The Ultimate Hare

QUIET people, of a meditative turn of mind, have a sorry time of it nowadays with their more active comrades. Probably this has always been true; it is part of activity’s nature to be impatient with quiescence. But it certainly does seem as if there had never been quite such an active age as this since the world began.

The state of affairs is quite right; the quiet person asks nothing better than that there shall be a great deal going on around him to furnish him material for his meditations. The quieter and more thoughtful he is, the more likely he is to be found haunting Broadway or Wall Street. But the trouble begins when he is brought up short in the midst of his unhurried speculations, and is accused of gross negligence in that he does not also more keenly bestir himself.

Ignorance is the offensive word rather than negligence —though the two go together traditionally. The quiet person can stand it to be told that he is neglecting his duty — almost any one can stand that; but it pains and bewilders him to be assured that he does not know the meaning of life, that he has no hold on reality. ‘Real life, real things, real experience’ — these are the slogans of the present age; and they sound very well.

‘But what do they mean, just?'

The quiet person is not so clever as he is reasonable if he propounds this question. For the active person is instantly down upon him with the triumphant, — ‘There! What did I tell you? You don’t even know what reality is.’

‘Well, do you?’

The quiet person is modest; but he has read his philosophers, and he has understood that a very exacting hare is first to be caught if one would compound an ultimate pie of experience. He looks up, expectant.

‘Just what is reality?’

The active person laughs loud and long, and claps his friend on the shoulder. Then he explains affectionately, if a little condescendingly, too, —

‘Work, business, anything that puts you in touch with the world as it is, and makes you feel alive. Human relations — love and hate. Vital experience. These are the things you should be after, not dreams and illusions. Come out from your meditations and live. Get down to business and understand the genuine values of things.’

It is all very sobering and perplexing. The active person has not, in the least, defined reality in his assertions concerning it; he has not explained what makes some things more real than others. No closer glimpse of the rabbit’s tail has been afforded by his declarations than by all the ponderings of the philosophers. Yet his assurance has bred confusion in the mind of his friend.

Ah, that rabbit! Was there ever so perverse a beast? Plato started it ages ago, and flattered himself that he ran it securely to ground. But every ‘school’ that came after him found the creature still afield; and every successive generation has given chase afresh. Some riders, mounted on strange nags, have gone so far—or come so far short — as to declare that there is no rabbit at all. But most people have gone on living in confident expectation of the final pie. Now the practical presentday person thinks he has found it — caught it and cooked it — and he invites all his friends to the banquet, his only stipulation being that they shall abandon their own mistaken experiments with gun and cook-book. Is he right? Is reality trapped at last? Do we hold it in our hands?

‘But what makes you think —’ the quiet person is as perverse as the rabbit in his so different fashion, popping up with his questions as persistently as the latter pops away, — ‘what good reason can you give me for stating that one kind of experience is more real than another? No one can expect to have every kind. For, while experience is the action of life upon the soul, it is still more the soul’s reaction upon circumstance, and cannot be accomplished without the latter’s coöperation. That takes time — if it occurs at all. Does not the soid’s own reaction determine reality for it?’

The active person does not care at all for this kind of language; he laughs at it and waves it away.

‘Come down to my office some day and I’ll show you,’ he asserts conclusively.

If the quiet person is really in earnest, is really bent upon tracking the hare, he will accept this invitation. He will lock up his study and present himself at his friend’s office door some morning.

Say that the friend is a banker, and the quiet person a poet; very well: the poet gains admission to the inner office and sits awhile, watching the banker sign papers and sort huge bundles of notes. ‘ Is this what you do ail the time? ’ he inquires at length.

‘Yes, for the most part,’ the banker replies, without looking up.

‘ These are what you call real things? ’ The poet fingers a thousand-dollar note.

‘Well, rather!’ The banker laughs carelessly. ‘The most real of all things, the very foundation of reality.’

‘Yet it is just paper; a spark would destroy it.’

‘Ah, but, my dear fellow, you see it stands for solid gold.’

‘“Stands for” — oh, well, then —!’ The poet leans back in his chair and considers, making no further comment.

Must like everything else,’ he reflects. ‘Something is always “standing for” something in the world at large. And as likely as not, the second something stands for something further. Here the paper stands for the gold, and the gold stands for an automobile, and the automobile stands for an idea of pleasure and convenience. A symbol of a symbol of a symbol of an idea — that’s what my friend has in hand.

‘I grant you, ideas are the only real things,’ he says unexpectedly, as he rises to go, ‘but I’d rather touch them a little closer than at three or four removes.’

Next, being definitely out on this business of experimenting with reality, he enters the Exchange Building which is close at hand. The daily tumult is at its height. On the floor men are leaping and screaming, gesticulating frantically at one another. The poet cannot understand them, but of course he knows in a general way what they are about. Buying and selling crops of wheat, not yet matured, in a distant state. Wheat — that seems real enough; but how remote, behind what a series: money and farmer and agent and miller and railroad and grocer and baker and purchaser! Moreover, in the end, when it is eaten, it is eaten; its period of reality is very limited. The person who eats it is the only factor in the complicated transaction who really matters. How many removes here? Eight at the least. The poet shrugs his shoulders.

In the afternoon he dresses himself carefully and goes to a reception. ‘Social intercourse’ is always being urged upon him as his privilege and duty if he hopes to know his fellows. It is a big reception; there are many fellows there. But does he know them? Not in the least. To know people one has to hear them talk about something that interests them; or, failing that, to make them respond to some interest of one’s own. These herded, perspiring folk are lucky if they can make one another hear a few disconnected words uttered at a desperate pitch of voice. They have to choose sounds like missiles, and hurl them resolutely. The general effect is not unlike that of the tumult in the Exchange; and the poet finds himself wondering if a system of signals might not to advantage be introduced in the social world. It. would be very diverting to arrange such a code. Symbols again — oh, yes, of course, nothing but symbols. Reality lurks behind, and is only touched when two friends turn away from the din and go and sit in a corner and snatch a few minutes’ intercourse. They might have done this just as well at home — in fact, agreat deal better.

Weary with his experiments, the poet at last concludes that he has done his duty for one day. So he returns to his study and unlocks the door.

It is very good to be back. His books and his pictures and his open desk welcome him mutely; and in his grate glows a remnant of a coal-fire which, being ministered to, recovers its full cordial life. He draws the curtains and lights the lamp. His cat comes in and takes up her usual position in the best armchair. The poet sits down in the secondbest, and gives himself over to honest meditation. What has it all amounted to — this day’s investigation which he has put through? Has he found any convincing proof of the more immediate presence of reality in the business and social worlds than anywhere else? On the contrary, it has seemed to him that the hare matches its activity with the activity of circumstance; and, retreating behind symbol after symbol, hides itself very adroitly in the shows of things. He cannot remember ever having spent such an unsubstantial day in his life. Well, on the other hand, can he remember any substantial, genuine day to set up against this emptiness and point to conclusively: ‘Then I lived’? One must be able to prove one’s position positively, as well as criticize one’s neighbor’s negatively, if one would win respectful attention.

Genuine days ? Scores and hundreds of them! The poet glances caressingly at his desk as much as to say, ‘We know all about that, don’t we?’ But then he settles back in his chair, shuts his eyes and thinks hard to select some one supremely valid experience of reality. It takes him a long time; he finds that he has a good deal of material.

On the whole —yes; he stirs in his chair, but keeps his eyes closed, recreating the scene, — on the whole, he decides on the day he climbed West Mountain alone as at least typical of the sort of experience he best understands.

It was midsummer and the woods were still. Not a bird-song, not a murmur from the shrunken brook in the leafy gorge, not a whisper among the trees. The whole world seemed — not holding its breath, that would have implied a restless expectancy, but breathing inaudibly in a profound repose. The poet climbed steadily with his eyes bent on the rough path beneath his feet. He hardly dared look about him at all, for the woods wore an august front of significance calculated to appall a solitary mortal. But he did not save himself from them by his senses’ denial of them. Rather, they pressed upon him the more because he neither saw them nor heard them; there was something awful about the way in which they made use of his vacant organs to invade and conquer him. They mounted with him, they mounted upon him, steadily gaining ascendancy over his entire being, until at the last he gave himself up and recognized them as his master. There was a profoundly thrilling sense of ultimate entity in his final fusion with them.

That was a real experience, surely; no one could doubt that. But here the poet opens his eyes, smiling, and sits up. The banker and broker would doubt it of course; they would laugh at it and pronounce it quite as invalid as he had pronounced their experiences. Well, what else then? At what other time had he felt himself utterly on the verge of reality?

Here in his study, one night when he had been reading late in a book of idealistic philosophy. Ah! that was a striking experience; he remembers it vividly. He had been wholly immersed in his book. It was one of those searching treatises which make their way as straight to the heart of things as they can go. Matter and substance fall away like flying foam from their piercing prows. Values and mysteries are reversed. Spirit seems the only thing that counts, and tangibility becomes the most inexplicable quality in the universe. It took the last stroke of the midnight hour to rouse the poet from his deep engagement with this book. But then he came to himself with a start, sat up and looked about him, to catch the strangest, impression that he had ever had of his environment. His familiar, orderly study was in a dissolving, vanishing state of disintegration. His seeming solid tables and chairs, so self-possessed and calm usually, were a wild chaos of whirling atoms, nebulous, incoherent. They hardly seemed to be there at all, save as a sort of suggestion. There was in fact no fixed form anywhere he might turn his eyes. Life and motion were everywhere, but substance not at all. It was but an instant. He had not time to rub his eyes before shape fled back into position — a negligent guard on duty, surprised, a betrayed and betraying watchman. But that instant afforded him a rending revelation which he never forgot. Of unreality? Yes, but much more of reality behind it, of God at work on chaos to-day precisely as urgently as before the advent of Adam and Eve; of the act of creation as one of eternal immediateness.

If the banker and broker refused to accept the mountain experience as valid, they would still more promptly deny this midnight episode. They would turn on the poet. ‘An hour ago you were complaining because our world was unsubstantial; now you are congratulating yourself on the unsubstantiality of your own. A fig for your consistency! ’

The poet’s reply would be ready: ‘In the one case, reality seemed to me to be retreating further and further behind the shows of things; in the other, it came forth and rent them asunder before its mighty face.’ But he would do better to keep silence and let the matter drop.

For, after all, the great thing is not so much to convert other people to one’s own way of thinking, — or even to convince them of its validity,—as to prove it to one’s own satisfaction and then to establish one’s self securely in it. Moreover, it is of course true, as the poet began by declaring, that nobody can expect to have every kind of experience; and who shall say which is the right kind, or whether any one kind is more right than another? Only Omniscience understands what reality is. If the poet desires the banker to be sparing in his criticisms, he must return the tolerance.

Perhaps the poet’s other remark is true also: that the soul’s own reaction on life determines reality for it. In that case, every experience would be as authentic as every other; and instead of there being no hare at all, the whole universe would be nothing but hare — the reason we cannot find it being simply that we are mounted on its back.

In sober truth, what other conclusion should we arrive at but precisely this? Every experience is partial, but it is also genuine; so long as we fully and faithfully follow our separate destinies, there is no escaping reality for any one of us. Every poet knows as much about life as every banker and broker; every farmer as much as every sailor; every school-teacher, dressmaker, house-keeper, as much as every society-leader or stenographer.

Let us trust ourselves, and let one another alone. Very likely we shall never make any sort of an ultimate pie; for our hare is immortal, invincibly alive and alert in all its cosmic body. But, though we could hardly do worse than succeed in catching it, we can assuredly not do better than give it chase — forever and forever.