I have met a mystic, and now I must tell you about him; a modern mystic, revolted against the modern world.
To fulfil my treasured appointment with him, I was hoisted by elevator to his sky-scraping retreat at the summit of a crag of flats. Strange cell for a contemplative! His room was large and well-equipped. His carpet was moss to the feet; his great chairs, buoyant. On the mantelpiece a small stone Buddha smiled privately in this alien place. On the wall opposite, a Tibetan painting embellished holiness with a wealth of colourful detail. I noted that this treasure did not quite cover the trace of some larger, banished picture. The third wall was books. The eye noted familiar titles of recent literature and of popular scientific works, signposts for the troops and civilians behind the advancing fronts of physics, astronomy, biology, psychology. On the handiest shelf, psychical research jostled with the classics of mysticism. Here, many volumes still wore their dust covers. The fourth wall, all window, revealed as from an aerie the curved and many-bridged, the barge- thronged and tug-disturbed river; an ancient and parasite-infested reptile, gliding through the press of buildings down toward the sea.
Enter the mystic. But could this indeed be he? A spare, stooping figure, his face wan wax, a little sagging; his hair retreating from the global brow and touched with grey; his eyes pale, glacial, but lit (so I told myself) with an interior frosty flame; his lips, though smiling, cheerless; almost, one might say, a child's mouth, but hardened by some adult constraint. He gave me a negligent hand, then sank us both into the chairs. "Cigarettes," he said, "are beside you, if you smoke. I don't."
To make contact, I praised his room. He said, "I used to like it. But now-I have seen through it." To my questioning look, he answered, "Its comforts were a snare, its modish treasures poisoned trinkets. Now, its walls are all diaphanous to reality." I glanced at the great window, but he promptly said, "No! That view also, formerly so stimulating, now jejune, has turned diaphanous; like a pale design on the window itself, too faint to obscure the brilliant, the emphatic reality beyond."
Leaning toward him, I said, "I have often wanted to question you about the reality beyond. I have read your latest book, with admiration, but" -I smiled- "with a certain misgiving." I noticed that he did not respond to my smile. He replied, "To understand it properly, one must first have something of the experience that prompted it." Respectfully I commented, "You, of course, speak with authority, from the experience itself, not from hearsay. But the very clarity of your vision may perhaps make it hard for you to realise some of the difficulties of the novice. One reader, at any rate, cannot be sure whether he himself has something of the experience, or not." The mystic interposed, "If you really had it, you could not doubt; any more than in full sunshine one can doubt the light."
Silently I studied my host: his downcast eyes, his pale soft hands folded in his lap. Could this, I wondered, be indeed a seer? Or was he a mere charlatan, deceiving alike his public and himself? Or was he, perhaps, both seer and charlatan at once? Outraged by our society's vulgarity and heartlessness, had he indeed seen what was lacking, but facilely mis-described it in terms once vital, now outworn? And this humourless gravity, this self-importance? Could this be compatible with vision?
I said, "Much in your book is echoed in my own experience; but the cosmical meaning, the metaphysical significance, which you find in it, goes far beyond me." With a shade of impatience he answered, "If you had seen clearly, you could not have missed the meaning. The full experience is to be had only after severe discipline, even mortification." "Now there," I protested, "is one of my difficulties. When I tried mortification of the flesh, I felt surprisingly foolish. And far from being freed from self, I became obsessively self-engrossed. Moreover, this violation of the body seemed somehow a treason, a misuse of the spirit's delicate physical instrument. Altogether, that approach I found perverse and rather messy."
The mystic raised his eyes; and the cold fire was for a moment projected against me. But he spoke quietly. "Mortification," he granted, "is dangerous. It may become an addiction. But where there are more enthralling addictions, mortification of the flesh is the way of life for the spirit. Those who suppose the body's own life to be itself spiritual merely give a fine name to filth, to excuse their wallowing in it." I felt the colour rise in my face, but I said nothing, and he remained for a while silent.
Suddenly and surprisingly he extended toward me a deprecating hand, and appeased me with a twisted but a genial smile, accepting me as an equal friend. "I'm sorry," he said. "I was priggish and offensive. I still have to watch myself." This gesture I met with adequate friendliness.
There was again an awkward silence, which at last he broke by saying, "Look! We are getting nowhere. I feel that you are sincere, and if I can I must help you. Let me break the ice by telling you frankly about myself. You probably know that quite recently I was a self-indulgent and futile intellectual. I guzzled pleasures. I gave each impulse free rein. And I secured many little sweet personal triumphs. For instance, I became expert in wine tasting; and I tasted also woman after woman. I was a dilettante in art, and quite an authority on African carvings. But, as you know, my main interest was to figure out the whole pattern of modern culture, and thereby to interpret man to himself. But man was for me nothing but myself writ large, a creature myopic and voracious, caring only to impress his own personality on the universe. For at heart I worshipped only my own exquisite person. Blind to reality, I regarded myself as the most real thing. Godless, I became my own God; though of course I named my God 'Man.' And how I cherished my freedom, the freedom of the irresponsible individual! So (how apt fate's irony!) it was freedom that diabolically enslaved me. The spirit in me was imprisoned, cramped and crushed within my own blinded, paralysed, festering, stinking personality. Then little by little all my pleasures and personal triumphs turned to dust. I began to be nauseated by my own triviality. I was seized by an obscure but wholesome yearning to give myself to something other than me, other than man; and more admirable. Hitherto, though I had always some vague perception of such a thing, I had anxiously, though unwittingly, ignored it. But now, in the pit of my misery, it revealed itself a little more clearly. I was sitting in this very chair when I first glimpsed the truth, about reality and about my abject self. I was settling down to plan a brilliant and discreetly devastating review of a rival's book. Suddenly, as though a hand had gently checked me and swung me round to face in a new direction, I saw that my intention was trivial and base. I saw it in a new light. I saw my whole life in a new light. I saw the difference between the wordly and the spiritual. And I saw that everything in the universe must be judged in this new light. Call it the light of the spirit. And in that light I saw myself as-- loathsome. Well, after that I began to take a firm hand on myself. I scrutinized my every act, my every motive; denying my greedy person its filthy satisfactions. But I was moved to go farther than this. In the past, physical pain had always been too much for me. I could not endure it as others endured it, and I saw no reason to make any effort to do so. But now, I was impelled to use pain for self-mortification. I did not, of course, inflict on myself any extravagant torture. Indeed, I could not have driven myself so far. But the little discomforts and brief torments that I did impose on myself in that early stage were useful. Maybe, for you, who perhaps are not so deeply sunk in filth, they are not necessary."
He was silent, and I wondered whether there was irony in his last remark. Presently I asked if he still continued to practice mortification.
"Not of the flesh," he said, "or only on occasions when the flesh raises its foul head again. By now, I seldom need that first crude discipline. And to practice it longer than is necessary is to succumb to a new addiction. Permanently, the spirit masters the flesh not by mortification but by strict rationing of its pleasures. A horse, once broken in, need never again be thrashed; nor even checked with the curb, but merely with a firm hand on the snaffle. The master may even occasionally encourage it with lumps of sugar, and with comfort in the loose box. But I, though I had broken in the flesh, had still to conquer the self, to mortify the person. I had strictly to forego those unseemingly personal triumphs, which formerly I had so vaingloriously relished, those vyings with other individuals, ostensibly in service of man, but in fact for sheer masturbatory self-indulgence."
"Surely," I suggested, "you are unfair to yourself. A certain temperate self-satisfaction is justified incidentally, when talents are well used." He answered, "But they were not well used. Personal vain-gloriousness, far from being incidental, was my whole aim."
Before I had thought of an answer, he continued. "In another sphere also I have had to mortify the person. There is a woman for whom my untamed self felt not only bodily lust but also personal love. Our natures were complementary and mutually stimulating. Indeed, little by little we had become warp and weft in a single textile. She was for me, if not the only woman, at least the only woman whom I could permanently enjoy. So a little while before I began to see the light, I brought myself to consent to marry her; for I needed to experience (even at some sacrifice) domestic peace and responsible parenthood. But presently, in the dawning light of the spirit I all too clearly saw that this seductive personal accord was itself a snare. I had pursued it merely for its promise of self-increase. Here, therefore, was the supreme opportunity for mortification. Having already foresworn bodily intercourse with her, I now brought myself to foreswear personal intercourse also. I shall now never see her again. Nor shall I see the child whose conception was an added reason for our marriage."
At this point the mystic rose from his chair and paced the room, saying, "It was torture to leave her, and a shock to discover how deeply she had enthralled me. Even now I have not entirely killed my poor self's longing for her. But the struggle has steeled me. It has both clarified my perception of the spirit and strengthened me to consecrate myself single-heartedly to the life of the spirit."
At this moment, I remember, a herring gull sailed indolently past the window on wings that millions of years had perfected, and months in the city had soiled. Its predatory beak and innocently greedy eye were displayed in a brief closeup.
Throughout the mystic's confession I had been torn between respect and revulsion. This heroic self-denial! Yet this fatal self-absorption! I asked myself, did he indeed love the woman, or merely think he loved her? Had he, I wondered, any inkling of what love really is? A surge of horror forced me to speak. "The woman," I said, "the future mother of your child, how she must have suffered!"
Again he subjected me to the frosty flame of his glance; and after a small silence he said, "She agreed entirely that I must at all costs be true to my new calling. For the child's sake we went through the form of marriage; and then we parted. It was, of course, a heavy blow for both of us. And for me it was intensified by natural sympathy for her in her distress. I settled on her practically all my capital, reserving for myself only enough to launch me on the new and starkly frugal life that I had chosen, and shall now very soon begin." He studied my face for a moment, and observing that I was still shocked and perplexed, he smiled. Was it, I asked myself, as friend to equal friend that he smiled? Or was it ; condescendingly, as one might smile at a child who cannot grasp the solution of some simple puzzle? Gently he said, "My conduct seems to you self-centred, barbarous. Clearly you have not yet gone far in perception of the spirit; and so to you it appears that in abandoning a cherished person I violated something sacred. For we human individuals, you may say, are bound together in unlimited mutual liability. And above all, you may contend, where there is full personal love the obligation is absolute. And so it is, save when the spirit dictates otherwise; as Abraham knew when his God ordered him to sacrifice Isaac. He was confronted with the supreme paradox, namely that at God's command he must do the very thing that God forbids. Having faith, he chose to obey in virtue of the absurd, as the greatest of the Danes has said. Absurdly he knew that, since God willed it, all must somehow turn out for the best; even for Isaac."
The mystic stood in silence, with his back to me, and I murmured that I was repelled by so terrible and dangerous an attitude. He faced me. "Terrible, yes," he said, with surprising harshness. "Dangerous, yes! A fatal snare for self-deceivers! But true!"
Then in a milder tone he added, "And think! If I had done this thing for national service or military duty or to immolate myself for some important and dangerous scientific experiment or (if you happen to be a communist) to devote myself to the revolution, you would have joined in the chorus of praise." While I was still wondering whether this was true, he continued, "Well, I did it in order to devote myself wholly to the greatest cause of all, the life of the spirit." The mystic smiled again; and I could not but recognize in his smile a great tenderness; and also a wistful anxiety.
Distressed at my own perplexity, I studied the luxuriant pile of his carpet as I answered, "I do not doubt the sincerity of your devotion, but, well, in the first place I suspect that some of us are apt to sacrifice too readily the immediate and concrete personal obligation to some more doubtful and less urgent, though loftier claim; whether patriotic, social, cultural or whatnot. But let that pass. Clearly there are occasions when the beloved must be sacrificed. And I am certainly in no position to judge you. But--" I was at a loss to explain myself. The mystic settled once more in his chair, supporting his chin in his hand, and gazing fixedly at me. Our eyes met once more, and neither flinched. At last I said, "I am daunted by your assurance, by your certainty that your new self-dedication to the spirit is not, after all, self-regarding, and the subtlest snare of all."
Gravely he said, "I know well that spiritual pride is of all sins the most elusive, and the most difficult to eradicate. It is like couch grass interlaced among a rose tree's roots. But there come occasions when we must simply have the courage of our convictions, and face the consequences. Let me put it this way. Only the divine psychologist can know whether in the last analysis my act was true or false. But for me, the situation was in all simplicity this: I heard a call, and I responded. Now if, after all, that call was illusory and my act false, what is the upshot? At the worst, one individual spirit (namely myself) is damned; or rather one very incomplete individualisation of the eternal reality is gravely retarded in its age-long search for salvation, or more precisely in the task of self-transcendence and reawakening as the universal spirit; and another individual, namely my wife, is hurt for a few brief months or years. But what are years when we are concerned with eternity? And may she not use this moment of suffering for speedier self-transcendence? On the other hand, if the call was indeed what it seemed, the true and urgent call of the spirit, of reality demanding unconditional service and single-hearted devotion, then my renunciation was right. And I am convinced that this is the case. The spirit calls me, and I must relentlessly obey."
I murmured that I admired his confidence even while I doubted its justification. He answered with startling emphasis, "Good God, man! It's not a case of confidence but stark perception." Then more calmly, "Through fasting and sexual abstinence and mortification, I tell you I saw the truth which alone gives meaning to our confused consciousness. And so I could not but do as I have done. The truth took hold of me. The spirit dictated to me." "What did you see?" I demanded, not without roughness.
He answered promptly, "Fool, how can I tell you what I saw? How can I describe sight to the born-blind?" Then gravely he said, "I saw all time comprised within eternity, all individuals comprised within the eternal individuality, all loves as modes of the eternal spirit, all wisdoms as themes within the ineffable wisdom." Quickly I pounced on him. "Honestly, now, did you really, really see all that?" The mystic was silent, and I waited, while the city's clocks struck the hour. Then slowly a smile of equal brotherhood reconquered his face as he said quietly, "No, I did not really see all that. But honestly, honestly, I did begin to see. I saw enough to know that such all-redeeming truth can be seen. Someday I shall see more."
For a moment his eyes were raised to the little Buddha, then lowered to his folded hands. The three of us remained silent. Outside, the sad murmur of the city was punctuated by the occasional horns of cars; but within the room silence was a presence. And silence paralysed my tongue. But my mind still stirred; for I noted that the mystic's expression mimicked the temper of the stone features very faithfully. Was this similarity, I wondered, conscious; or was it the unconscious and spontaneous manifestation of an inner spiritual likeness?
I found courage to speak. "The difference between us," I said, "is perhaps simply that your vision is clearer, and so you are more confident of the spirit's demands on you. But there is one question that I feel bound to ask. As I see it, the life of the spirit is essentially the life of love, of concrete active love of individual persons, and so of active goodwill toward all men. Therefore, what is demanded of us is effective service of the whole terrestrial company of persons. The spirit, as I see it, is not for the isolated individual but for individuals unified in fellowship. Now I can see that we must sometimes sacrifice the immediate concrete personal love to some kind of larger social service. But to sacrifice it to the pure life of the spirit--what does that really mean?"
Once more, silence. Presently the mystic spoke again, in a voice that was colourless. I wondered whether this was because he was so held by his vision of high truth that he had little attention to spare for me; or whether his mind was empty as a child's repeating a difficult and imperfectly remembered lesson. "The life of the spirit," he said, "is different for different levels of lucidity. For ordinary uregenerate persons it is simply the way of personal love and honest social service. But on the highest level, the life of the spirit is not action but pure contemplation. Those who are not reborn live in the error that the world of sense perception and action, and of individual persons, is real. They so wallow in the sensuous and the sensual life that it engulfs them. They are as obtuse to the higher ranges of the spirit as an ape to mathematics. Now, I do not contend that the world of the senses is evil in itself. Nothing is evil in itself. But to the spirit in each of us, striving to waken and be the eternal spirit, the world of sensation is a diabolically enticing snare, an exquisitely sweet poison. And the world of persons is equally an illusion and a snare. But through mortification and 'self-naughting' one may reach a state in which not only the whole furniture of earth but also the whole seductive choir of sentient individuals are felt to be a mere clinging mud, holding the spirit down from soaring into its true element. Soon, if one perseveres, the temporal and sensuous veil, with all its bright hard sequins of human individuality, begins to wear thin; and the sequins turn out to be no more than ephemeral sparkles in the universal tissue. At last the phenomenal world becomes little more than a mildly distracting irrelevance; save in so far as it is an imperfectly transparent lens, through which reality is to be seen."
Against this view my heart protested, and my reason reached for its trusty weapon of sceptical argument. "But, but--" I said. "Our perceived fellow mortals, to whom you admit we owe a duty of love and service, must surely be more than phantoms. How can we owe duty to a phantom? And anyhow, what adequate reason have you to be so sure that your seeming vision of ultimate reality is not itself a mere figment of your own mind, and far more illusory even than the sensed world? I recognize that in attempting to describe your vision to me you are bound to falsify it, since human speech is utterly incapable of signifying what lies wholly beyond the range of normal experience. And because you can never describe it to me, I can never appreciate what it is that you are describing. But there is another, more serious, difficulty, which, I think, you yourself have to face. You obviously cannot even think about your vision save by means of human concepts and therefore human language. Well then, can you be at all sure that your interpretation of your wonderful vision is not utterly false and sheer illusion; far more false than the sensed world and the world of concrete persons?"
He looked at me searchingly before he replied, "The vision itself can no more be illusion than uninterpreted warmth or colour or mathematical necessity can be illusion. The interpretation too, though it may be profoundly inadequate, cannot be false in essentials. The reality of all else must be judged solely by the touchstone of the vision. As for concrete persons, they are of course not wholly unreal. They are illusory only if they are taken to be what they seem, self-complete realities. They are in fact manifestations of the spirit. For that reason, and for no other, we owe them duty. We, who are ourselves illusory individuals, are yet real manifestations of spirit; and as such we are under obligation to those other manifestations over against us in the illusory world of time and physical phenomena. Our separateness is illusory. And this is how it comes that spirit is not for the isolated individual but for individuals together in community." I would have spoken, but he continued, "And as to your sceptical doubt of the hidden reality, I can only repeat that if you had indeed seen, as I have seen, you could not doubt." Again I would have interrupted, but he overbore me with the flow of his own speech. "In the light of the vision it is patently clear why persons matter, and love and all community matter. Persons matter not in their own right but because they are manifestations, very imperfect manifestations, of the universal spirit. And love matters not because it is of service to individual persons, nor yet because it has survival value for society, but because in love spirit. transcends the illusion of separateness, and reaches out to itself in the other. But see! The purest life of the spirit is not in active personal love, though this is indeed the window through which the spirit first appears. The purest life is in contemplation; in contemplation and responsive worship of the spirit itself; culminating in complete self-transcendence. Then comes the eternal moment, the dying of the trivial person, and the waking into the all-embracing eternity of the spirit. It is evident, is it not, that in this supreme experience love itself is transcended. Love is good because in its imperfect way it is a transcendence of individuality in communion with another individual. The Christian 'love of God' is good because it is an obscure yearning for union with the universal spirit. But in the final experience, in the completed transcendence of individuality in the universal spirit, love itself is left far behind; outgrown, in the perfect self-contemplation of the universal spirit."
Ending, he raised his eyes again to mine. Such was their peace that I felt myself to be in the presence of one who had been in the Presence. Yet something in me that I dare not, must not, flout protested insistently against his jargon. Seeing me still in doubt, he smiled, "It is difficult," he said, "to grasp this truth. Well I know how difficult it is for those who are still enthralled by personal love, and dare not outgrow their dearest treasure for the sake of the supreme experience. But the sacrifice is demanded."
How I longed, and how vainly, to know whether this professed mystic was indeed speaking from some all-clarifying experience withheld from me, or whether he had merely bemused himself with too much uncritical reading. How I longed to know whether, in loving you, my best loved of all, I love simply a unique particular being, or (unwittingly) the universal spirit uniquely manifested in you! But indeed, I love you both ways, both for your individual self and as a symbol of the very spirit.
I answered him, "I can see, or at least doubtfully glimpse, truth in your contention. But tell me! (For you have not really answered my question.) If, as you admit, spirit is not for the isolated individual but for individuals in community, is it not essentially for lovers, and in the last resort only for the love-knit community of mankind? And if so, must not the life of the spirit necessarily issue in some sort of social service? If it rejects social service, must it not necessarily be false to itself? Surely, if the individual withdraws from the struggle for a good society in order to seek private salvation in the spirit, he is guilty of treason to the venture of creating a truly spiritual order here on earth. He is no better than a soldier who, at the height of the battle, when every hand is desperately needed, slips away to a quiet place, to enjoy reading the classics of mysticism."
"You are clinging," he said, "to a half-truth. If society is suffering from a mortal sickness, and the cause of the disease is sheer spiritual obtuseness, if society is already tearing itself to pieces in maniacal pursuit of false ends, then clearly the only important social service is for the few elect (who see what is wrong) to segregate themselves for spiritual purification and increase of insight. Later, when the time is ripe, and men are at last sufficiently nauseated by the effects of their own madness, these few elect, or their successors, may return once more to the sick society to become radiating centres of lucidity, and to lead mankind once more toward the light. Or, if it becomes clear to them that the sickness is incurable, then their whole task lies with themselves, namely to advance as far in the spirit as is possible to them."
From some neighbouring room in the building came the sound of a girl's laughter. It seemed a sudden, teasing splash of water, with the sun in every drop.
"And which," I asked, "is the case of our world today? Is there hope or are we doomed?"
He answered, "I do not know. The disease is grave. One thing I do know; the time is past for palliatives. Politics and social reconstruction do not go to the root of the matter. The only hope, and it is a forlorn hope, is spiritual regeneration through the work of a dedicated few. And by now the whole atmosphere of our world is so poisoned that the few must first withdraw themselves for purification. So long as they remain members of a corrupt society, they themselves will remain subtly corrupt. When at last they return, purged and fortified, they may be able to save mankind from its own folly. But I doubt it. Human society as it exists today looks doomed, looks damned. Moreover, quite soon a few whiffs of atomic power will probably end man's history. Today, social reconstruction is a repairing of the cabin furniture while the ship is already breaking up on the rocks. On all counts, ours is a time not for works but for faith and prayer."
Did I or did I not catch a faint but unpleasant odour of self-complacency in all this talk? I said, "It is certainly fashionable to say that our present society is damned. And yet I wonder. I have come across so many people who have been shocked by the horrors of our time into a kind of bewildered spiritual shame, a sense that their own lives and other people's have been wrongly orientated. Perhaps, sick as our world is, it is just at the point of turning the corner to recovery."
My host surprised me with a laugh. "When people are badly scared," he said, "they often turn to what they call religion, hoping to save their skins for eternity. But their change is not necessarily a spiritual change at all. It is just a prudential move. No! I see no sign at all of a real spiritual change, save a steady change for the worse. Having denied the spirit, and given themselves over to wallowing in the slime of sense and self, they are blinded and suffocated by their own filthy little persons. They are so far sunk from spiritual awareness that they idolize personality, sheer individual selfhood. They affirm that every individual is an end in himself (whatever that means), and that the universe is essentially a place of individual soul making, under a God who is the supreme person. And in their indulgence in self-gratulatory worship of individuality, they actually suppose themselves to have far-reaching spiritual vision. But this wrong-headed cult of personality, this idiotic 'personalism,' is a will-o'-the-wisp, sidetracking such feeble spiritual awareness as is current today. As for the masses, they are of course merely obsessed with bodily pleasure, chiefly sexual, and the puerile excitements afforded by mechanism. Their spiritual leaders have betrayed them. They are hopelessly caught among the cogwheels of the silly toy that the smart alecks among them have invented. The press, the cinema, the radio, the aeroplane and now atomic power are today very effectively destroying man. And what matter? If man is past saving, the sooner he destroys himself the better. There is at least a satisfactory poetic justice in his sordid tragedy. He is getting what he deserves, and getting it in the neck. So to hell with him! Other worlds and other races will perhaps be better instruments of the spirit; are perhaps already so, or have been so for aeons and aeons."
During this invective I had felt an increasing discomfort. No doubt mankind was indeed in a sorry plight; but that the mystic should feel so hotly, so spitefully, about it seemed incongruous. This modern Isaiah, like all his kind, lacked charity. Yes, but a cold voice within me demanded, "Do we, any of us, deserve charity?" At once another, gentler voice replied, "No! Yet to withhold it is to fall short of the spirit."
Something else also seemed lacking in the mystic's attitude. I said, "You condemn the life of the senses as a snare, yet surely in a way, as you yourself have hinted, it is only through the life of the senses that spirit can manifest itself. Indeed spirit, so far as I can see, is essentially a way of behaving, not a thing or substance; and for us human beings it is a way of behaving in relation to each other and the whole universe primarily through the medium of the physical. And though, of course, we may in some sense kill the spirit by wallowing in sensuality, yet' also, for the clearly conscious individual, sense perception and muscular activity may be experienced sacramentally. There is some kind of important truth in the contention that even the humblest physical action, when done 'for the glory of God,' is a spiritual act."
My companion would have interrupted, but I was enjoying myself and would not be checked. His fingers drummed soundlessly on the chair's padded arm.
"You yourself," I said, "must surely have known moments when some sudden gleam of sensuous beauty or some excellence of muscular skill has come with a feeling of religious exercise, as a symbol or epitome of the right relation between individual and universe. The proportions of a leaf or a bird's wing, a view of hills and clouds, the accurate thrust of a spade or the aesthetically right ascent of a rock-- these may sometimes afford a striking experience of, well, of revelation and of right orientation. No! I cannot believe that the world of sensation is not a vehicle of the spirit."
"Oh!" he said. "It is, it assuredly is. But only to those who constantly look beyond it. If you take it at its face value, not as a symbol of the spiritual, it becomes a mere flypaper for the silly buzzing self. You cannot see it truly and value it rightly till you have killed in yourself all greedy addiction to it. But of course, of course, it can be a vehicle of spirit; a rather crude and gross vehicle, but authentic in its way, and all we have for setting us in the right course."
I was appeased, but not wholly satisfied. I said, "You must surely admit that creative art is among the highest spiritual activities. And the artist's whole concern is to make a pattern of sense experiences, a spiritually significant pattern, maybe, but a pattern to be perceived by the senses."
The mystic looked sharply at me. "In the last resort," he said, "everything is spirit. There is no other thing than spirit. But some actualities embody the universal spirit more completely and significantly than others. Art, of course, is a relatively developed spiritual activity. But it can become a diabolic snare, when it holds the individual back from loftier, more deeply spiritual behaviour. And nine times out often, that is what it does. Only those who have outgrown the snare of art can see it in true perspective. The sheer artist can never do so, just because he is enthralled to the sensory. All art, when it is more than a means of self-display or of self-indulgence, is at bottom a childish play activity, a sophisticated doodling with coloured shapes, or tones, or the intricacies of verbal association, or the silly undirected dream stuff of the unconscious. Fundamentally, all art lacks seriousness." I glanced at his Tibetan picture, which though it praised the spirit, revelled also in charming intricacies of colour and form. The mystic added, "Religious art alone is serious, using the sensory strictly for a spiritual end."
I protested that Shakespeare, Bach and Michelangelo did not seem to lack seriousness. He answered, "They play with seriousness, they play with the spirit. For all of them, it's the game that counts. Of course they fulfil a useful function on the highest of the lower levels of experience. They help the weaker brethren to rise beyond the quagmire of mere sensuality and mere utilitarian praxis. But so long as the artists remain mere artists, their whole attitude is at bottom (from the more lucidly spiritual point of view) frivolous."
This arrogant condemnation so bewildered me that for some while I remained silent. But even while I condemned it as insensitive and complacent, I was teased by a suspicion that, in the light of some experience withheld from me, there might nevertheless be a truth in it. Indeed, even I had some disturbing glimmer of that light.
However, I could not help being outraged by the mystic's calm rejection of the existing world of men. Or was the secret source of my exasperation no more than resentment at his assurance, and at the disturbing possibility that he had indeed seen the glory that I should never see? Churlishly I remarked, "So you intend to wash your hands of us all and let us stew in our own juice while you save yourself." "Yes," he answered, firmly but with a most unexpected twinkle in his frosty eyes. Then he voiced a thought that I had refrained from expressing. "I shall be a rat with the sense to leave the sinking ship." I asked how he intended to escape, and how he would disinfect himself of all taint of us.
"You feel indignant," he answered, smiling with one of his odd gleams of friendliness, "but believe me I am not seeking mere personal salvation. I am simply loyal to the dictates of the spirit. I shall withdraw, hoping to return, strengthened for helping. What I shall do, along with others, is the only possible way to save mankind. You probably know that groups of the dedicated have already been founded. I am not satisfied with any of them, so I am planning to found (along with others who feel as I do) a minute community dedicated to the spirit, and far out of reach of the modern world's infection."
I could not resist saying, "It sounds like Shangri-la." He answered rather wearily, "It does, of course. But this is the real thing, and no mere fantasy."
I asked him how his community would maintain itself alive. "Some of us," he said, "are farmers, some craftsmen. All of us can work. We are buying land in a remote but temperate country. A few of us are experienced writers. We shall not hesitate to use our art for the twofold purpose of spreading the truth and eking out our slender livelihood."
Surprised, I ejaculated that to do this must surely involve continued commerce with the wicked world. He answered, "The printed word and royalties are the modern equivalent of the mendicant friar's preaching and receipt of alms."
Cynical thoughts occurred to me, but I said only, "How on earth did you catch your farmers and craftsmen?" Still amiably, he answered, "Countrymen, you know, are often nearer to the spirit than townspeople. We have found among the many who are blind a few who at least are groping. As to status, our new friends will of course be equal to us in brotherhood. In practical matters they will be our masters, but in spiritual matters leadership will be ours, since we shall be the recognized interpreters of the spirit."
A laugh escaped me; but he said, "You are cynical, because you have not access to the experience that unites us all in spiritual brotherhood."
The mystic told me a good deal more about his projected community, but I did not attend very carefully, for I was anxiously and vainly debating with myself as to whether he was authentic. So much in his character and his attitude seemed unlovely; but a new and deeper awareness seemed striving to transform him.
I had risen and gone over to the great window to look more closely at the unhappy world that he was renouncing. The crowded roofs were a sea of tumbled lava, or the puckered crust of some insect's teeming comb. They extended in all directions to the horizon, spiked here and there by spires and factory chimneys Beneath each covering of slate or tile the little personal creatures were probably everywhere scheming to snatch some particular joy. And everywhere the sick world either withheld the prize entirely or yielded it up infected with the universal plague. Across the river, giant posters blared of beer and whisky, lipstick and laxatives. In the nearby railway station a locomotive, starting, snored successive columns of steam unto the still air. Each mushroomed slowly. Below me, by the river, cars were bound on their thousand trivial or self-important errands. Idlers leaned over the river wall, watching the freighted barges, the pleasure steamers, the gulls, which from my lookout were mere grimy snowflakes. A public lawn was starred and crescented with flower beds. Voices of playing children pierced the snarl of the traffic with sparkles of sound. Lovers, minute as pairing chromosomes, lay full-length together. Prisoners of war, demolishing an old air-raid shelter, were ants, enslaved by an alien species. They bore witness to our world's disunity, and to our heartlessness. On a nearby building, the flag of island freedom, but also of imperial tyranny, mocked their slavery.
Presently I noticed that many faces were turned upward. Following the direction of their gaze, I saw, high on the steel skeleton of a burnt-out building, a tall crane. And on its crest a man was straddled, air-surrounded, his feet dangling in the sky. Leaning forward and downward, like a horseman sabering foot soldiers, he was battering with a great hammer on stubborn metal almost beyond his reach. The bare muscles of his shoulders glistened with sweat. Below, the upturned faces waited, held by vicarious fear, or by admiration, or the unacknowledged lust to see him fall.
This whole world of massed human individuals grappling with the physical, would soon be abandoned by my companion, and with little regret. Idlers, toilers, children, lovers and that sweating Thor riding on the machine were for him all damned, because all enthralled by the physical. And though he paid homage to love, he felt (or so I guessed) no warmth of compassion for this doomed city, this doomed world. How could it be otherwise? One does not pity a shadow. And all this was for him but a shadow, a veil of illusion drawn between him and the reality for which he yearned.
I could not wholly doubt that the mystic had experienced some deep significant fact. Indeed, in my hesitant way I too had experienced something of it. But though logically his withdrawal might, I told myself, be justified by his supreme experience, I was repelled by his readiness to abandon the damned to their fate. Spirit, we had agreed, was for individuals in community. To withdraw from the concrete community which gave one individual being, even to withdraw for the sake of a future and better community, or even for the sake of the pure spirit itself, smacked of desertion. My heart protested, if our world is damned, let us all be damned together! And yet I had to admit that if his vision was indeed authentic and rightly interpreted, his course was right. And yet, and yet…This yearning for the reality behind appearance, this readiness to sacrifice the actual to the ideal, smacks unpleasantly of the blind old cult of progress, and faith in a far off millennium. That the heaven is to be had here and now, and eternally, makes no difference. Cosmical piety dictates that I, a finite and ephemeral being, shall not lust even for union with God or the universal spirit. If at heart, though unwittingly, I have that, unity all the while, well, it is so. But to lust for it is surely an addiction, a greed, and the subtlest betrayal of the spirit. Rather, "my station and its duties."
But the mystic would reply, and not without reason, that this craving for union with God or the Whole was not a mere individual's craving; it was the urge of God in him to wake wholly to his god-head.
Well, let each of us be true to his own light. But for me there must be no withdrawal. Let me live somehow in the two world at once. Immersed in the temporal, let me nonetheless look with a far-seeing or an inner gaze on the eternal. Let me indeed see the eternal; but I must find it within the temporal, not beyond. The grit and hardness of the rock under the climber's fingers are not phantom. If he thinks them so, he is lost. Yes, and his goal is no cosmical panorama from a summit perhaps inaccessible; his goal is the climbing; to adapt himself, body and mind to objective reality, and thereby to express the spirit in him. This; but also (in sidelong glances only) to be as aware as may be of the depth below and the sky above, and the whole horizon of mountains. This, surely, is the truth that you and I together have conceived, each contributing. Is it not so?
I found that the mystic had left his chair and was standing beside me, considering my face, and smiling. "My way," he said, "is not yours; and yours, not mine. Be true to your own light, as I shall be to mine. There is a place for both our kinds."
Gently, he took my arm and led me to the door.
Fourth Encounter: A Revolutionary
Second Encounter: A Scientist
Four Encounters Contents