The Glorious Bondage

I

I WAS not born with a delicate constitution; on the contrary, up to the age of twenty I was remarkably strong. But then I began to find it impossible to run, or play tennis, or go quickly upstairs or up a hill without palpitation, and getting out of breath, and feeling as if there were some painful constriction across my chest, and I returned only gradually to my normal condition. Since the same symptoms appeared with an emotional disturbance, or with anxious waiting, I put them down to excessive sensitiveness, and did not worry about them. I placed them in the category of those painful occurrences without much importance or signification to which so many people have to get accustomed in their lives.

For several years, if I was the victim of other ills, they did not, as far as I can tell, make my heart worse. But from time to time, more often when I was playing the piano, I used suddenly to feel faint or giddy, and sometimes this feeling came upon me with more surprise and distress and strangeness than at others, like a sudden strong warning of unexpected danger. One might imagine that my frailty induced an enhanced perceptibility, much as a searchlight or a flash of lightning momentarily lights up a landscape.

These unpleasant feelings were of very short duration, but I remained anxious and upset for a long time, as if something had been forcibly printed on me, which faded away but gradually. At other times these solemn warnings reached my consciousness only as an indistinct alarm bell, which a breeze wafts to us from afar, and which we scarcely recognize.

It was not till the second year after my marriage that I was knocked over as suddenly as by a thunderbolt by my first serious heart attack. It was in the street, while I was walking gayly, but perhaps rather too fast, with my husband. The doctor whom we consulted was a world-wide celebrity, and his diagnosis was practically a sentence of death, not long to be deferred.

Now do not let those whose life has been darkened by a similar grave verdict be too much alarmed by it. Do not let all hope of further existence be extinguished because they have found out, or have been allowed to see, that their case is considered hopeless. Medicine, even as practised by the best physicians, is very far from being an exact science, especially when it is a question of life or death. Except in the case of a few diseases, which when they have got to a certain stage always show the same irremissible and rapidly fatal end, a forecast of the duration of a man’s life is as unreal, and almost as often as erroneous, as a weather forecast. Perhaps I shall die in my next attack, but in the meanwhile fifteen years have elapsed since the famous Professor X pronounced that I was the victim of a certain form of heart disease which finishes its course in a few months, or, at its longest, in a year. A diagnosis, like a criticism, is often the opinion of one man, and no one is infallible, however great his knowledge, experience, and up-to-dateness.

My father, when he was twentyeight years old, had also been similarly given up by four doctors, who were so certain of their fateful prognostication that they thought fit to tell my mother, although she was quite young, in mourning for a child four years old, and having to bring up another daughter of one and a half years and a son aged two months. Nevertheless, my father went on living, and the four doctors who had condemned him, fully convinced of his frailty and the short time he had to live, overconfident perhaps in their own strength and prospects of longevity, all died before him.

True, my father’s life was a comparatively short one, since he was suddenly taken from us in his forty-second year, but, though short, it was a noble and fruitful one; and, young as I was, the sight of his suffering made me understand that physical does not necessarily go hand in hand with moral degeneration. I should not have been the true daughter of such a man if I had let myself go adrift because sickness held my body as in a vise.

II

Since that first attack my life has been nothing but a hard battle, varying in intensity, against bodily weakness. The graph which describes it shows a line terribly, though not uniformly, on the downgrade; there are relatively high points and alarmingly low ones, big oscillations between days of indescribable agony and others of misleading recovery. Two or three times the improvement has been so marked and lasting that I was led to believe in the possibility of a cure. Bitter indeed were the subsequent relapses! Gradually I was condemned to immobility, like a tree rooted in the ground. The attacks followed more closely on each other. Each time the rebound was less, and my life became more and more like that of the unhappy epileptic who is hardly out of one fit before he falls into another. But heart attacks have these aggravating additions, that they are full of danger, that one does not get the relief of losing consciousness, and that one feels only too distinctly the icy breath of the menace to life. Nevertheless, there were still times when I counted recklessly on the nonmalignancy of the disease, the chances of recovery, the efficacy of medicine, and the capability of the doctors.

At different times I have passed through all the phases of the disease. First, that which seemed more than painful at the time, but now would be to me a state of inaccessible well-being, where one was still able to a certain extent to go about, and when the ominous fate carried within one’s breast only made itself known by the too rapid onset of fatigue, general discomfort, and certain occurrences which, coming at a time of full and happy activity, reminded one with sinister voice of the ravages of the mysterious wound within. I had long periods of only partial confinement to bed, when I tried to persuade myself that if I could only give up thinking about my complaint it would fade away and perhaps disappear, and when I made every effort, as one would in the case of a worrying gadfly, to repel this vague and troublesome awareness of some disorganization of the body, which insisted on creeping into all my thoughts, and which, like a thorn in the flesh, did not let me forget my trouble.

I have also known long periods of being altogether in bed, when I could only occasionally sit up, and suffocating periods of absolute recumbency when the faintest movement was neither allowed nor possible. I have known the most complete, most humiliating physical dependence. I have known, too, all the limitations and powerlessness which sickness is capable of imposing, and which, as I said before, entering into everything, are all the time preventing life from being normal; I have known, too, those heights of suffering, and those depths of physical weakness, when every effort is sterile and empty, and one is just a light which is painfully burning itself out.

This inability to break through the bondage of sickness seemed to me a monstrous thing, as unthinkable as being forced to let myself be burned alive in a house on fire. I fought desperately, as one who will not let what he most values, what he believes to be the one essential to life, be snatched from him. I struggled like a madman, for I wished above all things to live a full and fruitful life; and how could I do that, I said to myself, without being cured first?

I might well struggle and fight for life; it was all in vain, and I had to accept the evidence which proved that my malady would last as long as myself. In face of this cruel persistence, and the failure of all the remedies that were tried, and the giving up of the battle on the part of the doctors, devoted as they were, I at last understood what every fibre of my being rebelled against — namely, that the malady which had seized me would not loose its hold, any more than a vulture would relinquish the prey gripped in beak and claw.

I cannot see any possibility of escaping the ever-present menace of heart attacks, which sometimes occur close together, at others are further apart, and which come on with the suddenness of a fire-damp explosion — without any possibility of foreseeing them or guarding against them. It is established without doubt that it is beyond human power to relieve me of this daily and nightly terror, which makes me feel as if I were walking over ground laid with mines which might explode at any one of my steps.

Is there really nothing which can prevent me feeling my heart — that vital machine whose slightest deviation from the normal is enough to upset the entire body —suddenly give out, get painfully irregular, throwing me into an unimaginable state of crazy fear, while at the same time the lungs seem to be turned into cotton wool which lets no air pass, and in a few moments a glacial cold, such as I have never experienced at any other time, penetrates the whole of my being and turns it into a block of ice? Shall I, then, always be liable to those states of collapse when, in indescribable agony, gasping, and feeling death imminent, I find myself as incapable of resistance or defense as a plant whose stalk is suddenly cut?

Such crises bring one to that terrible region in life, or rather to that proximity to death, where isolation is more complete than one had previously had any conception of, for one is suddenly taken far away from all human help, where the most complete knowledge, the most ardent love, and the most firmly established friendship are of no avail.

When we are in good health we nearly all have a strange belief in the power and endurance of our bodies. We trust to the stability and the freedom from danger secured by this companion of ours, though we know all the time how fragile it can be, and how open to every menace even under a shield of robustness, and always liable — in spite of itself — to every kind of failing and treachery. Nothing disturbs this confidence for long at a time; neither the earth mixed with the dust of many bones, which covers more dead than it carries living, nor the wide breaches which the departure of our dear ones has hollowed out in our lives, nor the knowledge that, to bring everything to an end before we have achieved or learned anything in the way of living, all that is required is a few seconds of drowning, a few inhalations of a noxious gas, the blow of a stone on the temple, a little too much loss of blood, or something which crushes the body in the way our fingers crush or our foot stamps on an insect.

But knowing is not in this case the same as feeling. From the day when we first experience the grip of death on our chest this confidence is so completely uprooted that living rather than dying seems impossible.

III

What is being ill? Besides the suffering, the weakness, and general discomfort to be undergone, it is to be condemned to live against the grain, and in a way contrary to all one’s natural inclinations and tastes; it is to be forced to abandon everything one is fond of, and to long madly for what one will never have again. It is to hurl oneself desperately against obstacles unconquerable as the forces of nature; it is to find one’s greatest joys poisoned, and the relations with those one loves best out of joint, or at least altered; it is to be continually hampered by impediments, big and small, not only to one’s own comfort and selfish ambition, but also to one’s highest ideals; it is to be subjected to the nameless horror of being shut up, and to the still greater one of being dependent on others; it is the likelihood of being a burden instead of a support, a shadow instead of a light.

For me especially, it was not being able to advance one step in the spacious and brilliant career which was opening out to my view; it was being no longer able to ‘serve’ either my beloved music or those whom I loved better than myself, and had the happiness of knowing that I could render services to.

Of all the sacrifices I have had to make, giving up music has been the most heart-rending. It is not only being deprived of the purest and keenest of my pleasures; it is like being torn from my native soil, where all my roots have found their sustenance; it is being compelled to live out of the element in which I have been immersed since birth, in which it is natural for me to move and expand; it is being robbed of my deepest, most powerful, most necessary means of expression. Suppose I did get better, could I still convey through my hands that power of revealing the interior life of souls in some such way as the mysteries and wonders of those subterranean grottoes which the earth hides in her breast can be revealed by lighting them up? Should I experience again that glorious liberation of the soul, that radiant interior transfiguration of the being who, his instrument in his hands, is immediately freed from the restraining dullness of the spoken word, and who feels his spirit winged for the free sending forth of an expressive and subtle force? What can be compared to that joyous soaring, those strong calm flights across that marvelous world of sound whose sovereignty begins where that of the word ends?

Since I have become more and more bound down by the chains of my disease, and the many obstacles in my path have gone on growing and extending, and I have no longer been able to give myself up to the work I loved, I made a resolution, as all other ways were barred, to write down something of what still went on living in me.

Having to use words instead of sounds is like being forced to take to heavy walking after having known the intoxication of flying, and in the eyes of the musician, accustomed to the delicate purity of music, words seem tainted with something coarse, almost indecent.

Why one writes, in spite of personal deficiencies of which one is only too conscious, and of hindrances which one sees only too clearly, is stated very clearly by Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet:—

You ask me if your verses are good, and you have asked other people before me. You send your poems to reviews. You compare them with others, and get worried if publishers refuse your attempts. Well, then, since you ask my advice, it is to give up all that sort of thing. You go outside for assistance, and that is just what you should not do. No one can really advise you or help you. The only way is to have recourse to yourself. Ask yourself why you write, try to find out whether the roots of it are planted in your heart of hearts; would you dare to say that you would die if you could not write? Before all, must I write? Dig deep and find your answer in the depths. And if it is in the affirmative, if in answer to this most serious question you can say simply and firmly, ’I must,’ then arrange your life accordingly.

Get near to nature, and try to tell as if you were the first man to be born what you see, live, love, and lose.

Avoid general principles and take refuge in those which your own daily life suggests; describe your sorrows and desires, your passing thoughts, and your faith in some form of beauty; describe it all with absolute sincerity, calmly and modestly, and make use, as a help to expression, of the things around you, your dream pictures, and things you remember. If your life seems too meagre to use in this way, do not blame the life but yourself, in that you are not poet enough to evoke its riches; because for him who creates something there is no poverty, no miserable environment possible. And even if you had to live in a prison whose walls shut off all sound of the outside world, would there not still be your childhood, that exquisite and royal treasury of memories?

And if out of this withdrawal into yourself, and descent into your own world, poetry is born, you will not think of asking anyone if your verses are good, because you will see in them your own cherished possession, a portion of your own life, and your own voice speaking. A work of art has no value unless it is born of necessity. The judgment you can pass upon it is born with it; there is no other. . . .

I do not wish my soul to vegetate like my body; if my bodily life is obliged to be restricted and to go slowly, at least it must not be the same with my spiritual life.

Neither do I intend that out of any trial, whatever it may be, — and I know by cruel experience what I am calling a trial, — my soul shall emerge impoverished, wilted, or deadened. It must, on the contrary, be vitalized, broadened, purified — less unworthy of Thee, my God.

But it must be remembered that one does not arrive in one day at the conception of what a mutilated life can achieve in the way of real living. There must be a long and hard apprenticeship for it.

IV

It is not enough to make a resolution not to stagnate! The ideal must be put into action. When the simple attractiveness of this aim is revealed to us, its first effect is to lift us up; we feel ready for any sacrifice, and, full of courage, we imagine that such a noble impulse will carry us straight up into the highest realms of patience, heroism, and saintliness! But we quickly fall down again into the gray web of everyday life, and find that, even with all our forces drawn up in battle array, we are terribly weak in face of the continual drain on our energies, and the unceasing effort called for in the struggle of a life hampered at every turn and in every way.

We walk with our eyes on the heavens, and at every step get irritated by stumbling against stones or splashing into muddy puddles. We fail in our resolutions twenty times a day, we find ourselves as far from realizing our moral ideal as an artist his ideal of true art. We end by learning that a great ideal is often attained by means of a multitude of humble little deeds, in the same way that the greatest thoughts have to be expressed by inadequate words, and the most intricate harmonies are made with seven notes, which in themselves have neither meaning nor beauty. At any rate, it is beyond belief how much the making the effort to overcome all the piled-up little trials of every hour can contribute to the mastery of self.

Working one day at a fine piece of knitting, I was able to draw from it a valuable moral lesson. The intricate pattern of interlacing threads had to be worked from the back, so that in plying the needles one saw only the reverse of the stitches, the ‘ ugly side,’ as children call it. But when the work was turned over the right way a network of charming designs was evident — one of those beautiful creations which make us imagine that the women who produce them by finding a thousand different ways of crisscrossing the threads must be full of intelligence, of the spirit of invention, of acuteness, of imagination, of gracefulness, and of accuracy. And the thought came to me that we may often have to weave our life from the back. But what does that matter, if, on the front, — that is to say, in the spiritual aspect of life, — God can discern the beauty of the work?

No one was more surprised than I myself at what I was able to get out of my life after several months and after several years of invalidism. Certainly nothing wonderful in itself, but at any rate far more than what beforehand I should have thought possible under such conditions. I trained myself to work at times when previously I thought that absolute passivity was necessary, and to endure what, at the beginning, seemed unendurable.

I was too well acquainted with those hours when one’s illness completely bowls one over to have any illusions about being able to swim against all currents, conquer all pain, or work under all conditions. I know only too well that we cannot do away with the boundaries which limit us. But it is something if we succeed in pushing them back ever so little.

It is very necessary for me to read over and over again the advice which I have been giving myself.

I must be strictly just when considering my own lot in life, and give full weight to the fact that in spite of my many deprivations there are glorious hours in it and splendid new country to be explored. To keep myself up to the mark I have given myself the task of making a ‘Christian’ self-examination every evening, which I have long since seen to be far better than mere introspection, though objective; and at the end I draw up the moral balance sheet for the day. On one side is put everything that I might grumble about, on the other what I should give thanks for. And, whatever has passed during the day, there is scarcely ever an evening that I do not have to thank God for something, be it on earth or in the realms of the spirit.

My God, what have I to render Thee thanks for?

For the loved ones Thou hast given me.

For my mind remaining clear in spite of my illness, and for my being able to coöperate with and follow its guidance.

For my matchless, faithful friends.

For those souls that like to come to me because they feel that I can do them some good.

For being one of those who have the gift of understanding sound, and who naturally dwell in the realms of thought.

For being sensitive to all forms of beauty.

For the fact that my disease does not make me an object of disgust or a danger to other people.

And for many other things.

But, above all, for the revelation of the deep and glorious meaning of suffering, and for all the radiant light Thou hast Thyself poured into the depths of my understanding.

V

Most convalescents, on recovering from a severe illness, confess to a feeling of being born again into a new life. They feel all the more alive from having been so near to death, and their renewed strength is more intensely rejoiced in because of the previous weakness. The danger which hung so visibly over them has withdrawn into the shadows without likelihood of a return in the near future. They experience a peculiar sense of relief and security.

But unfortunately one feels nothing like that after a heart attack. There are threatening murmurs still going on. The more frequent the attacks, the greater is the probability of their recurrence, and each one sends us down several more steps of the ladder of our illness. These continual relapses make me feel as if my head were pushed with redoubled force under the water as soon as it appears on the surface.

My God, how many times one has to begin all over again. . . . I entreat Thee, do not leave me.

VI

My illness, in everything which it has brought to an end, has attacked my most sensitive and vulnerable points. It has robbed me of what I clung to with every fibre of my being, of what I am sure God did not ask me to give up.

If one means by resignation that one is not to regret that one’s highest ideal has been broken in pieces, that one must no longer wish for one’s buried treasures, nor vibrate in tune with all that sets one quivering, then I have never been resigned, even for a single hour. On the contrary, my desires and my ambitions, and even the very special hold the consciousness of my talents had on me, talents in the sense of the Gospel use of the word, which I could have made to bear fruit in health — all these continued to increase as my hopes diminished.

Have I found that joy in pain which some people speak of? No. Perhaps it is beyond me. I have only attained to the wish, humble yet strong, not to fall short of what my destiny demands, and not to lose what God has revealed to me of the usefulness of suffering.

My God! There are certain circumstances in which it is not easy to trace Thy hand. I fail to understand why Thou hast chained me a few feet away from my piano. Make me to understand Thy purpose, when Thou givest special gifts to a being, by the help of which he is able to approach Thee, and afterwards Thou makest it impossible for him to show them to others and let others benefit by them. Thou knowest, O Lord, that I tried to serve and glorify Thee with my music.

It is true that by electrophone and wireless the greatest of musical compositions executed by picked performers can be radiated into my room at any hour that I please. But Thou knowest, O Omnipotent Creator, that our poor human lives are transformed by what we create ourselves, however poor our powers may be.

Praise be to Thee for all that I listen to, but have pity on me, O God, because I am condemned to be dumb where music is concerned.

I feel that my fingers are terribly rusty; perhaps I shall never be able to draw sound from a piano again, and yet — I seem to feel that the fire within me which burns so ardently and responsively, and those powers of expression which can interpret the art for which one is specially gifted, are amplified, enriched, and purified.

Paradoxical as it may be, I feel as if I had made progress during the last few months. Though in a sense I was indifferent, yet I wished to know. . . . I had my bed placed in front of the piano, and lying on my left side, even in this impossible position, and with pedals quite out of reach, I managed to play some of the tunes which I have loved all my life.

I saw what I wished to see; I knew what I wished to know: I have made, in music, the progress I thought I had. One year’s work, and everything would come back, and it would be less imperfect than before.

Lord, I am beginning to understand what Thy Voice has often conveyed to me without words: that Thou hast given these powers of expression in art to but a few, but in each one of us Thou has put the germ of something greater than art, and it is this something which every human being must discover and express for himself.

‘My grace is also a free gift,’ I hear Thee say, ‘as unmerited as the artist’s gift, and I leave every man free to let it lie fallow or to take every means to make it fruitful.’

My God, would that each morning, when I wake, I could forge the weapons requisite to follow Thee without failing through the day until the night falls and sleep supervenes.

May I not serve Thee less devotedly in my chains than I should have served Thee in my freedom.

(To be concluded)