Of the many illustrious thinkers whom the schools of France have contributed to the intellectual philosophy of our age, Victor Cousin, the most accomplished, assigns to Maine de Biran the rank of the most original.
In the successive developments of his own mind, Maine de Biran may, indeed, be said to represent the change that has been silently at work throughout the general mind of Europe since the close of the last century. He begins his career of philosopher with blind faith in Condillac and Materialism. As an intellect severely conscientious in the pursuit of truth expands amidst the perplexities it revolves, phenomena which cannot be accounted for by Condillac’s sensuous theories open to his eye. To the first rudimentary life of man, the animal life, “characterized by impressions, appetites, movements, organic in their origin and ruled by the Law of Necessity,” 1 he is compelled to add, “the second, or human life, from which Free-will and Self-consciousness emerge.” He thus arrives at the union of mind and matter; but still a something is wanted — some key to the marvels which neither of these conditions of vital being suffices to explain. And at last the grand self-completing Thinker attains to the Third Life of Man in Man’s Soul.
“There are not,” says this philosopher, towards the close of his last and loftiest work — “there are not only two principles opposed to each other in Man — there are three. For there are in him three lives and three orders of faculties. Though all should be in accord and in harmony between the sensitive and the active faculties which constitute Man, there would still be a nature superior, a third life which would not be satisfied; which would make felt (ferait sentir) the truth that there is another happiness, another wisdom, another perfection, at once above the greatest human happiness, above the highest wisdom, or intellectual and moral perfection of which the human being is susceptible.” 2
Now, as Philosophy and Romance both take their origin in the Principle of Wonder, so in the “Strange Story” submitted to the Public it will be seen that Romance, through the freest exercise of its wildest vagaries, conducts its bewildered hero towards the same goal to which Philosophy leads its luminous Student, through far grander portents of Nature, far higher visions of Supernatural Power, than Fable can yield to Fancy. That goal is defined in these noble words:—
“The relations (rapports) which exist between the elements and the products of the three lives of Man are the subjects of meditation, the fairest and finest, but also the most difficult. The Stoic Philosophy shows us all which can be most elevated in active life; but it makes abstraction of the animal nature, and absolutely fails to recognize all which belongs to the life of the spirit. Its practical morality is beyond the forces of humanity. Christianity alone embraces the whole Man. It dissimulates none of the sides of his nature, and avails itself of his miseries and his weakness in order to conduct him to his end in showing him all the want that he has of a succor more exalted.” 3
In the passages thus quoted, I imply one of the objects for which this tale has been written; and I cite them, with a wish to acknowledge one of those priceless obligations which writings the lightest and most fantastic often incur to reasoners the most serious and profound.
But I here construct a romance which should have, as a romance, some interest for the general reader. I do not elaborate a treatise submitted to the logic of sages. And it is only when “in fairy fiction drest” that Romance gives admission to “truths severe.”
I venture to assume that none will question my privilege to avail myself of the marvellous agencies which have ever been at the legitimate command of the fabulist.
To the highest form of romantic narrative, the Epic, critics, indeed, have declared that a supernatural machinery is indispensable. That the Drama has availed itself of the same license as the Epic, it would be unnecessary to say to the countrymen of Shakspeare, or to the generation that is yet studying the enigmas of Goethe’s “Faust.” Prose Romance has immemorially asserted, no less than the Epic or the Drama, its heritage in the Realm of the Marvellous. The interest which attaches to the supernatural is sought in the earliest Prose Romance which modern times take from the ancient, and which, perhaps, had its origin in the lost Novels of Miletus; 4 and the right to invoke such interest has, ever since, been maintained by Romance through all varieties of form and fancy — from the majestic epopee of “Telemaque” to the graceful fantasies of “Undine,” or the mighty mockeries of “Gulliver’s Travels” down to such comparatively commonplace elements of wonder as yet preserve from oblivion “The Castle of Otranto” and “The Old English Baron.”
Now, to my mind, the true reason why a supernatural agency is indispensable to the conception of the Epic, is that the Epic is the highest and the completest form in which Art can express either Man or Nature, and that without some gleams of the supernatural, Man is not man nor Nature, nature.
It is said, by a writer to whom an eminent philosophical critic justly applies the epithets of “pious and profound:” 5
“Is it unreasonable to confess that we believe in God, not by reason of the Nature which conceals Him, but by reason of the Supernatural in Man which alone reveals and proves Him to exist? . . . Man reveals God: for Man, by his intelligence, rises above Nature; and in virtue of this intelligence is conscious of himself as a power not only independent of, but opposed to, Nature, and capable of resisting, conquering, and controlling her.”6
If the meaning involved in the argument, of which I have here made but scanty extracts, be carefully studied, I think that we shall find deeper reasons than the critics who dictated canons of taste to the last century discovered — why the supernatural is indispensable to the Epic, and why it is allowable to all works of imagination, in which Art looks on Nature with Man’s inner sense of a something beyond and above her.
But the Writer who, whether in verse or prose, would avail himself of such sources of pity or terror as flow from the Marvellous, can only attain his object in proportion as the wonders he narrates are of a kind to excite the curiosity of the age he addresses.
In the brains of our time, the faculty of Causation is very markedly developed. People nowadays do not delight in the Marvellous according to the old childlike spirit. They say in one breath, “Very extraordinary!” and in the next breath ask, “How do you account for it?” If the Author of this work has presumed to borrow from science some elements of interest for Romance, he ventures to hope that no thoughtful reader — and certainly no true son of science — will be disposed to reproach him. In fact, such illustrations from the masters of Thought were essential to the completion of the purpose which pervades the work.
That purpose, I trust, will develop itself in proportion as the story approaches the close; and whatever may appear violent or melodramatic in the catastrophe, will, perhaps, be found, by a reader capable of perceiving the various symbolical meanings conveyed in the story, essential to the end in which those meanings converge, and towards which the incidents that give them the character and interest of of fiction, have been planned and directed from the commencement.
Of course, according to the most obvious principles of art, the narrator of a fiction must be as thoroughly in earnest as if he were the narrator of facts. One could not tell the most extravagant fairy-tale so as to rouse and sustain the attention of the most infantine listener, if the tale were told as if the taleteller did not believe in it. But when the reader lays down this “Strange Story,” perhaps he will detect, through all the haze of romance, the outlines of these images suggested to his reason: Firstly, the image of sensuous, soulless Nature, such as the Materialist had conceived it; secondly, the image of Intellect, obstinately separating all its inquiries from the belief in the spiritual essence and destiny of man, and incurring all kinds of perplexity and resorting to all kinds of visionary speculation before it settles at last into the simple faith which unites the philosopher and the infant; and thirdly, the image of the erring but pure-thoughted visionary, seeking over-much on this earth to separate soul from mind, till innocence itself is led astray by a phantom, and reason is lost in the space between earth and the stars. Whether in these pictures there be any truth worth the implying, every reader must judge for himself; and if he doubt or deny that there be any such truth, still, in the process of thought which the doubt or denial enforces, he may chance on a truth which it pleases himself to discover.
“Most of the Fables of AEsop,”— thus says Montaigne in his charming essay “Of Books”7—“have several senses and meanings, of which the Mythologists choose some one that tallies with the fable. But for the most part ’t is only what presents itself at the first view, and is superficial; there being others more lively, essential, and internal, into which they had not been able to penetrate; and”— adds Montaigne —“the case is the very same with me.”
1 OEuvres inedites de Maine de Biran, vol. i. See introduction.
2 OEuvres inedites de Maine de Biran, vol. iii. p. 546 (Anthropologie).
3 OEuvres inedites de Maine de Biran, vol. iii. p. 524.
4 “The Golden Ass” of Apuleius.
5 Sir William Hamilton: Lectures on Metaphysics, p. 40.
6 Jacobi: Von der Gottlichen Dingen; Werke, p. 424–426.
7 Translation, 1776, Yol. ii. p. 103.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48