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The Escape From Commonplace

THERE is the story of a man of leisure who found his future an endless vista, as it seemed, of days in which he would go through exactly the same round of getting up, dressing, feeding, and going to bed again too appalling in its monotony, and so escaped from it by suicide. In such a position we could sympathise with his feeling if we did not proceed to his extremity. One of the greatest of human burdens is the sense of being imprisoned by the commonplace. A man spends his working day in making the eighth part of a pin, or in totting up columns of figures, or in selling calico. His wife, meanwhile, is occupied with an incessant cooking, cleaning and arranging, which has all to be begun over again to-morrow. "If only there were a respite, and a chance of travel and change ! " They take it for granted, and are here voicing the almost universal feeling, that the escape from commonplace is simply an affair of change of circumstances.

How great an illusion this is will be patent to any one who has the opportunity of studying his fellows under widely varying conditions. Riches in themselves furnish no escape from the commonplace. They can purchase in-numerable things, but not this. There is a mob of rich people today, and they are on the whole less interesting than the poor. Their money can, if they choose, buy them laziness, which they share with the tramp, and to about as good purpose. It can secure the indulgence of animal sensations with all manner of luxurious accessories. But some fatal laws block the way to felicity along this line ; the law of familiarity which robs the sensation of its first flavour, and the laws relating to excess which exact the grisliest of after penalties. Leading performers in this line, a Tiberius and a Sardanapalus, offer great rewards for a new plea-sure. The new pleasures, alas ! turn out to be neither new nor pleasant. Consumed with the thirst for enjoyment, and with a whole world waiting to minister to it, they are at last unable, from the whole complicated apparatus, to extract one satisfying drop.

People who have to stay at home imagine, we have just said, that a sure escape from the commonplace is by travel and change of scene. It is enough to rub shoulders with the average globe-trotter to be disillusioned on that head. He carries, alas ! the commonplace everywhere about with him. We call to mind how, at a Swiss hotel, when an expedition was being planned, a British tourist who was listening exclaimed, wearily, "I suppose it is just the same there as here, a lot of mountains and that kind of thing ! " The Alps awakened in him absolutely no response. He wanted Paris. It was a brother soul who, on the AEgean, with Salamis and the mountains that look on Marathon in full view, grumbled in our ear, " I can't for the life of me see what people find to rave about in these places; a lot of barren rocks and tumble-down ruins ! " One meets Americans, spending half their holiday in railway carriages, rushing Europe and Asia, the driving power behind them the fear that their neighbours in Philadelphia or Indianapolis will want to know if they inspected this mosque or saw that picture, and will triumph over them to their life's end if they did not. To be carted round the planet by contract is, after all, a thin, surface business that will never turn a fool into a wise man, nor put insight into a blockhead.

So far, then, as at present appears, the business of escaping the commonplace is a difficult one, out of the reach apparently of any but the rarer natures. But that would be a hasty conclusion. The most important factors in the problem have not yet been touched. To begin with, Nature does not seem to have organised man's life here with a view to its being a purely humdrum affair. That she placed him in such an astonishing universe, and with a relation to it so marvellous, is in itself the answer to such a supposition. W hen, a million years ago, she turned this new-comer off the track of his fellow mammalian primates and began to add to his brain-power while these others were merely developing limb-power; when, bit by bit, she brought him along this fresh line until, with a body in the same zoological kingdom as the chimpanzee, he attained to a mind that demanded infinity for workroom and playplace, she gave notice that here was a being whose experience and destiny were to be certainly not common. Nor will she allow any one of us to forget this. The knowledge of good and evil that she rubs into us; our encounters with pain and trouble, the fact that we can never get through a day without some rebuff, some tangle of circumstance; and, most striking of all, that in full view there is placed before every mother's son of us, for wind up of our present career, the tremendous adventure of death, are all Nature's stern refusal to man to permit himself to be trivial.

And with this plain hint from headquarters to start us, we may now profitably turn our attention to the ways in which, imprisoned as we most are in our narrowing labours and positions, we may yet individually escape the commonplace. There is but one way and it is an inward way. The only change as to our circumstances that is really effective is the change of our mental and moral attitude towards them. It was to this that Madame Swetchine arrived as the result of her wide experience, " At bottom there is in life only what one puts into it" ; and which Montaigne, from an experience still wider, has expressed in the aphorism, " External occasions take both flavour and colour from the inward constitution." Precisely in proportion as we become in ourselves deeper, purer, more refined, more open-eyed, does our environment become more wonderful, more wholly removed from tedium or vulgarity. There is no need to travel a thousand miles in search of the sublime. A starry night is vastly more sublime than Niagara. Samuel Drew, the Cornish shoemaker, without going from his last, sounded the deeps within him to such purpose as to produce an astonishing work on the soul. Let any one to whom the hedgerow by his door has become common take with him on his next visit there some handbook of botany, say that treasure of delights, Anne Pratt's " Flowering Plants of Great Britain," and he will find his hedge bottom grown miraculous to him. The moment we take ourselves in hand this way and realise that the whole question of change, whether it be of scenery or circumstance, is from beginning to end a question of our own interior, and of what goes on there, our deliverance has begun. Maeterlinck, in his " Wisdom and Destiny," strikingly illustrates this in what he says of Emily Brontė. Here, says he, is a young woman, daughter of a country clergy-man, without means or the excitements of travel or of society, who never had lover or husband or family of her own. And yet, as her one wonderful book shows, she lived out all these experiences in her own soul and in their highest forms. The world for us, let us repeat, is our own interior.

We are not all, it may be said, constructive geniuses like Emily Brontė. But if we cannot speak we can at least listen, and in the great literatures which come now to our doors almost gratis, we may at any hour escape from mean surroundings into the rarest society. If Homer and Socrates and St. Paul and Shakespeare are of our circle, we can dispense quite easily with an invitation to the next Lord Mayor's dinner. We have touched literature here, however, not to dwell upon it, but for something to which it leads us. The power of a great book, we soon discover, is the power of the personality which it enshrines. What moves us is that we are there in contact with a soul, and the more soul there is in the book the more we are moved by it. A treatise of mechanics is not literature simply because this personal element is lacking. It is here that literature helps us to understand religion. The life of literature, its whole emancipating power, lies in this contact with personality. It unites us with the world's great spirits. And it is because of its revelation of the Greatest of all Personalities that religion is for us the everlasting deliverer from the commonplace. The humblest peasant who has felt God steps at once into the world's selecter circle. He can never be henceforth, either to others or, what is more important, to himself, common or unclean.

It is to us one of the mysteries that so high and serious a nature as that of Comte should have been able to live and die in the belief of a world that had no Supreme Personality behind it. The deadly chill upon the spirit which such a system casts a system in which we find ourselves in a universe only of thrings a dead universe with, as Richter puts it, a ghastly eye socket glaring down upon us where an eye should have been makes us shiver even now as we remember the experience. It took a Frenchman to prick this French system with one touch of the pen. " The All," said Victor Hugo, "would not be the All unless it contained a Personality, and that Personality is God."

Religion, we say, in the sense of an abiding consciousness of God, is the supreme deliverer from the commonplace. It is, as Joubert has put it, " the poetry of the heart"; it is for every man the open door into the infinite.

There seems a corollary to this, a special instruction to the religious teacher of whatsoever name. What his fellow-man requires of him, what, indeed, constitutes his chief raison d'etre in the world, is that for himself and for his fellows he escape the commonplace. And he is to do it, not so much by genius or by learning as by enlargement and cleansing of his interior life, by the infiltration into it of the life of God. There is something pathetic beyond words in men's yearning for the Divine, in the eagerness with which they recognise any trace of it in their teacher's speech and life. By a sure instinct they know the reality and its counterfeit. " Art thou Brother Francis of Assisi ? " said a peasant once to the saint. " Yes. "Try, then, to be as good as all think thee to be, because many have great faith in thee, and therefore I admonish thee to be nothing less than people hope of thee." Yes, truly ! Here spoke the deepest heart of humanity, and so speaks it to-day. Our chief debt to our fellows is the obligation to be good, to live the highest life we know. A child-like, God-loving soul, that begins its life afresh every morning, whose history is that of a perpetual soaring, is the most refreshing, heart-healing thing that exists. Beneath the world's cynicism lives the consciousness that its chief treasure, its rarest product, its pearl of price is the saint's supernatural life. When humanity sees this plant growing in the wilderness it takes heart in its journeying, knowing it is not forsaken of God.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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