The Centaur

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THE CENTAUR

ALGERNON BLACKWOOD

1911

I

“We may be in the Universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing
the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the
meaning of it all.”

—WILLIAM JAMES, A Pluralistic Universe

“… A man’s vision is the great fact about him. Who cares for Carlyle’s
reasons, or Schopenhauer’s, or Spencer’s? A philosophy is the expression
of a man’s intimate character, and all definitions of the Universe are
but the deliberately adopted reactions of human characters upon it.”

—Ibid

“There are certain persons who, independently of sex or comeliness,
arouse an instant curiosity concerning themselves. The tribe is small,
but its members unmistakable. They may possess neither fortune, good
looks, nor that adroitness of advance-vision which the stupid name good
luck; yet there is about them this inciting quality which proclaims that
they have overtaken Fate, set a harness about its neck of violence, and
hold bit and bridle in steady hands.

“Most of us, arrested a moment by their presence to snatch the definition
their peculiarity exacts, are aware that on the heels of curiosity
follows—envy. They know the very things that we forever seek in vain.
And this diagnosis, achieved as it were en passant, comes near to the
truth, for the hallmark of such persons is that they have found, and
come into, their own. There is a sign upon the face and in the eyes.
Having somehow discovered the ‘piece’ that makes them free of the whole
amazing puzzle, they know where they belong and, therefore, whither they
are bound: more, they are definitely en route. The littlenesses of
existence that plague the majority pass them by.

“For this reason, if for no other,” continued O’Malley, “I count my
experience with that man as memorable beyond ordinary. ‘If for no other,’
because from the very beginning there was another. Indeed, it was
probably his air of unusual bigness, massiveness rather,—head, face,
eyes, shoulders, especially back and shoulders,—that struck me first
when I caught sight of him lounging there hugely upon my steamer deck at
Marseilles, winning my instant attention before he turned and the
expression on his great face woke more—woke curiosity, interest, envy.
He wore this very look of certainty that knows, yet with a tinge of mild
surprise as though he had only recently known. It was less than
perplexity. A faint astonishment as of a happy child—almost of an
animal—shone in the large brown eyes—”

“You mean that the physical quality caught you first, then the
psychical?” I asked, keeping him to the point, for his Irish imagination
was ever apt to race away at a tangent.

He laughed good-naturedly, acknowledging the check. “I believe that to be
the truth,” he replied, his face instantly grave again. “It was the
impression of uncommon bulk that heated my intuition—blessed if I know
how—leading me to the other. The size of his body did not smother, as so
often is the case with big people: rather, it revealed. At the moment I
could conceive no possible connection, of course. Only this overwhelming
attraction of the man’s personality caught me and I longed to make
friends. That’s the way with me, as you know,” he added, tossing the hair
back from his forehead impatiently,”—pretty often. First impressions.
Old man, I tell you, it was like a possession.”

“I believe you,” I said. For Terence O’Malley all his life had never
understood half measures.

II

“The friendly and flowing savage, who is he? Is he waiting for
civilization, or is he past it, and mastering it?”

—WHITMAN

“We find ourselves today in the midst of a somewhat peculiar state of
society, which we call Civilization, but which even to the most
optimistic among us does not seem altogether desirable. Some of us,
indeed, are inclined to think that it is a kind of disease which the
various races of man have to pass through….

“While History tells us of many nations that have been attacked by it, of
many that have succumbed to it, and of some that are still in the throes
of it, we know of no single case in which a nation has fairly recovered
from and passed through it to a more normal and healthy condition. In
other words, the development of human society has never yet (that we know
of) passed beyond a certain definite and apparently final stage in the
process we call Civilization; at that stage it has always succumbed or
been arrested.”

—EDWARD CARPENTER, Civilization: Its Cause and Cure

O’Malley himself is an individuality that invites consideration from the
ruck of commonplace men. Of mingled Irish, Scotch, and English blood, the
first predominated, and the Celtic element in him was strong. A man of
vigorous health, careless of gain, a wanderer, and by his own choice
something of an outcast, he led to the end the existence of a rolling
stone. He lived from hand to mouth, never quite growing up. It seemed,
indeed, that he never could grow up in the accepted sense of the term,
for his motto was the reverse of nil admirari, and he found himself in
a state of perpetual astonishment at the mystery of things. He was
forever deciphering the huge horoscope of Life, yet getting no further
than the House of Wonder, on whose cusp surely he had been born.
Civilization, he loved to say, had blinded the eyes of men, filling them
with dust instead of vision.

An ardent lover of wild outdoor life, he knew at times a high, passionate
searching for things of the spirit, when the outer world fell away like
dross and he seemed to pass into a state resembling ecstasy. Never in
cities or among his fellow men, struggling and herded, did these times
come to him, but when he was abroad with the winds and stars in desolate
places. Then, sometimes, he would be rapt away, caught up to see the
tail-end of the great procession of the gods that had come near. He
surprised Eternity in a running Moment.

For the moods of Nature flamed through him—in him—like presences,
potently evocative as the presences of persons, and with meanings equally
various: the woods with love and tenderness; the sea with reverence and
magic; plains and wide horizons with the melancholy peace and silence as
of wise and old companions; and mountains with a splendid terror due to
some want of comprehension in himself, caused probably by a spiritual
remoteness from their mood.

The Cosmos, in a word, for him was psychical, and Nature’s moods were
transcendental cosmic activities that induced in him these singular
states of exaltation and expansion. She pushed wide the gateways of his
deeper life. She entered, took possession, dipped his smaller self into
her own enormous and enveloping personality.

He possessed a full experience, and at times a keen judgment, of modern
life; while underneath, all the time, lay the moving sea of curiously
wild primitive instincts. An insatiable longing for the wilderness was in
his blood, a craving vehement, unappeasable. Yet for something far
greater than the wilderness alone—the wilderness was merely a symbol, a
first step, indication of a way of escape. The hurry and invention of
modern life were to him a fever and a torment. He loathed the million
tricks of civilization. At the same time, being a man of some
discrimination at least, he rarely let himself go completely. Of these
wilder, simpler instincts he was afraid. They might flood all else. If he
yielded entirely, something he dreaded, without being able to define,
would happen; the structure of his being would suffer a nameless
violence, so that he would have to break with the world. These cravings
stood for that loot of the soul which he must deny himself. Complete
surrender would involve somehow a disintegration, a dissociation of
his personality that carried with it the loss of personal identity.

When the feeling of revolt became sometimes so urgent in him that it
threatened to become unmanageable, he would go out into solitude, calling
it to heel; but this attempt to restore order, while easing his nature,
was never radical; the accumulation merely increased on the rebound; the
yearnings grew and multiplied, and the point of saturation was often
dangerously near. “Some day,” his friends would say, “there’ll be a
bursting of the dam.” And, though their meaning might be variously
interpreted, they spoke the truth. O’Malley knew it, too.

A man he was, in a word, of deep and ever-shifting moods, and with more
difficulty than most in recognizing the underlying self of which these
outer aspects were projections masquerading as complete personalities.

The underlying ego that unified these projections was of the type
touched with so sure a hand in the opening pages of an inspired little
book: The Plea of Pan. O’Malley was useless as a citizen and knew it.
Sometimes—he was ashamed of it as well.

Occasionally, and at the time of this particular “memorable adventure,”
aged thirty, he acted as foreign correspondent; but even as such he was
the kind of newspaper man that not merely collects news, but discovers,
reveals, creates it. Wise in their generation, the editors who
commissioned him remembered when his copy came in that they were editors.
A roving commission among the tribes of the Caucasus was his assignment
at the moment, and a better man for the purpose would have been hard to
find, since he knew beauty, had a keen eye for human nature, divined what
was vital and picturesque, and had, further, the power to set it down in
brief terms born directly of his vivid emotions.

When first I knew him he lived—nowhere, being always on the move. He
kept, however, a dingy little room near Paddington where his books and
papers accumulated, undusted but safe, and where the manuscripts of his
adventures were found when his death made me the executor of his few
belongings. The key was in his pocket, carefully ticketed with a bone
label. And this, the only evidence of practical forethought I ever
discovered in him, was proof that something in that room was deemed by
him of value—to others. It certainly was not the heterogeneous
collection of second-hand books, nor the hundreds of unlabeled
photographs and sketches. Can it have been the MSS. of stories, notes,
and episodes I found, almost carefully piled and tabulated with titles,
in a dirty kitbag of green Willesden canvas?

Some of these he had told me (with a greater vividness than he could
command by pen); others were new; many unfinished. All were unusual,
to say the least. All, too, had obviously happened to himself at some
period of his roving career, though here and there he had disguised his
own part in them by Hoffmann’s device of throwing the action into the
third person. Those told to me by word of mouth I could only feel were
true, true for himself at least. In no sense were they mere inventions,
but arose in moments of vision upon a structure of solid events. Ten
men will describe in as many different ways a snake crossing their path;
but, besides these, there exists an eleventh man who sees more than the
snake, the path, the movement. O’Malley was some such eleventh man. He
saw the thing whole, from some kind of inner bird’s-eye view, while the
ten saw only limited aspects of it from various angles. He was accused
of adding details, therefore, because he had divined their presence while
still below the horizon. Before they emerged the others had already left.

By which I mean that he saw in commonplace events the movement of greater
tides than others saw. At one remove of time or distance—a minute or a
mile—he perceived all. While the ten chattered volubly about the name
of the snake, he was caught beyond by the beauty of the path, the glory
of the running glide, the nature of the forces that drove, hindered,
modified.

The others reasoned where the snake was going, its length in inches and
its speed per second, while he, ignoring such superficial details,
plunged as it were into the very nature of the creature’s being. And in
this idiosyncrasy, which he shared with all persons of mystical
temperament, is exemplified a certain curious contempt for Reason that he
had. For him mere intellectuality, by which the modern world sets such
store, was a valley of dry bones. Its worship was a worship of the form.
It missed the essential inner truth because such inner truth could be
known only by being it, feeling it. The intellectual attitude of mind, in
a word, was critical, not creative, and to be unimaginative seemed to
him, therefore, the worst form of unintelligence.

“The arid, sterile minds!” he would cry in a burst of his Celtic

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