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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Conclusion : Within a Cell


Through all the changing pomp of seasons, while the sun showered down its yellow rays, while the rain striped it with grey markings, and the snow lay heavy and white upon it, the vision of the tree was present to me, first as a colossal column, standing up in heaven, then as a broken ruin, prostrate on the ground. As through a light haze I have tried to distinguish the splendour of its life, and the tragedy of its death: and all this while the blue and green and grey country in which the sequoia lived and died has become in some degree my own country, a part of me. I grew to love those distant hills, modulating away to invisibility on some shining day of spring; I learned to feel the sadness of the autumn twilights which made the background of the pine-tree go so pale and lifeless and desolate. I traced at length the slow circulation of the giant's sap, and became sensitive like the tree to light and shadow, to all the influences, exciting or soporific, of the type of country in which I had placed it. Nevertheless, all this creation of a vast landscape, and the huge form of the tree, took shape, endured, and ended in a tiny space, one of those imperceptible and secret compartments called cells, parts of our bodies immeasurable by human wit.

Outside my window the world was growing feeble in the failing autumn, but from the white page which I slowly darkened with my writing bloomed for my sight a summer scene of green and gold, where once the giant tree had stood, but which now was again become clear ground and azure sky: and I told myself how shortly my memory-cell would produce for me a new mind-landscape, new images, new sentiments. Such dreams, born within ourselves, have the vividness of real incidents, while they last: to such a degree that it seems questionable whether the physical shocks we undergo and the palpable matter we encounter are really the intensest experiences of our lives. May it not be rather that our sharpest colouring comes from the volatile and obscure matter of our ideas and dreams, with its rich palette of innumerable shades? Only by means of the abstract part of our nature do we commune with the universe. Our likes and dislikes, our delights and despairs are not the issue of our carnal parts, offspring of our blood and nerves, except in so far as these are submissive conductors of the hidden reactions of our imagination. A single dream will change the current of our life, and our actions are the product of the powerful but hidden inner world of our minds.

So that it is our imagination which rules our conduct. Our physical performance is the reflex of our conception of the deed. Our will fertile is the developed image of the dark, capricious, imperceptible force which we call fancy. We can mingle this fancy in almost material fashion with all the things and beings on our path through life, so strange in composition is this substance or fluid. Everything which is ours, even our passions, obey its commands. It can make us chaste or ardent, will purify our flesh in the presence of our sisters, and inflame the same matter when our thoughts turn concupiscently towards a woman with whom we can feasibly have dealings. Fanatics owe their superhuman endurance during horrible mutilations of the flesh to this same power, which also gives to martyrs the perfect calm of soul in which they tread the threshold of an awful death.

May not this flexible mistress of our understanding be made of the same essence as the motive force of the universe? Not our reason but our imagination enables us to grasp the conception of illimitable chaos, to comprehend the music of the farthest spheres, to overleap all distance and cast the sum of the faintest stars. By it we can distinguish between world and world, in their far-fetched and fleeting changes from the incandescent minute of the nucleus to that last frozen silence in which the dead planets circulate: and also by its means we can see the smallness of things, even when they are atoms inexpressibly small.

Not that our imagination is universal. There are causes we will never fathom, effects we can never know, forces too occult for us. Yet we have monitions of them; their flickering image hovers sometimes just beyond our grasp, their last repeated echo dies away in a murmur just too weak for us to understand.

Therefore in the depths of our subconsciousness the immane with its thousand heads mirrors itself vaguely, like a wide field agreeing to compress its forms and rarefy its details within the tiny sphere of a prismatic drop of water. Our dreams take shape, and endure and fade, having seemed reality while they endured. Images and sounds and scents of strange marvellous richness dance restlessly through our inner world.

This other life which palpitates in us is often more engrossing to us than our public life, and always more fickle. It has no bounds, so far as supply of incident and vision is concerned: but is absolutely limited (as much as is our physical life) in its extent of influence. Its scope is for ourselves alone. Our designs are made and our actions prepared in this domain of our dark fancy, and the adventures we there conceive only lose in richness and range when they are translated into physical terms. Of that realm we are absolute master, and we rule our universe thence. In it time and space both bow at our behest. By a simple whim we transpose seasons in a moment, that we may inhabit tropics and the frozen north at once. Elements and creatures and things are at our mercy. In this world, and only in this world, are we given to know freedom and omnipotence.

How do things go in this secret and magical realm of ours, where we have power to work the miracles denied us in daily life? There we can love and hate, as we would wish to do, physically, can taste the fill of love's joys, and all of ambition or of crime. We can change our shape, attend the marvellous revels of fairyland, witness horrible massacres, contemplate the incredible clash of suns. In this our private world neither days nor hours exist to limit us. We can live a thousand centuries in a moment, or spin out a moment across unending years. This dream-control of matter empowers us somewhat to understand the terrible play of events across eternity and the infinite, for it must proceed rather in the same manner: and since the thousand flying shades of chaos can be reflected in our subconsciousness, it follows that our fancy and our dreams must be made of the same stuff as the nameless force which rules the universe.

The forest giant also had its life in a dream - a life which seemed to last for more than seventy centuries, in the precise surroundings wherein stood this substantial ghost. The dream which made it did not fade wholly with its death, for to my fancy clouds of wood-dust, with their sad musty taste, seemed yet to float after its fall over the vacant place where the tree had stood.

My memories of the landscape in which the dream had passed endured after the ending of the dream. Birds seemed to fly over the prostrate giant, and thousands of busy insects flitted about its hollow trunk. The sound of the water came yet to me from far off, while the sunlight was golden where the tree had breathed, and night drew its dark curtain round the spot. A mighty rumour filled the space about - for in the subtle world of dream lively truth is given by our imagination to shapes and sounds and smells, which become ours to create, to destroy, or to revive at will.

And from my middle place, hanging between the external world which is ours and the inner world which belongs to me alone, I ask myself, hesitating and afraid, if our dreams are not perhaps more than dreams, if we ourselves are not perhaps creations of some fancy greater than our own, greater even than our understanding? In which case the external universe might be to the all-seeing Eye what the world of our imagination is to us - another way of saying that one substance makes substantial the mighty whole, but that the means, the forces, the expression of it are innumerable.

It is a strange speculation that we may be ourselves products of the creative thought of some being beyond our thought: yet very far-reaching is the power of our imagination which can pass from star to star, can people space, and conjure up new worlds, can shadow out to itself the incomprehensible. It is afraid of no height and of no depth: but one idea escapes it, gives it dizzy pause - speculation upon the beginning and the end of creation. Yet in time our spirit calms itself, grows resigned to the idea that there was no beginning, and will be no end, only an interminable progression. Such is the only sober escape from the unbearable notions of a precise beginning and a pre-destined final end, ideas which if driven home would wreck our peace. A beginning - but how could this be? Whence could it come? and when and how? and an end - but what could come after that? Would it be the starting-point of a new evolution, of a fresh departure in time? Besides, the very ideas are absurd, self-contradictory. Nature has no exceptions, no isolated events.

In such a haze of strange ideas and confused visions my dream draws to its close. However, we do not make them of hazardous and fugitive web. Into them are woven real figments of our life and immanent seconds from the stock of unchanging time. Their elements will float forth across the universe after the dissolution of the adventures whose apparent, if mental, form they have for the moment composed. These scattered moments of my faded dream will distribute an impression of the life of the great pine-tree, which was born and lived and died in its place, till the sense of it pierces to a tiny immeasurable point, one of those secret places which we call our cells... and then it seems to me that there rises a thin mist of russet wood-powder, amid a heartrending savour of old age....




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