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   Chapter 6 MY CHILDHOOD AND SOME PSYCHOLOGICAL INCIDENTS

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 22277

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


And now for the child who was so happy in his surroundings, and, above all, in those who were to care for him.

There were naturally certain nursery traditions about me of the magnifying kind, but, taken as a whole, I don't think I can claim to have been anything but a normal child, with health fair to moderate and an intelligence which was reasonably quick and responsive. I had, however, no educational precociousness; I did not read till I was nearly nine, and even then did not use the power of reading. The book habit did not come till I was twelve or thirteen-though then it came, as far as poetry was concerned, with a rush. By fifteen I had read all the older English poets and most of the new. In reading poetry I showed a devotion which I am thankful to say I have always maintained. In this matter at least I am the opposite of Darwin. He confessed that the power to read poetry left him entirely in middle life. The older I grow, the more I love verse.

The actual study of metre was a source of acute satisfaction. It is said of me, indeed, that when, at a little more than two and a half years old, we were starting for a long journey to Pau, where my mother had been ordered to winter, I insisted on my father not packing, but taking with him in his hand, Spenser's Faerie Queen. He had been reading it to us that autumn. I did not know what a journey meant, but I was determined the readings should not be broken. I also could not have known what Spenser meant, but his stanza fed ear, and heart, and mind with melody.

It was at this age, too, that I seem to have made two theological observations which greatly amused my family. I was discovered one day digging with tempestuous energy in the garden. When asked what I was doing, I replied, "Digging for hell-fire!" That was especially curious because my father, as a strong Broad Churchman and a devoted friend and disciple of Frederick Maurice, was a wholehearted disbeliever in hell and its flames. He had "dismissed Hell with costs," as Lord Westbury said, ever since he came to man's estate. How I derived my knowledge on this point was never cleared up. Demons with three-pronged forks and curly tails are, of course, universally regarded as "the friends of little children" by natural right, and my preference I must suppose was transferred to their flaming home.

My other early piece of theological criticism was characteristic. Either my father or my mother, I forget which, was explaining to me the story of the Crucifixion and our Lord's arrest by the armed men of the High Priest. Greatly surprised and perturbed by the fact that Christ did not resist and make a fight of it I energetically enquired, "Hadn't He a gun?" I was told No. "Hadn't He a sword?" No. And then: "Hadn't He even a stick with a point?" Though not naturally combative, I have always been a strong believer in the virtue of the counterattack as the best, or, indeed, the only efficient form of self-defence.

I was, I believe, an easy-going, contented child, with no tendency to be frightened either by strangers, by imaginary terrors, or by the dark. I jogged easily along the Nursery high-road. There was, however, a family tradition that, though as a rule I was perfectly willing to let other children have my toys, and would not take the trouble to do what nurses call "stand up for myself," I did occasionally astonish my playmates and my guardians by super-passionate outbursts. These, however, were very rare indeed, for all my life I have had a great dislike or even horror of anything in the shape of losing my temper, an unconscious recognition, as it were, of the wisdom of the Roman saying, "Anger is a short madness." Instinctively I felt with Beaumont and Fletcher:

Oh, what a beast in uncollected man!

My general psychology, as far as I can tell from memory, was plain and straightforward when a child. I have no recollection of feeling any general depression or disappointment, of thinking that I was misunderstood, i.e. of entertaining what is now called "an inferiority complex." I never gave way to any form of childish melancholy. I did not even have alarming, or mysterious, or metaphysical dreams! What makes this more curious is the fact that I very much outgrew my strength, about the age of nine or ten. I was not allowed to play active games, or run about, or do any of the things in which I delighted.

Though without great physical strength, I was all my life exceedingly fond of the joys of bodily exercise, whether swimming, rowing, riding, walking, mountaineering, skating, playing tennis or racquets or whatever game was going.

In none of these pastimes did I reach anything approaching excellence, but from all of them I got intense enjoyment. I tasted, indeed, almost every form of athleticism and genuinely smacked my lips at the flavour of each in turn, yet never bothered about the super-pleasure which comes from doing such things as well as they can be done.

Though my bodily health did not give me an unhappy or depressed childhood, or make me suffer from any sort of morbid reaction, I had occasionally a very curious and somewhat rare experience-one which, though it has been noted and discussed, has never, as far as I know, been fully explained by physicians either of the body or of the soul.

The condition to which I refer is that which the musician Berlioz called "isolement"-the sense of spiritual isolation, which seizes on those who experience it with a poignancy amounting to awe. Wordsworth's Ode to Immortality affords the locus classicus in the way of description:

Fallings from us, vanishings,

Blank misgivings of a creature

Moving about in worlds not realised.

I once amused myself by getting together a large number of descriptions of "isolement" and found that, though they may differ considerably, they have in common the characteristics enumerated by the Ode.

The first thing to be noted about the sense of isolement is that it comes, not in sleeping, but in waking hours, and that, whether truly or not, it brings with it the feeling that it is the result of some external impulse. The best form of explanation, however, is to describe as exactly as I can my own sensations. Though the sense of isolement has been experienced by me as a little child, as a lad, as a young man, and even up to the age of forty or forty-five, the recollections of my first visitation, which occurred when I could not have been more, at the very most, than six years of age, are very much more vivid and keener-edged than those of the later occasions.

Outside the two doors of the nurseries at Sutton Court there is a long passage, and in this is something unusual-a little fire-place and grate. I was one day standing in that passage, quite close to the grate, and expecting nothing in particular. Then suddenly there came over me a feeling so strange and so different from anything I had ever felt before as to be almost terrifying. It was overwhelming in the true meaning of the word. Incredible as it seems in the case of so small a child, I had the clearest and most poignant feeling of being left completely, utterly alone, not merely in the world, but in something far, far bigger-in the universe, in a vastness infinite and unutterable.

As with Wordsworth, everything seemed to vanish and fall away from me, even my own body. I was literally "beside myself." I stood a naked soul in the sight of what I must now, though of course did not then, call for want of better explanatory expressions, the All, the Only, the Whole, the Everlasting. It was no annihilation, no temporary absorption into the Universal Consciousness, no ingression into the Divine Shadow, that the child experienced. Rather it was the amplest exaltation and magnification of the Ego which it is possible to conceive. I gained, not lost, by discarding the "lendings" of life. Something that was from one point of view a void, and from another a rounded completeness, hemmed me in.

Here I should perhaps interpolate yet another caveat. I did not, of course, as a child, use or even know of the vocabulary of the metaphysicians. I did, however, entertain thoughts which I could not then express, but which the words given above most nearly represent. There is one exception. In talking about "a naked soul" I am not interpreting my childish thrill of deep emotion into a later vocabulary. I have always remembered the emotion in those very words. It is so recorded on my memory. Of that I am sure.

The effect on me was intensely awe-inspiring-so awe-inspiring, indeed, as to be disturbing in a high degree. Though it did not in the least terrify me or torture me, or make me have anything approaching a dread of its repetition, I experienced a kind of rawness and sensitiveness of soul such as when, to put it pathologically, a super-sensitive mucous membrane surface is touched roughly by a hand or instrument. One is not exactly pained, but one quivers to the impact. So quivered my soul, though not my brain or my body, for there was no suggestion of any bodily faintness, or of any agitation of "grey matter," in the experience. For example, I was not in the least dizzy. I was outside my bodily self and far away from the world of matter.

In addition to this awe and sensitiveness, and what one might call spiritual discomfort, there was something altogether curious and unexpected, something that still remains for me as much the most vivid and also much the most soul-shaking part of the experience, something which many people will regard as impossible to have occupied the mind of a child of six. I can best describe it, though very inadequately, as a sudden realisation of the appalling greatness of the issues of living. I avoid saying "life and death" deliberately, for Death was nowhere in the picture. I was confronted in an instant, and without any preparation, or gradation of emotion, not only with the immanence but with the ineffable greatness of that whole of which I was a part. Though it may be a little difficult to make the distinction clear, this feeling had nothing to do with the sense of isolation. It was an entirely separate experience. I felt, with a conviction which I know not how to translate into words, that what I was "in for" by being a sentient human being was immeasurably great. It was thence that the sense of awe came, thence the extraordinary sensitiveness, thence the painful exhilaration, the spiritual sublimation. "Oh! what a tremendous thing it is to be a living person! Oh, how dreadfully great!" That is the way the child felt. That was what kept ringing in my ears.

Though I was isolated, I had no sense of smallness or of utter insignificance in face of the Universe. I did not feel myself a miserable, fortuitous atom, a grain of cosmic dust. I felt, though, again, I am interpreting rather than recording, that I was fully equal to my fate. As a human being I was not only immortal, but capax imperii,-a creature worthy of a heritage so tremendous.

From that day to this, talk about the unimportance, the futility of man and his destiny has left me

quite cold.

Though, as a small child, I was by no means without religious feeling, and had, as I have always had, a deep and instinctive sense of the Divine existence, I had not the least desire to translate my vision of the universal into the terms of theology.

That is a very odd fact, but a fact it is. The vision remained, and remains, isolated, immutable, and apart. Though I had perfect confidence in my father and mother, and often talked to them of spiritual matters, I did not at the time feel any impulse to relate my experience either to them or to anyone else. I had no desire to unload my mind-a remarkable thing for so eager a talker and expounder as I have always been. This reticence, I am sure, came not from a fear of being laughed at, or of shocking anyone, or again from a fear of a repetition of the experience. It simply did not occur to me to talk. The experience was solely mine, I was satisfied and even a little perturbed by the result. Probably some sense of the great difficulty of finding words to fit my thoughts also held me back.

It was only after two or three similar visitations that I casually told the story of this "ecstasy" to my younger brother. I was then about twenty-four and he twenty. I was much surprised to find that he had never had any experiences of this particular kind, for I supposed them common. He, however, became much interested, and some little time after showed me the passage to which I have referred in Berlioz' Memoirs.

This set me investigating, and I soon found examples of states of ecstasy similar to, if not exactly like, my own. Tennyson supplied one in the visional passages in the Princess. Kinglake had a visitation akin to isolement. Wordsworth, however, came nearest to my sensations. Indeed, he describes them exactly.

My later manifestations of isolement were similar to my first, though not so vivid. As I write at the age of sixty-two, my impression is that the last occasion on which I experienced the sense of isolement was about twenty years ago. How welcome would be a repetition! I do not, however, expect another ecstasy, any more than did Wordsworth, and for very much the same reasons. I do not think that the vision was due to any morbid or irregular working of the brain, or to any other pathological or corporeal mal-functioning. I believe that the experience was purely an experience of the spirit. That is why I attribute to it a psychological and even metaphysical value.

At any rate, it corresponds with my personal metaphysic of existence. Further, I think with Wordsworth that in all probability the fact that it was most vivid in early childhood and gradually ceased when I grew up, is a proof that in some way or other it was based on a spiritual memory. Wordsworth, after the description I have already given, goes on:-

High instincts, before which our mortal nature

Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised;

But for those first affections,

Those shadowy recollections,

Which, be they what they may,

Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,

Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;

Uphold us-cherish-and have power to make

Our noisy years seem moments in the being

Of the eternal silence; truths that wake

To perish never;

Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,

Nor man nor boy,

Nor all that is at enmity with joy,

Can utterly abolish or destroy!

That seems to me the explanation which can most reasonably be applied to the mental phenomena which I have described. It satisfied me completely. Wordsworth struck the exact balance between mental exaltation and the trembling "like a guilty thing surprised," of which I have given a more prosaic account.

I must add here that the Ode to Immorality is not a poem which my father used to read to us as children, and as far as I can remember I did not take to reading it, or know anything about it, till I was seventeen or eighteen; that is, ten or twelve years later. Even when it became a favourite with me, for some reason or other I did not dwell upon the isolement part of it, but rather upon the earlier passages. Curiously enough, it was a quotation in Clough's Amours de Voyages which first made me realise that Wordsworth was dealing with isolement.

I hope no one will think that in describing my experiences of isolement in my own mind I was exaggerating the importance of the incident. I know that similar waking trances are very common. I also know that modern psychology, or, I should say, certain schools of modern psychology, regard them merely as manifestations or outcrops of the unconscious self. If I understand the argument rightly, they hold that just as in dreams the unconscious self gets possession of one's personality and the consciousness is for a certain time deposed or exiled, the same thing may happen, and does happen in our waking hours. Therefore isolement must not be regarded as anything wonderful or mystic, but merely as a day-dream. I admit that this seems at first sight a plausible explanation. Yet I can say with Gibbon, "this statement is probable; but certainly false."

Anyone who has experienced the feeling as I experienced it would think it by no means unlikely that it represented something far deeper, and was due to some impulse external to oneself. Certainly to me the feeling was essentially one of revelation, of being suddenly made to see and understand things which before had been dark or unknown. I realised that what I should now call the materialistic hypothesis would not help me to a solution. No "fanciful shapes of a plastic earth" were in my vision. My Ego, whatever it was or was to be, was, I perceived, a spirit and not a creature of flesh-and-blood, and also not a hypothesis, but a reality.

Since it is appropriate to my account of the phenomenon of isolement, I may add a curious passage in Walt Whitman's Specimen Days and Collect, which shows that the poet knew this form of ecstasy:

Even for the treatment of the universal, in politics, metaphysics, or anything, sooner or later we come down to our single, solitary soul. There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining, eternal. This is the thought of identity-yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth's dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth (significant only because of the Me in the centre), creeds, conventions fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look'd upon, it expands over the whole earth and spreads to the roof of heaven. The quality of BEING, in the object's self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto-not criticism by other standards and adjustments thereto-is the lesson of Nature.

Who knows whether this may not be Walt Whitman's "secret," or, at any

rate, the spiritual experience of which the poet's latest biographer,

Mr. Emory Holloway, writes? His interesting account of Walt Whitman's

Manuscript Note-Books is preceded by the following statement:

The first of these (The MS. Note-Books) begins with a sense of suppressed, half-articulate power in the language of a novel ecstasy. Some mystical experience, some great if not sudden access of intellectual power, some enlargement and clarifying of vision, some selfless throb of cosmic sympathy, has come to Walt Whitman. At first he can only ejaculate his wonder, and pray for the advent of a perfect man who will be worthy to communicate to the world this new vision of humanity. Then, like the prophet Isaiah, whose great book he is wont to carry in his pocket to Coney Island, he suddenly realises that a vision is itself a commission; and from this moment he dedicates himself to a life task as audacious as it seems divine.

Though the subject, I admit, fascinates me, I must say no more on it, lest my autobiography should become "a sort of a commentary" on "the ecstasy," featuring Plotinus!

Though always intensely interested in things psychical, and a copious reader of all the phenomena of the unseen world, I have only had one other psychic adventure in the whole of my life, and that an insignificant one. It is, however, worth recording shortly. It happened that in the early autumn of the year 1920, while my son was away from home, learning French in a family at Versailles, I went to my dressing- room to sleep, at about three o'clock in the afternoon. I woke up at four o'clock-an hour's sleep is my ration-with a start and the recollection that I had just dreamt a dream of a very alarming kind. In my dream my wife had come to me with a telegram in her hand, and had told me that our son had been killed in a hunting accident in France. The impression was extremely vivid, and for a moment I was greatly perturbed. This, however, did not last. A little reflection soon made me feel that it could be nothing but a bad dream-a nightmare. People do not hunt in August, or at Versailles, and therefore there was no reason whatever to regard the dream seriously. Still, as a faithful member of the Psychical Society, I thought I must take notice of the incident, even though it seemed ridiculous. No scientific investigator ever dares to say that any "odd" observed fact is not worth considering.

Accordingly I sat down and wrote to my son, mentioning the dream and asking whether between three and four on that day he was in any kind of mental trouble or anxiety-anything that by an imperfect telephonic message might have got through to me as a hunting accident. To my astonishment, I received by return a letter from Versailles telling me that about three-fifteen on the day in question he had been in a small railway accident, which, though not resulting in any deaths, had injured several people, and had given him a fairly severe shaking.

Considering how seldom I dream, and if I do dream, how seldom the dream concerns anybody else, it is difficult to account for this as a mere coincidence. My dreams, when I have them, are practically all of the pure nightmare description and of the usual sealed-pattern. I am worried by the sense of not being able to pack in time to catch my train, or else I am compelled to go back to Oxford and try to pass an examination under impossible and humiliating conditions. Indeed, I don't think I can ever remember a dream, except this one about my son, which was of a non- egotistical kind, that is, in which somebody else speaks, and of which I am not the centre. In a word, it seems to me that, though my son had no recollection of thinking of me (the accident was not important enough for that), his unconscious self got busy and, as I was in a light sleep, it was able to telephone an excited message to its nearest relation, my unconscious self.

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