EMANUEL SWEDENBORG, reviving a doctrine of Origen, professed to have discovered in the sacred writings of the Hebrews this peculiarity, distinguishing it from other literatures, that, beside what the authors seem to say, — above or beneath the obvious meaning of the terms employed, — they say something else, and very different. If the Swedish theosopher is right in this view of them, the Hebrew Scriptures excel in the quality of irony. Not that the writers themselves “ palter with us in a double sense.” The writers themselves are supposed to be unconscious of the trailing mystery accompanying their earnest speech. But a spirit more subtile than the writer, lurking behind the pen, plays hide-andseek with the reader. It sounds odd to speak of the Bible as the literature of irony, but, according to this view, it possesses that quality in an eminent degree. For the essence of literary irony consists in the “ something behind,” a spirit, a meaning, not wholly expressed in the literal sense of the writing. “ Irony of the spirit ” we may term this species.
THE IRONY OF PASSION.
The principle of irony must have a deep foundation in human nature, so universal is its manifestation, so diverse and opposite the moods of mind that in it find their fit expression. Joy, sorrow, love, hate, — all ironize. It is the native idiom of all passion which thus ekes out its imperfect utterance by drawing on its opposite. Excessive joy, no less than grief, finds vent in tears, and is ready to die of its own fulness. “ If it were now to die,” says Othello,
My soul hath her content so absolute,
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.”
On the other hand, overwhelming sorrow, no less than joy, disposes to mirth. Hamlet, stunned with grief and rage by the recent revelations of his father’s ghost, summons his companions with the “ Hillo, ho, ho, boy ! come, bird, come,” of the falconer, and confides to Horatio, on promise of the strictest secrecy, the astounding fact that “ there’s ne’er a villain in all Denmark but he’s an arrant knave.” The backwoodsman, when, returning from his day’s work, he finds that his whole family have been murdered by the Indians, says, “ It’s too ridiculous,” and langlis and dies.
Love delights in minifying and even disparaging terms of endearment, and often teases by way of blandishment: “ Excellent wretch ! .... but I do love thee.” And often intense hatred borrows the vocabulary of praise.
IRONY AS SATIRE.
Irony, as commonly understood, is criticism by contraries. Emphasis is given to the real thought of the speaker by contrast with the thought professed ; as when, in answer to Dalila’s complaint that
Goes by the worse, whatever be her cause,”
Samson Agonistes retorts,
A favorite kind of rhetorical irony is that of warning cloaked as pretended recommendation. Hoffmann’s serious admonition to stage - managers and scene-shifters, after the model of Swift’s advice to servants, is a happy instance. The writer warns them that poets and actors have complotted to deceive honest people, and make them believe that what they witness on the stage is actual events and persons, much to the prejudice of their understandings and their peace of mind ; that consequently they, the managers and scene-shifters, are in duty bound, so far as in them lies, to frustrate this nefarious design, and to counteract the intended illusion. “ To this end, let them occasionally insert the wrong scene or drop the wrong curtain. In a scene representing a gloomy cave, let a little piece of the saloon behind appear, so that when the prima donna bewails in touching strains her cruel imprisonment, the spectator may listen undisturbed, knowing that the machinist has only to ring the bell, and the gloomy prison will disappear and the friendly saloon take its place. A very good device is, suddenly, in the midst of a lugubrious chorus, at the very moment of intensest interest, to let fall, as if by accident, a drop scene, separating the actors, so that a portion of those in the background shall be cut off from their interlocutors in the proscenium. . . . . I remember,” he says, “ seeing this measure employed with great effect, although with some incorrectness in the application, in a ballet. The prim a ballerina was executing a beautiful sola. Just as she was pausing for a moment in a splendid attitude, and while the spectators, crazy with delight, were shouting and clapping, the machinist suddenly let fall a drop scene which shut her off from public view. But unfortunately the drop scene was a drawing-room with a great door in the middle, and before one was aware the resolute danseuse came hopping through the door, and continued her sola. See to it, therefore, that your drop scene on such occasions has no door.” 1
English literature, second to none in humorous satire, has many choice bits of rhetorical irony. The following is from Martinus Scriblerus on the Art of Sinking in Poetry : —
“ When I consider, my dear countrymen, the extent, fertility, and populousness of our Lowlands of Parnassus, the flourishing state of our trade, and the plenty of our manufactures, there are two reflections which administer great occasion of surprise : the one that all dignities and honors should be bestowed upon the exceeding few meagre inhabitants of the top of the mountain ; the other that our own province should have arrived to that greatness it now possesses, without any regular system of laws. As to the first, it is with great pleasure that I have observed of late the gradual decay of delicacy and refinement among mankind, who are become too reasonable to require that we should labor, with infinite pains, to come up to the taste of these mountaineers, when they, without any, may condescend to ours. But as we now have an unquestionable majority on our side, I doubt not but we shall be shortly able to level these highlanders, and procure a further vent for our own product, which is already so much relished, encouraged, and rewarded by the nobility and gentry of Great Britain. . . . . Furthermore, it were great cruelty if all such authors as cannot write in the other way were prohibited from writing at all. Against this I draw an argument from what seems to me an undoubted physical maxim, that poetry is a natural or morbid secretion of the brain. As I would not suddenly stop a cold in the head, or dry up my neighbor’s issue, I would as little hinder him from necessary writing. It may be affirmed with great truth that there is hardly any human creature past childhood but at one time or other has had some poetical evacuation, and no doubt was much the better for it in his health. . . . . I have known a man thoughtful, melancholy, and raving for divers days, who forthwith grew wonderfully easy, lightsome, and cheerful upon the discharge of the peccant humor, in exceeding purulent metre. . . . . From hence it follows that a suppression of the very worst poetry is of dangerous consequence to the state. . . . . It is, therefore, manifest that mediocrity ought to be allowed, yea, indulged, to the good subjects of England.”
Irony as a mode of satire describes a wide and rich province of letters, — a province embracing not a few of the choicest spirits and some of the most genial compositions of all time. Here shine the names of Lucian, Erasmus, Cervantes, Rabelais, Butler, Voltaire, Swift, Heine.
But literature has other ironies than that of satire. Writers of loftier aim and graver tone than those I have named have found their advantage in this fascinating element. Bishop Thirlwall, in a paper contributed to the Philological Museum, discusses the irony he professes to find where certainly one would not suspect it, — in the tragedies of Sophocles. But the irony in that case is not a trait of the poet’s mind; it inheres in the subject-matter of his fables. It is the irony of Fate in the fortunes of Ajax, of Œdipus, and Philoctetes, which he depicts. The irony I have in view is purely subjective. But how shall I define, how discriminate from satire on the one hand, and superficial badinage on the other ; how identify, under forms so various, the subtile spirit which I seem to detect in writers who else have scarce anything in common ? I select for examples two poets as remote from each other in the bent of their genius as can well be found, — Milton and Goethe.
In Milton’s prose, though largely satirical, the element of irony is not conspicuous. His poetry, which is not satirical, is steeped in it. It constitutes, I think, the peculiar charm of his verse. Take the Hymn to the Nativity. The poet treats the Gentile divinities as actually existing personages, and that, not in the way of poetic machinery, as other Christian poets have sometimes done, but because the position he assumes in this poem is properly outside of all religions. He looks upon their conflict as Homer’s gods behold the conflict of the Greeks and Trojans, not indeed with indifference, for he is celebrating the triumph of the Christian cause, yet not exactly as a Christian believer. His position is that of an outsider. He sings the victory, but not as personally concerned in it, except as his sympathy goes with the victor. The Gentile divinities are as real to him as the new-born God who puts them to flight; but they have had their day, they must yield to the incoming era of the new dispensation.
Longer dare abide ;
Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine,
Our Babe to show his Godhead true
Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew.”
The irony here consists in the poet’s aloofness from his theme, suggesting an arrière-pensèe, and leaving a gap between it and the thought expressed, of which the reader must supply the missing link. In conversing with works of genius, we feel the difference between those in which the writer is sunk in his theme and goes wholly out in it, and those in which he seems to stand apart from his own creations, as if toying with them and with us. The difference is no test of poetic merit; the creative power may be greater in the former case than in the latter. It is only a difference of intellectual reaction, a difference in the reach of conscious thought, — a fuller waking, albeit the waking of a genius less robust.
The charm of that something beyond, that circumfused aura of reserve which constitutes the essence of irony, I find in the greatest perfection in Goethe. Of all writers he impresses me most with the feeling of a double self. He is not, like most of his contemporaries, subjective, but objective in his creations. His individuality is not put forward as in Byron, in Schiller, in Richter, even in Wordsworth, but studiously kept in the background. But the reader is made conscious of that background, of a thought in reserve, which is the real Goethe, behind the thought expressed, which is also the real Goethe as well. Even in his autobiography, where the topic is self, he contrives to get behind that self; now object, now subject, now both. The very title is a stroke of irony, — “ Fiction and Truth.” In the opening chapter he gravely recounts the astrological aspects which auspicated his nativity ; he gives us his horoscope as if it were an essential part of the history. Did Goethe, then, believe in astrology ? No. Did he mean to satirize that belief? No. Is be jesting ? Yes, and no. Is he in earnest ? No, and yes. The reader may take it as he pleases. This is what another, reflecting on that birth, might find, astrologically expressed, in the fortunes awaiting the man child who was dropped upon this earth-ball in Frankfort on the Main, on the 28th of August, 1749.
In the “ Conversations of German Emigrants ” the “ Old Man, ” who had previously narrated two moral stories of the deepest practical significance, promises the company a tale that shall “ remind them of nothing and of everything,” and thus introduces that wonderful composition which German critics have denominated “The Tale,” distinguishing it from everything else in that line. Here, the ironical in Goethe’s genius reaches its climax. The thing remains to this day an unsolved problem, and in all likelihood will ever remain so. Whether the author really meant anything more by it than to entertain the reader with a magiclantern of incongruous images, and, if so, what that meaning is, are matters of conjecture. The sphinx is dumb and gives no sign. Carlyle, who tried his teeth on it, calls it “ one of the notablest performances produced for the last thousand years, wherein more meaning lies than in all the literature of our century.” Novalis doubtless had Goethe in his mind when he wrote that “the genuine Mährchen is prophetic, an absolutely necessary presentation, and the author of such a one a seer of the future.” It seems to be taken for granted by those who have studied it, that in some way it figures the past and future of humanity ; but as to the import of separate parts, there is no agreement and can be no certainty. It was meant that there should be none. Irony throned on that monument smiles an eternal smile in the face of Hermeneutic.
In the Faust, where the subject-matter itself is the irony of life, the irony in the treatment is less apparent; scarcely at all in the first part, and only here and there, as in the visit to the “Mothers,” in the second.
Goethe, like Milton in the “ Nativity,” assumes, in some of his pieces, a position external to religion, but with this distinction, that Milton, though standing poetically aloof, pays reverent tribute to the Christian faith whose fervent disciple he is, whilst Goethe’s attitude is sometimes that of poetic indifference, and sometimes leans to heathen views.
In the lines addressed to his noble and devout friend, the Fräulein von Klettenberg, he makes use of the expression, referring to a picture of the Saviour in her room, “ The God who suffered for you.” “ When,” he says in his autobiography, — “ when in these stanzas, as sometimes on other occasions, I represented myself as an outsider, a stranger, or even a heathen, she did not object; on the contrary, she assured me that she liked me better so than when I made use of Christian terminology, in the application of which, she said, I never succeeded. Indeed, it was a common thing for me, when I read to her the missionary reports, which she always enjoyed hearing, to take the part of the Gentiles against the missionaries, and to venture to prefer their former estate. She remained ever friendly and gentle, and seemed to have no anxiety on my account, nor to be at all concerned about my salvation,”
In the poem inscribed “ To Coachman Kronos,” in which he likens his ideal of life to a day’s drive in a stagecoach, finding nothing in Christian imagery that suited his mood, he draws on pagan ideas to celebrate a glorious ending : —
A sea of fire in my foaming eve, —
Whirl me dazzled and reeling
Into Hell’s nocturnal gate.
With clatter and echoing tramp
Let Orcus know we are coming,
That the host may be at the door
To give us friendly reception.”
In the piece entitled “ Great is Diana of the Ephesians,” he takes part with the silversmith against the Apostle. He describes with artistic sympathy an aged goldsmith at work in his atelier, fashioning with pious care, as taught by his father, figures for the girdle of the loved goddess : —
Like a rushing wind, in the street a crowd
And a talk there is of a God unseen —
Behind man’s foolish brow they ween —
More worthy far than the Being here
In whose breadth the Godhead we revere,
The master listens, nor listens long,
His boys may run to see the throng,
He files away, nor heeds the sound,
His goddess adorning with deer and hound,
And trusts that his fortune it may be
To represent her worthily.
Let him do as seemeth good in his eyes.
But to injure our craft if he presume,
A shameful end shall be his doom.”
In that most weird and tragic of all ballads, ancient or modern, “ The Bride of Corinth,” where recent Christianity and expiring polytheism are brought into conflict, lie enlists our sympathies in favor of the ancient faith. The spectre bride complains that she is left desolate ; all her family have turned Christian : —
Fled the house, nor longer here abide ;
One alone in heaven unseen confessing,
And a Saviour on the cross who died.
We no longer here
Offer lamb nor steer,
Human victims have their place supplied.”
One must not infer from such utterances that the wise and poised seer had any sympathy with disorganizing radicalism. The contrary is evident from the piece entitled “The Neologians”: —
It is my endeavor and hope, he said,
To earn enough before I die
A snug little yeoman’s farm to buy.
I praised his, intent and bade him God speed !
And much I hoped he might succeed,
When I learned that he had from his dear papa,
And also from madam, his mamma,
Baronial estates of the amplest kind.
Goethe’s irony is due in part to his social position, to reaction against conventional limitations, and in part to hatred of philistinism and pedantry.
Suspicious of systems, in an age of philosophical and political doctrinaires ; appealed to on this hand and that for a verdict on things human and divine ; a disbeliever in violent revolutions, yet living in the midst of them; charged with indifference to human weal because he chose to promote it by doing his own work in his own way and refused to lend himself to any faction, he found in irony his sure palladium against the assaults of those who could neither convince nor comprehend him. His “ Coptic Song ” is an indication of the method he sometimes saw fit to adopt:—
“ COPTIC SONG.
Strict and sedate let the pedagogues be;
Ever the wise of all ages and nations
Nod to each other and smile and agree ;
Vain the attempt to cure fools of their folly,
Children of wisdom abandon it wholly :
Fool them and rule them, for so it must be.
Where as a youngling I heard him divining,
Similar counsel confided to me :
Vain the attempt to cure fools of their folly,
Children of wisdom abandon it wholly ;
Fool them and rule them, since fools they will be.
Crypts the resort of Egyptian explorers,
All that is sacred confirms the decree ;
Vain the attempt to cure fools of their folly,
Children of wisdom abandon it wholly ;
Fool them and rule them, for so it should be.”
One sees bow the irony so marked in Goethe as a writer had its root in an inborn or inbred irony of character. And this suggests a separate branch of our subject.
IRONY IN CHARACTER.
There are characters in history in whom this trait predominates to such an extent as to constitute them a class by themselves. Socrates, whose εὶρωνεία, so baffling to Thrasymachus and the Sophists, perhaps originated our use of the term ; Diogenes rolling his tub in mockery of the preparations for the Sicilian war; Augustus choosing a sphinx for his seal ; Julian the Apostate, Frederick the Second of the Hohenstauffen, Abelard, Leo the Tenth; among writers, Machiavelli, Erasmus, Gibbon, are different types of this wide variety.
Such characters are apt to appear at the meeting-point of the old and the new, when faith in an old religion or institution or custom is on the decline, and numbers are arrayed against it, as in the beginning of the Christian era against polytheism, and in the sixteenth century against the Church of Rome. Such periods develop three distinct types of character in relation to old and new : first, the destructive radical, who wishes to abolish the old, the sooner and more completely the better ; second, the believing and conscientious conservative, who clings to it with unswerving devotion ; and third, between these two a class of men, embracing often the best culture and largest thought of the time, (of men I say, not often of women, — they are usually affianced to one or the other side,) who are not in full sympathy with either direction. They see bigotry, stupidity, antiquated error, on one side, and they also see vulgar adventure, pruriency, and shallowness on the other. They fully apprehend whatever is true in the new ideas, and do them full justice in their private thought ; but they also find meanings in the old, which those who renounce it do not perceive, and which give it a right to be. At the same time they feel that the forms which embody those meanings are outgrown, that much in the old is obsolete and will not ally itself with a vigorous future. They are nominally in it, but cannot heartily embrace it. As little can they lend themselves to the turbulent and vulgar new. They fancy they see all there is in both interests, and a good deal more besides. Now, whether it is native irony ot character that dictates this position, or whether the position develops the irony, it is here that irony is most at home. An ironical treatment ot the claims of both parties is the natural resource of one who feels himself raised above either, and is equally indifferent to both. The author ot the essay on the “ Irony of Sophocles,” already referred to, remarks : “ There is always a slight cast of irony in the grave, calm, respectful attention impartially bestowed by an intelligent judge on two contending parties who are pleading their causes before him with all the earnestness of deep conviction and excited feeling.” He sees “ that the right and the truth lie on neither side exclusively; . . . . both have plausible claims and specious reasons to allege, though each is too much blinded by prejudice and passion to do justice to the views of his adversary.” This is the position I have in view. The ironist speaks sometimes in the spirit of one party and sometimes of the other, but always with that mental reserve, that arrière-pensée in which the essence of irony consists. From which it appears that irony of character is the negative and polar antithesis of moral enthusiasm. All the advantages are wanting to it which moral enthusiasm gives. The ironist is not an eloquent man. Eloquence supposes earnest advocacy, but earnest advocacy is denied to him. He is not advocate, but judge. That man will never powerfully sway the popular mind who sees both sides. On the other hand, the earnest advocate can never move him, the ironist. There is no intellectual rapport between him and the popular speaker in whom is no reserve. He comes to despise eloquence, seeing behind the fervid outpouring nothing more than the sentiment of the hour, and noting how the cup is emptied with the speech.
From want of moral enthusiasm it would not be always safe to infer want of faith in humanity, or want of interest in human weal. The ironist may believe that natural growth, not violent change, is the way to accomplish that end, and that every attempt to anticipate the natural course of events retards the growth of good. You may carry your pet measure, but what if you lose more than you gain by it ? Abolish one evil and you start another. Luther, when he saw what a wide door of abuse the Reformation had opened, said, with a sigh, that attempting to reform mankind was like trying to seat a drunken man on horseback ; you help him on one side and he tumbles on the other. Moreover, the ironist may think that human destiny follows a prescribed course which all our fussing, our conventions and legislation cannot further or change, but only perhaps embarrass and delay. By shaking the tree you do not ripen the fruit, but may cause it to fall untimely to the ground. Goethe thought that Luther had put back for centuries the cause of human progress. The error here lies in not perceiving that these very agitations are a part of the prescribed course ; that Luther and Protestantism were not a wilful interpolation, but a necessary product of the time : that whatever was put back by it was put back divinely; that you cannot break the continuity of history, being yourself but one of the links.
The ironies thus far discussed are intellectual and moral traits ; their common element is reserve or the thought behind. By a subtile association, not easily defined, the term is applied to phases of life in which this element does not appear, and where the irony is not in the thought, but in the fact.
IRONY IN RELIGION.
The history of religion exhibits ironies whose point consists in a glaring contradiction of theory and practice, or a conflict of faith and will. When the Emperor Frederick the Second visited Jerusalem, after a treaty with the Sultan Kameel, which gave that city, under certain conditions, to the Christians, the emir Schems-Eddin was charged to see that no offence was given to the Christian sovereign by the Moslem in the practice of their religion. It chanced that the Muezzin who called the faithful to prayer was, during that visit, to have read, as the lesson for the day, a verse of the Koran which denied the divinity of Christ. To meet the difficulty the emir suppressed the ceremony altogether. The Emperor, who cared little for the dogma, was more disappointed at missing an observance he was curious to witness than gratified with the compliment paid to his religion ; which compliment, however, he returned by sharply rebuking a Christian soldier who had just entered the mosque of Omar with a copy of the Gospels. And thus the two religions, in theory bound to urge their own doctrine, denied it in the persons of their chief representatives, bandying compliments with reciprocal disclaimers, and exemplifying what may be called the irony of faith.
Ancient polytheism sometimes betrayed its hollowness by ludicrous revulsions of distrust or ill-will.
The Emperor Augustus had lost two fleets in two successive naval engagements. To signalize his displeasure with the god of the sea, he forbade the image of Neptune to be borne with those of other gods in the next triumphal procession.
Suetonius relates that when the people of Rome heard of the death of their favorite Germanicus, they rushed into the temples and punished the gods with stoning. This putting of your god on his good behavior, treating him according to the good or evil fortune experienced by the worshipper, is a part of that profound insincerity, or, rather, of that latent fetishism, which characterizes the vulgar religion under all dispensations. The principle of fetishism is the practice of religion as a charm to secure good fortune.
Plutarch reports of the infamous Sulla, that, being in imminent danger of defeat in a battle before the gates of Rome, he took from his bosom a little golden image of Pythian Apollo, and, kissing it, said, “ O Pythian Apollo, who hast given Cornelius Sulla the victory in so many engagements, hast thou at last brought him to the gates of Rome, there to perish ignominiously with his fellow-citizens ? ” The petulance of this heathen prayer is paralleled by many a Christian remonstrance addressed to the Christian’s God, in like emergencies. Robert the Monk, the chronicler of the first Crusade, relates that Guy, the brother of Bohemond, in the terrible disaster which befell the army of Godfrey at Antioch, cried, “ Almighty God, where is your virtue ? If you are omnipotent, why do you permit these things ? Who will ever be a soldier of yours or a pilgrim again ?”
The irony which mixes belief with unbelief, calculation with devotion, in religion, seems to have reached its perfection in Louis the Eleventh of France, whose devout intercourse with his favorite saints, or rather with their images stuck in his hat, Sir Walter Scott has so effectively portrayed.
Another sort of religious irony is the well-known travesty indulged by the Church of the Middle Age of her own most solemn rites. This enormity prevailed in various forms, in all of which mocking of religion was the leading idea. There was the Feast of Asses, in which an ass covered with sacerdotal robes was led into the church, and a mass performed before him, with burlesque ceremonies and hideous music. There was the Glutton Mass, when the people went to church to cram, themselves with meat and drink. Another variety of sacrilegious pastime was the election and installation of the “ Lope of Fools,” or “ Lord of Misrule.” On these occasions the rioters would disguise themselves in grotesque costumes, turn the church into a hunting-ground, play at dice upon the altars, and commit every conceivable extravagance. The clergy, it would seem, not only tolerated but encouraged these fooleries. In fact, it was the irony of the Church herself, the Nemesis of faith, religion resenting its own sanctities.
THE IRONY OF FATE.
In a different and not altogether legitimate sense, the word “ irony” is used to characterize certain disasters and tragedies of life. We speak of the irony of fate. The phrase is applied to events which have a retributory char-acter, and in which the retribution, from its fitness and unexpected congruity, looks like design ; events in which, independently of any relation of cause and effect, a conscious Nemesis appears to have adjusted the occurrence to the person concerned. Saul, in Hebrew history, having driven out the witches from Israel, is constrained at last to consult one himself, and from her conjuration learns his doom ; Julius Cæsar, having conquered Pompey at Pharsalus, falls at the base of Pompey’s statue; Dion, who
And following guides whose craft holds no consent
With aught that breathes the ethereal element,”
caused the assassination of Heraclides, perishes by the hands of assassins ; Boniface the Eighth meets his fate through the instrumentality of Sciarra Colonna, whose house he had spoiled ; Robespierre ends his career with the guillotine, to which he had sent so many of his fellow-citizens; Napoleon the First, who tried so hard to shut up England in her own island, is shut up by England in an island himself; South Carolina, to make slavery sure, and plant her foot more firmly on the neck of the negro, breaks with the Union, and by that means loses her slaves, and has negroes for her legislators.
THE IRONY OF NATURE.
We began with the irony of spirit; let us round the swift synopsis with a glance at the ironies of nature.
As such I reckon, for one thing, the close reserve with which Nature baffles the scrutiny of science, and hides from curious eyes the final secret of her births. From time immemorial the inscrutable mother has been playing a game of inverted blind-man’s-buff with her inquisitive children. She bandages their eyes and bids them catch her if they can. Her explorers chase her hither and thither, but their eyes are holden that should not know her. When any one thinks he has caught her, it is only a part of her drapery which she yields to his clutches, never herself. “Science,” says the Persian mystic, “puts her finger in her mouth and cries because the mystery of being will not reveal itself. ” The physiologist searches for the secret of life. What is it that discriminates animated from inanimate being? Function. In the lowest as in the highest, in the rhizopod as in the angel, it is function that distinguishes life from death. But where is the functionary ? Where sits the performer who plays the manystringed or the one-stringed instrument ? No dissection could ever show. What becomes of him when the instrument stops ? No observation could ever report. Performer and performance are indistinguishably one. Between the instrument played and the instrument suddenly stopped there is no perceptible difference, except the fact of ability or inability still to perform. Yet is the difference infinite between life and death. The ontologist searches for the primal substance. Behind all the wrappers that envelop it, beneath all the acts that represent it, he would stand face to face with the ultimate fact. Is it matter ? With microscope and knife and crucible he interrogates sensible forms. Is it spirit ? With unsparing analysis he interrogates consciousness ; and finds himself at last, in whatever direction he seeks, after all his probing, face to face with — nothing. And “ nothing ” is the answer with which the irony of nature responds alike to physicist and metaphysician, when the search transcends the prescribed bound. The Ixion of Greek mythology is an ever-fit symbol of all endeavors to lay hold of the absolute. Ixion is in love with Juno, the queen of the empyrean ; he thinks to embrace her, and embraces a cloud. Transcendentalism experiences the same illusion, and experiences something of Ixion’s penalty of endless rotation, forever traversing the same cycle, from spirit to matter, and round to spirit again, on the wheel to which her serpentine subtleties have bound her.
Philosophy chases, nature hides, forever inviting, forever baffling investigation. “ Nature,” wrote Goethe, in the midst of his researches, “ we are surrounded and clasped by her, unable to step out of her, and unable to go farther into her. Unbidden and unwarned, she takes us up into her circling dance and whirls herself forth with us until we are exhausted, and sink from her arms..... We live in the midst of her, and are strangers to her ; she converses with us unceasingly, and never betrays her secret. We act upon her continually, and yet have no power over her. She lives altogether in her children ; and the mother, where is she ? ”
A deeper irony lurks in the swift termination with which nature limits all beauty, satisfaction, life.
All beauty resides in surfaces merely ; it is constituted bylines and angles, of which the least disturbance dissipates the vision. All natural beauty is a phantasmagory, an unreal mockery, to which a sentiment in the soul of the beholder gives all its effect. The glories of sunset, the witchery of rose and gold that lures like the gates of heaven, what Is it but vibrations of an invisible ether struggling through moisture and made visible by impediment ? Obstruction in the object, abstraction in the subject, explains the whole secret of the gorgeous cheat. The moonsilvered expanse of ocean seen from your balcony at Newport or Nahant, a vision that draws the soul from the body and laps it in elysium ; what is it but a remnant of that setting sun received second-hand and mixed with unsavory brine ?
The moon on the wave is beautiful, and beautiful the landscape bathed in its light. But encounter that orb at dead of night on a desolate road when past the full, just risen above the horizon and level with your eye, gibbous, lurid, portentous, — what irony glares in it! what a tale it tells of a blasted, worn-out, ruined world !
All human beauty is but skin deep, and scarcely that. A little roughening of the cuticle will mar the fairest face and change beauty to hideousness. What fearful irony leers upon us from the human skull ! This was the head, this the divine countenance of some Helen, some Aspasia or Cleopatra, some Agnes of Meran or Mary of Scotland, on whose eyelids hung the destinies of nations, for whose lips the lords of the earth thought the world well lost, from whose lineaments painters drew their presentment of the Queen of Heaven. How was this cruel metamorphosis wrought ? Simply by stripping off the surface. The miraculous bulb was peeled, a layer of tissue removed, and behold the grinning horror ! “ Get you to my lady’s chamber; tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.”
The saying of the poet, “ a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” is true only when predicated of the image in the mind and of intellectual contemplation. The beauty of things is a phantom ; the enjoyment the senses have of it a slippery illusion. A beautiful phenomenon is actually seen but for a moment. A little while, and though present to the eye it is seen no more, as a strain of music ceases to be heard when unduly prolonged. Only the thought survives the image in the mind. As mere sensation the enjoyment of beauty is fleeting like all our enjoyments ; the more intense, the more evanescent. It is a bitter irony of nature, that, whilst grief may last for days and months, all pleasure is momentary. The best that life yields in that kind is an equilibrium of mild content, a poise between joy and pain. Disturb that equilibrium by dropping a sorrow into the scale, and long time is required to restore the balance. Disturb the equilibrium by adding a new joy, and how soon the beam is straight. We get used and indifferent to our joys ; we do not get used to our pains. And yet nature can bear a greater accession of sorrow than of pleasure. Strange to say, the heart will sooner break with joy than grief. On the plane of physical experience there are painful sensations which beyond a certain point of aggravation are fatal, as the strain of the rack has sometimes proved. And there are pleasurable sensations which would be fatal if greatly intensified or prolonged. But note this curious fact, that before the limit of endurance in the latter case is reached the pleasure turns to pain, which shows how limited is physical enjoyment. Bodily pain, on the contrary, never breaks into any falsetto of pleasure, but keeps “ due on ” its dolorous road till anguish deepens into death.
Of mental emotions, joy in itself is more fatal than sorrow ; the only reason why men oftener pine to death than rejoice to death is because occasions of extreme grief are more frequent than occasions of excessive joy.
“ If ever,” says Faust, in his bargain with Mephistopheles, — “ if ever I shall say to the passing moment, ‘ Tarry, thou art so beautiful,’ then you may lay fetters on me and I will gladly go to perdition.”
“ Le bonheur,” says Voltaire, “ n’est qu’un rève, et la douleur est réelle ; ily-a quatre-vingts ans que je l’éprouve.”
Meanwhile, nature pursues her course, regardless alike of joy and grief. No sympathy has she with sad or gay, no care to adjust her aspects with our experience, her seasons with our need, or to match with her sky the weather in the soul. She smiles her blandest on the recent battle-field where the hopes of a thousand homes lie withered, and she smites with her tornadoes the ungathered harvest in which the bread of a thousand homes has ripened. She refuses a glint of her sunlight to the ship befogged on a lee shore, and pours it in full splendor on the finished, irreparable wreck. Prodigal of life, she is every moment teeming with births innumerable, and still the drift of death accumulates on the planet. This earth of our abode is all compact of extinct creations, every creature on it a sarcophagus of perished lives, every existence purchased and maintained by sumless deaths. The outstretched landscape refulgent in the bright June morning, dew-gemmed, vocal with the ecstasies of welcoming birds, suggestive of eternal youth, is a funeral pageant, a part of the fatal procession which takes us with it as we gaze. The fresh enamel laid on by the laughing hours, the festive sheen, the universal face of joy, “ the bridal of the earth and sky,” when analyzed turns to a thin varnish spread over mould and corruption. And amid the myriad-voiced psalm of life that makes the outgoings of the morning glad, is heard, if we listen, the sullen ground-tone of mortality with which Nature accompanies all her music.
Out of these glooms into which we have strayed, and out of the ironies of nature and life, there is no escape by the avenues of thought, but only by turning from thought to deed. The social and moral activities for those who live in them neutralize or else compensate these intellectual sorrows and keep the importunities of Momus in check. It belongs to the moral sentiment, or rather it belongs to the morally regenerate will, to create for itself a world into which no irony can enter but the blessed irony of God, the reserve which is not limitation and negation and death, but yea behind yea, and life upon life. Love is the anointing of the eyes which transfigures Erebus itself into yea, or makes it invisible. Every really good deed, every genuine act of self-sacrifice is immortal, a birth from the heart of the Divine. The everlasting morning is in it, the gates of hell are powerless, and Mephistopheles leers in vain.
F. H. Hedge.
- Der Volkommener Maschinist, in Hoffmann’s Fantasiestücke.↩