Uranie, by Camille Flammarion

V.

A Soul Clad in Air.

SHE was standing, all alone at her bath, her arms raised, twisting the silky and luxuriant masses of her hair into a knot, which she was fastening on the top of her head. She was a youthful beauty, who had not yet reached her full development, but who was approaching it, radiant in the glow of her seventeenth year.

A daughter of Venice, the blue veins where ran the ardent current of her life, showed beneath her rose-tinted transparent skin; her eyes shone with a mysterious and captivating brilliancy, and the velvety redness of her lips, slightly parted, already gave promise of the fruit as well as the flower.

She looked marvelously beautiful, and if some modern Paris had to decide as to her charms, I do not know whether he would have placed at her feet the palm of grace, elegance or beauty, so equally did she unite in herself the animated charm of modern grace and the calm perfections of classic beauty.

A most fortunate and unexpected chance had conducted the painter Falero and myself to her presence. One bright afternoon last spring we happened to be walking on the sea-shore; we had crossed one of those olive plantations, with melancholy foliage, which are to be seen between Nice and Monaco, and without being aware of it we had entered the grounds of an estate opening on the sea-shore. A picturesque path wound through it down the hill; we had left behind us a grove of oranges, whose golden fruit recalled the garden of the Hesperides. The air was balmy, the sky of a deep blue, and we were discussing the comparative merits of Art and Science, when my companion stopped suddenly, as if arrested by a spell, and making a sign to me to be silent, pointed before him. Behind a clump of cacti and Barbary fig-trees, a few steps distant from us, we could see through the open window of a luxurious bathing-house, near a marble basin into which the water fell with a melodious sound, a young girl standing before a long Psyche mirror, which reflected back her full-length figure. Doubtless the noise made by the falling water had prevented her hearing our approach. Discreetly, or rather, indiscreetly, we remained behind the cacti, motionless, mute, spellbound.

Beautiful as she was, she herself seemed to be unconscious of her beauty. Her feet rested on a tiger-skin rug, and all her movements were leisurely. Finding that her long hair was still damp, she allowed it to fall again over her shoulders, and, turning around, came toward us to take a rose from the table near the window; then, going back to the mirror, she tranquilly completed the arrangement of her hair, placed the rose between its braids, and turning her back to the sun, leaned down, doubtless with the purpose of beginning to dress. But all at once she started up, gave a piercing cry, and burying her face in her hands, ran to hide herself in the darkest corner of the room.

Whether some unguarded movement had betrayed our presence, or she had caught the reflection of our figures in the mirror, we could not tell. Be that as it may, however, we thought it prudent to retrace our steps, and returned to the shore by the same path by which we had come.

“Never have I seen — not in any one of my models,” said my companion, “not even in the model who stood for my painting of the ‘Twin Stars,’ and of ‘Celia,’ a more perfect form. What do you say? Does not this apparition come just in time to prove me in the right? It is in vain that you describe in eloquent words the delights of Science. Confess that Art too has her charms. Are not the stars of the earth worthy rivals of the stars of heaven? Do you not admire with me the elegance of that figure? What outlines! What ravishing tones!”

“I would not have the bad taste not to admire what is really beautiful,” I answered; “and I admit that human beauty (and I acknowledge without hesitation female beauty in particular), is the most perfect work of Nature on our planet. But do you know what I most admire in that young creature? It is not her artistic or æsthetic aspect, it is the scientific proof she affords, of a fact which is simply marvelous. In that enchanting form I behold a soul clothed in air.”

“Oh, you delight in paradox, I know. A soul clothed in air! For so real a form the expression is somewhat idealistic. That that enchanting creature has a soul I do not doubt, but permit me, as an artist, to admire her form, her animation, her flesh, her color. I would willingly say with the poet of the Orientales:

Car c’est un astre qui brille

Qu’une fille,

Qui sort d’ur bain au flot clair

Cherche s’il ne vient personne,

Et frissonne

Toute mouillée, au grand air.”

“I do not want to prevent you doing so. But it is precisely this physical beauty which makes me admire in her the soul, the invisible force that has formed it.”

“What do you mean? There can be no doubt that we have a body. The existence of the soul is less evident.”

“To the senses, yes. To the spirit, no. But our senses deceive us in regard to everything; to the movement of the Earth, the nature of the heavens, the apparent solidity of bodies, to beings and to things. Will you, for a moment, follow me in my reasoning?”

“When I inhale the perfume of a rose, when I admire the beauty of form, the delicacy of coloring, the grace of the flower in its first bloom, that which strikes me most is the work of the hidden, mysterious, unknown force which governs the life of the plant, which maintains it in existence, which selects the molecules of air, of water, of earth, adapted for its sustenance, and, above all, which unites those molecules and groups them delicately together, so as to form the graceful stem, those small, fine green leaves, those petals of so tender a rose color, those exquisite shades, that delicious perfume. This mysterious force is the principle of life of the plant. Place together in the earth the seed of a lily, an acorn, a grain of wheat, and a peach stone, and each will reconstruct its own particular being.

“I once saw a maple that was dying amid the débris of a ruined wall, a few yards distant from the rich soil of a furrow, and which, in despair, adventurously threw out a root, reached the soil it had longed for, struck into it and rooted itself there so effectually that insensibly the tree itself became loosened from its place, and letting its old roots wither, quitted the stones and lived, resuscitated and transformed, on the roots which had been the means of preserving its life. I have known elm trees flourishing in the soil of a fertile field, from which sustenance had been cut off by the opening of a deep ditch, to send out boldly those roots which had not been cut, under the bottom of the ditch, to look for nutriment, and to succeed in their purpose, to the great astonishment of the gardener. I saw a heroic jasmine that sent its roots eight times through the holes of a plank that kept the light from it, and which a malicious observer turned back again, each time it did so, to the darkness, in the hope of wearying at last, the energy of the plant; he did not succeed in doing so.

“Plants breathe, drink, eat, select, reject or seek their nourishment, work, live, act according to their instincts; that one thrives admirably; that one pines away; this other is nervous and agitated. The sensitive plant trembles and shrinks at the slightest touch; in certain hours of well-being the wake-robin is warm, the carnation is phosphorescent, the valisnérie descends to the bottom of the waters, to propagate its kind. In all these manifestations of an unknown life, the philosopher cannot but recognize in the vegetable world, a strain of the universal harmony.

“I do not, at present, go further than this with regard to the soul, superior in its nature though it be to the soul of the plant; and although it has created an intellectual world as far above all other forms of terrestrial life as the stars are above the Earth — it is not in regard to its spiritual faculties that I consider it now, but only as the animating force of the human being.

“Well, it awakens my admiration that this force should group together the atoms we breathe, or that we assimilate by nutrition so as to make of them a beautiful and charming being. Look back at this young girl from the day of her birth, and follow with your thought the gradual development of that slender form, through the years of awkward girlhood up to the budding grace of youth and early womanhood. How does the human organism maintain itself, develop itself, form itself? You know the answer: by respiration and nutrition.

“The air itself supplies three-fourths of our nutrition. The oxygen of the air keeps alive the fire of life, and the body may be compared to a flame being fed unceasingly, according to the laws of combustion. A want of oxygen extinguishes the flame of life as it extinguishes the flame of a lamp. Through respiration the dark veinous blood is transformed into red arterial blood, and thus purified. The lungs are a delicate tissue, pierced with from forty to fifty millions of little cells small enough to allow the blood to filtrate through them, and large enough to allow the air to penetrate them. A perpetual exchange goes on between the air and the blood, the former furnishing the latter with oxygen, the latter eliminating the carbonic acid. On the one side the oxygen of the air consumes the carbon of the blood; on the other, the lungs exhale carbonic acid, azote and watery vapor. The plants breathe (during the day) by a process the reverse of this. Absorbing carbon and exhaling carbonic acid, helping to maintain in this way the general equilibrium of terrestrial life.

“Of what is the humall body composed? The adult man weighs on an average 154 pounds. Of this, 113 pounds are water which is in the blood and the tissues. Analyzing the substance of our bodies you will find in it albumen, fibrine, caseine and gelatine, that is to say organic substances composed originally of the four essential gases: oxygen, azote, hydrogen, and carbonic acid. There are also substances in it devoid of azote, such as gum, sugar, starch, fat; these substances pass equally through our organism, their carbon and hydrogen are consumed by the oxygen inhaled during respiration and afterwards exhaled under the form of carbonic acid and of water.

“Water, as you know, is a combination of two gases, oxygen and hydrogen; air, a mixture of two gases, oxygen and azote, to which are added, in lesser proportions, water under the form of vapor, carbonic acid, ammonia and ozone, this latter being only condensed oxygen, etc.

“Thus our body is composed only of gases under different forms.”

“But,” interrupted my companion, “we do not live only on air, We need besides that, at intervals more or less far apart, as the stomach may indicate, certain supplementary additions, such as the wing of a pheasant, a slice of sole, a glass of Chateau-Lafitte or of champagne; or, if you will, some asparagus, a bunch of grapes or a few peaches.”

“Yes, all these are assimilated by our organism, renewing its tissues, and this with rapidity, for in a few months (not in seven years as was formerly supposed to be the case) our body is entirely renewed. Let us return to that charming creature who posed before us a short time ago. Well, that flesh that we admired did not exist three or four months ago; those shoulders, that face, those eyes, that mouth, those arms, that hair, even those nails — all the component parts of that body were nothing more than a current of molecules, a flame unceasingly renewed, a river running during the term of existence, but with perpetually changing waters. But all this is still only gas, assimilated, condensed, modified; above all, it is air. Even those bones, apparently so solid, took form and solidity imperceptibly. Bear in mind the fact that our entire body is formed of invisible molecules, which do not touch each other, and which renew themselves unceasingly.

“If we are vegetarians, if our table be supplied with vegetables and fruits, we assimilate substances drawn almost entirely from the air; that peach is formed of water and air, that pear, that grape, that almond are all formed of air, of water, of some liquid or gaseous element brought by the sap, the sunshine, the rain; asparagus and salad, peas and artichokes, lettuce and chicory, cherries, strawberries and raspberries, they all live in the air and by the air. The parts contributed by the earth, those which are drawn up through the roots, are gases also, and of the same nature, azote, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, etc.

“If our aliment be a beefsteak or a chicken, or some other ‘meat,’ the difference is not very great. The sheep and the ox live on grass. Whether we eat a partridge with cabbage, a roast quail, a turkey with truffles, or a hare ragout, all these substances in appearance so diverse, are only vegetables under another form, which themselves are only a grouping of molecules drawn from the gases of which we have just spoken, air, watery vapor, molecules and atoms, in themselves almost imponderable, and absolutely invisible, besides, to the naked eye.

“Thus, whatever be our aliment, our body, formed, sustained, developed by the absorption of molecules through respiration and alimentation, is definitely only a current incessantly renewed by virtue of this assimilation, directed, governed and organized by the immaterial force which animates us. To this force we may assuredly give the name of soul. It draws together the atoms which suit it, eliminating the useless ones, and starting from an imperceptible point, an indiscernible germ, ends by constructing here an Apollo Belvidere, there a Capitoline Venus. Phidias is but a coarse imitator compared to this secret and mysterious force. Pygmalion became the lover of the statue of which he was the creator, we are told in mythology. What an error! Pygmalion, Praxiteles, Michael Angelo, Benvenuto, Canova, created only statues. The power that can construct the living man and the living woman is a greater power.

“But this force is immaterial, invisible, intangible, imponderable, like the attraction which causes the spheres to move harmoniously in space, and the body, however material it may seem to us, is itself only a harmonious grouping together of molecules, brought about by the attraction of this inward force.

“You see then, that I am strictly within the limits of exact science, in calling this young girl a soul clothed with air — like you and me, indeed, neither more nor less.

“From the creation of mankind down to a few centuries ago, it was believed that sensation was perceived at the point where it was experienced. A pain felt in the finger was supposed to have its seat in the finger itself.

“Children, and many grown people, still believe this to be the case. Physiology has demonstrated that sensation is transmitted from the ends of the fingers to the brain, through the nervous system. If the nerve is cut, the finger may be burned with impunity, the paralysis of sensation is complete. Even the time it takes a sensation to transmit itself, from any point whatsoever of the body to the brain, has been determined, and it has been ascertained that the velocity with which this transmission takes place is about eighty feet a second. Since this was proved, sensation has been located in the brain. But there scientific investigation stopped.

“The brain is matter, as the finger is matter, and like it renews itself perpetually. It is, less than any other part of the body, permanent, renewing itself more rapidly, and consequently being never the same.

“There does not exist, there cannot exist in the whole cerebral mass, a single lobe, a single cell, a single molecule which does not change. A stoppage in movement, in circulation, in transformation, would be a sentence of death. The brain exists and feels, only on condition of undergoing, like all the rest of the body, the ceaseless transformations of organic matter, which constitute the vital circuit.

“It is not, it cannot be, then, in a certain cerebral mass, in a certain aggregation of molecules, that our personality, our identity, our individuality, our ego, which acquires and preserves a personal, intellectual and moral value, developed by culture, resides, our ego, which is, and feels itself to be, responsible for its acts, accomplished a month ago, a year ago, ten years, twenty years, fifty years ago — a period during which the molecular grouping has been totally changed several times.

“Those physiologists who assert that the soul does not exist, resemble their predecessors who asserted that a pain was felt by the finger or the foot. They are a little less far from the truth than those were, but in fixing their attention on the brain and making the human entity reside in the sensations of the brain, they place an obstacle in the way of scientific discovery. This supposition is the less excusable, as those very physiologists know perfectly well that personal sensation is always accompanied by a modification of substance. In other words, the ego of the individual continues to exist only so long as the identity of his physical part ceases to be.

“The seat of sensation, then, cannot be material substance; it is placed in relation with the universe, through the impression received on the brain, by the chemical forces disengaged in the brain, resulting from material combinations. But it is not this.

“The constitution of our bodies, too, is perpetually undergoing transformation under the direction of a psychic principle.

“Such and such a molecule, which at present forms a part of the body, is eliminated in the process of breathing, of transpiration, etc., to remain in the atmosphere a longer or shorter time, then become incorporated in another organism, whether of a planet, an animal or a man. The molecules which constitute your body today did not all form a part of it yesterday, and a few months ago none of them were present in it. Where were they? In the atmosphere or in some other body. All the molecules which at present form the tissues of your body, your lungs, your eyes, your brain, your limbs, etc., have already served to form the tissues of other bodies. We are all dead bodies resuscitated, formed from the dust of our ancestors. If all the human beings who have lived upon the earth up to the present time were to return to life, there would be five of them to each square foot of land, and to maintain an upright position on the Earth’s surface, they would be obliged to mount on one another’s shoulders: but they could not resuscitate wholly, for many molecules have formed a part successively of several bodies. In the same way, our organs, separated into their constituent molecules, will one day form a part of the bodies of those who shall come after us.

“Each molecule of the atmosphere, then, passes perpetually from one form of life to another, escaping from each successively by death; by turns, wind, water, earth, animal or flower, it successively forms a part of innumerable organisms. The inexhaustible source from which every form of life takes its being — the air — is at the same time an immense reservoir into which every being that dies exhales its latest breath; from it vegetables and animals and the various forms of existence receive life, to die in their turn. Life and death are both alike in the air we breathe, and succeed each other perpetually in the exchange of gaseous molecules. The molecule of oxygen exhaled from yonder ancient oak flies to the lungs of the infant in the cradle, the latest sighs of the dying go to form a part of the brilliant corolla of the flower or to spread themselves, like a smile, over the verdant meadow; and thus through an infinite series of partial deaths, the atmosphere nourishes unceasingly the various forms of life displayed on the surface of the globe.

“And if you object to this, I shall go still further and add that our garments themselves, as well as our bodies, are composed of substances which were all originally gaseous. Take this thread, pull it — how strong it is! How many fabrics — batiste, silk, linen, cotton, wool, have been manufactured by interweaving threads like this together. Yet what is this linen, hemp or cotton thread? Globules of air placed in juxtaposition with one another, and kept together only by molecular force. What is this thread of silk or wool? Another aggregation of similar molecules. Confess then, that our garments are also composed of air, of gas, of substances drawn originally from the atmosphere, of oxygen, azote, carbon and watery vapor.”

“I observe with pleasure,” resumed the painter, “that art is not so far removed from science as it is, in certain quarters, supposed to be. If your theories are for you purely science, for me they are art, and of the highest order. And besides, do all those distinctions exist in nature? No; there is in nature neither art, nor science, nor sculpture, nor painting, nor decoration, nor music, nor physics, nor chemistry, nor meteorology, nor astronomy, nor mechanics. Behold that sky, that sea, those buttresses of the Alps, those rosy sunset clouds, those luminous spaces, stretching far away toward Italy. All this is one. And since molecular physics demonstrates to us that matter does not exist, that even in a bar of steel or platinum, the atoms do not touch each other, let our souls at least be left us; no one will be the loser by it. Yes, this is a truth against which no prejudice will be able to prevail; living beings are souls clothed with air. I pity the worlds destitute of an atmosphere.”

We had returned from a long walk on the seashore, to a point not far distant from where we had set out, and we were passing before the battlemented wall of a villa, going toward Beaulieu, near Cape Ferrat, when two elegantly dressed ladies passed us. They were the Duchess de V—— and her daughter, whom we had met the Thursday before at the ball of the Prefecture. We saluted them and passed on under the shade of the olives. Daughter of Eve, the young girl unconsciously glanced back at us. I fancied that a sudden blush suffused her cheeks; no doubt it was the reflection of the light of the setting sun.

“You think, perhaps, that you have lessened my admiration for beauty?” said the artist, glancing behind also. “No; I appreciate it better than before. I admire in it the harmony and all those other fine things of which you spoke just now; and, shall I confess it? — the human body regarded as the visible manifesting of a directing soul, seems to me invested with new nobility, new beauty, new brightness.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37