Traubel, Horace – Of Ecstasy, Bliss, Inspiration and Wisdom
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Letter from Horace Traubel as recorded in Cosmic Consciousness, by Richard Maurice Bucke
You are quite familiar with the path of my spiritual development—with the course taken by my mental self in arriving at its present state. You know I have come to my own, whatever that may be, mostly by immediate contact with experience rather than through books, though I have read in books of the most miscellaneous character and at one period in appalling numbers. But, somehow, the scholar in me never seems to have obscured the man. I suppose my intenser early reading was in Emerson, Carlyle, Hugo and whatever else I could get hold of having to do with the world of myth and the ante-Christian Scriptures of the race. I do not seem to have known a time when I have not read "Leaves of Grass." But previous to May, 1889, I do not seem to have got that (in a sense) final grasp of its mystery which now imparts to it its primary and supernatural significance May, 1889. Then, again, two years later, 1891. A third time, 1893 or 4, on the historic night (historic to me when circumstance made me the spokesman of the dissentient group of Ethicist in Philadelphia, on the occasion of the split of the Ethical Society there. May, 1889.
That overwhelming night, as I leaned over the railing of the ferryboat, lost this world for another, and in the anguish and joy of a few minutes saw things heretofore withheld from me revealed.
Those who have had such an encounter will understand what this means, others will not, or will perhaps only realize it by intimation. I could not separate the physical and spiritual of that moment. My physical body went through the experience of a disappearance in spiritual light. All severe lines in the front of phenomena relaxed. I was one with God, Love, the Universe, arrived at last face to face with myself.
I was sensible of peculiar moral and mental disturbances and readjustments. There was an immediateness to it all—an indissoluble unity of the several energies of my being in one force. I was no more boating it on a river than winging it in space or taking star leaps, a traveler from one to another on the peopled orbs. While I stood there the boat had got into the slip and was almost ready to go out again. A deckhand who knew me came up and tapped me on the shoulder.
"Don't you intend going off the boat?" he asked.
And he added when I faced him and said "Yes:"
"You look wonderfully well and happy to-night, Mr. Traubel."
I did not see Walt till the next day, evening. In the meantime I had lived through twenty-four hours of ecstasy mixed with some doubts as to whether I had not had a crack in the skull and gone mad rather than fallen under some light and made a discovery. But the first words Walt addressed to me when I sallied into his room were reassuring:
"Horace, you have the look of great happiness on your face to-night. Have you had a run of good luck?"
I sat down and tried in a few words to indicate that I had had a run of good luck, though not perhaps the good luck he had in mind for me at the moment. He did not seem at all surprised at what I told him, merely remarking, as he put his hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes: "I knew it would come to you."
I suggested: "I have been wondering all day if I am not crazy." He laughed gravely: "No, sane. Now at last you are sane."
It was a month before the immediate effect of this experience wore off. The reflex effect was of course fixed. I can say now (writing 1901) that from that day to this I have never known one moment of despair concerning my spiritual relations to man and the universe. I have my earth troubles and my earth foibles. But the essential faith is adamantine. I have never had any suspicion of immortality.
The glimpse of that minute—and of the repeated experiences on the two after occasions mentioned above—into the eternal law left no blot or qualification. I had often said before, in speaking of Whitman (making in a way a true guess):
"Whitman's notion of immortality is not one of logic but is pictorial. He does not believe in immortality. He sees it."
Many times Whitman had said to me regarding that explanation: "It is every word true. You hit the nail on the head."
Now I knew better than I had before—not only better but in a way I could not have known before—what I myself meant when I used the expression: "Whitman sees." I see around and through phenomena. Phenomena is never a wall or a veil. I have been able to do my work as never before. It has brought me friends and the cheer of sympathetic greetings from all parts of the world.
One feature of my writing I ought to mention. I think I told you long ago that I become in effect automatic when I am engaged in any serious composition. I do not seem to write. The writing seems done through me. I take up my pen and hardly know what I write. After I have written I am often surprised at the things I have said. They are as new to me as to any reader. All the writing which has brought me any returns—congratulations—has been done in that mood.
On the night of the Ethical split I was in a position which forced me to be the main spokesman of the party of freedom. I made a speech upon which my enemies even more than my friends congratulated me. Yet when I got on my feet on the floor and plunged into talk I was instantly immersed in the strange light which had visited me on the first experience and simply uttered without thought or reason, formally speaking, the words of the mightier power that possessed me.
I have found since that on occasions of crisis I have merely to throw myself back again on this resource to discover that every strength—spiritually speaking—it imparted once it imparts again. In my very busy life, which has its temporal distresses, this is more than a balance in bank and contributes more than any ephemera of material prosperity could towards my victories: in fact is the first and last letter of my power. When the little affairs of every day seem most mixed up, most to be past solution, I am sure finally to make my escape by the avenue of these ameliorating revelations.
Not once has the spirit deserted me—not once has the light, in some degree of its radiance, not always of course in full power, failed to appear. The difference it makes in one's life is the difference between preparation and consummation. On the occasion of my second experience (April, 1891), which was not outwardly momentous, I found that my initial self suspicion—my question, Am I unbuilt or built?—did not reappear.
If you take my verse "Illumination", and try to get it statistically languaged, you will find that I have expressed a series of experiences of profound significance to all who have been similarly blessed. I find that my members are no longer at war with each other. When I was a youngster I read my way vigorously and sympathetically back especially into Oriental literature of the religious class blazed a path for the spirit. After 1889 (a hiatus in such reading having intervened) I found myself driven into that old world again, to review these my original impressions. The new light had made my voyage easier and more richly endowed its fruits. Once I felt that religions were all of them religions of despair: now I saw that no religion despairs—that all religion before it becomes and as soon as it ceases to be an affair of institutions resolves itself essentially into light and immortality.
I should perhaps say that it has invariably happened that someone—and sometimes many persons—have commented to me, and felicitated me, upon my appearance, upon the occasions of my direct contact with what I have grown to call my subliminal self. This may mean much or nothing. But no one could live through what I do at such periods and not in some way outwardly give it witness.
You have said to me: "State this thing in plain prose." But how can I? I could never state it in the prose that would be understood by one who has not shared my sensations. I could never state it in words which would not make it, if you please, prose to those who can enter collaterally into the channels of its august revelation. After asking you: How can I? I have shown you how I could.
Some things I have said may seem to savor of egotism. But they are simply candid. I am not measuring myself as a genius or an idiot, but as a simple third person whose word and career must be to himself absolute law. I have written you this memorandum impulsively, with no attempt to dress it up, if, indeed, until now it is done, and now I have read it, with any actual understanding of what my pen would commit me to or confess