The White of the Dawn
Irish Theosophist, February, 1896
Long after the passing of Cuchullain, when the father of Oscar, the old man eloquent, had again become young in the morning breath of the happy isles, there dwelt a meaner race of men in Innis Fail.
A meaner race of men dwelt there; and others like them in heart, though unlike in tongue and name, came to them across the waters to spy out the nakedness of the land. And to one of these strangers an incident befell.
For being very weary of the slow-moving ship, and much fraught with the tossing of the waves, sleep was upon him all day, and he could hardly be waked at even, when the vessel drew near the shore. So it came to pass that, standing once more on the yellow sand at landing, he found himself wrapped in shades and darkness, yet felt himself fully rested, as one who awakens long after dawn.
And feeling this morning vigor in his limbs and heart. while at the same time he saw nothing round him but darkness, he was greatly perplexed. And there were some there—being of the baser folk who inhabited the island—who marked his perplexity and made a mock of it: not openly but secretly and apart. And there was one among them, in wit like the race of the Firbolgs, more cunning and crafty than the rest; and he prompted them to a shrewd design, thinking, as indeed was so, that this man was come to spy out whether the land was indeed so naked. or whether there might not haply remain from old time something of price which he might carry away as a spoil across the waters.
So, putting this shrewd plan in motion, they approached the stranger, bidding him gaily good-morning, and saying that the; day was fine. But the stranger, being carried by the composed demeanour of the man, was more perplexed, yet feared with a new-comer’s fear, and knew not what to reply but that the day was good, though perchance somewhat overcast and cloudy.
But they replied that it was bright, and that they had long not seen a brighter, and, to shorten the tale, they made night day for him, and day night, he all the while believing that days were thus in the island; and thus they made great their sport of him, carrying him through waste lands and bad at midnight, and telling him they were hunting, and had good sport.
But at last, being one day gone too far afield. they could not win homewards in the darkness, and so, seeing the white of the dawn, he understood his delusion, and the truth was made clear to him. And he turned upon those that tormented him, but they were gone, leaving him along with the sunrise.
This tale, like all the lore of Eire, has a deep and hidden meaning; or, to speak as one of the profane, this foolish story that we have clothed anew in heroic garments a world too wide, will serve as well as another to embody a truth that everybody knows and feels, though not everybody recognized that he knows it.
The truth is this: That this plausible-grotesque life we lead from day to day is not real life at all. We always feel, sometimes intensely feel, that we are in some way being taken in; that we are being put off wit the imitation, not the reality; that there is something wildly wrong about it all. We put up with it, we consent to take it seriously, because, for the life of us, we cannot find out how to lay hands on the real life we feel we are being kept out of.
Like the wight in the tale, we have had the misfortune to come to the island called the world, and the bigger misfortune to sleep the last stage of our journey; to lose the light that might have given us out bearings. And like him, too, we are instantly set upon by the people of the place, while we stand hesitating and uncertain on the beach, and, before we know it, we are caught up in the whirl of things, and carried along with the crowd.
How far the crowd that carried us along is a witty and malicious crows, we shall better know in the white of the dawn. Now, it seems to us, they are as much taken in as we are; everybody keeping everybody else in countenance, though nobody quite believes in it all; nobody daring to say out loud what everybody thinks, for fear of—well, for fear of what, it is pretty hard to say; perhaps for fear of fear, the only thing that one is really afraid of.
It is curious to see how far this feeling of misgiving runs through people; how their lurking sense that there is something wrong with things as they are, prompts nearly all their activities. The wild, natural man, that we all once were, felt this misgiving, and, desiring at all costs to get out of thing as they are, he took thought and became a hunter, and for a time was happy in his new race, until one day he discovered that things as they are had run along beside him, and kept up with him, and that he had not really escaped at all. Then he took thought again,and this time, they say, became a keeper of flocks. He had left the old behind, and went on rejoicing, till once he looked over his shoulder and saw the sardonic companion behind him still.
So we went on, from one thing to another, thinking each time that we had got hold of real life in the material and physical life we built up for ourselves.
But somehow the remedy did not seem to work, for, no sooner was the world’s housekeeping comfortably settled, than the world confessed itself disappointed with it all, by going beyond housekeeping to sciences and arts.
Now the proper end of real science, most people will say, is to find out how things really are0151in itself a confession that they seem to be not what they really are. And if the sciences we know most about have succeeded in discovering rather what things are not, than what they are; and progress consists only in multiplying the things that any particular thing is not, then that is the misfortune of science, rather than its fault. We may not think much of such results, but we must agree that science means well. There was once a proverb that connected well-meaning people with the paving of the road to a certain place—or what is a state?—so we may not be surprised at the void in which all science’s ultimates seem to disappear.
Then art is another confession that things as they are are not as they ought to be; even if that art sometimes only succeeds in seeing quite simple things through grotesquely-colored cloud of hideousness. The main thing is, that art transforms what it touches, and, if things were quite right already, no one would dream of transforming them.
So that progress, and art and science all cry out unrest. They are but the different ways in which our uneasiness shapes itself; our uneasiness, as of that wight in the island, that, though everyone says it is day, it seems to us pretty dark night all the same.
Then the white of the dawn, the first faint, cold breath of morning, the hidden stirring in everything; one envies him that magnificent surprise; at least one might if there were not, somewhere deep down in us, the premonition that a surprise not less magnificent awaits us too, one of these days, quite unexpectedly. That is what the white of the dawn says in our hearts.