Mysticism is a word that is associated in our mind with the name of Maurice Maeterlinck, for his writings are full of the mystery of life; he has bridged the mystic gulf of self-abandonment and brought back harmonies from that other shore — sad music, that yet has a soothing cadence, an insistent and haunting refrain of longing and expectation.
In an age of realism, when the full light of reason and science is turned on every problem, either social or mental, to be a student of the inner life, to be meditative, to be, in fact, a mystic is to merit the title of decadent from the ordinary critic. Max Nordau has classed some of our finest and most metaphysical thinkers as degenerates, including among them such men as Wagner, Ibsen and Maeterlinck. Nordau, writing of Maeterlinck, mentions him as "an example of utterly childish, idiotically-incoherent mysticism." Of his poems he says: "These pieces are a servile imitation of the effusions of Walt Whitman, that crazy American, to whom Maeterlinck was necessarily strongly attracted, according to the law I have repeatedly set forth, — that all deranged minds flock together." He goes on to say that Whitman was undoubtedly mad. "He is morally insane," he says, "and incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, virtue and crime; he loves the murderer and thief, the pious and the good, with equal love." This to Nordau seems "moral obtuseness, and morbid sentimentality," which, he says, frequently accompanies degeneration. Speaking of what he calls the "Richard Wagner Cult," Nordau says: "Wagner is in himself charged with a greater abundance of degeneration than all the degenerates put together."
This is the light in which mystics appear to some of our nineteenth century scientists. Nordau calls his book "An Attempt at a Really Scientific Criticism." But he does not distinguish between mental and spiritual thought, and fails to follow the worker to a sphere of action beyond the plane of our outer consciousness. Only when the veil of matter that surrounds us is pierced can we get "the right perception of existing things, the knowledge of the non-existing."
What to the ordinary mind is inexplicable, is generally said to be wanting in sequence and logic, and is, we are assured, the work of degenerate brains. But the mystic is really the seer, and the interpreter of the mystery of life that closes us in on every side and penetrates our every action and feeling. Once let the knowledge of this mystery come between you and the ordinary everyday existence, and you never again seem to be one of the thoughtless crowd that live only in the sordid life of the senses. The real truth of life ever eludes our grasp unless we make a spiritual atmosphere around us by constantly communing with the Higher Self. This great life, the divine life in the spirit, is the magic source of all illuminations. The curtain that divides us from the light at times becomes transparent, and, in moments of great spiritual exaltation, seems as if it was rent asunder, — then we know what is Truth.
Maeterlinck is deeply impressed with this sense of the unreality of our phenomenal life; he says: "Our real life is not the life we live, and we feel that our deepest, nay our most intimate, thoughts are quite apart from our selves, for we are other than our thoughts and our dreams. And it is only at special moments — it may be the merest accident — that we live our own life. Will the day ever dawn when we shall be what we are?"
Again he says: "What is there that divides us all? What is this sea of mysteries, in whose depths we have our being?"
It is this knowledge of the intangibility of being, of the mystery of existence, that makes life so full of interest; the dullest materialist must sometimes be penetrated with the consciousness of this sensation, or chilled by the awe of a presentiment of a life beyond death.
Maeterlinck calls death "The guide of our life," and says, "Life has no goal but death." But this "goal," the end of life on this plane of consciousness, is the door to the great mystery of all existence, the entrance to the greater life. Schopenhauer teaches that man is nothing but a phenomenon, and "that he is not the thing itself, is proved by the fact that death is a necessity." Emerson says: "Soul knows only soul, the web of events is the flowing robe in which she is clothed." This is also the teaching of Plotinus, who says: "If body is part of us, we are not wholly immortal; but if it is an instrument of the soul, it is necessary that being given for a certain time, it should be a thing of this kind — but soul is man himself."
Maeterlinck is evidently a Neo-Patonist, and his work often shows evidence of his study of Plotinus and others of that school. His writing sometimes reminds one of Emerson's deep intuitive touch, though his ideas are not always so crisp and firm as Emerson's, nor are they so sure of their mark, for there is occasionally in Maeterlinck a touch of uncertainty as if he was still seeking light, and could not yet see clearly. There is a sensitive and elusive beauty in his thoughts that affect one like the haunting of a forgotten melody, or the fugitive reminiscence of a dream, so delicate, so difficult to retain, are the suggested ideas. If we understand that our true life lies behind the veil, then the spiritual thought, the mystic language, appeals to us; but if, on the contrary, we live in the ordinary phenomenal existence, the mystic seems a dreamer, and his ideas visionary and deluding. Maeterlinck often suggests thoughts, as music does, that no actual words can express. The power of his dramas lies in their silent psychological action, the action of the mind. He is indeed a quietest, to him life itself is the tragedy, and the more the inner life is unfolded the more intense the interest, — "How truly wonderful," he says, "is the mere act of living."
In the old Greek tragedies action was almost lacking; all the force lies in the psychological effect, and Maeterlinck contends that the real tragedy of life is in these moments of intense emotion, when the rapid flash of thought from soul to soul reveals the mystery of gathering fate, and conveys the subtle sense of approaching joy or disaster, or, by the reverberation of keen emotion, discloses some elusive sense or memory of prior existences. These are the elements that make life so strangely interesting, so deeply tragic.
Maeterlinck commences his essay on "Silence" with these words of Caryle: ''Silence and secrecy. Altars might be raised to them for universal worship." "It is idle," he says, "to think that by means of words any real communication can ever pass from one man to another." He goes on to say that "if at such times we do not listen to the urgent commands of silence, invisible though they be, we shall have suffered an eternal loss — for we shall have let slip the opportunity of listening to another soul, and of giving existence, be it only for an instant, to our own."
It is in silence we live all our soul-life, the true life. H. P. Blavatsky says: "Before the soul can comprehend she must to the silent speaker be united and then to the inner ear will speak the voice of the Silence." In the autobiography of Madame Guyon, she dwells much on the mystery of silence, and on the power of communicating with others in silence. She says: "This speech in silence is the most noble, the most exalted, the most sublime of all operations."
This "great empire of silence," as Carlyle calls it, in which all action has its birth, is the kingdom of the Helpers of Humanity, they who carry the burdens of the world, who bear the weight of its sorrows and sins; these, Maeterlinck says, are "the salt of the earth, out of the silence they convey to us ideas that are wafted across the mystic abyss of voiceless thought. The awakening-soul which has lain dormant for ages is at last struggling to arise, perturbation and unrest prevail, while around us is a strange hush of expectation, as though some mighty manifestation was expected." Maeterlinck feels this new wave of consciousness which seems to envelop humanity; he says, "the last refuges are disappearing, and men are drawing closer to each other. Far above words and acts do they judge their fellows — nay, far above thought, for that which they see, though they understand it not, lies well beyond the domain of thought. And this is one of the great signs by which the spiritual periods shall be known." Further, he says: "We are watched, we are under strictest supervision, and it comes from elsewhere than the indulgent darkness of each man's conscience. Perhaps the spiritual vases are less closely sealed now than in bygone days — perhaps more power has come to the waves of the sea within us. We should live," he says, "as though we were always on the eve of the great revelation; it must needs be more beautiful, more glorious and ample, than the best of our hopes." Yet again he says: "I have only to open a shutter and see all the light of the sky, all the light of the sun; it calls for no mighty effort, the light is eager enough; we have only to call, it will never fail to obey."
It would sometimes appear as if Maeterlinck had received intuitions of past existences, although he does not distinctly say so. In the "Death of Tintagiles," these words occur: "I do not think this is the first time I have waited here, my child [on the threshold of the Queen of Death], and there are moments when one does not understand all that one remembers. I have done all this before: I do not know when." Speaking of this "Queen of Death." he writes: "She lies on the soul like the stone of a tomb, and none dares stretch out his arm. It is time that some one should dare rise. No one knows on what her power rests, and I will no longer live in the shadow of her tower."
These hints of the mystic are not to be despised, for the seer often dimly descries the light ahead, that others cannot perceive.
In the book called "Wisdom and Destiny," Maeterlinck perhaps shows a clearer perception of the universal life than appears in his earlier works. His Pantheism becomes more pronounced. The union with the Higher Self being accomplished, the true man becomes conscious that he has become one with the Great Self.
This is "Universal Brotherhood," therefore, all knowledge, all sorrow, all joy becomes his own. "Before we can bring happiness to others," he declares, "we must first be happy ourselves, nor will happiness abide with us unless we confer it on others"; and again, "In the soul that is noble, Altruism must, without doubt, be always the centre of gravity, but the weak soul is apt to lose itself in others, whereas it is in others that the strong soul discovers itself." Here we have the essential distinction, "there is a thing that is loftier still than to love our neighbor as ourselves: it is to love ourselves in our neighbor." "Let our one never-ceasing care be to better the love that we offer to our fellows," and then, he says, "we can count the steps we take on the highway of truth by the increase of love that comes for all that goes with us in life." He also says: "It is easier far, as a rule, to die morally, nay even physically, for others, than to learn how best we should live for them."'
To live for others requires constant renunciation. To forget self, to melt into the universal life, that gives joy. In this forgetfulness of self can we at last taste happiness: in losing all we find all. There is a courage of happiness as well as a courage of sorrow. This courage we must cultivate now, to dare to be happy, to accept our divine origin, our divine rights. We need courage to explore these unknown regions of happiness, to accept this new Gospel of Joy.
The mystic follows strange and devious ways, guided sometimes by fitful gleams of light. He gains the heights by rapid and swift ascents. Yet these paths often lead him to the edge of frightful precipices, or he may lose himself in the stony mazes at the foot of the clifts, and so fail to reach the summit, yet he has a sure guide within, the light in the heart; while he trusts to that he cannot go far astray.
Maeterlinck in his beautiful essays expresses for us the thoughts we often have and would give to others if we could clothe them in such significant and vivid words, but there are many to whom this mystic, language does not appeal, as Maeterlinck, quoting Plotinus, says: "The discourse we hold here is not addressed to all men, but those to whom the unseen is the real, the spiritual life is the only true life." To the elect, the appeal of the mystic is not in vain.