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William Rounseville Alger.

The solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life online

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to their children physical deformities ? My first years
were extremely sad and lonely. When I was only six
years old, my mother died ; and, brought up in scenes of
mourning, perhaps I acquired the habitude of melan-
choly." " Several causes belonging to my nature, inte-
rior and exterior, very early turned me back upon myself.
My soul was my first horizon. Ah, how long I gaze
there ! I see vapors rise from the bottom of my being as
out of a deep valley, and take form under the breath of
chance, indescribable phantoms which ascend slowly
and without cessation. The powerful fascination which
this monotonous spectacle exerts on me makes it impos-
sible for me to turn my eyes from it for a moment."

The two chains of physical pain and moral pain held
him fast in an over-acute consciousness of himself. He
says he often suffered inexpressibly " from sudden con-
traction of his being after an extreme dilatation." His
profound and strange misery is to a large extent suscep-
tible of a physiological explanation. It resulted from the
possession of a faculty of life much greater than its sup
ply. His soul was a noble engine with insufficient fuel
and fire, and the incongruity produced agonizing want.
His spirit was effusively expansive : his nerves scantily
furnished. The former is seen in the close of a letter to



344 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

his friend Marzan : " I love you, and embrace you with all
the strength of my arms and my heart, at the risk of suf-
focating you with the one, and inundating you with the
other." The latter is betrayed in these dismal sentences :
" The moral expanse which my life embraces is like a
solitude covered by an iron heaven, motionless, without
seasons." "I project a shadow alone :, every form is
opaque, and struck with death. As in a march at night,
I go forward with the isolated feeling of my existence,
amidst the inert phantoms of all things." The flowers of
his being, the brain and 'heart, exhausted the roots ; and
this excessive spiritual vitality, based on a defective ani-
mal vitality, could not but manifest itself in misery. A
deficiency of organic force fixes attention unduly on the
experiences of loss, disappointment, decay. It sheds
paleness, and shadow over all things. It furnishes the
ideas of sorrow, hollowness, evanescence, and death as
the ever-ready links of association, to put their dominant
stamps on all things. It gives our transitions of con-
sciousness a downward movement. We settle from the
puissant to the petty, from the magnificent to the mean,
instead of soaring from the low and poor to the high and
grand. With abundant organic force and health, the
action of sympathy our spiritual connection with all out-
side of ourselves terminates in ascent and expansion,
enhancing our life. But in morbid, drained conditions,
the tendency of that action is towards descent and con-
traction, depressing and impoverishing us still more.
Then the universe grows ashy, life becomes bitter, the
leaden hue of death spreads over all, everywhere sounds
the lugubrious salutation of the brothers of La Trappe,
Frere, ilfaut inourir,

This was the case with the unhappy Maurice. The
aching voids of defective vitality continually recalled his
attention, and every meditation ended with vacancy and
death. His exquisite taste and proud ambition, joined
with his deep modesty and intense perception of the
standards of perfection, ought to have solaced him with
the joy of progressive attainments, but they stung him
with wretchedness; because, instead of risirg to fasten



MAURICE DE GUERIN. 345

with sympathetic appropriation on the higher ranks and
wider ranges of things, and stay there, after admiringly
regarding them, he sank in despair, to fasten on the ex-
amples of failure and thoughts of grief below. Every
contemplation of the glorious models of the masters end-
ed in mortification over his own defeats. " When I study
history, or the works of a great man, my imagination and
my desires burn ; but a thought quickly follows which
makes me bitterly feel the folly of my wild dreams ; for
no one has a lower opinion of me than I have myself."
" High above my head, far, far away, I seem to hear the
murmur of that world of thought and feeling to which I
aspire so often, but where I can never attain." " I wear
myself out in the most futile mental strainings, and make
no progress. My head seems dying ; and, when the wind
blows, I fancy I feel it, as if I were a tree, blowing
through a number of withered branches in my top. Study
is quite out of my power. Mental work brings on, not
drowsiness, but an irritable and nervous disgust." " I
am one of those who, I know not by what strange malady
of the soul, nourish a deep disgust for every social func-
tion save that of friendship. O, take me by the hand,
my friend, for I shall suffocate in the crowd if you do not
give me place."

Maurice affected solitude, simply as a protection from
influences and claims he was not strong enough to grap-
ple with. But "friendship," his sister Eugenie testifies,
" was his sweetest and strongest feeling, the one he most
thoroughly entered into, best liked to talk of, and took
with him, I may truly say, unto the tomb." On first draw-
ing near to Lamennais, he said he felt " that mysterious
trembling of which we are conscious when we approach
divine things and great men." Guerin suffered the same
trouble in his relations with other men as in his relations
with himself, the trouble which comes from fine affection
with lack of confidence and complacency. He seems to
have feared that his wretched inability to realize his own
aspirations would either make him an object of hopeless
unconcern to others, or else bring on him from them the
same dislike and condemnation he visited on himself.



346 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

This is a very original and interesting trait. The class to
whom it belongs is of the rarest. He looked not down
seeking the uplifted eye of homage ; he looked up for the
condescending eye of love. Most persons crave admira-
tion ; he craved compassion. He had none of that in-
domitable haughtiness which owns not a master and longs
to see the world at its feet ; his self-love rather delighted
to feast on praises. Avid of celebrity, according to his
own confession, he was more sensitive to scorn than to
any other injury. With this softer kind of pride, he had
the strongest feeling of his own wretched nothingness.
With a humility extremely affecting under the circum-
stances, " he thought he could be loved only by a soul
fond of stooping to an inferior, a strong soul desirous
of bending to a feeble one, not to adore, but to serve, to
console, to protect, as one does for the sick, a soul en-
dowed with a sensibility as lowly as it is profound, which
strips off the pride so natural even to love, in order to
put on the shroud of an obscure affection which the world
will not notice ; to. consecrate itself to a creature all
weak, languishing, and interior ; to concentrate all its rays
on a flower without brilliance, a tremulous and sorry
flower, which returns to it indeed those perfumes whose
sweetness charms and penetrates, but not those which
intoxicate and exalt to the happy madness of rapture."

Guerin strove heroically to conquer his misery; but
there were fatal errors in his methods. He needed spir-
itual rest, that his organism might accumulate force ; but
he kept up an incessant spiritual activity, an uninter-
rupted waste. " My thought is ever passing in review
things present and things absent ; and, always carrying
with itself the image of death, spreads a funeral veil over
the world, and never brings any object before me on its
smiling side." A wearing intellectual anxiety usurped
the place of the leisurely and complacent assimilation of
intellectual nourishment which he needed. Instead of
sedulously cultivating every means of avoiding introspec-
tive and critical thought, to give room for repose and re-
cuperation, the worse he suffered the more he analyzed
and criticised, still adding to the already excessive ex-
haustion.



MAURICE DE GUERIN. 347

The style of his thinking was as much at fault as its
persistency. If he could have made his transitions of
thought, outward and upward, to rest on great objects of
peace, permanent standards of duty and good, his ideas
would have reacted wholesomely on his body, radiating
a tonic refreshment through the nervous system. But, as
the last direction of his prevailing modes of mental asso-
ciation was inward and downward, returning from the
ideal to the actual, and stopping at last on personal de-
fects and longings, his ideas were constantly shedding
back irritating and melancholy influences on the body.
He says, " The idea of existence necessarily evokes the
idea of death. And, passing from the destiny and fragility
of man to his interior miseries, to the eternal trouble of
his heart, to the agonies which his passions cause, to that
astonishing mixture of haughtiness and weakness, of
grandeur and degradation, of complaints and hopes, of
finite and infinite, of perishable and immortal, who can
say, after having thus studied and dissected man, who
can say, I am happy here ? " Nothing can be more mor-
bid and pernicious than this manner of thinking. It uses
reason and imagination to aggravate the ills of our lot, by
ideally multiplying, intensifying, and extending them ;
whereas reason and imagination are properly used when
they supplement the poverty and neutralize the hurts of
the soul by taking our attention momentarily off from
petty errors, defeats, and woes, and fixing it permanently
on the grand truths, triumphs, and blessedness of exist-
ence. He thought too much : he should have trustfully
fallen back on rest. He thought too brain-sickly, turning
from what ought to be, to what is : he should in his
thought have turned from what is to what ought to be,
and gained serenity from the serene ideal.

Another injurious mistake he made was in the everlast-
ing diagnosis of himself, the ceaseless fingering of his
mer.'.al wounds. He knew and described his own case
with such profound exactness that it is surprising he did
not see the cure. That he did not perceive and practise
the true treatment for his disease was, however, less his
fault than the fault of the morbid theology and ethics in



348 SKETCHES OF LONELV CHARACTERS.

which he was trained. He followed the same course with
Petrarch, Pascal, and scores of other examples of un-
happy genius in modern times. Their panacea was self-
contempt, detachment, denial, annihilation. Our desires
torment us : let us renounce them, destroy them, die out
of ourselves into a patient waiting for God to redeem
us in eternity ! " My God ! " exclaims Guerin, " what I
suffer from life ! not in its accidents, a little philosophy
suffices there ; but in its very substance. As I go on in
age, my spirit drops a thousand spoils upon its path, ties
break, prejudices fall, I begin to show my head above the
flood ; but existence itself remains bound, always the
same dolorous point marking the centre from the circum-
ference. O Stoicism ! founded to combat grief by firm-
ness of soul, who only knewest to combat life by death,
we have not yet gone a single step beyond thee." But
surely death is not the cure for the ills of life : it is their
close. The genuine remedy for the disturbances of the
soul is the healthy attunement of the discordant faculties
and forces of the soul. Not denial, but fulfilment, is the
real key to content. The genius of the Christian period
is characterized by an unprecedented development of
sensibility, sensibility to finer and larger standards of
good. Now, the keener, the more numerous, the wider
the ranks and ranges of obligation and desire of which
the soul is susceptible, so much the greater its exposures
to confusion, interior conflict, fermentation, in a word,
unhappiness. Sympathy is the crude mateiial of our
moral nature. All the standards of good which sympa-
thy can recognize are elementary powers to be taken up
and organized into a firm and mature conscience. Then
a stable self-con sisteucy and concord will result. Human
life is "the continuous adjustment of internal relations
with external relations," or the reflection of nature in
us. The attempt to invert it, and make nature reflect
us, adjust her laws to our desires, must lead to misery.
The purpose of human life is the fruition of the functions
of our being in proper co-ordination. Let any man
fulfil the functions of all his faculties in their due hie-
rarchical order, and he will be happy, because there will



MAURICE DE GUERIN. 349

be no war in him. Interior unison, self-iespect, and
complacency are the indispensable foundations of happi-
ness, though they are not attainable while nebulous
expanses of sympathy are floating, meteoric masses of
passion darting about, in the soul.

When Maurice de Guerin strove to escape his misery
by denying his ambition, scourging down his aspirations,
and courting an apathetic resignation, he only made his
state worse. His true refuge would have been harmony
and fulfilment, with quiet submission to the inevitable.
" I die secretly every day : my life escapes through invis-
ible pricks. Some one told me that contempt for man-
kind would carry me far ; yes, and especially if sourness
mingles with it. Every profession disgusts, every object
fatigues me. I am irritated with the men who are still
children. I hate myself in these miseries, which give me
the most violent desires to leap on a free shore, and
spurn the hateful boat that bears me. I laugh my pre-
tensions to scorn. I scoff at my imagination, which, like
the tortoise, would journey through the air. I ridicule
the superb ego which vainly kicks against the goads of
interior sarcasm. I bite myself, as the scorpion in the
brazier, to end more quickly."

If he could have ceased to think upon himself so disat-
isfiedly, broken the gnawing bondage of self-conscious-
ness, and rested calmly in a contemplation of the ever-
lasting laws of beauty, goodness, and joy on which all
creation reposes, he would have lost his misery. There
was no other cure.

In such occasional passages as the following, he ap-
pears himself to have seen this : " My God ! how we
distress ourselves with our isolation ! I was a long time
possessed by this madness. It was because I ~ lived
wrongly, and established false relations between creatures
and my soul, that I suffered so mudh, and that the crea-
tion repelled me from its joys. I wasted myself in a
profound solitude : the earth seemed to me worse than a
desert isle all naked in the bosom of a savage ocean. It
was a silence to make one afraid. Madness, pure mad-
ness ! There is no isolation for him who knows how to



35 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

take his place in the universal harmony, and to open his
soul to all the impressions of this harmony. Then one
comes to feel, almost physically, that one lives for God
and in God."

One half the soul of Maurice de Guerin alone was
partly plunged in evil the other half ever remained in-
accessible to stains, high and calm, amassing drop by
drop the poetry he hoped afterwards to shed on the
world. The beauty of his descriptions of nature is
almost unapproachable. The many paragraphs from his
pen on friendship have a tone of penetrative sincerity
and sweetness. The sufferings incident to his over-sensi-
tive spirit plaintively reconcile us to the earliness of his
death. One easily transfers to him the anecdote he has
related of his master Lamennais. On a summer day the
mournful prophet sat with Maurice under two Scotch firs,
behind the chapel at La Chenaie. Drawing with his
staff the form of a grave in the turf, he said, " It is there
that I wish to rest ; but no sepulchral stone, only a bank
of grass. O, how well I shall be there ! " He teaches
us, both by what he has written and by what he was,
many a striking lesson from which souls finely made and
finely exposed may profit. He was one of those mental-
ly impassioned persons, not physically impassioned,
the victims of consumption, who appeal so profoundly to
our sympathy ; whose lungs, material and spiritual, seem
woven of a texture so gauzy that the common air of life
works on it like a corrosive fire, who need the more dis-
tilled and aromatic breath of love to sustain and feed
them, and who fade away into the one great good of
eternity, with outstretched arms and vain longings after
the many little goods of time.



HEGEL.

THE great philosophers leading an absorbed inner life,
with their metaphysical systems, bodies of thought hope-
lessly unintelligible to ordinary minds, form a class of
lonely men. Such was Heraclitus, nicknamed the dark,



HEGEL. 35 1

declaring that nothing is, but that all flows ; in other
words, that being is not a station but a motion ; a per-
petual becoming : so that no one ever crosses the same
stream, or sees the same picture, twice. Such was Py-
thagoras, with his esoteric mathematics, his secret society,
his long novitiate of silence, occult instructions and signs.
Such was Parmenides, with his unfathomable propound-
ing of the One. Such were Plotinus and Proclus, with
their super-refinement of bewildering speculations as to the
phenomenal and the real, the transient and the eternal,
multiplicity and unity. Such were the unknown founders
of the oriental idealism, whose view of things was- an in-
tellectual alkahest, melting the universe into an idea.
Such were the mystics, like Dschelaleddin Rumy, to
whom the whole of things was an intoxicating dream, or
a vision of self-identifying bliss.

It is clear enough that not one out of millions can enter
appreciatingly into the mood expressed in the following
lines :

The Loved One bears the cup, and sells annihilation ;
Who buys his fire ecstatic, quaffs illumination.
He comes, a flood of molten music round him gushing ;
He comes, all veils are raised, the universe lies blushing.
I snatch the cup, and, lipless. quaff the Godhead's liquor,
And into unity of bliss the self-lights flicker.

It is probable that still fewer are capable of understand-
ing the absolute idealism of Hegel. His learning is so
vast, his analysis so remorseless, his abstractions so
transcendental, his terminology so abstrusely knotty, his
synthesis so all-comprehensive, that his system is the
standing scandal of students, baffling all but the very best-
equipped and toughest thinkers. He claims to have
made metaphysics an exhaustive science, a closed circle
of circles. He begins with Being as the absolute Affirma-
tion, and Nothing as the absolute Negation, and shows
their identity in Becoming. He proceeds, through a con-
stant reconciliation- of the contradictory pairs between
which alone thought can exist, to the conclusion that the All
is a thought, and that every genuine thought which pene-
trates to know itself is the All. It is, whether true or



352 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

false, in subtilty and comprehensiveness as tremendous a
piece of thinking as was ever performed by a human
head. The popular inability to comprehend what he said
left him by himself. He declared, " Only one man under-
stands me, and he misunderstands me."

To master his system requires as special an intelligence
and training as to master the Fluxions of Newton, and in
a far higher degree. Yet those least fitted to judge are
frequently the readiest to assume superiority, and to name
his industry charlatanry or folly. No one who is yet lin-
gering in rudimentary arithmetic will presume to call the
geometrical calculus an empty imposition ; he knows it to
be unmeaning only to his ignorance. But it is quite cus-
tomary for one who in philosophy has not finished simple
numeration to stigmatize the metaphysical calculus of
Hegel as little better than idiotic jargon. Common
sense, which is the rule of mental averages, seeing how
far he varies from it, complacently considers him a fool.
No wonder his speech is cutting and caustic with irony
towards the intellectual pygmies who stumble at his out-
works, and fancy themselves stalking above him when
really dealing with their own dwarfed reflections of him.
His system maybe illegitimate science, it is certainly fruit-
ful gymnastics, a tremendous regimen of mental enlarge-
ment, mental emancipation, mental enrichment. The
complacency of those who have neither taste nor faculty
for such studies, nor modesty to feel their failure, often
leads them to stigmatize him as an impostor and his pro-
duct as emptiness.

But he, meanwhile, where is he? Occupied with his
own indomitable effort to understand everything, to leave
absolutely no mystery uncleared, to know even God him-
self, he is " out in the void desert, separated from the
world of man by endless days and nights, and eternally
recurrent and repeating solitudes, lonely, mysterious, in-
explicable, a giant dreamland, where the sense of Being
and the sense of Nothing, like two boundless vapors con-
fronting each other, the infinite vaporous warp and the
infinite vaporous woof, melting, interpenetrating, wave
and weave together, waft and waver apart, to wave and



HEGEL. 353

weave together again. He has wrested himself from the
place of mere mortals, on the outside, groping into con-
crete delusions ; he sits in the centre of pure thought,
and sees an immense magical hollow universe construct
itself around. Does he not come out from the centre of
that world, that secret chamber of his, begrimed with
powder, smelling of sulphur, like some haggard conjurer,
his voice sepulchral, his accent foreign, his laugh demoni-
acal ? Contrast him with the simple, pious soul, on the
green earth, in the bright fresh air, industrious, loving,
penitent, sure of a better world and a better life !"

To the ignorant eye of unsophisticated trust he would
thus seem to be at a sore disadvantage. But the reverse
is the truth that according to his own view appears
to perfected insight. For the obvious little that he loses
he gains an occult infinitude. By his rounded survey of
human thinking and natural phenomena, penetrating from
nadir to zenith, he knows his own incommensurate intel-
lectual superiority to other men. He can understand
them and their errors ; they cannot understand him or
apprehend his certainties. He has drawn a circle around
their outermost, sunk a shaft underneath their lowermost.
The scores which to them are series of blind hieroglyph-
ics he has the key to read off into music. The poor de-
lusions in which they are enveloped, and to whose vul-
gar promises they cling, have scaled from him and left
him to grasp the divine prizes which these had but de-
graded by their mocking simulations. Instead of remain-
ing content, as they foolishly do, with the verbal phantoms
of God, freedom, and immortality, he grasps the immedi-
ate substance of the thoughts themselves, seeing God in
that process of universal Spirit which plays through the
universe, realizing freedom in the consciousness of his
own powers, and possessing immortality in the indestruc
tibleness of all that really is. Thus where common men
see hideousness and horror, he sees beauty and boon.
Where they shrink from necessity and nihilism, he aspires
to substantial liberty and infinity. What they interpret
in their spurious mythological conceptions as the riot of
the worm and the blackness of the grave, he recognizes



354 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

as the fruition of eternity and the splendor of the god-
head. They cloak the omnipresent climax of contradic-
tions with the sprawling sophistry of ignorance ; but he
with logical dialectic probes the problem to its solution
in reciprocal identity. Thinking his way irresistibly
through, from the beginning to the end, he sees that the
logic of thought is the logic of things, the ideality of man
a reflection of the reality of nature, the reality of nature i
reflection of the ideality of God, and all these at bottom
identical, just as man sees in the mirror not a reflection
of himself, but himself on the curving beams of light.
This is the way it seemed to Hegel.

The builder, occupant, and master of such a system of
thought is a spiritual hero and monarch of the world, a
conqueror of destiny, who has put all things under his
feet. But in the weird spaces of its amplitude, if not
divinely companioned, he must be awfully alone. So far
as any intelligent sympathy from the average order of
men is concerned, he would be as much alone in the
academy of Berlin as by the flaming crown of Hecla or



Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 29 of 35)