The Mystic Turned Radical
THE mystical temperament is little enough popular in this work-a-day modern world of ours. The mystic, we feel, comes to us discounted from the start; he should in all decency make constant apologies for his existence. In a practical age of machinery he is an anomaly, an anachronism. He must meet the direct challenge of the scientist, who guards every approach to the doors of truth and holds the keys of its citadel. Any thinker who gets into the fold by another way is a thief and a robber.
The mystic must answer that most heinous of all charges, — of being unscientific. By tradition he is even hostile to science. For his main interest is in wonder, and science by explaining things attacks the very principle of his life. It not only diminishes his opportunities for wonder, but threatens to make him superfluous by ultimately explaining everything.
The scientist may say that there is no necessary connection between explanation and that beautiful romance of thought we call wonder. The savage, who can explain nothing, is the very creature who has no wonder at all. Everything is equally natural to him. Only a mind that has acquaintance with laws of behavior can be surprised at events.
The wonder of the scientist, however, although it be of a more robust, tough-minded variety, is none the less wonder. A growing acquaintance with the world, an increasing at-homeness in it, is not necessarily incompatible with an ever-increasing marvel both at the beautiful fitness of things and the limitless field of ignorance and mystery beyond. So the modern mystic must break with his own tradition if he is to make an appeal to this generation, and must recognize that the antithesis between mystic and scientific is not an eternally valid one.
It is just through realization of this fact that Maeterlinck, the best of modern mystics, makes his extraordinary appeal. For, as he tells us, the valid mystery does not begin at the threshold of knowledge but only after we have exhausted our resources of knowing. His frank and genuine acceptance of science thus works out a modus vivendi between the seen and the unseen. It allows many of us who have given our allegiance to science to hail him gladly as a prophet who supplements the work of the wise men of scientific research, without doing violence to our own consciences. For the world is, in spite of its scientific clamor, still far from ready really to surrender itself to prosaicness. It is still haunted with the dreams of the ages — dreams of short roads to truth, visions of finding the Northwest passage to the treasures of the Unseen. Only we must go as far as possible along the traveled routes of science.
Maeterlinck is thus not anti-scientific or pseudo-scientific, but rather subscientific. He speaks of delicately felt and subtle influences and aspects of reality that lie beneath the surface of our lives, of forces and shadows that cannot be measured quantitatively or turned into philosophical categories. Or we may say that he is post-scientific. As science plods along, opening up the dark wilderness, he goes with the exploring party, throwing a search-light before them; flickering enough and exasperatingly uncertain at times, but sufficiently constant to light up the way, point out a path, and give us confidence that the terrors before us are not so formidable as we have feared. His influence on our time is so great because we believe that he is a seer, a man with knowledge of things hidden from our eyes. We go to him as to a spiritual clairvoyant, — to have him tell us where to find the things our souls have lost.
But the modern mystic must not only recognize the scientific aspect of the age, — he must feel the social ideal that directs the spiritual energies of the time. It is the glory of Maeterlinck’s mysticism that it has not lingered in the depths of the soul, but has passed out to illuminate our thinking in regard to the social life about. The growth of this duality of vision has been with him a long evolution. His early world was a shadowy, intangible thing. As we read the early essays, we seem to be constantly hovering on the verge of an idea, just as when we read the plays we seem to be hovering on the verge of a passion. This long brooding away from the world, however, was fruitful and momentous. The intense gaze inward trained the eye, so that when the mists cleared away and revealed the palpitating social world about him, his insight into its meaning was as much more keen and true than our own as had been his sense of the meaning of the individual soul. The light he turns outward to reveal the meaning of social progress is all the whiter for having burned so long within.
In the essay on ‘Our Social Duty,’ the clearest and the consummate expression of this new outward look, there are no contaminating fringes of vague thought; all is clear white light. With the instinct of the true radical, the poet has gone to the root of the social attitude. Our duty as members of society is to be radical, he tells us. And not only that, but an excess of radicalism is essential to the equilibrium of life. Society so habitually thinks on a plane lower than is reasonable that it behooves us to think and to hope on an even higher plane than seems to be reasonable. This is the overpoweringly urgent philosophy of radicalism. It is the beautiful courage of such words that makes them so vital an inspiration.
It is the sin of the age that nobody dares to be anything to too great a degree. We may admire extremists in principle, but we take the best of care not to imitate them ourselves. Who in America would even be likely to express himself as has Maeterlinck in this essay? Who of us would dare follow the counsel? Of course we can plead extenuation. In Europe the best minds are thinking in terms of revolution still, while in America our radicalism is still simply amateurish and incompetent.
To many of us, then, this call of Maeterlinck’s to the highest of radicalisms will seem irrelevant; this new social note which appears so strongly in all his later work will seem a deterioration from the nobler mysticism of his earlier days. But rather should it be viewed as the fruit of matured insight. There has been no decay, no surrender. It is the same mysticism, but with the direction of the vision altered. This essay is the expression of the clearest vision that has yet penetrated our social confusion, the sanest and highest ideal that has been set before progressive minds. It may be that its utter fearlessness, its almost ascetic detachment from the matter-of-fact things of political life, its clear cold light of conviction and penetration, may repel some whose hearts have been warmed by Maeterlinck’s subtle revelations of the spiritual life. They may reproach him because it has no direct bearings on the immediate practical social life; it furnishes no weapon of reform, no tool with which to rush out and overthrow some vested abuse. But to the traveler lost in the wood the one thing needful is a pole-star to show him his direction. The star is unapproachable, serene, cold, and lofty. But although he cannot touch it, or utilize it directly to extend his comfort and progress, it is the most useful of all things to him. It fills his heart with a great hope; it coördinates his aimless wanderings and gropings, and gives meaning and purpose to his course.
So a generation lost in a chaos of social change can find in these later words of Maeterlinck a pole-star and a guide. They do for the social life of man what the earlier essays did for the individual. They endow it with values and significances that will give steadfastness and resource to his vision as he looks out on the great world of human progress, and purpose and meaning to his activity as he looks ahead into the dim world of the future.