The Meaning of Good--A Dialogue
G. Lowes Dickinson
Part 4 out of 4
upon me their own conception, as if I were the marble out of which
they had carded a statue."
"You must allow us to be the judges of that," I replied.
"Well, but," he said, "anyhow you can't deny that such illusions are
common. What lover ever saw his mistress as she really is?"
"No," I said, "I don't deny that. But at the same time I should affirm
that the truer the love, the less the illusion. In what is commonly
called love, no doubt, the physical element is the predominant, or
even the only one present; and in that case there may be illusion to
an indefinite extent. But the love which is based upon years of common
experience, which has grown with the growth of the whole person,
in power and intelligence and insight, which has survived countless
disappointments and surmounted countless obstacles, the love of
husband and wife, the love, as we began by saying, of friends--such
love, as Browning says boldly, 'is never blind.' And such love, I
suppose you will admit, does exist, however rarely?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Well, then, in the case of such a love, it is the object as it really
is, not as it has been falsely fashioned by the imagination, that is
directly apprehended as good. And you cannot fairly say that its Good
is merely the ideal of the lover transferred to the person of the
"But," objected Leslie, "though that may be so, yet still the Good,
that Is the person, does inhere in an alien stuff--the body."
"But," I replied,"_is_ the body alien? Is it not rather an expression
of the person? as essential, somehow or other, as the soul?"
"Certainly!" cried Ellis. "Give me the flesh, the flesh!
"'Not with my soul, Love!--bid no soul like mine
Lap thee around nor leave the poor sense room!
Take sense too--let me love entire and whole--
Not with my soul.'"
"I don't agree with the sentiment of that," said Leslie, "and anyhow,
I don't see how it bears on the question. For the point of the poem
is rather to emphasize than to deny the opposition between body and
"Yes," replied Ellis, "but also to suggest what you idealists call the
transcending of it."
"Do you mean that in the marriage relation, for example ..."
"Yes, I mean that in that act the flesh, so to speak, is annihilated
at the very moment of its assertion, and what you get is a feeling of
total union with the person, body and soul at once, or rather, neither
one nor the other, but simply that which is in and through both."
"I should have thought," objected Leslie, "it was rather a case of the
soul being merged in the body."
"That depends," replied Ellis.
"Yes," I said, "it depends on many things! But what I was thinking
of was that, quite apart from that experience, and in the moments
of sober observation, one does feel, does one not, a ^correspondence
between body and soul, as though the one were the expression of the
"I don't know," objected Audubon. "What I feel is much more often a
"But still," I urged, "even when there appears to be a discrepancy
to begin with, don't you think that in the course of years the spirit
does tend to stamp its own likeness on the flesh, and especially on
the features of the face?"
"'For soul is form,'" quoted Leslie, "'and doth the body make.'"
"Yes," I said, "and that verse, I believe, is not merely a beautiful
fancy of the poet's, but rather as the Greeks maintained--and on such
a point they were good judges--a profound and significant truth.
At any rate, I find it to be so in the case of the people I care
about--though there I know Audubon will dissent. In them, every
change of expression, every tone of voice, every gesture has its
significance; there is nothing that is not expressive--not a curl of
the hair, not a lift of the eyebrows, not a trick of speech or gait.
The body becomes, as it were, transparent and pervious to the soul;
and that inexplicable element of sense, which baffles us everywhere
else, seems here at last to receive its explanation in presenting
itself as the perfect medium of spirit."
"If you come to that," cried Ellis, "you might as well extend your
remarks to the clothes. For they, to a lover's eyes, are often as
expressive and adorable as the body itself."
"Well," I said, "the clothes, too, are a sort of image of the soul,
'an imitation of an imitation,' as Plato would say. But, seriously,
don't you agree with me that there is something in the view which
regards the body as the 'word made flesh,' a direct expression of the
person, not a mere stuff in which he Inheres?"
"Yes," he said, "there may be something in it. At any rate, I
understand what you mean."
"And in so far as that is so," I continued, "the body, though it be
a thing of sense, would nevertheless be directly intelligible in the
same way as the soul?"
"Perhaps, in a sort of way."
"And so we should have In the person loved an object which, though
presented to sense, would be at once good and intelligible; and our
activity in relation to this object, the activity, that is, of love,
would come nearer than any other experience of ours to what we might
call a perfect Good?"
"But," objected Leslie, "it is still far enough from being the Good
itself. For after all, say what you may about the body being the
medium of the soul, it is still body, still sense, and, like other
sensible things, subject to change and decay, and in the end to death.
And with the fate of the body, so far as we know, that of the person
is involved. So that this, too, like all other Goods of sense, is
"Perhaps it is," I said, "I cannot tell. But all that I mean to
maintain at present is that in the activity of love, as we have
analysed it, we have something which gives us, if it be only for
a moment, yet still in a real experience, an idea, at least, a
suggestion, to say no more, of what we might mean by a perfect Good,
even though we could not say that it be the Good itself."
"But what, then, would you call the Good itself?"
"A love, I suppose, which in the first place would be eternal, and in
the second all-comprehensive. For there is another defect in love, as
we know it, to which you did not refer, namely, that it is a relation
only to one or two individuals, while outside and beyond it proceeds
the main current of our lives, involving innumerable relations of a
very different kind from this."
"Yes," cried Ellis, "and that is why this gospel of love, with all its
attractiveness, which I admit, seems to me, nevertheless, so trivial
and absurd. Just consider! Here is the great round world with all that
in it is, infinite in time, infinite in space, infinite in complexity;
here is the whole range of human relations, to say nothing of those
that are not human, of activities innumerable in and upon nature and
man himself, of inventions, discoveries, institutions, laws, arts,
sciences, religions; and the meaning and purpose and end of all this
we calmly assert to be--what? A girl and a boy kissing on the village
"But," I protested, "who said anything about boys and girls and kisses
and village greens?"
"Well, I suppose that is love, of a sort?"
"Yes, of a sort, no doubt; but not a very good one."
"You are thinking, then, of a special kind of love?"
"I am thinking of the kind which I conceive to be the best."
"And what is that?"
"One, as I said just now, that should be eternal and
"And so, in the end, you have nothing better than an imaginary heaven
to land us in!"
"I have no power, I fear, to land you there. But I believe there
is that dwelling within you which will not let you rest in anything
"Then I fear I shall never rest!"
"That may be. But meantime all I want to do is to ascertain, if we
can, the meaning of your unrest. I have no interest in what you call
an imaginary heaven, except in so far as its conception is necessary
to enable us to interpret the world we know."
"But how should it be necessary? I have never found it so."
"It is necessary, I think, to explain our dissatisfaction. For the
Goods we actually realize always point away from themselves to
some other Good whose realization perhaps, as you say, for us is
impossible. But even if the Good were chimerical, we cannot deny the
passion that pursues it; for it is the same passion that urges us to
the pursuit of such Goods as we really can attain. And if we want to
understand the nature of that passion, we must understand the nature
of its Good, whether it be attainable or no. Only it is for the sake
of life here that we need that comprehension, not for the sake of life
"But do you reduce our passion for Good to this passion for Love?"
"I don't 'reduce' it; I interpret it so."
"And so we come back to the girl and the boy and the village green!"
"No! we come back to the whole of life, of which that is only an
episode. Let me try to explain how the thing presents itself to me."
"By all means! That is what I want."
"Very well; I will do my best. Let us look then at life just as it is.
Here we find ourselves involved with one another in the most complex
relations--economic, political, social, domestic, and the rest; and
about and in these relations centres the interest of our life,
whether it be pleasurable or painful, empty or full, or whatever its
character. Among these relations some few perhaps--or, it may be,
even none--realize for a longer or shorter time, with more or less
completeness, that ultimate identity in diversity, that 'me in thee'
which we call love; the rest comprise various degrees of attraction
and repulsion, hatred, contempt, indifference, toleration, respect,
sympathy, and so on; and all together, always changing, dissolving,
and combining anew, weave about us, as they cross and intertwine, the
shifting, restless web we call life. Now these relations are an effect
and result of the pursuit of Good; but they are never the final goal
of that pursuit. The goal, I think, would be a perfect union of all
with all; and is not attained by anything that falls short of this,
whether the defect be in depth or In extent. And that is how it is
that love itself, even in its richer phases, and still more in those
which are merely light and sensual, though, as I think, through it
alone can we form our truest conception of Good, yet, as we have it,
never is the Good, even if it appear to be so for the moment; for
those who seek Good, I believe, will never feel that they have found
it merely in union with one other person. For what love gains in
intension it is apt to lose in extension; so that in practice it may
even come to frustrate the very end it seeks, limiting instead of
expanding, narrowing just in proportion as it deepens, and, by causing
the disruption of all other ties, impoverishing the natures it should
have enriched. Or don't you think that this happens sometimes, for
instance in married life?"
"I do indeed."
"And, on the other hand," I continued, "it may very well be that one
who passes through life without attaining the fruition of love,
yet with his gaze always set upon it, in and through many other
connections, may yet come closer to the end of his seeking than one
who, having known love, has sunk to rest in it then and there, as
though he had come already to his journey's end, when really he has
only reached an inn upon the road. So that I am far from thinking, as
you pretended to suppose, that the boy and girl on the village green
realize then and there the consummation of the world."
"Still," he objected, "I do not see, in the scheme you put forward,
what place is left for the common business of life--for the things
which really do, for the most part, occupy and possess men's minds,
and the more, in my opinion, the greater their force and capacity."
"You mean, I suppose, war and politics, and such things as that?
"Yes, and generally all that one calls business."
"Well," I said, "what these things mean to those who pursue them, I am
not as competent as you to say. But surely, what they are in
essence is just, like most other activities, relations between human
beings--relations of command and obedience, of respect, admiration,
antagonism, comradeship, infinitely complex, infinitely various, but
still all of them strung, as it were, upon a single thread of passion;
all of them at tension to become something else; all pointing to the
consummation which it is the nature of that which created them to
seek, and all, in that sense, paradoxical as it may sound, only means
"You don't repudiate such activities then?"
"How should I? I repudiate nothing. I am not trying to judge, but, if
I could, to explain. It is the men of action, I suppose, who have
the greatest extension of life, and sometimes, no doubt, the greatest
intension too. But every man has to live his own way, according to his
opportunities and capacity. Only, as I think myself, all are involved
in the same scheme, and all are driven to the same consummation."
"A consummation in the clouds!"
"I do not know about that; but at any rate, and this is the important
point, that which urges us to it is here and now. Everything is rooted
in it. Our pleasures and pains alike, our longing and dissatisfaction,
our restlessness never-to-be-quenched, our counting as nothing what
has been attained in the pressing on to more, our lying down and
rising up, our stumbling and recovering, whether we fail, as we call
it, or succeed, whether we act or suffer, whether we hate or love, all
that we are, all that we hope to be springs from the passion for Good,
and points, if we are right in our analysis, to love as its end."
Upon this Audubon broke out:--"That's all very well! But the one
crucial point you persistently evade. It may be quite true, for aught
I know, that the Good you describe is the Good we seek--though I am
not aware of seeking it myself. But, after all, the real question is,
Can we get it? If not, we are mere fools to seek it."
"So," I said, "you have brought me to bay at last! And, since you
challenge me, I am bound to admit that I don't know whether we can get
it or no."
"Well then," he said, impatiently, "what is the good of all this
"Clearly," I replied, "no good at all, if there be no Good, which is
the point to which you are always harking back. But you have surely
forgotten the basis of our whole argument?"
"Why, that from the very beginning we have been trying to find out,
not so much what we know (for on that point I admit that we know
little enough), as what it is necessary for us to believe, if we are
to find significance in life."
"But how can we believe what we don't know?"
"Why," I replied, "we can surely adopt postulates, as indeed we always
do in practical life. Every man who is about to undertake anything
makes the assumption, in the first place, that it is worth doing, and
In the second place that it is possible to be done. He may be wrong in
both these assumptions, but without them he could not move a step. And
so with regard to the business of life, as a whole, it is necessary
to assume, if we are to make anything of it at all, both that there is
Good, and that we know something about it; and also, I think, that it
is somehow or other realizable; but I do not know that any of these
assumptions could be proved."
"But what right have we, then, to make such assumptions?"
"We have none at all, so far as knowledge is concerned. Indeed, to my
mind, it is necessary, if we are to be honest with ourselves, that we
should never forget that they are assumptions, so long as they have
not received definite proof. But still they are, I think, as I said,
assumptions we are bound to make, if we are to give any meaning to
life. We might perhaps call them 'postulates of the will'; and our
attitude, when we adopt them, that of faith."
"Faith!" protested Wilson, "that is a dangerous word!"
"It is," I agreed. "Yet I doubt whether we can dispense with it.
Only we must remember that to have 'faith' in a proposition is not to
affirm that it is true, but to live as we should do if it were. It
is, in fact, an attitude of the will, not of the understanding; the
attitude of the general going into battle, not of the philosopher in
"But," he objected, "where we do not know, the proper attitude is
suspense of mind."
"In many matters, no doubt," I replied, "but surely not in those with
which we are dealing. For we must live or die; and if we are to choose
to do either, we must do so by virtue of some assumption about the
"But why should we choose to do either? Why should not we simply
"But wait how? wait affirming or denying? active or passive? Is it
possible to wait without adopting an attitude? Is not waiting itself
an attitude, an acting on the assumption that it is good to wait?"
"But, at any rate, it does not involve assumptions as large as those
which you are trying to make us accept."
"I am not trying to make you do anything; I am only trying to discover
what you make yourself do. And do you, as a matter of fact, really
dispute the main conclusions to which we have come, or rather, if you
will accept my phrase, the main 'postulates of the will' which we have
"What are they? Let me have them again."
"Well," I said, "here they are. First, that Good has some meaning."
"Second, that we know something about that meaning."
"Doubtful!" said Dennis. "But it will be no use now to resume that
"No," I replied, "only I thought I had shown that if we know nothing
about it, then, for us, it has no meaning; and so our first assumption
is also destroyed, and with it all significance in life."
"Well," he said, "go on. We can't go over all that again."
"Third," I continued, "that among our experiences the one which comes
nearest to Good is that which we called love."
"Possible!" said Dennis, "but a very tentative approximation."
"Certainly," I agreed, "and subject to constant revision."
"And after that?"
"Well," I said, "now comes the point Audubon raised. Is it necessary
to include also the postulate that Good can be realized?"
"But surely," objected Wilson, "here at least there is no room for
what you call faith. For whether or no the Good can be realized is a
question of knowledge."
"No doubt," I replied, "and so are all questions--if only we could
know. But I was assuming that this is one of the things we do not
"But," he said, "it is one we are always coming to know. Every year we
are learning more and more about the course and destiny of mankind."
"Should you say, then," I asked, "that we are nearer to knowing
whether or no the soul is immortal?"
He looked at me in sheer amazement; and then, "What a question!" he
cried. "I should say that we have long known that it isn't"
"Then," I said, "if so, we know that the Good cannot be realized."
"What!" he exclaimed. "I had not understood that your conception of
the Good involved the idea of personal immortality."
"I am almost afraid it does," I replied, "but I am not quite sure.
We have already touched upon the point, if you remember, when we
were considering whether we must regard the Good as realizable in
ourselves, or only in some generation of people to come. And we
thought then that it must somehow be realizable in us."
"But we did not see at the time what that would involve, though I was
afraid all along of something of the kind."
"Well," I said, "for fear you should think you have been cheated, we
will reconsider the point; and first, if you like, we will suppose
that we mean by the Good of some future generation, still retaining
for Good the signification we gave to it. The question then of whether
or no the Good can be realized, will be the question whether or no it
is possible that at some future time all individuals should be knit
together in that ultimate relation which we called love."
"But," cried Leslie, "the love was to be eternal! So that _their_
souls at least would have to be immortal; and if theirs, why not
I looked at Wilson; and "Well," I said, "what are we to say?"
"For my part," he replied, "I have nothing to say. I consider the
whole idea of immortality illegitimate."
"Yet on that," I said, "hangs the eternal nature of our Good. But may
we retain, perhaps, the all-comprehensiveness?"
"How could we!" cried Leslie, "for it is only the individuals who
happened to be alive who could be comprehended so long as they were
"Another glory shorn from our Good!" I said. "Still, let us hold fast
to what we may! Shall we say that if the Good is to be realized the
individuals then alive, so long as they are alive, will be bound
together in this relation?"
"You can say that if you like," said Wilson, "and something of that
kind I suppose one would envisage as the end. Only I'm not sure that I
very well know what you mean by love."
"Alas!" I cried, "is even that to go? Is nothing at all to be left of
my poor conception?"
"You, can say if you like," he replied, "and I suppose it comes
to much the same thing, that all individuals will be related in a
perfectly harmonious way."
"In other words," cried Ellis, "that you will have a society perfectly
definite, heterogeneous, and co-ordinate! 'There's glory for you!' as
Humpty Dumpty said."
"Well," I said, "this is something very different from what we defined
to be Good! But this, at any rate, you think, on grounds of positive
science, that it might be possible to realize?"
"Yes," replied Wilson; "or if not that, I think at any rate that
science may ultimately be in a position to decide whether or no it can
"But," I said, "do you not think the same about personal immortality?"
"To be honest," he replied, "I do not think that the question of
personal immortality is one which science ought even to entertain."
"But," I urged, "I thought science was beginning to entertain it. Does
not the 'Society for Psychical Research' deal with such questions?"
"'The Society for Psychical Research!'" he exclaimed. "I do not call
"Well," I said, "at any rate there are men of a scientific turn of
mind connected with it" And I mentioned the names of one or two,
whereupon Wilson broke out into indignation, declaring with much
vehemence that the gentlemen in question were bringing discredit both
upon themselves and the University to which they belonged; and then
followed a discussion upon the proper objects and methods of science,
which I do not exactly recall. Only I remember that Wilson took up a
position which led Ellis, with some justice as I thought, to declare
that science appeared to be developing all the vices of theology
without any of its virtues--the dogmatism, the "index expurgatorius,"
and the whole machinery for suppressing speculation, without any of
the capacity to impose upon the conscience a clear and well-defined
scheme of life. This debate, however, was carried on in a tone too
polemic to elicit any really fruitful result; and as soon as I was
able I endeavoured to steer the conversation back into the smoother
waters from which it had been driven.
"Let us admit," I said, "if you like, for the sake of argument, that
on the question of the immortality of the soul we do not and cannot
know anything at all."
"But," objected Wilson, "I maintain that we do know that there is no
foundation at all for the idea. It is a mere reflection of our hopes
and fears, or of those of our ancestors."
"But," I said, "even if it be, that does not prove that it is not
true; it merely shows that we have no sufficient reason for thinking
it to be true."
"Well," he said, "put it so, if you like; that is enough to relegate
the notion to the limbo of centaurs and chimaeras. What we have no
reason to suppose to be true, we have no reason to concern ourselves
"Pardon me," I replied, "but I think we have, if the idea is one that
interests us, as Is the case with what we are discussing. We may not
know whether or no it is true, but we cannot help profoundly caring."
"Well," he said, "I may be peculiarly constituted, but, honestly, I do
not myself care in the least"
"But," I said, "perhaps you ought to, if you care about the Good;
and that is really the question I want to come back to. What is the
minimum we must believe if we are to make life significant? Is it
sufficient to believe in what you call the 'progress of the race'? Or
must we also believe in the progress of the individual, involving, as
it does, personal immortality?"
"Well," said Wilson, "I don't profess to take lofty views of
life--that I leave to the philosophers. But I must say it seems to me
to be a finer thing to work for a future in which one knows one will
not participate oneself than for one in which one's personal happiness
is involved. I have always sympathized with Comte, pedant as he was,
in the remark he made when he was dying."
"Which one?" interrupted Ellis. "'Quelle perte irreparable?' That
always struck me as the most humorous thing ever said."
"No," said Wilson, gravely, "but when he said that the prospect of
death would be to him infinitely less sublime, if it did not involve
his own extinction; the notion being, I suppose, that death is
the triumphant affirmation of the supremacy of the race over the
individual. And that, I think myself, is the sound and healthy and
"My dear Wilson," cried Ellis, "you talk of lofty views; but this is
a pinnacle of loftiness to which I, for one, could never aspire.
Positively, to rejoice in the extinction of the individual with his
faculties undeveloped, his opportunities unrealized, his ambitions
unfulfilled--why it's sublime! its Kiplingese--there's no other word
for it! Shake hands, Wilson! you're a hero."
"Really," said Wilson, rather impatiently, "I see nothing strained
or high-faluting in the view. And as to what you say about faculties
undeveloped and the rest, that seems to me unreal and exaggerated!
Most men have a good enough time, and get pretty much what they
deserve. A healthy, normal man is ready to die--he has done what he
had it in him to do, and passed on his work to the next generation."
"I have often wondered," said Ellis, meditatively, "what 'normal'
means. Does it mean one in a million, should you say? Or perhaps that
is too large a proportion? Some people say, do they not, that there
never was a normal man?"
"By 'normal,'" retorted Wilson, doggedly, "I mean average, and I
include every one except a few decadents and faddists."
At this point, seeing that we were threatened with another digression,
I thought it best to intervene again.
"We are diverging," I said, "a little from the issue. Wilson's
position, as I understand him, is that the prospect of the future
Good of the race is sufficient to give significance to the life of the
individual, even though he realize no Good for himself."
"No," replied Wilson, "I don't say that; for I think he always does
realize sufficient Good for himself."
"But is it because of that Good which he realizes for himself that his
life has significance? Or because of the future Good of the race?"
"I don't know; both, I suppose."
"You do not think then that the future Good of the race is sufficient,
by itself, to give significance to the lives of individuals who are
never to partake in it?"
"I don't like that way of putting the question. What I believe is,
that in realizing his own Good a man is also contributing to that of
the race. There is no such antagonism between the two ends as you seem
"I don't say that there is an antagonism; but I do insist that there
is a distinction. And I cannot help feeling--and this is where we seem
to disagree--that in estimating the Good of individual lives we must
have regard to that which they realize in and for themselves, not
merely to that which they may be contributing to produce some day in
"These 'somebody elses,'" cried Ellis, "being after all nothing but
other individuals like themselves! so that you get an infinite series
of people doing Good to one another, and none of them getting any
Good for themselves, like the: islanders who lived by taking in one
"Well, but," said Wilson, "supposing I consent, for the sake of
argument, to let you estimate the worth of life by the Good which
individuals realize in themselves. What follows then?"
"Why, then" I said, "it would, I think, be very hard to maintain that
we do most of us realize Good enough to make it seem worth while to
have lived at all, if indeed we are simply extinguished at death. At
any rate, if we set aside an exceptional few, and look frankly at the
mass of men and women, judging them not as means to something else,
but as ends in themselves, with reference not to happiness, or
content, or acquiescence, or indifference, but simply to Good--if we
look at them so, can we honestly say that there is enough significance
in their lives to justify the labour and expense of producing and
"I don't know," he replied, "they probably think themselves that there
"Probably," I rejoined, "they do not think about it at all. But what I
should like to know is, what do you think?"
"I don't see," he objected, "how I can have any opinion; the problem
is too vast and indeterminate."
"Is it?" cried Audubon, intervening in his curious abrupt way, and
with more than his usual energy of protest "Well, indeterminate or no,
it's the one point on which I have no doubt. Most people are only fit
to have their necks broken, and it would be the kindest thing for them
if some one would do it."
"Well," I said, "at any rate that is a vigorous opinion. Does anyone
else share it?"
"I do," said Leslie, "on the whole. Most men, if they are not actually
bad, are at best indifferent--'sacs merely, floating with open mouths
for food to slip in.'"
"Upon my word!" cried Bartlett, "it's wonderful how much you know
about them, considering how very little you've seen of them!"
"Oh!" I said, turning to him, "then you do not agree with this
"I!" he said. "Oh, no! I am not a superior person! Most men, I
suppose, are as good as we are, and probably a great deal better!"
"They might well be that," I replied, "without being particularly
good. But perhaps, as you seem to suggest, it might be better to
confine ourselves to our own experience and consider whether for
ourselves, so far as we can see, we should think life much worth
having, supposing death to be the end of it all."
"Oh, as to that, of course I should, for my part," cried Ellis, "and
so, I hope, should we all. In fact, I consider it rather monstrous to
ask the question at all."
"My dear Ellis," I protested, "you are really the most inconsistent of
men! Not a minute ago you were laughing at Wilson for his acquiescence
in the extinction of the individual 'with his opportunities
unrealized, his faculties undeveloped,' and all the rest of it. And
now you appear to be adopting precisely the same attitude yourself."
"I can't help it," he replied; "consistent or no, life's good enough
for me. And so it should be for you, you ungrateful ruffian!"
"I am not so sure," I said, "that it should be; not so sure as I was a
few years ago."
"Why, you Methuselah, what has age got to do with it?"
"Just this," I replied, "that up to a certain time of life all the
Good that we get we take to be prophetic of more Good to come. What
we actually realize we value less for itself than for something else
which it promises. The moments of good experience we expand till they
fill all infinity; the intervening tracts of indifferent or bad we
simply forget or ignore. Life is good, we say, because the universe
is good; and this goodness we expect to grasp in its entirety, not
to-day, perhaps, nor to-morrow, but at least the day after. And so,
like the proverbial ass, we are lured on by a wisp of hay. But being,
at bottom, intelligent brutes, we begin, in time, to reflect; we put
back our ears, and plant our feet stiff and rigid where we stand, and
refuse to budge an inch till we have some further information as to
the meaning of the journey into which we are being enticed. That,
at least, is the point that has been reached by this ass who is now
addressing you. I want to know something more about that bundle of
hay; and that is why I am interested in the question of personal
"Which means--to drop the metaphor----?"
"Which means, that I have come to realize that I am not likely to get
more Good out of life than I have already had, and that I may very
likely get less; or if more in some respects, then less in others.
For, in the first place, the world, as it seems, is just as much bad
as good, and whether Good or Bad predominate I cannot say. And in the
second place, even of what Good there is--and I do not under-estimate
its worth--it is but an infinitesimal portion that I am capable of
realizing, so limited am I by temperament and circumstance, so
bound by the errors and illusions of the past, so hampered by the
disabilities crowding in from the future. For though, as I think, the
older I get the more clearly I recognize what is good, and the more I
learn to value and to perceive it, yet at the same time the less do I
become capable of making it my own, and must in the nature of things
become less and less so, in so far at least as Goods other than those
of the intellect are concerned. And this is a position which seems to
be involved in the mere fact of age and death frankly seen from
the naturalistic point of view; and so it has always been felt
and expressed from the time of the Greeks onwards, and not least
effectively, perhaps, by Browning in his 'Cleon'--you remember the
"'... Every day my sense of joy
Grows more acute, my soul (intensified
By power and insight) more enlarged, more keen;
While every day my hairs fall more and more,
My hand shakes, and the heavy years increase--
The horror quickening still from year to year,
The consummation coming past escape,
When I shall know most, and yet least enjoy--
When all my works wherein I prove my worth,
Being present still to mock me in men's mouths,
Alive still in the phrase of such as thou,
I, I the feeling, thinking, acting man,
The man who loved his life so over-much,
Shall sleep in my urn.'
"You see the point; indeed, it is so familiar, I have laboured it,
perhaps, too much. But the result seems to be, that while it is
natural enough that in youth, for those who are capable of Good,
life should seem to be pre-eminently worth the having, yet the last
judgment of age, for those who believe that death is the end, will be
a doubt, and perhaps more than a doubt, even in the case of those
most favoured by fortune, whether after all a life has been worth the
trouble of living which has unfolded such infinite promise only to
bury it fruitless in the grave."
"I think that's rather a morbid view!" said Parry.
"I do not know," I said, "whether it is morbid, nor do I very much
care; the question is, whether it is reasonable, and whether it is not
the position naturally and perhaps inevitably adopted not by the
worst but by the best men among those who have abandoned the belief in
"That," interposed Wilson, "is surely not the case. One knows of
people who, though they have no belief in survival after death, yet
maintain a perfectly cheerful and healthy attitude towards life.
Harriet Martineau is one that occurs to me. To her, you may remember,
life appeared not less but more worth living when she had become
convinced of her own annihilation at death; and she awaited
with perfect equanimity and calm its imminent approach, not as
a deliverance from a condition which was daily becoming more
intolerable, but as a fitting crown and consummation to a career of
untiring and fruitful activity."
"That," exclaimed Parry with enthusiasm, "is what I call magnanimous!"
"I don't!" retorted Leslie, "I call it simply stupid and
"Call it what you like," said Wilson; "anyhow it is a position which
can be and has been adopted."
"Yes," I agreed, "but one which, I think, a clearer analysis of the
facts, a franker survey and a more penetrating insight, would make it
increasingly difficult to sustain. And after all, an estimate which is
to endure must be not only magnanimous but reasonable."
"But to her, and to others like her, it did and does appear to be
reasonable. And you ought to admit, I think, that there are cases in
which life is well worth living quite apart from the hypothesis of
"I am ready to admit," I replied, "that there are people to whom it
seems to be so, but I doubt whether they are very numerous, among
those, I mean, who have reflected on the subject, and whose opinions
alone we need consider. I, at any rate, have commonly found in talking
to people about death--supposing, which is unusual, that they are
willing to talk about it at all--that they adopt one of two views,
either of which presupposes the worthlessness of life, if life, as we
know it, be indeed all"
"What views do you mean?"
"Why, either they believe that death means annihilation, and rejoice
in the prospect as a deliverance from an intolerable evil; or they
hold that there is a life beyond, and that they will find there the
reason and justification for existence which they have never been able
to discover here."
"You forget, surely," said Wilson, "a third point of view, which I
should have thought was as common as either of the others,--that of
those who believe in a life after death, but look forward to it with
inexpressible fear of the possible evils which it may contain."
"True," I said, "but such fear, I suppose, is a reflex of actual
experience, and implies, does it not, a vivid sense of the evils of
existence as we know it? So that these people, too, I should maintain,
have not really found life satisfactory, or they would look forward
with hope rather than fear to the possibility of Its continuance."
"But in their case, at any rate, the hypothesis of personal
immortality is an aggravation, not a remedy, of the evil."
"No doubt; but I have been assuming throughout that the hypothesis
involves the realization of that Good which, without it, we recognize
to be unattainable; and it is only in that sense, and from that point
of view, that I have introduced it."
"Well," he persisted, "considering how improbable the hypothesis is,
I should be very loth to admit that it is one which it is practically
necessary to adopt. And I still maintain that most people do not
require it--ordinary simple people, I mean, who do their work and make
no fuss about it."
"Perhaps not," I replied, "for it is characteristic of such people
to make no hypothesis at all, but to adopt for the moment any view
suggested by the state of their spirits. But I believe that if ever
you can get a man, no matter how plain and unsophisticated, to reflect
fairly upon his own experience, and to look impartially at the facts
all round, abstracting from all bias of habit and mood and prejudice,
he will admit that if it be true that the individual is extinguished
at death, together with all his possibilities of realizing Good,
then life cannot rationally be judged to be worth the living, however
imperatively we may be compelled to continue to live it."
"But it Is just that imperative compulsion," cried Parry, "on which I
rely! That seems to me the justification of life--the fact that we are
forced to live! I trust that instinct more than all the inclination in
"But," I said, "when you say that you trust the instinct, do you mean
that you judge it to be good?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Then in trusting the instinct you are really trusting your reason,
which judges the instinct to be good, or, if not your reason, the
faculty, whatever it be, which judges of Good. And the only difference
between us is, that I try to ascertain what we do really believe to
be good, whereas you accept and cling to a particular judgment about
Good, without any attempt to test it and harmonize it with others."
"But you admit yourself that all your results are tentative and
problematical in the extreme."
"And yet these results you venture to set in opposition to a simple,
profound, imperative cry of Nature!"
"Why should I not? For I have no right to suppose that nature is good,
except in so far as I can reasonably judge her to be so."
"That seems to me a sort of blasphemy."
"I am afraid," I said, "if I must choose, I would rather blaspheme
Nature than Reason. But I hope I am not blaspheming either. For it may
be that what you call Nature has provided for the realization of Good.
That, at any rate, is the hypothesis I was suggesting; and it is you
who appear to be setting it aside."
"But," objected Wilson, "you talk of this hypothesis as if it were
something one could really entertain! To me it is not a hypothesis at
all; it's simply an inconceivability."
"Do you mean that it is self-contradictory?"
"No, not exactly that. Simply that it is unimaginable."
"Oh!" I said; "but what one can imagine depends on the quality of
one's imagination! To me, for example, the immortality of the soul
does not seem any harder to imagine than birth and life, and death and
consciousness. It's all such a mystery together, if once one begins
trying to realize it."
"No one," interposed Ellis, "has put that point better than Walt
"True," I replied, "and that reminds me that I think you hardly did
justice to his view when you were quoting him a little while ago. It
is true that he does, as you said, accept all facts, good and bad, and
even appears at times to obliterate the distinction between them. But
also, whether consistently or no, he regards them all as phases of
a process, good only because of what they promise to be. So that his
view really requires a belief in immortality to justify it; and to him
such belief is as natural and simple as to Wilson it is absurd. There
is a passage somewhere, I remember--perhaps you can quote it--it
begins, 'Is it wonderful that I should be immortal?'"
"Yes," he said, "I remember":
"Is it wonderful that I should be immortal? as every one is
"I know it is wonderful--but my eyesight is equally wonderful, and
how I was conceived in my mother's womb is equally wonderful,
"And passed from a babe, in the creeping trance of a couple of
summers and winters to articulate and walk. All this is equally
"And that my soul embraces you this hour, and we affect each other
without ever seeing each other, and never perhaps to see each other,
is every bit as wonderful.
"And that I can think such thoughts as these is just as wonderful,
"And that I can remind you, and you think them and know them to be
true, is just as wonderful.
"And that the moon spins round the earth, and on with the earth, is
"And that they balance themselves with the sun and stars is equally
"That," I said, "is the passage I meant, and it shows that Whitman, at
any rate, did not share Wilson's feeling that the immortality of the
soul is unimaginable."
"Well," said Wilson, "imaginable or no, we have no reason to believe
it to be true."
"No reason, indeed," I agreed, "so far as demonstration is concerned,
though equally, as I think, no reason to deny it. But the point I
raised was, whether, if we are to take a positive view of life and
hold that it somehow has a good significance, we are not bound to
adopt this, hypothesis of immortality--to believe, that is, that,
somehow or other, there awaits us a state of being in which all souls
shall be bound together in that harmonious and perfect relation of
which we have a type and foretaste in what we call love. For, if it be
true that perfect Good does involve some such relation, and yet that
it is one unattainable under the conditions of our present life, then
we must say either that such Good is unattainable--and in that case
why should we idly pursue it?--or that we believe we shall attain it
under some other conditions of existence. And according as we adopt
one or the other position--so it seems to me--our attitude towards
life will be one of affirmation or of negation."
"But," he objected, "even if you were right in your conception
of Good, and even if it be true that Good in its perfection is
unattainable, yet we might still choose to get at least what Good
we can--and some Good you admit we can get--and might find in that
pursuit a sufficient justification for life."
"We might, indeed," I admitted, "but also we might very well find,
that the Good we can attain is so small, and the Evil so immensely
preponderant, that we ought to labour rather to bring to an end an
existence so pitiful than to perpetuate it indefinitely in the persons
of our luckless descendants."
"That, thank heaven," said Parry, "is not the view which is taken by
the Western world."
"The West" I replied, "has not yet learned to reflect. Its activity is
the slave of instinct, blind and irresponsible."
"Yes," he assented eagerly, "and that is its saving grace! This
instinct, which you call blind, is health and sanity and vigour."
"I know," I said, "that you think so, and so does Mr. Kipling, and
all the train of violent and bloody bards who follow the camp of the
modern army of progress. I have no quarrel with you or with them; you
may very well be right in your somewhat savage worship of activity. I
am only trying to ascertain the conditions of your being right, and I
seem to find it in personal immortality."
"No," he persisted. "We are right without condition, right absolutely
and beyond all argument. Pursue Good is the one ultimate law; whether
or no it can be attained is a minor matter; and if to inquire into the
conditions of its attainment is only to weaken us in the pursuit, then
I say the inquiry is wrong, and ought to be discouraged."
"Well" I said, "I will not dispute with you further. Whether you are
right or wrong I cannot but admire your strenuous belief in Good
and in our obligation to pursue it. And that, after all, was my main
point. On the other question about what Good is and whether it is
attainable, I could hardly wish to make converts, so conscious am I
that I have infinitely more to learn than to teach. Only, that there
is really something to learn, of that I am profoundly convinced.
Perhaps even Audubon will agree with me there?"
"I don't know that I do," he replied, "and anyhow it doesn't seem to
me to make much difference. Whatever we may think about Good, that
doesn't affect the nature of Reality--and Reality, I believe, is bad!"
"Ah, Reality!" I rejoined, "but what is Reality? Is it just what we
see and touch and handle?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
"That is a sober view, and one which I have constantly tried to
impress upon myself. Sometimes, even, I think I have succeeded,
under the combined stress of logic and experience. But there comes
an unguarded moment, some evening in summer, like this, when I am
walking, perhaps, alone in a solitary wood, or in a meadow beside a
quiet stream; and suddenly all my work is undone, and I am overwhelmed
by a direct apprehension, or what seems at least for the moment to be
such, that everything I hear and see and touch is mere illusion after
all, and behind it lies the true Reality, if only I could find the
way to seize it. It is due, I suppose, to some native and ineradicable
strain of mysticism; or perhaps, as I sometimes think, to the memory
of a strange experience which I once underwent and have never been
able to forget"
"What was that?"
"It will not be very easy, I fear, to describe, but perhaps it may be
worth while to make the attempt, for it bears, more or less, on the
subject of our conversation. Once then, you must know, and once
only, a good many years ago now, I was put under the influence
of anaesthetics; and during the time I was unconscious, or rather,
conscious in a new way, I had a very curious dream, if dream it were,
which has never ceased to affect my thoughts and my life. It was as
"As soon as I lost consciousness of the world without, my soul, I
thought, which seemed at first to be diffused throughout my body,
began to draw itself upward, beginning at the feet. It passed through
the veins of the legs and belly to the heart, which was beating like a
thousand drums, and thence by the aorta and the carotids to the brain,
whence it emerged by the fissures of the skull into the outer air.
No sooner was it free (though still attached, as I felt with some
uneasiness, by a thin elastic cord to the pia mater) than it gathered
itself together (into what form I could not say), and with incredible
speed shot upwards, till it reached what seemed to be the floor of
heaven. Through this it passed, I know not how, and found itself all
at once in a new world.
"What this world was like I must now endeavour to explain, difficult
though it be to find suitable language; for the things here, of which
our words are symbols, are themselves only symbols of the things
there. The feeling I had, however, (for I was now identified with my
soul, and had forgotten all about my body)--the feeling I had was that
of sitting alone beside a river. What kind of country it was I can
hardly describe, for there was nowhere any definite colour or form,
only a suggestion, such as I have seen in drawings, of vast infinite
tracts of empty space. I could not even say there was light or
darkness, for my organ of perception did not seem to be the eye; only
I was aware of an emotional effect similar to that of twilight, cold,
grey, and formless as night itself. The silence was absolute, if
indeed silence it were, for it was not by the ear that I perceived
either sound or its absence; but something there was, analogous to
silence in its effect And in the midst of the silence and the twilight
(since so I must call them) flowed the river, or what seemed such,
distinguishable, as I thought at first, rather by the fact that it
flowed, than by any peculiarity of substance, colour, or form, from
the stretches of empty space that formed its banks. But presently,
as I looked more closely, I saw, rising from its surface, dipping,
rising, and dipping again, in a regular rhythm, without change or
pause, what I can only compare to a shoal of flying fish. Not that
they looked like fish, or indeed like anything I had ever seen, but
that was the image suggested by their motion. As soon as I saw them
I knew what they were: they were souls; and the river down which they
passed was the river of Time; and their dipping in and out again was
the sequence of their lives and deaths.
"All this did not surprise me at all. Rather, I felt it was
something I had always known, yet something inexpressibly flat and
disillusioning. 'Of course!' I said to myself, or thought, or whatever
may have been my mode of cognition--'Of course! That is it, and that
is all! Souls are indeed immortal--why should we ever have imagined
otherwise? They are immortal, and what of it? I see the death-side
now as I saw the life-side then; and one has as little meaning as the
other. As it has been, so it will be, now, henceforth, and for ever,
in and out, in and out, without pause or stint, futile, trivial,
silly, stale, tedious, monotonous, and vain!' The long pre-occupation
of men with religion, philosophy, and art, seemed to me now as
incomprehensible as it was ridiculous. There was nothing after all to
be interested about! There was simply this! The dreariness of my mood
was indescribable, and corresponded so closely to the scene before
me that I found myself wondering which was effect, which cause. The
silence, the tracts of unformed space, the unsubstantial river, the
ceaseless vibration along its surface of infinite moving points,
all this was a reflex of my thoughts and they of it. My misery was
Intolerable; to escape became my only object; and with this in view I
rose and began to move, I knew not whither, along the silent shore.
"As I went, I presently became aware of what looked like high towers
standing along the margin of the stream. I say they looked like
towers, but I should rather have said they symbolized them; for they
had no specific shape, round or square, nor any definite substance
or dimensions. They suggested rather, if I may say so, the idea of
verticality; and otherwise were as blank and void of form or colour as
everything else in this strange land. I made my way towards them along
the bank; and when I had come close under the first, I saw that there
was a door in it, and written over the door, in a language I cannot
now recall, but which then I knew that I had always known, an
inscription whose sense was:
"'_I am the Eye; come into me and see_.'
"Miserable as I was, it was impossible that I should hesitate; I did
not know, it is true, what might await me within, but it could not be
worse and might well be better than my present plight. The door was
open; I stepped in; and no sooner had I crossed the threshold than I
was aware of an experience more extraordinary and delightful than it
had ever been my lot to encounter. I had the sensation of seeing light
for the first time! For hitherto, as I have tried to explain, though
it has been necessary to speak in terms of sight, I have done so
only by a metaphor, and it was not really by vision that I became
acquainted with the scene I have described. But now I saw, and saw
pure light! And yet not only saw, but, as I thought apprehended it
with the other senses, both with those we know and with others of
which we have not yet dreamt. I heard light, I tasted and touched it,
it enveloped and embraced me; I swam in it as in an element, wafted
and washed and luxuriantly lapped. Pure light, and nothing else!
No objects, at first! It was only by degrees, and as the first
intoxication subsided, that I began to be aware of anything but the
medium itself. I saw then that I was standing at what seemed to be a
window, looking out over the scene I had just left But how changed it
was! The river now, like a blue and golden snake, ran through a sunny
champaign bright with flowers; above it hung a cloudless summer sky;
and the happy souls went leaping in and out like dolphins on a calm
day in the Mediterranean. On all this I gazed with inexpressible
delight; but as I looked an extraordinary thing occurred. The flowery
plain before me seemed to globe itself into a sphere; the blue river
clasped it like a girdle; for a moment it hung before me like a star,
then opened out and split into a thousand more, and these again into
others and yet others, till a whole heaven of stars was revolving
about me in the most wonderful dance-measure you can conceive,
infinitely complex, but never for a moment confused, for the stars
were of various colours, more beautiful far than any of ours, and by
these, as they crossed and intertwined in exquisite harmonies, the
threads of the intricate figure were kept distinct.
"What I was looking upon, I knew, was the same heaven that our
astronomers describe; only I was privileged actually to perceive
the movements they can only infer and predict. For here on earth our
faculties are proportioned to our needs, and our apprehension of time
and change is measured by units too small for us to be able to embrace
by sense the large and spacious circuits of the stars. But I, in my
then condition, had powers commensurate with all existence; so that
not only could I follow with the eye the coils of that celestial
morrice, but in each one of the whirling orbs, as they approached
or receded in the dance, I could trace, so far as I was minded,
the course of its secular history; whole series of changes and
transformations such as we laboriously infer, from fossils and rocks
and hard unmalleable things, being there (as though petrifaction were
reversed and solidest things made fluid) unrolled before me, molten
and glowing and swift, in a stream of torrential evolution whose
moments were centuries. Wonderful it was, and strange, to see the
first trembling film creep like a mantle over a globe of fire, shiver,
and break, and form again, and gradually harden and cohere, now
crushed into ridges and pits, now extended into plains, and tossing
the hissing seas from bed to bed, as the levels of the viscous surface
rose and fell. Wonderful, too, when the crust was formed and life
became possible, how everywhere, in wet or dry, hot or cold alike,
wherever footing could be found, came up and flourished and decayed
things that root and things that move, winged or finned or legged,
creeping, flying, running, breeding, in mud or sand, in jungle,
forest, and marsh, pursuing and pursued, devouring and devoured,
pairing, contending, killing, things huge beyond belief, mammoth
and icthyosaurus, things minute and numerous past the power of
calculation, coming and going as they could find space, species
succeeding to species, and crowding every point and vantage for life
on the heaving tumultuous bosom of eddying worlds.
"Wonderful it was, but terrible, too; for what struck me with a kind
of chill, even while I was wrapt in admiration, was the fact that
though everything was in constant change, and in the change there was
clearly an order and routine, yet I could not detect anything that
seemed like purpose. Direction there was, but not direction to an end;
for the end was no better than the beginning, it was only different;
the idea of Good, in short, did not apply. And this fact, which was
striking enough in the case of the phenomena I have described, made
itself felt with even more insistence when I turned to consider the
course of human history. For that too I saw unrolled before me, not
only on our own, but on innumerable other worlds, in various phases
and in various forms, both those which we know, and others of which we
have no conception, and which I am now quite unable to recall. Men
I saw housing in caves, or on piles in swamps and lakes, dwellers in
wagons and tents, hunters, or shepherds under the stars, men of the
mountain, men of the plain, of the river-valley and the coast, nomad
tribes, village tribes, cities, kingdoms, empires, wars and peace,
politics, laws, manners, arts and sciences. Yet in all this, so far as
I could observe, although, through all vacillations, there appeared
to be a steady trend in a definite direction, there was nothing to
indicate what we call purpose. Men, I saw, had ideas about Good, but
these ideas of theirs, though they were part of the efficient causes
of events, were in no sense the explanation of the process. There
was no explanation, for there was no final cause, no purpose, end, or
justification at all. Man, like nature, was the plaything of a blind
fate. The idea of Good had no application.
"The horror I felt as this truth (for so I thought it) was borne in
upon me was proportioned to my previous delight. I had now but one
desire, to escape, even though it were only back to what I had left.
And as the Angel-Boys in 'Faust' cry out to Pater Seraphicus for
release, when they can no longer bear the sights they see through
his eyes, so I, in my anguish, cried, 'Let me out! Let me out!' And
instantly I found myself standing again at the foot of the tower, in
that land of twilight, silence, and infinite space, with the souls
going down the river, in and out, in and out, futile, trivial,
tedious, monotonous, and vain. Looking up, I saw written over the door
from which I had emerged, and which was opposite to that by which I
had entered, words whose sense was:
"'_Eye hath not seen_.'
"I walked round the Tower, and found a third door facing the river; and
over that was written:
"But all these doors were now closed; nor indeed, had they been open,
should I have felt any inclination to renew the experience from which
I had escaped. I therefore turned away sadly enough and made my way
along the bank towards the second tower.
"Over the door of this was written in the same language as before:
"'_I am the Ear; come into me and hear_.'
"The door was open, and I went in, this time with some apprehension,
but with still more curiosity and hope. No sooner was I within than I
was overwhelmed by an experience analogous to that which had greeted
me in the Tower of Sight, but even more ravishingly sweet. This time
what I felt was the sensation of pure sound: sound, not merely heard,
but, as before in the case of light, apprehended at once by every
avenue of sense, and folding and sustaining, as it seemed, my whole
being in a clear and buoyant element of tone. It was only by degrees
that out of this absolute essence of sheer sound distinctions of
rhythm and pitch began to appear, and to assume definite musical form.
The theme at first was pastoral and sweet, suggestive of rustling
grasses and murmuring reeds, interwoven with which was an exquisite
lilting tune, the song of the souls as they sped down the river.
But one by one other elements crept into the strain; it increased in
volume and variety of tone, in complexity of rhythm and tune, till it
grew at length into a symphony so august, so solemn, and so profound,
that there is nothing I know of in our music here to which I can fitly
compare it. It reminded me, however, of Wagner more than of any other
composer, in the richness of its colour, the insistence and force of
its rhythms, its fragments of ineffable melody, and above all, its
endless chromatic sequences, for ever suggesting but never actually
reaching the full close which I knew not whether most to dread or
to desire. The music itself was wonderful enough; but more wonderful
still was my clear perception, while I listened, that what was being
presented to me now through the medium of sound was precisely the same
world which I had seen from the Tower of Sight. Every phenomenon, and
sequence of phenomena, which I had witnessed there, I recognized now,
in appropriate musical form. The foundation of all was a great basal
rhythm, given out on something that throbbed like drums, terrible in
its persistence and yet beautiful too; and this, I knew, represented
the mechanical basis of the world, the processes which science
knows as 'laws of motion' and the like, but which really, as I then
perceived, might more aptly be described as the more inveterate of
Nature's habits. Upon this foundation, which varied, indeed, but by
almost imperceptible gradations, was built up an infinitely complex
structure of intermediate parts, increasing from below upwards in
freedom, ease and beauty of form, till high above all floated on the
ear snatches of melody, haunting, poignant, meltingly tender, or,
as it might be, martial and gay exquisite in themselves, yet never
complete, fragments rather, as it seemed, of some theme yet to come,
which they had hardly time to suggest before they were torn, as it
were, from their roots and sent drifting down the stream, to reappear
in new settings, richer combinations, and fairer forms; and these, I
knew, were symbols of the lives and deaths of conscious beings.
"As this character of the music and its representative meaning grew
gradually clearer to me, there began to mingle with my delight a
certain feeling of anguish. For while, on the one hand, I passionately
desired to hear given out in full the theme which as yet had been only
suggested in fragmentary hints, on the other, I knew that with its
appearance the music would come to a close, just at the moment when
its cessation would involve the keenest revulsion of feeling. And this
moment, I felt, was rapidly approaching. The rhythm grew more and
more rapid, the instruments scaled higher and higher, the tension of
chromatic progressions was strained to what seemed breaking point,
till suddenly, with an effect as though a stream, long pent in a
gorge, had escaped with a burst into broad sunny meadows, the whole
symphony broke away into the major key, and high and clear, chanted,
as it seemed, on ten thousand trumpets, silver, aethereal, and
exquisitely sweet for all their resonant clangour, I heard the
ultimate melody of things. For a moment only; for, as I had foreseen,
with the emergence of that air, the music came abruptly to a close;
and I found myself sitting bathed in tears at the door of the tower on
the opposite side to that by which I had entered; and there once more
was the land of silence, twilight, and infinite space, with the
souls going down the river, in and out, in and out, futile, trivial,
tedious, monotonous and vain!
"As soon as I had recovered myself, I looked up and saw written over
the door the inscription:
"'_Ear hath not heard_.'
"And going round to the side facing the river, I saw there inscribed:
"Whereupon, full of perplexity, I made my way down towards the third
tower, reflecting, as I went; in a curious passion at once of hope and
fear, 'Neither this, then, nor that, neither Eye nor Ear, has given me
what I sought. Each is a symbol; but this, as it seems, a more perfect
symbol than that; for it, at least, is Beauty, and the other was only
Power. But is there, then, nothing but symbols? Or shall I, in one of
these towers, shall I perhaps find the thing that is symbolized?'
"By this time I had reached the third tower, and over the door facing
me I saw written:
"'_I am the Heart; come into me and feel_.'
"I entered without hesitation, and this time I was met by an experience
even stranger and more delightful than before, but also, I fear, more
indescribable. At first, I was aware of nothing but a pure feeling,
which was not of any particular sense, (as, before, of sight and
hearing,) but was rather, I think, the general feeling of Life itself,
the kind of diffused sensation of well-being one has in health,
underlying all particular activities. In this sensation I seemed, as
before, to be lapped, as in an element; but this time the feeling
did not pass. On the contrary, I found, when I came to myself, that I
actually was in the river, leaping along with the other souls in such
an ecstasy of physical delight as I have never felt before or since.
Such, at least, was my first impression; but gradually it changed
into something which I despair of rendering in words, for indeed I
can hardly render it in my own thoughts. Conceive, however, that as,
according to the teaching of science, every part of matter is affected
by every other, insomuch that, as they say, the fall of an apple
disturbs the balance of the universe; so, in my experience then, (and
this, I believe, is really true) all souls were intimately connected
by spiritual ties. Nothing that happened in one but was somehow or
other, more or less obscurely, reflected in the rest, so that all were
so closely involved and embraced in a network of fine relations that
they formed what may be compared to a planetary system, sustained
in their various orbits by force of attraction and repulsion,
distinguished into greater and lesser constellations, and fulfilling
in due proportion their periods and paths under the control of
spiritual laws. Of this system I was myself a member; about me were
grouped some of my dearest friends; and beyond and around stretched
away, like infinite points of light, in a clear heaven of passion,
the world of souls. I speak, of course, in a figure, for what I am
describing in terms of space, I apprehended through the medium of
feeling; and by 'feeling' I mean all degrees of affection, from
extreme of love to extreme of hate. For hate there was, as well as
love, the one representing repulsion, the other attraction; and by
their joint influence the whole system was sustained. It was not,
however, in equilibrium; at least, not in stable equilibrium. There
was a trend, as I soon became aware, towards a centre. The energy of
love was constantly striving to annihilate distance and unite in a
single sphere the scattered units that were only kept apart by the
energy of hate. This effort I felt proceeding in every particular
group, and, more faintly, from one group to another: I felt it with
an intensity at once of pain and of rapture, such as I cannot now even
imagine, much less describe; and most of all did I feel it within
the limits of my own group, of which some of those now present
were members. But within this group in particular I was aware of an
extraordinary resistance. One of its members, I thought, (I mention no
names,) steadily refused either to form a closer union with the rest
of us, or to enter into more intimate relations with other groups.
This resistance I felt in the form of an indescribable tension, a
tension which grew more and more acute, till suddenly the whole system
seemed to collapse, and I found myself in darkness and alone, being
dragged down, down, by the cord which attached me to my body. At the
same time there was a roaring in my ears, and I saw my body, as I
thought, like a fearful wild beast with open jaws; it swallowed me
down, and I awoke with a shock to find myself in the operator's room,
with a voice in my ears which somehow sounded like Audubon's, though
I afterwards ascertained it was really that of the assistant, uttering
the rather ridiculous words, 'I don't see why!'
"That, then, was the end of my dream, and I have never since been able
to continue it, and to discover what was written over the other doors
of the third tower, or what lay within the towers I did not enter.
So that I have had to go on ever since with the knowledge I then
acquired, that whatever Reality may ultimately be, it is in the life
of the affections, with all its confused tangle of loves and hates,
attractions, repulsions, and, worst of all, indifferences, it is
in this intricate commerce of souls that we may come nearest to
apprehending what perhaps we shall never wholly apprehend, but the
quest of which alone, as I believe, gives any significance to life,
and makes it a thing which a wise and brave man will be able to
persuade himself it is right to endure."
With that I ended; and Wilson was just beginning to explain to me
that my dream had no real significance, but was just a confused
reproduction of what I must have been thinking about before I took
the aether, when we were interrupted by the arrival of tea. In the
confusion that ensued Audubon came over to me and said: "It was
curious your dreaming that about me, for it is exactly the way I
"Of course it is," I replied, "and that, no doubt, is why I dreamt
"Well," he said, "you can say what you like, but I really do _not_ see
why!" And with that the conversation I had to report closed.
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