A Study Of Backgrounds
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IN the summer months English people, on travel bent, often leave their home scenery in search of backgrounds. For foregrounds and middle distances our own island is incomparable. From end to end it is a dream of pastoral beauty. Its landscapes are such as a Cuyp, a Claude Lorraine dreamed in their most inspired hours. But the view has nowhere the gigantic backing of Alp or Apennine. There are effects which the snow mountains alone can offer. If any one wants their spiritual interpretation let him read or reread the first volume of " The Stones of Venice." Yes, the Alps for background. We shall ourselves not easily forget one moment when, on a hot summer day, toiling up the St. Nicholas valley it was before Zermatt knew its railway—we turned a sharp corner, and had for the first time our vision filled by the gigantic Matterhorn, " the cock that crows over Europe," to use Michelet's term, its solid rock-mass cleaving the very heavens.
But there are other backgrounds than those of Alpine scenery, the study of which, we perceive, may carry us much further than Zermatt or the Matterhorn. It is startling to note how the great human interests, life's raptures and despairs, its problems and mysteries, its charms, fascinations, retributions, are all matters of background. Every-where the story is of the thing in front of us, and the thing behind it. It is, indeed, in the perpetual comparison and contrast between these two that we pass our existence ; that, in fact, we have our existence, and know ourselves alive. Our world-consciousness is a consciousness of opposites. We could not imagine a " self " apart from a " not self," an upper apart from an under, this colour apart from those different ones. Our notion of good relies on a background of not good. There could be no sense of superiority did not the world oblige us with the indispensable inferior.
We note, also, how the interest of life is in pro-portion to the sharp collision and contrast of these opposites. In a Beethoven sonata we have the climax of effect when, from the crashing thunders beneath, some celestial melody leaps out and sings itself in the clear heavens. All the arts, indeed, are constructed upon this law. There are painters who have lived on contrasts. A typical Rembrandt is, in its colour effect, like a flash upon a thundercloud. Millais, in his " Princes in the Tower," makes the whole picture, with its shadowy forms and outlines, into a background for those few inches of illuminated space in the centre where the pale faces of the doomed lads look out upon us with such pathetic, tragic intensity. The great orators build also on this foundation. A born speaker will not strive all the time for brilliancy. He knows the human heart better. He can afford to be dry on occasion to quietly accumulate his facts, to plod through his argument. The experienced listener knows what is afoot. The artist is here preparing his background, out of which, in vivid and magnificent contrast, will by-and-by leap the lightnings.
Nature, we have said, produces her main effects this way. She works by contrast. Some of our most exquisite joys are struck straight out of pain. So much is this so that, built as we now are, a world of perpetual comfort and luxury would be one deprived of half its zest. The joy of a holiday is one-half background—the reaction from hard work and fatigue. The fresh air of the mountain is doubly sweet because of the taste of city smoke which lingers with us. And thus the mere idler never has a holiday: The essential ingredients are wanting. " I pity you," wrote Lamb to his friend Bernard Barton, " for overwork ; but I assure you no work is worse. The mind preys on itself, the most unwholesome food." And what would life be without its background of danger and hardship ? All the good stories are of pain and difficulty victoriously won through. Perhaps the most delicious of all sensations are those of escapes, of deliverances. When a poor man becomes prosperous he tastes a sensation which the languid air of riches cannot purchase. Have our readers ever known what it is to reach port after wildest tossing and expected shipwreck ? There are certain sensations which have to be earned, There is no broad road to them, The way is through a strait gate of peril and endurance.
It is by a curious and terrible perversion of the human mind that this law of contrast, of the background, has been used to obtain pleasure by the spectacle of others' suffering and misfortune. It is to us difficult to conceive that men in any stage of civilisation should find their enjoyment enhanced by a background of misery. But man, through whole periods of his history, has exhibited this instinct. The Roman triumph required the manacled, humiliated captives in the conqueror's train. The feudal chief derived gratification from the thought that beneath the banqueting-hall where he feasted were dungeons and torture-chambers in which his prisoners languished and suffered. Men, Christian men, carried this savagery into theology and made heaven into a kind of feudal castle, with its arrangement of cells and oubliettes beneath. Thomas Aquinas writes with entire complacency that " the blessed in heaven will behold the tortures of the damned, that their own beatitude may thereby be increased." And what a passage is that in which Tertullian, in the De Spectaculis," allows his fiery Punic blood to exult over the coming fate, in hell, of the pagan world ! " What theme excites my admiration ?
What my derision ? Which sight gives me joy ?
I shall have a better opportunity then of hearing the tragedians, louder voiced in their own calamity ; of viewing the play actors, much more ` dissolute ' in the dissolving flame ; of looking upon the charioteer all glowing in his chariot of fire ; of witnessing the wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows." This, of course is not Christianity, but African savagery. One might, in fact, study Christian theology, in its progress through the ages, simply to note its separate stages, the struggle of the original brute nature in the theologian, with the actual mind of Christ.
Another curious form of mental background reveals itself in the history of certain movements. One notes, for instance, how the success of a religious leader and his cause depends not merely on the qualities of the leader, or on the goodness of his work, but to an equal degree apparently on a certain background of circumstance. The odd thing is that these circumstances are continually being deprecated by the worker as the very evil against which he is striving. The mission of a Luther, of a Wesley, obtains its immense vogue from the lack of anything similar at the time. The previous absence of what they bring is the hunger which gives savour to the meal they supply. Were the thing they brought already there, our reformers had been superfluous and their career a fiasco. A famous Congregationalist preacher of the last generation, John Graham of Sydney, tells the story of a religious meeting he held in. the bush. Notice had been given of it, and the hardy diggers and shepherds had flocked to the rendezvous from far and wide. Numbers of them had not been at a service for years. The preacher, who knew how to put the great truths in homeliest fashion, was enormously successful, and one can see why. He was playing upon a great hunger. All the memories of childhood, all the unsatisfied aspirations of solitary after-years, all the deep undercurrents of religious feeling rose in the rough bosoms of the listeners, and flowed into one mighty stream of passionate emotion. They would not let the preacher stop, and the meeting went on till near midnight. Would it have been thus with an audience full fed with regular ministration ? The singular reflection is forced upon us that the very want and spiritual indigence with the evangelist is so accustomed to deplore is in reality his own best ally. It is the indispensable background of his work.
In these instances the background is, we see, in a lack, an emptiness, a hunger. More often, however, it is something positive. Philosophers have speculated somewhat cynically on the physical concomitants of moral actions. Burke, for in-stance, argues that a time of general mortality induces a special outburst of wickedncss. It was so in the great plague of Athens. It was so in the plague of London in 1665. It appears in soldiers, sailors, &c. Whoever would contrive to render the life of man much shorter than it is, would, I am satisfied, find the surest recipe for increasing the wickedness of our nature." Renan has the same idea in his " Abbesse de Jouarre." In another direction Taine has argued for climate as at the back of our insular morality. " It was impossible for the Saxons to go in for pleasure in their detest-able climate, and so they went in for morality, which they are likely to get in that kind of atmosphere." We accept none of these data. They are a philosophy pour rire. Not the less does it remain that at, the back of men's actions, at the back of their characters, lie incalculable elements, unreckoned by their fellows, unknown even to themselves, but which work on them with irresistible power, and the remembrance of which should make us chary indeed of judgment.
The background of men's doings, we say, is, for one thing, the universe ; and until we have reached its inner secret we are in no condition for oracular pronouncement about them. But there is another background—ourselves. The quality of my work to-day is an affair of all my yesterdays. And it is not only the quality, it is also the present effect of our work that rests on this background. When a man seeks to influence his fellows, it is his past that empowers or nullifies his word. " What you are," says Emerson, " stands over you and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary." Goodness, urges Quintillian, is the first qualification of the orator. It assuredly is of the Christian orator. Ophelia gives us the secret of innumerable pulpit failures
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Man, it seems, cannot in any direction get on without his background. He must lean upon a power behind him. His own past, if it has been reputable, is a constant and invaluable reinforcement. But it is not enough. The great issues demand more from us than either our past or present can furnish. The heroes have always known this. William the Silent, when told his cause was hope-less, replied : " When I took in hand to defend these oppressed Christians, I made an alliance with the mightiest of all Potentates—the God of Hosts—who is able to save us if He choose." There is, indeed, no background like that. When a man has his back against this wall of defence, he is not to be put down.
We began by depreciating the English back-ground. But often, as we have looked at it, we have felt that the slight is undeserved. For beyond the horizon line have we not at all times the in-finite sky, and what background is comparable to that ? And human life, when we lift our eyes from its pettinesses, has ever the sublimest of backgrounds. When we look up we must cease to be trivial. Dr. Johnson had engraved on his watch the motto Nve yap epxetai--" For the night cometh." It is the thought that lies at the bottom of every serious mind. For such the scene is the symbol of a vaster unseen ; and time but the foreground of eternity.