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An essay by Helen Hunt Jackson

A Genius For Affection

Title:     A Genius For Affection
Author: Helen Hunt Jackson [More Titles by Jackson]

The other day, speaking superficially and uncharitably, I said of a woman, whom I knew but slightly, "She disappoints me utterly. How could her husband have married her? She is commonplace and stupid."

"Yes," said my friend, reflectively; "it is strange. She is not a brilliant woman; she is not even an intellectual one; but there is such a thing as a genius for affection, and she has it. It has been good for her husband that he married her."

The words sank into my heart like a great spiritual plummet They dropped down to depths not often stirred. And from those depths came up some shining sands of truth, worth keeping among treasures; having a phosphorescent light in them, which can shine in dark places, and, making them light as day, reveal their beauty.

"A genius for affection." Yes; there is such a thing, and no other genius is so great. The phrase means something more than a capacity, or even a talent for loving. That is common to all human beings, more or less. A man or woman without it would be a monster, such as has probably never been on the earth. All men and women, whatever be their shortcomings in other directions, have this impulse, this faculty, in a degree. It takes shape in family ties: makes clumsy and unfortunate work of them in perhaps two cases out of three,--wives tormenting husbands, husbands neglecting and humiliating wives, parents maltreating and ruining children, children disobeying and grieving parents, and brothers and sisters quarrelling to the point of proverbial mention; but under all this, in spite of all this, the love is there. A great trouble or a sudden emergency will bring it out. In any common danger, hands clasp closely and quarrels are forgotten; over a sick-bed hard ways soften into yearning tenderness; and by a grave, alas! what hot tears fall! The poor, imperfect love which had let itself be wearied and harassed by the frictions of life, or hindered and warped by a body full of diseased nerves, comes running, too late, with its effort to make up lost opportunities. It has been all the while alive, but in a sort of trance; little good has come of it, but it is something that it was there. It is the divine germ of a flower and fruit too precious to mature in the first years after grafting; in other soils, by other waters, when the healing of the nations is fulfilled, we shall see its perfection. Oh! what atonement will be there! What allowances we shall make for each other, then! with what love we shall love!

But the souls who have what my friend meant by a "genius for affection" are in another atmosphere than that which common men breathe. Their "upper air" is clearer, more rarefied than any to which mere intellectual genius can soar. Because, to this last, always remain higher heights which it cannot grasp, see, nor comprehend.

Michel Angelo may build his dome of marble, and human intellect may see as clearly as if God had said it that no other dome can ever be built so grand, so beautiful. But above St. Peter's hangs the blue tent-dome of the sky, vaster, rounder, elastic, unfathomable, making St. Peter's look small as a drinking-cup, shutting it soon out of sight to north, east, south, and west, by the mysterious horizon-fold which no man can lift. And beyond this horizon-fold of our sky shut down again other domes, which the wisest astronomer may not measure, in whose distances our little ball and we, with all our spinning, can hardly show like a star. If St. Peter's were swallowed up to-morrow, it would make no real odds to anybody but the Pope. The probabilities are that Michel Angelo himself has forgotten all about it.

Titian and Raphael, and all the great brotherhood of painters, may kneel reverently as priests before Nature's face, and paint pictures at sight of which all men's eyes shall fill with grateful tears; and yet all men shall go away, and find that the green shade of a tree, the light on a young girl's face, the sleep of a child, the flowering of a flower, are to their pictures as living life to beautiful death.

Coming to Art's two highest spheres,--music of sound and music of speech,--we find that Beethoven and Mozart, and Milton and Shakespeare, have written. But the symphony is sacred only because, and only so far as, it renders the joy or the sorrow which we have felt. Surely, the interpretation is less than the thing interpreted. Face to face with a joy, a sorrow, would a symphony avail us? And, as for words, who shall express their feebleness in midst of strength? The fettered helplessness in spite of which they soar to such heights? The most perfect sentence ever written bears to the thing it meant to say the relation which the chemist's formula does to the thing he handles, names, analyzes, can destroy, perhaps, but cannot make. Every element in the crystal, the liquid, can be weighed, assigned, and rightly called; nothing in all science is more wonderful than an exact chemical formula; but, after all is done, will remain for ever unknown the one subtle secret, the vital centre of the whole.

But the souls who have a "genius for affection" have no outer dome, no higher and more vital beauty; no subtle secret of creative motive force to elude their grasp, mock their endeavor, overshadow their lives. The subtlest essence of the thing they worship and desire, they have in their own nature,--they are. No schools, no standards, no laws can help or hinder them.

To them the world is as if it were not. Work and pain and loss are as if they were not. These are they to whom it is easy to die any death, if good can come that way to one they love. These are they who do die daily unnoted on our right hand and on our left,--fathers and mothers for children, husbands and wives for each other. These are they, also, who live,--which is often far harder than it is to die,--long lives, into whose being never enters one thought of self from the rising to the going down of the sun. Year builds on year with unvarying steadfastness the divine temple of their beauty and their sacrifice. They create, like God. The universe which science sees, studies, and explains, is small, is petty, beside the one which grows under their spiritual touch; for love begets love. The waves of eternity itself ripple out in immortal circles under the ceaseless dropping of their crystal deeds.

Angels desire to look, but cannot, into the mystery of holiness and beauty which such human lives reveal. Only God can see them clearly. God is their nearest of kin; for He is love.

[The end]
Helen Hunt Jackson's essay: Genius For Affection