Bohemian and Buddhist
AFTER four years in Rome, the winter of 1901 found us in the Chanler villa at Newport with every intention of living there the rest of our lives. What had ever led us to imagine it would be pleasant to live there the year round ? It was charming in summer and autumn, but by late November it was bleak and dreary. My husband then found it necessary — or perhaps just more amusing — to spend much of his time in New York. The Chanlers are like turkeys and must not be enclosed; they cannot thrive unless they be allowed to range, so Winty came and went. My brother-in-law Bob Chanler, escaping from his first matrimonial disaster, sought refuge with us and made the winter less lonely.
How describe Bob to those who never knew him, who never saw him burst into a room, his gleaming, curlylashed eyes shining through big tortoise-shell spectacles? In appearance he was at once distinguished and a little uncouth. He was very tall and long-limbed, a graceful dancer and a good horseman; he had a shock of untamed light brown curly hair, and dressed with a dash of fastidious eccentricity that became him well. ‘Bob is chic, isn’t he?’ his wife said to me once as she and I were walking behind him on the Champs-Élysées, and I had to agree, though I should not have thought of the word in connection with him. He was so much more than chic. The two seemed happy enough at that time. She was tall, blonde, and unquestionably chic — since she liked the word. He was by nature an artist, with all the artist’s excessive sensibility of body and soul. His ardent vitality seemed to amplify and intensify his every experience. Impression, emotion, image, and idea had no calm succession in his mind. Each and all were turbulent storm centres. His spirit always reminded me of the great nebulæ we see in books on astronomy: incalculable vortices of light whirling through cosmic darkness. I felt him accurately tuned and predestined to suffer and to enjoy more than most men are capable of suffering and enjoying.
His stay with us that winter in Newport was a peaceful if rather bleak interlude in his stormy, changeful life. The future had many vicissitudes in store for him: success as a painter, success in being much beloved. He bought a farm in Dutchess County not far from Rokeby, and became such a favorite with rich and poor that he was elected sheriff. The big state prison at Sing Sing came under his jurisdiction, and we were told it had never been run so smartly and so well. Smartness seems an odd word to use in connection with a jail; my informant used it meaning that Bob had raised the morale of the place by cleaning it up and by insisting on a measure of civility on the part of the personnel. He gave barbecues for the farmers and the village folk and was much in demand at the great houses along the banks of the Hudson — the Astors’, Ogden Mills’s, and the rest, where he dined, danced, and played poker with the frivolous. All were glad to hail Sheriff Bob, the name he was universally known by for many years after he had relinquished the office.
Then came another matrimonial disaster, when he married the beautiful and notorious Lina Cavalieri in Paris, and his oldest brother, who had at one time been declared insane, sent him the oft-quoted cable, ‘Who’s loony now?’ He lived with her for one week of joy and terror. He signed away his whole fortune to her and found that he was expected to live without pocket money and work for a living ’like other American husbands’; but lack of funds was not the only bogey. A lawyer friend, seeing his distress, advised him to run away, and lent him the money to pay for his passage to New York. Fortunately for Bob, the trustees of his father’s estate would not recognize the deed of gift, and the diva had to be satisfied with a portion of his patrimony. After this they were divorced and Bob stayed on in New York, crestfallen and demoralized. My husband would not let me see him for some time; he lost patience and refused pity, but the breach was not for long.
Bob recovered himself and went to work. His decorations became fashionable and orders poured in. He painted many screens and panels with bird and beast, fish and deep-sea monster. He studied them from books of natural history and as far as possible from life; then his imagination transmuted them into something new and strange. He felt them as types and symbols of mysterious forces everywhere at work, and was ravished by the brilliance and unending variety of the visible world. The flicker of flame, the beauty of peacocks, the slenderness of silvery giraffes, the struggles of huge cuttlefish with equally huge crustaceans in the depths of the sea, ‘the hawk that stretches her wings toward the south’ and ‘the way where light dwelleth.’
He had so many orders to carry out, so many new ideas to be caught and set down before the vision faded, that he was obliged to employ professionally trained decorators to carry out many of the larger projects. His men were devoted to him and did their best; they were experts in applying gold and silver leaf, glazes and patines, but when it came to painting birds and beasts, flowers and fishes, let alone human figures, their brush strokes were commercial and wholly inadequate. So it happened that a number of pieces signed ‘Robert Chanler’ were unworthy of him, and I thought it a great pity.
I tried to tell him this more than once, but he never seemed to be troubled by it. What he painted with his own hand was spirited and original, rather rough in execution, amateurish for all the decorative richness of color and texture, but interesting for its imaginative quality: the quality gifted children show before they are twelve and generally lose after they begin to work seriously on their art. This remained with him to the end.
In New York he bought two old houses and threw them into one. The top story was made into a large studio, and the basement into a dance room. The intermediate floors held his living room, dining room, and a number of bedrooms. These and the staircase he decorated freely. The walls of the staircase were enlivened with monkeys and beasts of the jungle swinging and crawling through tangled branches. There was a room full of live tropical birds; the dining room had a collection of handsome macaws, cockatoos, and other parrots, tethered to their perches; the windows were brightened with aquariums full of every variety of glinting goldfish. The walls were hung with the curiously revealing portraits he liked to make of his friends, not generally appreciated by those who sat for them. Most of these likenesses had a certain lost-soul quality which no one is pleased to recognize in a picture of himself.
He called the place his House of Fantasy, and there he literally kept open house, for the front door had a trick lock and those who knew it could walk in at any hour of the day or night. It was a centre where young Bohemia loved to gather. He had many friends among the talented, the almost-talented, and the mere roustabouts. All the rising stars in arts and letters were taken to see him, to be passed on by him. Nearly all felt drawn to his exciting personality, but not all could stand the pace he kept. The more serious-minded would drop out of the gay circle after joining it for a while; they found it too destructive to concentration on their work. Several of these more prudent ones have told me how devoted they were to Bob himself and what an inspiration he had been to them, how regretfully they had fallen away when they realized they could not pay the price of so many wasted hours.
The parties at the House of Fantasy were apt to last through the next day and into the morning after, during which interval a great deal of whiskey was consumed and almost anything or everything might and often did happen. Bob led the revels and was amused by the freaks of the revelers, but he was well aware of their plus or minus human values. The innermost Spectator in him was always keenly watchful, though indulgent. These parties were amusing if not always edifying to hear about; needless to say, I was never urged to attend them.
I used to lunch with Bob and visit his studio when things were quiet; he would show me the work in progress and the plans and sketches for future work. It was astonishing how steadily and seriously he pursued his upstairs studio life despite the boisterous irregularities that agitated the lower stories.
In middle life Bob met with an accident which left him permanently lame. He could take no more exercise and grew heavy. The physical inactivity seemed to stimulate his mind, for he became an avid reader of serious books and learned with deep interest many things he had never thought about before. He carried his zestful curiosity into many fields. There was little in the cycle of human joys, fears, and passionate troubles that he had not experienced; he found them all again in the processional pomp of history, and it went to enrich his understanding and sympathy for the human predicament. The young loved to be with him and he never lost interest in them and their affairs.
During his last summers he lived at Woodstock, near the Hudson, surrounded by a colony of artists, all his good friends. I motored there several times to spend a few hours with him. The last visit gave me my last sight of him. He was sitting on his little porch in the sun, wearing his painter’s smock, looking wise and detached. The fires were burning low; he was too weak to walk, but never too weak to make an occasional sketch of some picture that came into his mind.
The young Bob had had in him something of Parsifal, the Pure Fool, who treads ‘Der Irrniss und der Leiden Pfade,’ the paths of error and of pain, preserving a certain guilelessness, and of the youthful Bacchus, leader of gay revels; now he looked like an Oriental sage. Blake tells us that the Roads of Excess lead to the Palace of Wisdom.
All this and how much more lay on the lap of the uncertain gods that faraway winter when he and I spent many quiet evenings together in our Newport villa. I would play him the Bach fugues he loved, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms; very often Liszt’s charming ‘Lorelei,’ so delicately, so wistfully sentimental. He well knew the fate of the boatman in the little skiff and the wild woe that overtook him for listening to the dangerous melody.
There was a convenient train that left Newport in the middle of the morning and reached Boston in time for me to lunch and go to the Symphony concert. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was being conducted by Gericke and the concerts were a great joy and refreshment. I had a number of good friends in Boston who would invite me to make the pleasant expedition, and I made it as often as possible. Among these friends there is none I remember with more affection than Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow. I had known him in Washington, where he often paid long visits to the Cabot Lodges or stayed with Henry Adams, whose wife had been his cousin.
His home was in Boston, where he inhabited in great comfort one of the old houses on Beacon Hill that had the original pale purple windowpanes so highly prized by those who own them. Comfort is a modest word to describe the fastidious luxury of Dr. Bigelow’s outwardly unassuming establishment, run by two excellent Irish maids who had taken care of him for many years. His cellar was full of the rarest wines, his food was always exquisite, and every kind of exotic delicacy made his meals interesting. His handsome rooms were full of precious objects: Chinese porcelains, bronzes, and tapestries; the top of a bookcase was filled with a priceless collection of Chinese glass. On the mantelpiece were some very beautiful Buddhas and a great many photographs of lady friends, foremost among these Ternina, the great prima donna, whom he fondly adored.
Dr. Bigelow was born in 1850, the son of a rich and distinguished surgeon. After graduating from Harvard he studied medicine in Vienna and there obtained the title by which he was always called. From Vienna he went to Paris, where he worked for some time under the great Pasteur. He never practised medicine, but after his return to Boston did a certain amount of research work which contributed to the discovery of appendicitis.
About 1880 he went to Japan with his friend Fenollosa, an Orientalist of some note. There Dr. Bigelow took up the study of Japanese gardens and learned, it was said, all there was to know about them. From these he turned to the investigation of Buddhism. It must have been like going from an artificial lake to the ocean, but it is likely that the gardens led him to the religion; all Oriental arts and crafts are fraught with symbolism.
A graduate of Harvard and a Doctor of Medicine, he had never, before going to Japan, had any spiritual experience whatever. He knew more about the mountains in the moon than he knew about his own soul. He fell in with a wise and learned old abbot, a priest of the Shingon sect, who became his teacher and initiator; it was his first contact with holiness. He stayed in Japan seven years, studying with the abbot and doing spiritual exercises under his guidance; he could not say enough of his instructor’s kindness and understanding. After being duly initiated into the esoteric teachings and spiritual discipline of Shingon Buddhism, Dr. Bigelow was formally received into the Buddhist communion and admitted to the Buddhist sacraments. He then returned to America and it was soon after this that I first met him in Washington, where we were living at the time.
He had a distinguished personality, kindly and a little aloof. Prematurely bald, he had a carefully tended beard and looked indescribably clean. At once an epicure and a mystic, he professed an ascetic religion and wore beautiful Charvet haberdashery and handsome English clothes. He was full of Buddhist lore and emanated a peaceful radiance mingled with a faint fragrance of toilet water. I found him attractive and interesting and we soon became friends. He was infinitely kind and generous, much beloved by his friends — not only for the gifts, rare and precious as they often were, with which he punctuated the course of friendship, but because of the stimulating something there was about his mind and conversation, because he made things happen, and perhaps because he was not happy himself, but tried to bring happiness about for others.
He told me many things he had learned and experienced in Japan. The sages of the East possess knowledge that the Western world ignores, and Dr. Bigelow had much to communicate. I called him the Hierophant, the revealer of mysteries. He tried to teach me to meditate their way, which is fundamentally the way of all mystics: a great silence must be created in the mind, all images resolutely banished, with the disturbing movements of fear and desire. When you have achieved this perfect calm, fix your attention on the object of your meditation — it may be a Divine Person, a favorite saint, a mystery, a symbol of the faith — and become one with it. Christian saints and contemplatives have done as much; Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, and countless others have practised this spiritual alchemy which turns the quicksilver of thought into the gold of contemplation. The next step seemed more unfamiliar, more arduous, and to me more difficult. The approach to it was the same. The great calm must be established, but the faculties of the soul — above all, the will — must be concentrated not on any subject of meditation but on a point that has no dimension or attributes whatever, unless it be that of unity: that is, as it were, the vanishing point of human consciousness. Through this inappreciable point the naked soul must learn to escape from the dark tenement of the body and return to it at will. It can thus take cognizance of things removed in time and space.
Saint Francis de Sales has much to say of this ‘fine pointe de l’esprit’ in his beautiful treatise on the love of God, but does not suggest that it be used as a latchkey to enable the soul to come and go from the three-dimensional world into another out of psychic curiosity, or mere wish to escape the troubles of the house of flesh.
Dr. Bigelow believed that he had become aware of his own former incarnations. He fondly hoped to attain Nirvana without having to undergo further earthly existences. Metempsychosis may be interpreted as a rational justification of the extremes of human conditions as they exist around us: an ineluctable system of rewards and punishments. We come into the world with the debts of wrongdoings contracted in former existences unpaid, with an almost irresistible tendency to incur others. For Buddhists as for us, sin is always an entanglement of the spirit with matter, a falling away from Light. Their Karma is the sum of the individual’s actions in former incarnations, his character, his destiny. Buddhism seems to know nothing of Divine Mercy, nothing of indulgent forgiveness to the repentant sinner. Once the debt is contracted, it must be paid to the uttermost farthing. The soul must cleanse itself by its own effort. One that attains a high level of spirituality and falls away will take all eternity to recover his lost status.
Buddhism, as Dr. Bigelow understood it, seems to seek salvation in nothingness and to attain holiness without love. But it must not be forgotten that the early Catholic missionaries to the Far East allowed their converts from Buddhism to venerate Gautama Buddha as a saint, so deeply edifying was all his life and teaching, so consonant with what they themselves believed. The two religions hold much in common; but Christianity begins and ends with God, and Love is the essence of its being. On this Dr. Bigelow and I could never agree; he knew a great deal about what seemed to me the almost mechanical relation of the soul to the body and the spiritual acrobatics it could perform, but Divinity was an empty word to him and I could not do without it. Our friendship prospered in spite of this fundamental antinomy, and our discussions left each of us exhilarated with the sense of having been right.
When we were living in Newport he often came to stay with us, and still more often I would spend a day with him in Boston, hear an afternoon concert, and discuss the borderland of human consciousness with him afterwards over a cup of Mandarin tea served in the rarest Japanese porcelain, before taking the train back to Newport.
We left Newport to live elsewhere and I saw less of my dear Hierophant, but we continued to exchange ideas in frequent letters. After his death in 1926, a little bundle of my last ones to him were found among his papers and returned to me. His to me have unfortunately been lost; my answers convey something of his state of mind as well as my reaction to it. I give them for what they are worth, but must explain that during the last years of his life he had become an invalid.
He was confined to his bed for months at a time, and with ill-health a spiritual darkness had descended on him, harder to bear than physical afflictions. He became very dejected and oppressed with melancholy. I do not know that his Buddhist faith forsook him. I could see that it gave him no comfort. He was tired of life and longed to be through with the whole experience if only it were possible, but the terror of death was also upon him, the dread of the hereafter. Had he been unfaithful to his alien creed, had he failed in the fulfillment of his vows?
He had, in his distress, sent his faithful Maggie to call a Catholic priest to his bedside, a plain IrishAmerican parish priest, and had solemnly exhorted the good man to annihilate his soul that it might not survive in afterlife. What could the poor priest do but tell him that he had no power to make an end of what God had created immortal? Dr. Bigelow was angry with him and wrote me an indignant letter about the interview. It contained a curious simile about a broken bridge, a man fallen into the water and unable to swim ashore, asking a man on the bridge to throw him a stone that would help him go to the bottom — little enough to ask, and the stone, he thought, had been denied. He felt that the Church, in the person of her priest, had been cruelly unkind. Here is my answer.
Your good letter just reaches me. I wish I could answer it properly. I do not understand just what happened to the party crossing the broken bridge; was help refused by a Catholic priest? There are priests and priests; my dear Father Fay would doubtless have known how to meet the situation, though I doubt if even he would have seen fit to give you a paving-stone to help you sink. You see we believe in the imperishable essence of the soul, and the soul consists of memory, will and understanding; these are her entelechy and can be used or abused but never quite got rid of. But do not let us talk theology. I love my religion too dearly to discuss it even with you. I am It in a most unworthy way, and It is I. Tat wam asi, as the yogis say. . . .
And here is another from the same group.
DEAR HIEROPHANT: —
We need a heart-to-heart talk — how difficult to do it on paper! . . . When you talk about getting out of the Universe I understand it means simply that you want to get out of yourself, away from the ‘clubfoot’ and what the dying Henry James called the wear and tear of discrimination. Any respectable religion should help you to do this. Askesis has no other purpose that I know of than to liberate us from the strangle-hold that the Ego has on the spirit.
But the Spirit — the Eternal I AM — the Immovable Motor — the Inaccessible Light that is the Unquenchable Flame — for that there can be no extinction as there can be no shadow of turning. We must get out of ourselves — there I am entirely with you — our club-feet and other defects poison life for us; it is somehow vitiated and its best moments marred. What I maintain is that outside of us, outside of Time and Space and yet permeating it because sustaining and creating it and us, is Divinity to which we have access, and this is Life Everlasting and Paradisi Gloria. This we gain by overcoming and getting rid of ‘le moi haïssable,’ which I take it is the Universe from which you wish to escape.
Finally, on June 17, 1915, I wrote the following: —
Your letter of May 11th is still unanswered, and now comes a June 14th reminder of my delinquency. The fact is I have thought about you every day, wishing I could see you and have a good talk about what you say; it is difficult to answer, for in these regions every word can be made to mean so many different things, but bluntly and fundamentally I do not agree with you. Perhaps my digestion is too good, perhaps my spirit is not fastidious enough.
If you have gone through a picturegallery, the richest and most beautiful in the world, and it happened that your shoe pinched you, that you had a stiff neck, or felt the approaches of influenza, it was your misfortune that you could win no rapture from the beauty that you saw — rather did it give you an unutterable sense of weariness. If your discomfort was so great that you tell me you hope as soon as possible to forget the whole experience, I shall feel sorry for your aches and pains, but still more shall I pity you for your lost opportunity to enjoy and appreciate. I have come out of that same gallery walking on air.
I do not understand your desire for annihilation; it is, as you say, a contradiction in terms, the will to live turned against itself. This fragmentary creature that calls itself ‘ I ’ can go on the scrap-heap whenever the Heavenly Powers see fit to throw it there with a
Lusisti satis, edisti satis, atque bibisti,
Tempus abire tibi est.2
But the moments of vision, of delight, of understanding, the stirrings of immortality we have here and there been vouchsafed, the exquisite friendships that have enriched our lives — these have nothing to do with the Ego or the non-Ego, with Time or Forgetfulness. These are Truth more imperishable than the stars. In so far as we partook of them we partook of Immortality. Infinity passed through us as the current goes through the wire.
I want to copy out for you a passage from a book I am very fond of, Henry Brewster’s Prison. The prisoner is summing up his experience (a very figurative prisoner): —
‘Now my struggle is over; the time has come and my choice is made. I abandon to destruction the unity of which I am conscious, I take refuge in the lastingness of its elements. I bid farewell forever to the transient meeting of eternal guests who had gathered here for an hour; they are taking leave of one another and never perhaps throughout the course of ages will they meet again, all of them and none but they, under one roof.
‘I hear them overhead moving to depart, and the sound of their several foot-falls quivers through me in sweet-bitter shudders. I hear the flight of the divine vultures that bear away my substance shred by shred; the wind of their wings is upon my forehead and from I know not where wells into my eyes the tranquil glory of a boundless sunset.
‘What are they waiting for, the departing Guests? Only a word that shall set them free. Go then; pass on, immortal ones. And behold I burst the bonds that pent you up within me, I disband myself and travel on forever in your scattered paths. Wherever you are, there I shall be, I survive in you ... I am whatever I have felt, and what I have felt is what some must ever feel. For years I have been conning my lesson, learning to say, “Not me, not mine,” ashamed both of sorrow and of joy till they slowly were lifted from me and stretched overhead, endless and unchangeable as the milky way whose soft light descends indifferently on all men from generation to generation. My hopes have become an heirloom of the centuries, which it is my turn to take care of; my thoughts are here on deposit for a little while; they have been passed round since the dawn of time and someone else will have charge of them to-morrow. . . .
‘Now someone says to me: It is well so far; taste also of death. Then let there be banners and music; this is no leave-taking; I am not even going home. I thank you, days of joy and pride; I thank you, lamentable solitude, and you, shades of those that loved me. I sorrow with you, grieving ones, and melt with you, O fond ones. I triumph with those that vanquish and I rest with those who are dead. I descend to my fathers and return again forever. I have nothing that is mine but a name, and I bow down in my dream of a day to the life eternal. I am the joy and the sorrow, the mirth and the pride, the love, the silence, and the song. I am the soul. I am the home.’
Without faith this would seem a wise way to face the ultimate mystery — to accept the disbanding of our earthly joys, of the tastes and accomplishments, preferences and aversions, that gave us so much satisfaction; to look upon them as guests who met and gathered under one roof, ‘never perhaps to meet again.’ But in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble and the strong men bow themselves, and those that look out of the window shall be darkened, and fears shall be in the way, it must be hard to take comfort in a creed totally alien to one’s race and tradition, with no one near who shares the same faith. Saint John of the Cross says somewhere (I quote from memory) that a burning coal placed on a marble floor will inevitably char and grow cold.
I am told that Dr. Bigelow attained a certain peace before the end came — the Satori aimed at in Buddhist meditation. According to his directions his ashes were taken to Japan. Two years ago his good friend and mine, Mr. Ellery Sedgwick, was visiting one of the famous temples in Nara and was struck by the beauty of an old carved Buddha. The Buddhist priest who was showing him the place told him the statue had been discovered by an American, a certain Dr. Bigelow who had lived with them in the monastery for seven years, but that was long ago. When Mr. Sedgwick told him he had known Dr. Bigelow well, the priest asked if he would like to see his tomb, and led him to where Dr. Bigelow had been laid beside his teacher, the saintly old abbot who had first taught him about his immortal soul.