The lantern bearers

“To find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing”

— RLS, Saranac Lake

William James, philosopher and psychologist, leader of the philosophical movement of Pragmatism in America and brother of the novelist Henry James, liked this second essay by Robert Louis Stevenson from Baker’s in Saranac Lake, “both for the truth of its matter and the excellence of its form.” (Selected Papers on Philosophy)

The Lantern Bearers, an allegory, has endured in print as another timeless essay from the mind of Robert Louis Stevenson who would be the first to point to the inequality of quality in his very long list of essays, even using three examples from Saranac Lake to prove it. But The Lantern Bearers, which premiered in the February 1888 issue of Scribner Magazine, came with staying power and its light has never faded, only spread. To some, the title might suggest the author’s family firm of civil engineers who specialized in lighthouses, known affectionately throughout the British Isles as the “Lighthouse Stevensons.” The Lantern Bearer: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson for a book title by James Playsted Wood was probably as inevitable as Edward Rice calling RLS a Victorian Rebel in the title of his book, Journey to Upolu. Stevenson was much more than just a Teller of Tales or ‘Tusitala’ as he was known in Samoa, a place formerly called the Navigator Islands and the final destination of the Stevenson expedition.

Col. Walter Scott, a former president and benefactor of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake was an intense admirer of the thin-chested wandering minstrel from the land of the ancient bards who is Robert Louis Stevenson who lives on in his books, a gift to the world from an avatar. Why else would he be printed in every language unless he had a universal message? Aware of this truth, Col. Scott nailed it in a speech in 1932 when he said, “This cottage which he immortalized is a monument to a period in his life, and a beacon to Saranac Lake and the world at large.”

Stevenson’s actual composition of The Lantern Bearers in the fall of 1887, coincided with a visit to his doctor in Saranac Lake which resulted in a permanent entanglement of local lore involving Stevenson’s allegory and the “scum” Dr. Trudeau kept in his laboratory.

So, who are The Lantern Bearers and what is their purpose or what do they represent? You can’t recognize them by their light because it is hidden from the world around them and from without they can appear to have a less than enviable existence like a character called:

“Dancer, the miser, as he figures in the ‘Old Baily Reports,’ a prey to the most sordid persecutions, the butt of his neighbourhood, betrayed by his hired man, his house beleaguered by the impish school-boys…You marvel at first that anyone should willingly prolong a life so destitute of charm and dignity…had he chosen, had he ceased to be a miser, he could have been freed at once from these trials, and might have built himself a castle. For the love of more recondite joys, which we cannot estimate, which, it may be, we should envy, the man had willingly forgone both comfort and consideration. ‘His mind to him a kingdom was’; and sure enough, digging into that mind, which seems at first a dust-heap, we unearth some priceless jewels.”

To give a real world example to the notion of invisible lights inside mediocre-apparent people, Andrew Baker’s tenant put to paper a cherished boyhood memory, back in the day when a scrawny adolescent could still enjoy playing with his peers at the seaside on summer vacations with the folks … and ‘Cummy,’ his nurse.

“These boys congregated every autumn about a certain easterly fisher-village, where they tasted in a high degree the glory of existence … There was nothing to mar your days, if you were a boy summering in that part, but the embarrassment of pleasure. You might golf if you wanted; but I seem to have been better employed … Again, you might join our fishing parties. Or again, you might climb the Law, where the whale’s jawbone stood landmark in the buzzing wind, and behold the face of many counties and the smoke and spires of many towns, and the sails of distant ships. You might bathe…Or you might explore the tidal rocks…groping in slippery tangle for the wreck of ships, wading in pools after the abominable creatures of the sea, and ever with an eye cast backward on the march of the tide and the menaced line of your retreat.. “

“But what my memory dwells upon the most … was a sport peculiar to the place. The idle manner of it was this:

Toward the end of September, when school-time was drawing near and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally from our respective villas, each equipped with a tin bull’s-eye lantern. The thing was so well known that it had worn a rut in the commerce of Great Britain; and the grocers, about the due time, began to garnish their windows with our particular brand of luminary. We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt and over them a buttoned top-coat. They smelled noisomely of blistered tin; they never burned aright, though they would always burn our fingers; their use was naught; the pleasure of them merely fanciful; and yet a boy with a bull’s-eye under his top-coat asked for nothing more …”

The lantern bearers kept their lights covered and would converge at pre-arranged secret places like “the belly of a ten-man lugger…or some hollow of the links where the wind might whistle overhead. There the coats would be unbuttoned and the bull’s-eye discovered … “ Sounds like fun. After this ceremony the participants talked like kids in every generation, including “inappropriate talk” and then about “some of their foresights of life, or deep inquiries into the rudiments of man and nature … so richly silly, so romantically young. But the talk, at any rate, was but a condiment; and these gatherings themselves only accidents in the career of the lantern-bearer. The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public; a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.”

Apparently, anything that may provide personal delight along with the decision to live for the sake of it, is the invisible light within us who are lucky enough to have one or as RLS put it, “no man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls…the man’s true life, for which he consents to live, lies altogether in the field of fancy…Justice is not done to the versatility and the unplumbed childishness of man’s imagination…a blazing bonfire of delight. For to repeat, the ground of a man’s joy is often hard to hit. It may hinge at times upon a mere accessory, like the lantern, it may reside, like Dancer’s, in the mysterious inwards of psychology. It may consist with perpetual failure, and find exercise in the continued chase…”

Perpetual failure and the continued chase – that’s the kind of fuel that kept Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau’s invisible lamp burning. He didn’t look like much either when he showed up in these parts, hard-stricken with the ‘white death’, that is tuberculosis — TB.