Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Inner Beauty
By Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949)
From ‘The Treasure of the Humble’: Translation of Alfred Sutro

THERE is nothing in the whole world that can vie with the soul in its eagerness for beauty, or in the ready power wherewith it adopts beauty unto itself. There is nothing in the world capable of such spontaneous uplifting, of such speedy ennoblement; nothing that offers more scrupulous obedience to the pure and noble commands it receives. There is nothing in the world that yields deeper submission to the empire of a thought that is loftier than other thoughts. And on this earth of ours there are but few souls that can withstand the dominion of the soul that has suffered itself to become beautiful.  1
  In all truth might it be said that beauty is the unique aliment of our soul; for in all places does it search for beauty, and it perishes not of hunger even in the most degraded of lives. For indeed nothing of beauty can pass by and be altogether unperceived. Perhaps does it never pass by save only in our unconsciousness: but its action is no less puissant in gloom of night than by light of day; the joy it procures may be less tangible, but other difference there is none. Look at the most ordinary of men, at a time when a little beauty has contrived to steal into their darkness. They have come together, it matters not where, and for no special reason; but no sooner are they assembled than their very first thought would seem to be to close the great doors of life. Yet has each one of them, when alone, more than once lived in accord with his soul. He has loved perhaps, of a surety he has suffered. Inevitably must he too have heard the “sounds that come from the distant country of Splendor and Terror”; and many an evening has he bowed down in silence before laws that are deeper than the sea. And yet when these men are assembled, it is with the basest of things that they love to debauch themselves. They have a strange indescribable fear of beauty; and as their number increases, so does this fear become greater, resembling indeed their dread of silence or of a verity that is too pure. And so true is this, that were one of them to have done something heroic in the course of the day, he would ascribe wretched motives to his conduct, thereby endeavoring to find excuses for it, and these motives would lie readily to his hand in that lower region where he and his fellows were assembled. And yet listen: a proud and lofty word has been spoken, a word that has in a measure undammed the springs of life. For one instant has a soul dared to reveal itself, even such as it is in love and sorrow, such as it is in face of death and in the solitude that dwells around the stars of night. Disquiet prevails; on some faces there is astonishment, others smile. But have you never felt at moments such as those how unanimous is the fervor wherewith every soul admires, and how unspeakably even the very feeblest, from the remotest depths of its dungeon, approves the word it has recognized as akin to itself? For they have all suddenly sprung to life again in the primitive and normal atmosphere that is their own; and could you but hearken with angels’ ears, I doubt not but you would hear mightiest applause in that kingdom of amazing radiance wherein the souls do dwell. Do you not think that even the most timid of them would take courage unto themselves were but similar words to be spoken every evening? Do you not think that men would live purer lives? And yet though the word come not again, still will something momentous have happened, that must leave still more momentous trace behind. Every evening will its sisters recognize the soul that pronounced the word; and henceforth, be the conversation never so trivial, its mere presence will, I know not how, add thereto something of majesty. Whatever else betide, there has been a change that we cannot determine. No longer will such absolute power be vested in the baser side of things, and henceforth even the most terror-stricken of souls will know that there is somewhere a place of refuge.  2
  Certain it is that the natural and primitive relationship of soul to soul is a relationship of beauty. For beauty is the only language of our soul; none other is known to it. It has no other life, it can produce nothing else, in nothing else can it take interest. And therefore it is that the most oppressed, nay, the most degraded of souls,—if it may truly be said that a soul can be degraded,—immediately hail with acclamation every thought, every word or deed, that is great and beautiful. Beauty is the only element wherewith the soul is organically connected, and it has no other standard or judgment. This is brought home to us at every moment of our life, and is no less evident to the man by whom beauty may more than once have been denied, than to him who is ever seeking it in his heart. Should a day come when you stand in profoundest need of another’s sympathy, would you go to him who was wont to greet the passage of beauty with a sneering smile? Would you go to him whose shake of the head had sullied a generous action or a mere impulse that was pure? Even though perhaps you had been of those who commended him, you would none the less, when it was truth that knocked at your door, turn to the man who had known how to prostrate himself and love. In its very depths had your soul passed its judgment; and it is this silent and unerring judgment that will rise to the surface, after thirty years perhaps, and send you towards a sister who shall be more truly you than you are yourself, for that she has been nearer to beauty.  3
  There needs but so little to encourage beauty in our soul; so little to awaken the slumbering angels; or perhaps is there no need of awakening,—it is enough that we lull them not to sleep. It requires more effort to fall, perhaps, than to rise. Can we, without putting constraint upon ourselves, confine our thoughts to every-day things at times when the sea stretches before us and we are face to face with the night? And what soul is there but knows that it is ever confronting the sea, ever in presence of an eternal night? Did we but dread beauty less, it would come about that naught else in life would be visible; for in reality it is beauty that underlies everything, it is beauty alone that exists. There is no soul but is conscious of this; none that is not in readiness; but where are those that hide not their beauty? And yet must one of them “begin.” Why not dare to be the one to “begin”? The others are all watching eagerly around us like little children in front of a marvelous palace. They press upon the threshold, whispering to each other and peering through every crevice; but there is not one who dares put his shoulder to the door. They are all waiting for some grown-up person to come and fling it open. But hardly ever does such a one pass by.  4
  And yet what is needed to become the grown-up person for whom they lie in wait? So little! The soul is not exacting. A thought that is almost beautiful—a thought that you speak not, but that you cherish within you at this moment—will irradiate you as though you were a transparent vase. They will see it, and their greeting to you will be very different than had you been meditating how best to deceive your brother. We are surprised when certain men tell us that they have never come across real ugliness, that they cannot conceive that a soul can be base. Yet need there be no cause for surprise. These men had “begun.” They themselves had been the first to be beautiful, and had therefore attracted all the beauty that passed by, as a light-house attracts the vessels from the four corners of the horizon. Some there are who complain of women, for instance; never dreaming that the first time a man meets a woman, a single word or thought that denies the beautiful or profound will be enough to poison forever his existence in her soul. “For my part,” said a sage to me one day, “I have never come across a single woman who did not bring to me something that was great.” He was great himself first of all; therein lay his secret. There is one thing only that the soul can never forgive: it is to have been compelled to behold, or share, or pass close to an ugly action, word, or thought. It cannot forgive, for forgiveness here were but the denial of itself. And yet with the generality of men, ingenuity, strength, and skill do but imply that the soul must first of all be banished from their life, and that every impulse that lies too deep must be carefully brushed aside. Even in love do they act thus; and therefore it is that the woman, who is so much nearer the truth, can scarcely ever live a moment of the true life with them. It is as though men dreaded the contact of their soul, and were anxious to keep its beauty at immeasurable distance. Whereas, on the contrary, we should endeavor to move in advance of ourselves. If at this moment you think or say something that is too beautiful to be true in you—if you have but endeavored to think or say it to-day, on the morrow it will be true. We must try to be more beautiful than ourselves; we shall never distance our soul. We can never err when it is question of silent or hidden beauty. Besides, so long as the spring within us be limpid, it matters but little whether error there be or not. But do any of us ever dream of making the slightest unseen effort? And yet in the domain where we are, everything is effective; for that, everything is waiting. All the doors are unlocked; we have but to push them open, and the palace is full of manacled queens. A single word will very often suffice to clear the mountain of refuse. Why not have the courage to meet a base question with a noble answer? Do you imagine it would pass quite unnoticed, or merely arouse surprise? Do you not think it would be more akin to the discourse that would naturally be held between two souls? We know not where it may give encouragement, where freedom. Even he who rejects your words will in spite of himself have taken a step towards the beauty that is within him. Nothing of beauty dies without having purified something, nor can aught of beauty be lost. Let us not be afraid of sowing it along the road. It may remain there for weeks or years: but like the diamond, it cannot dissolve, and finally there will pass by some one whom its glitter will attract; he will pick it up and go his way rejoicing. Then why keep back a lofty, beautiful word, for that you doubt whether others will understand? An instant of higher goodness was impending over you: why hinder its coming, even though you believe not that those about you will profit thereby? What if you are among men of the valley: is that sufficient reason for checking the instinctive movement of your soul towards the mountain peaks? Does darkness rob deep feeling of its power? Have the blind naught but their eyes wherewith to distinguish those who love them from those who love them not? Can the beauty not exist that is not understood? and is there not in every man something that does understand, in regions far beyond what he seems to understand,—far beyond, too, what he believes he understands? “Even to the very wretchedest of all,” said to me one day the loftiest-minded creature it has ever been my happiness to know,—“even to the very wretchedest of all, I never have the courage to say anything in reply that is ugly or mediocre.” I have for a long time followed that man’s life, and have seen the inexplicable power he exercised over the most obscure, the most unapproachable, the blindest, even the most rebellious of souls. For no tongue can tell the power of a soul that strives to live in an atmosphere of beauty, and is actively beautiful in itself. And indeed, is it not the quality of this activity that renders a life either miserable or divine?  5
  If we could but probe to the root of things, it might well be discovered that it is by the strength of some souls that are beautiful that others are sustained in life. Is it not the idea we each form of certain chosen ones that constitutes the only living, effective morality? But in this idea how much is there of the soul that is chosen, how much of him who chooses? Do not these things blend very mysteriously, and does not this ideal morality lie infinitely deeper than the morality of the most beautiful books? A far-reaching influence exists therein whose limits it is indeed difficult to define, and a fountain of strength whereat we all of us drink many times a day. Would not any weakness in one of those creatures whom you thought perfect, and loved in the region of beauty, at once lessen your confidence in the universal greatness of things, and would your admiration for them not suffer?  6
  And again, I doubt whether anything in the world can beautify a soul more spontaneously, more naturally, than the knowledge that somewhere in its neighborhood there exists a pure and noble being whom it can unreservedly love. When the soul has veritably drawn near to such a being, beauty is no longer a lovely, lifeless thing that one exhibits to the stranger; for it suddenly takes unto itself an imperious existence, and its activity becomes so natural as to be henceforth irresistible. Wherefore you will do well to think it over; for none are alone, and those who are good must watch.  7
  Plotinus, in the eighth book of the fifth ‘Ennead,’ after speaking of the beauty that is “intelligible,”—i.e., Divine,—concludes thus: “As regards ourselves, we are beautiful when we belong to ourselves, and ugly when we lower ourselves to our inferior nature. Also are we beautiful when we know ourselves, and ugly when we have no such knowledge.” Bear it in mind, however, that here we are on the mountains, where not to know oneself means far more than mere ignorance of what takes place within us at moments of jealousy or love, fear or envy, happiness or unhappiness. Here not to know oneself means to be unconscious of all the divine that throbs in man. As we wander from the gods within us, so does ugliness enwrap us; as we discover them, so do we become more beautiful. But it is only by revealing the divine that is in us that we may discover the divine in others. Needs must one god beckon to another; and no signal is so imperceptible but they will every one of them respond. It cannot be said too often, that be the crevice never so small, it will yet suffice for all the waters of heaven to pour into our soul. Every cup is stretched out to the unknown spring, and we are in a region where none think of aught but beauty. If we could ask of an angel what it is that our souls do in the shadow, I believe the angel would answer, after having looked for many years perhaps, and seen far more than the things the soul seems to do in the eyes of men, “They transform into beauty all the little things that are given to them.” Ah! we must admit that the human soul is possessed of singular courage! Resignedly does it labor, its whole life long, in the darkness whither most of us relegate it, where it is spoken to by none. There, never complaining, does it do all that in its power lies, striving to tear from out the pebbles we fling to it the nucleus of eternal light that peradventure they contain. And in the midst of its work it is ever lying in wait for the moment when it may show to a sister who is more tenderly cared for, or who chances to be nearer, the treasures it has so toilfully amassed. But thousands of existences there are that no sister visits; thousands of existences wherein life has infused such timidity into the soul that it departs without saying a word, without even once having been able to deck itself with the humblest jewels of its humble crown.  8
  And yet, in spite of all, does it watch over everything from out its invisible heaven. It warns and loves, it admires, attracts, repels. At every fresh event does it rise to the surface, where it lingers till it be thrust down again, being looked upon as wearisome and insane. It wanders to and fro, like Cassandra at the gates of the Atrides. It is ever giving utterance to words of shadowy truth, but there are none to listen. When we raise our eyes, it yearns for a ray of sun or star that it may weave into a thought, or haply an impulse, which shall be unconscious and very pure. And if our eyes bring it nothing, still will it know how to turn its pitiful disillusion into something ineffable, that it will conceal even till its death. When we love, how eagerly does it drink in the light from behind the closed door!—keen with expectation, it yet wastes not a minute, and the light that steals through the apertures becomes beauty and truth to the soul. But if the door open not, (and how many lives are there wherein it does open?) it will go back into its prison, and its regret will perhaps be a loftier verity that shall never be seen;—for we are now in the region of transformations whereof none may speak; and though nothing born this side of the door can be lost, yet does it never mingle with our life.  9
  I said just now that the soul changed into beauty the little things we gave to it. It would even seem, the more we think of it, that the soul has no other reason for existence, and that all its activity is consumed in amassing, at the depths of us, a treasure of indescribable beauty. Might not everything naturally turn into beauty were we not unceasingly interrupting the arduous labors of our soul? Does not evil itself become precious so soon as it has gathered therefrom the deep-lying diamond of repentance? The acts of injustice whereof you have been guilty, the tears you have caused to flow, will not these end too by becoming so much radiance and love in your soul? Have you ever cast your eyes into this kingdom of purifying flame that is within you? Perhaps a great wrong may have been done you to-day, the act itself being mean and disheartening, the mode of action of the basest, and ugliness wrapped you round as your tears fell. But let some years elapse,—then give one look into your soul, and tell me whether, beneath the recollection of that act, you see not something that is already purer than thought: an indescribable, unnamable force that has naught in common with the forces of this world; a mysterious inexhaustible spring of the other life, whereat you may drink for the rest of your days. And yet will you have rendered no assistance to the untiring queen; other thoughts will have filled your mind, and it will be without your knowledge that the act will have been purified in the silence of your being, and will have flown into the precious waters that lie in the great reservoir of truth and beauty, which, unlike the shallower reservoir of true or beautiful thoughts, has an ever ruffled surface, and remains for all time out of reach of the breath of life. Emerson tells us that there is not an act or event in our life but sooner or later casts off its outer shell, and bewilders us by its sudden flight, from the very depths of us, on high into the empyrean. And this is true to a far greater extent than Emerson had foreseen; for the further we advance in these regions, the diviner are the spheres we discover.  10
  We can form no adequate conception of what this silent activity of the souls that surround us may really mean. Perhaps you have spoken a pure word to one of your fellows, by whom it has not been understood. You look upon it as lost, and dismiss it from your mind. But one day, peradventure, the word comes up again extraordinarily transformed, and revealing the unexpected fruit it has borne in the darkness; then silence once more falls over all. But it matters not; we have learned that nothing can be lost in the soul, and that even to the very pettiest there come moments of splendor. It is unmistakably borne home to us that even the unhappiest and the most destitute of men have at the depths of their being, and in spite of themselves, a treasure of beauty that they cannot despoil. They have but to acquire the habit of dipping into this treasure. It suffices not that beauty should keep solitary festival in life; it has to become a festival of every day. There needs no great effort to be admitted into the ranks of those “whose eyes no longer behold earth in flower, and sky in glory, in infinitesimal fragments, but indeed in sublime masses”;—and I speak here of flowers and sky that are purer and more lasting than those that we behold. Thousands of channels there are through which the beauty of our soul may sail even unto our thoughts. Above all is there the wonderful central channel of love.  11
  Is it not in love that are found the purest elements of beauty that we can offer to the soul? Some there are who do thus in beauty love each other. And to love thus means that, little by little, the sense of ugliness is lost; that one’s eyes are closed to all the littlenesses of life, to all but the freshness and virginity of the very humblest of souls. Loving thus, we have no longer even the need to forgive. Loving thus, we can no longer have anything to conceal, for that the ever present soul transforms all things into beauty. It is to behold evil in so far only as it purifies indulgence, and teaches us no longer to confound the sinner with his sin. Loving thus, do we raise on high within ourselves all those about us who have attained an eminence where failure has become impossible; heights whence a paltry action has so far to fall, that touching earth it is compelled to yield up its diamond soul. It is to transform, though all unconsciously, the feeblest intention that hovers about us into illimitable movement. It is to summon all that is beautiful in earth, heaven, or soul, to the banquet of love. Loving thus, we do indeed exist before our fellows as we exist before God. It means that the least gesture will call forth the presence of the soul with all its treasure. No longer is there need of death, disaster, or tears, for that the soul shall appear: a smile suffices. Loving thus, we perceive truth in happiness as profoundly as some of the heroes perceived it in the radiance of greatest sorrow. It means that the beauty that turns into love is undistinguishable from the love that turns into beauty. It means to be able no longer to tell where the ray of a star leaves off and the kiss of an ordinary thought begins. It means to have come so near to God that the angels possess us. Loving thus, the same soul will have been so beautified by us all that it will become little by little the “unique angel” mentioned by Swedenborg. It means that each day will reveal to us a new beauty in that mysterious angel, and that we shall walk together in a goodness that shall ever become more and more living, loftier and loftier. For there exists also a lifeless beauty made up of the past alone; but the veritable love renders the past useless, and its approach creates a boundless future of goodness, without disaster and without tears. To love thus is but to free one’s soul, and to become as beautiful as the soul thus freed. “If, in the emotion that this spectacle cannot fail to awaken in thee,” says the great Plotinus, when dealing with kindred matters,—and of all the intellects known to me, that of Plotinus draws the nearest to the divine,—“if, in the emotion that this spectacle cannot fail to awaken in thee, thou proclaimest not that it is beautiful; and if, plunging thine eyes into thyself, thou dost not then feel the charm of beauty,—it is in vain that, thy disposition being such, thou shouldst seek the intelligible beauty; for thou wouldst seek it only with that which is ugly and impure. Therefore it is that the discourse we hold here is not addressed to all men. But if thou hast recognized beauty within thyself, see that thou rise to the recollection of the intelligible beauty.”  12

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