Artist and Historian

WHEN the Publisher, the Artist, and the Historian are together, which is not so often as the Historian would wish, one of the few points on which they agree is the greatness of Henry Adams’s book on Mont-St.-Michel and Chartres. It was therefore inevitable that, being in Brittany, the Artist should decide to take the Historian, with a borrowed copy of Henry Adams, to see Mont-St.-Michel. It was inevitable that the Publisher should elect at the last moment to stay behind and play tennis, in the erroneous belief that he had found someone whom he could beat.

Thus at 8.30 A.M. — an hour entirely too early for either of them—the Artist and the Historian found themselves seated on a suitcase outside the Ker Maurice, waiting for a char-à-banc which was to carry some dozen tourists to Mont-St.-Michel, while the Publisher, imperfectly clad, scoffed through an open window.

‘On est en retard,’ ventured the Artist to a bystander.

‘Oui, Madame, on est toujours en retard,’ was the philosophical answer.

But at last a large char-à-banc appeared. The Historian, with that tendency to false identifications which characterizes his tribe, rushed to the conclusion that it was the Excursion. Nor was that all. He noted with undoubted, though not improper, satisfaction, that a damsel in peasant costume, and of more beauty than any tourist has a right to expect, was seated behind the driver, and that a convenient seat was vacant beside her. He put his foot on the step and began to swing himself into the vacant spot, but was firmly repelled.

‘Monsieur, vous avez tort! C’est une noce!’ cried the villagers, and indeed it was.

The church was next door and the party was a wedding, which, indeed, might be going to make history, but which had no need for an historian at that moment. Such episodes are a little embarrassing, but it soon passed and in the end the real chariot appeared. It was a commodious rather than a comfortable vehicle, for the back of the seat had a sharp ridge which came just above the shoulders of the riders, and the springs of the car were too soft, so that the inequalities of the road were accurately registered on the backs of the passengers.

The journey was for the most part uneventful; but in Dol there was an interval for seeing the charming cathedral, eating a brioche, and laughing at the local pig-market. Dozens and dozens of pink pigs — washed and scrubbed to a painful cleanliness.

‘Is it quite nice?’ said the Artist. ‘If they are going to look as clean as that I think they ought to be clothed.’

But before a new chapter of Sartor Resartus could be planned, the signal to get back into the char-à-banc was given, and the journey to Mont-St.Michel was resumed.

It was not unnatural that conversation should turn on Henry Adams, and, between the two of them, Artist and Historian came to a clearer understanding of why they admired him than either had ever reached before.

The value of the work of Henry Adams is that he was a scholar who saw the difference between knowledge and ignorance, an historian who studied the sequence of cause and effect, and a mystic who entered at times into the world of the ‘other reality,’ where there is neither cause and effect, nor object and subject.

Like all mystics it was the ‘other reality’ which he prized most, although — like all intelligent mystics — he also valued highly the world in which we live, and sought the key which opens the ‘Door in the Wall,’ not by denying the material and the actual, but by using them as a kind of sacrament through which men are given the power to open the lock. To the Artist and to the Historian this was clear; one question was less obvious.

‘Do you think he really was a Catholic in his last days?’ said the Artist, who had been reading the Letters to a Niece.

‘That,’ said the Historian, ‘depends on what you mean by Catholic. Some circles use the word very loosely to cover general sympathy with certain doctrines, or, more often, with certain forms of ritual; but historically Catholic means that great central form of Christianity which in the West was the historic Church of Rome — belonging to no nation, offering service to each, and asking loyalty from all. All other “Catholics” — Anglo-Catholics and similar sects — bear the same relation to the real thing as does electric-seal to the genuine article. You cannot, with due regard to history, copy parts of the Catholic Church — sacramental doctrine, for instance, or ritual, or an Episcopal polity — and claim to be the real thing. The Catholic Church is a supra-national organization; it is not a “national” Church, like the Church of England, or a “free” — that is, “subnational” — Church, like the Methodist Episcopal or the Protestant Episcopal Church of America. You belong to it, or you do not.

‘Henry Adams in this sense was not a Catholic. But I think he approached the life of Catholicism and the power that it has over men, with an affectionate and sympathetic understanding. By that effort of imagination which makes the difference between history and chronicles, he could put himself back into the position of the Catholics of the thirteenth century, and join in their worship of the Virgin, so that at times he thought, spoke, and wrote with a feeling which any Catholic would welcome, and a power of expression which few could equal.’

How much longer the Historian would have yielded in this way to his besetting sin it is hard to say. But Mont-St.-Michel began to be visible, and Henry Adams and Catholicism wore eclipsed for the moment. The Artist had seen it before, but the Historian was quite unprepared for the overwhelming beauty of the scene. It was low tide, still ebbing a little, and almost as far as the eye could see there was a level expanse of sand and water intersecting each other in a thousand different patterns. It was a fine, but showery, day, and sun and shadow on the flat sand and shallow water made a miraculous and everchanging play of color. The shallow water was a strange yellow-green; the deeper pools were a dark blue in the sun, and a steely black in the shadows, while the sands varied from gray through brown to green. Over them gulls, gray and white, never ceased to fly, sometimes skimming low over the surface — sometimes soaring higher toward the ramparts of the Abbey.

‘They are the ghosts of the Normans,’ said the Artist.

Across the bay could be seen the towers of Avranches, slowly coming out of a shower which still hung over the neighboring hills. Not for one minute together did the scene remain unchanged, yet its unity seemed complete and eternal.

For a long time Artist and Historian stayed, looking across the sands, drinking in the comfort and strength which the sight gave them. At last they turned and went up the steps and up the steep, narrow street which leads to the Abbey.

It is not difficult to imagine one’s self back in the thirteenth century; and if you know your Henry Adams, the general plan of the building gradually becomes clear. The Church at the top comes first, chronologically and in order of importance, and no one can enter the nave and walk through its Romanesque arches, looking eastward at the beautiful Gothic chancel, without feeling the truth of Henry Adams’s observation that there was a strangely happy marriage between the virile Norman of the nave and the delicately feminine Gothic of the chancel. Yet, beautiful though it may be, neither Artist nor Historian felt the thrill of pulsating life which had been given them by the beauty of the sea and the sand, the sun and the showers.

Leaving the church one is led through the rooms of the Merveille and the few still older parts below the nave. They are all beautiful, and the Salle des Chevaliers is one of the most lovely rooms in the world. It is not hard for the imagination to fill it with the great figures of Norman and French history. Yet here again the Artist and the Historian felt a certain sense of death. These buildings had been alive once; they had been filled with the spiritual life, good and bad alike, of great men and beautiful women. But now they were empty, and the most that could be felt was the presence of pale ghosts who could appeal to memory but could not stimulate life. It was with a certain sense of turning from the dead to the living that the Artist and Historian stood at some of the narrow windows and looked out over the bay.

In spite of the extraordinary beauty of the architecture, and in spite of the strong sentiment created by the genius of Henry Adams, the Historian felt that he had come to see Art and had stayed to marvel at Nature. He found himself wondering why this was so, and feeling, as he did, that for all its beauty the Abbey of Mont-St.-Michel is dead, the question of Ezekiel came irresistibly to his mind — ‘Can these bones live?’

To him at least there was no doubt why he kept turning away from the Abbey and the Merveille to catch his breath as, at the corners of the stairways, and through narrow windows, he again saw glimpses of the shadows moving so swiftly over the sands, and the showers and sunshine passing across Avranches, silhouetted against the sky. It was because spiritually if not intellectually he is a Roman rather than a Greek.

In the history of the religion of civilized men the Greeks — at least the Greeks who made the Olympian gods in their own image — always thought of the gods as the great, beautiful, passionate creatures who ruled the world of things, governed the course of events, and controlled the operations of nature. But the Romans did otherwise. They made no gods: they recognized the marvel of nature, and the miracle of life; and they saw divinity in its smallest happenings. To them Vesta was not a beautiful goddess to whom the hearth was sacred, nor Janus a strong god protecting the door. Vesta was the hearth itself, with its crackling flame, its strange light and curious shadows; and Janus was the actual door which kept out the storm, the cold, and the unfriendly. Hearth and door were both divine.

So it was that the Historian, on that wonderful afternoon at Mont-St.Michel, found the Roman element in his blood assert itself, and his heart sang its Te Deum to the sands and the showers, to the ‘tremor immensi Oceani’ rather than to the vaults and arches of the Abbey and the Merveille.

Yet when the Artist was gone, and he had made his way, a little lonely and pensive, from Dol to St.-Malo, he had another experience. He reached that delightful little port just before sunset, and strolled into the cathedral. It is not a preëminently beautiful building, and its modern decorations are a little tawdry. But there was a small group of worshipers around one of the altars on which a dim light was burning, and — herein was the miracle — it was full of life. The chancel at St.-Michel was beautiful — but dead. St.-Malo was commonplace — but alive. What made the difference? Ask any devout Catholic and he will tell you. ‘It was the Blessed Sacrament. You could feel life at St.-Malo because God was there. He has been banished from St.-Michel.’

An excellent answer for the Catholic, but what should an Historian, a poor heretic if not a heathen, reply?

The problem was not altogether new to him, but it presented itself now with unusual clearness and difficulty. Was it really possible to continue to assert with such conviction that the Mass is a subjective feeling built on a foundation of myth which has no more historical validity than the myths which were the basis of other sacramental religions, now long dead, such as the cults of Isis or of Mithras? History seems clearly to show that the sacramental cults of the beginning of the Christian era were all similar in their general religious and theological character, and Christianity from this point of view was one of these. It also shows that each sacramental religion had a ‘myth’ or story of its own, and none of these myths seems to be really historical. Far the nearest approach to history is the Christian myth, which as found in the Mass tells of the Incarnation and Passion of a divine Son of God, who instituted the Mass in order that his followers might share in the glory which was his. Behind this there is history in the sense that the founder of Christianity lived and died. But not in the sense that he did so in the manner implied by the Mass.

Such at least is the conviction of the Historian. It is therefore always a shock to him when he is violently thrown, as he was at St.-Malo, against the rock of Catholic emotion, and even seems, at least for the moment, to share in the spiritual experience which explains it. Henry Adams himself apparently felt this at some moments, and that is why his last book, Letters to a Niece, is so perplexing to some of his admirers.

Feeling a little shaken, and still moving in worlds not realized, the Historian went on, first to London, and then to Paris, and in Paris he went on Sunday morning to Notre Dame. It was a wonderful service in that wonderful cathedral, yet it did not approach the vividness of experience found at St.-Malo. How could it? In place of the Bretons of St.-Malo was a mixed crowd of sightseers, chiefly English and American, most of them obviously ignorant of the order and meaning of the service to which they were listening, though they doubtless enjoyed the music.

The Historian had asked at St.Michel whether these bones could live, and at Paris he at least found one way by which the bones can be kept dry. It is by the presence of a multitude of sightseers who ‘see with their eyes but do not perceive, and hear with their ears but do not understand.’

And as he thought of all this the secret of the difference between living St.-Malo and dead St.-Michel became clearer to him. It is to be found neither in the place nor in the myth, but in the people. To Notre Dame or to St.-Michel men go to gain a thrill, to see beauty, and to hear music: to some extent they get what they seek. But at St.-Malo they go to the cathedral because to them at least this is the way of life. It is an objective reality which they seek. And therefore to them this is the gate of Heaven, where the barriers of the world are raised, and they find the help which they need for their work, the comfort which they seek for their sorrows, and the purification which they crave for their sins. They find it, and those who, like the Historian, feel the same necessities, become aware of the presence of those who have sought and found. Though we do not see the angels on the ladder, we hear their footsteps, and our foreheads are cooled by the touch of their wings.

But — the question comes back — what about the Myth?

Well, experience can reveal reality. It can show the way ‘within the veil.’ But it cannot rewrite history. The myth is an explanation given by those who have seen the light. Similarly, in the past, Ptolemaic astronomy was an explanation given by those who had seen the stars. Yet the wrongness of the explanation did not prevent the observation of the stars, of the friendly silence of the moon, or of the flaming ramparts of the sky; on the contrary, up to a point it alone rendered such observation fruitful. But when at last increased observation rendered the old explanation untenable, the further revelation depended on the rejection of what was false, not its retention because of its past value.

So with the world of immaterial reality. Myths based on sacraments, or sacraments based on myths have been the door which has opened the way to Reality. That is true: but they are not the truth of history; and although the Historian has many sins on his conscience — which perhaps do not weigh as heavily as they should — he cannot admit that historical truth may ever be consciously modified, without committing what would be to him the sin against the Holy Ghost.

For to the Historian it is clear that he cannot and ought not to believe in the Myth. He can no longer share in the spiritual experience of the Mass, or of any other sacrament which is irretrievably bound up with myths — though by a kind of induced current he can still share, as at St.-Malo, in the experience of others. For the dangerous gift of sympathy — sharing in feeling — has always been his, for good and for evil. Yet when he said this to the Artist — for they talked of it at St.-Michel — she did not wholly agree.

‘Yes,’ said the Artist, ‘that is all very well for you. Perhaps you are right that for you to think straight is the main thing, to which you must hold on at whatever cost. But, for me, to feel straight comes first; and if there be anything which helps me to feel straight, I will hold on to it. If it takes a myth along with it, I will take the myth too.’

‘Woman,’ answered the Historian, ‘you are a Pragmatist, and that, as Bishop Butler said of enthusiasm, is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.’

‘Perhaps it is,’ she replied, ‘ but I gather from your tone that you do not quite know how to answer me.’

It was the truth. The Historian could have replied that she was confusing a judgment on value with a judgment on fact; but it would neither have suppressed her nor satisfied himself. The problem remains: why should historical wrongness and illusion be necessary for spiritual rightness?

The Historian wonders whether the Artist may not be nearer the truth than he has ever admitted, though not quite in the way which she intended. Is it necessary that the Myth should be believed for it to be efficacious? The Historian is inclined to think that in other religions than Christianity, and even in some circles which exist in the Church itself, it proves possible for a sacrament to be efficacious even though the myth which it represents be regarded as devoid of historic truth, and be treated merely as a beautiful and moving symbol which conveys spiritual life though it does not relate historic truth. To take this view would be difficult for him, or for anyone else who has been brought up to believe the Christian myth and has discovered its nature; but is that not partly because he knows so well that those celebrating the sacrament believe, or are supposed to believe, the historic truth of the story which they are enacting? Would it be so if there was no suggestion of personal belief in the historic truth of the Myth?

The Artist and those like her are enabled to put entirely on one side the question of historic truth. For the Historian that is impossible. Yet, if it were understood that historic truth was not implied, he thinks that he could share equally well in an efficacious sacrament. If that be so, the problem which is before the Christian, and especially the Catholic, Church seems to become a little easier of definition. To the Historian it is certain that the more it be studied the less historical will the Myth appear to be. If the Church insists, in spite of this fact, on belief in its historic truth, it will prove to have nailed its colors to the mast of a sinking ship. The ecclesiastical theologians will have crucified Christ afresh, though this time by binding him to a myth rather than to a cross of wood. That, even so, the Jesus of history will rise again, the Historian does not doubt, and religion will no more disappear than did the observation of the stars at the breakdown of the Ptolemaic astronomy. But the Church, as an historic institution, will perish, as did the church of Caiaphas; and to the Historian — for whom tradition and profession unite to make him admire and love the story of the Church — few calamities would seem greater than this. He wonders sometimes whether it be not possible, even now, that something approaching the old Modernist position might be accepted, which would frankly admit that the Myth is mythical while retaining and emphasizing the spiritual efficacy of the institutions connected with it. He hopes that it is so: nevertheless, like George Tyrrell, he has to admit that though religion lives, religions die.

The pathway to Reality is not one nor is it simple. The Artist and the Historian were very near it at MontSt.-Michel, but nearer when they were looking out over the sands, and could feel the vibration of each other’s thoughts, than they were in the Abbey. The Historian thinks that he was even nearer in St.-Malo. But in each case the Reality, which is Immaterial, was reached through a Material channel. For the sacraments of the Church are but an image of all life. Throughout our existence we are constantly tantalized yet encouraged by glimpses of another world in which the separation of personality and the clash of good and evil are overcome. We can see, as at St.-Michel,

. . . that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the children sport upon the shore
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Or, as at St.-Malo, we are taken into a world where, by offering their lives, men win their souls. To the Historian, the element of sadness is added when men turn their backs on the reality which they have reached, to argue blindly and angrily that by no other means can men reach it than by that which they have used themselves, and even, by a species of idolatry, confuse those means with the reality itself.

Some days later the Historian was at Chartres. He stood late in the afternoon just outside the open west door, in the bright sunlight. He could see nothing through the door. It was too dark inside. He went in, and gradually the vista of arches and the wonder of colored glass were revealed to him. He went back to the door to the brilliant sunlight. He could see nothing. It was too bright outside.

Which was ‘true’? Answer that, and the problem discussed by Artist and Historian is solved. We are all purblind creatures, and those who are outside cannot see the wonders of the dim arches and vaults, and those who are inside cannot face the brilliance of the light of day.