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The Life of Katherine Mansfield


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All the necessary research on which this book is based, and at least nine-tenths of the actual narrative, have been the work of Miss Ruth Mantz; and it has been one of my chief concerns, in revising the text to the best of my ability, not to alter the total picture of Katherine Mansfield's early life which Miss Mantz has created.

Therefore, I do not really deserve the position of collaborator which is accorded me on the titlepage; but since my contribution has been rather more than a mere revision, and in consequence the absence of my name might lead, in the case of some few passages, to the attribution to Miss Mantz of opinions which are mine, it has been thought best that we should share the responsibility for the work.

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Since Katherine Mansfield's death, the interest in her personality has steadily increased. The renown of her work, or the fame of her personality, is becoming universal. It quickly spread through America, it has established itself in France; and now at last it has flowed back to her own country, page 2 New Zealand. It is part of the aim of this book to show how deeply rooted in her own country was her genius. There were reasons, good and substantial reasons, why she should have suffered the familiar fate of the prophet who is not without honour save in his own country and among his own friends. New Zealand is still a relatively small community, and Katherine Mansfield's memories of the people there which she used as material for her stories were sometimes such as to create resentment and heartburning. People still living were disturbed by the reflections of themselves which they found, or thought they found, in her crystal mirror. Further, it seemed to them that what she had done was very easy to do; it consisted in “copying” the characters she had known.

The misunderstanding was complete; but it was natural. Art of the order that is manifest in Katherine Mansfield's most perfect stories—and most of these have New Zealand for their setting—is simple indeed; but its simplicity is deceptive. Such candour and transparence are the product of a long travail of soul—of an incessant process of self-purgation, of self-refinement into that condition of crystal clarity for which Katherine Mansfield unconsciously struggled and towards the end of her life consciously prayed.

The peculiar, the unique circumstance in Katherine Mansfield's progress was that the achievement of this condition was intimately connected with her memories of New Zealand. She had suffered there, silently as a little child, resentfully as an adolescent girl. Her resentment against New page 3 Zealand was as it were the symbol of her resentment against life itself. A moment came when she understood that. If she could overcome in herself this resentment, if her bitterness could be dissolved “in forgiveness of ancient injuries,” if she could cease to feel that she personally had been wronged, then the truth and beauty of New Zealand would emerge through her.

Hence the inward struggle, of which we have so precious a record in the Journal, with which her first attempt to write Prelude was accompanied. It was no less than a struggle for spiritual re-birth. And she knew it.“You know how unhappy I have been lately,” she wrote as though to her dead brother on February 14th, 1916.“I almost felt: Perhaps ‘the new man’ will not live. Perhaps I am not yet risen. … But now I do not doubt.” At that moment her brother was to her the embodiment of her unseen, unknown self, whom she was struggling to bring to birth; but it was only for that moment. In the exclusive personal way this remarkable portion of her Journal would suggest to the superficial reader, her brother was not important to Katherine Mansfield. He was a symbol and a part of that New Zealand which she was striving to remember in purity of soul. No doubt it was indeed his bitter death, the mockery of his own triumphant confidence in his safe return from the war, that brought her up sharp and sudden against the bitterness of her own memory of New Zealand, the elusive purpose of her own life, and the necessity of hastening on towards the goal she felt she must reach. The death of her brother was indeed a page 4 decisive event in Katherine Mansfield's life; but as an occasion, not as a cause. It brought her to a moment of profound self-knowledge.

From this moment onward her life was a constant effort towards inward clarity, towards what William Blake called Self-annihilation. And the purification of her memory of New Zealand, the purging of all resentment from her soul until that island could emerge, as from the waters of its own Pacific, with the bloom and brightness of a new creation, was the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace. To be worthy of New Zealand was to be worthy in an absolute sense; it was to have achieved a certain condition of being—to have recaptured the vision of innocence.

“In the early morning there I always remember feeling that this little island has dipped back into the dark blue sea during the night only to rise again at the gleam of day, all hung with bright spangles and glittering drops. … I tried to catch that moment—with something of its sparkle and flavour. And just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again. … It's so difficult to describe all this, and it sounds perhaps over-ambitious and vain. But I don't feel anything but intensely a longing to serve my subject as well as I can.”

It was difficult to describe. For in fact it was nothing but the mystical vision in the specific form in which it comes to the artist of genius:“as when the eye, having looked upon the sun, thenceforward sees the sun in everything.” Katherine was seeking to make page 5 firm her hold upon a kind of vision—the true vision of the Imagination—of which she was now visited with glimpses. To this kind of vision one achievement was absolutely necessary. There must be a complete abeyance of the Self.

She feels her way towards the expression of the nature of this inward necessity. Here, in October, 1917, it is to be completely occupied, to the exclusion of all other feelings, by “an intense longing to serve my subject as well as I can.” It is the authentic self-effacement of the true artist—the compulsion whereby the artist becomes the priest of what Blake called “The Everlasting Gospel.”

Four months later, in February, 1918, she has advanced quite definitely to a deeper understanding of her purpose and her own nature. She wrote:

“I've two ‘kick offs’ in the writing game. One is joy—real joy—the thing that made me write when we lived at Pauline, and that sort of writing I could only do in just that state of being, in some perfectly blissful way at peace. Then something delicate and lovely seems to open before my eyes, like a flower without thought of a frost or a cold breath, knowing that all about it is warm and tender and ‘ready.’ And what I try, ever so humbly, to express.
“The other ‘kick-off’ is my old original one, and, had I not known love, it would have been my all. Not hate or destruction (both are beneath contempt as real motives) but an extremely deep sense of hopelessness, of everything doomed to disaster. … There! I got it exactly—a cry against corruption—that is absolutely the nail on the head. Not a protest—a cry …”

Now let us remember that the months at the Villa Pauline were the days when she was writing page 6 Prelude: that they were also the months when the superficial reader of her Journal would imagine that she was sorrowing over the death of her brother. In fact, they were months of real joy—of the self-abandonment of love, in living and in writing. And if we wish to understand, still more intimately, the connection between the blissful humility of that peace and the cry against corruption, we shall find it in Blake's “Book of Thel,” which ends precisely with what Katherine meant by the cry—“not a protest” —against corruption.

The struggle which was in Blake's soul was also in hers. In the last resort Katherine can be understood, or the understanding of her expressed, only in such terms as Blake used to express his experience. His effort towards self-annihilation—the condition of true Imagination—was renewed in her. In 1921 it had become the burden of all her thinking on her purpose and herself.“Marks of earthly degradation still pursue me,” she wrote on July 16th.“I am not crystal clear.” Then, suddenly, in At the Bay, she achieves the condition.

“There's my Grandmother, back in her chair with her pink knitting, there stalks my Uncle over the grass; I feel as I write, ‘You are not dead, my darlings. All is remembered. I bow down to you. I efface myself so that you may live again through me in your richness and beauty.’ And one feels possessed.”

There is the doctrine, there is the experience, there is Art. That, in the last resort, is what Art is, in so far as Art is a thing of consequence for the lives of men. It is the utterance of Life through a com- page 7 pletely submissive being. That and nothing else is the secret of great art—from the cave man drawing to the little tragedy of “The Doll's House.”

Let us have no compromise and no evasion on this vital issue. In scope Katherine Mansfield was a tiny artist; but because she was a pure artist, she was a great one. In this order of artistic achievement, the small is veritably great, and the great no greater. In this order achievement is absolute or not at all. There is Art, and there is not-Art; and between them is precisely the absolute difference, which the philosophers of the Christian religion sought so often to express, between the descent of the divine grace and the utmost effort of the conscious personal being to achieve it. As Blake said—the great artist who was isolated because he knew the ultimate identity of Christianity and Art—“We, in our selves, are nothing.”

Katherine Mansfield died young; Blake was an old man when he died. Katherine Mansfield did not achieve all the conscious wisdom of Blake. But she was going the same path; as Keats, when he died, was going the same path. Apparently, this path is inevitable to natures of a certain composition which constrains them to prove life “upon their pulses.”

What may be the secret of this delicate and invincible integrity, no man dare say. It is perhaps enough that it should exist, and that we should recognise it. But those who do recognise it see that it is manifest from the beginning in a strange compulsion to submit to experience. Between Life and such natures the impact is not mitigated. It is page 8 naked, all the while. Neither creed nor conception can interpose its comfortable medium. They are doomed, or privileged, to lead “a life of Sensations rather than Thoughts.” Such a life seemed, no doubt, good to Keats when he wrote those words, which after-generations have found so hard to understand; but he was to learn that, as the joys of the immediate nature are incomparable, so are its sufferings: and that the time inevitably comes when the joy is suffering and the suffering joy. For such natures, as though compelled by an inward law, return to the organic simplicity of the preconscious being; but they return to that simplicity enriched with all the subtleties of consciousness. If they are artists, they have the power to bend all the complexities of language to the primal innocence of a cry—whether of delight or pain. The cry is innocent; the protest is not.

Hence the fundamental and miraculous simplicity of all true art: a simplicity which evades the intellect for ever, because it is a simplicity which is expressed through complexity. The intellect grasps the complexity, and nothing more. The life, the meaning, the value, the significance eludes it, as the life of the flower eludes the microscopist. There are wonders to be seen through the microscope—those stupendous marvels of the infinitely small which, no less than the infinite greatness of the interstellar spaces, dismayed Pascal—but the simple miracle of life is not among them. That is closed from us, as Blake said, by our five senses, and by the intellect that is merely “a Ratio of the five senses.” We know it immediately, or not at all.

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And so with Art, which is Life made audible or visible, through its subtlest vehicle—the human being in whom Life has overcome the alien and hostile enemy of Life: the Self. For, as we have said, the simplicity in complexity of true Art proceeds from the simplicity in complexity of the artist. From beginning to end the life of the true artist has this organic simplicity—it is always a life of sensation rather than thought, seeking for a kind of satisfaction which neither creed nor conception can give—the wholeness of a total self-surrender to the Life without, which marvellously is also a total self-surrender to the Life within.

Of this simplicity in complexity—in art and in life—Katherine Mansfield was an example. She had what Walter Bagehot called “the experiencing nature” —which is but another name to distinguish those rare beings who are governed by an inward compulsion to expose themselves to Life. They are secretly sustained by some secret faith in Life of which smaller souls are incapable. They know what Blake meant when he proclaimed that “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” They can take nothing, in this matter of life-experience, at second-hand. Always, for them, truth must be proved “in their pulses.” And so, inevitably, in the eyes of the world, they are not wise: for wisdom, in the world's eyes, consists exactly in refusing to expose ourselves to experience. The wise accept the report of others: of that great other who is the worldly prudence of the race. They know that the master of Life is a hard man, reaping where he did not sow, and page 10 they hide their talent in the earth. They take no risks with him.

And, in this, they are wise. But there is a greater wisdom than theirs. It was the wisdom of Jesus, which despised their prudence. It is the wisdom which whispers:“Take the risk! If that is truly the urge of your secret soul, obey it. No matter what the cost, obey!” This is the voice of the Life within urging Man to yet more Life. This is the voice to which Jesus of Nazareth was himself obedient unto death: in the strength of which he laughed at the wise and the prudent, and knew, on his pulses, that the Father of Life loved the Prodigal Son.

The wise and the prudent have emasculated these great and wonderful parables, because they dare not believe that what they say is true. It would never do to believe what they say. And not only would it never do to believe what they say; it is impossible to believe what they say. Men obey the precepts of Jesus not because they can, or because they choose, or because they believe, but because they must. They do not take the risk: the risk is taken. They go the grievous path because they can go no other. They do not know that salvation awaits them. No man was ever sustained in advance by the knowledge that by losing his life he would save it. The man who knows that beforehand is incapable of losing his life: he has clung to it, he has never known what it is to be alone. Take away from Jesus his final and utter despair, and you take away all his meaning, all his triumph.

It may be said that these are tremendous com- page 11 parisons. What has Jesus to do with Blake, with Keats, with Katherine Mansfield? He has everything to do with them. They belong to his pattern. They are the life-adventurers, who turn from the wisdom of prudence and seek the wisdom of experience. They are the children of whom Life is justified. We may say, if we will, that it is God who drives them on. It is true; but let us beware to whom we say it, as Katherine Mansfield was ware. She wrote to her husband in 1920:

“And then suffering, bodily suffering such as I've known for three years. It has changed forever everything—even the appearance of the world is not the same—there is something added. Everything has its shadow. Is it right to resist such suffering? Do you know I feel it has been an immense privilege. Yes, in spite of all. How blind we little creatures are! It's only the fairy tales we really live by. If we set out upon a journey, the more wonderful the treasure, the greater the temptations and perils to be overcome. And if someone rebels and says, Life isn't good enough on those terms, one can only say: ‘It is!’ Don't misunderstand me. I don't mean a ‘thorn in the flesh’—it's a million times more mysterious. It has taken me three years to understand this—to come to see this. We resist, we are terribly frightened. The little boat enters the dark fearful gulf and our only cry is to escape—‘put me on land again.’ But it's useless. Nobody listens. The shadowy figure rows on. One ought to sit still and uncover one's eyes.
“I believe the greatest failing of all is to be frightened. Perfect Love casteth out Fear. When I look back on my life all my mistakes have been because I was afraid. … Was that why I had to look on death? Would nothing less cure me? You know, one can't help wondering, sometimes. … No, not a personal page 12 God or any such nonsense. Much more likely—the soul's desperate choice.”

“The soul's desperate choice.” Those final words are profound indeed. The secret of all living religion is in them. Yet, if we say that God is “the soul's desperate choice,” who will understand us? Who will understand that what is said is not that the desperate soul chooses God, but the desperate soul in the act of choosing is God?

That is what Katherine Mansfield was saying. And if she had said that one thing alone, written only that one letter I have quoted, she would have been immortal in those minds in which immortality is real. For this, to those who understand, is Truth—Truth naked, pure, imperishable—the very voice of Life.

It includes everything. It explains, because it is, the mystery of the Incarnation. The desperate soul of Jesus, in the act of choosing—soul's life and body's death—was God. The little boat that enters the dark fearful gulf—is God. And how it recalls her friend Lawrence's last small ship of death!

“Now launch the small ship, now as the body dies
And life departs, launch out, the fragile soul
In the fragile ship of courage, the ark of faith
With its store of food and little cooking pans
And change of clothes,
Upon the flood's black waste
Upon the waters of the end
Upon the sea of death, where still we sail
Darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port.”

Katherine's little boat, Lawrence's small ship—fraught with the essential soul in its act of desperate page 13 choice—these, this (for it is one single thing, one single power, frail as a thread, yet of force to bind the universe and move the world)—this is God.

God is many things besides this; but this above all others—the courageous, isolated soul—“the fragile soul in the fragile ship of courage” —launching upon the unknown:

“Upon the sea of death, where still we sail Darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port.”

The death may be the death that ends life (as men believe) or the death that leads from an old life into a new. But always it is a death. If it is only the death of the soul, that ‘dying into life’ which is the experience of the chosen ones, it is an anticipation of the death of the body. No man who has ‘died into life’ was ever afraid to die out of it. Bodily death would have been a welcome release from the pangs of the dying soul.

But the miracle of rebirth comes. Out of death life. And “everything for ever is changed.” This is the Divine Vision, in which alone things are seen for what they are, veritably are. The soul that has suffered death and rebirth enters into this vision. It is what Blake called the world of spiritual sensation—a world of sensation, because it is a world of immediate experience; a Spiritual world, because it is closed from the five senses, and their ratio which is the Intellect. It is beyond all these; yet it does not deny all these. As Katherine Mansfield put it:“There is something added. Everything has its shadow.” Truly and perfectly; for it is a world on which a new Sun has risen.

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The light of that sun and its shadows are reflected in Katherine Mansfield's stories. They are perfectly simple: childishly simple, the clever critics tell us—even Lawrence, her friend, found them no more than charming. And yet, after all, the condition out of which they came was unknown to Lawrence till his last days on earth, when he had ceased to struggle for the life he could not have and turned his soul for the first time serenely towards the death which he could: when he also “sat still and uncovered his eyes.” Then he chanted the simple, the childishly simple, the profoundest and the loveliest of all his songs:“The Ship of Death.” At that moment, I believe, Lawrence would have understood Katherine as he had never understood her before.

Compared to Lawrence's, Katherine's achievement was tiny indeed; yet there is in it a quality which eluded Lawrence till the end. It is serene; and we know that its serenity comes from a heart at peace,“in spite of all.” Katherine could look back on her life, with all its miseries and all its brevity, and declare that,“in spite of all” it was good.“In spite of all” —the phrase, mysterious and simple, contains the secret of herself and her art. It is a phrase which, more than any other, echoes in my heart, with all the sweetness of a long familiar pain, when I think back upon what she was, and what she wrote from what she was.“In spite of all.” In spite of all, the little lamp glows gently and eternally in The Doll's House; in spite of all, the sleeping face in The Garden Party murmurs that all is well;“in spite of all,” she wrote to her page 15 husband in a letter found among her belongings, to be opened only after her death;“no truer lovers ever walked the earth than we were—in spite of all, in spite of all.”

J. Middleton Murry.