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Knowing One's Mind Post by :kenjc Category :Essays Author :Vernon Lee Date :April 2011 Read :3552

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Knowing One's Mind

The only things which afforded me any pleasure in that great collection of Ingres drawings, let alone in that very dull, frowsy, stale, and unprofitable city of Montauban, whither I had travelled on purpose to see it, were an old printed copy of "Don Juan oder der Steinerne Gast"--in a glass case alongside of M. Ingres' century-long-uncleaned fiddle--and a half-page of Mozart's autograph, given to M. Ingres when a student by a Prix de Rome musician. I mentioned this fact to my friends, in a spirit of guileless truthfulness; when, what was my surprise at the story being received with smiling incredulity. "Your paradox," they said, with the benevolent courtesy of their nation, for they were French, "is delightful and most _reussi_. But, of course, we know you to be exquisitely sensitive to genius in all its manifestations."

Now, I happened to know myself to be as insensible as a stone to genius as manifested in the late M. Ingres. However, I despaired of persuading them that I was speaking the truth; and, despite the knowledge of their language with which they graciously credited me, I hunted about in vain for the French equivalent of "I know my own mind." Whereupon, allowing the conversation to take another turn, I fell to musing on those untranslatable words, together with the whole episode of the Mozart manuscript and the drawings of M. Ingres, including that rainy, chilly day at Montauban; and also another day of travel, even wetter and colder, which returned to my memory.

_Knowing one's own mind_ (in whatever way you might succeed in turning that into French) is a first step to filling one's own place instead of littering unprofitably over creation at large, and in so far also to doing one's own work. Life, I am willing to admit, is not all private garden, nor should we attempt to make it. 'Tis nine-tenths common acres, which we must till in company, and with mutual sacrifice of our whims. Nay, Life is largely public thoroughfares with a definite _rule of the road_ and a regulated pace of traffic; streets, at all events, however narrow, where each must shovel snow, sprinkle water, and sweep his threshold. But respect for such common property cannot be genuine where there is not a corresponding fidelity and fondness on the part of each for his own little enclosure, his garden, and, by analogy, his neighbour's garden also. There is little good to be got from your vague, gregarious natures, liking or disliking merely because others like or dislike. There cannot be much loving-kindness, let alone love (whether for persons or things or ideas), in souls which always require company, and prefer any to none at all. And as to good work, why, it means _tete-a-tete_ with what you are doing, and is incompatible with the spirit of picnics. I own to a growing suspicion of those often heroic and saintly persons who allow their neighbours--husband, father, mother, children--to saunter idly into the allotments which God has given them, trampling heedlessly the delicate seedlings, or, like holiday trippers, carving egoistic initials in growing trees not of their own planting. And one of the unnoticed, because continuous, tragedies of existence is surely such wanton or deliberate destruction of the individual qualities of the soul, such sacrifice of the necessary breathing and standing place which even the smallest requires; such grudging of the needful solitude and separateness, alas! often to those that we love the best. It seems highly probable that among all their absurd and melancholy recollections of this wasteful and slatternly earth, the denizens of the Kingdom of Heaven will look back with most astonishment and grief on the fact of having lived, before regeneration, without a room apiece.

In the Kingdom of Heaven every one will have a separate room for rest and meditation; a cell perhaps, whitewashed, with a green shutter and a white dimity curtain in the sunshine. And the cells will, of course, be very much alike in all essentials, because most people agree about having some sort of bed, table, chair, and so forth. But some glorified souls will have the flowers (which Dante saw her plucking) of Leah; and others the looking-glass of the contemplative Rachel; and there will be ever so many other little differences, making it amusing and edifying to pay a call upon one's brother or sister soul.

In such a state of spiritual community and privacy (so different from our present hugger-mugger and five-little-bears-in-a-bed mode of existence), my soul, for instance, if your soul should honour it with a visit, would be able, methinks, to talk quite freely and pleasantly about the Ingres Museum at Montauban, and the autograph of Mozart in the glass case alongside the fiddle.... The manuscript is only a half sheet full score, torn or cut through its height; and the voice part is broken off with one word only--insufficient to identify it among Mozart's Italian works, though, perhaps, most suggestive of "Don Giovanni"--the word "Guai." The manuscript is exquisitely neat, yet has none of the look of a copy, and we know that Mozart was never obliged to make any. The writing is so like the man's adorable personality, the little pattern of notes so like his music. The sight of it moved me, flooding my mind with divine things, that Concerto for Flute and Harp, for instance, which dear Mme. H---- had recently been playing for me. And during that dull, rainy day of waiting for trains at Montauban, it made me live over again another day of rainy travel, but with the "Zauberfloete" at the end of it, about which I will also tell you, since I am permitted to know my own mind and to speak it.

But I find I have incidentally raised the question _de gustibus_, or, as our language puts it, the _accounting for tastes_. And I must settle and put myself right in the matter of M. Ingres before proceeding any further. The Latin saying, then, "De gustibus non est disputandum," contains an excellent piece of advice, since disputing about tastes or anything else is but a sorry employment. But the English version is absolutely wide of the mark, since tastes can be accounted for just as much as climate, history, and bodily complexion. Indeed, we should know implicitly what people like and dislike if we knew what they were and how they had come to be so. The very diversity in taste proves its deep-down reality: preference and antipathy being consubstantial with the soul--nay, inherent in the very mechanism and chemistry of the body. And for this reason tastes are at once so universal and uniform, and so variously marked by minor differences. There are human beings all shank and thigh and wrist, with contemplative, deep-set eyes and compressed, silent lips; and others running to rounds and segments of circles, like M. Ingres' drawings, their eyes a trifle prominent for the better understanding of others, and mouth, like the typical French one, at a forward angle, as if for ready speech. But, different as these people are, they are alike in the main features of symmetry and balance; they haven't two sets of lungs and a duplicate stomach, like Centaurs, whom every one found so difficult to deal with; nor do any of them end off in a single forked tail, twisting about on which accounts for the proverbial untrustworthiness of mermaids. Being alike, all human creatures require free space and breathable air; and, being unlike, some of them hanker after the sea, and others cannot watch without longing the imitation mountains into which clouds pile themselves on dreary flat horizons. And similarly in the matter of art. We all delight in the ineffable presence of transcending power; we all require to renew our soul's strength and keenness in the union with souls stronger and keener than ours. But the power which appeals to some of us is struggling and brooding tragically, as in Michelangelo and Beethoven; while the power which straightway subdues certain others is easy, temperate, and radiant, as in Titian and Mozart. And thus it comes about that every soul--"where a soul can be discerned"--is the citizen, conscious or not, of a spiritual country, and obeys a hierarchy, bends before a sovereign genius, crowned or mitred by inscrutable right divine, never to be deposed. But there are many kingdoms and principalities, not necessarily overlapping; and the subjects of them are by no means the same.

Take M. Ingres, for instance. He is, it seems, quite a tremendous potentate. I recognize his legitimate sway, like that of Prester John, or of the Great Mogul. Only I happen not to obey it, for I am a born subject of the King of Hearts. And who should that be but Apollo-Wolfgang-Amadeus, driving with easy wrist his teams, tandem or abreast, of winged, effulgent melodies?

It was raining, as I told you, that morning which I spent in the Ingres Museum at Montauban. It was raining melted snow in hurricanes off the mountains that other day of travel, and I was on the top of a Tyrolese diligence. The roads were heavy; and we splashed slowly along the brink of roaring torrents and through the darkness of soaked and steaming fir woods. At the end of an hour's journey we had already lost four. "If you stop to dine," said successive jack-booted postilions, quickly fastening the traces at each relay, "you will never catch the Munich train at Garmisch. But the Herrschaften will please themselves in the matter of eating and drinking." So the Herrschaften did not please themselves at all, but splashed along through rain and sleet, through hospitable villages all painted over with scrollwork about beer, and coffee, and sugar-bakery, and all that "Restoration" which our poor drenched bodies and souls were lacking so woefully. For we had stalls at the Court Theatre of Munich, and it was the last, the very last, night of "The Magic Flute"! The Brocken journey on the diligence-top came to an end; the train at Garmisch was caught by just two seconds; we were safe at Munich. But I was prone on a sofa, with a despairing friend making hateful attempts to rouse me. Go to the play? Get up? Open my eyes to the light? My fingers must have fumbled some feeble "no," beyond all contradiction. "But your ticket--but 'The Magic Flute'--but you have come three days' journey on purpose!" I take it my lips achieved an inarticulate expression of abhorrence for such considerations. After that I do not exactly know what happened: my exhausted will gave way. I was combed and brushed, thrust into some manner of festive apparel, pushed into a vehicle, pulled out of it, and shoved along, by the staunch and (as it seemed) brutal arm of friendship, among crimson and gilding and blinding lights all seen at intervals through half-closed eyes. A little bell rang, and I felt it was my death knell. But through the darkness of my weltering soul (for I was presumably dead and undoubtedly damned) there marched, stood still, and curtsied majestically towards each other, the great grave opening chords of the overture. And when they had delivered, solemnly, their mysterious herald's message and subsided, off started the little nimble notes of the fugue, hastening from all sides, meeting, crossing, dispersing, returning, telling their wonderful news of improbable adventures; multitudinous, scurrying away in orderly haste to protect the hero and heroine, and be joined by other notes, all full of inexhaustible good-will; taking hands, dancing, laughing, and giving the assurance that all is for the best in the world of enchantment, in the world of bird-calls, and tinkling triangles and magic flutes, under the spells of the great Sun-priest and Sun-god Mozart. I opened my eyes and had no headache; and sat in that Court Theatre for three mortal hours, in flourishing health and absolute happiness, and would have given my soul for it to begin immediately all over again.

Now, not all the drawings of M. Ingres could have done that. And the piece of torn music-paper in the glass case at Montauban had made me, for a few faint seconds, live it through again. And I know what I don't care for, and what I do.


(The end)
Vernon Lee's essay: Knowing One's Mind

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