no novelty in the thought that the idea of justice is not discernible in the laws of the material universe, — that the processes of nature are not moral, but simply those of cause and effect. Perchance the life of a human being, even the span covered by the records making what is known as history, is too short to observe the workings of the cosmic justice, or to determine its existence; but that the sentiment of justice dwells in the heart of man there is no doubt. What concerns M. Maeterlinck is the fact that this instinct of justice is the great mystery of man and comprises all virtue. “It is at the centre of our love of truth, the centre of our love of beauty. It is kindness and pity; it is generosity, heroism, love.” It may be destined to be the basis of a new faith which, in the fulness of time, shall have universal reign upon the earth. Impressively and nobly are we made to feel the reality of this instinct of justice and that its ultimate triumph is assured; that humanity must hear and heed “the inward voice of native manhood,” as Carlyle names it. If it be suggested that here we have somewhat of the essential idea underlying Comte’s “Religion of Humanity" and nothing new, it is to be remembered that M. Maeterlinck does not strive after the novel, but rather to emphasise imperishable truths that have been found ever helpful and necessary.
His fundamental theme, the Mystery of Justice, after the manner of all mystical teachers, he impresses by constant repetition and reiteration through this series of Essays, which, at first sight, appear to treat of diverse and unrelated subjects. His method is that of the organist improvising upon his theme and constantly placing it in different settings, and now and then merely suggesting it by the fundamental chord or its simple motif. His Mysticism is modern and eclectic, drawing its elements from the thoughts of the Oriental, Hellenic, and Christian mystics, but wholly ignoring and hostile to that element in each which deals with renunciation; and this must needs be so, since with him the normal mundane life of man should be infused with a serene joy, — must bring rest of soul. To this end, the burden of mystery must be minimised, and even then one must by intellectual effort subordinate the sense of mystery to the elements in life that make for joyous serenity, that the purposes of normal life may not be frustrated. He says, “We derive neither greatness, sublimity, nor depth from unceasingly fixing our thoughts on the infinite or unknown.” In the Essay on The Evolution of Mystery, he shows that the cosmic mystery is probably material and not moral; that the moral mystery is in man alone, and that relief from the incubus of moral mystery in nature, which has oppressed the world since the days of Job, will afford the spirit of man true freedom. Of course, modern science, so far as its methods aid to solve the problem, has shown that the cosmic mystery is a material one, and not a moral one, but M. Maeterlinck knows full well that science cannot speak the ultimate word on this subject; that the truth cannot be stated in the form of an axiom, nor embraced in a scientific formula, and, as we yet “see through a glass darkly,” it may be that at heart the cosmic mystery is moral. His earnest desire is to find the inspiring truth that will practically aid man in the development of the true life of the soul. He regards affirmations, not negations; he is not disturbed by a conflict in his own thoughts; indeed, his is the manner of the rhapsodist, permitting us to follow his inspiration in all its moods, believing that the light that guides him through the mazes will be sufficient to guide others. Sincerity and an earnest desire to find the truth are his characteristics. He is not a mystic dwelling on the inaccessible mountain peak, but sojourning with his fellows on the great plain of common every-day life. He bids us accustom our eyes to see into the clouds of mystery which envelop us, that we may discern the dim outlines of the great truths there present for our help.
M. Maeterlinck writes only for the thoughtful; for those who see a purpose in life and an ideal of character to be achieved. In such the critical faculty is always alert, and he knows that he may safely utter thoughts that have their manifest limitations, without spending his strength in defining such limitations. Hence this book must be read with the critical faculty awake, that what is strong and helpful for each may be taken and the remainder left.
One cannot help noting that this book is written under the influence of Hellenic Mysticism to a greater extent even than “Wisdom and Destiny.” We look in vain here for such expressions as are found in “The Treasure of the Humble" in passages such as this: “The kisses of the silence of misfortune — and it is above all at times of misfortune that silence caresses us — can never be forgotten; and therefore it is that those to whom they have come more often than to others are worthier than those others. They alone know, perhaps, how voiceless and unfathomable are the waters on which the fragile shell of daily life reposes; they have approached nearer to God, and the steps they have taken towards the light are steps that can never be lost, for the soul may not rise, perhaps, but it can never sink.” Indeed, the emphasis of Hellenic Mysticism, both in his thought and form of expression, is almost dogmatic, and herein is a weakness. A mystic cannot be, in any sense, a dogmatist; he may lead us to his point of vision and bid us look, and may tell us what he sees of truth, but he cannot command us to accept his vision as ours. Truly, Mysticism can only be associated with freedom of thought, and hence the atmosphere of dogmatism is foreign to it. Who can say that one honestly and earnestly looking into the mystery in which he lives and moves will not find there the essential truth declared by Christ as well as the truth discerned by Buddha, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius?
EDWARD M. COLIE.