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Maeterlinck

The selection of "Thoughts from Maeterlinck" is a very creditable and
also a very useful compilation. Many modern critics object to the
hacking and hewing of a consistent writer which is necessary for this
kind of work, but upon more serious consideration, the view is not
altogether adequate. Maeterlinck is a very great man; and in the long
run this process of mutilation has happened to all great men. It was the
mark of a great patriot to be drawn and quartered and his head set on
one spike in one city and his left leg on another spike in another city.
It was the mark of a saint that even these fragments began to work
miracles. So it has been with all the very great men of the world.
However careless, however botchy, may be the version of Maeterlinck or
of anyone else given in such a selection as this, it is assuredly far
less careless and far less botchy than the version, the parody, the
wild misrepresentation of Maeterlinck which future ages will hear and
distant critics be called upon to consider.

No one can feel any reasonable doubt that we have heard about Christ and
Socrates and Buddha and St. Francis a mere chaos of excerpts, a mere
book of quotations. But from those fragmentary epigrams we can deduce
greatness as clearly as we can deduce Venus from the torso of Venus or
Hercules _ex pede Herculem_. If we knew nothing else about the Founder
of Christianity, for example, beyond the fact that a religious teacher
lived in a remote country, and in the course of his peregrinations and
proclamations consistently called Himself "the Son of Man," we should
know by that alone that he was a man of almost immeasurable greatness.
If future ages happened to record nothing else about Socrates except
that he owned his title to be the wisest of men because he knew that he
knew nothing, they would be able to deduce from that the height and
energy of his civilisation, the glory that was Greece. The credit of
such random compilations as that which "E.S.S." and Mr. George Allen
have just effected is quite secure. It is the pure, pedantic, literal
editions, the complete works of this author or that author which are
forgotten. It is such books as this that have revolutionised the destiny
of the world. Great things like Christianity or Platonism have never
been founded upon consistent editions; all of them have been founded
upon scrap-books.

The position of Maeterlinck in modern life is a thing too obvious to be
easily determined in words. It is, perhaps, best expressed by saying
that it is the great glorification of the inside of things at the
expense of the outside. There is one great evil in modern life for which
nobody has found even approximately a tolerable description: I can only
invent a word and call it "remotism." It is the tendency to think first
of things which, as a matter of fact, lie far away from the actual
centre of human experience. Thus people say, "All our knowledge of life
begins with the amoeba." It is false; our knowledge of life begins with
ourselves. Thus they say that the British Empire is glorious, and at the
very word Empire they think at once of Australia and New Zealand, and
Canada, and Polar bears, and parrots and kangaroos, and it never occurs
to any one of them to think of the Surrey Hills. The one real struggle
in modern life is the struggle between the man like Maeterlinck, who
sees the inside as the truth, and the man like Zola, who sees the
outside as the truth. A hundred cases might be given. We may take, for
the sake of argument, the case of what is called falling in love. The
sincere realist, the man who believes in a certain finality in physical
science, says, "You may, if you like, describe this thing as a divine
and sacred and incredible vision; that is your sentimental theory about
it. But what it is, is an animal and sexual instinct designed for
certain natural purposes." The man on the other side, the idealist,
replies, with quite equal confidence, that this is the very reverse of
the truth. I put it as it has always struck me; he replies, "Not at all.
You may, if you like, describe this thing as an animal and sexual
instinct, designed for certain natural purposes; that is your
philosophical or zo÷logical theory about it. What it is, beyond all
doubt of any kind, is a divine and sacred and incredible vision." The
fact that it is an animal necessity only comes to the naturalistic
philosopher after looking abroad, studying its origins and results,
constructing an explanation of its existence, more or less natural and
conclusive. The fact that it is a spiritual triumph comes to the first
errand boy who happens to feel it. If a lad of seventeen falls in love
and is struck dead by a hansom cab an hour afterwards, he has known the
thing as it is, a spiritual ecstasy; he has never come to trouble about
the thing as it may be, a physical destiny. If anyone says that falling
in love is an animal thing, the answer is very simple. The only way of
testing the matter is to ask those who are experiencing it, and none of
those would admit for a moment that it was an animal thing.

Maeterlinck's appearance in Europe means primarily this subjective
intensity; by this the materialism is not overthrown: materialism is
undermined. He brings, not something which is more poetic than realism,
not something which is more spiritual than realism, not something which
is more right than realism, but something which is more real than
realism. He discovers the one indestructible thing. This material world
on which such vast systems have been superimposed--this may mean
anything. It may be a dream, it may be a joke, it may be a trap or
temptation, it may be a charade, it may be the beatific vision: the only
thing of which we are certain is this human soul. This human soul finds
itself alone in a terrible world, afraid of the grass. It has brought
forth poetry and religion in order to explain matters; it will bring
them forth again. It matters not one atom how often the lulls of
materialism and scepticism occur; they are always broken by the
reappearance of a fanatic. They have come in our time: they have been
broken by Maeterlinck.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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