The Garden of Survival

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter V

WHAT I have told you so far concerns a growth chiefly of my inner life that was almost a new birth. My outer life, of event and action, was sufficiently described in those monthly letters you had from me during the ten years, broken by three periods of long-leave at home, I spent in that sinister and afflicted land. This record, however, deals principally with the essential facts of my life, the inner; the outer events and actions are of importance only in so far as they interpret these, since that which a man feels and thinks alone is real, and thought and feeling, of course, precede all action.

I have told you of the Thrill, of its genesis and development; and I chose an obvious and rather banal instance, first of all to make myself quite clear, and, secondly, because the majority were of so delicate a nature as to render their description extremely difficult. The point is that the emotion was, for me, a new one. I may honestly describe it as a birth.

I must now tell you that it first stirred in me some five years after I left England, and that during those years I had felt nothing but what most other men feel out here. Whether its sudden birth was due to the violent country, or to some process of gradual preparation that had been going forward in me secretly all that time, I cannot tell. No proof, at any rate, offered itself of either. It came suddenly. I do know, however, that from its first occurrence it has strengthened and developed until it has now become a dominating influence of a distinctly personal kind.

My character has been affected, perhaps improved. You have mentioned on several occasions that you noted in my letters a new tenderness, a new kindness towards my fellow-creatures, less of criticism and more of sympathy, a new love; the "birth of my poetic sense" you also spoke of once; and I myself have long been aware of a thousand fresh impulses towards charity and tolerance that had, hitherto, at any rate, lain inactive in my being.

I need not flatter myself complacently, yet a change there is, and it may be an improvement. Whether big or small, however, I am sure of one tiling: I ascribe it entirely to this sharper and more extended sensitiveness to Beauty, this new and exquisite receptiveness that has established itself as a motive-power in my life. I have changed the poet's line, using prose of course: There is beauty everywhere and therefore joy.

And I will explain briefly, too, how it is that this copybook maxim is now for me a practical reality. For at first, with my growing perception, I was distressed at what seemed to me the lavish waste, the reckless, spendthrift beauty, not in nature merely but in human nature, that passed unrecognized and unacknowledged. The loss seemed so extravagant. Not only that a million flowers waste their sweetness on the desert air, but that such prodigal stores of human love and tenderness remain unemployed, their rich harvest all ungathered--because, misdirected and misunderstood, they find no receptacle into which they may discharge.

It has now come to me, though only by & slow and almost imperceptible advance, that these stores of apparently unremunerative beauty, this harvest so thickly sown about the world, unused, ungathered--prepare yourself, please, for an imaginative leap--ore used, are gathered, are employed. By Whom?

I can only answer: By some one who is pleased; and probably by many such. How, why, and wherefore--I catch your crowd of questions in advance--we need not seek exactly to discover, although the answer of no uncertain kind, I hear within the stillness of a heart that has learned to beat to a deeper, sweeter rhythm than before.

Those who loved beauty and lived it in their lives, follow that same ideal with increasing power and passion afterwards--and for ever.

The shutter of black iron we call Death hides the truth with terror and resentment; but what if that shutter were, after all, transparent?

A glorious dream, I hear you cry. Now listen to my answer. It is, for me, a definite assurance and belief, because--I know.

Long before you have reached this point you will, I know, have reached also the conclusion (with a sigh) that I am embarked upon some commonplace experience of ghostly return, or, at least, of posthumous communication. Perhaps I wrong you here, but in any case I would at once correct the inference, if it has been drawn. You remember our adventures with the seance-mongers years ago? . . . I have not changed my view so far as their evidential value is concerned. Be sure of that.

The dead, I am of opinion, do not return; for, while individuals may claim startling experiences that seem to them of an authentic and convincing kind, there has been no instance that can persuade us all--in the sense that thunderstorm convinces us all. Such individual experiences I have always likened to the auto-suggestion of those few who believe the advertisements of the hair-restorers--you will forgive the unpoetic simile for the sake of its exactitude--as against the verdict of the world that a genuine discovery of such a remedy would leave no single doubter in Europe or America, nor even in the London Clubs! Yet each time I read the cunning article (I have less hair than when I ran away from Sandhurst that exciting July night and met you in the Strand!), and look upon the picture of the man, John Henry Smith, "before and after using," I admit the birth of an unreasonable belief that there may be something in it after all.

Of such indubitable proof, however, there is, alas, as yet no sign.

And so with the other matter--the dead do not "return." My story, therefore, be comforted, has no individual instance to record. It may, on the other hand, be held to involve a thread of what might be called--at a stretch --posthumous communication, yet a thread so tenuous that the question of personal direction behind it need hardly be considered at all. For let me confess at once that, the habit of the "thrill" once established, I was not long in asking myself point blank this definite question: Dared I trace its origin to my own unfruitful experience of some years before?--and, discovering no shred of evidence, I found this positive answer: Honestly I could not.

That "somebody was pleased" each time Beauty offered a wisdom I accepted, became an unanswerable conviction I could not argue about; but that the guidance--waking a responsive emotion in myself of love--was referable to any particular name I could not, by any stretch of desire or imagination, bring myself to believe.

Marion, I must emphasise, had been gone from me five years at least before the new emotion gave the smallest hint of its new birth; and my feeling, once the first keen shame and remorse subsided--I confess to the dishonouring truth--was one of looking back upon a painful problem that had found an unexpected solution. It was chiefly relief, although a sad relief, I felt. . . . And with the absorbing work of the next following years (I took up my appointment within six months of her death) her memory, already swiftly fading, entered an oblivion whence rarely, and at long intervals only, it emerged at all. In the ordinary meaning of the phrase, I had forgotten her. You will see, therefore, that there was no desire in me to revive an unhappy memory, least of all to establish any fancied communication with one before whose generous love I had felt myself dishonoured, if not actually disgraced. Even the remorse and regret had long since failed to disturb my peace of mind, causing me no anxiety, much less pain. Sic transit was the epitaph, if any. Acute sensation I had none at all. This, then, plainly argues against the slightest predisposition on my part to imagine that the loving guidance so strangely given owned a personal origin I could recognize. That it involved a "personal emotion" is quite another matter.

The more remarkable, therefore, is the statement truth now compels me to confess to you--namely, that this origin is recognizable, and that I have traced in part the name it owns to. My next sentence you divine already; you at once suspect the name I mean. I hear you say to yourself with a smile--"So, after all. . .  !"

Please, wait a moment, and listen closely now; for, in reply to your suspicion, I can give neither full affirmation or full denial. Yet an answer of a certain kind is ready: I have stated my firm conviction that the dead do not return; I do not modify it one iota; but I mentioned a moment ago another conviction that is mine because I know. So now let me supplement these two statements with a third: the dead, though they do not return, are active; and those who lived beauty in their lives are--benevolently active.

This may prepare you for a further assurance, yet one less easy to express intelligibly. Be patient while I make the difficult attempt.

The origin of the wisdom that now seeks to shape and guide my life through Beauty is, indeed, not Marion, but a power that stands behind her, and through which, with which, the energy of her being acts. It stood behind her while she lived. It stands behind not only her, but equally behind all those peerless, exquisite manifestations of self-less love that give bountifully of their best without hope or expectation of reward in kind. No human love of this description, though it find no object to receive it, nor one single flower that "wastes" its sweetness on the desert air, but acknowledges this inexhaustible and spendthrift source. Its evidence lies strewn so thick, so prodigally, about our world, that not one among us, whatever his surroundings and conditions, but sooner or later must encounter at least one marvellous instance of its uplifting presence. Some at once acknowledge the exquisite flash and are aware; others remain blind and deaf, till some experience, probably of pain, shall have prepared and sensitized their receptive quality. To all, however, one day, comes the magical appeal. As in my own case, there was apparently some kind of preparation before I grew conscious of that hunger for beauty which, awakening intuition, opened the heart to truth and so to wisdom. It then came softly, delicately, whispering like the dawn, yet rich with a promise I could, at first, not easily fathom, though as sure of fulfilment as that promise of day that steals upon the world when night is passing.

I have tried to tell you something of this mystery. I cannot add to that. I was lifted, as it were, towards some region or some state of being, wherein I was momentarily aware of a vaster outlook upon life, of a deeper insight into the troubles of my fellow-creatures, where, indeed, there burst upon me a comprehension of life's pains and difficulties so complete that I may best describe it as that full understanding which involves also full forgiveness, and that sympathy which is love, God's love.

This exaltation passed, of course, with the passing of the thrill that made it possible; it was truly instantaneous; a point of ecstasy, perhaps, in some category not of time at all, but of some state of consciousness that lifted me above, outside of, self. But it was real, as a thunderstorm is real. For, with this glimpse of beauty that I call the "thrill," I touched, for an instant so brief that it seemed timeless in the sense of having no duration, a pinnacle of joy, of vision, beyond anything attainable by desire or by. intellect alone. I stood aware of power, wisdom, love; and more, this power, wisdom, love were mine to draw upon and use, not in some future heaven, but here and now.


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