I. Foreword and Forewarned.
A summoning of the tale; tabula plena; whither we tend.
About the lives and the deaths of certain individuals there hangs a cloak of secrecy. May be they themselves are secretive, as strangers to their fellow man; may be the law that governs others cannot govern them, and they live by a light too subtile for color-soused eyes. One looks on them and would like to see something recognizable. What caused this human being? one asks oneself. What brought this person to this end? What made him the person he is, or was? What conditions, what causes, what conspiracy of society and economies? — And that sly craftsman, Complacency, shall fossick out or invent outright responses to these questions, fashioning doubt to wont. We, however, who have thrown off of us at least the rule of this Complacency, must mistrust all these tidy explanations: must ask again —
Less than the times of Samuel Thornfield, we shall write his life, though the times will pursue us dog-like and nip at our heels and, certain it be, one day strike for the throat. We are not on indifferent terms with the times; only that the character about whom we treat was such a man as would have shrugged off the very day from some manner of instinct or urging or urgency. Samuel Thornfield was indeed a man that merited the name. He was not a gentleman, no “nice” democrat nor scholarly humanist; and indeed, we do not go far enough when we say only that. He shunned good manners. He was ruthless to a fault, no philanthropizer of his fellow human beings, no careful keeper of his brother. He was intolerant, insolent, impious; discriminating, commanding, imperious; supercilious, aristocratic even, superb — oh, he had his virtues, let us be clear! But they were hard and lofty virtues such as do not commonly make a man beloved in our soft and kindly times.
He was, of course, child of those times, inasmuch as any one of us is. But he was, more than that, foe of and to the times, in a way that only an anachronism can be, or an earnest striver and innovator in artibus et philosophiis. He sprang direct from the taproot of an age, which so few of us even ever graze; and consequently was well-disposed to hack at all underpinnings and to suffer of the very bifurcations he himself had wrought. He was such as would have raged against the gods, did he suspect they yet lived; such as would have thrown his wrecking ball at the foundations of churches and institutions; such as would have unified a living aristocracy or trampled over a dying one to make his road; such as would have burned the world merely to lay bare its structure. Not for nothing was he a pupil of Napoleon and the Borgia, a qualified admirer of Bruno, an avid student of Machiavelli’s Principe and Plato’s Callicles, a respectful (if militantly skeptical) scholar of alchemy and astrology, a sometime defender of notorious tyrants, lunatics, and heresiarchs. At his most most innocent and innocuous he was ever the prankster. At his worst — Ah, but at his worst? —
And so it may be queried why at all we choose to represent this man’s history to the public eye, or why in the devil’s name we ever determined Samuel Thornfield’s errancies to be a suitable topic for the general consumption. Well enough, gentle reader, do you propose such questions as these — and yet we must defer the answering: for at this all-consuming present, locus of our very lives, our defense should seem petty and inadequate and arbitrary indeed. But we may at least notch this much upon our hatchet: Samuel Thornfield was a man of uncommon high intelligence. And if there be any morsel of interest to reside in the contemplation of human beings of high intellectual mettle, then let us be forgiven, at least so far as our initial cast, the figuring of this man and his destiny.
Now, just what is a man to do with his mind, when he is given one worthy of the use? Particularly as, in case we have not said it already, this Samuel Thornfield of ours was born no scientist nor analyst nor merchant, nor certainly any mild and meek democrat, but rather an artist; was born with a special tendency and affinity for writing in particular, which matured in him alongside with and intertwined with the most elevated standards and a most natural excellence of taste, and drew the better part of the arc of his life. Trouble, that spells to one who knows. What will a man like this do in our low day? Where will he turn, when it seems that all the roads of art lead only cannibal-like into one another, and all the mines of this very rich earth be already plumbed and exhausted and its golden core hollowed out, and nothing left new beneath this sun?
Well did Samuel Thornfield himself confront that “crisis of the arts” of which so many speak so ingenuously, and so few so genuinely; well confronted he the exhaustion of the arts in general, and of the novel in particular. His peers of the pen, or those of them who were not glib of the state of affairs, must surely have asked themselves whither they were tending — and stuttered before the response. He posed himself this same question, to be sure, and more than a single time. He supposed in the novel the highest form of human criticism; he pressed that conviction to its uttermost limits. Perchance he never trespassed beyond. Late on, after the trouble had come, been, expended itself so terribly on him, he wrote in one of his better celebrated essays that his was a time in which “the conditions for creative work are almost utterly expended.” Let us heed that “almost”! So much may yet germinate within that almost! Our protagonist’s entire life right unto the breaking point unfolded within that “almost.” That is ominous, to be sure, and nigh awakes the very darkness: we speak of a man who sought out a solution to this crisis along the course of his very life — and came at last, upon the cusp of some desperate night, to an answer by no means new, but old, so very old, archaic almost in its oldness —
But we postpone these maleficent revelations. Much sand must slip the shank of the hourglass ere our time is ripe. Mayhaps it shall be inferred already whither we are tending. This quest, the novelist’s quest, seems ever to finish, whatever its beginning, at the same end, no matter what turnings and twistings it might in the meantime run and risk. Well, kind reader — here we stand once more, as it were for the thousandth time — the thousandth, and the first. Here is our boy, our “hero” even now, borne “innocent” upon the stage. And we shall duly follow him, till he, crushed in the wreck of his day, does blubber and gasp from out the gathering tide, grasping at an aid to his faltering: any aid at all, even the darkest, the most subtle, the most sinister: even that which would demand of him — nothing less perchance than his very soul.