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THE KINGDOM OF MATTER
IN a preceding essay we were compelled I to admit that, eager as man might be to discover in the universe a sanction for his virtues, neither heaven nor earth displayed the least interest in human morality; and that all things would combine to persuade the upright among us that they merely are dupes, were it not for the fact that they have in themselves an approval words cannot describe, and a reward so intangible that we should in vain endeavour to portray its least evanescent delights. Is that all, some may ask, is that all we may expect in return for this mighty effort of ours, for our constant denial and pain, for our sacrifice of instincts, of pleasures, that seemed so legitimate, necessary even, and that would certainly have added to our happiness had there not been within us the desire for justice — a desire arising we know not whence, belonging, perhaps, to our nature, and yet in apparent conflict with the vaster nature whereof we all form part? Yes, it is open to you, if you choose, to regard as a very poor thing this unsubstantial justice: since its only reward is a vague satisfaction, which even grows hateful, and destroys itself, the moment its presence becomes too perceptibly felt. Bear in mind, however, that all things that happen in our moral being must be equally lightly held, if regarded from the point of view whence you deliver this judgment. Love is a paltry affair, the moment of possession once over that alone is real and ensures the perpetuity of the race; and yet we find that as man grows more civilised, the act of possession assumes ever less value in his eyes if there go not with it, if there do not precede and follow it, this insignificant emotion built up of our thoughts and our feelings, of our sweetest and tenderest hours and years. Beauty, too, is a trivial matter: a beautiful spectacle, a beautiful face, or body, or gesture; a melodious voice, or noble statue — sunrise at sea, flowers in a garden, stars shining over the forest, the river by moonlight — or a lofty thought, an exquisite poem, an heroic sacrifice hidden in a profound and pitiful soul. We may admire these things for an instant; they may bring us a sense of completeness no other joy can convey; but at the same time there will steal over us a tinge of strange sorrow, unrest; nor will they give happiness to us, as men use the word, should other events have contrived to make us unhappy. They produce nothing the eye can measure, or weigh; nothing that others can see, or will envy; and yet, were a magician suddenly to appear, capable of depriving one of us of this sense of beauty that may chance to be in him, possessed of the power of extinguishing it for ever, with no trace remaining, no hope that it ever will spring into being again — would we not rather lose riches, tranquillity, health even, and many years of our life, than this strange faculty which none can espy, and we ourselves can scarcely define? Not less intangible, not less elusive, is the sweetness of tender friendship, of a dear recollection we cling to and reverence; and countless other thoughts and feelings, that traverse no mountain, dispel no cloud, that do not even dislodge a grain of sand by the roadside. But these are the things that build up what is best and happiest in us; they are we ourselves; they are precisely what those who have them not should envy in those who have. The more we emerge from the animal and approach what seems the surest ideal of our race, the more evident does it become that these things, trifling as they well may appear by the side of nature’s stupendous laws, do yet constitute our sole inheritance; and that, happen what may to the end of time, they are the home, the centre of light, to which mankind will draw ever more and more closely.
We live in a century that loves the material, but, while loving it, conquers it, masters it, and with more passion than any preceding period has shown; in a century that would seem consumed with desire to comprehend matter, to penetrate, enslave it, possess it, once and for all, to repletion, satiety — with the wish, it may be, to ransack its every resource, lay bare its last secret, so as to free the future from the restless search for a happiness there seemed reason once to believe that matter contained. So, in like fashion, is it necessary first to have known the love of the flesh before veritable love can reveal its deep and unchanging purity. A serious reaction will probably arise, some day, against this passion for material enjoyment; but man will never be able to cut himself wholly free. Nor would the attempt be wise. We are, after all, only fragments of animate matter, and it could not be well to lose sight of the starting-point of our race. And yet, is it right that this starting-point should enclose in its narrow circumference all our wishes, all our happiness, the totality of our desires? In our passage through life we meet scarcely any who do not persist, with a kind of unreasoning obstinacy, inthroning the material within them, and there maintaining it supreme. Gather together a number of men and women, all of them free from life’s more depressing cares — an assembly of the elect, if you will — and pronounce before them the words “beatitude,” “happiness,” “joy,” “felicity,” “ideal.” Imagine that an angel, at that very instant, were to seize and retain, in a magic mirror, or miraculous basket, the images these words would evoke in the souls that should hear them. What would you see in the basket or mirror? The embrace of beautiful bodies; gold, precious stones, a palace, an ample park; the philtre of youth, strange jewels and gauds representing vanity’s dreams; and, let us admit it, prominent far above all would be sumptuous repasts, noble wines, glittering tables, splendid apartments. Is humanity still too near its beginning to conceive other things? Has the hour not yet arrived when we might have reasonably hoped that the mirror would reflect a powerful, disinterested intellect, a conscience at rest, a just and loving heart, a perception, a vision, capable of detecting absorbing beauty wherever it be — the beauty of evening, of cities, of forests and seas, no less than of face, of a word or a smile, an action or movement of soul? The foreground of the magical mirror at present reflects beautiful women, undraped; when shall we see, in their stead, the deep, great love of two beings to whom the knowledge has come that it is only when their thoughts and their feelings, and all that is more mysterious still than thoughts and feelings, have blended, and day by day become more essentially one, that the joys of the flesh are freed from the after-disquiet, and leave no bitterness behind? When shall we find, instead of the morbid, unnatural excitement produced by too copious, oppressive repasts, by stimulants that are the insidious agents of the very enemy we seek to destroy — when shall we find, in their place, the contained and deliberate gladness of a spirit that is for ever exalted because it for ever is seeking to understand, and to love? . . . These things have long been known, and their repetition may well seem of little avail. And yet, we need but to have been twice or thrice in the company of those who stand for what is best in mankind, most intellectually, sentiently human, to realise how uncertain and groping their search is still for the happier hours of life; to marvel at the resemblance the unconscious happiness they look for hears to the happiness craved by the man who has no spiritual existence; to note how opaque, to their eyes, is the cloud which separates all that pertains to the being who rises from all that is his who descends. Some will say that the hour is not yet when man can thus make clear division between the part of the spirit and that of the flesh. But when shall that hour be looked for if those for whom it should long since have sounded still suffer the obscurest prejudice of the mass to guide them when they set forth in search of their happiness? When they achieve glory and riches, when love comes to meet them, they will be free, it may be, from a few of the coarser satisfactions of vanity, a few of the grosser excesses; but beyond this they strive not at all to secure a happiness that shall he more spiritual, more purely human. The advantage they have does not teach them to widen the circle of material exaction, to discard what is less justifiable. In their attitude towards the pleasures of life they submit to the same spiritual deprivation as, let us say, some cultured man who may have wandered into a theatre where the play being performed is not one of the five or six masterpieces of universal literature. He is fully aware that his neighbours’ applause and delight are called forth, in the main, by more or less obnoxious prejudices on the subject of honour, glory, religion, patriotism, sacrifice, liberty, or love — or perhaps by some feeble, dreary poetical effusion. None the less, he will find himself sharing in the general enthusiasm; and it will be necessary for him, almost at every instant, to pull himself violently together, to make startled appeal to every conviction within him, in order to convince himself that these partisans of hoary errors are wrong, notwithstanding their number, and that he, with his isolated reason, alone is right.
Indeed, when we consider the relation of man to matter, it is surprising to find how little light has yet been thrown upon it, how little has been definitely fixed. Elementary, imperious, as this relation undoubtedly is, humanity has always been wavering, uncertain, passing from the most dangerous confidence to the most systematic distrust, from adoration to horror, from asceticism and complete renouncement to their corresponding extremes. The days are past when an irrational, useless abstinence was preached, and put into practice — an abstinence often fully as harmful as habitual excess. We are entitled to all that helps to maintain, or advance, the development of the body; this is our right, but it has its limits; and these limits it would be well to define with the utmost exactness, for whatever may trespass beyond must infallibly weaken the growth of that other side of ourselves, the flower that the leaves round about it will either stifle or nourish. And humanity, that so long has been watching this flower, studying it so intently, noting its subtlest, most fleeting perfumes and shades, is most often content to abandon to the caprice of the temperament, be this evil or good, to the passing moment, or to chance, the government of the unconscious forces that will, like the leaves, be discreetly active, sustaining, life-giving, or profoundly selfish, destructive, and fatal. Hitherto, perhaps, this may have been done with impunity; for the ideal of mankind (which, at the start, was concerned with the body alone) wavered long between matter and spirit. To-day, however, it clings, with ever profounder conviction, to the human intelligence. We no longer strive to compete with the lion, the panther, the great anthropoid ape, in force or agility; in beauty with the flower, or the shine of the stars on the sea. The utilisation by our intellect of every unconscious force, the gradual subjugation of matter and the search for its secret — these at present appear the most evident aim of our race and its most probable mission. In the days of doubt there was no satisfaction, or even excess, but was excusable and moral, so long as it wrought no irreparable loss of strength or actual organic harm. But now that the mission of the race is becoming more clearly defined, the duty lies on us to leave on one side whatever is not directly helpful to the spiritual part of our being. Sterile pleasures of the body must be gradually sacrificed; indeed, in a word, all that is not in absolute harmony with a larger, more durable energy of thought, — all the little “harmless" delights which, however inoffensive comparatively, keep alive by example and habit the prejudice in favour of inferior enjoyment, and usurp the place that belongs to the satisfactions of the intellect. These last differ from those of the body, whose development some may assist and others retard. Into the elysian fields of thought enters no satisfaction but brings with it youth, and ardour, and strength; nor is there a thing in this world on which the mind thrives more readily than the ecstasy, nay, the debauch, of eagerness, comprehension, and wonder.
The time must come, sooner or later, when our morality will have to conform to the probable mission of the race, and the arbitrary, often ridiculous restrictions whereof it is at present composed will be compelled to make way for the inevitable, logical restrictions this mission exacts. For the individual, as for the race, there can be but one code of morals — the subordination of the methods of life to the demands of the general mission that appears entrusted to man. The axis will shift, therefore, of many sins, many great offences; until at last for all the crimes against the body there shall be substituted the veritable crimes against human destiny: in other words, whatever may tend to impair the authority, integrity, leisure, liberty, or power, of the intellect.
But by this we are far from suggesting that the body should be regarded as the irreconcilable enemy that the Christian theory holds it. Far from that, we should strive, first of all, to endow it with all possible vigour and beauty. But it is like a capricious child: exacting, improvident, selfish; and the stronger it grows, the more dangerous does it become. It knows no cult but that of the passing moment. In imagination, desires, it halts at the trivial thought, the primitive, fleeting, foolish delight of the little dog or the negro. The satisfactions procured by the intellect — the comfort, security, leisure, the gladness — it regards as no more than its due, and enjoys in fullest complacency. Left to itself it would enjoy these so stupidly, savagely, that it would very soon stifle the intellect from which it derived these favours. Hence there is need for certain restrictions, renouncements, which all men must observe; not only those who have reason to hope, and believe, that they are effectively striving to solve the enigma, to bring about the fulfilment of human destiny and the triumph of mind over insensible matter, but also the crowds in the ranks of the massive unconscious rearguard, who placidly watch the phosphorescent evolutions of mind as its light gleams on the world’s elementary darkness. For humanity is a unique and unanimous entity. When the thought of the mass — that thought which scarcely is thought — travels downwards, its influence is felt by philosopher and poet, astronomer and chemist; it has its pronounced effect on their character, morals, ideals, their sense of duty, habits of labour, intellectual vigour. If the myriad, uniform, petty ideas in the valley fall short of a certain elevation, no great idea shall spring to life on the mountain-peak. Down there the thought may have little strength, but there are countless numbers who think it; and the influence this thought acquires may be almost termed atmospheric. And they up above on the mountain, the precipice, or the edge of the glacier, will be helped by this influence, or harmed, in the degree of its brightness or gloom, of its reaching them, buoyed up with generous feeling, or heavily charged with brutal habit and coarse desire. The heroic action of a people (as, for instance, the French Revolution, the Reformation, all wars of independence and liberation) will fertilise and purify this influence for more centuries than one. But far less will satisfy those who toil at the fulfilment of destiny. Let but the habits of the men round about them become a little more noble, their desires a little more disinterested; let but their passions and eagerness, their pleasures and love, be illumined by one ray of brightness, of grace, of spiritual fervour; and those up above will feel the support, and draw their breath freely, no longer compelled to struggle with the instinctive part of themselves; and the power that is in them will obey the more readily, and mould itself to their hand. The peasant who instead of carousing at the beer-shop spends a peaceful Sunday at home, with a book, beneath the trees of his orchard; the humble citizen whom the emotions or din of the race-course cannot tempt from some worthy relaxation, from the pleasure of a reposeful afternoon; the workman who no longer makes the streets hideous with obscene or ridiculous song, but wanders forth into the country, or, from the ramparts, watches the sunset — all these bring their meed of help: their great assistance, unconscious though it be, and anonymous, to the triumph of the vast human flame.
But how much there is to be done, and learned, before this great flame can arise in serene, secure brightness! We have said that man, in his relation to matter, is still in the experimental, groping stage of his earliest days. He lacks even definite knowledge as to the kind of food best adapted for him, or the quantity of nourishment he requires; he is still uncertain as to whether he be carnivorous or frugivorous. His intellect misleads his instinct. It was only yesterday that he learned that he had probably erred hitherto in the choice of his nourishment; that he must reduce by two-thirds the quantity of nitrogen he absorbs, and largely increase the volume of hydrocarbons; that a little fruit, or milk, a few vegetables, farinaceous substances — now the mere accessory of the too plentiful repasts which he works so hard to provide, which are his chief object in life, the goal of his efforts, of his strenuous, incessant labour — are amply sufficient to maintain the ardour of the finest and mightiest life. It is not my purpose to discuss the question of vegetarianism, or to meet the objections that may be urged against it; though it must be admitted that of these objections not one can withstand a loyal and scrupulous inquiry. I, for my part, can affirm that those whom I have known to submit to this regimen, have found its result to be restored or improved health, marked addition of strength, and the acquisition by the mind of a clearness, brightness, well-being, such as might follow the release from some secular, loathsome, detestable dungeon. But we must not conclude these pages with an essay on alimentation, reasonable as such a proceeding might be. For in truth all our justice, morality, all our thoughts and feelings, derive from three or four primordial necessities, whereof the principal one is food. The least modification of one of these necessities would entail a marked change in our moral existence. Were the belief one day to become general that man could nourish himself without animal food, there would ensue not only a great economic revolution and change, — for a bullock, to produce one pound of meat, consumes more than a hundred pounds of provender, — but a moral improvement as well; for we find that the man who abandons the regimen of meat abandons alcohol also; and to do this is to renounce most of the coarser and more degraded pleasures of life. And it is in the passionate craving for these pleasures, in their glamour, and the prejudice they create, that the most formidable obstacle is found to the harmonious development of the race. Detachment therefrom creates noble leisure, a new order of desires, a wish for enjoyment that must of necessity be loftier than the gross satisfactions which have their origin in alcohol. But are days such as these in store for us — these happier, purer hours? The crime of alcohol is not alone that it destroys its faithful and poisons one-half of the race, but also that it exercises a profound, though indirect, influence upon those who recoil from it in dread. The idea of pleasure which it maintains in the crowd forces its way, by means of the crowd’s irresistible action, into the life even of the elect, and lessens, perverts, all that concerns man’s peace, and repose, his expansiveness, gladness, and joy; retarding, too, it may safely be said, the birth of the truer, profounder ideal of happiness: one that shall be simpler, more peaceful and grave, more spiritual and human. This ideal is evidently still very imaginary and may seem of but little importance; and infinite time must elapse, as in all other cases, before the certitude of those who are convinced that the race so far has erred in the choice of its aliment (assuming the truth of this statement to be borne out by experience) shall reach the confused masses, and bring them enlightenment and comfort. But may this not be the expedient nature holds in reserve for the time when the struggle for life shall have become too hopelessly unbearable, — the struggle for life that to-day means the fight for meat and for alcohol, double source of injustice and waste whence all the others are fed, double symbol of a happiness and necessity whereof neither is human?
Whither is humanity tending? This anxiety of man to know the aim and the end is essentially human; it is a kind of infirmity, or provincialism of the mind, and has nothing in common with universal reality. Have things an aim? Why should they have; and what aim or end can there be, in an infinite organism?
But even though our mission be only to fill for an instant a diminutive space that could as well be filled by the violet or grasshopper, without loss to the universe of economy or grandeur, without the destinies of this world being shortened or lengthened by one hour; even though this march of ours count for nothing, though we move for the sake of motion, tending nowhither, this futile progress of ours may, nevertheless, still claim to absorb all our attention and interest; and this is entirely reasonable, it is the loftiest course we can pursue. If it lay in the power of an ant to study the laws of the stars; and if, intent on this study, though fully aware that these laws are immutable, never to be modified, it declined to concern itself further with the affairs or the future of the ant-hill — should we, who stand to the insect as the great gods are supposed to stand to ourselves, who judge it and dominate it as we believe ourselves to be dominated and judged, — should we approve this ant, or, for all its universality, regard it as either good or moral?
Reason, at its apogee, becomes sterile; and inertia would be its sole teaching did it not, after recognising the pettiness, the nothingness, of our passions and hopes, of our being, and lastly, of reason itself, retrace its footsteps back to the point whence it shall be able once more to take eager interest in all these poor trivialities, in this same nothingness, as holding them the only things in the world for which its assistance has value.
We know not whither we go, but may still rejoice in the journey; and this will become the lighter, the happier, for our endeavour to picture to ourselves the next place of halt. Where will this be? The mountain-pass lies ahead, and threatens; but the roads already are widening and becoming less rugged; the trees spread their branches crowned with fresh blossom; silent waters are flowing before us, reposeful and peaceful. Tokens all these, it may be, of our nearing the vastest valley mankind yet has seen from the height of the tortuous paths it has ever been climbing! Shall we call it the “First Valley of Leisure”? Distrust as we may the surprises that the future may have in store, be the troubles and cares that await us never so burdensome, there still seems some ground for believing that the bulk of mankind will know days when, thanks, it may be, to machinery, agricultural chemistry, medicine perhaps, or I know not what dawning science, labour will become less incessant, exhausting, less material, tyrannical, pitiless. What use will humanity make of this leisure? On its employment may be said to depend the whole destiny of man. Were it not well that his counsellors now should begin to teach him to use such leisure as he has in a nobler and worthier fashion? It is the way in which hours of freedom are spent that determines, as much as war or as labour, the moral worth of a nation. It raises or lowers, it replenishes or exhausts. At present we find, in these great cities of ours, that three days’ idleness will fill the hospitals with victims whom weeks or months of toil had left unscathed.
Thus we return to the happiness which should be, and perhaps in course of time will be, the real human happiness. Had we taken part in the creation of the world we should probably have bestowed more distinctive, special force on all that is best in man, most immaterial, most essentially human. If a thought of love, or a gleam of the intellect, a word of justice, an act of pity, a desire for pardon, or sacrifice; if a gesture of sympathy, a craving of one’s whole being for beauty, goodness, or truth — if emotions like these could affect the universe as they affect the man who has felt them, they would call forth miraculous flowers, supernatural radiance, inconceivable melody; they would scatter the night, recall spring and the sunshine, stay the hand of sickness, grief, disaster, and misery; gladness would arise from them, and youth be restored; while the mind would gain freedom, thought immortality, and life be eternal. No resistance could check them; their reward would follow as visibly as it follows the labourer’s toil, the nightingale’s song, or the work of the bee. But we have learned at last that the moral world is a world wherein man is alone; a world, contained in ourselves, that bears no relation to matter, upon which its influence is only of the most hazardous and exceptional kind. But none the less real, therefore, is this world, or less infinite: and if words break down when they try to tell of it, the reason is only that words, after all, are mere fragments of matter, seeking to enter a sphere where matter holds no dominion. Words are for ever betraying the thought that they stand for, by the images which they evoke. When we try to express perfect joy, a noble, spiritual ecstasy, a profound, everlasting love, our words can only compare them with animal passion, drunkenness, brutal and coarse desire. And not only do they thus degrade the noblest triumphs of the soul of man by likening them to primitive instincts, but they incite us to believe, in spite of ourselves, that the object or feeling compared is less real, less true or substantial, than the type to which it is referred. Herein lies the injustice and weakness of every attempt that is made to give voice to the secrets of men. And yet, be words never so faulty, let us still pay careful heed to the events of this inner world. For of all the events it has lain in our power to meet hitherto, they alone truly are human.
Nor should they be regarded as useless, even though the immense torrent of material forces absorb them as it absorbs the dew that falls from the pale morning flower. Boundless as the world may be wherein we live, it is yet as hermetically enclosed as a sphere of steel. Nothing can fall outside it, for it has no outside; nor can any atom possibly be lost. Even though our species should perish entirely, the stage through which it has caused certain fragments of matter to pass would remain, notwithstanding all ulterior transformations, an indelible principle and an immortal cause. The formidable, provisional vegetations of the primary epoch, the chaotic and immature monsters of the secondary grounds, — Plesiosaurus, Ichthyosaurus, Pterodactyle, — these might also regard themselves as vain and ephemeral attempts, ridiculous experiments of a still puerile nature; and imagine that they would leave no mark upon a more harmonious globe. And yet not an effort of theirs has been lost in space. They purified the air, they softened the unbreathable flame of oxygen, they paved the way for the more symmetrical life of those who should follow. If our lungs find in the atmosphere the aliment they need, it is thanks to the inconceivably incoherent forests of arborescent fern.
Our brains and nerves of to-day are due to fearful hordes of swimming or flying reptiles. These obeyed the order of their life. They did what they had to do. They modified matter in the fashion prescribed to them. And we, by carrying particles of this same matter to the degree of extraordinary incandescence proper to the thought of man, shall surely establish in the future something that never shall perish.