The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


"Every fragment of visible Nature might, as far as is known, serve as part in some organism unlike our bodies.... As to that which can, and that which cannot, play the part of an organism, we know very little. A sameness greater or less with our own bodies is the basis from which we conclude to other bodies and souls.... A certain likeness of outward form, and again some amount of similarity in action, are what we stand on when we argue to psychical life. But our failure, on the other side, to discover these symptoms is no sufficient warrant for positive denial. It is natural in this connection to refer to Fechner's vigorous advocacy."

--F.H. BRADLEY, Appearance and Reality

It was with an innate resistance--at least a stubborn prejudice--that I heard him begin. The earth, of course, was but a bubble of dried fire, a huge round clod, dead as mutton. How could it be, in any permissible sense of the word--alive?

Then, gradually, as he talked there among the chimney-pots of old smoky London, there stole over me this new and disquieting sense of reality--a strange, vast splendor, too mighty to lie in the mind with comfort. Laughter fled away, ashamed. A new beauty, as of some amazing dawn, flashed and broke upon the world. The autumn sky overhead, thick-sown with its myriad stars, came down close, sifting gold and fire about my life's dull ways. That desk in the Insurance Office of Cornhill gleamed beyond as an altar or a possible throne.

The glory of Fechner's immense speculation flamed about us both, majestic yet divinely simple. Only a dim suggestion of it, of course, lay caught in the words the Irishman used--words, as I found later, that were a mixture of Professor James and Dr. Stahl, flavored strongly with Terence O'Malley--but a suggestion potent enough to have haunted me ever since and to have instilled meanings of stupendous divinity into all the commonest things of daily existence. Mountains, seas, wide landscapes, forests,--all I see now with emotions of wonder, delight, and awe unknown to me before. Flowers, rain, wind, even a London fog, have come to hold new meanings.

I never realized before that the mere size of our old planet could have hindered the perception of so fair a vision, or her mere quantitative bulk have killed automatically in the mind the possible idea of her being in some sense living. A microbe, endowed with our powers of consciousness, might similarly deny life to the body of the elephant on which it rode; or some wee arguing atom, endowed with mind and senses, persuade itself that the monster upon whose flesh it dwelt were similarly a "heavenly body" of dead, inert matter; the bulk of the "world" that carried them obstructing their perception of its Life.

And Fechner, as it seems, was no mere dreamer, playing with a huge poetical conception. Professor of Physics in Leipsic University, he found time amid voluminous labors in chemistry to study electrical science with the result that his measurements in galvanism are classic to this day. His philosophical work was more than considerable. "A book on the atomic theory, classic also; four elaborate mathematical and experimental volumes on what he called psychophysics (many persons consider Fechner to have practically founded scientific psychology in the first of these books); a volume on organic evolution, and two works on experimental æsthetics, in which again Fechner is thought by some judges to have laid the foundations of a new science," are among his other performances.... "All Leipsic mourned him when he died, for he was the pattern of the ideal German scholar, as daringly original in his thought as he was homely in his life, a modest, genial, laborious slave to truth and learning.... His mind was indeed one of those multitudinously organized crossroads of truth which are occupied only at rare intervals by children of men, and from which nothing is either too far or too near to be seen in due perspective. Patientest observation, exactest mathematics, shrewdest discrimination, humanest feeling, flourished in him on the largest scale, with no apparent detriment to one another. He was in fact a philosopher in the 'great' sense."

"Yes," said O'Malley softly in my ear as we leaned against the chimneys and watched the tobacco curl up to the stars, "and it was this man's imagination that had evidently caught old Stahl and bowled him over. I never fathomed the doctor quite. His critical and imaginative apparatus got a bit mixed up, I suspect, for one moment he cursed me for asking 'suspicious questions,' and the next sneered sarcastically at me for boiling over with a sudden inspirational fancy of my own. He never gave himself away completely, and left me to guess that he made that Hospital place too hot to hold him. He was a wonderful bird. But every time I aimed at him I shot wide and hit a cloud. Meantime he peppered me all over--one minute urging me into closer intimacy with my Russian--his cosmic being, his Urmensch type--so that he might study my destruction, and half an hour later doing his utmost apparently to protect me from him and keep me sane and balanced." His laugh rang out over the roofs.

"The net result," he added, his face tilted toward the stars as though he said it to the open sky rather than to me, "was that he pushed me forwards into the greatest adventure life has ever brought to me. I believe, I verily believe that sometimes, there were moments of unconsciousness--semi-consciousness perhaps--when I really did leave my body--caught away as Moses, or was it Job or Paul?--into a Third Heaven, where I touched a bit of Reality that fairly made me reel with happiness and wonder."

"Well, but Fechner--and his great idea?" I brought him back.

He tossed his cigarette down into the back-garden that fringed the Park, leaning over to watch its zigzag flight of flame.

"Is simply this," he replied, "--'that not alone the earth but the whole Universe in its different spans and wave-lengths, is everywhere alive and conscious.' He regards the spiritual as the rule in Nature, not the exception. The professorial philosophers have no vision. Fechner towers above them as a man of vision. He dared to imagine. He made discoveries--whew!!" he whistled, "and such discoveries!"

"To which the scholars and professors of today," I suggested, "would think reply not even called for?"

"Ah," he laughed, "the solemn-faced Intellectuals with their narrow outlook, their atrophied vision, and their long words! Perhaps! But in Fechner's universe there is room for every grade of spiritual being between man and God. The vaster orders of mind go with the vaster orders of body. He believes passionately in the Earth Soul, he treats her as our special guardian angel; we can pray to the Earth as men pray to their saints. The Earth has a Collective Consciousness. We rise upon the Earth as wavelets rise upon the ocean. We grow out of her soil as leaves grow from a tree. Sometimes we find our bigger life and realize that we are parts of her bigger collective consciousness, but as a rule we are aware only of our separateness, as individuals. These moments of cosmic consciousness are rare. They come with love, sometimes with pain, music may bring them too, but above all--landscape and the beauty of Nature! Men are too petty, conceited, egoistic to welcome them, clinging for dear life to their precious individualities."

He drew breath and then went on: "'Fechner likens our individual persons on the earth to so many sense-organs of her soul, adding to her perceptive life so long as our own life lasts. She absorbs our perceptions, just as they occur, into her larger sphere of knowledge. When one of us dies, it is as if an eye of the world were closed, for all perceptive contributions from that particular quarter cease.'"

"Go on," I exclaimed, realizing that he was obviously quoting verbatim fragments from James that he had since pondered over till they had become his own, "Tell me more. It is delightful and very splendid."

"Yes," he said, "I'll go on quick enough, provided you promise me one thing: and that is--to understand that Fechner does not regard the Earth as a sort of big human being. If a being at all, she is a being utterly different from us in kind, as of course we know she is in structure. Planetary beings, as a class, would be totally different from any other beings that we know. He merely protests at the presumption of our insignificant human knowledge in denying some kind of life and consciousness to a form so beautifully and marvelously organized as that of the earth! The heavenly bodies, he holds, are beings superior to men in the scale of life--a vaster order of intelligence altogether. A little two-legged man with his cocksure reason strutting on its tiny brain as the apex of attainment he ridicules. D'ye see, now?"

I gasped, I lit a big pipe--and listened. He went on. This time it was clearly a page from that Hibbert Lecture Stahl had mentioned--the one in which Professor James tries to give some idea of Fechner's aim and scope, while admitting that he "inevitably does him miserable injustice by summarizing and abridging him."

"Ages ago the earth was called an animal," I ventured. "We all know that."

"But Fechner," he replied, "insists that a planet is a higher class of being than either man or animal--'a being whose enormous size requires an altogether different plan of life.'"

"An inhabitant of the ether--?"

"You've hit it," he replied eagerly. "Every element has its own living denizens. Ether, then, also has hers--the globes. 'The ocean of ether, whose waves are light, has also her denizens--higher by as much as their element is higher, swimming without fins, flying without wings, moving, immense and tranquil, as by a half-spiritual force through the half-spiritual sea which they inhabit,' sensitive to the slightest pull of one another's attraction: beings in every way superior to us. Any imagination, you know," he added, "can play with the idea. It is old as the hills. But this chap showed how and why it could be actually true."

"This superiority, though?" I queried. "I should have guessed their stage of development lower than ours, rather than higher."

"Different," he answered, "different. That's the point."

"Ah!" I watched a shooting star dive across our thick, wet atmosphere, and caught myself wondering whether the flash and heat of that hurrying little visitor produced any reaction in this Collective Consciousness of the huge Body whereon we perched and chattered, and upon which later it would fall in finest dust.

"It is by insisting on the differences as well as on the resemblances," rushed on the excited O'Malley, "that he makes the picture of the earth's life so concrete. Think a moment. For instance, our animal organization comes from our inferiority. Our need of moving to and fro, of stretching our limbs and bending our bodies, shows only our defect."

"Defect!" I cried. "But we're so proud of it!"

'"What are our legs,'" he laughed, "'but crutches, by means of which, with restless efforts, we go hunting after the things we have not inside ourselves? The Earth is no such cripple; why should she who already possesses within herself the things we so painfully pursue, have limbs analogous to ours? What need has she of arms, with nothing to reach for? Of a neck with no head to carry? Of eyes or nose, when she finds her way through space without either, and has the millions of eyes of all her animals to guide their movements on her surface, and all their noses to smell the flowers she grows?'"

"We are literally a part of her, then--projections of her immense life, as it were--one of the projections, at least?"

"Exactly. And just as we are ourselves a part of the earth," he continued, taking up my thought at once, "so are our organs her organs. 'She is, as it were, eye and ear over her whole extent--all that we see and hear in separation she sees and hears at once.'" He stood up beside me and spread his hands out to the stars and over the trees and paths of the Park at our feet, where the throngs of men and women walked and talked together in the cool of the evening. His enthusiasm grew as the idea of this German's towering imagination possessed him.

"'She brings forth living beings of countless kinds upon her surface, and their multitudinous conscious relations with each other she takes up into her higher and more general conscious life.'"

He leaned over the parapet and drew me to his side. I stared with him at the reflection of London town in the sky, thinking of the glow and heat and restless stir of the great city and of the frantic strivings of its millions for success--money, power, fame, a few, here and there, for spiritual success. The roar of its huge trafficking beat across the night in ugly thunder to our ears. I thought of the other cities of the world; of its villages; of shepherds among the lonely hills; of its myriad wild creatures in forest, plain, and mountain...

"All this she takes up into her great heart as part of herself!" I murmured.

"All this," he replied softly, as the sound of the Band beyond the Serpentine floated over to us on our roof; "--the separate little consciousnesses of all the cities, all the tribes, all the nations of men, animals, flowers, insects--everything." He again opened his arms to the sky. He drew in deep breaths of the night air. The dew glistened on the slates behind us. Far across the towers of Westminster a yellow moon rose slowly, dimming the stars. Big Ben, deeply booming, trembled on the air nine of her stupendous vibrations. Automatically, I counted them--subconsciously.

"And all our subconscious sensations are also hers," he added, catching my thought again; "our dreams but half divined, our aspirations half confessed, our tears, our yearnings, and our--prayers."

At the moment it almost seemed to me as if our two minds joined, each knowing the currents of the other's thought, and both caught up, gathered ill, folded comfortably away into the stream of a Consciousness far bigger than either. It was like a momentary, specific proof of what he urged--a faint pulse-beat we heard of the soul of the earth; and it was amazingly uplifting.

"Every form of life, then, is of importance," I heard myself thinking, or saying, for I hardly knew which. "The tiniest efforts of value--even the unrecognized ones, and those that seem futile."

"Even the failures," he whispered, "--the moments when we do not trust her."

We stood for some moments in silence. Presently, with a hand upon my shoulder, he drew me down again among our rugs against the chimney-stack.

"And there are some of us," he said gently, yet with a voice that held the trembling of an immense joy, "who know a more intimate relationship with their great Mother than the rest, perhaps. By the so-called Love of Nature, or by some artless simplicity of soul, wholly unmodern of course, perhaps felt by children or poets mostly, they lie caught close to her own deep life, knowing the immense sweet guidance of her mighty soul, divinely mothered, strangers to all the strife for material gain--to that 'unrest which men miscall delight,'--primitive children of her potent youth ... offspring of pure passion ... each individual conscious of her weight and drive behind him--" His words faded away into a whisper that became unintelligible, then inaudible; but his thought somehow continued itself in my own mind.

"The simple life," I said in a low tone; "the Call of the Wild, raised to its highest power?"

But he changed my sentence a little.

"The call," he answered, without turning to look at me, speaking it into the night about us, "the call to childhood, the true, pure, vital childhood of the Earth--the Golden Age--before men tasted of the Tree and knew themselves separate; when the lion and the lamb lay down together and a little child could lead them. A time and state, that is, of which such phrases can be symbolical."

"And of which there may be here and there some fearful exquisite survival?" I suggested, remembering Stahl's words.

His eyes shone with the fire of his passion. "Of which on that little tourist steamer I found one!"

The wind that fanned our faces came perhaps across the arid wastes of Bayswater and the North-West. It also came from the mountains and gardens of this lost Arcadia, vanished for most beyond recovery....

"The Hebrew poets called it Before the Fall," he went on, "and later poets the Golden Age; today it shines through phrases like the Land of Heart's Desire, the Promised Land, Paradise, and what not; while the minds of saint and mystic have ever dreamed of it as union with their deity. For it is possible and open to all, to every heart, that is, not blinded by the cloaking horror of materialism which blocks the doorways of escape and prisons self behind the drab illusion that the outer form is the reality and riot the inner thought...."

The hoarse shouting of a couple of drunken men floated to us from the pavements, and crossing over, we peered down toward the opening of Sloane Street, watching a moment the stream of broughams, motors, and pedestrians. The two men with the rage of an artificial stimulant in their brains reeled out of sight. A big policeman followed slowly. The night-life of the great glaring city poured on unceasingly--the stream of souls all hurrying by divers routes and means toward a state where they sought to lose themselves--to forget the pressure of the bars that held them--to escape the fret and worry of their harassing personalities, and touch some fringe of happiness! All so sure they knew the way--yet hurrying really in the wrong direction--outwards instead of inwards; afraid to be--simple....

We moved back to our rugs. For a long time neither of us found anything to say. Soon I led the way down the creaking ladder indoors again, and we entered the stuffy little sitting-room of the tiny flat he temporarily occupied. I turned up an electric light, but O'Malley begged me to lower it. I only had time to see that his eyes were still aglow. We sat by the open window. He drew a worn notebook from his still more worn coat; but it was too dark for him to read. He knew it all by heart.

Return to the The Centaur Summary Return to the Algernon Blackwood Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson