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Imaginary portraits, p.14

Imaginary Portraits, page 14


Imaginary Portraits

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valueon anything whatever that is merely relative in its character.

  The guests, lively and late, were almost pledging the betrothed in therich wine. Only Sebastian's mother knew; and at that advanced hour,while the company were thus intently occupied, drew away theBurgomaster to confide to him the misgiving she felt, grown to a greatheight just then. The young man had slipped from the assembly; butcertainly not with Mademoiselle van Westrheene, who was suddenlywithdrawn also. And she never appeared again in the world. Already,next day, with the rumour that Sebastian had left his home, it wasknown that the expected marriage would not take place. The girl,indeed, alleged something in the way of a cause on her part; but seemedto fade away continually afterwards, and in the eyes of all who saw herwas like one [103] perishing of wounded pride. But to make a cleanbreast of her poor girlish worldliness, before she became a beguine,she confessed to her mother the receipt of the letter--the cruel letterthat had killed her. And in effect, the first copy of this letter,written with a very deliberate fineness, rejecting her--accusing her,so natural, and simply loyal! of a vulgar coarseness of character--wasfound, oddly tacked on, as their last word, to the studious record ofthe abstract thoughts which had been the real business of Sebastian'slife, in the room whither his mother went to seek him next day,littered with the fragments of the one portrait of him in existence.

  The neat and elaborate manuscript volume, of which this letter formedthe final page (odd transition! by which a train of thought so abstractdrew its conclusion in the sphere of action) afforded at length to thefew who were interested in him a much-coveted insight into thecuriosity of his existence; and I pause just here to indicate inoutline the kind of reasoning through which, making the "Infinite" hisbeginning and his end, Sebastian had come to think all definite formsof being, the warm pressure of life, the cry of nature itself, no morethan a troublesome irritation of the surface of the one absolute mind,a passing vexatious thought or uneasy dream there, at its height ofpetulant importunity in the eager, human creature.

  [104] The volume was, indeed, a kind of treatise to be:--a hard,systematic, well-concatenated train of thought, still implicated in thecircumstances of a journal. Freed from the accidents of thatparticular literary form with its unavoidable details of place andoccasion, the theoretic strain would have been found mathematicallycontinuous. The already so weary Sebastian might perhaps never havetaken in hand, or succeeded in, this detachment of his thoughts; everyone of which, beginning with himself, as the peculiar and intimateapprehension of this or that particular day and hour, seemed still toprotest against such disturbance, as if reluctant to part from thoseaccidental associations of the personal history which had prompted it,and so become a purely intellectual abstraction.

  The series began with Sebastian's boyish enthusiasm for a strange, finesaying of Doctor Baruch de Spinosa, concerning the Divine Love:--Thatwhoso loveth God truly must not expect to be loved by him in return.In mere reaction against an actual surrounding of which everycircumstance tended to make him a finished egotist, that bold assertiondefined for him the ideal of an intellectual disinterestedness, of adomain of unimpassioned mind, with the desire to put one's subjectiveside out of the way, and let pure reason speak.

  And what pure reason affirmed in the first place, as the "beginning ofwisdom," was that [105] the world is but a thought, or a series ofthoughts: that it exists, therefore, solely in mind. It showed him, ashe fixed the mental eye with more and more of self-absorption on thephenomena of his intellectual existence, a picture or vision of theuniverse as actually the product, so far as he really knew it, of hisown lonely thinking power--of himself, there, thinking: as being zerowithout him: and as possessing a perfectly homogeneous unity in thatfact. "Things that have nothing in common with each other," said theaxiomatic reason, "cannot be understood or explained by means of eachother." But to pure reason things discovered themselves as being, intheir essence, thoughts:--all things, even the most opposite things,mere transmutations of a single power, the power of thought. All wasbut conscious mind. Therefore, all the more exclusively, he mustminister to mind, to the intellectual power, submitting himself to thesole direction of that, whithersoever it might lead him. Everythingmust be referred to, and, as it were, changed into the terms of that,if its essential value was to be ascertained. "Joy," he said,anticipating Spinosa--that, for the attainment of which men are readyto surrender all beside--"is but the name of a passion in which themind passes to a greater perfection or power of thinking; as grief isthe name of the passion in which it passes to a less."

  [106] Looking backward for the generative source of that creative powerof thought in him, from his own mysterious intellectual being to itsfirst cause, he still reflected, as one can but do, the enlargedpattern of himself into the vague region of hypothesis. In this way,some, at all events, would have explained his mental process. To himthat process was nothing less than the apprehension, the revelation, ofthe greatest and most real of ideas--the true substance of all things.He, too, with his vividly-coloured existence, with this picturesque andsensuous world of Dutch art and Dutch reality all around that wouldfain have made him the prisoner of its colours, its genial warmth, itsstruggle for life, its selfish and crafty love, was but a transientperturbation of the one absolute mind; of which, indeed, all finitethings whatever, time itself, the most durable achievements of natureand man, and all that seems most like independent energy, are no morethan petty accidents or affections. Theorem and corollary! Thus theystood:

  "There can be only one substance: (corollary) it is the greatest oferrors to think that the non-existent, the world of finite things seenand felt, really is: (theorem): for, whatever is, is but in that:(practical corollary): one's wisdom, therefore, consists in hastening,so far as may be, the action of those forces which tend to therestoration of equilibrium, the calm surface of the absolute,untroubled mind, to tabula rasa, by [107] the extinction in one's selfof all that is but correlative to the finite illusion--by thesuppression of ourselves."

  In the loneliness which was gathering round him, and, oddly enough, asa somewhat surprising thing, he wondered whether there were, or hadbeen, others possessed of like thoughts, ready to welcome any such ashis veritable compatriots. And in fact he became aware just then, inreadings difficult indeed, but which from their all-absorbing interestseemed almost like an illicit pleasure, a sense of kinship with certainolder minds. The study of many an earlier adventurous theoristsatisfied his curiosity as the record of daring physical adventure, forinstance, might satisfy the curiosity of the healthy. It was atradition--a constant tradition--that daring thought of his; an echo,or haunting recurrent voice of the human soul itself, and as suchsealed with natural truth, which certain minds would not fail to heed;discerning also, if they were really loyal to themselves, its practicalconclusion.--The one alone is: and all things beside are but itspassing affections, which have no necessary or proper right to be.

  As but such "accidents" or "affections," indeed, there might have beenfound, within the circumference of that one infinite creative thinker,some scope for the joy and love of the creature. There have beendispositions in which that abstract theorem has only induced a renewed[108] value for the finite interests around and within us. Centre ofheat and light, truly nothing has seemed to lie beyond the touch of itsperpetual summer. It has allied itself to the poetical or artisticsympathy, which feels challenged to acquaint itself with and explorethe various forms of finite existence all the more intimately, justbecause of that sense of one lively spirit circulating through allthings--a tiny particle of the one soul, in the sunbeam, or the leaf.Sebastian van Storck, on the contrary, was determined, perhaps by someinherited satiety or fatigue in his nature, to the opposite issue ofthe practical dilemma. For him, that one abstract being was as thepallid Arctic sun, disclosing itself over the dead level of a glacial,a barren and absolutely lonely sea. The lively purpose of life hadbeen frozen out of it. What he must admire, and love if he could, was"equilibrium," the void, the tab
ula rasa, into which, through all thoseapparent energies of man and nature, that in truth are but forces ofdisintegration, the world was really settling. And, himself a merecircumstance in a fatalistic series, to which the clay of the potterwas no sufficient parallel, he could not expect to be "loved inreturn." At first, indeed, he had a kind of delight in histhoughts--in the eager pressure forward, to whatsoever conclusion, of arigid intellectual gymnastic, which was like the making of Euclid.Only, little by little, under [109] the freezing influence of suchpropositions, the theoretic energy itself, and with it his oldeagerness for truth, the care to track it from proposition toproposition, was chilled out of him. In fact, the conclusion was therealready, and might have been foreseen, in the premises. By a singularperversity, it seemed to him that every one of those
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