Vernon Lee.

Baldwin: being dialogues on views and aspirations online

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and fancy seemed only right and natural : her own
beauty was an abstraction, unconnected with material
wants or purposes.

"But thought can never approach emotion, or any
of the realities of our inner life," she persisted ; " if it
does, it becomes absolutely inconsistent. Look at
Stuart Mill ; there was a man, if ever there .were, who
might be considered as the incarnation of logic and
utilitarianism. Well, Stuart Mill, while believing
firmly that there survived of his dead wife nothing
that might derive pleasure or profit from any posthu-
mous expression of love and respect, yet did all that
he could in the way of such expressions of love and
respect. Yet this man was the most logical and
practical that ever lived. Surely this is enough to
show the uselessness of logic."

" By no means," answered Baldwin. " Logic, while
explaining to Mill that there could remain of his wife
nothing to appreciate such demonstrations on his


part, explained or might have explained to him also
that it was impossible for the complicated train of
emotional action and reaction set up in his mind by
his wife whileshe was living, to be cut short, snuffed
out like her physical existence. Logic explained that
the image of her must persist much longer than the
reality ; nay, that the very act of dying, which put an
end to her objective existence, must inevitably, by
the sudden heightening of desire and appreciation
and vivid imaginative perception implied in grief,
have immensely reinforced this emotional activity
which resulted in a sense of her presence to the

" That is true," interrupted Marcel, to whom all
personal psych61ogy had a peculiar charm ; " indeed,
I question whether there is a moment of subjective
existence, of existence in the consciousness of others,
superior to that immediately following on death, that
is to say, on the cessation of all objective existence."

" Hence," continued Baldwin, " while logic, applied
narrowly, shows us that Mrs. Stuart Mill could not
profit by her husband's expressions of grief and
affection ; logic also, when applied more largely, to
the cause and not to the result, shows us that it must
have seemed to her husband's feelings as if these
expressions would give her satisfaction. In the same
way, while logic explains that this or that religious
belief is absolutely mistaken, it explains also why
that same religious belief has been or is inevitable in
given circumstances."


" That," put in Carlo, " is the difference between
the attitude of Renan and modern students of
religions, and the attitude of the old school, who
thought that because dogmas were absurd and per-
nicious, the men who taught them — the Bonzes, Fakirs,
and Old Men of the Mountain, as Voltaire calls
them in his stories — must have been either knaves or

" Exactly," said Baldwin. " And it is one of the
practical, strictly utilitarian advantages of logic that
it teaches us why we must sometimes be illogica:l."

They rowed on for some while in silence, absorbed
once more in the strange beauty of the islands and
sandbanks which their gondola skirted on its north-
ward way towards Venice. Broken only by orchards
was a long line of little villages, their rows of houses
reflected in the sea — houses whose red scoriated
bricks, and worn white and rose-coloured plaster,
illumined with intensity by the reflected light from
the water, had, against the lilac blue, hot, opaque sky
printed with slender pink belfries and white-funnel,
shaped chimneys, a strange powdery brilliancy of
colour, full of thick white and rose as of pastel :
unreal, exquisite in tone, like some canvas by
Veronese, or fresco by Tiepolo. Indeed, only the sea
seemed real, consistent, made of something less
illusory than delicate tinted chalks on reddish pre-
pared paper ; the sea, with white and orange sails
flecking it like butterflies, which was of a thick marble


smoothness, grey with blue and lilac veinings, and
opalescences, in the low light, as of glass spun with
gold dust.

" But as logic, even according to you, Baldwin,"
remarked Marcel, "is perpetually teaching us that
we cannot be logical, so also, in the course of
discussing any kind of practical matter, we are con-
stantly learning that all such discussion is vain.
The longer one lives the more plainly one sees,
unless one be a fool or a fanatic, that the world is
made up of one-sided views on all matters, obstinate,
not to be reasoned with, because constitutional ; that
wherever one expects to be able to reason out a'
truth for oneself and others, the place is already filled;
by bulky preconceived ideas, or guarded by in-!
vincible preconceiving tendencies. Where is cer-
tainty? Where is reason.? Nowhere, perhaps, save
in the very fact of that conflict between excessive
views. Here again, therefore, logic can demonstrate
only logic's practical impotence."

"I quite agree with you," answered Baldwin, "that
the intellectual and moral life of the world is largely
carried on by means of exaggeration, prejudice, and
injustice. Every day impresses me m6re and more
with the seeming necessity of excess in all things
in order that excess may be checked. I am some-
times quite oppressed by the sense that one idiotcy,
one selfishness, nay, one dangerous enthusiasm or
dangerous self-sacrifice, is required to balance and
correct some other."


" But then," exclaimed Carlo, suddenly resting on
his oar, " is no one to see the light ? Are we all to
be excessive, unjust, monstrous, having our injurious
excessive opinions and actions counteracted by those
of others ; and counteracting, rendering nugatory,
theirs ? Is the world to be carried oh thanks to our
irrationalism and pigheadedness and self-righteous-
ness and selfishness?"

" I don't know," replied Baldwin : " it certainly
seems as if justice and lucidity were scarcely com-
patible with feeling and action ; as if seeing all
things would prevent doing anything. But after all,
is it necessary that the person who understands and
judges should be the one who at that moment feels
and acts ? Is it not sufficient that, as Butler said
better than Herbert Spencer could say it, we should all

' Compound for sins we have a mind to
By damning those we're not inclined to'?"

Is it not sufficient that each of us should, turn about,
correct by his power of seeing the power of feeling
of another, and be corrected in his turn ; or will not
a habit of seeing lucidly and judging justly when we
are not in the moment of feeling and acting, prepare,
as it were, a safer channel in which our feeling and
action may flow? Must conflict inevitably imply
wastefulness and destruction? Sometimes it seems
to me that it must ; that of wastefulness and
destruction consists all life. But it is this waste-
fulness and destruction which makes life as sterile


as death. Surely the day will come when the con-
flict of mere constitutions, of mere inherent ten-
dencies and interests, may be enough ; the conflict of
partial truth with partial truth, not of error with
error. I believe meanwhile in the possibility of
compromise instead of conflict ; I pray for the
equitable distribution of belief and scepticism, of
pushing on and hanging back ; and I pray, therefore,
for the reign of lucidity, which is the reign also of

Marcel shook his head.

" You are an optimist, Baldwin," he said, sadly.

" Not at all. I am merely not a pessimist. Marcel."

"You speak, Baldwin," put in Olivia, "as if the
result of what you call lucidity would be certainty.
But what do we see in the moments — very rare
moments — when the scales of personality seem to
fall from our eyes, when there comes to us a reve-
lation of the real reality of the world and our
position in it .? I see that every creature is a centre,
a meeting-point of different and incongruous ideas ;
that each creature understands and tolerates and
loves so many creatures and ideas and tendencies
which hate one another ; that each creature is a
sort of point of justice, a point of equilibrium, a
centre, as I said ; and that each creature is at the
same time a diverging ray in some other system ;
is, as regards some other person's feelings and ideas,
a misunderstanding, an injustice, a blindness; that


each of us is at once a reconciler and an irrecon-
cilable, a dealer out of justice and a judged thing.
And thus on, circle cutting circle, centre touching
circumference, rays uniting and diverging in all
directions, all moving, whirling, acting, reacting ; an
universe of egos, of wills and judgments and feelings, to
which the stars in the heavens, with their interlacing
systems, are as a diagram in the first book of Euclid.
Have you ever grasped that ; and if you have, do,
you not know the paralyzing awe of that moment
of comprehension ? "

Baldwin nodded.

"I have realized it, I do realize it every now
and then. But such a knowledge has virtually no
effect on our feelings and actions, any more than
the knowledge that this seemingly steady earth is
spinning about at a furious rate; or that our body,
which seems so completely ourself, is for ever
changing and being made anew. Such things go
against our consciousness. We see, at most, and not
every one sees even so much, that there are other
centres and other circles which cut our own. To
do this is as much as we can permanently realize
without falling into a kind of metaphysical trance ;
and it is therefore enough, and more than enough."

" But this metaphysical trance carries us into the
presence of Truth," answered Olivia, " even as the
mystic trance brought the saints of old into the
presence of God."



" And, as the gaints of old, indulging in this
mystic trance, ceased to feel or act, so should we
also cease to feel and act, cease to be of any use
in this world, were we to indulge in such meta-
physical contemplations ; growing dizzy and cata-
leptic from trying to fix our mental eyes upon more
than we can see. Such truth as you speak of is
not truth with reference to our nature : we are
individual, limited, and cannot grasp the infinite and

" We can and we should," cried Olivia. " Not
the larger and most remote infinite and absolute —
for, as measured by our faculties, there is infinite
beyond infinite, absolute beyond absolute, a series
of ever receding horizons. There is in all of us
something that makes us akin to the universal and
absolute, there is in our souls somewhat of the
infinite ; though limited on all sides by the barriers
of personality, though prevented, by the narrow
vessel which contains it, from mingling freely in
the ocean of infinite life and thought and feeling.
Our every aspiration, our every ideal, proves it : we
at least the nobler of us, are striving for ever to get
beyond the actual, the narrow, to press forward
towards something in which we may rest in satisfac-
tion and peace ; love, art, the desire to know, all
prove this."

" I fear," put in Baldwin, with a smile, "that I am,
then, not of the nobler sort. I notice, indeed in


others, and I feel in myself, those aspirations and
ideals which you describe, those strivings for more
complete satisfaction. I know that when we pursue
beauty or truth, that when we idealize, as we always
do, ,any beloved object, we are manifesting dissatis-
faction with the reality of things and of ourselves.
But I know also that these desires and strivings are
merely the expansion of our individuality, not the
breaking its bounds ; they are the efforts to obtain
a response to, our most personal cravings, not the
efforts to be rid of our personality. If we desire to
see the manifestation of greater goodness or beauty
than habitually comes before us, it is merely as we
desire to eat a greater amount of food, to get a
greater amount of sleep, or take a greater amount of
exercise than at present : our individual powers are
clamouring for satisfaction. The iniinite and the
absolute have nothing to do with this."

" You do not understand," persisted Olivia, " or
rather you refuse to understand, Baldwin. There is
the positive desire to get rid of our individuality ; to
get rid of the personality which prevents our seeing
the whole truth and feeling the complete tr^th "

" To be, in short, less naughty and less stupid
than we are," put in Baldwin ; " to improve "

" No, not to impi'ove. To cease to be ourselves,
to cease to live our lives ; to live in a larger life not
our own, to see and feel vision and feelings vaster
than ours."


" Hero-worship, then. You wish to abdicate your
emotions and ideas into the hands of some one else."

"I do not wish to abdicate in favour of anyone,
although that also is a great temptation : to feel a
larger life than one's own. I wish merely, in this
case, to get rid of my own personality, moral and
mental and physical."

" That would be a dreadful loss to every one,"
murmured Marcel, his eyes fixed upon that strange
diaphanous blond beauty, less a woman, as he had
once remarked, than a series of exquisite movements.

" My own personality which is for ever hampering
and checking me, preventing me from moving ;
getting between myself and the things I desire to
see and embrace. And also," added Olivia, a sort of
childish waywardness and impertinence coming over
her, " I wish to get rid of the tiresome, contradictory,
doctrinaire, utilitarian personality of other folk."

Baldwin smiled and bowed.

The sun was beginning to set in a sky of perfect
purity ; and as the gondola glided over' the lagoon
towards the westernmost point of Venice, the shallow
water was turned into a pavement veined and streaked
like jasper, almost solid in its marble stillness, and
tesselated with gold, down whose middle ran a narrow
golden pathway, leading towards a strip of shining,
steel-like water, above which, and above the vague
grey line of terra firma, the sun was descending, a
vast disc of gold.


" I wish," went on Olivia, screening her eyes with
her hand, and looking far into the sunset, as if indeed,
as Marcel had suggested, its golden causeway might
lead into the mysterious country where the soul strips
off all individual baseness and falls asleep in the
wings of the ideal — " I wish, I long, to shuffle off my
own self and all the pettinesses of identity. I should
like to stand in the presence of absolute truth and
absolute good, to feel myself absorbed into the
real reality."

Baldwin smiled.

" You are a poet. Do you not also wish to walk to
the rainbow's foot and dig for the gold that is buried |
there ? As the rainbow has no foot, and you might
walk on till doomsday without finding the place to
dig in, so also this transcendent good and transcen-
dent truth would for ever elude you. It is an
abstraction, and does not exist."

" But abstractions are the only real realities," cried
Olivia ; " they are the only things which do not

" They do not change simply because they do not
reallyexist. Theyaremerely the expressionof ourmode
of seeing things intellectually. All these fine things
which we make into ideals exist only in our mind ;
and it is for that reason that they can be our ideals.
Mankind — the humanity which our Comtiste friends
would bid us worship, where may it be found ? Has
any one seen it yet ? Is it a crowd ? No ; it is an


abstraction. The real existence is the individual
man, and of him endless numbers, the individual man
with his necessities and powers and vices and virtues.
And so also of good and truth : real good and real
truth is the good which each man does and aspires to.
do, the truth that he sees and strives to see. In order
to increase this good and this truth, we must increase
it in the individual. To destroy the personality in
hopes of getting at a higher good or a higher truth is
to cut off one's head to cure the toothache. Prune
away the base peculiarities, improve the individual by
comparing him with as many other individuals as you
like ; make an abstraction, if you please, of all that
you love best in all individuals ; but do not expect
that this abstraction can ever become a reality except
in each separate creature ; do not strive to grasp
what remains only as a mental conception, an
emotional desire. We are the sole realities, we
individuals ; and our law is the improvement of the
individual : to loosen the individual's limits and
become united with transcendent good or transcen-
dent truth, is to be dissolved into nothingness."

Olivia was silent for a minute. She respected
Baldwin, and perceived his greater lucidity of thought,
the stronger grasp he possessed over ideas ; and she
could not deny that what he said seemed true. But
a habit of certain modes of imagination and feeling
which she mistook for ideas, the essentially poetical
bias of her nature that, loving metaphysics, she mis-


took for a peculiar speculative aptitude, prevented her
from being satisfied with his conclusions. The tran-
scendent, the mysterious, fascinated her imagination ;
and she believed in its existence as, in her childhood,
she would have believed that, could they only row out
sufficiently long, they would have reached, not the
sandbank, and stagnant waters, and stunted willows
of the mainland, but the real country of the setting

" But, Baldwin," she persisted, " have you never
felt choked by your own personality — choked as a man
buried alive would feel choked by the bricks and
mortar and earth ? Have you never felt that you were
being prevented, not by any one else, but by your own
self, from being just, from uniting, as you should, in
sympathy and affection with some person outside
you ? "

" I know what you mean ; " answered Baldwin, "but
that does not prove that we should or could unite
ourself with any abstract truth or good. It means
merely, I think, that we are some of us, perhaps most
(perhaps all), made, so to speak, of several pieces ; of
an inner and innermost myself and of a number of
outer ones. It means, what we have, alas ! nearly all
of us, occasion to experience, that our real soul which
can appreciate, love, help, is sometimes fenced in, as
the just king is in his palace, by a crowd of habits of
thought and manner, of accidentally or deliberately
made up spurious myselfs hedging the reality in, pre-


venting it from seeing other realities, or at least from
uniting with them. I think, were we to look round in
our past, we should most of us see some cause we
ought to have joined, some friend we ought to have
loved, which have passed across our life and been
nothing in it."

Marcel had been sitting, "meditating a description,"
as Carlo maliciously defined it to himself, looking
before him over the water as the gondola advanced
across the sea floor paved with golden scales, in the
direction of the little black island of Saint George of
the Sea- Weed, with its lonely madonna shrine on the
watery path standing out against the amber of the
sky, out of which the sun was slowly descending into
a narrow pool of silver-sparkling water ; turning his
eyes sometimes from the scarce endurable sunset
effulgence to the opposite side of the sky, where it
and the water were of vague, coldest moonlight blue,
with the little crescent moon rising and the black
fishing boats moored motionless.

Although his pessimism and a vague poeticalness
frequently led him to sigh after an extinction of the
individual, a blissful nirvana that should deliver him
of a soul which he felt to be unhealthy and ill at ease.
Marcel, as a prominent member of the school of
psychological criticism, or, as some consider it, of soul
pathology studied in artificially induced cases, could
not hear Olivia's abuse of the individual without
feeling that she would deprive him ol what made the


world and himself supremely interesting in his eyes.
And the principles of his school of literary criticism —
a school which has much if not complete reason on
its side — were also aroused by this constant seeking
after an abstract and absolute standard of truth and
right which seemed to him a positive nuisance.

" I think," he said, " that by attempting to deprive
us of personality in all matters of thought, Miss
Olivia would be incurring the risk of depriving us of
the few things that we really and thoroughly study ;
depriving us, in the desire of something more absolute
in the way of truth, of an invaluable subject of
scientific research and aid thereunto. Take, for an
instance, the sphere of intellectual activity with which
I am myself best acquainted : that of criticism. The
new school of criticism, like the new school of history,
is altogether personal ; it purports to show how certain
works of art, or philosophical schemes, or men or
historical periods, aiTect the mind of the individual
critic ; instead, as was formerly the case, of pretending
to judge of all such things according to certain abstract
rules. Now, if a critic is content to give you his
impressions, you may, by being shown at once what
manner of mind is his, and what manner of impres-
sion that mind is likely to receive — you may, I say,
make allowance for the action and I'eaction, strike an
average, and thus get for yourself an idea of the
absolute potentiality, say, of the book he is writing
about. But if, on the contrary, the critic measures


the book according to a standard, you have first to
verify that standard, to find out whence he got it, and
whether it coincides with your own ; and tlien, beneath
all this remains the inevitable conviction that the
adoption of the standard or the particular application
thereof in the present case, is merely an expression of
the nature and limits of the critic's personality. The
question may be tested by examining who are the
people (not Miss Olivia, for her aversion to personality
is quite of another sort) that are most violently in
favour of the old and against the new school of
criticism. You will find that they are nearly always
people either with a constitutional aversion to any
sort of intrusiveness and meddlesomeness ; or with a
magisterial or slavish fear of presumptuousness, of
want of deference from the unknown towards the
consecrated. Myself, the longer I live, the more also
do I feel how completely this world is made up of
relative appreciations ; how useless and absurd it is to
attempt to get at a positive one. We must think
according to our mind's organization ; we must con-
tinually select the judgments of others and balance
them against each other and our own ; and other
folk must do the same with ours. We are bound, by
our constitution, to feel, each and all of us, the centre
of that great system of circles, whose centre, as Miss
Olivia remarked, is nowhere. Hence it seems to mc
that it were a great step in the direction of seeing
the value of opinions, let alone their genesis and


filiation, if personality could be reinstated in our
books of criticism and philosophy. Is it nothing to
have learned the secret of such characters as Renan
and Michelet, as your Carlyle and Ruskin ? And is
it not far easier for us to calculate what may be the
actual value of these men's opinions, by knowing the
characteristics in which they orighiate ? "

Carlo, who was consumed with the desire to be
modern, and therefore to be personal, let go his oar
and clapped his hands.

" Long live personal criticism ! " he cried, " and
long live Marcel ! And allow his abject admirer to
sum up the matter in a more or less brutal formula :
Shall we not gain immensely by- having the pseudo-
scientific, or rather pseudo-religious, impersonal dog-
matism of judgment according to standards, or
supposed standards, replaced : in the aesthetic world,
by men's impressions ; in the intellectual world by
their opinions ; in the moral world by their enthusiasms
and indignations ? Shall we not gain by human beings
showing themselves to be human beings, instead of
abstract entities, clothed in paper and printer's ink .'"

They were turning the corner of one of the outlying
islands, and making straight for Venice, when the
sun disappeared, leaving behind it at first but a palest
yellow, against which the jagged line of the
Cadore Alps, the egg-shaped Euganean hills, became

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Online LibraryVernon LeeBaldwin: being dialogues on views and aspirations → online text (page 19 of 22)