We live many lives. When we start a new one we do not usually remember the previous but hold it in our information ‘disk’ and sometimes our strong inclinations towards certain things betray our connection to the prior to this one life.
In my case, it is my fascination and love of everything English – the language, culture, traditions, people, royalty. I am drawn to England like to a magnet. I know I lived there in my previous life, for I know some things about Englishness without really knowing them in this life. It is a very specific feeling and sensation which has nothing to do with where I was born and how I was raised. Just to clarify, I am Russian, I was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and studied at a French language school. English language was a sort of ‘hobby’ for me at first.
So, when it comes to anything English I have a strong connection to it and feel it with my heart and soul. I rarely, if at all, find people who feel the same. Not the connection to everything English but the nostalgic feeling of a previous incarnation. So, I was utterly surprised when, flipping through digital pages of one of the back issues of the Photoplay magazine published in 1921 – the era that I also very much love and drawn to - I came across an article that immediately resonated with me. For, it was written exactly about connections to and memories of previous lives. The article was penned by Florence Reed, a famous Hollywood actress of the silent movie era who believed that her career began thousands of years ago – ‘Somewhere East of Suetz’.
I was under such a great impression from finding a soul-mate on the digital pages of a 100-year-old magazine that decided to share the article. Here it is.
The Allure of the East
By Florence Reed
I have felt the allure of the East. It is a strange, pervading, compelling power. It possesses the one whom long it beckons. It offers rest and refuge. It soothes yet stimulates. It may easily become the strongest influence in a life — an influence for good.
To the Oriental spirit this is comprehensible. To the Occidental it is a strange, at first a terrifying, thing. It is like living amidst the shadows of reality — soft, exquisitely tinted shadows of an immense reality, tremendous yet subtle.
To become interested in the soul of the Orient is like projecting oneself into the infinite. It is a boundless sea. One draws back from it in a kind of enamored terror, as from a mammoth, glistening serpent, the songs of the Lorelei, or the first yielding of the quick sands that may swallow us.
Because it is as hard to explain it as to resist it, I have refrained from telling of my identification with the soul of the East. Those who do not understand it may lift the eye-brow or may jeer. It was only because a friend of mine was importunate that I yielded to her requests and am telling for the first time what the East means to me. I have heard the call of the East. I shall follow it, into the very heart of the East itself. I shall go to Asia to solve its mysteries. I shall go to Japan, to India, to China, into the inner chamber of the heart of the East. I am not sure where I shall find it. Perhaps in the spice-scented groves of India. Maybe in the marbled, jewelled beauty of the most beautiful temple to love ever erected, the tomb to a beloved princess, the glittering glory of the Taj Mahal. It is more probable that I shall find it in the farthest Himalayan heights, where the human voice is seldom heard and where one lives above the snows and amidst the clouds, such a spot as a traveller has called the peak of meditation. I shall go seeking to complete an incomplete life. This is no protest against my fate. I am successful. I have a happy domestic life. I have many friends whom I love and who love me. Yet I have been told that I am a dissatisfied soul. It is true. My frequent mood recalls a poem, the line of which beat upon the chambers of my memory – ‘Round my restlessness His rest’ is part of the refrain. I paraphrase it to my own needs. ‘Round my restlessness its rest,' meaning the rest, the repose, the ineffable quietude of the Far East.
Sometime I, who have never stepped outside the United States, shall go on a self-search in the East. I shall be looking for the remaining fragment of my personality, the still missing part of my selfhood. When I go, I shall go alone. Only in that wax can I concentrate for the
search. A merry party of friends or my family would distract my interest, would defeat my search. I do not know what experience awaits me in the dim, ancient East. But I have the conviction that I shall return from it re-enforced, completed by some knowledge I now lack. The terms in which one speaks of the East are vague, as a far-off shape on the horizon is vague. Though we know that the cloud is real and capable of precipitating a very reality of rain, and that the far-off shape on the horizon is a very tangible building or structure, whether a house built by man or a mountain built by the hands of God. Because these terms are of necessity vague they are not understood. They are even the subject of jest.
A reason why my best of husbands informs me when I use them that I am ‘crazy.’ So, I Tin crazy, perhaps, but not as he means. I am ‘crazy’ in the sense of having an enormous enthusiasm about the East and all the beauty appertaining to it. I have felt the charm of everything Oriental ever since I can remember. It burst into full flowering while I was playing the Babylonish character Tisha, in ‘The Wanderer.’ Five celebrities of the theater, including the highest, David Belasco, sitting in front and watching me rehearse, said, ‘Let her alone, don't direct her. She has gotten the character in a flash of understanding. Let her play it as she wishes.’ To the author, I said: ‘Mr. Samuels, I don't need any direction. I am, or rather, I have been Tisha. I am renewing acquaintance with my old self.’
After the play had been running for a month he wrote me a long letter, five or six pages in length, saying that he believed as I did, that I was being Tisha, not playing her. He said that strange, wild laugh came out of the untamed soul of a daughter of the desert.
My mind holds not the slightest doubt that some of us have flashes of memory of another life. Ella Wheeler Wilcox had such flashes. She accepted what she saw by those flashes as surely as she accepted the fact of the furniture which the pressed button of an electric light revealed to her eyes, out of a previously darkened room.
She told many of her friends that she recalled distinctly many events of her life in France in a previous incarnation. ‘I was not better than I ought to be.’ The poet dropped into colloquialism and told frankly of her memories of her close acquaintance with Cardinal Richelieu.
I, too, have such vivid and not flattering memories. They go as they come, quickly, but by their intermittent light they have enabled me to play the roles of defiant, code flaunting women, from the name role of the Painted Woman to the soul tortured heroine of ‘The Mirage.’
Those who know the East quickly recognize the quality I feel. A world traveller presented me a book inscribed ‘To Florence Reed, the Soid of the East.’ Lillian Russell has a Chinese room into which she retires for rest from the madding crowd. Miss Russell says that she goes into the quiet of that room with its ancient vases, its pictures and tapestries representing the work of artists and artisans who lived and worked and died thousands of years ago. She says: ‘Everything about me is so old. It speaks of the efforts and triumphs of those who have solved their problems. And quiet and peace seem to descend upon me.’
I have fitted up my drawing room, library and bedroom in Oriental mode. The arches between these rooms are outlined by gold Chinese lacquer. My bed is covered by a Chinese embroidered spread and cushions. The wall at the head and side of the couch is outlined by silk the color of faded red roses. Against the background of this soft old silk arc embroidered the figures of Confucius and ten other famous Chinese philosophers. The gentle wisdom of these long dead sages of the East seems to pervade my room. It teaches me the lesson that those who live life most need patience. There are old Chinese prints. The rug is one of Chinese origin, its blue like a one time Urban blue, dimmed by the centuries. An old set of book shelves I have had done over in black with blue Chinese birds lacquered upon them.
My drawing room has rugs from India, gilded dragons from China, and toy dogs with fierce faces and bristling ears that guard, Cerberus-like, my windows. There are low Chinese tables and tapestries that in price at least arc of a painful altitude.
On the mantle in my drawing room, stands when it is not bearing me company on my piano, a fascinating head in natural colors. It is the head of a woman proud as a princess, charming as exquisite women have been since Eve set the fashion of charm. There's the subtlety of the East in her face. The half smile in eyes and about lips that try to be ascetic but can't, won her the name of the Chinese Mona Lisa. I christened her with drops of perfume of Chinese lilies. The book case in my library is screened by Chinese embroidery' that has the pond lily as its motif. Scattered throughout my rooms are Oriental candle sticks that have come from the temples themselves. Had the purloiner of these been detected in his sacrilegious act he would have been be- headed.
At home I always wear Oriental robes. I do this for two reasons. The colors and designs delight me. And when I don them I feel as though translated across the Pacific to a land of delicious mystery. With the touch of the silken sleeves of a Japanese kimono or of a Mandarin coat I feel as though I am being submerged in rose leaves, lost in a delightful, perfumed temporary oblivion. My mother, sitting in front and watching me play Tisha with a realism that appalled her said: ‘I don't know where she got it. I can't account for it.’
I love the charm, the mystery, the satisfied, I-have-learned-it-all air of whatever pertains to the East. They do know it all. Lady Duff Gordon says that the Chinese learned all that is to be known about colors ten thousand years before we were born. What has the Indian who wove the variegated rugs with the very bloom of departed flowers upon them to learn about textiles? What does the calm-faced Japanese need to learn about colors or philosophy or the efficiency of everyday living or the art of keeping a secret?
I quote from an authority on Asiatic learning. ‘As is well known. China long ago discovered everything. This fact was not realized by Rosel von Rosenhof who confidently thought that he had found the first amoeba in 1775. Little did he dream that Fu Hsi — mythically styled the first Chinaman — had stolen the glory of its counterpart by a little margin of more than 3.000 years. The find was given to the world in a perfectly modern way, with unusually clever advertisement. Fu Hsi declared that while thinking over the knotty problem of the universe, a dragon horse skimmed over the water toward him. The dragon horse bore on its back some mystic symbols, subsequently used in all forms of Chinese art, which contained in their few lines the world and all that is in it, beginning with the amoeba. The first symbol was called the Tae-Keih. This was a circle divided by a curved line into two nucleated cells. One of these stood for the female principle (yin), as the earth and moon. The other cell denoted the male principle (yang), as the heavens, the Sun.'
Yih Kins, which Confucius edited, explains at great length and convincingly at least to me that the health, happiness and peace of individuals, nations and the universe, depend on the balance maintained between these two elements. Disease, war and chaos result from lack of balance between them. From Tae-Keih sprang other symbols, known as the Eight Mystic Trigrams. They are made up of straight lines representing the male element, broken, lines standing for the female element, or both which signifies a union of the two elements. These eight mystic trigrams are heaven, which the Chinese believe to be completely male. That may be the reason why all of the angels were pictured by the ancients as male. Mist, steam and all vaporous part of nature is represented by the Chinese as having female element largely in the ascendant. Earth is wholly feminine. The mountains, the fluid element, thunder, fire and wind are composed of both.
Confucius has been rightly called the Teacher of Ten Thousand Ages. When asked by one of his followers: ‘Is there any one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all of one's life?’ he answered: ‘Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself do not do to others.’ And the utterance ‘What I do not wish men to do to me I also will not do to them.’ It is the ancestor of the Golden Rule. Mencius, his apostle, said in the Analects: ‘To advance a man or to stop his advance is beyond the power of other men.’
What greater bugle call to self-reliance, to belief in the powers of one's own soul, was ever blown?
Of Oriental origin was this: ‘To be a great lover is to be a great mystic. In the highest conception of mortal beauty of the mind and form there always lies the unattainable, the unpossessed, suggesting the world of beauty and finality beyond one's each.’ What has Christian Science to teach which is not summed in this from the Bhagavad Gita, The Songs of the Master: ‘For him who is united when eating and moving, who is united when busy with work, who is united asleep and awake, union destroys all pain.’ ‘As a lamp standing in a windless place flickers not, is the seeker of union, who, with imagination controlled, joins himself in union with the soul.’
Epicures and sybarites loll with their copies of the Rubaiyat. Yet here are lines from a forgotten Rubaiyat written by forgotten Chinese.
The world is weary, hastening on its road;
Is it worthwhile to add its cares to thine?
Seek some grassy place to pour the wine,
And find an idle hour to sing an ode.
You've two score, three score, years before you yet,
And at the end of them your day is done.
A thousand plans you have before you set;
Is it worthwhile to worry over one?
Now when the gods have made an idle day,
Take it and let the idle hours go by;
And when the gods three cups before you lay,
Lift them and drain them dry.
It is the philosophy of the East that claims me. The beauty of its art is as nothing to that.
The poet, Cyril Scott, said with great truth: ‘Turn not thy face away from the inspired East. From thence has risen every type that held the mortal truth.’ A wise man of the East asked: ‘Through what gates shall I lead my soul to greatness?’
My answer is ‘Through the gate of the East.’ That will not be the answer of all souls. I do not advise anyone to voluntarily cultivate a fad for things of the East. If the urge is within him or her it will make itself felt. It will be a command. There is in everyone that urge toward the life, the atmosphere, which is the complement of one's spirit.
I am impatient of the silly idea that one must turn to the East for relief from the carking cares of our Western life. Some souls are at home in the life of the West. Anywhere else they would suffer homesickness.
There is a foolish pose called the artistic temperament. If one is sane and thoughtful and balanced he will be sane and thoughtful and balanced anywhere, be it on the stage or in a kitchen or in a railroad president's office. If he be ill-balanced and tumultuous he will be ill-balanced and tumultuous in any environment. I have known a bank president who was as temperamental as any prima donnas I know. The soul that seeks its complement finds it not necessarily in the mysticism of the East but through an inward urge toward some objective state.
It may be found in Spanish laces and old Spanish romances. Archer Huntington, adopted son of Collis P. Huntington, seems to have found his in old Spain. Witness the Hispanic Museum and the library with its wealth of Spanish beauty. Or it may be found in preserving relics of the stage as did the late Evart Jansen Wendell. It happens that I recognize the missing fragment of myself in study of the oldest civilization of the world.
The article was published in Photoplay magazine (1921).