CHASTITY CAN BE SINFUL
be it from me to minimize the virtue of virtue, but there is such a thing as
carrying goodness too far. Like Marcus Cato when he kept the consulship of
Rome from Manilius and had him evicted from the Senate because, in open day
and in the presence of his daughter, he kissed his own wife!
am inclined to agree with Montaigne that "we may so clutch
at virtue that if we embrace it with an over-greedy and
violent desire, it may become vicious." Invariant virtue, says John
Dewey, appears to be as mechanical as uninterrupted
vice. And, he might have added, considerably duller.
it seems to me, is an age overripe for innocence,
a long time to live in the solitude of unrelieved purity. Why,
even ancient Solon, stern and strait-laced as he was, recognized
the need for connubial communion: one of his laws
required the husband of an heiress "to consort with her thrice
a month." Fortune hunters had to give something for the
drachmas they were marrying.
don't know what the oracle would have said about chastity
in literature—he called public entertainment parasitein—
seems to me deplorable that a book born in 1906,
which is older even than I, should have preserved its virginity
all these tumultuous, eventful years. Admittedly some books are better
untouched, even unborn, but I speak not
of those. I am referring to books in the classical sense. As
I took down my 45-year-old edition of Sartor Resartus and, leafing
through it, found half its pages uncut, I thought of
Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew: "Sit by my side,
and let the world slip: we shall ne'er be younger."
time had come for the despoiling of this lovely little volume,
truly a morsel for a monarch, or at least a tidbit for a
buyers are curious folk. On a day in May of 1906 a
certain gentleman, whose name I shall not divulge, paid a
visit to Thomas Carlyle's home in Chelsea, London, and there
paid 3s.6d. [ 3 shillings, 6 pence- PMC] for a special autographed memorial
edition with portrait, foolscap octavo, cloth back and corners, burnished
top and roughened edges. Not only that, but, presumably a devotee of
Carlyle, he paid a shilling to get into the hallowed
house at 24 Cheyne Row.
innocent abroad toted the precious cargo back home, undoubtedly
awarded it the place of honor in his library, certainly
showed it proudly to guests—but never got around to
reading it. What
other conclusion can one reach who finds it necessary to cleave a full half
of the 311 pages in order to peruse
Carlyle's ambitious, often obtuse but always exciting treatise on clothes
and things in general? I might say parenthetically
that my incisorial expedition was justified by the opportunity
to meet Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, the unlikely philosopher
of unlikely Weissnichtwo, and his equally ephemeral
Boswell, Herr Hofrath Heuschrecke.
I should explain how this 45-year-old virgin came
into my avaricious possession and thus fell afoul of my lust
for literatesque license— helluo librorum.
of our Moorestown churches gave a bazaar, and I wandered
up to look over the book stall, notwithstanding Hazel's
standing threat to leave me whenever another volume
finds its way into the house. Most of the books were of recent vintage, donated by parishioners. But what intrigued me was
a group of wonderful old gems going back to the 19th century,
two-score or more, all valuable titles, ornately done in the elegant
style of the day, the piece de resistance an all-inclusive
gold-edged volume of The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare "Accurately
Printed from the Text of the
Corrected Copies with a Copious Glossary. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co. 1851." 1851. Abraham Lincoln
hadn't yet been elected to the Presidency. The Civil War
hadn't been fought. 1851 . . . 1951.
now, is the payoff. The task of pricing the books
evidently was assigned to
an automobile salesman or someone
else who operates upon the theory that the older anything
is, the less is its value. Common contemporary stuff worth
a dime a dozen was marked from fifty cents up; my precious, priceless old antiques were five and ten cents each!
to say, I seized every one, the acquisitive bargain
hunter I am. Unquestionably there is a story with tragic
over-tones behind the whole transaction. Some old book lover
must have accumulated a library at great pains and considerable expense,
someone now departed this vale of wrath and
tears, and bequeathed them to a less appreciative descendant.
I can visualize the sigh of relief when the old junk was
hauled away to the church.
I shouldn't be so solicitous of the shade, at that, for
it must have been he who set himself up as guardian of Sartor
and left her untouched all those years.
Maybe he just didn't get around to reading, what with showing
his prized possession off, but omittance is no quittance
and I can't find it in my heart to forgive him his lack of
literary lasciviousness. Maybe he was akin to one of Carlyle's
own Half-Men in whom "that divine handwriting has never blazed forth,
all-subduing in true sun-splendor, but quivers dubiously amid meaner lights,
or smolders, in dull pain, in
darkness, under earthly vapors."
he missed a great deal. Witness the chapter titled J'The
Everlasting Yea" :
false shadows of Hope; I will chase you no more,
I will believe you no more. And ye too, haggard spectres
of Fear, I care not for you; ye too are all shadows and
a lie. Let me rest here; for I am way-weary and life-weary;
I will rest here, were it but to die: to die or to live
is alike to me; alike insignificant.
But magnificent despair, beautifully wrought.
was at his bitter, biting best in debunking the ego, in
exploring the sanctuary of sorrow and probing the divine
depth of sadness. What does man require for his permanent
satisfaction and saturation? Simply this allotment, no
more, and no less: "God's infinite Universe altogether to himself, to
enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose." Oceans of
Hochheimer, a throat like that of Ophiuchus: they are as nothing.
No sooner is his ocean filled than he grumbles that it might
have been of better vintage. Try him with half a Universe,
of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarreling with the proprietor of the other
half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men. Always there is a
black spot in our
sunshine, the Shadow of Ourselves.
The whim we have of Happiness is somewhat thus: by
certain valuations and averages of our own striking we come upon some sort
of average terrestrial lot; this we fancy belongs to us by nature, and of indefeasible right.
It is simple payment of our wages, of our deserts; requires
neither thanks nor complaint; only such overplus
as there may be do we account
Happiness; any deficit
again is Misery. Now consider
that we have the valuation of our
own deserts ourselves, and what a fund of
self-conceit there is in each of us—do you wonder that the
balance should so often dip the wrong way, and many
a Blockhead cry: See there, what a payment; was ever
worthy gentleman so' used—I tell
thee, Blockhead, it all comes of
thy Vanity; of what thou fanciest those same
deserts of thine to be. Fancy that thou deservest to be
hanged (as is most likely) thou wilt feel it happiness to be
only shot; fancy that thou deservest to be hanged in a hair-halter, it will be a luxury to die in hemp.
So true it is that the Fraction of Life can be increased in
value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by
lessening your Denominator ....
Make thy claim of wages a zero;
then, thou hast the world under thy feet.
What is this that, ever since earliest years, thou hast been
fretting and fuming, and lamenting and self-tormenting, on account of? Say
it in a word: is it not because thou
art not Happy? Because the Thou (sweet gentleman)
is not sufficiently honoured, nourished, soft-bedded,
and lovingly cared-for? Foolish soul! What Act of Legislature was
there that thou shouldest be Happy?
little while ago thou hadst no right to be at all. Art thou
nothing other than a Vulture that fliest through the
Universe seeking after somewhat to eat, and shrieking dolefully
because carrion enough is not given thee? Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.
Es leuchtet mir ein, I see a glimpse of it! There is in man a
higher than love of happiness: he can do without happiness,
and instead thereof find blessedness!
Hast thou in any way a Contention with thy brother, I
advise thee, think well what the meaning is. If thou gauge it to the bottom,
it is simply this: "Fellow, see! thou
art taking more than thy share of Happiness in the world, something from my
share: which, by the Heavens,
thou shalt not; nay I will fight thee rather."
Alas, and the whole lot to be divided is such a beggarly
matter, truly a feast of shells, for the substance has been spilled out: not enough to quench one Appetite;
and the collective human species clutching at them!—Can
we not, in all such cases, rather say: "Take it,
thou too-ravenous individual; take that pitiful additional
fraction of a share, which I reckoned mine, but which thou so wantest; take it with a blessing; would to
Heaven I had enough for thee!"
\If Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre be, to a certain
Christianity, surely to a still greater extent is this:
Let him who gropes painfully in darkness or uncertain
light, and prays vehemently that the dawn may ripen
into day, lay this other precept well to heart: Do the Duty which liest
nearest thee, which thou knowest to be a Duty! Thy second Duty will
already have become clearer.
When your Ideal World, wherein the whole man has
been dimly struggling and inexpressibly languishing
to work, becomes revealed and thrown open, you discover,
with amazement enough, like the Lothario in Wilhelm
Meister, that your America
is here or nowhere.
situation that has not its Duty, its Ideal, was never
yet occupied by man. Yes here, in this poor, miserable, hampered despicable Actual, wherein thou even now
standest, here or nowhere is thy Ideal: work it out therefrom;
and working, believe, live, be free.
the Ideal is in thyself, the impediment too is in
thyself; thy Condition is but the stuff thou art to shape
that same Ideal out of: what matters whether such stuff be of this sort or
that, so the Form thou give it be heroic,
be poetic? O thou that pinest in the imprisonment
of the Actual, and criest bitterly to the gods for a kingdom
wherein to rule and create, know this of a truth:
the thing thou seekest is already with thee, here or
thou only see!
it is with man's Soul as it was with Nature; the beginning of Creation is—
Light. Till the eye have vision, the whole members are in bonds. Divine
moment, when over the tempest-tost Soul,
as once over the wild-weltering Chaos, it
is spoken: Let there be Light! Even to
the greatest that has felt such moment, is it not miraculous
and God-announcing; even as, under simpler figures, to the simplest and least. The mad primeval Discord
is hushed; the rudely-jumbled conflicting elements bind themselves into
separate Firmaments: deep silent rock-foundations are built beneath; and the
skyey vault with its everlasting
Luminaries above: instead of a dark wasteful Chaos, we have a
blooming, fertile, heaven-encompassed
Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal
fraction of a Product, produce it, in God's name! 'Tis
the utmost thou has in thee: out with it, then. Up, up!
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole
might. Work while it is called Today; for the Night
cometh, wherein no man can work.
commences our spiritual majority; henceforth should
we work in well-doing, with the spirit and clear aims of
a man, those of us with the capacity to read and heed and think.
The ideal workshop we so panted for is the same actual,
ill-furnished workshop we have so long been stumbling in.