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The evolution of mystery.

By Maurice Maeterlinck.

M. Maeterlinck.

IT IS NOT UNREASONABLE to believe that the paramount interest of life, all that is truly lofty and remarkable in the destiny of man, reposes almost entirely in the mystery that surrounds us; in the two mysteries, it may be, that are mightiest, most dreadful of all–fatality and death. And indeed there are many whom the fatigue induced in their minds by the natural uncertainties of science has almost compelled to accept this belief. I too believe, though in a somewhat different fashion, that the study of mystery in all its forms is the noblest to which the mind of man can devote itself; and truly it has ever been the occupation and care of those who in science and art, in philosophy and literature, have refused to be satisfied merely to observe and portray the trivial, well-recognised truths, facts, and realities of life. And we find that the success of these men in their endeavour, the depth of their insight into all that they know, has most strictly accorded with the respect in which they held all they did not know, with the dignity that their mind or imagination was able to confer on the sum of unknowable forces. Our consciousness of the unknown wherein we have being gives life a meaning and grandeur which must of necessity be absent if we persist in considering only the things that are known to us; if we too readily incline to believe that these must greatly transcend in importance the things that we know not yet.

It behoves every man to frame for himself his own general conception of the world. On this conception reposes his whole human and moral existence. But this general conception of the world, when closely examined, is truly no more than a general conception of the unknown. And we must be careful; we have not the right, when ideas so vast confront us, ideas the results of which are so highly important, to select the one which seems most magnificent to us, most beautiful, or most attractive. The duty lies on us to choose the idea which seems truest, or rather the only one which seems true; for I decline to believe that we can sincerely hesitate between the truth that is only apparent and the one that is real. The moment must always come when we feel that one of these two is possessed of more truth than the other. And to this truth we should cling: in our actions, our words, and our thoughts; in our art, in our science, in the life of our feelings and intellect. Its definition, perhaps, may elude us. It may possibly bring not one grain of reassuring conviction. Nay, essentially, perhaps, it may be but the merest impression, though profounder and more sincere than any previous impression. These things do not matter. It is not imperative that the truth we have chosen should be unimpeachable or of absolute certainty. There is already great gain in our having been brought to experience that the truths we had loved before did not accord with reality or with faithful experience of life; and we have every reason, therefore, to cherish our truth with heartiest gratitude until its own turn shall come to experience the fate it inflicted on its predecessor. The great mischief, the one which destroys our moral existence and threatens the integrity of our mind and our character, is not that we should deceive ourselves and love an uncertain truth, but that we should remain constant to one in which we no longer wholly believe.

IF WE SOUGHT NOTHING more than to invest our conception of the unknown with the utmost possible grandeur and tragedy, magnificence and might, there would be no need of such restrictions. From many points of view, doubtless, the most beautiful, most touching, most religious attitude in face of mystery is silence, and prayer, and fearful acceptance. When this immense, irresistible force confronts us–this inscrutable, ceaselessly vigilant power, humanly super-human, sovereignly intelligent, and, for all we know, even personal–must it not, at first sight, seem more reverent, worthier, to offer complete submission, trying only to master our terror, than tranquilly to set on foot a patient, laborious investigation? But is the choice possible to us; have we still the right to choose? The beauty or dignity of the attitude we shall assume no longer is matter of moment. It is truth and sincerity that are called for today for the facing of all things–how much more when mystery confronts us! In the past, the prostration of man, his bending the knee, seemed beautiful because of what, in the past, seemed to be true. We have acquired no fresh certitude, perhaps; but for us, none the less, the truth of the past has ceased to be true. We have not bridged the unknown; but still, though we know not what it is, we do partially know what it is not; and it is before this we should bow, were the attitude of our fathers to be once more assumed by us. For although it has not, perhaps, been incontrovertibly proved that the unknown is neither vigilant nor personal, neither sovereignly intelligent nor sovereignly just, or that it possesses none of the passions, intentions, virtues and vices of man, it is still incomparably more probable that the unknown is entirely indifferent to all that appears of supreme importance in this life of ours. It is incomparably more probable that if, in the vast and eternal scheme of the unknown, a minute and ephemeral place be reserved for man, his actions, be he the strongest or weakest, the best or the worst of men, will be as unimportant there as the movements of the obscurest geological cell in the history of ocean or continent. Though it may not have been irrefutably shown that the infinite and invisible are not for ever hovering round us, dealing out sorrow or joy in accordance with our good or evil intentions, guiding our destiny step by step, and preparing, with the help of innumerable forces, the incomprehensible but eternal law that governs the accidents of our birth, our future, our death, and our life beyond the tomb, it is still incomparably more probable that the invisible and infinite, intervene as they may at every moment in our life, enter therein only as stupendous, blind, indifferent elements; and that though they pass over us, in us, penetrate into our being, and inspire and mould our life, they are as careless of our individual existence as air, water, or light. And the whole of our conscious life, the life that forms our one certitude, that is our one fixed point in time and space, rests upon “incomparable probabilities” of this nature; but rarely are they as “incomparable” as these.

The hour when a lofty conviction forsakes us should never be one of regret. If a belief we have clung to goes, or a spring snaps within us; if we at last dethrone the idea that so long has held sway, this is proof of vitality, progress, of our marching steadily onwards, and making good use of all that lies to our hand. We should rejoice at the knowledge that the thought which so long has sustained us is proved incapable now of even sustaining itself. And though we have nothing to put in the place of the spring that lies broken, there need still be no cause for sadness. Far better the place remain empty than that it be filled by a spring which the rust corrodes, or by a new truth in which we do not wholly believe. And besides, the place is not really empty. Determinate truth may not yet have arrived, but still, in its own deep recess, there hides a truth without name, which waits and calls. And if it wait and call too long in the void, and nothing arise in the place of the vanished spring, it still shall be found that, in moral no less than in physical life, necessity will be able to create the organ it needs, and that the negative truth will at last find sufficient force in itself to set the idle machinery going. And the lives that possess no more than one force of this kind are not the least strenuous, the least ardent, or the least useful.

And even though our belief forsake us entirely, it still will take with it nothing of what we have given, nor will there be lost one single sincere, religious, disinterested effort that we have put forth to ennoble this faith, to exalt or embellish it. Every thought we have added, each worthy sacrifice we have had the courage to make in its name, will have left its indelible mark on our moral existence. The body is gone, but the palace it built still stands, and the space it has conquered will remain for ever unenclosed. It is our duty, and one we dare not renounce, to prepare homes for truths that shall come, to maintain in good order the forces destined to serve them, and to create open spaces within us; nor can the time thus employed be possibly wasted.

THESE THOUGHTS HAVE ARISEN within me through my having been compelled, a few days ago, to glance through two or three little dramas of mine, wherein lies revealed the disquiet of a mind that has given itself wholly to mystery; a disquiet legitimate enough in itself, perhaps, but not so inevitable as to warrant its own complacency. The keynote of these little plays is dread of the unknown that surrounds us. I, or rather some obscure poetical feeling within me (for with the sincerest of poets a division must often be made between the instinctive feeling of their art and the thoughts of their real life), seemed to believe in a species of monstrous, invisible, fatal power that gave heed to our every action, and was hostile to our smile, to our life, to our peace and our love. Its intentions could not be divined, but the spirit of the drama assumed them to be malevolent always. In its essence, perhaps, this power was just, but only in anger; and it exercised justice in a manner so crooked, so secret, so sluggish and remote, that its punishments–for it never rewarded–took the semblance of inexplicable, arbitrary acts of fate. We had there, in a word, more or less the idea of the God of the Christian blent with that of ancient fatality, lurking in nature’s impenetrable twilight, whence it eagerly watched, contested, and saddened the projects, the feelings, the thoughts and the happiness of man.

This unknown would most frequently appear in the shape of death. The presence of death–infinite, menacing, for ever treacherously active–filled every interstice of the poem. The problem of existence was answered only by the enigma of annihilation. And it was a callous, inexorable death; blind, and groping its mysterious way with only chance to guide it; laying its hands preferentially on the youngest and the least unhappy, since these held themselves less motionless than others, and that every too sudden movement in the night arrested its attention. And around it were only poor little trembling, elementary creatures, who shivered for an instant and wept, on the brink of a gulf; and their words and their tears had importance only from the fact that each word they spoke and each tear they shed fell into this gulf, and were at times so strangely resonant there as to lead one to think that the gulf must be vast if tear or word, as it fell, could send forth so confused and muffled a sound.

Such a conception of life is not healthy, whatever show of reason it may seem to possess; and I would not allude to it here were it not for the fact that we find this idea, or one closely akin to it, governing the hearts of most men, however tranquil, or thoughtful, or earnest they may be, at the approach of the slightest misfortune. There is evidently a side to our nature which, notwithstanding all we may learn and master and the certitudes we may acquire, destines us never to be other than poor, weak, useless creatures, consecrated to death, and playthings of the vast and indifferent forces that surround us. We appear for an instant in limitless space, our one appreciable mission the propagation of a species that itself has no appreciable mission in the scheme of a universe whose extent and duration baffle the most daring, most powerful brain. This is a truth; it is one of those profound but sterile truths which the poet may salute as he passes on his way; but it is a truth in the neighbourhood of which the man with the thousand duties who lives in the poet will do well not to abide too long. And of truths such as this many are lofty and deserving of all our respect, but in their domain it were unwise to lay ourselves down and sleep. So many truths environ us that it may safely be said that few men can be found, of the wickedest even, who have not for counsel and guide a grave and respectable truth. Yes, it is a truth–the vastest, most certain of truths, if one will–that our life is nothing, and our efforts the merest jest; our existence, that of our planet, only a miserable accident in the history of worlds; but it is no less a truth that, to us, our life and our planet are the most important, nay, the only important phenomena in the history of worlds. And of these truths which is the truer? Does the first of necessity destroy the second? Without the second, should we have had the courage to formulate the first? The one appeals to our imagination, and may be helpful to it in its own domain; but the other directly interests our actual life. It is well that each have its share. The truth that is undoubtedly truest from the human point of view must evidently appeal to us more than the truth which is truest from the universal point of view. Ignorant as we are of the aim of the universe, how shall we tell whether or no it concern itself with the interests of our race? The probable futility of our life and our species is a truth which regards us indirectly only, and may well, therefore, be left in suspense. The other truth, that indicates clearly the importance of life, may perhaps be more restricted, but it has a direct, incontestable, actual bearing upon ourselves. To sacrifice or even subordinate it to an alien truth must surely be wrong. The first truth should never be lost sight of; it will strengthen and illumine the second, whose government will thus become more intelligent and benign: the first truth will teach us to profit by all that the second does not include. And if we allow it to sadden our heart or arrest our action, we have not sufficiently realised that the vast but precarious space it fills in the region of important truths is governed by countless problems which as yet are unsolved; while the problems whereon the second truth rests are daily resolved by real life. The first truth is still in the dangerous, feverish stage, through which all truths must pass before they can penetrate freely into our heart and our brain; a stage of jealousy, truculence, which renders the neighbourhood of another truth insupportable to them. We must wait till the fever subsides; and if the home that we have prepared in our spirit be sufficiently spacious and lofty, we shall find very soon that the most contradictory truths will be conscious only of the mysterious bond that unites them, and will silently join with each other to place in the front rank of all, and there help and sustain, that truth from among them which calmly went on with its work while the others were fretfully jangling; that truth which can do the most good, and brings with it the uttermost hope.

Out of touch…

…with an anthropomorphic God?

THE STRANGEST FEATURE OF the present time is the confusion which reigns in our instincts and feelings–in our ideas, too, save at our most lucid, most tranquil, most thoughtful moments–on the subject of the intervention of the unknown or mysterious in the truly grave events of life. We find, amidst this confusion, feelings which no longer accord with any precise, living, accepted idea; such, for instance, as concern the existence of a determinate God, conceived as more or less anthropomorphic, providential, personal, and unceasingly vigilant. We find feelings which, as yet, are only partially ideas; as those which deal with fatality, destiny, the justice of things. We find ideas which will soon turn into feelings; those that treat of the law of the species, evolution, selection, the will-power of the race, &c. And, finally, we discover ideas which still are purely ideas, too uncertain and scattered for us to be able to predict at what moment they will become feelings, and thus materially influence our actions, our acceptance of life, our joys, and our sorrows.

If in actual life this confusion is not so apparent, it is only because actual life will but rarely express itself, or condescend to make use of image or formula to relate its experience. This state of mind, however, is clearly discernible in all those whose self-imposed mission it is to depict real life, to explain and interpret it, and throw light on the hidden causes of good and evil destiny. It is of the poets I speak, of dramatic poets above all, who are occupied with external and active life; and it matters not whether they produce novels, tragedies, the drama properly so called, or historical studies, for I give to the words poets and dramatic poets their widest significance.

It cannot be denied that the possession of a dominant idea, one that may be said to exclude all others, must confer considerable power on the poet, or “interpreter of life;” and in the degree that the idea is mysterious, and difficult of definition or control, will be the extent of this power and its conspicuousness in the poem. And this is entirely legitimate, so long as the poet himself has not the least doubt as to the value of his idea; and there are many admirable poets who have never hesitated, paused, or doubted. Thus it is that we find the idea of heroic duty filling so enormous a space in the tragedies of Corneille, that of absolute faith in the dramas of Calderon, that of the tyranny of destiny in the works of Sophocles.

OF THESE THREE IDEAS, that of heroic duty is the most human and the least mysterious; and although far more restricted today than at the time of Corneille–for there are few such duties which it would not now be reasonable, and even heroic, perhaps, to call into question, and it becomes ever more and more difficult to find one that is truly heroic–conditions may still be imagined under which recourse thereto may be legitimate in the poet.

But will he discover in faith–today no more than a shadowy memory to the most fervent believer–that inspiration and strength, by whose aid Corneille was able to depict the God of the Christians as the august, omnipresent actor of his dramas, invisible but untiringly active, and sovereign always? Or is it possible still for a reasonable being, whose eyes rest calmly on the life about him, to believe in the tyranny of fate; of that sluggish, unswerving, preordained, inscrutable force which urges a given man, or family, by given ways to a given disaster or death? For though it be true that our life is subject to many an unknown force, we at least are aware that these forces would seem to be blind, indifferent, unconscious, and that their most insidious attacks may be in some measure averted by the wisest among us. Can we still be allowed, then, to believe that the universe holds a power so idle, so wretched, as to concern itself solely in saddening, frustrating, and terrifying the projects and schemes of man?

Immanent justice is another mysterious and sovereign force, whereof use has been made; but it is only the feeblest of writers who have ventured to accept this postulate in its entirety: only those to whom reality and probability were matters of smallest moment. The affirmation that wickedness is necessarily and visibly punished in this life, and virtue as necessarily and visibly rewarded, is too manifestly opposed to the most elementary daily experience, too wildly inconsistent a dream, for the true poet ever to accept it as the basis of his drama. And, on the other hand, if we refer to a future life the bestowal of reward and punishment, we are merely entering by another gate the region of divine justice. For, indeed, unless immanent justice be infallible, permanent, unvarying, and inevitable, it becomes no more than a curious, well-meaning caprice of fate; and from that moment it no longer is justice, or even fate: it shrinks into merest chance–in other words, almost into nothingness.

There is, it is true, a very real immanent justice; I refer to the force which enacts that the vicious, malevolent, cruel, disloyal man shall be morally less happy than he who is honest and good, affectionate, gentle, and just. But here it is inward justice whose workings we see; a very human, natural, comprehensible force, the study of whose cause and effect must of necessity lead to psychological drama, where there no longer is need of the vast and mysterious background which lent its solemn and awful perspective to the events of history and legend. But is it legitimate deliberately to misconceive the unknown that governs our life in order that we may reconstruct this mysterious background?

WHILE ON THIS SUBJECT of dominant and mysterious ideas, we shall do well to consider the forms that the idea of fatality has taken, and for ever is taking: for fatality even today still provides the supreme explanation for all that we cannot explain; and it is to fatality still that the thoughts of the “interpreter of life” unceasingly turn.

The poets have endeavoured to transform it, to make it attractive, to restore its youth. They have contrived, in their works, a hundred new and winding canals through which they may introduce the icy waters of the great and desolate river whose banks have been gradually shunned by the dwellings of men. And of those most successful in making us share the illusion that they were conferring a solemn, definitive meaning on life, there are few who have not instinctively recognised the sovereign importance conferred on the actions of men by the irresponsible power of an ever august and unerring destiny. Fatality would seem to be the pre-eminent tragical force; it no sooner appears in a drama than it does of itself three-fourths of all that needs doing. It may safely be said that the poet who could find today, in material science, in the unknown that surrounds us, or in his own heart, the equivalent for ancient fatality–a force, that is, of equally irresistible predestination, a force as universally admitted–would infallibly produce a masterpiece. It is true, however, that he would have, at the same time, to solve the mighty enigma for whose word we are all of us seeking, so that this supposition is not likely to be realised very soon.

This is the source, then, whence the lustral water is drawn with which the poets have purified the cruellest of tragedies. There is an instinct in man that worships fatality, and he is apt to regard whatever pertains thereto as incontestable, solemn, and beautiful. His cry is for freedom; but circumstances arise when he rather would tell himself that he is not free. The unbending, malignant goddess is more acceptable often than the divinity who only asks for an effort that shall avert disaster. All things notwithstanding, it pleases us still to be ruled by a power that nothing can turn from its purpose; and whatever our mental dignity may lose by such a belief is gained by a kind of sentimental vanity in us, which complacently dwells on the measureless force that for ever keeps watch on our plans, and confers on our simplest action a mysterious, eternal significance. Fatality, briefly, explains and excuses all things, by relegating to a sufficient distance in the invisible or the unintelligible all that it would be hard to explain, and more difficult still to excuse.

A neurotic creature.

THEREFORE IT IS THAT so many have turned to the dismembered statue of the terrible goddess who reigned in the dramas of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and that the scattered fragments of her limbs have provided more than one poet with the marble required for the fashioning of a newer divinity, who should be more human, less arbitrary, and less inconceivable than she of old. The fatality of the passions, for instance, has thus been evolved. But for a passion truly to be fatal in a soul aware of itself, for the mystery to reappear that shall make crime pardonable by investing it with loftiness and lifting it high above the will of man: for these we require the intervention of a God, or some other equally irresistible, infinite force. Wagner, therefore, in “Tristram and Iseult,” makes use of the philtre, as Shakespeare of the witches in “Macbeth,” Racine of the oracle of Calchas in “Iphigenia” and of Venus’ hatred in “Phedre.” We have travelled in a circle, and find ourselves back once more at the very heart of the craving of former days. This expedient may be more or less legitimate in archaic or legendary drama, where there is room for all kinds of poetic fantasy; but in the drama which pretends to actual truth we demand another intervention, one that shall seem to us more genuinely irresistible, if crimes like Macbeth’s, such a deed of horror as that to which Agamemnon consented: perhaps, too, the kind of love that burned in Phedre, shall achieve their mysterious excuse, and acquire a grandeur and sombre nobility that intrinsically they do not possess. Take away from Macbeth the fatal predestination, the intervention of hell, the heroic struggle with an occult justice that for ever is revealing itself through a thousand fissures of revolting nature, and Macbeth is merely a frantic, contemptible murderer. Take away the oracle of Calchas, and Agamemnon becomes abominable. Take away the hatred of Venus, and what is Phedre but a neurotic creature, whose “moral quality” and power of resistance to evil are too pronouncedly feeble for our intellect to take any genuine interest in the calamity that befalls her?

THE TRUTH IS THAT these supernatural interventions today satisfy neither spectator nor reader. Though he know it not, perhaps, and strive as he may, it is no longer possible for him to regard them seriously in the depths of his consciousness. His conception of the universe is other. He no longer detects the working of a narrow, determined, obstinate, violent will in the multitude of forces that strive in him and about him. He knows that the criminal whom he may meet in actual life has been urged into crime by misfortune, education, atavism, or by movements of passion which he has himself experienced and subdued, while recognising that there might have been circumstances under which their repression would have been a matter of exceeding difficulty. He will not, it is true, always be able to discover the cause of these misfortunes or movements of passion; and his endeavour to account for the injustice of education or heredity will probably be no less unsuccessful. But, for all that, he will no longer incline to attribute a particular crime to the wrath of a God, the direct intervention of hell, or to a series of changeless decrees inscribed in the book of fate. Why ask of him, then, to accept in a poem an explanation which he refuses in life? Is the poet’s duty not rather to furnish an explanation loftier, clearer, more widely and profoundly human than any his reader can find for himself? For, indeed, this wrath of the gods, intervention of hell, and writing in letters of fire, are to him no more today than so many symbols that have long ceased to content him. It is time that the poet should realise that the symbol is legitimate only when it stands for accepted truth, or for truth which as yet we cannot, or will not, accept; but the symbol is out of place at a time when it is truth itself that we seek. And, besides, to merit admission into a really living poem, the symbol should be at least as great and beautiful as the truth for which it stands, and should, moreover, precede this truth, and not follow a long way behind.

We see, therefore, how surpassingly difficult it must have become to introduce great crimes, or cruel, unbridled, tragical passions, into a modern work, above all if that work be destined for stage presentation; for the poet will seek in vain for the mysterious excuse these crimes or passions demand. And yet, for all that, so deeply is this craving for mysterious excuse implanted within us, so satisfied are we that man is, at bottom, never as guilty as he may appear to be, that we are still fully content, when considering passions or crimes of this nature, to admit some kind of fatal intervention that at least may not seem too manifestly unacceptable.

This excuse, however, will be sought by us only when the persons guilty of crimes which are contrary to human nature, when the victims of misfortunes which they could not foresee, and which seem undeserved to us, inexplicable, wholly abnormal, are more or less superior beings, possessed of their fullest share of consciousness. We are loath to admit that an extraordinary crime or disaster can have a purely human cause. In spite of all, we persistently seek in some way to explain the inexplicable. We should not be satisfied if the poet were simply to say to us: “You see here the wrong that was done by this strong, this conscious, intelligent man. Behold the misfortune this hero encountered; this good man’s ruin and sorrow. See, too, how this sage is crushed by tragic, irremediable wickedness. The human causes of these events are evident to you. I have no other explanation to offer, unless it be perhaps the indifference of the universe towards the actions of man.” Our dissatisfaction would vanish if he could succeed in conveying to us the sensation of this indifference, if he could show it in action; but, as it is the property of indifference never to interfere or act, that would seem to be more or less unachievable.

Victims of inexperience.

BUT WHEN WE TURN to the by no means inevitable jealousy of Othello, or to the misfortunes of Romeo and Juliet, which were surely not preordained, we discover no need of explanation, or of the purifying influence of fatality. In another drama, Ford’s masterpiece, “Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” which revolves around the incestuous love of Giovanni for his sister Annabella, we are compelled either to turn away in horror, or to seek the mysterious excuse in its habitual haunt on the shore of the gulf. But even here, the first painful shock over, we find it is not imperative. For the love of brother for sister, viewed from a standpoint sufficiently lofty, is a crime against morality, but not against human nature; and there is at least some measure of palliation in the youth of the pair, and in the passion that blinds them. Othello, too, the semi-barbarian who does Desdemona to death, has been goaded to madness by the machinations of Iago; and even this last can plead his by no means gratuitous hatred. The disasters that weighed so heavily on the lovers of Verona were due to the inexperience of the victims, to the manifest disproportion between their strength and that of their enemies; and although we may pity the man who succumbs to superior human force, his downfall does not surprise us. We are not impelled to seek explanation elsewhere, to ask questions of fate; and unless he appear to fall victim to superhuman injustice, we are content to tell ourselves that what has happened was bound to happen. It is only when disaster occurs after every precaution is taken that we could ourselves have devised, that we become conscious of the need for other explanation.

We find it difficult, therefore, to conceive or admit as naturally, humanly possible that a crime shall be committed by a person who apparently is endowed with fullest intelligence and consciousness; or that misfortune should befall him which seems in its essence to be inexplicable, undeserved, and unexpected. It follows, therefore, that the poet can only place on the stage (this phrase I use merely as an abbreviation: it would be more correct to say, “cause us to assist at some adventure whereof we know personally neither the actors nor the totality of the circumstances”) faults, crimes, and acts of injustice committed by persons of defective consciousness, as also disasters befalling feeble beings unable to control their desires–innocent creatures, it may be, but thick-sighted, imprudent, and reckless. Under these conditions there would seem to be no call for the intervention of anything beyond the limit of normal human psychology. But such a conception of the theatre would be at absolute variance with real life, where we find crimes committed by persons of fullest consciousness, and the most inexplicable, inconceivable, unmerited misfortunes befalling the wisest, the best, most virtuous and prudent of men. Dramas which deal with unconscious creatures, whom their own feebleness oppresses and their own desires overcome, excite our interest and arouse our pity; but the veritable drama, the one which probes to the heart of things and grapples with important truths–our own personal drama, in a word, which for ever hangs over our life–is the one wherein the strong, intelligent, and conscious commit errors, faults, and crimes which are almost inevitable; wherein the wise and upright struggle with all-powerful calamity, with forces destructive to wisdom and virtue: for it is worthy of note that the spectator, however feeble, dishonest even, he may be in real life, still enrols himself always among the virtuous, just, and strong; and when he reflects on the misfortunes of the weak, or even witnesses them, he resolutely declines to imagine himself in the place of the victims.

HERE WE ATTAIN THE limit of the human will, the gloomy boundary-line of the influence that the most just and enlightened of men is able to exert on events that decide his future happiness or sorrow. No great drama exists, or poem of lofty aim, but one of its heroes shall stray to this frontier where his destiny waits for the seal. Why has this wise, this virtuous man committed this fault or this crime? Why has that woman, who knows so well the meaning of all that she does, hazarded the gesture which must so inevitably summon everlasting sorrow? By whom have the links been forged of the chain of disaster whose fetters have crushed this innocent family? Why do all things crumble around one, and fall into ruins, while the other, his neighbour, less active and strong, less skilful and wise, finds ever material by him to build up his life anew? Why do tenderness, beauty, and love flock to the path of some, where others meet hatred only, and malice, and treachery? Why persistent happiness here, and yonder, though merits be equal, nought but unceasing disaster? Why is this house for ever beset with the storm, while over that other there shines the peace of unvarying stars? Why genius, and riches, and health on this side, and yonder disease, imbecility, poverty? Whence has the passion been sent that has wrought such terrible grief, and whence the passion that proved the source of such wonderful joy? Why does the youth whom yesterday I met go on his tranquil road to profoundest happiness, while his friend, with the same methodical, peaceful, ignorant step, proceeds on his way to death?

Life will often place such problems before us; but how rarely are we compelled to refer their solution to the supernatural, mysterious, superhuman, or preordained! It is only the fervent believer who will still be content to see there the finger of divine intervention. Such of us, however, as have entered the house where the storm has raged, as well as the house of peace, have rarely departed without most clearly detecting the essentially human reasons of both peace and storm. We who have known the wise and upright man who has been guilty of error or crime, are acquainted also with the circumstances which induced his action, and these circumstances seem to us in no way supernatural. As we draw near to the woman whose gesture brought misery to her, we learn very soon that this gesture might have been avoided, and that, in her place, we should have refrained. The friends of the man around whom all fell into ruins, and of the neighbour who ever was able to build up his life anew, will have observed before that the acorn sometimes will fall on to rock, and sometimes on fertile soil. And though poverty, sickness, and death still remain the three inequitable goddesses of human existence, they no longer awake in us the superstitious fears of bygone days We regard them today as essentially indifferent, unconscious, blind. We know that they recognise none of the ideal laws which we once believed that they sanctioned; and it only too often has happened that at the very moment we were whispering to ourselves of “purification, trial, reward, punishment,” their undiscerning caprice gave the lie to the too lofty, too moral title which we were about to bestow.

Our imagination, it is true, is inclined to admit, perhaps to desire, the intervention of the superhuman; but, for all that, there are few, even among the most mystic, who are not convinced that our moral misfortunes are, in their essence, determined by our mind and our character; and, similarly, that our physical misfortunes are due in part to the workings of certain forces which often are misunderstood, and in part to the generally ill-defined relation of cause to effect: nor is it unreasonable to hope that light may be thrown on these problems as we penetrate further into the secrets of nature. We have here a certitude upon which our whole life depends; a certitude which is shaken only when we consider our own misfortunes, for then we shrink from analysing or admitting the faults we ourselves have committed. There is a hopefulness in man which renders him unwilling to grant that the cause of his misfortune may be as transparent as that of the wave which dies away in the sand or is hurled on the cliff, of the insect whose little wings gleam for an instant in the light of the sun till the passing bird absorbs its existence.

LET ME SUPPOSE THAT a neighbour of mine, whom I know very intimately, whose regular habits and inoffensive manners have won my esteem, should successively lose his wife in a railway accident, one son at sea, another in a fire, the third and last by disease. I should, of course, be painfully shocked and grieved; but still it would not occur to me to attribute this series of disasters to a divine vengeance or an invisible justice, to a strange, ill-starred predestination, or an active, persistent, inevitable fatality. My thoughts would fly to the myriad unfortunate hazards of life; I should be appalled at the frightful coincidence of calamity; but in me there would be no suggestion of a superhuman will that had hurled the train over the precipice, steered the ship on to rocks, or kindled the flames; I should hold it incredible that such monstrous efforts could have been put forth with the sole object of inflicting punishment and despair upon a poor wretch, because of some error he might have committed–one of those grave human errors which yet are so petty in face of the universe; an error which perhaps had not issued from either his heart or his brain, and had stirred not one blade of grass on the earth’s whole surface.

But he, this neighbour of mine, on whom these terrible blows have successively fallen, like so many lightning-flashes on a black night of storm–will he think as I do; will these catastrophes seem natural to him, and ordinary, and susceptible of explanation? Will not the words destiny, fortune, hazard, ill-luck, fatality, star–the word Providence, perhaps–assume in his mind a significance they never have assumed before? Will not the light beneath which he questions his consciousness be a different light from my own, will he not feel round his life an influence, a power, a kind of evil intention, that are imperceptible to me? And who is right, he or I? Which of us two sees more clearly, and further? Do truths that in calmer times lie hidden float to the surface in hours of trouble; and which is the moment we should choose to establish the meaning of life?

The “interpreter of life,” as a rule, selects the troubled hours. He places himself, and us, in the soul-state of his victims. He shows their misfortunes to us in perspective; and so sharply, concretely, that we have for the moment the illusion of a personal disaster. And, indeed, it is more or less impossible for him to depict them as they would occur in real life. If we had spent long years with the hero of the drama which has stirred us so painfully, had he been our brother, our father, our friend, we should have probably noted, recognised, counted one by one as they passed, all the causes of his misfortune, which then would not only appear less extraordinary to us, but perfectly natural even, and humanly almost inevitable. But to the “interpreter of life” is given neither power nor occasion to acquaint us with each veritable cause. For these causes, as a rule, are infinitely slow in their movement, and countless in number, and slight, and of small apparent significance. He is therefore led to adopt a general cause, one sufficiently vast to embrace the whole drama, in place of the real and human causes which he is unable to show us, unable, too, himself to examine and study. And where shall a general cause of sufficient vastness be found, if not in the two or three words we breathe to ourselves when silence oppresses us: words like fatality, divinity, Providence, or obscure and nameless justice?

THE QUESTION WE HAVE to consider is how far this procedure can be beneficial, or even legitimate; as also whether it be the mission of the poet to present, and insist on, the distress and confusion of our least lucid hours, or to add to the clear-sightedness of the moments when we conceive ourselves to enjoy the fullest possession of our force and our reason. In our own misfortunes there is something of good, and something of good must therefore be found in the illusion of personal misfortune. We are made to look into ourselves; our errors, our weaknesses, are more clearly revealed; it is shown to us where we have strayed. There falls a light on our consciousness a thousand times more searching, more active, than could spring from many arduous years of meditation and study. We are forced to emerge from ourselves, and to let our eyes rest on those round about us; we are rendered more keenly alive to the sorrows of others. There are some who will tell us that misfortune does even more–that it urges our glance on high, and compels us to bow to a power superior to our own, to an unseen justice, to an impenetrable, infinite mystery. Can this indeed be the best of all possible issues? Ah, yes, it was well, from the standpoint of religious morality, that misfortune should teach us to lift up our eyes and look on an eternal, unchanging, undeniable God, sovereignly beautiful, sovereignly just, and sovereignly good. It was well that the poet who found in his God an unquestionable ideal should incessantly hold before us this unique, this definitive ideal.

But today, if we look away from the truth, from the ordinary experience of life, on what shall our eager glance rest? If we discard the more or less compensatory laws of conscience and inward happiness, what shall we say when triumphant injustice confronts us, or successful, unpunished crime? How shall we account for the death of a child, the miserable end of an innocent man, or the disaster hurled by cruel fate on some unfortunate creature, if we seek explanations loftier, more definite, more comprehensive and decisive than those that are found satisfactory in everyday life for the reason that they are the only ones that accord with a certain number of realities? Is it right that the poet, in his eager desire to contrive a solemn atmosphere for his drama, should arouse from their slumber sentiments, errors, prejudices and fears, which we would attack and rebuke were we to discover them in the hearts of our friends or our children? Man has at last, through his study of the habits of spirit and brain, of the laws of existence, the caprices of fate and the maternal indifference of nature–man has at last, and laboriously, acquired some few certitudes, that are worthy of all respect; and is the poet entitled to seize on the moment of anguish in order to oust all these certitudes, and set up in their place a fatality to which every action of ours gives the lie; or powers before which we would refuse to kneel did the blow fall on us that has prostrated his hero; or a mystic justice that, for all it may sweep away the need for many an embarrassing explanation, bears yet not the slightest kinship to the active and personal justice we all of us recognise in our own personal life?

And yet this is what the “interpreter of life” will more or less deliberately do from the moment he seeks to invest his work with a lofty spirit, with a deep and religious beauty, with the sense of the infinite. Even though this work of his may be of the sincerest, though it express as nearly as may be his own most intimate truth, he believes that this truth is enhanced, and established more firmly, by being surrounded with phantoms of a forgotten past. Might not the symbols he needs, the hypotheses, images, the touchstone for all that cannot be explained, be less frequently sought in that which he knows is not true, and more often in that which will one day be a truth? Does the unearthing of bygone terrors, or the borrowing of light from a Hell that has ceased to be, make death more sublime? Does dependence on a supreme but imaginary will ennoble our destiny? Does justice–that vast network woven by human action and reaction over the unchanging wisdom of nature’s moral and physical forces–does justice become more majestic through being lodged in the hands of a unique judge, whom the very spirit of the drama dethrones and destroys?

Let us ask ourselves whether the hour may not have come for the earnest revision of the symbols, the images, sentiments, beauty, wherewith we still seek to glorify in us the spectacle of the world.

THIS BEAUTY, THESE FEELINGS and sentiments, today unquestionably bear only the most distant relation to the phenomena, thoughts, nay even the dreams, of our actual existence; and if they are suffered still to abide with us, it is rather as tender and innocent memories of a past that was more credulous, and nearer to the childhood of man. Were it not well, then, that those whose mission it is to make more evident to us the beauty and harmony of the world we live in, should march ever onwards, and let their steps tend to the actual truth of this world? Their conception of the universe need not be stripped of a single one of the ornaments wherewith they embellish it; but why seek these ornaments so often among mere recollections, however smiling or terrible, and so seldom from among the essential thoughts which have helped these men to build, and effectively organise, their spiritual and sentient life?

It can never be right to dwell in the midst of false images, even though these are known to be false. The time will come when the illusory image will usurp the place of the just idea it has seemed to represent. We shall not reduce the part of the infinite and the mysterious by employing other images, by framing other and juster conceptions. Do what we may, this part can never be lessened. It will always be found deep down in the heart of men, at the root of each problem, pervading the universe. And for all that the substance, the place of these mysteries, may seem to have changed, their extent and power remain for ever the same. Has not–to take but one instance–has not the phenomenon of the existence, everywhere among us, of a kind of supreme and wholly spiritual justice, unarmed, unadorned, unequipped, moving slowly but never swerving, stable and changeless in a world where injustice would seem to reign–has this phenomenon not cause and effect as deep, as exhaustless–is it not as astounding, as admirable–as the wisdom of an eternal and omnipresent Judge? Should this Judge be held more convincing for that He is less conceivable? Are fewer sources of beauty, or occasions for genius to exercise insight and power, to be found in what can be explained than in what is, a priori, inexplicable? Does not, for instance, a victorious but unjust war (such as those of the Romans, of England today, the conquests of Spain in America, and so many others) in the end always demoralise the victor and thrust upon him errors, habits, and faults whereby he is made to pay dearly for his triumph; and is not the minute, the relentless labour of this psychological justice as absorbing, as vast, as the intervention of a superhuman justice? And may not the same be said of the justice that lives in each one of us, that causes the space left for peace, inner happiness, love, to expand or contract in our mind and our heart in the degree of our striving towards that which is just or is unjust?

And to turn to one mystery more, the most awful of all, that of death–would any one pretend that our perception of justice, of goodness and beauty, or our intellectual, sentient power, our eagerness for all that draws near to the infinite, all-powerful, eternal, has dwindled since death ceased to be held the immense and exclusive anguish of life? Does not each new generation find the burden lighter to bear as the forms of death grow less violent and its posthumous terrors fade? It is the illness that goes before, the physical pain, of which we are today most afraid. But death is no longer the hour of the wrathful, inscrutable judge; no longer the one and the terrible goal, the gulf of misery and eternal punishment. It is slowly becoming–indeed, in some cases, it has already become–the wished-for repose of a life that draws to its end. Its weight no longer oppresses each one of our actions; and, above all–for this is the most striking change–it has ceased to intrude itself into our morality. And is this morality of ours less lofty, less pure, less profound, because of the disinterestedness it has thus acquired? Has the loss of an overwhelming dread robbed mankind of a single precious, indispensable feeling? And must not life itself find gain in the importance wrested from death? Surely: for the neutral forces we hold in reserve within us are waiting and ready; and every discouragement, sorrow, or fear that departs has its place quickly filled by a certitude, admiration, or hope.

THE POET IS INCLINED to personify fatality and justice, and give outward form to forces really within us, for the reason that to show them at work in ourselves is a matter of exceeding difficulty; and further, that the unknown and the infinite, to the extent that they are unknown and infinite–i.e. lacking personality, intelligence, and morality–are powerless to move us. And here it is curious to note that we are in no degree affected by material mystery, however dangerous or obscure, or by psychological justice, however involved its results. It is not the incomprehensible in nature that masters and crushes us, but the thought that nature may possibly be governed by a conscious, superior, reasoning will; one that, although superhuman, has yet some kinship with the will of man. What we dread, in a word, is the presence of a God; and speak as we may of fatality, justice, or mystery, it is always God whom we fear: a being, that is, like ourselves, though almighty, eternal, invisible, and infinite. A moral force that was not conceived in the image of man would most likely inspire no fear. It is not the unknown in nature that fills us with dread; it is not the mystery of the world we live in. It is the mystery of another world from which we recoil; it is the moral and not the material enigma. There is nothing, for instance, more obscure than the combination of causes which produce the earthquake, that most terrible of all catastrophes. But the earthquake, though it alarm our body, will bring no fear to our mind unless we regard it as an act of justice, of mysterious vengeance, of supernatural punishment. And so it is, too, with the thunderstorm, with illness, with death, with the myriad phenomena and accidents of life. It would seem as though the true alarm of our soul, the great fear which stirs other instincts within us than that of mere self-preservation, is only called forth by the thought of a more or less determinate God, of a mysterious consciousness, a permanent, invisible justice, or a vigilant, eternal Providence. But does the “interpreter of life,” who succeeds in arousing this fear, bring us nearer to truth; and is it his mission to convey to us sorrow, and trouble, and painful emotion, or peace, satisfaction, tranquillity, and light?

It is not easy, I know, to free oneself wholly from traditional interpretation, for it often succeeds in reasserting its sway upon us at the very moment we strain every nerve to escape from our bondage. So has it happened with Ibsen, who, in his search for a new and almost scientific form of fatality, erected the veiled, majestic, tyrannical figure of heredity in the centre of the very best of his dramas. But it is not the scientific mystery of heredity which awakens within us those human fears that lie so much deeper than the mere animal fear; for heredity alone could no more achieve this result than could the scientific mystery of a dreaded disease, a stellar or marine phenomenon. No, the fear that differs so essentially from the one called forth by an imminent natural danger, is aroused within us by the obscure idea of justice which heredity assumes in the drama; by the daring pronouncement that the sins of the fathers are almost invariably visited on the children; by the suggestion that a sovereign Judge, a goddess of the species, is for ever watching our actions, inscribing them on her tablets of bronze, and balancing in her eternal hands rewards long deferred and never-ending punishment. In a word, even while we deny it, it is the face of God that reappears; and from beneath the flagstone one had believed to be sealed for ever comes once again the murmur of the very ancient flame of Hell.

This new form of fatality, or fatal justice, is less defensible, and less acceptable too, than the ancient and elementary power, which, being general and undefined, and offering no too strict explanation of its actions, lent itself to a far greater number of situations. In the special case selected by Ibsen, it is not impossible that some kind of accidental justice may be found, as it is not impossible that the arrow a blind man shoots into a crowd may chance to strike a parricide. But to found a law upon this accidental justice is a fresh perversion of mystery, for elements are thereby introduced into human morality which have no right to be there; elements which we would welcome, which would be of value, if they stood for definite truths; but seeing that they are as alien to truth as to actual life, they should be ruthlessly swept aside. I have shown elsewhere that our experience fails to detect the most minute trace of justice in the phenomena of heredity; or, in other words, that it fails to discover the slightest moral connection between the cause: the fault of the father, and the effect: the punishment or reward of the child.

The poet has the right to fashion hypotheses, and to forge his way ahead of reality. But it will often happen that when he imagines himself to be far in advance, he will truly have done no more than turn in a circle; that where he believes that he has discovered new truth, he has merely strayed on to the track of a buried illusion. In the case I have named, for the poet to have taught us more than experience teaches, he should have ventured still further, perhaps, in the negation of justice. But whatever our opinion may be on this point, it at least is clear that the poet who desires his hypotheses to be legitimate, and of service, must take heed that they be not too manifestly contrary to the experience of everyday life; for in that case they become useless and dangerous–scarcely honourable even, if the error be deliberately made.

AND NOW, WHAT ARE we to conclude from all this? Many things, if one will, but this above all: that it behoves the “interpreter of life,” no less than those who are living that life, to exercise greatest care in their manner of handling and admitting mystery, and to discard the belief that whatever is noblest and best in life or in drama must of necessity rest in the part that admits of no explanation. There are many most beautiful, most human, most admirable works which are almost entirely free from this “disquiet of universal mystery.” We derive no greatness, sublimity, or depth from unceasingly fixing our thoughts on the infinite and the unknown. Such meditation becomes truly helpful only when it is the unexpected reward of the mind that has loyally, unreservedly, given itself to the study of the finite and the knowable; and to such a mind it will soon be revealed how strangely different is the mystery which precedes what one does not know from the mystery that follows closely on what one has learned. The first would seem to contain many sorrows, but that is only because the sorrows are grouped there too closely, and have their home upon two of three peaks that stand too nearly together. In the second is far less sadness, for its area is vast; and when the horizon is wide, there exists no sorrow so great but it takes the form of a hope.

Yes, human life, viewed as a whole, may appear somewhat sorrowful; and it is easier, in a manner pleasanter even, to speak of its sorrows and let the mind dwell on them, than to go in search of, and bring into prominence, the consolations life has to offer. Sorrows abound–infallible, evident sorrows; consolations, or rather the reasons wherefore we accept with some gladness the duty of life, are rare and uncertain, and hard of detection. Sorrows seem noble, and lofty, and fraught with deep mystery; with mystery that almost is personal, that we feel to be near to us. Consolations appear egotistical, squalid, at times almost base. But for all that, and whatever their ephemeral likeness may be, we have only to draw closer to them to find that they too have their mystery; and if this seem less visible and less comprehensible, it is only because it lies deeper and is far more mysterious. The desire to live, the acceptance of life as it is, may perhaps be mere vulgar expressions; but yet they are probably in unconscious harmony with laws that are vaster, more conformable with the spirit of the universe, and therefore more sacred, than is the desire to escape the sorrows of life, or the lofty but disenchanted wisdom that for ever dwells on those sorrows.

Our impulse is always to depict life as more sorrowful than truly it is; and this is a serious error, to be excused only by the doubts that at present hang over us. No satisfying explanation has so far been found. The destiny of man is as subject to unknown forces today as it was in the days of old; and though it be true that some of these forces have vanished, others have arisen in their stead. The number of those that are really all-powerful has in no way diminished. Many attempts have been made, and in countless fashions, to explain the action of these forces and account for their intervention; and one might almost believe that the poets, aware of the futility of these explanations in face of a reality which, all things notwithstanding, is ever revealing more and more of itself, have fallen back on fatality as in some measure representing the inexplicable, or at least the sadness of the inexplicable. This is all that we find in Ibsen, the Russian novels, the highest class of modern fiction, Flaubert, &c. (see War and Peace, for instance, L’Education Sentimentale, and many others).

Napoleon (Baxter). 'Policy – that is fatality!'

IT IS TRUE THAT the fatality shown is no longer the goddess of old, or rather (at least to the bulk of mankind) the clearly determinate God, inflexible, implacable, arbitrary, blind, although constantly watchful; the fatality of today is vaster, more formless, more vague, less human or actively personal, more indifferent and more universal. In a word, it is now no more than a provisional appellation bestowed, until better be found, on the general and inexplicable misery of man. In this sense we may accept it, perhaps, though we do no more than give a new name to the unchanging enigma, and throw no light on the darkness. But we have no right to exaggerate its importance or the part that it plays; no right to believe that we are truly surveying mankind and events from a point of some loftiness, beneath a definitive light, or that there is nothing to seek beyond, because at times we become deeply conscious of the obscure and invincible force that lies at the end of every existence. Doubtless, from one point of view, unhappiness must always remain the portion of man, and the fatal abyss be ever open before him, vowed as he is to death, to the fickleness of matter, to old age and disease. If we fix our eyes only upon the end of a life, the happiest and most triumphant existence must of necessity contain its elements of misery and fatality. But let us not make a wrong use of these words; above all, let us not, through listlessness or undue inclination to mystic sorrow, be induced to lessen the part of what could be explained if we would only give more eager attention to the ideas, the passions and feelings of the life of man and the nature of things. Let us always remember that we are steeped in the unknown; for this thought is the most fruitful of all, the most sustaining and salutary. But the neutrality of the unknown does not warrant our attributing to it a force, or designs, or hostility, which it cannot be proved to possess. At Erfurt, in his famous interview with Goethe, Napoleon is said to have spoken disparagingly of the dramas in which fatality plays a great part–the plays that we, in our “passion for calamity,” are apt to consider the finest. “They belong,” he remarked, “to an epoch of darkness; but how can fatality touch us today? Policy–that is fatality!” Napoleon’s dictum is not very profound: policy is only the merest fragment of fatality; and his destiny very soon made it manifest to him that the desire to contain fatality within the narrow bounds of policy was no more than a vain endeavour to imprison in a fragile vase the mightiest of the spiritual rivers that bathe our globe. And yet, incomplete as this thought of Napoleon’s may have been, it still throws some light on a tributary of the great river. It was a little thing, perhaps, but on these uncertain shores it is the difference between a little thing and nothing that kindles the energy of man and confirms his destiny. By this ray of light, such as it was, he long was enabled to dominate all that portion of the unknown which he declined to term fatality. To us who come after him, the portion of the unknown that he controlled may well seem insufficient, if surveyed from an eminence, and yet it was truly one of the vastest that the eye of man has ever embraced. Through its means every action of his was accomplished, for evil or good. This is not the place to judge him, or even to wonder whether the happiness of a century might not have been better served had he allowed events to guide him; what we are considering here is the docility of the unknown. For us, with our humbler destinies, the problem still is the same, and the principle too; the principle being that of Goethe: “to stand on the outermost limit of the conceivable; but never to overstep this line, for beyond it begins at once the land of chimeras, the phantoms and mists of which are fraught with danger to the mind.” It is only when the intervention of the mysterious, invisible, or irresistible becomes strikingly real, actually perceptible, intelligent, and moral, that we are entitled to yield or lay down our arms, meekly accepting the inactive silence they bring; but their intervention, within these limits, is rarer than one imagines. Let us recognise that mystery of this kind exists; but, until it reveal itself, we have not the right to halt, or relax our efforts; not the right to cast down our eyes in submission, or resign ourselves to silence.


Maurice Maeterlinck is the author of The Life of the Bee and a play in six acts, The Blue Bird, among many other works. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911.

This essay first appeared in The Fortnightly Review (No. 67 [n.s.]) June 1900 and was translated by Alfred Sutro.

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