The Pillar of Cloud


Obsessed by the chimera of his mind, lost in the labyrinth of his imagination, man wanders on through the shadowy dreamland he himself has begotten, slothfully accepting or eagerly rejecting, but ever seeking some unobtainable freedom, some power which will release him from those shackles he has in his studied folly and capricious ignorance welded to his thoughts.

Nothing contents him, nothing satisfies him; if he is not weeping he is laughing, if he is not laughing he is weeping; he grumbles and applauds, despises and reveres, insults and beslavers, loves and hates, fingers everything in turn, and when he has nothing further to soil and to thumb- mark sits down and cries for the moon, or else like the dog in the fable seeing his own image in the river of his dreams, loses all he has in the vain attempt to grasp more.

Slave to his own tyranny, shrieking under his own lash, the higher he builds the gloomy walls of his prison the louder he howls “Liberty”: freedom is what he craves, yearns, and strives for — freedom to leap into some miasmal bog and wallow. If he is a ploughman he wants more fields to till; if a physician, more bodies to cure; if a priest, more souls to save; if a soldier, more countries to conquer; if a lawyer, more wretches to hang. If he obtains “more,” he grumbles {223} because it is “too much”; if he does not obtain it he continues to grunt and to growl, and the more he growls and grunts the more slavish he becomes, yet the freer he considers himself.

Once born he is carefully swaddled in the rags of Custom, rocked in the cradle of Caste, and nursed on the soured milk of Creed. And as with the individual so with the nation, the one or the many, it is taught to work its way into one narrow groove, and like the water in a drain or a gutter to flow for a time unobtrusively between dignified cobbles and over respectable cement, and then to vanish as genteelly as possible underground.

Sometimes there is a stoppage; too much filth has accumulated, and it refuses all conventional methods of being removed. Then comes a flood — a revolution — for a time there is a nasty mess, but soon the filth is washed away, and once again the drainage flows humbly down its customary gutter in the same old unobtrusive manner, between the same old cobbles, and over the same old cement until in time fresh filth silts up and there is more trouble and annoyance. “So runs my dream,” and civilized man dreaming from his drain naturally pictures God as a kind of Omnipotent Sewer-Husher who everlastingly ought to trudge about with scoop, ladle, and rake, and keep gutters clean and drains in an inoffensive condition. So it happens that when gutters get blocked up and drains stink, the Free-thinker laughs and says: “You barmy fool, 'there is no sich a person'”; and when they don't, the Believer cries: “My poor benighted brother, 'He is like a refiner's fire and like Fuller's sope.'”

Compared to the civilised man, the water which flows {224} down the drain, the savage is like a mountain torrent cutting its own course amongst the hills and rushing on wildly yet wisely to the sea. No doubt, from the point of view of a sanitary engineer, the drain is more useful, more rational, altogether more proper than the wayward stream. But it is the rigid utilitarianism of this bread-and-water morality, this one-shirt-a- week thrift, this skimmed-milk philosophy this cake-on-Sunday religion, and all the other halfpenny economies of a gluttonous mediocrity, that must be trampled under foot as if they were the very cockroaches of hell, before Freedom of even a protoplasmic kind can be brought to life. Better be a savage, a one-legged hottentot, better be anything than a civilized eunuch, a crape-capped “widder” in Upper Tooting lamenting her “demised husband” whilst she counts the halfpence he has left behind him in his trouser pockets. If there is going to be a flood, let it be grand, typhoonic, torrential; do not let others pass by us and say: “Really, my dear, what an insalubrious odour!”

The savage babe being born is taught the myths of his tribe, that uncorrupted are beautiful enough; the civilised child the myths of his nation, that corrupted are merely bestial, and are as rigid as the former are elastic. The savage youth passes through one great ordeal — the struggle with Nature: the civilised through another — the struggle with Reason. The one is taught the hero tales of his forefathers, the other the platitudes of the schools, which luckily are always a few decades behind the ideas current at his birth.

Few of us remember anything that happened during the first two years of our existence, and very little during the next two; thus it comes about that from two to four years of our {225} life are blank. Perhaps during these years of nothingness we see things as they are; however, civilisation touches us on the lips and we speak and forget all about them. Directly we commence to chatter, our preparation to take life seriously begins. Books are given us, and the great wide road of wonderment becomes narrowed to a straitened right-of-way down which it is a privilege and honour to pass. If we are wild, it is naughty; if wanton — immoral; in innocence we lisp the ten commandments on our mothers' knees, only to break them when we really know what they mean. Then comes manhood and its responsibility, marriage with its one pleasure and its forty thousand plagues, as Heine says.

Our birth is a matter of law or chance — equivalent symbols for the Unknown; once born, environment, circumstance, position, convention, education, all in their turn come forward to claim us and smother us in their bestial kisses. Yet like the streams and the gutters, the drains and the rivers, we all flow, roar, or trickle onwards to the same unknown sea from which we came. Sometimes Evolution flouts Ethics and we have floods, earthquakes, and the spouting of volcanoes; sometimes Ethics flouts Evolution and we are turned into artificial ponds and ornamental Serpentines; yet upon other times it hastens our course and gives us good Doulton-ware to flow through; all of us, nevertheless, whether we be teardrop or Dead Sea, sooner or later get back to the ever-rolling ocean; and there shall we once again be wooed by the bright beams of the Sun, that relentless God who in his fierce embrace ever and again draws us up like some earthly concubine to his heavenly couch, only once more to be divorced by the malicious {226} winds and to weep through the storms of air. So the wheel of Time runs on through birth, death, and rebirth; and as we realise this we sink down in despair; and through our tears more clouds arise still further to obscure our path.

What is the use then of doing anything if we are but as drops of water which are splashed between the wanton hands of the Sun, the Wind, and the Ocean? — indeed the ways of God are inscrutable and past finding out. Thus the Unobtainable tempts us, and the little segments of God that we see become to us the fiercest and most terrible of the Dog-faced Demons which seduce us from the path. He is always at our elbow, whispering, tempting, jeering, advising and helping us; He it is that casts despair upon us when we have done nothing wrong, and elation when we have done nothing right; He it is who is ever rising before us like a mist to obscure our path or to magnify our goal; yet nevertheless He is not only the cloud but that ultimate fire — if we could only understand Him as He IS; Ah! my brothers, this is THE GREAT WORK.

Why does he do this and that, if he can do that and this? asks the Doubter. Because He chooses to, answers the Believer. But the man after God's own Heart thinks and reasons nothing, he feels there is neither doing nor choosing, and, dimly though it be, he sees that both of these foolish men, who think themselves so wise, possess but various little segments of one great circle, and that each imagines his segment a perfect circumference in itself. Presently the Mystic himself discovers that his circle which contained all their segments is but a segment of some greater circle, and that eventually he is living in a great cloud-land formed of myriads {227} and myriads of little spheres, which he feels are in Reality one Great Ocean if he could only make them unite.

Each stage above him is his Ultimate goal for the time being. Possessing one little sphere, his one and only object is to unite it to another, or another to it; not two others, not to the whole, but only to that “One Other.” For the time being (let it appear as if it were for all time to the initiate), that “One Other” is God and Very God — the Omega of his quest, and that “all others” are Devils that would tempt and seduce him. Thus it happens that until you become God, God Himself is in Reality The Tempter, Satan, and the Prince of Darkness, who, assuming the glittering robes of Time and Space, whispers in our ears: “Millions and millions and millions of eternities are as nothingness to me; then how canst thou, thou little mote dancing in the beam of mine eye, hope to span me?” Thus God at the outset comes to us and like the old witch in “Cinderella” strews innumerable lentils before us to count — but begin! and soon you will find that you have left the kitchen of the world behind you and have entered the enchanted Palace “Beyond.”

It is all very difficult and complex at first; it is rather like a man who, setting out by a strange road to visit the capital of his country, comes to a great mountain and gazes up its all but endless slopes.

“It is too high for me to climb,” the little man will say; “it is indeed very beautiful; but I will go back and find some other road.”

“I am sure it would be too long a journey,” says a second; “I could not afford it; I too will return.”

“There are no guides here,” says a third; “how foolish for me to attempt so high a peak.” {228}

“I am not strong enough,” says a fourth. “I have no chart.” … “My business won't let me.” … “My wife is against it.”

Thus God enters the heart of man in a thousand forms and tempts man as he tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Abraham in the land of Moriah.

But the strong man replenishing his wallet, and filling his flask, girds a goat-skin about him, and taking his staff sets forth on his Great travel to the Summit of the Mountain of God; and curious to relate, and terrible to tell, the whole length of that wizard way Satan follows behind him in the form of a sleuth-hound ever tempting him from the right path.

Now he is overcome by a great loneliness, he is cold, he is hungry, he thirsts; the skyline he had thought the summit is but a ridge, and from it he sees ridge upon ridge in endless succession above him. On he toils, at length it is the summit — no! but another ridge and a myriad more. A thousand fiends enter him, a thousand little sleuth-hounds that would tear him back — comfort, home, children, wife; then he says to himself: What a fool am I!

At this stage many turn back and crawling into the valley of illusions reason how much more comfortable and interesting it is to read of mountain ascents than to accomplish them. These ones talk loudly and beat the drums of their valour in the ears of all men.

At the next stage few return, most perish on the way back; for the higher you climb that great mountain the more difficult it becomes to return.

Plod on, and when your legs tremble and give way under you, crawl on, crawl on if on all fours, and clench your teeth {229} and say “I WILL”; but on! and on! and on! And behind you tireless strides along that old grey hound ever breathing forth temptations upon you; filled with crafts, and subtleties, and guiles, ever eager to lead you astray, ever ready to guide you back. And presently so great grows the loneliness of the Mountain that his very companionship becomes as a temptation to you, you feel a friendliness in resisting him, a burning hope that he will continue to tempt you, that his temptations and his mocking words are better than no words at all. This only happens far far up the mountain slope, some say not so far from the summit; but take heed! for at this stage there is a great precipice, and those who look round for the hound may perchance stumble and fall — and the foot of that precipice is the valley from which they came.

From here all is darkness, and there are no roads to guide the pilgrim, and the sleuth-hound can no more be seen because of the shadows of the night which obscure all things. And how can one write further about these matters? for those who have been so far and have returned, on account of the darkness saw nothing, therefore they have held their tongues. But there is an old parable which relates how the hound that had tempted man the whole length of his perilous journey, devoured him on the summit of that Mystic Mountain; and how that Ancient DOG was indeed GOD Himself.


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The Equinox Vol. I No. II


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