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Marius the epicurean %E2.., p.11

Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2, page 11

 part  #2 of  Marius the Epicurean Series


Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2

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  [172] It was become a habit with Marius--one of hismodernisms--developed by his assistance at the Emperor's "conversationswith himself," to keep a register of the movements of his own privatethoughts and humours; not continuously indeed, yet sometimes forlengthy intervals, during which it was no idle self-indulgence, but anecessity of his intellectual life, to "confess himself," with anintimacy, seemingly rare among the ancients; ancient writers, at allevents, having been jealous, for the most part, of affording us so muchas a glimpse of that interior self, which in many cases would haveactually doubled the interest of their objective informations.

  "If a particular tutelary or genius," writes Marius,--"according to oldbelief, walks through life beside each one of us, mine is verycertainly a capricious creature. He fills one with wayward,unaccountable, yet quite irresistible humours, [173] and seems alwaysto be in collusion with some outward circumstance, often trivial enoughin itself--the condition of the weather, forsooth!--the people onemeets by chance--the things one happens to overhear them say, veritableenodioi symboloi,+ or omens by the wayside, as the old Greeksfancied--to push on the unreasonable prepossessions of the moment intoweighty motives. It was doubtless a quite explicable, physical fatiguethat presented me to myself, on awaking this morning, so lack-lustreand trite. But I must needs take my petulance, contrasting it with myaccustomed morning hopefulness, as a sign of the ageing of appetite, ofa decay in the very capacity of enjoyment. We need some imaginativestimulus, some not impossible ideal such as may shape vague hope, andtransform it into effective desire, to carry us year after year,without disgust, through the routine-work which is so large a part oflife. "Then, how if appetite, be it for real or ideal, should itselffail one after awhile? Ah, yes! is it of cold always that men die; andon some of us it creeps very gradually. In truth, I can remember justsuch a lack-lustre condition of feeling once or twice before. But Inote, that it was accompanied then by an odd indifference, as thethought of them occurred to me, in regard to the sufferings ofothers--a kind of callousness, so unusual with me, as at once to markthe humour it accompanied as a palpably morbid one [174] that could notlast. Were those sufferings, great or little, I asked myself then, ofmore real consequence to them than mine to me, as I remind myself that'nothing that will end is really long'--long enough to be thought ofimportance? But to-day, my own sense of fatigue, the pity I conceivefor myself, disposed me strongly to a tenderness for others. For amoment the whole world seemed to present itself as a hospital of sickpersons; many of them sick in mind; all of whom it would be a brutalitynot to humour, not to indulge.

  "Why, when I went out to walk off my wayward fancies, did I confrontthe very sort of incident (my unfortunate genius had surely beckoned itfrom afar to vex me) likely to irritate them further? A party of menwere coming down the street. They were leading a fine race-horse; ahandsome beast, but badly hurt somewhere, in the circus, and useless.They were taking him to slaughter; and I think the animal knew it: hecast such looks, as if of mad appeal, to those who passed him, as hewent among the strangers to whom his former owner had committed him, todie, in his beauty and pride, for just that one mischance or fault;although the morning air was still so animating, and pleasant to snuff.I could have fancied a human soul in the creature, swelling against itsluck. And I had come across the incident just when it would figure tome as the very symbol [175] of our poor humanity, in its capacities forpain, its wretched accidents, and those imperfect sympathies, which cannever quite identify us with one another; the very power of utteranceand appeal to others seeming to fail us, in proportion as our sorrowscome home to ourselves, are really our own. We are constructed forsuffering! What proofs of it does but one day afford, if we care tonote them, as we go--a whole long chaplet of sorrowful mysteries! Suntlacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.+

  "Men's fortunes touch us! The little children of one of thoseinstitutions for the support of orphans, now become fashionable amongus by way of memorial of eminent persons deceased, are going, in longfile, along the street, on their way to a holiday in the country. Theyhalt, and count themselves with an air of triumph, to show that theyare all there. Their gay chatter has disturbed a little group ofpeasants; a young woman and her husband, who have brought the oldmother, now past work and witless, to place her in a house provided forsuch afflicted people. They are fairly affectionate, but anxious howthe thing they have to do may go--hope only she may permit them toleave her there behind quietly. And the poor old soul is excited bythe noise made by the children, and partly aware of what is going tohappen with her. She too begins to count--one, two, three, five--onher trembling fingers, misshapen by a life of toil.

  [176] 'Yes! yes! and twice five make ten'--they say, to pacify her. Itis her last appeal to be taken home again; her proof that all is notyet up with her; that she is, at all events, still as capable as thosejoyous children.

  "At the baths, a party of labourers are at work upon one of the greatbrick furnaces, in a cloud of black dust. A frail young child hasbrought food for one of them, and sits apart, waiting till his fathercomes--watching the labour, but with a sorrowful distaste for the dinand dirt. He is regarding wistfully his own place in the world, therebefore him. His mind, as he watches, is grown up for a moment; and heforesees, as it were, in that moment, all the long tale of days, ofearly awakings, of his own coming life of drudgery at work like this.

  "A man comes along carrying a boy whose rough work has alreadybegun--the only child--whose presence beside him sweetened the father'stoil a little. The boy has been badly injured by a fall of brick-work,yet, with an effort, he rides boldly on his father's shoulders. Itwill be the way of natural affection to keep him alive as long aspossible, though with that miserably shattered body.--'Ah! with usstill, and feeling our care beside him!'--and yet surely not without aheartbreaking sigh of relief, alike from him and them, when the endcomes.

  "On the alert for incidents like these, yet of necessity passing themby on the other side, I find [177] it hard to get rid of a sense thatI, for one, have failed in love. I could yield to the humour till Iseemed to have had my share in those great public cruelties, theshocking legal crimes which are on record, like that cold-bloodedslaughter, according to law, of the four hundred slaves in the reign ofNero, because one of their number was thought to have murdered hismaster. The reproach of that, together with the kind of facileapologies those who had no share in the deed may have made for it, asthey went about quietly on their own affairs that day, seems to comevery close to me, as I think upon it. And to how many of those nowactually around me, whose life is a sore one, must I be indifferent, ifI ever become aware of their soreness at all? To some, perhaps, thenecessary conditions of my own life may cause me to be opposed, in akind of natural conflict, regarding those interests which actuallydetermine the happiness of theirs. I would that a stronger love mightarise in my heart!

  "Yet there is plenty of charity in the world. My patron, the Stoicemperor, has made it even fashionable. To celebrate one of his briefreturns to Rome lately from the war, over and above a largess of goldpieces to all who would, the public debts were forgiven. He made a niceshow of it: for once, the Romans entertained themselves with agood-natured spectacle, and the whole town came to see the greatbonfire [178] in the Forum, into which all bonds and evidence of debtwere thrown on delivery, by the emperor himself; many private creditorsfollowing his example. That was done well enough! But still thefeeling returns to me, that no charity of ours can get at a certainnatural unkindness which I find in things themselves.

  "When I first came to Rome, eager to observe its religion, especiallyits antiquities of religious usage, I assisted at the most curious,perhaps, of them all, the most distinctly marked with that immobilitywhich is a sort of ideal in the Roman religion. The ceremony tookplace at a singular spot some miles distant from the city, among thelow hills on the bank of the Tiber, beyond the Aurelian Gate. There,in a little wood of venerable trees, pi
ously allowed their own way, ageafter age--ilex and cypress remaining where they fell at last, one overthe other, and all caught, in that early May-time, under a riotoustangle of wild clematis--was to be found a magnificent sanctuary, inwhich the members of the Arval College assembled themselves on certaindays. The axe never touched those trees--Nay! it was forbidden tointroduce any iron thing whatsoever within the precincts; not onlybecause the deities of these quiet places hate to be disturbed by theharsh noise of metal, but also in memory of that better age--the lostGolden Age--the homely age of the potters, of [179] which the centralact of the festival was a commemoration.

  "The preliminary ceremonies were long and complicated, but of acharacter familiar enough. Peculiar to the time and place was thesolemn exposition, after lavation of hands, processions backwards andforwards, and certain changes of vestments, of the identical earthenvessels--veritable relics of the old religion of Numa!--the vesselsfrom which the holy Numa himself had eaten and drunk, set forth above akind of altar, amid a cloud of flowers and incense, and many lights,for the veneration of the credulous or the faithful.

  "They were, in fact, cups or vases of burnt clay, rude in form: and thereligious veneration thus offered to them expressed men's desire togive honour to a simpler age, before iron had found place in humanlife: the persuasion that that age was worth remembering: a hope thatit might come again.

  "That a Numa, and his age of gold, would return, has been the hope orthe dream of some, in every period. Yet if he did come back, or anyequivalent of his presence, he could but weaken, and by no means smitethrough, that root of evil, certainly of sorrow, of outraged humansense, in things, which one must carefully distinguish from allpreventible accidents. Death, and the little perpetual daily dyings,which have something of its sting, he must [180] necessarily leaveuntouched. And, methinks, that were all the rest of man's life framedentirely to his liking, he would straightway begin to sadden himself,over the fate--say, of the flowers! For there is, there has come to besince Numa lived perhaps, a capacity for sorrow in his heart, whichgrows with all the growth, alike of the individual and of the race, inintellectual delicacy and power, and which will find its aliment.

  "Of that sort of golden age, indeed, one discerns even now a trace,here and there. Often have I maintained that, in this generoussouthern country at least, Epicureanism is the special philosophy ofthe poor. How little I myself really need, when people leave me alone,with the intellectual powers at work serenely. The drops of fallingwater, a few wild flowers with their priceless fragrance, a few tuftseven of half-dead leaves, changing colour in the quiet of a room thathas but light and shadow in it; these, for a susceptible mind, mightwell do duty for all the glory of Augustus. I notice sometimes what Iconceive to be the precise character of the fondness of the roughestworking-people for their young children, a fine appreciation, not onlyof their serviceable affection, but of their visible graces: andindeed, in this country, the children are almost always worth lookingat. I see daily, in fine weather, a child like a delicate nosegay,running to meet the rudest of brick- [181] makers as he comes fromwork. She is not at all afraid to hang upon his rough hand: andthrough her, he reaches out to, he makes his own, something from thatstrange region, so distant from him yet so real, of the world'srefinement. What is of finer soul, of finer stuff in things, anddemands delicate touching--to him the delicacy of the little childrepresents that: it initiates him into that. There, surely, is a touchof the secular gold, of a perpetual age of gold. But then again, thinkfor a moment, with what a hard humour at the nature of things, hisstruggle for bare life will go on, if the child should happen to die.I observed to-day, under one of the archways of the baths, two childrenat play, a little seriously--a fair girl and her crippled youngerbrother. Two toy chairs and a little table, and sprigs of fir setupright in the sand for a garden! They played at housekeeping. Well!the girl thinks her life a perfectly good thing in the service of thiscrippled brother. But she will have a jealous lover in time: and theboy, though his face is not altogether unpleasant, is after all ahopeless cripple.

  "For there is a certain grief in things as they are, in man as he hascome to be, as he certainly is, over and above those griefs ofcircumstance which are in a measure removable--some inexplicableshortcoming, or misadventure, on the part of nature itself--death, andold age as it [182] must needs be, and that watching for theirapproach, which makes every stage of life like a dying over and overagain. Almost all death is painful, and in every thing that comes toan end a touch of death, and therefore of wretched coldness struck hometo one, of remorse, of loss and parting, of outraged attachments.Given faultless men and women, given a perfect state of society whichshould have no need to practise on men's susceptibilities for its ownselfish ends, adding one turn more to the wheel of the great rack forits own interest or amusement, there would still be this evil in theworld, of a certain necessary sorrow and desolation, felt, just inproportion to the moral, or nervous perfection men have attained to.And what we need in the world, over against that, is a certainpermanent and general power of compassion--humanity's standing force ofself-pity--as an elementary ingredient of our social atmosphere, if weare to live in it at all. I wonder, sometimes, in what way man hascajoled himself into the bearing of his burden thus far, seeing howevery step in the capacity of apprehension his labour has won for him,from age to age, must needs increase his dejection. It is as if theincrease of knowledge were but an increasing revelation of the radicalhopelessness of his position: and I would that there were one even asI, behind this vain show of things!

  "At all events, the actual conditions of our [183] life being as theyare, and the capacity for suffering so large a principle inthings--since the only principle, perhaps, to which we may alwayssafely trust is a ready sympathy with the pain one actually sees--itfollows that the practical and effective difference between men willlie in their power of insight into those conditions, their power ofsympathy. The future will be with those who have most of it; while forthe present, as I persuade myself, those who have much of it, havesomething to hold by, even in the dissolution of a world, or in thatdissolution of self, which is, for every one, no less than thedissolution of the world it represents for him. Nearly all of us, Isuppose, have had our moments, in which any effective sympathy for uson the part of others has seemed impossible; in which our pain hasseemed a stupid outrage upon us, like some overwhelming physicalviolence, from which we could take refuge, at best, only in some meregeneral sense of goodwill--somewhere in the world perhaps. And then,to one's surprise, the discovery of that goodwill, if it were only in anot unfriendly animal, may seem to have explained, to have actuallyjustified to us, the fact of our pain. There have been occasions,certainly, when I have felt that if others cared for me as I cared forthem, it would be, not so much a consolation, as an equivalent, forwhat one has lost or suffered: a realised profit on the summing up[184] of one's accounts: a touching of that absolute ground amid allthe changes of phenomena, such as our philosophers have of lateconfessed themselves quite unable to discover. In the mere clinging ofhuman creatures to each other, nay! in one's own solitary self-pity,amid the effects even of what might appear irredeemable loss, I seem totouch the eternal. Something in that pitiful contact, something newand true, fact or apprehension of fact, is educed, which, on a reviewof all the perplexities of life, satisfies our moral sense, and removesthat appearance of unkindness in the soul of things themselves, andassures us that not everything has been in vain.

  "And I know not how, but in the thought thus suggested, I seem to takeup, and re-knit myself to, a well-remembered hour, when by somegracious accident--it was on a journey--all things about me fell into amore perfect harmony than is their wont. Everything seemed to be, fora moment, after all, almost for the best. Through the train of mythoughts, one against another, it was as if I became aware of thedominant power of another person in controversy, wrestling with me. Iseem to be come round to the point at which I left off then. Theantagonist has closed wi
th me again. A protest comes, out of the verydepths of man's radically hopeless condition in the world, with theenergy of one of those suffering yet prevailing [185] deities, of whichold poetry tells. Dared one hope that there is a heart, even as ours,in that divine 'Assistant' of one's thoughts--a heart even as mine,behind this vain show of things!"


  172. Virgil, Aeneid Book 1, line 462. "There are the tears ofthings..." See also page 175 of this chapter, where the same text isquoted in full.

  173. +Transliteration: enodioi symboloi. Pater's Definition: "omens bythe wayside."

  175. +Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. Virgil, AeneidBook 1, line 462. Translation: "Here also there be tears for what menbear, and mortal creatures feel each other's sorrow," from Vergil,Aeneid, Theodore C. Williams. trans. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1910.

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