To someone susceptible to such thoughts, it may appear as the well-conceived plan of divine providence that my mind should have been obliged to shrink from such swollen arrogance into the extreme of despondency and impotence that is now its lasting condition. But such religious conceits have no power over me; they belong to those spiders’ webs through which my thoughts go speeding off into emptiness, whereas so many of their fellows are caught in them, and come to rest. For me, the mysteries of belief have taken the form of a lofty allegory, which hangs over the fields of my life like a shining rainbow, at a constant distance, always ready to withdraw, in case I should suddenly be inclined to run to it and wrap myself in the hem of its coat.
But, my dear friend, even mundane things shrink from me in the same way. How should I try to describe for you these strange mental tortures, the branches of fruit-trees withdrawing from my outstretched hands, the murmuring water receding from my thirsting lips?
In short, my condition is this: I have quite lost the faculty to think or speak on any subject in a coherent fashion.
To begin with, it gradually became impossible for me to converse on any higher or general subject, and to use those words which all men use constantly and unhesitatingly. I felt inexplicably loath even to say ‘Mind’ or ‘Soul’ or ‘Body’. I found myself incapable of passing an opinion on the affairs at Court, events in Parliament, or whatever else. And this is not through caution or regard — you know I am candid to the point of recklessness: but those abstractions which the tongue has to pronounce in making any judgement fell apart like rotten mushrooms in my mouth.
I was compelled to view everything that came up in conversation as from an awful proximity: the way I had once seen a piece of skin on my little finger under a magnifying glass to look like a field with furrows and hollows, so it was now with men and their actions. I was no longer able to grasp them through the simplifying regard of habit. Everything fell into pieces in front of me, the pieces into more pieces, and nothing could be contained in a single concept anymore. Individual words swam around me; they melted into eyes, which stared at me, and which I had to stare back at: they are like whirlpools, it gives me vertigo to look down at them, they turn without cease, and transport you into nothingness.
Since then, my existence has been one that, I fear, you will hardly be able to comprehend, so devoid of mind and thought is it; an existence that, admittedly, is hardly different from that of my neighbours, my relatives, and the majority of the landowning nobility of the kingdom, and one that is not without its moments of joy and liveliness. It will not be easy for me to give you an idea of these good moments; the words that might do it have deserted me. For it is something that has never been named and that it is probably impossible to name, which manifests itself to me at such moments, taking some object from my everyday surroundings, and filling it like a vessel with an overflowing torrent of higher life. I cannot expect you to understand me without examples, and I must beg you to excuse the silliness of these examples. A watering-can, a harrow left abandoned in a field, a dog in the sun, a poor churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse, any one of these can become a vessel for my revelations. Each of them, and a thousand others like them, things which otherwise the eye passes over with natural indifference, can suddenly take on for me in a moment, which I am quite incapable of producing of my own will, an exalted and moving appearance, to express which all words seem to me inadequate.
These mute and sometimes inanimate creatures raise themselves towards me with such a fullness and presence of love, that my charmed eye is unable to find a dull spot anywhere in the vicinity. Everything, everything in my memory, everything my most confused thoughts have touched on, seems to be something. Even my own weight, and my otherwise dull brain appears to me to be something; I feel an enchanting, quite limitless counterpoint within me and around me, and among the substances playing against one another, there is none into which I could not flow. At such a time, I feel as though my body consisted entirely of ciphers, which reveal everything to me. Or as though we could enter into a new, intuitive relationship with the whole universe, if we began to think with our hearts. But when this extraordinary spell fades from me, I am unable to say anything about it; I could as little describe in sensible words what this harmony weaving me and the whole world together consisted of and how I perceived it, as I could describe in detail the inner movements of my intestines or the congestion of my blood.
Apart from these extraordinary occurrences, of which, by the way, I can hardly say whether they should be called physical or spiritual, I lead a life of almost unbelievable emptiness, and find it difficult to conceal from my wife the deadness that is inside me, and from my household my indifference to the business of ownership. The good, strict upbringing I owe my late father, and my old habit of leaving no hour of the day without occupation, alone, it seems to me, give my life the appearance of stability, and the demeanour suited to my estate and person.
– Hofmannsthal, ‘The Lord Chandos Letter’ (trans. M. Hofmann)