The Bread-and-Butter Moments of the Mind


IT is astonishing how insensible we sometimes are to the most beautiful or sublime spectacles. Noble scenes, which at another time would inspire the imagination and thrill the heart with a tumult of emotions, now unfold their glory before our unmoved eyes, and the humdrum thoughts plod along their accustomed way. Travelers know this phenomenon very well. Ely cathedral lives in my memory as a delicious vision of solemn loveliness ; but when my friends praise York minster, I hardly recall that I was ever there. This indifference is to be ascribed to the fact that in York my brain happened to be dough or putty, for the time being, and in no respect on the architecture of the minster. I remember that George Sand had this experience in her voyage to Italy. In the Histoire de ma Vie, she says : —

“ Je poursuivis mon voyage quand même, ne souffrant pas, mais peu a peu si abrutie par les frissons, les défaillances et la somnolence, que je vis Pise et le Campo Santo avec une grande apathie. Il me devint même indifférent de suivre une direction ou une autre; Rome et Venise furent jouées à pile ou face. Venise face retomba dix fois sur le plancher. J’y voulus voir une destinée, et je partis pour Venise par Florence. . . . Je vis toutes les belles choses qu’il fallait voir, . . . mais j’étais glacée, et, en regardant le Persée de Cellini et la Chapelle carrde de Michel Ange, il me semblait, par moments, que j’étais statue moi-même. La nuit, je rêvais que je devenais mosaïque et je comptais attentivement mes petits carrés de lapis et de jaspe.”

But the same phlegmatic seizure often occurs to us at home and in familiar surroundings. Three nights ago, standing at my window, I saw the full moon rise superbly through a low horizon drapery of shadowed cloud-folds; and I said to myself, Let us go walk in the garden, and drink in the splendor of this celestial spectacle. So I sought my favorite pacing-ground, a wide path from the round rose-bed to the elm-tree, running between lines of stately cannas. There had been purifying rain, and the sky was deepened to its most lustrous dark ; the soft billow-edges of the few fleeces, swimming over across the big moon, caught, turn by turn, a faint tinge of halo colors. The moon was dazzling. Who can believe that mere sunshine, falling on mere rock and sand, will reflect such a white-cold intensity of light ? I gazed intently on the blinding shield, as if to compel it to seem to me what it really is, — the big globe, rolling there, dizzily unsupported, in empty space. I said, “ That distance across the bulging disk is about that which the Pacific railroad traverses across our continent. Let me try to imagine the little train, full of earth inhabitants, creeping in a curve around yonder point of shadow, and across the bridgeless nose of the man in the moon.” For an instant the conception of the globular form and the enormous bulk, swinging on its rounds, almost touched on the confines of my expectant imagination ; then fled away, unseizable, and left but the silvery spot, stuck there inadequately against the blue ceiling, so ridiculously near that even the lighter clouds pass behind, instead of before it, and a venturous balloon might be capable of bumping it at any rash discharge of ballast.

Then I took up my pacing back and forth. The broad silvered leaves of the cannas seemed to float motionless in the great flood of light, and beneath each hung its motionless black shade. Every shadow of every delicate bough and twig of the beech and the elm was lace; and bough and twig themselves, less distinct and more ethereal than their shadows, were only the mentally conceived patterns, or Platonic Ideas, of the lace, hovering above it in the air. What a mysterious and glorious night, and what subtlest and most celestial dreams should throng the brain at such an hour! Back and forth, to and fro, I paced; and what, think you, were the sublime ideas I found in my brain, as I suddenly became aware of myself, after some minutes of floating in that sea of twice-distilled and spacetraversing radiance? I was listening with lively displeasure to the squeaking of my own new shoes. I was thinking, “ How can this intolerable thing be cured ? ’ I was picturing in my imagination the sedulous shoemaker, anxiously handling the super-integuments, and discussing with me the possible ways and means of silencing this music of abandoned soles. I remembered that some one had once recommended a hypodermic injection of pumice-stone. As I turned from the shadow back into the full flood of radiance, I found myself wondering whether the leathern layers would have to be unstitched, or whether anything could be done with a gimlet.

I saw that the whole magnificent spectacle of the night was being wasted on such an insect as I, and that the most suitable scheme was to go ingloriously to bed.