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Cosmic Consciousness - Introduction
Sometimes it happens that out of the continually coming, continually going, tide of books, some single book fails to disappear along with its contemporaries, and because of something which it contains, or something which it is, lives on into another generation-or even further-answering in some way to some real human need.
Cosmic Consciousness is such a book, for it appeared, quitely and unheralded in 1901, the work of a Canadian doctor, of whom few people outside of the intimate circle of Walt Whitman`s friends and of the limited world of the alienist had ever heard. Even today, to the thousands who have read and who value the book, the writer is hardly more than a name-just Richard Maurice Bucke, author of Cosmic Consciousness. Yet Bucke, who died less than a year after the publication of this book, was during his lifetime, a very definite and very strong personality.
Descended of a good sturdy English stock on both sides, his father was a graduate of Trinity college, Cambridge, and a clergyman. His mother, a sister to an eminent Q.C., was a granddaughter of Sir Robert Walpole, the famous author and statesman. Bucke was their 7th child, born in 1837, the year before his parents emigrated to Canada and settled down on the remote "Creek Farm", in what is now a suburb of the city of London, Ontario. His Father, though he thus became a farmer, was a fine scholar; knew seven languages, and brought with him to the farm a library of thousands of volumes.
Young Richard Maurice Bucke had practically no formal schooling. He was taught Latin by his father, and turned loose among the books to educate himself. For the rest, he was a regular farm-boy, knowing and doing all the heavy ceaseless round hard work which farming called for before the days of the automobile and electricity.
When he was seven years old his mother died, and his father soon married again; but in his seventeenth year, the stepmother also died, and Richard Maurice Bucke decided the time had come for him to set out and see more of the world than he could observe from a farm in the backwoods. He went due South and across the border into the States.
For three long years he made his way from place to place, doing odd jobs. Among other things, he was a gardener in Columbus, Ohio, a rail-road -hand in Cincinnati, and a deck-hand on a Mississippi steamboat, and he finally hired himself out as a driver in a wagon-train of 26 wagons which was to cross the Plains to the western edge of the Mormon Territory ( now part of the State of Nevada). This was a serious and dangerous undertaking, for at that time there were no permanent white settlements for the last 1200 miles of the journey, and the peacefulness of the Indians was definetly not to be depended on.
The journey to Salt Lake took five months, and there Bucke drew his accumulated payfor the whole time and decided to go forward with a few others. The adventurers crossed the Rockies by the South Pass, and immediately found their journey a far more exciting and dangerous one, for the roving bands of Indians which they encountered resented the presence of the white men and attacked them on sight. The adventurers had to fight their way from camp to camp, finally being reduced to their very last cartridge. By this time not only their ammunition but their supplies had run out, and Bucke and a companion travelled the last 150 miles on nothing but flour stirred into hot water, until they staggered into a mountain trading-camp and collapsed.
After they had rested there awhile, they started off again, crossed the great American Desert to the Carson River, and finally reached Gold Canyon. For a year Richard Maurice Bucke settled down as a gold miner in a community of about a hundred white men scattered over some 1600 square miles of territory, without laws, without courts, without a church or a school. He met and became friends with the Grosh Brothers and their partner Brown, who had discovered the vast deposits of silver known later as the Comstock Lode but were keeping their find dark while they prospected even further for more silver. Disaster overtook them-Brown and one of the Groshes died, and the other brother, Allan, with Bucke set out over the mountains, although it was winter, in attempt to reach the coast.
It was a terrible experience-Allan Gosh died on the way, and Bucke with both feet frozen was rescued at the last minute by a mining party. The result was that Bucke had to have the whole of one foot and part of the other amputated, and that after a whole winter in bed, he returned to life a young man of 21 so badly maimed that for the 40 years remaining to him he was never free from pain for more than a few hours at a time.
Now of age, he inherited his mother`s small estate and used the money to put himself through McGill Medical School. The five years of desperate adventure he had been through had not interfered with his power of assimilating knowledge, for he not only graduated high on the list, but took the prize for the best thesis. His postgraduate work was done in Europe. The years 1862-63 were spent in London, working with Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, and visits to France and Germany followed; but in 1864 he returned to Canada and hung ou this shingle in Sarina, Ontario, marrying and settling down to raise a family like any ordinary young professional man.
However, Richard Maurice Bucke was anything but an ordinary professional man. He was a matter-of-fact scientist on one side of his brain, but on the other he was a man of highly developed imaginative faculty and endowed with an enormous memory, especially for poetry-of which he knew volumes by heart. His professional career was a distinguished one. In 1876 he was appointed Superintendent of the newly built Provincial Asylum for the Insane at Hamilton, Ontario, and in 1877 of the London (Ont.) Hospital. He became one of the foremost alienists on this Continent, introducing many reforms in procedure which, though considered dangerously radical at the time, are now a matter of everyday method. In 1882 he became Professor of Mental and Nervous Diseases at Western University (London, Ontario). In 1888 he was elected President of the Psychological Section of the British Medical Association.
So much for the doctor. But there was the other side of him, which has proved to be of more lasting importance to more people than the very fine and useful work he did in his profession. In 1867, a visitor to his house quoted some verses of the Walt Whitman`s to him. Their effect on him was extraordinary, instantaneous and permanent. They opened a new door in his mind, and from then to the end of his life he was under the spell of Whitman. In the spring of 1872 came one of the great moments of his life. In that year Bucke, while on a visit to England, experienced illumination.
Here is the account of the experience, quoted from the Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada:
"He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom. His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quite, almost passive, enjoyment".
All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around, as it were, by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire-some sudden conflagration in the great city. The next (instant) he knew that the light was within himself. "Directly after there came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousnes, accompanied or immediately, followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which ever since lightened his life. Upon his heart fell one drop of the Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of Heaven."
it is not hard to imagine the effect of this shattering experience on a strong and vivid personality such as Bucke was at the age of 35. It gave him the knowledge and insight which is revealed in Cosmic Consciousness, in part 3 ( pages 61-82), where he describes the conditions which surround such an experience and its effect on the percipient. With his mental energies extended and refined by this new consciousness he began to ponder more deeply the relation between man`s mind and his moral nature, and in 1879 he produced his first book, Man`s Moral Nature (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New york). This is an examination into the relationship between the great sympathetic nervous system of the body and the moral nature of man-a subject which he had already broached in a paper read by him in 1877 before a meeting of the Association of American Institutions for the Insane, and in another paper on the same subject read the following year before the same Association.
In 1877 Bucke met Walt Whitman for the first time-and this was another crucial experience for him. He has described it himself in the Introduction to his edition of Whitman`s Calamus (Small Maynard, Boston, 1897) as " and a sort of spiritual intoxication" and the turning-point of my life." Man`s Moral Nature is dedicated to Whitman. Horace Traubel has given us an idea of what Whitman thought of Bucke, both as man and doctor ( Bucke had treated Whitman professionally, and, as the poet believed, saved his life).
Reference: Richard Maurice Bucke:Cosmic Consciousness