By Roberto C. Assagioli, 7. April, 1910, The New Age Journal
We must not be surprised if Han Ryner, the latest follower of Epictetus, is also a gifted poet. Stoicism, which for the reporters of daily papers is a synonym of pathological insensibility, may be a source of great poetry. To believe this it suffices to have read the inspired hymn, in which Cleantus celebrates the harmonious order of the Universe, under the name of Zeus. What, on the contrary, must astonish and delight us is the quality of Han Ryner’s poetry, quite unusual nowadays? He has not written many poems, and he is the first (however wrongly, according to some critics) to judge them mediocre. But he is surely a poet, in the original and noblest meaning of the word, when he writes prose, for then he possesses the essential quality of the poet: to be a creator of myths.
Endowed with a singularly fervid, ingenious, and picturesque fancy, and with a mind which can understand, without deforming them by narrow prejudices or by impulsive antipathies, the most different philosophical conceptions, as a clear lake reflects faithfully the innumerable shapes of the clouds, Han Ryner has practically expressed in admirable allegories and parables most of the inward life of men. And his art is as plastic and multiform as that life.
Let us give a rapid glance at the Voyages de Psychodore,” which are perhaps until now Han Ryner’s, masterpiece. Psychodore, a cynic philosopher, having lost his beloved, goes roaming in phantastical countries, where he has the strangest experiences. Firstly, he meets, in a plain surrounded by mountains, the Rooted (les enracenés), giants endowed with eternal life, but for ever immovable, because their legs go deep into the ground, transforming themselves into roots. I am sorry I cannot transcribe all the speeches made by the Rooted in their vain endeavours to understand what is going on behind the mountains that limit their land. But the presumptuous compassion with which we would learn the ridiculous hypotheses of the giants imprisoned in space is destroyed by a little remark of Psychodore: “J’ai l’angoisse de la durée; ils ont l’angoisse de l’espace. Les sottises et les folies qu’ils disent sur le monde étendu correspondent sans doute à nos erreurs sur le monde qui persiste. Et le sourire avec lequel il écoutait des géants immobiles blâmait suivi des pensées d’hommes qui marchent. ”
This first adventure is followed by many others, in which Han Ryner shows in the most efficacious way, by the oddest inventions, the manifold limitations of human mind, and endeavours audaciously to rise above them, if only for a few moments, casting glimpses on the Unknown, by means of comparisons, correspondences, and analogies. Of this kind are Psychodore’s adventures that Han Ryner relates under the following titles, which, if they necessarily say little about the contents, are nevertheless very promising: “ Les Sans-Yeux,” “ Les Rétro- grades,” ‘‘ Les Ephémères,” “O, ma mêre tu est mon pêre,” “ L’Intervalle,’’ “ Les Nuages,” “ Les grande vivants.”
But Han Ryner does not only laugh at the intellectual barriers of men; he who, as we shall see, has a very high ethical ideal, lashes without restraint the meanness, the violence, the moral blindness of men. Some of the scenes he paints are said by a critic to be “d’une grandeur vraiment Dantesque,” and after having read “ Les Pitaniates identiques,” “ Les Laborieux,” “ Les Fantômes,” I do not think that the critic exaggerates.
Let us take, for instance, “Les Pitaniates identiques.” Psychodore arrives in a country whose inhabitants have human shapes only from midnight to noon; during the remaining twelve hours they are dogs, wolves, tigers, and any kind of wild or filthy animals. Everybody knows the common infamy, but woe to him who does not feign to ignore it ! At midnight, as soon as they have become men again, impetuous and aggressive songs are heard. “ Ils affirmaient hymnes brutalement patriotiques,” Il n’y a que des heures humaines Les Pitaniates sont les plus identiques des êtres. Vivent toutes les heures ! Vivent les Pitaniates identiques, dont l’identité est aimée des dieux et de la gloire!”
Psychodore succeeds with much difficulty, in escaping from the Pitaniates and in going where “les hommes doués d’une pudeur plus continue, ne quittent jamais leur masque.” Another time Psychodore arrives amongst the “ Laborious,” unhappy beings whose entrails are visible, and whose thousand arms are toiling without rest in contracting the heart, in dilating and compressing the lungs, and in satisfying all the other innumerable needs of physical life-beings who are for Psychodore the image of so many human souls, “faites de mille troubles, torturées de mille besognes, dispersées en mille petites mains de fibre.” Even these short hints are sufficient to show that the myths created by Han Ryner are not idle games of fancy, iridescent and fragile soap-bubbles, but august symbols of profound moral truths.
What is, then Han Ryner’s philosophical position? It may be hinted by saying that his ideas have all the amplitude and mobility of those of a modern Epictetus. He likes to call himself an “individualist,” but he gives to that word a very different meaning from that generally given to it. In his “Petit manuel indi- vidualiste”-a short synthesis of his conception of life, under the form of an inward dialogue he clearly indicates his own position: “ J’entends par indi- vidualisme la doctrine morale qui ne s’appuyant sur aucun dogme, sur aucune tradition, sur aucune volonté extérieure, ne fait appelqu’ à la conscience indi- viduelle.” This defence of inward experience coincides with what many mystics have written.
With these Han Ryner continues to agree entirely when he fights against the pretended individualists that are now in vogue. He says, in fact, that often the name of individualism has been given to “appearances of doctrines” intended to cover with a philosophical mask a vile selfishness or a conquering and aggressive selfish- ness. Amongst the false individualists he puts Stendhal and Nietzsche, amongst the true ones instead Socrates, Epicurus, Jesus, and Epictetus.
This connection between Jesus and Epicurus will certainly cause the turning up of many noses; it is really somewhat strange, but we must not forget that Han Ryner speaks of the true picture, not of his Roman or modern caricatures. Besides, Han Ryner himself puts Epicurus on a lower level than the three others; in fact, elsewhere he says that the road to perfection leads to Epictetus passing by Epicurus.
Of the particular doctrines which form Han Ryner’s individualism I will only say that he strictly sticks to the high stoical moral, adopting the fundamental doctrine of stoicism; that is to say, the doctrine which makes a sharp distinction between the things that depend upon ourselves (all the “inward actions” which alone represent the true good and the true evil) and the things that do not depend upon us, or are “indifferent” (that is to say, any object or external event). Moreover, he accepts entirely the noble altruism of the Stoics, so misunderstood by the moderns, and he reassumes it in the sentence: “Tu aimeras ton prochain comme toi même et ton Dieu par dessus toute chose.”
Of Han Ryner’s other works I will name in the first place “Les Chrétiens et les Philosophes.” This delightful book contains a series of conversations that might have taken place amongst philosophers of every school, and amongst them and some Christians, on the road from Rome to Ostia, when Domitian banished from Italy all the philosophers or the so-called philosophers. From the first chapter, entitled “ Un Magis- trat comparait devant un homme libre ”-in which Epictetus exposes the substance of his doctrines to the Roman praetor who imparts to him the order of exile – to the last one, in which the pretended philosophers of every school agree only in trying to let an injustice be committed against Epicurus, it is an uninterrupted sequence of little comical scenes, of noble conversations, of subtle disquisitions amongst Epicurus, Serenus, and Serena (the representatives of high epicureanism), the senator Caius Crufer, surnamed Porcus (who represents its most vulgar side), Theophilus (a Christian with an ardent faith and a limited mind), Historicus, and many other masterly moulded figures.
Han Ryner has written many novels, of which I will name only “La folie de Misère,” a powerful analysis of an abnormal mind; “Le soupçon,” another masterly study in psychopathology, in which are described the aberrations caused by a morbid jealousy; “L’homme-fourmi,” a work full of delightful irony, in which are related the adventures of a good clerk transformed into an ant; “La fille manquée,” a most daring and subtle study of an omosexual; and lastly, “Le crime d’obéir” and the “Sphinx rouge,” in both of which the conflict between the rigid stoic individualism and the ordinary social moral creates tragical situations.
Very little will I say about the man. Han Ryner is a strong and disdainful recluse, who does not stop to flatter any social idol. And naturally society fights against him with all its refined ferocity. So the Parisian literary men and critics, to whom he has told such truths as cannot be forgiven, have created around him the conspiracy of silence and have succeeded in keeping him almost unknown, helped by his strong repugnance against any personal réclame.
I will relate a little scene which clearly shows this most rare peculiarity of his character. Some time ago we were together in a vulgar café of the Boulevard St. Germain. He had talked to me a long while, exposing with ardent and picturesque words his original interpretations of the Greek philosophers. When, a little tired, he stopped, I asked him abruptly: “ As you know, I intend to write about you. Will you give me some biographical details?” His face darkened and he answered drily : “ Non, non, je n’ai pas de biographie.” And he began again, immediately soothed, to talk about the relations between the Stoics and the Pythagoreans. So I could not tell him that the deep wrinkles of his face seemed strangely to belive his words. . . .
 I will quote on this pint some picturesque passages from his last letter to me :-“ Non, nous ne sommes pas fils d’un milieu el de quelques circonstances. La pure activité de l’esprit s’exerce à des profondeurs où ces pauvretés ne penè- trent point. Est-ce que même les circonstances ne sont pas, la plupart du temps, une meute dont les aboiements voudraient nous empêcher d’entendre la parole intérieure ? On est philosophe et penseur, comme on est vertueux, malgré les circonstances. Il est certain que la plupart des hommes laissent les accidents dévorer toute leur substance. Mais ce n’est pas en refusant de voir dans le vivant autre chose que ce qui est dans le cadavre qu’on expliquera la vie. “ Ces expliqueurs groupent un certain nombre de pas- sivités et vous disent ; voila ‘ I’activite ’ ! Vraiment? . . . . “L’escargot sécrète sa coquille. Et il y a des gens qui voudraient que l’homme fût une sécrètion de sa maison. Et si nous nous croyons aussi actifs que les escargots, on nous accuse de mysticisme.”