A witty reviewer recently wrote: "We are all petty eavesdroppers. That's why biographies, published letters and diaries are so popular." They are popular — there is no denying it; we like biography and we also like novels which outline the upward struggles and successes of an imaginary hero or heroine. We like them because we see in the mounting careers of the men and women we read about, a symbol of our own career; a symbol of the human soul winning out in its struggle for growth and expansion. It is like watching our favorite team at a football game: we feel they must win: it is the urge of the soul to growth and conquest that moves us. Unconsciously, perhaps, we identify ourselves with those who are making the effort.
Perhaps the most fascinating place in a library is the section devoted to Biography. As you move along the rows of books you feel yourself in the company of those from every walk of life, who have dared to transcend the safe and mediocre and have become the great statesmen, sovereigns and military geniuses; the scientists, inventors and explorers; the physicians and scholars; the philosophers and philanthropists; as well as all those who have charmed the world in the fields of the arts and literature. In fact, not the least interesting feature of the study of biography is the number of ways that mankind has found to express its indwelling aptitudes and talents.
Or pick up that most condensed of all reference books, the Who's Who, where notable careers are recorded in the most abbreviated form: birth, education, the main achievements merely listed, a few dates — and that is all. There is something profoundly moving in those distilled biographies. Each one is the essence of a life that must have been filled with color and variety, with effort (which always goes unrecorded) and discipline. It is like looking at those careers through the small end of a field-glass: reverse the glass, thus magnifying the picture, and what you see is a remarkable unfolding of powers in the individual, culminating in the final brilliant achievement that brought fame — and a place in history. But fame is the least important thing about it. Fame cannot follow the individual into the hereafter, but the unfolded powers, the character development, must. It is the unfolding of the powers, the talent or genius, that intrigues us. How, where, did these energies originate? Why was it given to those particular individuals to possess such powers, together with the will to use them to such noble ends?
We don't all get into the Who's Who. Yet we are all fashioning our own biographies. And we may well ask: Where do we come in? The fact is — the simplest life is a career, and I would venture to say that there is hardly a human being whose life-story, sympathetically told, would not make an interesting biography — and some of the simplest might make the best reading!
It is plain to any student of life that individuals differ in respect to their ability to manifest their inherent powers. Some have a more well-defined revelation of the purpose of their life, more power to bring into play their residual energies, more power of self-abnegation and extraordinary application. In others the energies are more diffuse, or subjective, while in still others they are recessive; and these individuals are not interested in purposeful activity, but must be forced into it by stress of necessity and circumstance.
The wide divergences and differences in human character and achievements suggest that there is something unfinished, very fragmentary, in the sum total of character even at death; hence the inclination to look upon a completed life-story as merely an episode in a series of episodes. This viewpoint reveals the whole drama in a different light. Think of the multitude of lives cut off in their flower, with all their promise unfulfilled. Yet there were energies there that were in the process of unfolding, which in their potential must have been of great power. There was obviously a pattern there, just as there is in the folded bud which previsions the opened flower; and in the economy of nature those energies must in time find expression.
"There is a comfortable belief in the world that genius, real genius, will always fight its way to recognition. This is certainly untrue," says the English novelist, Joyce Cary. And he goes on to show how many an original genius has never been able to obtain a hearing or get his work into print because of the hard and fast conventions that placed a barrier against certain things that are new. Yes, we believe there are many geniuses who live and die unknown. It is all very well to say, "Oh, well, what is fame anyway? It's not the important thing." But it does have the value to the genius of enabling him to give widely of the treasures of thought, or music, or art, that he is equipped to give. What then stands in the way? Some obstruction in the long-range pattern of his existence, perhaps springing from some defect in his own nature; an obstruction belonging to that phase of his experience and which was not met and finally resolved.
On the other hand, there are lives which move through the years to a harmonious fulfillment of a destiny that is felt to be inherent in their very strength and skill. Take for example the life of John Muir, the beloved Scottish-American naturalist and apostle of the out-of-doors. Born in Scotland, but emigrating with his family while still a lad to America, where in the virgin forests of the New World land was cleared for a farm: hard work, the discipline of pioneering, marked his childhood. But the boy was full of the energy of genius and was able to carve his own way. His mechanical inventiveness was a marvel and a delight to his classmates while he starved his way through college. One term he took up botany, and immediately his ardent and poetic soul kindled to the wonders of design and orderly pattern in Nature. The rest of the tale belongs to the world: how he became an authority on all things out-of-doors, how he passed from the U.S. Geodetic Survey to the place of an intrepid explorer, champion of the Big Trees, discoverer of huge glaciers, one of which bears his name; and the author of numerous books, every one of which is a prose-poem of great beauty. He died, full of years and honors, universally beloved, and leaving as his monuments the giant groves and other natural wonders that he had helped to save from destruction. He had opened the pages of the book of Nature, and taught thousands to read therein, and had led the consciousness of mankind into new realms of perception. From small beginnings his life had fanned out to include within its influence a great part of humanity. Whence came his amazing energy, courage and versatility?
Another example of a lesson taught from life came from a friend of mine, studying in a Canadian college, who went with her class, under their Professor of English, to hear the great Forbes-Robertson in Hamlet. At the close of the play, the students had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with the great actor. My friend received a lifelong inspiration to strength in effort, not only through witnessing the superb artistry of the play, but through that one handshake and glance of the eye. She remarked to me that their wise professor had told them it was good to actually meet greatness, for it aroused the slumbering greatness in oneself.
What is this greatness? Whence comes the courage to embark on new enterprises, when only Something within speaks and says: "I know I can do it!" Where did the young Mozart get his well-flowered early genius? and little Haydn at the age of ten playing the harpsichord in the attic in the dead of night, to the complete surprise of his family? And Macauley reading books avidly at the age of two, and compiling a history of England at the age of eight? And how did countless other prodigies begin life already equipped to start on careers that added so much to the treasures of art and learning?
But there is a great deal in the study of biography besides the mystery of genius. There is the overcoming of handicaps, whereby the soul frees itself to keep its rendezvous with destiny; there are the changes in character that so amaze those who observe them; and there are the sudden and unaccountable changes of fortune. As to the overcoming of handicaps, we recall the classic examples: blind Milton still uttering his thunders of heroic verse; and Beethoven shut away from the sound of his music, but still the architect of his grand harmonies. And in our own day what greater marvel could we have than the miraculous Helen Keller? And this is saying nothing of the thousands of our own G.I.'s, maimed by war, who are carrying on under sometimes heartrending difficulties. It is all a tribute to the innate vitality of the spiritual soul, which cannot be kept from burgeoning forth in its own time and way.
Many will have read a recent book about Alfred Dreyfus, the Alsatian Jewish officer in the French Army. He was born to wealth, had a happy youth, a harmonious marriage and two lovely children. Not a cloud on his horizon. Suddenly, with the force of a stunning blow, misfortune fell, in the form of an accusation of treason. In the space of a few hours, all that made life worth living, materially and mentally, was stripped from him. Degraded in rank, subjected to every indignity, denied an adequate hearing, he was sent to Devil's Island. The five years on Devil's Island are a record of exquisite mental and physical suffering. All human and legal rights were denied him. His anguish was increased by the knowledge that his family were also suffering. At last, alone in his hut — and what human being had ever been more terribly alone? — he came to the consciousness that the Soul was there, still inviolate: the Inner God, resting in which, the human soul could "bear it out even to the edge of doom." This was the only thing that upheld him through the terrible experience: this feeling that the inner world sustains and supplements the outer and supplies its deficiencies. An arresting thought.
Among those characters of history who appear to have been conscious of their mission in life, we might mention William Blake, the artist, poet, and prophet of the 18th-19th century. He wrote:
The angel that presided o'er my birth
Said: Little creature formed of joy and mirth,
Go, love, without the help of anything on earth.
His entire life was one in which he had to carve his own way; he stood almost alone, unappreciated, considered to be three parts a madman, but with extraordinary prophetic gifts, a consummate poet and painter, whose works now command universal respect and are highly valued, though in his own time, they brought him barely enough to keep himself alive. Yet he was serene, and firmly established in his self-directed pursuits, living the purest of lives, without pleasures, and observing the greatest regularity of habits and incessant industry. These are his words:
I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.
O Saviour pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness and love!
Annihilate the Selfhood in me: be thou all my life!
Enough has been said to show that the extended study of biography, paying attention to some of its profound implications, would at least enlarge the field of our conjecture as to the meaning of life. We might even discover that in evaluating the visible and the obvious, we have to take into account the action that is also taking place "off stage" — in that huge and mysterious background of the inner worlds.
"There is a close bond between a man's character and what happens to him during his life," said Andre Maurois, who has made such a study of human life in his famous biographies. "Character is destiny," said the philosopher Novalis. "Character is what is left of a man when all else is stripped from him," said another writer. And William Q. Judge made this significant comment: "Character lies deep, it is profound, eternal. It is very, very slowly modified. It is the work of ages to build strong, noble, godlike characters." This long-range conception of character-building, together with the many other riddles that make human life one huge question-mark, has set many people thinking along broad lines of conjecture, so that today it is becoming the rule rather than the exception to find the idea of reincarnation occurring spontaneously almost as if it were already an innate part of the soul's wisdom.
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