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Footloose Philosophy


ISSUE:  Winter 1926

The Travel Diary of a Philosopher. By Count Hermann Keyserling. Translated by J. Holroyd Reece. 2 volumes. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $10.00.

The Thread of Ariadne. By Adrian Stokes. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50.

Why should it be necessary for a reviewer to pose as a connoisseur in immortality? The reader does not want to know what French critics will say a century hence; he asks whether the book is interesting here and now. The unmeasured praise which has been heaped upon “The Travel Diary of a Philosopher” is unjust to it. The book is really worth reading now, and if I venture to dissent from the opinions I have seen and to affirm that it will not be long remembered, at least the statistics of prophecy are in my favor.

It is undoubtedly an unusual book. On its face it is an account of a journey round the world, but we have here no acute observations of foreign life and customs, but a sequence of moods of which the foreign setting forms the background. The motive which underlay Count Keyserling’s journey is set forth clearly in his preface. Finding that his life in Europe is investing him with habits and that he is in danger of “crystallizing,” he sets out to encounter surroundings in which these habits may be broken up, and in which his goal of “self-realization” may be brought nearer by maintaining his spiritual fluidity. He aspires to be a Buddhist among the Buddhists, a Brahmin among the Hindus, a Samurai in Japan and even a Rotarian in San Francisco. The reader who looks for any definite philosophical views will find the chameleon-like changes of the author very disconcerting. To seek such views is to misunderstand the book. It is to be read, says the author, like a work of fiction. The interest is thus presumably centered in its one and only character and our estimate of the book will coincide with our estimate of its author. It is the kind of test I like to apply. What manner of man is Hermann Keyserling? Is he the great and beautiful soul which other critics see? Or if there are flaws and littlenesses, are these human and endearing? Or does he fascinate perchance by his enigmatic contradictions?

I confess to some disappointment. In the first place he shares the opinion of his reviewers. The letter of instructions from which the translator quotes leaves no doubt on this point. The Gospel according to Keyserling is not to be tampered with—it is to be rendered “word for word and comma for comma.” Mr. Holroyd Reece does wisely no doubt for his own reputation to quote this letter, for the fact that the English, even under this drastic restriction, is always readable and often distinguished is witness to his extraordinary skill. But the letter leaves an ugly taste which is not removed by the book itself. Count Keyser-ling’s whole mission is pretentiously conceived; the self which he sets out to realize is of such vast importance to that self. The protean changes of opinion are achieved, but back of the varying philosophies stands the heavy-handed Gelehrter. There are some very fine and solemn passages, but there is also a great deal of nonsense and this too is solemn. He is so sure of his own profoundly that in his estimates of the profoundity of others he is truly oracular. Nowhere is there a note of intellectual humility. “Profound,” for him means “nearly over his head,” never a depth that he cannot plumb. Sometimes he is quite horribly ponti-ficial. “Man and Woman. . . Perhaps it will be well if I take this opportunity to pronounce the ultimate facts of their relationship.” The reader who wishes these and other ultimate facts may turn to the book. Personally I like to feel that there are still a few unsolved problems.

Count Keyserling and Mr. Adrian Stokes offer an interesting parallel. Mr. Stokes is also a philosopher; he too journeys around the world and sets down in his diary the adventures of his soul. But here the resemblance ceases, for Mr. Stokes is twenty-one. “Travel,” says Bacon, “in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.” There is unintended irony in the implication that the “elder sort” learns nothing from experience, and this is borne out by the contrast here offered. Mr. Stokes does learn, and the spectacle of adolescence is more attractive than a quest for youth.

“The Thread of Aniadne” has more faults than the “Travel Diary,”—but it lacks the one big fault. This is partly because Adrian Stokes is twenty-one, but only partly. A second and perhaps deeper reason is that he is in possession of what, for him at least, is a fresh vision of the scheme of things. The new truth, as Carlyle has said, burns in his pocket like new gold. He is eager to impart and this eagerness lifts him out of himself and makes contact with his fellows. The self which the older man sought to realize seems a little thing because it never goes abroad. The younger man, grappling with an external problem, reaches by self-forgetfulness to greater heights. The old Greek doctrine of escape and the teaching that he that loseth his life shall find it are here in complete accord. While “The Travel Diary of a Philosopher” has thus a single significance, “The Thread of Ariadne” presents two aspects; first, as a body of doctrine, and, second, as a revelation of its writer. The very fact that this second aspect is not important to its author makes it for his readers of even greater value. First, as a body of doctrine. This is difficult to summarize, at least on the positive side. Taken negatively, the book is a revolt against all formal thinking, against logic, against the restrictions of language, everything in short in which we ordinarily take pride. Under the name of our Common Heritage he calls reason to the bar and condemns her; he uses logic to destroy logic.

“There is plenty of inarticulate wisdom in this world besides that of Common Sense. But it can never become articulate because our Common Heritage rules the forms of expression and provides the only categories which men recognize. . . .

“Systematization or its denial—it is all the same from my point of view—rules to-day and ruled yesterday. Our common denominators are of all kinds. I fight common denominators, so too their mere denial, and the necessary alternation between the positive and the negative. I fight alternatives, so too their denial,—in fact I fight our Common Heritage, for all this is what I mean by it. . . .

“It is the poor logical man who distracts this world. Being an Exclusivist, his principles are held firm within the bounds of a personality. Their self-cannibalistic tendencies are not perceived. . . . The logical man exchanges the sluggish wisdom of common-sense for the confined spaces of a few principles whose range of application is very forcibly dyed to match some recognizable color.”

In the relation of the Whole to the Part and in the use of Alternatives he finds the characteristic features of what he calls Mathematical Thought. For him these relations are a petrifying hand upon the real life of the soul. (Let me note in passing another attack on logic from its very citadel. There are some mathematicians who despair of a completely logical foundation for their science and who fall back upon intuition for their starting point. The whole theory of probability also must lift itself by its own bootstraps.) But Mr. Stokes’ rebellion is more complete and he is very sure that he has found a way to dispense with the demands of mathematical thought. His positive affirmations are not so easy to present. In a general way we may describe them by his own words as a doctrine of Interdependence.

”. . . we should not regard the problems of ‘life’ as questions of existences and truths, but rather a question of the combination of meanings. When truth and existence lose their present connotation, i. e., when truth and falsehood are realized to be interdependent, inter-indispensable meanings—so too existence and non-existence—the present issues and formulations of problems will be discarded. We can’t get on with them. The emphasis shifts from existence and truth to the harmonization of meaning. . . .”

He himself confesses to the inadequacy of any words to convey his full meaning, and must perforce achieve expression by indirection. But though this part of the book is essentially unintelligible in the rational sense of the word, it is in another sense very highly significant. He fails fundamentally because the positive doctrine and the destructive criticism are in no way related. Logic and language are not t lemselves systems of thinking but modes of communication, and if we do away with them we must offer some other counters in place of the accepted coinage. For language we must have another language of some sort, not another view of the universe. No forms of expression give anything but a shadow of experience, but we must get along with them as best we can, using art to hint at what we cannot fully express. Other mystics before Mr. Stokes have been possessed of inexpressible truths, but meaning is not meaning unless it can be shared.

None the less “The Thread of Ariadne” is a beautiful book. It has the flavor of an ancient book in that its explicit meaning is less important to us than the revelation which it gives of a life lived fully and in beauty. In this timeless quality there is some warrant of permanence; its claims to philosophic novelty are unimportant in comparison. The immortal names in literature are not of those who have given us new ideas, but of those who make us feel the abundance of their life, and this sense of the vividness and intensity of the author’s experience is the most lasting impression which the reader will carry away.

Mr. Stokes is so young that the book is something of a portent. On the one hand it is perilously near that kind of ancient nonsense which is called new thought. If the author essays the role of founder of a philosophic school he will but add his name to the long roll of tongue-tied mystics. He will become an idol for the woolly-minded. If, on the other hand, he uses his very great powers of expression in the manner of the artist, content to hint at what can never be seen except obliquely, he may outlive our logicians. Philosophy must compel our assent; beauty fires us with the faith to search for hidden meanings. That his first attempt employs the forms of art is a hopeful augury.

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