Personal Progress Toward the Orient*

by Thomas Handforth

*Paper read at the meeting of the Section for Work with Children on the occasion of the American Library Association Conference in San Francisco, June 20, 1939.

handforth thomas 1939 Personal Progress Toward the Orient*

Thomas Handforth self portrait, 1939.

My progress to the Orient began apparently with my first baby steps and observations. I was born in Tacoma and spent my childhood on the Pacific Coast. I had, as early as I can remember, instinctively turned toward the East. At the age of three my favorite outing was to be taken to the lily pond in Point Defiance Park and to be allowed to climb alone across the rustic Japanese half-moon bridge. The perilous ascent and descent of its slippery slopes should have been excitement enough for any three-year-old, but for me the great experience was the sight of the arc’s reflection in the lily pond forming the other half of the perfect circle. A perfect circle divided by a wave — a symbol of which I did not know the meaning, but which was soon to become familiar to me in its prosaic use as the insignia of the Northern Pacific Railway — the symbol of the Yin and Yang, the negative and positive atoms of all matter interlocked in the Ta Y, the Great Universal.

I had begun to draw even before I went to kindergarten, and at the age of seven or eight, when I was using a real artist’s sketchbook, the Yin-Yang circle occurs on one of its first pages, with Chinese characters used also as magic symbols. They are followed by a page of dragons, then a Buddha in a landscape setting, copied from one of my books of Japanese fairy tales which were dearer to me than those of Andersen or Grimm; then portraits of two Japanese dolls whose smooth and subtly smiling faces were fixed in the imagery of my childhood. One of my best efforts at realism at this time is a memory sketch in water color of three blue-gowned pigtailed Chinamen whom I had seen on a trip to Victoria, British Columbia. There were no Chinese in Tacoma, they had been driven out and their possessions burned on the tide-flats about the year that I was born. The Chinese smugglers’ cave alone remained and into it I used to peer with childish fascination. It was said to continue through the hills to the sea — perhaps to China itself.

But my horizon was not to be bounded by China and Japan alone. In that first sketchbook are drawings of Egyptian pyramids and sphinxes and of far-away lands of my own creation. I conceived the idea of an immense opus upon which I worked intermittently until my tenth year. It was left unfinished, but I find myself working on one volume of it again at the present time. The title page proclaimed it to be “A Great, Marvelous, Misterious Circus of Birds, Beasts, Animals, Insects and Beings from a Far Off Planet!” I declined to have the voyages of my imagination limited to the mere oceans and continents of the geography book.

A copy in my drawing book of Hokusai’s famous blue-wave expresses the same sentiment. The wave sweeps across the page in a long arc, a segment of that greater circle of the Yin and Yang, carrying one out into worlds beyond worlds. This print was my favorite of all the work of the Japanese Ukeyoie school, which I came to know at that time, thanks to Miss Katherine Ball of San Francisco, who did so much to stimulate an interest, especially among the school children of this city, in the decorative arts of the Far East. She gave a series of lectures on the Japanese printmakers to a group of club women in Tacoma and I managed to slip in behind my mother’s flaring skirts of 1907.

I was very happy to meet Miss Ball again in 1934 when she spent a winter in Peking, and to be able to tell her that her talks, which the club ladies probably considered very mild afternoon diversions, had profoundly affected the whole course of my life. Now I was able to identify two little volumes which had come to me from a great-uncle who had served under General Gordon in the Taiping rebellion and had become a Chinese mandarin. These volumes were very old reprints of Hokusai’s well-known One Hundred Views of Mt. Fujiyama. This series of little genre pictures of little human beings of the soil carrying on their myriad transient activities against a background of Nature, of which they remained as much an inseparable part as the leaf on the tree or the snow on the peak of Mt. Fuji, had for me a spirit which later I was ever trying to recapture in my own work.

My-summers, as I grew up, were spent in wanderings about the Puget Sound country and I was never without my sketchbooks. The pine-serried hills, the snow-capped peaks, the irregular sea with its many islands insistently recalled those prints of Hokusai and those of Hiroshigé. On the ocean coast of the Olympic peninsula, the great jagged rocks, jutting up from the foam-flecked sea, and striped with ribbons of mist, seemed to be a continuation of one of these masters’ landscapes.

The Indians of the Far West, too, were a link with the Orient. Their totem poles, their masks, the Thunderbird and the Lightning Serpent, as we now know, have a close affinity with not only the Mayan art of this continent but with the earliest Chinese ideology. In the dream-world of my childhood they had already been fused into one.

After graduating from high school and before my one year at the University of Washington I had decided upon my profession and was trying to learn to paint. It was a rather precious period of jade and ivory towers and yellow furniture; one admired especially Edmond Dulac and Aubrey Beardsley and Kay Nielsen and the then modern Viennese decoration. During this period I painted my one and only mural — a Chinese fantasy with much Dulac influence, and produced my one and only ballet, based on the Babylonian story of Ishtar and Tamuz. I not only did the sets and costumes and arranged the choreography but danced in the chorus. It was one of my few reprehensible outbursts in this form of expression — an urge which I have since managed to preserve discreetly in the category of a suppressed desire. To the dance of others, however, I have remained one of the most ardent of devotees and have recently been investigating its various forms in India.

The first esoteric dancing that I had seen as a small child was that of Raymond Duncan, originally from San Francisco, as you know, and his wife, who were touring America in their sandals and homespun robes. Their two-year-old son, Nicoliades, also in Greek robes and sandals, was with them. Fifteen years later in Paris Raymond Duncan reported to the police that his son was lost. He described him as a youth of surpassing beauty and perfect harmony. Nicoliades was found a week later in a little café seated between two Parisian midinettes and dressed in vulgar modern clothes. He was on a spree — enjoying the novelty of behaving like an average youth for once.

After the mural and the Babylonian ballet I went to the San Francisco Fair of 1915 upon which legend has bestowed the epithet: the most beautiful of all expositions. For me, sentiment if not justice will always concede it that distinction. New realms of European and American art were opened up before me. However, I find myself still most absorbed in things Oriental; my notebooks record: in water color, the great green and gold Dibutsu of the Japanese pavilion against a hot blue sky; motifs of Chinese design seen here and there, and the curved roofs of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The curved roof, by the way, has utilitarian value, as well as esthetic, since it helps prevent malignant spirits from falling upon people. The spirits, who are fond of sliding down roofs like small boys sliding down a banister, are shot unexpectedly up into the air again by the curve at the roof edge.

While here I went timidly to Gump’s wondering how much I might be able to see before I was earmarked as an unwelcome non-purchaser. To my astonishment cases of rarest porcelains were opened for me, to feel the textures of Sung celadon and white, of Peach bloom and Ox Blood Ming ware, and the fine “famille verte” porcelains of Kanghsi. On that day one youth became an amateur if not a collector of Chinese ceramics.

About two years later in New York, I saw Benrimo’s play The Yellow Jacket, a production inspired by San Francisco’s Chinatown theatre. It made a most vivid impression upon me. By what simple means the imagination of the spectator was stimulated! Four square stools placed in a row made a flower boat upon which the luscious maiden “Autumn Cloud” reclined with the august prince, Wu Hoo Git, beside her. The indifferent property-man went through the gestures of propelling the boat with a long bamboo pole across the ‘most unworthy’ stage while he complacently smoked a cigarette. The tremulous and scraping tones emitted by the orchestra, back center stage, suggested the lapping of wavelets and the crackling of reeds against the flower boat. Yet a picture of exquisite beauty was evoked. In another scene two stools were placed upon two tables to make a lofty mountain top over which the august prince dragged himself, while a snowstorm of white confetti, thrown by the supposedly invisible property-man, encircled his sublime legs and impeded his progress. Quite without naturalistic technique the essence of the mountain snowstorm was there before one’s eyes.

Of the two principal techniques in Chinese painting one is called Hsieh Y, “to write the meaning.” It is a technique related to the calligraphic and is employed by poets and therefore considered the highest form. The brush is used freely as in writing, the very pressure of the brush upon the paper, the shape of the stroke of ink, expressing the quality of the subject. Again, as in the theatre, it is the essence rather than the representation of a specific object that is being sought.

When Kenneth Hayes Miller, with whom I studied painting for a brief time, used to urge us to paint “the cosmic essence of white” or our “inner consciousness of blue,” perhaps he was trying to lead us toward the same goal. But at the age of twenty I couldn’t digest a precept in that form. I just didn’t get it. It was easier for me to understand another of my teachers, Mahonri Young, when he said, “Draw the space about the figure rather than the figure itself.”

Most of my training in draughtsmanship in New York and at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris was completely academic. Each week one did a charcoal drawing of a nude model on a large sheet of paper, beginning at 9 o’clock on Monday morning, with the head at the top of the page and finishing at the bottom of the page with the feet at exactly noon on Saturday. I often wonder how I survived it. I used to flee from the ateliers of Paris to the Cathedral at Chartres, seeking consolation in those quixotic faces of Gothic sculpture, smooth and subtly smiling faces, now of Madonnas instead of Japanese dolls; in those elongated figures of Gothic sculpture with tenuous flowing lines of drapery which were quickened into flame-like shapes of fresh exaltation; sharp flaming movements which come to one again in the fifth century Wei sculpture of China when Buddhism made its first impact upon the Far East.

In Paris, the Expressionists, the Cubists and the Dadaists, who were the parents of the Surrealists, were holding the center of the stage. The tender pathetic boy Harlequins of Picasso’s “blue period” appealed to me especially — adolescent, supple bodies balancing upon spheres, or stepping out from groups of circus people, or in compositions with strong prancing horses. The cool sharp line of some of the modern French engravers I admired too, but I suspected many of the Modernists of being preoccupied with their manner rather than with the animating spirit. And so I welcomed the opportunity of hearing the opinions of an unbiased critic: Dr. James Cousins, who had just come from India. Some of you may remember him from his lectures given here in 1931 and ’33. A large part of his life had been devoted to encouraging the so-called new renaissance in India, but for sixteen years he had been completely out of touch with the European trend. He had come to Paris to assemble a collection of contemporary Western painting for the Maharaja of Mysore, but the names and styles of even the better known Modernist painters were unknown to him. I was enlightened by his reactions, for he was always able to select without guidance examples of those painters of the ultramodern school who were recognized as significant by the West, since, he said, they had something fundamentally in common in their abstract qualities with the great traditions of the East.

However, my interests were in present aspects of life, call it journalistic if you will, and not with the abstract or theories concerning it.

The first painter with whom I came in contact who was able to interpret successfully the living scene, using an Eastern style of painting, was a Georgian friend of mine named Goudiachvili, which means radish. He reveled in the life of the moment, in the scenes of the cafes, in the festivities of the people, in the cabbies and their carriages and their girls of his native town of Tiflis. Yet he painted these scenes in his traditional native style which had come directly from Persia.

With Mr. Radish in mind, and Persia, and also thinking of the adventures in ports, and of what a life was that of a sailor, and a lot of other ideas muddled in my head, I sailed from Marseilles to Tunis. I had intended to go to Ragusa but I missed the boat. It really did not matter where I went. I hoped to be amused. I was hilariously so, especially while trying to etch it all on copper. From Tunis I went to Morocco. Then I jumped back to the Great Northwest, to the somber silent coast of Vancouver Island and I recalled my first love, Hokusai. Then to Mexico, breathtakingly magnificent and barbaric — and I found that Diego Rivera was doing on a grand scale and in his own manner what Hokusai had achieved in his little wood block prints. I started to do a series of etchings which were to have been called The One Hundred Views of Mt. Popocatepetl. Eleven of them were completed when I was awarded in 1931 a Guggenheim Fellowship for travel in the Orient.

I am sure that you are finding it difficult to follow my grasshopper leaps from place to place and are being quite confused by my vagueness concerning the time element. But I hope, before I finish, to have brought you to the point where the time and place no longer matter.

I sailed on a freighter which took a month and a day from New York to Yokohama and the one other passenger on board was a baker from Trenton. There were long hours to hang over the rail and wonder what I was going to do with the Orient or what it would do with me. As you may guess, I had, during my grasshopper leaps, dropped into a good many ports, both on the Atlantic and on the Pacific shores, in the Mediterranean and on the North African Coast. A collection of sketches of these ports had begun to accumulate and it seemed to me that it would be a worthy aim to continue on the same sort of theme, making a sequence of impressions of Ports of the World. Also I wanted to see more of the Dances of the World: in Java, Bali, and India. I would stop in Japan only long enough to corroborate the knowledge which I thought I already had of that country’s arts.

Japan, with its passion for the perfection of arrangement, turned out to look exactly as it was expected to appear. Aside from its blatant scars of western modernization, every view in front of one, or behind, might be of Hiroshigé’s pictures. After all, too much was enough. Such perfectly ordered and regulated nature was unreasonable.

In the homes of the potters of Kyoto, where each family for generations had specialized in the manufacture of some special ware, one sat for restive hours while the brothers and the cousins and the fathers and the aunts discussed the decoration on a simple dish; whether the stroke of the flower stem should turn slightly more toward the right or slightly more toward the left. For business reasons, of course, it was important, because the dish was to be sold as an original Chinese piece of the 11th century!

At the Miyako Hotel I met the John Alden Carpenter family who had just come from Peking. They were all enthusiasm.

“You must go as quickly as you can to Peking,” said Mrs. Carpenter. “It is inexhaustible! Peking is inexhaustible!”

“No,” said I. “I am traveling to do a series of pictures of ports of the world. No more tinkling temple bells for me, thank you. Nor ivory pagodas, nor porcelain ones either, thank you. One must beware of these lands of sweet and pretty dreams — these lands of exotic fantasy. I want to be a waterfront rat and see life as it really is.”

I was stubborn and went to Shanghai.

A few weeks later, on a humid drizzling day in May, I was passing by the American Express Offices near that Shanghai Bund which was already beginning to pall upon me, when I noticed a crowd of coolies gathered about a foreign lady who was having an argument — the usual one — with her ricksha man, and threatening him with her umbrella. I stepped up to watch how this financial disagreement would be settled. The foreign lady saw me and stopped with upraised umbrella. Then the blow fell, not on the ricksha man, but upon me.

“What are you doing here!” screamed the lady in good American. “Didn’t I tell you to go to Peking?” It was Mrs. Carpenter. “Get out of this town at once! You go to Peking tomorrow!”

The next day I took the train to Peking.

Within the thick walls of Peking is a city which, as Mrs. Carpenter had said, is inexhaustible. Mystery, intrigue and international modernity mingle with its crumbling culture. Fabulous Ming palaces are hidden behind new little Japanese shops. A cloud of black crows flies over the yellow roofs of the Forbidden City, while cosmopolites dance on the roof garden of the French hotel to the American music of the Russian orchestra. On the dance floor might be seen a boyish Chinese woman dressed in dinner jacket and trousers from Bond Street, or in military uniform. She had become a major in the army of the notorious war lord Chang Sung-ch’iang for her services as procuress of concubines. Below on the broad avenue by the hotel, among the motor cars and rickshas, pass camels and herds of sheep and squealing pigs, and near the avenue in the hollow of a tree live two old wrinkled beggars. The smell of the dust of the Gobi Desert is in the air, the smell of caravans and of trade routes to Mongolia, Turkestan and India.

Within the walls of the Legation Quarters diplomats move complacently about from dinner party to dinner party like goldfish in an aquarium, and Chinese political offenders seek sanctuary in the German hospital. Foreigners ride Mongol ponies through the pine groves by the Temple of Heaven, whose conical blue-tiled roof is supported by pillars of Douglas pine brought from Oregon. Beside the temple is the circular white marble Altar of Heaven, so perfect in design and intention that one may stand there face to face with the Universe or dance upon it as Ruth St. Denis did. Yet around the borders of that same sacred precinct is a ditch so foul in its stench that even mangy, refuse-seeking dogs avoid it. Near the entrance to those grounds, elderly gentlemen in robes of snow-lavender velvet or moon-white gauze congregate with their birds in lacquer cages and their crickets in ivory boxes. Across the road gather a much larger throng of young and old to watch the public executions. Farther along in a dust-blown square are the coolie entertainers: jugglers, wrestlers and contortionists, men with strong-bows, and wandering child actors and lithe young acrobats with smooth and subtly smiling faces and yet, too, like Picasso’s pathetic Harlequins, who here become, in these dusty streets, a part of the daily scene.

In the shade of pine trees by the Palace moat may be seen, at the propitious hours, old scholars teaching young boys the slowly postured movements of the T’ai Chi, an ancient dance especially suitable for people who read books, since it harmonizes and soothes the spirit. And gray uniformed soldiers might have been seen there too, dancing the equally ancient Woo Shoo, suitable for those who do not read books and who want to harmonize the body. Like figures from the Russian ballet they swing their flashing broadswords now to the terror of the Japanese soldiers, who wear iron collars to preserve their necks.

Mongols in greasy red brocades stomp the streets in their heavy leather boots, but those fragile Manchu girls with their ivory-white and pink complexions and flower-decked headdresses seldom appear now in their glass carriages. The mechanical canary in its gilded cage has been carried away with the other Palace treasures; the old eunuchs of the place have retired to a temple in the Hills; bolts of tribute silks and satins, and furs from the store rooms of the Palace are sold publicly on Sunday mornings, and mandarin robes are dragged in the dust of the old clothes market. When the iron-bossed gates of the city are barred and bolted for the night, the antique dealers from London and Berlin will sit up until dawn over their wine cups, with Chinese merchants, dividing the spoils of a newly opened grave, and in the icy bitterness of morning, beggars will be found frozen to death in the streets.

Gentlemen of the Embassies play the ancient game of polo on the drill grounds of the International Guard, and students from the universities, demonstrating against the Japanese, are driven bruised and bleeding from the city by the police. Funeral and wedding processions continuously block the traffic of the teeming thoroughfares — funeral processions in which officiate not only Taoists and Buddhist priests, but Lama priests and sometimes Christian clergymen as well. Being a practical people, the Chinese neglect no aids to getting on in the next world.

In the New Year season, graceful modern youth skates upon the artificial lakes of the Empress Dowager’s Winter Park, and in the heat of summer white cranes stand sentinel there amongst the lotus. The sweating coolie, naked to the waist, slacks his thirst with the green striped melon freshly cut, and sleek-haired, blue-gowned women spit sunflower seeds from the balcony of the tea house.

In the spring a Manchu prince sits in his garden under a flowering crab-apple tree painting on a silken scroll, in an idiom of a thousand years ago, a nostalgic dream of mountain gorges and waterfalls. The garden is so planned that one never sees the end of it, even though it may be in the heart of the city and surrounded by a high wall. A vista of water in a valley of volcanic rocks like abstract sculpture will make a sudden turn behind a screen of artificial mountains at the foot of the garden, leading one to believe that the valley continues on indefinitely.

Young modern China is learning from American moving pictures that being modern means to kiss girls in the park. Still, in spite of the cinema, the classical drama has remained by far the more popular form of theatrical entertainment, and the female impersonator has remained a most interesting example of the Chinese point of view in the art of the theatre.

Chinese impresarios and directors of the theatre will tell you that an actress could never play a feminine rôle in the traditional drama as convincingly as a female impersonator. The boys who are to play these roles are trained by the severest discipline from earliest childhood. They spend hours every day walking on short stilts to learn to mimic the lily-step of the bound foot. Their voices are trained in a high falsetto, and every gesture of delicacy and grace is acquired. Their very faces are altered by the temporary face-lifting operation of stretching back the skin under the headdress with bandages. Artifice here produces an effect of femininity which no woman could rival, even though she should have the same training, for she being merely a woman would in her heart believe, no doubt, that being feminine was sufficient.

Neither on the stage nor in painting nor in sculpture does allegory enter into the Chinese scheme of life interpretation. Nothing would seem more ridiculous to them than a Rubens nude representing “Virtue,” or a marble by Rodin called “Harmony,” or a fresco by Michelangelo representing “Peace.” These qualities are not to be abstracted from the scheme of the great Universal.

Although the Chinese are especially fond of pictures of babies one almost never sees motherhood portrayed. I personally cannot recall ever having seen a Madonna painting by a Chinese artist. Yet motifs of little children at play are most popular: the well-known “one hundred babies” pattern is repeatedly used on textiles, ceramics, wallpapers and metal objects of art. But most often the baby is associated with old men, with venerable and happy old age finding immortality in the child — a continuous flow of life without end, the convoluting circle of the Yin and Yang.

The use of the nude in art is limited solely to the pornographic, to the Ch’ün Hua or Spring Pictures which were used for instruction for those newly wedded. In these albums which were often the work of some of the best artists, so little concern was given to the correct observation of anatomy that the figures look more often like sawdust-stuffed dolls than humans. They have no sensuous quality whatever. They may become involved in esthetically exciting patterns, but they remain manikins substituted for the observer of the picture who becomes subjective in it, and whose senses under such a situation would be keyed to a sharper perception of things. One sees and feels more keenly under the tension of the instant, suddenly becoming more sensitively aware of the environment, focusing on the setting of the action. Every detail of the sleeping chamber, or of the library, or the latticed porch, or the nook in the rock garden now stands out in crystal clarity. One of the best records which exists of Ming period houses, of the arrangement and decoration of rooms, of the furniture and bric-a-brac, is from the illustrations of the erotic novel, the Hung Lou Meng — The Dream of the Red Chamber; and from other albums of pornography which were produced in quantity, much authentic documentation is to be derived concerning the modes and manners of the various epochs.

All the houses in Peking face south. They consist of separate one-story pavilions built around courtyards, the number of courtyards depending upon the size or wealth of the family. I rented a section, which in itself consisted of several courtyards, of one of these large old houses. The last Chinese occupant had been an official who had been active in the Boxer uprising. He had been obliged to flee and the house had been turned over by the Chinese government to an English mission school for the blind. From the mission it had been purchased by an English resident of Peking. It was a handsome house but in an advanced stage of decay. For six years I made it my home. Then came the China Incident.

For several seasons Japanese war planes had been swooping down over the houses of the city. Japanese troops had been indulging in sham battles at the most unexpected hours in the most unexpected places on the streets and the populace had courteously refrained from showing its feelings. Then the cannons began to rumble, and the rumble came closer and closer to the walls. Streets were sandbagged and trenches dug and the Chinese soldiers courteously retired from the city, leaving their dying and wounded to be picked up and washed and bandaged by the ladies and gentlemen of the foreign colony. With the streets lined by Japanese school children and hired coolies waving red-spotted white flags, the victorious army of the Mikado entered the Celestial City.

Then the most unworthy Peace Preservation Corps of the Autonomous State of Hopei and Chihli courteously massacred the entire honorable Japanese colony of four hundred men, women and children at T’ung cho, twenty miles from Peking. After that we knew little of what was happening; newspapers were suppressed, there was no rail, telegraph or radio communication even with the port of Tientsin: when trains did reach Tientsin they took twenty hours instead of the normal two and a half. It seemed to me it was a very good time to take that long-postponed trip to India, and so, sealing my etching and lithograph presses into a hidden passageway in the six-foot-thick wall of my house, I went to Japan to catch a boat for India.

My departure from Japan was delayed because instead of going to the steamship office I went each day to sit on padded matting floors before the golden screens of the Buddhist temples of Kyoto, golden screens which told a story of centuries of tender, warm communion between man and nature. Here on these gold leaf screens were the chrysanthemum and the cicada, the flight of heron, the tiger drinking at the pool, the pine tree and eagle, the fish in the spray of the waterfall.

Behind the tranquil images of Buddha in these temples are auras of quick, sharp flames which had come from India to Gandara, Miran, Turfan, Tung Huan, through China and to Japan in the 7th century, burning with a freshly kindled life and awakening the spirits of the men in the lands through which they had passed and bringing with them a passionate creative activity in the arts.

The symbols of Buddhism are here, too: the lotus, the e1ephant, the conch shell, the palm leaf scriptures, the ceremonial umbrella, the drums and lutes of the heavenly musicians, and the floating, wing-like scarfs of the Apsaras — all motifs which had come from tropical South India with those quick flames which encircle the contemplative Buddha.

Now I was about to go to the source of these symbols and to the source of Buddhistic art. At the steamship office I bought a passage to Colombo, southern port of India.

About a year ago I was alone in the temple of the Kailasa in the rock caves of Ellora in the State of Hyderabad in India. The Kailasa represents the peak of Brahman art; as one might say, Chartres Cathedral does of the Gothic. It is one of the caves excavated in the eighth century in the side of a solid rock escarpment which rises abruptly from a broad sun-bleached plain. About thirty other caves, some of them Buddhist and Jain, as well as Brahman, extend along the side of the cliff for a mile and a quarter. To approach the caves one climbs up narrow footpaths and rock-cut steps from the road below.

An emaciated Mohammedan guide with a chartreuse turban and squeaking imitation English shoes, had attached himself to me. Since he did not speak a word of English nor I of Hindustani we might have gotten along, if it had not been for his squeaky shoes. He was trying to sell me some postcard views of the caves. He seemed to insinuate that I would do better if I bought his postcards, and sat myself down comfortably under the shade of a tree and looked at them, rather than drag myself wearily around from cave to cave, merely to make sure that all the caves were there. Besides, I might have been kind enough to relieve him at once of the necessity of camping on my trail and torturing his feet in those ill-fitting shoes until he made a sale. In desperation I bought his pictures hoping to get rid of him. But when he saw that I was still determined to climb to all the caves, he thought I was mad, or else a suspicious character, and dogged every step I made. Where I looked he looked, when I looked at him he looked at me and squeaked his shoes. Simple gestures, meant to signify that he might remove his presence, made no impression. The only sign language which he understood was a hefty push down the steep trail which we had just ascended. At last I was alone.

For about ten days previously I had been living with those bright-eyed, happy children at the Theosophical College at Madanapalle. One evening at the headmaster’s house their Hindu teacher of philosophy had been telling me that the only moments of real happiness for him were those when he was able to pierce the illusion of his individual separateness of existence — when he was able to identify the atoms of which he was composed with the atoms of the things about him, such as the table at which we were sitting, for instance.

I thought of the Chinese, who, being a reasonable people, sought to pierce the illusion through their art. The Hindus being an unreasonable people sought to escape more directly. But after all, it wasn’t such a far cry from William Blake trying to find himself in the soul of a flea.

Now I was alone in the Kailasa with all the images of the cosmogony of the South Indian world about me, carven from the living rock; rows of stone elephants supported the temple, birds and flowers of stone adorned its roof. There must have been a flea carved in stone somewhere, but I didn’t see it. On the walls danced cobra-headed demons, and slim-waisted, large-hipped goddesses; and the skeletous Kali, goddess of Vengeance, danced there too. Beside his consort Parvati, the four-armed Shiva danced his cosmic dance, creating the world with his rhythm and destroying it again by his own vibration. His face was not subtly smiling, but transfixed — immobile — expressionless as a mirror of polished stone.

Suddenly I felt strangely to be part of the dance. I was merely one vibration of it, yet all its vibrations were within me. Timelessness and spacelessness enveloped me. Nothing seemed to matter, not even next month’s rent, or working wages, or totalitarian states. This, I suppose, was cosmic consciousness — about six seconds of it.

One might, perhaps, experience a similar six seconds without ever leaving Tacoma.

This paper by Thomas Handforth, reprinted in the October 1950 extra issue of The Horn Book Magazine, originally appeared in the July/August 1939 issue and is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Thomas Handforth and Mei Li.

share save 171 16 Personal Progress Toward the Orient*
Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*