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Imaginary portraits, p.15

Imaginary Portraits, page 15


Imaginary Portraits

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passing"affections"--he too, alas! at times--was for ever trying to be, toassert itself, to maintain its isolated and petty self, by a kind ofpractical lie in things; although through every incident of itshypothetic existence it had protested that its proper function was todie. Surely! those transient affections marred the freedom, the truth,the beatific calm, of the absolute selfishness, which could not, if itwould, pass beyond the circumference of itself; to which, at times,with a fantastic sense of wellbeing, he was capable of a sort offanatical devotion. And those, as he conceived, were his moments ofgenuine theoretic insight, in which, under the abstract "perpetuallight," he died to self; while the intellect, after all, had attained afreedom of its own through the vigorous act which assured him that, asnature was but a thought of his, so himself also was but the passingthought of God.

  No! rather a puzzle only, an anomaly, upon that one, white, unruffledconsciousness! His first principle once recognised, all the rest, thewhole array of propositions down to the [110] heartless practicalconclusion, must follow of themselves. Detachment: to hasten hence: tofold up one's whole self, as a vesture put aside: to anticipate, bysuch individual force as he could find in him, the slow disintegrationby which nature herself is levelling the eternal hills:--here would bethe secret of peace, of such dignity and truth as there could be in aworld which after all was essentially an illusion. For Sebastian atleast, the world and the individual alike had been divested of alleffective purpose. The most vivid of finite objects, the dramaticepisodes of Dutch history, the brilliant personalities which had foundtheir parts to play in them, that golden art, surrounding us with anideal world, beyond which the real world is discernible indeed, butetherealised by the medium through which it comes to one: all this, formost men so powerful a link to existence, only set him on the thoughtof escape--means of escape--into a formless and nameless infiniteworld, quite evenly grey. The very emphasis of those objects, theirimportunity to the eye, the ear, the finite intelligence, was but themeasure of their distance from what really is. One's personalpresence, the presence, such as it is, of the most incisive things andpersons around us, could only lessen by so much, that which really is.To restore tabula rasa, then, by a continual effort at self-effacement!Actually proud at times of his curious, well-reasoned nihilism, he[111] could but regard what is called the business of life as no betterthan a trifling and wearisome delay. Bent on making sacrifice of therich existence possible for him, as he would readily have sacrificedthat of other people, to the bare and formal logic of the answer to aquery (never proposed at all to entirely healthy minds) regarding theremote conditions and tendencies of that existence, he did not reflectthat if others had inquired as curiously as himself the world couldnever have come so far at all--that the fact of its having come so farwas itself a weighty exception to his hypothesis. His odd devotion,soaring or sinking into fanaticism, into a kind of religious mania,with what was really a vehement assertion of his individual will, hehad formulated duty as the principle to hinder as little as possiblewhat he called the restoration of equilibrium, the restoration of theprimary consciousness to itself--its relief from that uneasy, tetchy,unworthy dream of a world, made so ill, or dreamt so weakly--to forget,to be forgotten.

  And at length this dark fanaticism, losing the support of his pride inthe mere novelty of a reasoning so hard and dry, turned round upon him,as our fanaticism will, in black melancholy. The theoretic orimaginative desire to urge Time's creeping footsteps, was felt now asthe physical fatigue which leaves the book or the letter unfinished, orfinishes eagerly out of hand, for mere finishing's sake, unimportantbusiness.

  [112] Strange! that the presence to the mind of a metaphysicalabstraction should have had this power over one so fortunately endowedfor the reception of the sensible world. It could hardly have been sowith him but for the concurrence of physical causes with the influencesproper to a mere thought. The moralist, indeed, might have noted thata meaner kind of pride, the morbid fear of vulgarity, lent secretstrength to the intellectual prejudice, which realised duty as therenunciation of all finite objects, the fastidious refusal to be or doany limited thing. But besides this it was legible in his ownadmissions from time to time, that the body, following, as it does withpowerful temperaments, the lead of mind and the will, the intellectualconsumption (so to term it) had been concurrent with, had strengthenedand been strengthened by, a vein of physical phthisis--by a merelyphysical accident, after all, of his bodily constitution, such as mighthave taken a different turn, had another accident fixed his home amongthe hills instead of on the shore. Is it only the result of disease?he would ask himself sometimes with a sudden suspicion of hisintellectual cogency--this persuasion that myself, and all thatsurrounds me, are but a diminution of that which really is?--thisunkindly melancholy?

  The journal, with that "cruel" letter to Mademoiselle van Westrheenecoming as the last step in the rigid process of theoretic deduction,[113] circulated among the curious; and people made their judgmentsupon it. There were some who held that such opinions should besuppressed by law; that they were, or might become, dangerous tosociety. Perhaps it was the confessor of his mother who thought of thematter most justly. The aged man smiled, observing how, even for mindsby no means superficial, the mere dress it wears alters the look of afamiliar thought; with a happy sort of smile, as he added (reflectingthat such truth as there was in Sebastian's theory was duly covered bythe propositions of his own creed, and quoting Sebastian's favouritepagan wisdom from the lips of Saint Paul) "in Him, we live, and move,and have our being."

  Next day, as Sebastian escaped to the sea under the long, monotonousline of wind-mills, in comparative calm of mind--reaction of thatpleasant morning from the madness of the night before--he was makinglight, or trying to make light, with some success, of his latedistress. He would fain have thought it a small matter, to beadequately set at rest for him by certain well-tested influences ofexternal nature, in a long visit to the place he liked best: a desolatehouse, amid the sands of the Helder, one of the old lodgings of hisfamily, property now, rather, of the sea-birds, and almost surroundedby the encroaching tide, though there were still relics enough ofhardy, sweet things about it, to form [114] what was to Sebastian themost perfect garden in Holland. Here he could make "equation" betweenhimself and what was not himself, and set things in order, inpreparation towards such deliberate and final change in his manner ofliving as circumstances so clearly necessitated.

  As he stayed in this place, with one or two silent serving people, asudden rising of the wind altered, as it might seem, in a few dark,tempestuous hours, the entire world around him. The strong windchanged not again for fourteen days, and its effect was a permanentone; so that people might have fancied that an enemy had indeed cut thedykes somewhere--a pin-hole enough to wreck the ship of Holland, or atleast this portion of it, which underwent an inundation of the sea thelike of which had not occurred in that province for half a century.Only, when the body of Sebastian was found, apparently not long afterdeath, a child lay asleep, swaddled warmly in his heavy furs, in anupper room of the old tower, to which the tide was almost risen; thoughthe building still stood firmly, and still with the means of life inplenty. And it was in the saving of this child, with a great effort,as certain circumstances seemed to indicate, that Sebastian had losthis life.

  His parents were come to seek him, believing him bent onself-destruction, and were almost glad to find him thus. A learnedphysician, moreover, endeavoured to comfort his mother by [115]remarking that in any case he must certainly have died ere many yearswere passed, slowly, perhaps painfully, of a disease then coming intothe world; disease begotten by the fogs of that country--waters, heobserved, not in their place, "above the firmament"--on people grownsomewhat over-delicate in their nature by the effects of modern luxury.


  [119] One stormy season about the beginning of the present century, agreat tree came down among certain moss-covered ridges of old masonrywhich break the surface of the
Rosenmold heath, exposing, together withits roots, the remains of two persons. Whether the bodies (male andfemale, said German bone-science) had been purposely buried there wasquestionable. They seemed rather to have been hidden away by theaccident, whatever it was, which had caused death--crushed, perhaps,under what had been the low wall of a garden--being much distorted, andlying, though neatly enough discovered by the upheaval of the soil, ingreat confusion. People's attention was the more attracted to theincident because popular fancy had long run upon a tradition of buriedtreasures, golden treasures, in or about the antiquated ruin which thegarden boundary enclosed; the roofless shell of a small butsolidly-built stone house, burnt or overthrown, perhaps in the time ofthe wars at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Many persons wentto [120] visit the remains lying out on the dark, wild plateau, whichstretches away
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