A FRAGMENT FROM THE NOTE-BOOK OF A DEAD ARTIST
‘Enough,’ I said to myself as I moved with lagging steps over the steep mountainside down to the quiet little brook. ‘Enough,’ I said again, as I drank in the resinous fragrance of the pinewood, strong and pungent in the freshness of falling evening. ‘Enough,’ I said once more, as I sat on the mossy mound above the little brook and gazed into its dark, lingering waters, over which the sturdy reeds thrust up their pale green blades. . . . ‘Enough.’
No more struggle, no more strain, time to draw in, time to keep firm hold of the head and to bid the heart be silent. No more to brood over the voluptuous sweetness of vague, seductive ecstasy, no more to run after each fresh form of beauty, no more to hang over every tremour of her delicate, strong wings.
All has been felt, all has been gone through . . . I am weary. What to me now that at this moment, larger, fiercer than ever, the sunset floods the heavens as though aflame with some triumphant passion? What to me that, amid the soft peace and glow of evening, suddenly, two paces hence, hidden in a thick bush’s dewy stillness, a nightingale has sung his heart out in notes magical as though no nightingale had been on earth before him, and he first sang the first song of first love? All this was, has been, has been again, and is a thousand times repeated — and to think that it will last on so to all eternity — as though decreed, ordained — it stirs one’s wrath! Yes . . . wrath!
Ah, I am grown old! Such thoughts would never have come to me once — in those happy days of old, when I too was aflame like the sunset and my heart sang like the nightingale.
There is no hiding it — everything has faded about me, all life has paled. The light that gives life’s colours depth and meaning — the light that comes out of the heart of man — is dead within me. . . . No, not dead yet — it feebly smoulders on, giving no light, no warmth.
Once, late in the night in Moscow, I remember I went up to the grating window of an old church, and leaned against the faulty pane. It was dark under the low arched roof — a forgotten lamp shed a dull red light upon the ancient picture; dimly could be discerned the lips only of the sacred face — stern and sorrowful. The sullen darkness gathered about it, ready it seemed to crush under its dead weight the feeble ray of impotent light. . . . Such now in my heart is the light; and such the darkness.
And this I write to thee, to thee, my one never forgotten friend, to thee, my dear companion, whom I have left for ever, but shall not cease to love till my life’s end. . . . Alas! thou knowest what parted us. But that I have no wish to speak of now. I have left thee . . . but even here, in these wilds, in this far-off exile, I am all filled through and through with thee; as of old I am in thy power, as of old I feel the sweet burden of thy hand on my bent head!
For the last time I drag myself from out the grave of silence in which I am lying now. I turn a brief and softened gaze on all my past . . . our past. . . . No hope and no return; but no bitterness is in my heart and no regret, and clearer than the blue of heaven, purer than the first snow on mountain tops, fair memories rise up before me like the forms of departed gods. . . . They come, not thronging in crowds, in slow procession they follow one another like those draped Athenian figures we admired so much — dost thou remember? — in the ancient bas-reliefs in the Vatican.
I have spoken of the light that comes from the heart of man, and sheds brightness on all around him . . . I long to talk with thee of the time when in my heart too that light burned bright with blessing . . . Listen . . . and I will fancy thee sitting before me, gazing up at me with those eyes — so fond yet stern almost in their intentness. O eyes, never to be forgotten! On whom are they fastened now? Who folds in his heart thy glance — that glance that seems to flow from depths unknown even as mysterious springs — like ye, both clear and dark — that gush out into some narrow, deep ravine under the frowning cliffs. . . . Listen.
It was at the end of March before Annunciation, soon after I had seen thee for the first time and — not yet dreaming of what thou wouldst be to me — already, silently, secretly, I bore thee in my heart. I chanced to cross one of the great rivers of Russia. The ice had not yet broken up, but looked swollen and dark; it was the fourth day of thaw. The snow was melting everywhere — steadily but slowly; there was the running of water on all sides; a noiseless wind strayed in the soft air. Earth and sky alike were steeped in one unvarying milky hue; there was not fog nor was there light; not one object stood out clear in the general whiteness, everything looked both close and indistinct. I left my cart far behind and walked swiftly over the ice of the river, and except the muffled thud of my own steps heard not a sound. I went on enfolded on all sides by the first breath, the first thrill, of early spring . . . and gradually gaining force with every step, with every movement forwards, a glad tremour sprang up and grew, all uncomprehended within me . . . it drew me on, it hastened me, and so strong was the flood of gladness within me, that I stood still at last and with questioning eyes looked round me, as I would seek some outer cause of my mood of rapture. . . . All was soft, white, slumbering, but I lifted my eyes; high in the heavens floated a flock of birds flying back to us. . . . ‘Spring! welcome spring!’ I shouted aloud: ‘welcome, life and love and happiness!’ And at that instance, with sweetly troubling shock, suddenly like a cactus flower thy image blossomed aflame within me, blossomed and grew, bewilderingly fair and radiant, and I knew that I love thee, thee only — that I am all filled full of thee. . . .
I think of thee . . . and many other memories, other pictures float before me with thee everywhere, at every turn of my life I meet thee. Now an old Russian garden rises up before me on the slope of a hillside, lighted up by the last rays of the summer sun. Behind the silver poplars peeps out the wooden roof of the manor-house with a thin curl of reddish smoke above the white chimney, and in the fence a little gate stands just ajar, as though some one had drawn it to with faltering hand; and I stand and wait and gaze at that gate and the sand of the garden path — wonder and rapture in my heart. All that I behold seems new and different; over all a breath of some glad, brooding mystery, and already I catch the swift rustle of steps, and I stand intent and alert as a bird with wings folded ready to take flight anew, and my heart burns and shudders in joyous dread before the approaching, the alighting rapture. . . .
Then I see an ancient cathedral in a beautiful, far-off land. In rows kneel the close packed people; a breath of prayerful chill, of something grave and melancholy is wafted from the high, bare roof, from the huge, branching columns. Thou standest at my side, mute, apart, as though knowing me not. Each fold of thy dark cloak hangs motionless as carved in stone. Motionless, too, lie the bright patches cast by the stained windows at thy feet on the worn flags. And lo, violently thrilling the incense-clouded air, thrilling us within, rolled out the mighty flood of the organ’s notes . . . and I saw thee paler, rigid — thy glance caressed me, glided higher and rose heavenwards — while to me it seemed none but an immortal soul could look so, with such eyes . . .
Another picture comes back to me.
No old-world temple subdues us with its stern magnificence; the low walls of a little snug room shut us off from the whole world. What am I saying? We are alone, alone in the whole world; except us two there is nothing living — outside these friendly walls darkness and death and emptiness . . . It is not the wind that howls without, not the rain streaming in floods; without, Chaos wails and moans, his sightless eyes are weeping. But with us all is peaceful and light and warm and welcoming; something droll, something of childish innocence, like a butterfly — isn’t it so? — flutters about us. We nestle close to one another, we lean our heads together and both read a favourite book. I feel the delicate vein beating in thy soft forehead; I hear that thou livest, thou hearest that I am living, thy smile is born on my face before it is on thine, thou makest mute answer to my mute question, thy thoughts, my thoughts are like the two wings of one bird, lost in the infinite blue . . . the last barriers have fallen — and so soothed, so deepened is our love, so utterly has all apartness vanished that we have no need for word or look to pass between us. . . . Only to breathe, to breathe together is all we want, to be together and scarcely to be conscious that we are together. . . .
Or last of all, there comes before me that bright September when we walked through the deserted, still flowering garden of a forsaken palace on the bank of a great river — not Russian — under the soft brilliance of the cloudless sky. Oh, how put into words what we felt! The endlessly flowing river, the solitude and peace and bliss, and a kind of voluptuous melancholy, and the thrill of rapture, the unfamiliar monotonous town, the autumn cries of the jackdaws in the high sun-lit treetops, and the tender words and smiles and looks, long, soft, piercing to the very inmost soul, and the beauty, beauty in our lives, about us, on all sides — it is above words. Oh, the bench on which we sat in silence with heads bowed down under the weight of feeling — I cannot forget it till the hour I die! How delicious were those few strangers passing us with brief greetings and kind faces, and the great quiet boats floating by (in one — dost thou remember? — stood a horse pensively gazing at the gliding water), the baby prattle of the tiny ripples by the bank, and the very bark of the distant dogs across the water, the very shouts of the fat officer drilling the red-faced recruits yonder, with outspread arms and knees crooked like grasshoppers! . . . We both felt that better than those moments nothing in the world had been or would be for us, that all else . . . But why compare? Enough . . . enough . . . Alas! yes: enough.
For the last time I give myself up to those memories and bid them farewell for ever. So a miser gloating over his hoard, his gold, his bright treasure, covers it over in the damp, grey earth; so the wick of a smouldering lamp flickers up in a last bright flare and sinks into cold ash. The wild creature has peeped out from its hole for the last time at the velvet grass, the sweet sun, the blue, kindly waters, and has huddled back into the depths, curled up, and gone to sleep. Will he have glimpses even in sleep of the sweet sun and the grass and the blue kindly water? . . .
Sternly, remorselessly, fate leads each of us, and only at the first, absorbed in details of all sorts, in trifles, in ourselves, we are not aware of her harsh hand. While one can be deceived and has no shame in lying, one can live and there is no shame in hoping. Truth, not the full truth, of that, indeed, we cannot speak, but even that little we can reach locks up our lips at once, ties our hands, leads us to ‘the No.’ Then one way is left a man to keep his feet, not to fall to pieces, not to sink into the mire of self-forgetfulness . . . of self-contempt — calmly to turn away from all, to say ‘enough!’ and folding impotent arms upon the empty breast, to save the last, the sole honour he can attain to, the dignity of knowing his own nothingness; that dignity at which Pascal hints when calling man a thinking reed he says that if the whole universe crushed him, he, that reed, would be higher than the universe, because he would know it was crushing him, and it would know it not. A poor dignity! A sorry consolation! Try your utmost to be penetrated by it, to have faith in it, you, whoever you may be, my poor brother, and there’s no refuting those words of menace:
‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
I quoted these lines from Macbeth, and there came back to my mind the witches, phantoms, apparitions. . . . Alas! no ghosts, no fantastic, unearthly powers are terrible; there are no terrors in the Hoffmann world, in whatever form it appears. . . . What is terrible is that there is nothing terrible, that the very essence of life is petty, uninteresting and degradingly inane. Once one is soaked through and through with that knowledge, once one has tasted of that bitter, no honey more seems sweet, and even the highest, sweetest bliss, the bliss of love, of perfect nearness, of complete devotion — even that loses all its magic; all its dignity is destroyed by its own pettiness, its brevity. Yes; a man loved, glowed with passion, murmured of eternal bliss, of undying raptures, and lo, no trace is left of the very worm that devoured the last relic of his withered tongue. So, on a frosty day in late autumn, when all is lifeless and dumb in the bleached grey grass, on the bare forest edge, if the sun but come out for an instant from the fog and turn one steady glance on the frozen earth, at once the gnats swarm up on all sides; they sport in the warm rays, bustle, flutter up and down, circle round one another . . . The sun is hidden — the gnats fall in a feeble shower, and there is the end of their momentary life.
But are there no great conceptions, no great words of consolation: patriotism, right, freedom, humanity, art? Yes; those words there are, and many men live by them and for them. And yet it seems to me that if Shakespeare could be born again he would have no cause to retract his Hamlet, his Lear. His searching glance would discover nothing new in human life: still the same motley picture — in reality so little complex — would unroll before him in its terrifying sameness. The same credulity and the same cruelty, the same lust of blood, of gold, of filth, the same vulgar pleasures, the same senseless sufferings in the name . . . why, in the name of the very same shams that Aristophanes jeered at two thousand years ago, the same coarse snares in which the many-headed beast, the multitude, is caught so easily, the same workings of power, the same traditions of slavishness, the same innateness of falsehood — in a word, the same busy squirrel’s turning in the same old unchanged wheel. . . . Again Shakespeare would set Lear repeating his cruel: ‘None doth offend,’ which in other words means: ‘None is without offence.’ and he too would say ‘enough!’ he too would turn away. One thing perhaps, may be: in contrast to the gloomy tragic tyrant Richard, the great poet’s ironic genius would want to paint a newer type, the tyrant of today, who is almost ready to believe in his own virtue, and sleeps well of nights, or finds fault with too sumptuous a dinner at the very time when his half-crushed victims try to find comfort in picturing him, like Richard, haunted by the phantoms of those he has ruined . . .
But to what end?
Why prove — picking out, too, and weighing words, smoothing and rounding off phrases — why prove to gnats that they are really gnats?
But art? . . . beauty? . . . Yes, these are words of power; they are more powerful, may be, than those I have spoken before. Venus of Milo is, may be, more real than Roman law or the principles of 1789. It may be objected — how many times has the retort been heard! — that beauty itself is relative; that by the Chinese it is conceived as quite other than the European’s ideal. . . . But it is not the relativity of art confounds me; its transitoriness, again its brevity, its dust and ashes — that is what robs me of faith and courage. Art at a given moment is more powerful, may be, than nature; for in nature is no symphony of Beethoven, no picture of Ruysdäel, no poem of Goethe, and only dull-witted pedants or disingenuous chatterers can yet maintain that art is the imitation of nature. But at the end of all, nature is inexorable; she has no need to hurry, and sooner or later she takes her own. Unconsciously and inflexibly obedient to laws, she knows not art, as she knows not freedom, as she knows not good; from all ages moving, from all ages changing, she suffers nothing immortal, nothing unchanging. . . . Man is her child; but man’s work — art — is hostile to her, just because it strives to be unchanging and immortal. Man is the child of nature; but she is the universal mother, and she has no preferences; all that exists in her lap has arisen only at the cost of something else, and must in its time yield its place to something else. She creates destroying, and she cares not whether she creates or she destroys — so long as life be not exterminated, so long as death fall not short of his dues. . . . And so just as serenely she hides in mould the god-like shape of Phidias’s Zeus as the simplest pebble, and gives the vile worm for food the priceless verse of Sophokles. Mankind, ’tis true, jealously aid her in her work of of slaughter; but is it not the same elemental force, the force of nature, that finds vent in the fist of the barbarian recklessly smashing the radiant brow of Apollo, in the savage yells with which he casts in the fire the picture of Apelles? How are we, poor folks, poor artists to be a match for this deaf, dumb, blind force who triumphs not even in her conquests, but goes onward, onward, devouring all things? How stand against those coarse and mighty waves, endlessly, unceasingly moving upward? How have faith in the value and dignity of the fleeting images, that in the dark, on the edge of the abyss, we shape out of dust for an instant?
All this is true, . . . but only the transient is beautiful, said Schiller; and nature in the incessant play of her rising, vanishing forms is not averse to beauty. Does not she carefully deck the most fleeting of her children — the petals of the flowers, the wings of the butterfly — in the fairest hues, does she not give them the most exquisite lines? Beauty needs not to live for ever to be eternal — one instant is enough for her. Yes; that may be is true — but only there where personality is not, where man is not, where freedom is not; the butterfly’s wing spoiled appears again and again for a thousand years as the same wing of the same butterfly; there sternly, fairly, impersonally necessity completes her circle . . . but man is not repeated like the butterfly, and the work of his hands, his art, his spontaneous creation once destroyed is lost for ever. . . . To him alone is it vouchsafed to create . . . but strange and dreadful it is to pronounce: we are creators . . . for one hour — as there was, in the tale, a caliph for an hour. In this is our pre-eminence — and our curse; each of those ‘creators’ himself, even he and no other, even this I is, as it were, constructed with certain aim, on lines laid down beforehand; each more or less dimly is aware of his significance, is aware that he is innately something noble, eternal — and lives, and must live in the moment and for the moment.1 Sit in the mud, my friend, and aspire to the skies! The greatest among us are just those who more deeply than all others have felt this rooted contradiction; though if so, it may be asked, can such words be used as greatest, great?
1 One cannot help recalling here Mephistopheles’s words to Faust:—
‘Er (Gott) findet sich in einem ewgen Glanze,
Uns hat er in die Finsterniss gebracht —
Und euch taugt einzig Tag und Nacht.’
— AUTHOR’S NOTE.]
What is to be said of those to whom, with all goodwill, one cannot apply such terms, even in the sense given them by the feeble tongue of man? What can one say of the ordinary, common, second-rate, third-rate toilers — whatsoever they may be — statesmen, men of science, artists — above all, artists? How conjure them to shake off their numb indolence, their weary stupor, how draw them back to the field of battle, if once the conception has stolen into their brains of the nullity of everything human, of every sort of effort that sets before itself a higher aim than the mere winning of bread? By what crowns can they be lured for whom laurels and thorns alike are valueless? For what end will they again face the laughter of ‘the unfeeling crowd’ or ‘the judgment of the fool’— of the old fool who cannot forgive them from turning away from the old bogies — of the young fool who would force them to kneel with him, to grovel with him before the new, lately discovered idols? Why should they go back again into that jostling crowd of phantoms, to that market-place where seller and buyer cheat each other alike, where is noise and clamour, and all is paltry and worthless? Why ‘with impotence in their bones’ should they struggle back into that world where the peoples, like peasant boys on a holiday, are tussling in the mire for handfuls of empty nutshells, or gape in open-mouthed adoration before sorry tinsel-decked pictures, into that world where only that is living which has no right to live, and each, stifling self with his own shouting, hurries feverishly to an unknown, uncomprehended goal? No . . . no. . . . Enough . . . enough . . . enough!
. . . The rest is silence. [Footnote: English in the original. — TRANSLATOR’S NOTE.]
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Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55