The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 13, No. 76, February, 1864

by: Various

Language: English
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When Paul Morphy plays seven games of chess at once and blindfold, when young Colburn gives impromptu solution to a mathematical problem involving fifty-six figures, we are struck with hopeless wonder: such power is separated by the very extent of it from our mental operations. But when we further observe that these feats are attended by little or no fatigue,—that this is the play, not the tension of faculty, we recognize a new kind, not merely a new degree, of intelligence. These men seem to leap, not labor step by step, to their results. Colburn sees the complication of values, Morphy that of moves, as we see the relation of two and two. What is multiform and puzzling to us is simple to them, as the universe lies rounded and is one thought in the Original Mind. We seek in vain for the secret of this mastery. It is private,—as deeply hidden from those who have as from those who have it not. They cannot think otherwise than so, and to this exercise have been provoked by every influence in life. The boy who is an organized arithmetic and geometry will count all the hills of potatoes and reckon the kernels of corn in a bushel, and his triangles soon begin to cover the barn-door. He sees nothing but number and dimension; he feeds on these, another fellow on apples and nuts. But his brother loves application of force, builds wheels and mills; his head is full of cogs and levers and eccentrics; and after he has gone out to his engineering in the great machine-shop of a modern world, the old corn-chamber at home is lumbered with his mysterious contrivances, studies for a self-impelling or gravitating machine and perpetual motion. Another boy is fired with the mystery of form. He will draw the cat and dog; his chalk and charcoal are on all our elbows; he carves a ram's head on his bat, an eagle on a walking-stick, perches a cock on top of the barn, puts an eye and a nose to every triangle of the geometer, and paints faces on the wheels of his mechanical brother. In all these boys there is something more than ability; there is propensity, an attraction irresistible. Their minds run, we say, in that direction, and they creep or lie still, if turned in another. The young shepherd will toss eggs, spin platters, and balance knives, year after year, in solitude, with a patient energy and endurance able to command any fortune.

What philter is in these faculties? The boy who will be great is always discontented with his work, ready to rub out and begin again. He follows a bee, and never quite touches that which drew him on. Plainly, the mere ability to do is a dry straw, but through it our seeker tastes an intoxicating, seductive liquor, from which he cannot take away his lips.

It is the liquor of our life. In measure, or form, or tone, he applies himself to the very breasts of Nature, and draws through these exteriors a motherly milk which was her blood and hastens to be his own. If the young cub holds fast to the teat, be sure the stream flows and his veins swell. Matter is the dry rind of this succulent, nutritious universe: prick it on any side, and you draw the same juice. Varieties of endowment are only so many pitchers dipped in one stream. Poet, painter, musician, mathematician, the gift is an accident of organization, the result is admission to that by which all things are, and by partaking which we become what we must be.

Of this experience there can be no adequate report. It is as though one should attempt to go up in a balloon above the atmosphere and bring down the ether in his hands. There is a spring on every door in Nature to close it behind the returning footsteps of her lover, so that he can lead no man freely into the chamber where she gave him love; it is only by the confidence, fervency, and reverence of the initiate that we learn in what presence he has been. Genius is great, but no product of genius is more than a shadow which points to this sun behind the sun as its substance, and the power of our inspired men has been merely manifested, not rightly employed. Genius has availed only to authenticate itself as the normal activity of man, not yet to do the work of the world.

Sense is a tangle of contradiction. The boy throws wood on water and it floats; then he throws in his new knife and it sinks. How was he to know that the same force will lift a stick and swallow a knife? He throws a feather after his knife, and away it swims on the wind. That is another brook, then, in which the feather is a stick and the stick a stone. Not only are results of a single law opposed, but the laws pull one this way, one that, as gravitation contends with currents of water and air. If we could be shut in sense and surface, Nature would seem a game of cross-purposes, every creature devouring another. The beast eats plant and beast; he dies, and the plant eats him again; fire, water, and frost, in their old quarrel, destroy whatever they build; the night eats the day, summer the snow, and winter the green. Change is a revolving wheel, in which so many spokes rise, so many fall, a motion returning into itself. Nature is a circle, but man a spiral. No wonder he is dissatisfied, with his longing to get on. Eating and hunger, labor and rest, gathering and spending, there is no gain. Life is consumed in getting a living. After laborious years our money is ready in bank, but the man who was to enjoy it is gone from enjoyment, shrivelled with care, every appetite dried up....