Maurice Maeterlinck ~ In An Automobile

Belgique 22 3 16I

The first trips—the initiation, with the master’s eye upon you—count for but little. One is not in direct communication with the wonderful beast. Its veritable character is hidden, for there is a tiresome intermediary between, a reticent, cunning interpreter—the responsible tamer. With your foot on the brake, even when you hold the levers and handles between your fingers, you are far from possessing the monster. By your side sits the master, whose sovereignty it has too long acknowledged; to him it is as obsequious, as submissively attached, as a faithful dog. For the thing is half human. You feel somewhat like a lion-tamer’s apprentice when he enters the cage with his father, and sees the cowed brutes prostrate themselves humbly before the commanding eye and the lash. One has a great desire to be alone, in Space, with this unknown animal, that dates but from yesterday; we burn to discover what it is in itself, what it demands and withholds, what obedience it will vouchsafe to its unexpected master; as also what new lessons the new horizons will teach us, the new horizons into which we shall be plunged to our very soul by a force that, issuing now, and for the first time, from the inexhaustible reservoir of undisciplined forces, permits us to absorb, in one day, as many sights, as much landscape and sky, as would formerly have been granted to us in a whole life-time.


Yesterday the master drove us from Paris to Rouen. This morning he left me, having first taken me outside the gates of the old, many-steepled city. There I was, alone with the dreadful hippogriff; alone in the open country, the horizon of immaculate blue on the left, on the right still faintly pink; alone on the desolate road that winds between oceans of corn, with islands of trees that turn into blue in the distance.

I am many miles from a station, far from garage or repairers. And at first I am conscious of a vague uneasiness, that is not without its charm. I am at the mercy of this mysterious force, that is yet more logical than I. A caprice of its hidden life—one of those caprices that, mysterious as they may seem to us, are yet never wrong, and put our arrogant reason to shame—and I should be solitary in this illimitable vastness of green, chained to the enigmatic mass that my arms cannot move. But the monster, I say to myself, has no secrets that I have not learned. Before placing myself in its power, I took it to pieces, and examined its organs. And, now that it snorts at my feet, I can recall its physiology. I know its infallible wheelwork, its delicate points; I have studied its infantile maladies, and learned what diseases are fatal. I have had its heart and soul laid bare, I have looked into the profound circulation of its life. Its soul is the electric spark, which, seven or eight hundred times to the minute, sends fiery breath through the veins. And the terrible, complex heart is composed, first of all, of the carburetter, with its strange double face: the carburetter, which prepares, proportions and volatilizes the petrol—subtle fairy that has slumbered ever since the world began, and is now recalled to power, and united to the air that has torn her from sleep. This redoubtable mixture is eagerly swallowed by the mighty viscera close by, which contain the explosion chamber, the piston, all the live force of the motor. And around these, which form one mass of flame, pure water circulates always, restraining the passionate ardour that else would devour them and turn them into a flow of lava, calming with its long and icy caress the mortal frenzy of toil—vigilant, untiring water, that the radiator posted in front of the car keeps cool, and freshens with all the sweetness of valley and plain. Next comes the trembler-blade which governs the spark, and is in its turn controlled by the movement of the motor. The soul obeys what is properly the body, and the body, in most ingenious harmony, obeys the soul. But so strangely elastic is this preordained harmony that it is open to a more independent or more intelligent will—that of the driver, which stands here for the will of the gods—to improve still further this admirable equilibrium of two alien forces; and by means of the “advance ignition” lever, to precipitate the spark at the moment that the accidental aid or resistance of the road may render most favourable.


Let us pause for an instant to admire this strange terminology, so spontaneous and withal so sensible, which is, in a measure, the language of a new force. “Advance ignition,” for instance, is a most adequate term, and we should find it vastly difficult to express more tersely and clearly what it was needful to say. The ignition is the inflammation of the explosive gases by the electric spark. And this explosion can be hastened or retarded in accordance with the requirements of the motor. When the “advance ignition” valve is opened, the spark springs forth some thousandth part of a second before the moment when it would logically produce itself; in other words, before the piston, attaining the end of its journey, shall have completely compressed the gas and utilized all the energy of the previous explosion. One would think, at first, that this premature explosion would counteract the ascending movement. Far from it; experience proves that one benefits by the infinitesimal time that the inflamed gases take to dilate themselves; as also probably by other causes no less obscure. In any event, we find that the pace of the machine is curiously accelerated. It is a device, like the glass of wine to the labourer, to procure a spell of abnormal strength. But whence does the term come, and who is its father? Whence do these words spring forth, at the given moment, to fix in life creatures of whose existence we were yesterday unaware? They escape from the factory, foundry or warehouse; they are the last echoes of that anonymous, universal voice that has given a name to trees and flowers, to bread and wine, to life and death; and fortunately it usually happens that by the time the pedant has begun to regard and question, it has become too late to make any change.


Over and above such matters as compression, carburation, oiling, circulation of the water, etc., the trembler-blade and the sparking-plug are the driver’s especial cares. Should the regulating screw of the one displace itself by the breadth of a hair, should the two opposed wires of the other be touched by a drop of oil or a trace of oxide, the miraculous horse will die on the spot. And around these are still many organs whereof I dare scarcely permit myself to think. Yonder, concealed in its case, like a furious genie confined in a narrow cell, is the mysterious apparatus for the change of speed; and this, if you give a turn to the lever when you come to the foot of a hill, will produce repeated explosions, urging the piston to movement so frantic, that every vertebra of the creature will tremble and give to the slackening wheels a quadruple force before which each mountain will bend its back, and carry the conqueror humbly to its very crown. Further there is the enigmatic mechanism of the live axle which, dispensing with chains and straps, transmits directly to the two back wheels all the extraordinary power generated in its delirious heart. And still lower, beneath the brake, there rests, in its almost inviolable box, the transcendent secret of the differentiator, which, by means of a recent miracle, permits two wheels of the same dimensions, revolving on the same axle and moved by the same motor, to perform an unequal number of turns!


But at present I have no concern with these mighty mysteries. Beneath my tremulous hand the monster is alert and docile; and on either side of the road the cornfields flow peacefully onward, true rivers of green. The time has now come to try the power of esoteric action. I touch the magical handles. The fairy horse obeys. It stops abruptly. One short moan, and its life has all ebbed away. It is now nothing more than a vast, inert mass of metal. How to resuscitate it? I descend, and eagerly inspect the corpse. The plains, whose submissive immensity I have been braving, begin to contemplate revenge. Now that I have ceased to move, they fling themselves further and wider around me. The blue distance seems to recede, the sky to recoil. I am lost among the impassable cornfields, whose myriad heads press forward, whispering softly, craning to see what I am proposing to do; while the poppies, in the midst of that undulating crowd, nod their red caps and burst into thousandfold laughter. But no matter. My recent science is sure of itself. The hippogriff revives, gives its first snort of life, and then departs once more, singing its song. I reconquer the plains, which again bow down before me. I give a slow turn to the mysterious “advance ignition” lever, and regulate carefully the admission of the petrol. The pace grows faster and faster, the delirious wheels cry aloud in their gladness. And at first the road comes moving towards me, like a bride waving palms, rhythmically keeping time to some joyous melody. But soon it grows frantic, springs forward, and throws itself madly upon me, rushing under the car like a furious torrent, whose foam lashes my face; it drowns me beneath its waves, it blinds me with its breath. Oh, that wonderful breath! It is as though wings, as though myriad wings no eye can see, transparent wings of great supernatural birds that have their homes on invisible mountains swept by eternal snow, have come to refresh my eyes and my brow with their overwhelming fragrance! Now the road drops sheer into the abyss, and the magical carriage rushes ahead of it. The trees, that for so many slow-moving years have serenely dwelt on its borders, shrink back in dread of disaster. They seem to be hastening one to the other, to approach their green heads, and in startled groups to debate how to bar the way of the strange apparition. But as this rushes onward, they take panic, and scatter and fly, each one quickly seeking its own habitual place; and as I pass they bend tumultuously forward, and their myriad leaves, quick to the mad joy of the force that is chanting its hymn, murmur in my ears the voluble psalm of Space, acclaiming and greeting the enemy that hitherto has always been conquered but now at last triumphs: Speed.


Space and Time, its invisible brother, are perhaps the two great enemies of mankind. Could we conquer these, we should be as the gods. Time seems invincible, having neither body nor form, no organs by which we can seize it. It passes, leaving traces that nearly always are sad, like the baleful shadow of some inevitable being we never have seen face to face. In itself doubtless it has no existence, but is only in relation to us; nor shall we ever succeed in bending to our will this necessary phantom of our organically false imagination. But Space, its magnificent brother, Space that decks itself with the green robe of the plains, the yellow veil of the desert, the blue mantle of the sea, and spreads over all the azure of the ether and the gold of the stars—Space, it may be, has already known many defeats; but never as yet has man seized it, as it were, round the body, grappled with it, alone, face to face. The monsters he has hitherto launched against its gigantic mass might conquer, but only to be conquered again in their turn.

On the sea great steamers subdue it day after day; but the sea is so vast that the extreme speed our frail lungs were able to endure could achieve no more than a kind of motionless triumph. And again, as we travel by rail, and Space flies submissive before us, it is still far away—we do not touch it, we do not enjoy it—it is like a captive adorning the triumph of a foreign king, and we ourselves the feeble prisoners of the power that has dethroned it. But here, in this little chariot of fire, that is so light and so docile, so gloriously untiring; here, beneath the unfolded wings of this bird of flame that flies low down over the earth in the midst of the flowers, greeting cornfields and rivulets, inviting the shade of the trees; passing village on village, glancing in at the open doors and watching the tables spread for the meal, counting the harvesters at work in the meadows, skirting the church, half hidden by lime-trees, and taking its rest at the inn on the stroke of noon—then setting forth once more, singing its song, to see at one bound what is happening among men at three days’ march from the last place of halt, and surprising the very same hour in quite a new world—here Space does indeed become human, in the line of our eye, in accordance with the needs of our insatiable, exacting soul, that craves at once for the small and the mighty, the quick and the slow; here it is of us at last, it is ours, and offers at every turn glimpses of beauty that, in former days, we could only enjoy when the tedious journey was ended.

Now, however, it is not the arrival alone that causes our eyes to open, that revives the eagerness so precious to life, and invites admiration; now the entire road is one long succession of arrivals. The joys of the journey’s end are multiplied, for all things adopt the admirable form of the end; the eyes are idle no longer, no longer indifferent; and memory, simplest of all the fairies whose touch of the wand brings happiness—memory, pondering silently on the less happy days that await every man, treasures the beauties of good mother earth; and fixes for ever, among those possessions of which none can deprive us, the unexpected gifts that have been so abundantly offered by the glad hours and the enfranchised roads.

DGG fur DMdJ


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