Racial Experience

[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]

Marco Paul 

There is a general agreement among men that experience is the most effective and successful of teachers; that for many men no other form of education is possible; and that those who enjoy the fullest educational opportunities miss the deeper processes of training if they fail of that wide contact with the happenings of life which we call experience. To touch the world at many points; to come into relations with many kinds of men; to think, to feel, and to act on a generous scale,—these are prime opportunities for growth. For it is not only true, as Browning said so often and in so many kinds of speech, that a man's greatest good fortune is to have the opportunity of giving out freely and powerfully all the force that is in him, but it is also true that almost equal good fortune attends the man who has the opportunity of receiving truth and instruction through a wide and rich experience.

But individual experience, however inclusive and deep, is necessarily limited, and the life of the greatest man would be confined within narrow boundaries if he were shut within the circle of his own individual contact with things and persons. If Shakespeare had written of those things only of which he had personal knowledge, of those experiences in which he had personally shared, his contribution to literature would be deeply interesting, but it would not possess that quality of universality which makes it the property of the race. In Shakespeare there was not only knowledge of man, but knowledge of men as well. His greatness rests not only on his own commanding personality, but on his magical power of laying other personalities under tribute for the enlargement of his view of things and the enrichment of his portraiture of humanity. A man learns much from his own contacts with his time and his race, but one of the most important gains he makes is the development of the faculty of appropriating the results of the contacts of other men with other times and races; and one of the finer qualities of rich experience is the quickening of the imagination to divine that which is hidden in the experience of other races and ages.

The man of culture must not only live deeply and intelligently in his own experience, rationalizing and utilizing it as he passes through it; he must also break away from its limitations and escape its tendency to substitute a part of life, distinctly seen, for the whole of life, vaguely discerned. The great writer, for instance, must first make his own nature rich in its development and powerful in harmony of aim and force, and he must also make this nature sensitive, sympathetic, and clairvoyant in its relations with the natures of other men. To become self-centered, and yet to be able to pass entirely out of one's self into the thoughts, emotions, impulses, and sufferings of others, involves a harmonizing of opposing tendencies which is difficult of attainment.

It is precisely this poise which men of the highest productive power secure; for it is this nice adjustment of the individual discovery of truth to the general discovery of truth which gives a man of imaginative faculty range, power, and sanity of view. To see, feel, think, and act strongly and intelligently in our own individual world gives us first-hand relations to that world, and first-hand knowledge of it; to pass beyond the limits of this small sphere, which we touch with our own hands, into the larger spheres which other men touch, not only widens our knowledge but vastly increases our power. It is like exchanging the power of a small stream for the general power which plays through Nature. One of the measures of greatness is furnished by this ability to pass through individual into national or racial experience; for a man's spiritual dimensions, as revealed through any form of art, are determined by his power of discerning essential qualities and experiences in the greatest number of people. The four writers who hold the highest places in literature justify their claims by their universality; that is to say, by the range of their knowledge of life as that knowledge lies revealed in the experience of the race.

It is the fortune of a very small group of men in any age to possess the power of divining, by the gift of genius, the world which lies, nebulous and shadowy, in the lives of men about them, or in the lives of men of other times; in the nature of things, the clairvoyant vision of poets like Tennyson, Browning, and Hugo, of novelists like Thackeray, Balzac, and Tolstoy, is not at the command of all men; and yet all men may share in it and be enlarged by it. This is one of the most important services which literature renders to its lover: it makes him a companion of the most interesting personalities in their most significant moments; it enables him to break the bars of individual experience and escape into the wider and richer life of the race. Within the compass of a very small room, on a very few shelves, the real story of man in this world may be collected in the books of life in which it is written; and the solitary reader, whose personal contacts with men and events are few and lacking in distinction and interest, may enter, through his books, into the most thrilling life of the race in some of its most significant moments.

No man can read "In Memoriam" or "The Ring and the Book" without passing beyond the boundaries of his individual experience into experiences which broaden and quicken his own spirit; and no one can become familiar with the novels of Turgenev or Tolstoy without touching life at new points and passing through emotions which would never have been stirred in him by the happenings of his own life. Such a story as "Anna Karenina" leaves no reader of imagination or heart entirely unchanged; its elemental moral and artistic force strikes into every receptive mind and leaves there a knowledge of life not possessed before. The work of the Russian novelists has been, indeed, a new reading in the book of experience; it has made a notable addition to the sum total of humanity's knowledge of itself. In the pages of Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, the majority of readers have found a world absolutely new to them; and in reading those pages, so penetrated with the dramatic spirit, they have come into the possession of a knowledge of life not formal and didactic, but deep, vital, and racial in its range and significance. To possess the knowledge of an experience at once so remote and so rich in disclosure of character, so charged with tragic interest, is to push back the horizons of our own experience, to secure a real contribution to our own enrichment and development. Whoever carries that process far enough brings into his individual experience much of the richness and splendor of the experience of the race.



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