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"A Fairy World", by Henri-Frédéric Amiel

Dernière mise à jour : 21 mai 2021

John Atkinson Grimshaw - Spirit of the Night (1879)

Extracts from :

Henri-Frédéric Amiel

Journal intime

April 28, 1852.

(Lancy.) [A village near Geneva.]

Once more I feel the spring languor creeping over me, the spring air about me. This morning the poetry of the scene, the song of the birds, the tranquil sunlight, the breeze blowing over the fresh green fields, all rose into and filled my heart. Now all is silent. O silence, thou art terrible! terrible as that calm of the ocean which lets the eye penetrate the fathomless abysses below. Thou showest us in ourselves depths which make us giddy, inextinguishable needs, treasures of suffering.

Welcome tempests ! at least they blur and trouble the surface of these waters with their terrible secrets. Welcome the passion blasts which stir the wares of the soul, and so veil from us its bottomless gulfs ! In all of us, children of dust, sons of time, eternity inspires an involuntary anguish, and the infinite, a mysterious terror. We seem to be entering a kingdom of the dead. Poor heart, thy craving is for life, for love, for illusions ! And thou art right after all, for life is sacred.

In these moments of "tête-à-tête" with the infinite, how different life looks ! How all that usually occupies and excites us becomes suddenly puerile, frivolous and vain. We seem to ourselves mere puppets, marionettes, strutting seriously through a fantastic show, and mistaking gewgaws for things of great price. At such moments, how everything becomes transformed, how everything changes !

Berkeley and Fichte seem right, Emerson too; the world is but an allegory; the idea is more real than the fact; fairy tales, legends, are as true as natural history, and even more true, for they are emblems of greater transparency. The only substance properly so called is the soul. What is all the rest ? Mere shadow, pretext, figure, symbol, or dream. Consciousness alone is immortal, positive, perfectly real. The world is but a firework, a sublime phantasmagoria, destined to cheer and form the soul. Consciousness is a universe, and its sun is love....


Shall I ever enjoy again those marvelous reveries of past days, as, for instance, once, when I was still quite a youth, in the early dawn, sitting among the ruins of the castle of Faucigny; another time in the mountains above Lavey, under the midday sun, lying under a tree and visited by three butterflies; and again another night on the sandy shore of the North Sea, stretched full length upon the beach, my eyes wandering over the Milky Way ? Will they ever return to me, those grandiose, immortal, cosmogonic dreams, in which one seems to carry the world in one’s breast, to touch the stars, to possess the infinite ?

Divine moments, hours of ecstasy, when thought flies from world to world, penetrates the great enigma, breathes with a respiration large, tranquil, and profound, like that of the ocean, and hovers serene and boundless like the blue heaven! Visits from the muse, Urania, who traces around the foreheads of those she loves the phosphorescent nimbus of contemplative power, and who pours into their hearts the tranquil intoxication, if not the authority of genius, moments of irresistible intuition in which a man feels himself great like the universe and calm like a god !


February 3, 1857

The phantasmagoria of the soul cradles and soothes me as though I were an Indian yoghi, and everything, even my own life, becomes to me smoke, shadow, vapor, and illusion. I hold so lightly to all phenomena that they end by passing over me like gleams over a landscape, and are gone without leaving any impression. Thought is a kind of opium; it can intoxicate us, while still broad awake; it can make transparent the mountains and everything that exists.


July 14, 1859

I have just read “Faust” again. Alas, every year I am fascinated afresh by this somber figure, this restless life. It is the type of suffering toward which I myself gravitate, and I am always finding in the poem words which strike straight to my heart. Immortal, malign, accursed type!

Specter of my own conscience, ghost of my own torment, image of the ceaseless struggle of the soul which has not yet found its true aliment, its peace, its faith - art thou not the typical example of a life which feeds upon itself, because it has not found its God, and which, in its wandering flight across the worlds, carries within it, like a comet, an inextinguishable flame of desire, and an agony of incurable disillusion ? (...)


November 16, 1864.

Heard of the death of ... Will and intelligence lasted till there was an effusion on the brain which stopped everything. A bubble of air in the blood, a drop of water in the brain, and a man is out of gear, his machine falls to pieces, his thought vanishes, the world disappears from him like a dream at morning.

On what a spider thread is hung our individual existence ! Fragility, appearance, nothingness. If it were for our powers of self-detraction and forgetfulness, all the fairy world which surrounds and draws us would seem to us but a broken spectre in the darkness, an empty appearance, a fleeting hallucination. Appeared - disappeared - there is the whole history of a man, or of a world, or of an infusoria.

(...) Melancholy is at the bottom of everything, just as at the end of all rivers is the sea. Can it be otherwise in a world where nothing lasts, where all that we have loved or shall love must die ? Is death, then, the secret of life ? The gloom of an eternal mourning enwraps, more or less closely, every serious and thoughtful soul, as night enwraps the universe.


January 10, 1868.

(...) Maïa ! Is she indeed the true goddess ? Hindoo wisdom long ago regarded the world as the dream of Brahma. Must we hold with Fichte that it is the individual dream of each individual "ego" ? Every fool would then be a cosmogonic poet producing the firework of the universe under the dome of the infinite. But why then give ourselves such gratuitous trouble to learn ? In our dreams, at least, nightmare excepted, we endow ourselves with complete ubiquity, liberty and omniscience. Are we then less ingenious and inventive awake than asleep ?


March 19, 1868.

Is Democritus right after all ? Is chance the foundation of everything, all laws being but the imaginations of our reason, which, itself born of accident, has a certain power of self-deception and of inventing laws which it believes to be real and objective, just as a man who dreams of a meal thinks that he is eating, while in reality there is neither table, nor food, nor guest nor nourishment ?

Everything goes on as if there were order and reason and logic in the world, while in reality everything is fortuitous, accidental, and apparent. The universe is but the kaleidoscope which turns within the mind of the so-called thinking being, who is himself a curiosity without a cause, an accident conscious of the great accident around him, and who amuses himself with it so long as the phenomenon of his vision lasts. Science is a lucid madness occupied in tabulating its own necessary hallucinations.

The philosopher laughs, for he alone escapes being duped, while he sees other men the victims of persistent illusion. He is like some mischievous spectator of a ball who has cleverly taken all the strings from the violins, and yet sees musicians and dancers moving and pirouetting before him as though the music were still going on.


August 30, 1872.

Philosophy means the complete liberty of the mind, and therefore independence of all social, political, or religious prejudice. It is to begin with neither Christian nor pagan, neither monarchical nor democratic, neither socialist nor individualist; it is critical and impartial; it loves one thing only - truth.

(...) Philosophy means, first, doubt; and afterward the consciousness of what knowledge means, the consciousness of uncertainty and of ignorance, the consciousness of limit, shade, degree, possibility. The ordinary man doubts nothing and suspects nothing. The philosopher is more cautious, but he is thereby unfitted for action, because, although he sees the goal less dimly than others, he sees his own weakness too clearly, and has no illusions as to his chances of reaching it.

The philosopher is like a man fasting in the midst of universal intoxication. He alone perceives the illusion of which all creatures are the willing playthings; he is less duped than his neighbor by his own nature. He judges more sanely, he sees things as they are. It is in this that his liberty consists - in the ability to see clearly and soberly, in the power of mental record.

Philosophy has for its foundation critical lucidity. The end and climax of it would be the intuition of the universal law, of the first principle and the final aim of the universe. Not to be deceived is its first desire; to understand, its second. Emancipation from error is the condition of real knowledge. The philosopher is a skeptic seeking a plausible hypothesis, which may explain to him the whole of his experiences. When he imagines that he has found such a key to life he offers it to, but does not force it on his fellow men.


December 3, 1872

What a strange dream ! I was under an illusion and yet not under it; I was playing a comedy to myself, deceiving my imagination without being able to deceive my consciousness. This power which dreams have of fusing incompatibles together, of uniting what is exclusive, of identifying yes and no, is what is most wonderful and most symbolical in them. In a dream our individuality is not shut up within itself; it envelops, so to speak, its surroundings; it is the landscape, and all that it contains, ourselves included. But if our imagination is not our own, if it is impersonal, then personality is but a special and limited case of its general functions. "A fortiori", it would be the same for thought. And if so, thought might exist without possessing itself individually, without embodying itself in an "ego".

In other words, dreams lead us to the idea of an imagination enfranchised from the limits of personality, and even of a thought which should be no longer conscious. The individual who dreams is on the way to become dissolved in the universal phantasmagoria of Maïa. Dreams are excursions into the limbo of things, a semi-deliverance from the human prison. The man who dreams is but the "locale" of various phenomena of which he is the spectator in spite of himself; he is passive and impersonal; he is the plaything of unknown vibrations and invisible sprites.

The man who should never issue from the state of dream would have never attained humanity, properly so called, but the man who had never dreamed would only know the mind in its completed or manufactured state, and would not be able to understand the genesis of personality; he would be like a crystal, incapable of guessing what crystallization means.

So that the waking life issues from the dream life, as dreams are an emanation from the nervous life, and this again is the fine flower of organic life. Thought is the highest point of a series of ascending metamorphoses, which is called nature. Personality by means of thought, recovers in inward profundity what it has lost in extension, and makes up for the rich accumulations of receptive passivity by the enormous privilege of that empire over self which is called liberty.

Dreams, by confusing and suppressing all limits, make us feel, indeed, the severity of the conditions attached to the higher existence; but conscious and voluntary thought alone brings knowledge and allows us to act - that is to say, is alone capable of science and of perfection. Let us then take pleasure in dreaming for reasons of psychological curiosity and mental recreation; but let us never speak ill of thought, which is our strength and our dignity. Let us begin as Orientals, and end as Westerns, for these are the two halves of wisdom.

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