Joy a condition of life: II

Here’s a juicy quote from Robert Louis Stevenson that William James uses in The Varieties.  Clark West passed it to me.  I pass it on.  It’s wonderful.  The author of Treasure Island could write!  and is Wise!  This isn’t kid’s stuff!

“There is one fable that touches very near the quick of life: the fable of the monk who passed into the woods, heard a bird break into song, hearkened for a trill or two, and found himself on his return a stranger at his convent gates; for he had been absent fifty years, and of all his comrades there survived but one to recognise him. It is not only in the woods that this enchanter carols, though perhaps he is native there. He sings in the most doleful places. The miser hears him and chuckles, and the days are moments. With no more apparatus than an ill-smelling lantern I have evoked him on the naked links. All life that is not merely mechanical is spun out of two strands: seeking for that bird and hearing him. And it is just this that makes life so hard to value, and the delight of each so incommunicable. And just a knowledge of this, and a remembrance of those fortunate hours in which the bird has sung to us, that fills us with such wonder when we turn the pages of the realist. There, to be sure, we find a picture of life in so far as it consists of mud and of old iron, cheap desires and cheap fears, that which we are ashamed to remember and that which we are careless whether we forget; but of the note of that time- devouring nightingale we hear no news.

And the true realism were that of the poets, to climb after him like a squirrel, and catch some glimpse of the heaven in which he lives. And the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse. To one who has not the secret of the lanterns the scene upon the links is meaningless. And hence the haunting and truly spectral unreality of realistic books…. In each we miss the personal poetry, the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy that clothes what is naked and seems to ennoble what is base; in each, life falls dead like dough, instead of soaring away like a balloon into the colors of the sunset; each is true, each inconceivable; for no man lives in the external truth among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied wall.” –Robert Louis Stevenson Across the Plains


8 comments on “Joy a condition of life: II

  1. Dean says:

    An excellent and beautiful articulation indeed!

    Stevenson has always held a place in my heart, especially because of his spirited defense of St. Damien of Molokai (the leper priest, as he’s known). In a brilliant polemical essay against a contemporary of Damien, Stevenson reverses the negative adjectives that had been lobbed against Damien. Here’s a great line where he comments on Damien being called “coarse.”

    “Damien was COARSE.

    It is very possible. You make us sorry for the lepers, who had
    only a coarse old peasant for their friend and father. But you,
    who were so refined, why were you not there, to cheer them with the
    lights of culture? Or may I remind you that we have some reason to
    doubt if John the Baptist were genteel; and in the case of Peter,
    on whose career your doubtless dwell approvingly in the pulpit, no
    doubt at all he was a ‘coarse, headstrong’ fisherman! Yet even in
    our Protestant Bibles Peter is called Saint.”

    (the rest can be found here:

    • efmooney says:

      Also, it strikes me that we under appreciate ‘simple’ fairy tales and adventure tales for children (and, of course, necessarily of interest to the adults who read them to their kids — what adult would stick with a banal tale?). It reminds me that as Kierkegaard tells his “King and the Maiden” tale (in Philosophical Crumbs) he reflects that no one will take him seriously, because “it’s only a fable.”

    • efmooney says:

      I’m checking this out (the Father Damien piece).

  2. Clark West says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed this. And thank you for sharing the Zadie Smith piece. She is exactly right, I think, about the fragility of joy and its inextricable link to mourning. This is very helpful for me in my new work.

    And I am grateful to Dean for his passing along the wonderful Stevenson defense of coarseness!

  3. Steve says:

    Here’s a spectacular (though also subtly different) version of the same idea, which all Thoreau buffs will recognize instantly:

    While the artist of Kouroo, with single-minded devotion, gives his life to making a perfect staff, whole cities and dynasties rise and fall and rise again, till history itself slips away and the very stars in the heavens shift their places; but through it all, the artist remains as young as the day he started, unaware of all that transpires while he works. At the end of this incredible eclipse of time, when the artist finally looks up from his work, he has an epiphany:

    “And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain.”

    The moral of Thoreau’s parable is far more complex and difficult to interpret than the tale Stevenson relates, but I derive from it a similar feeling for the way in which quality of attention can seem to suspend time and keep us young.

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