Thursday, October 22, 2015

Which Is The Way?

The story that Loren Eiseley refers to, here, is "Winter."

"I may truly say," wrote Sir Francis Bacon, in the time of his tragic fall, "my soul hath been a stranger in the course of my pilgrimage. I seem to have my conversation among the ancients more than among those with whom I live." I suppose, in essence, this is the story of every man who thinks, though there are centuries when such thought grows painfully intense, as in our own. Shakespeare -- Bacon's great contemporary -- again speaks of it from the shadows when he says:

"Sir, in my heart there was a kinde of fighting
That would not let me sleepe."

In one of those strange, elusive stories upon which the modern writer Walter de la Mare exerted all the powers of his marvelous poetic gift, a traveler musing over the quaint epitaphs in a country cemetery suddenly grows aware of the cold on a bleak hillside, of the onset of a winter evening, of the miles he has yet to travel, of the solitude he faces. He turns to go and is suddenly confronted by a man who has appeared from no place our traveler can discover, and who has about him, though he is clothed in human garb and form, an unearthly air of difference. The stranger, who appears to be holding a forked twig like that which diviners use, asks of our traveler, the road. "Which," he queries, "is the way?"

The mundane, though sensitive, traveler indicates the high road to town. The stranger, with a look of revulsion upon his face, almost as though it flowed from some secret information transmitted by the forked twig he clutches, recoils in horror. The way‌ -- the human way‌ -- ‌that the traveler indicates to him is obviously not his way. The stranger has wandered, perhaps like Bacon, out of some more celestial pathway.

When our traveler turns from giving directions, the stranger has gone, not necessarily supernaturally, for de la Mare is careful to move within the realm of the possible, but in a manner that leaves us suddenly tormented with the notion that our road, the road to town, the road of everyday life, has been rejected by a person of divinatory powers who sees in it some disaster not anticipated by ourselves. Suddenly in this magical and evocative winter landscape, the reader asks himself with an equal start of terror, "What is the way?" The road we have taken for granted is now filled with the shadowy menace and the anguished revulsion of that supernatural being who exists in all of us. A weird country tale‌ -- ‌a ghost story if you will‌ -- ‌has made us tremble before our human destiny.

Unlike the creatures who move within visible nature and are indeed shaped by that nature, man resembles the changeling of medieval fairy tales. He has suffered an exchange in the safe cradle of nature, for his earlier instinctive self. He is now susceptible, in the words of theologians, to unnatural desires. Equally, in the view of the evolutionist, he is subject to indefinite departure, but his destination is written in no decipherable tongue.

For in man, by contrast with the animal, two streams of evolution have met and merged: the biological and the cultural. The two streams are not always mutually compatible. Sometimes they break tumultuously against each other so that, to a degree not experienced by any other creature, man is dragged hither and thither, at one moment by the blind instincts of the forest, at the next by the strange intuitions of a higher self whose rationale he doubts and does not understand.

-- From
Francis Bacon and the Modern Dilemma, by Loren Eiseley.
University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

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