16 June 2009

Extract from She

Certain works of fiction, significant during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, are no longer read much, but contain elements of a certain outlook – relatively aware of existential reality – which is almost totally absent from modern culture. That this is so is no accident. The outlook in question is incompatible with the ethos which now prevails, after the cultural revolution we have had. The following extract is from Rider Haggard’s She. I may comment on it in detail in a future post.

'I brought you,' went on Ayesha presently, 'that ye might look upon the most wonderful sight that ever the eye of man beheld the full moon shining over ruined Kôr ...

Court upon dim court, row upon row of mighty pillars, some of them (especially at the gateways) sculptured from pedestal to capital space upon space of empty chambers that spoke more eloquently to the imagination than any crowded streets. And over all, the dead silence of the dead, the sense of utter loneliness, and the brooding spirit of the Past! How beautiful it was, and yet how drear! ... Ayesha herself was awed in the presence of an antiquity compared to which even her length of days was but a little thing; ... It was a wonderful sight to see the full moon looking down on the ruined fane of Kôr . It was a wonderful thing to think for how many thousands of years the dead orb above and the dead city below had gazed thus upon each other, and in the utter solitude of space poured forth each to each the tale of their lost life and long-departed glory. ... and the untamed majesty of its present Death seemed to ... speak more loudly than the shouts of armies concerning the pomp and splendour that the grave had swallowed, and even memory had forgotten.

... she led us through two more pillared courts into the inner shrine of the old fane.

... in the exact centre of the court, placed upon a thick square slab of rock, was a huge round ball of dark stone, some forty feet in diameter, and standing on the ball was a colossal winged figure ...

It was the winged figure of a woman of such marvellous loveliness and delicacy of form that the size seemed rather to add to than to detract from its so human and yet more spiritual beauty. She was bending forward and poising herself upon her half-spread wings as though to preserve her balance as she leant. Her arms were outstretched like those of some woman about to embrace one she dearly loved, while her whole attitude gave an impression of the tenderest beseeching. Her perfect and most gracious form was naked, save and here came the extraordinary thing the face, which was thinly veiled, so that we could only trace the marking of her features. A gauzy veil was thrown round and about the head, and of its two ends one fell down across her left breast, which was outlined beneath it, and one, now broken, streamed away...

'Who is she?' I asked ...

... 'It is Truth standing on the World, and calling to its children to unveil her face. See what is writ upon the pedestal. Without doubt it is taken from the book of the Scriptures of these men of Kôr,' and she led the way to the foot of the statue, where an inscription of the usual Chinese-looking hieroglyphics was so deeply graven as to be still quite legible, at least to Ayesha. According to her translation it ran thus:

'Is there no man that will draw my veil and look upon my face, for it is very fair? Unto him who draws my veil shall I be, and peace will I give him, and sweet children of knowledge and good works.'

And a voice cried, 'Though all those who seek after thee desire thee, behold! Virgin art thou, and Virgin shall thou go till Time be done. No man is there born of woman who may draw thy veil and live, nor shall be. By Death only can thy veil be drawn, oh Truth!'

And Truth stretched out her arms and wept, because those who sought her might not find her, nor look upon her face to face.

'Thou seest,' said Ayesha, when she had finished translating, 'Truth was the Goddess of the people of old Kôr, and to her they built their shrines, and her they sought; knowing that they should never find, still sought they.'

'And so,' I added sadly, 'do men seek to this very hour, but they find not; and, as this scripture saith, nor shall they; for in Death only is Truth found.'