Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains

On Amiel and Some Others

Madam de Staël decided that the country of her choice was “with the chosen souls.” Amiel’s commentary is characteristic. His own countrymen and his European neighbours are no more to him than the Brazilians or the Chinese. The illusions of patriotism, he tells us, of Chauvinist, of family, or of professional feeling, did not exist for him. The author of the “Religio Medici” in a famous passage incurred Charles Lamb’s gentle sarcasms for a similar confession that he had no national repugnances. Lamb’s very considerable pride of individuality exhibited itself in the frequent expression of his antipathies, apathies, sympathies, idiosyncrasies, and a “thousand whim-whams,” which lovers of Elia know so well. He professed to have felt “yearnings of tenderness” towards some negro faces and hated Scotchmen. Now it is easy to be very fond of Charles Lamb. He is one of ourselves with like passions and emotions, and self-comparison with so great an artist is always flattering and pleasant. But two such intellectual aristocrats as Amiel and Sir Thomas Browne are not for popular consumption.

They were not merely cosmopolites but universalists. From the mountain fastnesses of his own mind, Amiel was for ever reviewing the kingdoms of this world, watching people like ants running hither and thither in pursuit of their private ends; from his infinite distance above he saw the finite world below, and thenceforward “the significance of all those things which men hold to be important makes effort ridiculous, passion burlesque, and prejudice absurd.” With a complacency that after the anguish and tears of Amiel seems almost ridiculous, good Sir Thomas Browne expresses himself thus in a sentence known to everyone: “I am of a constitution,” the dear man wrote, “so general that it comports and sympathizeth with all things. I have no antipathy or rather idiosyncrasy in diet, humour, air, anything. I wonder not at the French for their dishes of frogs, snails, and toadstools, nor at the Jews for locusts and grasshoppers. . . . In brief, I am averse from nothing: my conscience would give me the lie if I should absolutely detest any essence but the devil.”

Amiel possessed one of the loftiest and most remarkable minds in intellectual history. It was so immense in its compass, his mental altitude was so great, that throughout life he suffered from a mountain sickness, that “maladie de l’idéal” in M. Caro’s phrase, and in his own that “éblouissement de l’infini” which incapacitated him from all participation in ordinary human affairs. To outward view, he was a rather dull Genevese Professor who had disappointed all his friends by his mental immobility. But within, his whole life was a war — a struggle to the death between his heart, which demanded love and kindly human interests, and his intellect with its almost unholy craving for the infinite. He was Faust and Hamlet in one. He could sit and conjure up “grandiose, immortal, cosmogonic dreams,” in a state of volitional paralysis, unwilling to do, think, or say, any particular thing lest his zealously guarded universality should in an instant contract to the size of a pin’s headed actuality. Action was his cross. Reveries and aspirations and the ravages of his Faust-like ambition to fetch a compass of the whole universe resulted in colossal ennui and self-contempt. “Life,” he says, “is the shadow of a smoke wreath, a gesture in the empty air, a hieroglyph traced for an instant on the sand and effaced a moment later by a breath of wind, an air-bubble . . . an appearance, a vanity, a nothing.” And again, the wonderful simile: “Man’s life is a soap-bubble hanging from a reed.”

In the course of a single day, he was accustomed to make a lightning sweep through whole fields of human thought and human endeavour, now thrilled into ecstasy, now overwhelmed and unstrung by his own nothingness and God’s Omnipotence. “I have been reading a great deal,” he begins a wonderful passage, “I have traversed the universe from the deepest depths of the Empyrean to the peristaltic movements of the atoms in the elementary cell. I have felt myself expanding in the infinite and enfranchized in spirit from the bounds of time and space, able to trace back the whole boundless creation to a point without dimensions, and seeing the vast multitude of suns and milky ways, of stars and nebulas all existent in the point. And on all sides stretched mysteries, marvels, and prodigies without limit, without number, and without end. . . . I touched, proved, tasted, embraced my nothingness and my immensity; I kissed the hem of the garments of God, and gave Him thanks for being spirit and for being life.” . . . But such inspiring passages are not common in the Journal. One’s general impression of it is the world as a sterile promontory, and all its uses weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. It would be manifestly foolish to call Amiel a prig, yet he was in a literal sense too big for his boots. His soul, that is, was too big for his body and suffered daily from its intolerable compression. His own finiteness was like a ligature round his heart, he gasped for a serener air than the troubled one of this planet, he lived in his body like a prisoner, and death was his escape — the translation of a soul incarnated by sad mischance.

Nobody supposes Amiel was alone in his heart sickness. Everyone, at times of spiritual unrest, shakes out his wings and tries to fly, only to find that mortality is a cage with strong bars. But Amiel is remarkable in the intensity of his suffering. The malady debilitated his intellect, sterilized his undoubted genius, immobilized his eager and devouring life. For underneath his lassitude smouldered a passion for life as intense as Walt Whitman’s. “A passionate desire to live, to feel, to express, stirred the depths of my heart. . . . It was as though something explosive had caught fire and one’s soul scattered to the four winds. In such a mood, one would fain devour the whole world, experience everything, see everything.”

The sentiment for universality in different persons has curiously diverse results. In Amiel it produced lethargy, and this condition is perhaps not uncommon in greater or lesser degree among intellectual Russians. In Goncharov’s novel, Oblomov is depicted prostrate beneath the weight of his inappeasable desires and an ebullient vie intime. Edward FitzGerald was possessed of the same infirmity of purpose, the same indolence, the same acute and sceptical mind, the same languor and irresolution as Amiel, with the one inconsiderable difference that Amiel was a Christian and Hegelian and FitzGerald was a Pagan.

But the hallmark of the universalist is his lust of life. He wants everything, and he wants it at once. The languorous Amiel admits that he discovered it easier to give up a wish than to satisfy it, and so not being able to satisfy all his nature longed for he renounced the whole en bloc. But where Amiel stood on the brink, introspected, hesitated, and drew back, Walt Whitman, a universalist par excellence, plunged voraciously and voluptuously into Nature’s treasures. . . . It is an unpleasant trick which certain critics have of describing men in terms of the pathologist. But in drawing attention to the fundamental likeness between Amiel and Whitman it would be a mistake to overlook their fundamental difference: Amiel’s low health — the misery of being continuously undermined in strength and energy — and Whitman’s high opsonic index. Walt Whitman’s desire of life hounded him along his existence — everything was caught hold of, seized a moment in turn and nothing was enough to satisfy. His chain lists, his lightning traverses across the world of consciousness, his tireless but vain efforts to compass the earth and to embrace all made R. L. Stevenson a little petulantly remark: “He wishes to knock the four corners of the universe one after the other about his readers’ ears. His whole life is to him what it was to Sir Thomas Browne, one perpetual miracle. Everything is strange, everything unaccountable, everything beautiful, from a bug to the moon, from the sight of the eyes to the appetite for food.” One can detect in the passage a trace of the Englishman’s quiet amusement at American deportment, and certainly no universalist whose mind is like a “hold-all” can expect to win approval from the fastidious critic who rejects and selects.

“It seems to me,” writes that wonderful Russian girl Marie Bashkirtseff, “that no one loves everything as I do — the fine arts, music, painting, books, society, dress, luxury, excitement, calm, laughter and tears, love, melancholy, humbug, the snow and sunshine. . . . I admire, I adore it all. . . . I should like to see, possess, embrace it all, be absorbed in it, and die, since I must in two years or in thirty — die in an ecstasy in order to analyse this final mystery, this end of all or this beginning.” She is avid of all learning and reads everything (including the “De Rerum Natura!"). She works in a fever, greedy of every hour. She wants a dozen lives, so as to sample a dozen different existences. “I envy learned men, even those who are yellow, emaciated, and ugly.” — “To marry and have children — any washerwoman could do that!” screams this young person.

Another consumptive gives similar but still more forcible expression to his ferocious hunger for life. In “The Story of my Heart” Richard Jefferies reveals himself thus: “I envy Semiramis. I would be ten times Semiramis. I envy Nero because of the great concourse of beauty that he saw. I should like to be loved by every beautiful woman on earth, from the swart Nubian to the white and divine Greek.” But his strength is not enough to gratify his desire. “If I had the strength of the ocean and of the earth, the burning vigour of the sun implanted in my limbs, it would hardly suffice to gratify the measureless desire of life which possesses me. And if it were possible to live again” (and he directly recalls Marie Bashkirtseff quoted above), “it would be exquisite to die, pushing the eager breast against the sword.” In short, to quote Amiel again, “I love everything, and detest one thing only — the hopeless imprisonment of my being within a single arbitrary form even were it chosen by myself.”

The difference between Amiel and these others is almost solely one of emphasis. The one laid stress on his hopeless insatiety, and the others on their infinite desires. Marie Bashkirtseff and Richard Jefferies with feverish vigour throw out their challenging desires, and rush on without lingering for answer or for echo. Amiel is full of repining, and cannot accept his fate.

At first sight it may seem an odd partnership, but beyond all doubt Amiel, Walt Whitman, Richard Jefferies (in his last book), Sir Thomas Browne, and the little Russian girl Marie Bashkirtseff, possessed something in common and something vital. All of them were powerful centrifugal forces rushing away from themselves in an incontinent desire for the whole universe. There is one further point of close resemblance — perhaps correlative with the other — especially noticeable as between Amiel and Richard Jefferies, whom at times a certain cold stark wonder at the beauty and mystery of the world gripped so strongly as to shake the very pillars of their minds. The following parallel quotations will show:

“There are days when all these details seem to me a dream, when I wonder at the desk under my hand, at my body itself, when I ask myself if there is a street before my house and if all this geographical and topographical phantasmagoria is indeed real! Time and space become mere specks. . . . I see myself sub specie æternitatis” (Amiel’s Journal Intime).

And Richard Jefferies:

“The fact of my own existence as I write, as I exist at this second, is so marvellous, so miracle-like, strange and supernatural to me, that I unhesitatingly conclude I am always on the margin of life illimitable, and that there are higher conditions than existence.”

The other members of the fellowship follow suit: to Whitman everything was a miracle — a miracle of pyrotechnics at which he whistled in amazement like a schoolboy. To the studious Sir Thomas Browne, too, his thirty years of life was a quiet miracle, “which to relate were not an history but a piece of poetry,” this calm but confident statement drawing from Sir Kenelm Digby the facetious comment that thirty years’ continued miracle should make “a notable romance.” The universalists in their guileless self-revelations and their undiscriminating rhapsodies stand like shorn and defenceless lambs exposed to the attacks of any critic who decides to make a meal of them. Fortunately, few critics have the heart.

HTML edition by Ray Davis, free for any use.