The Understanding of Good:
Thoughts on Some of Life’s Higher Issues
Jeanne de Vietinghoff
Translated by Ethel Ireland Helleman
Introduced and edited by Christine Mary McGinley
Jeanne de Vietinghoff, 1875-1926
“There are souls who make us believe the soul exists.” These are the words of Marguerite Yourcenar that prompted me to search for anything I could find by the author she spoke of with such admiration in her essay entitled: “In Memory of Diotima: Jeanne de Vietinghoff.”
It was also Marguerite Yourcenar who said that sometimes a book can lie dormant for many years in a forgotten corner of a library only to be opened by a person who feels it was written just for them. This was the way I felt about discovering one of the last remaining copies of the only Jeanne de Vietinghoff book in English translation: The Understanding of Good: Thoughts on Some of Life’s Higher Issues (The John Lane Company, 1921.)
At the time I came upon this obscure book I was immersed in a treasure hunt for words of wisdom that happened to have been written by women. I was creating a literary mosaic, a dramatic monologue, which would represent the female voice in literature and in life. Jeanne de Vietinghoff’s voice became a major part of The Words of a Woman (Crown Publishers, 1999.) It is also the part of the book that readers have found most compelling. Virtually every person who has spoken to me about The Words of a Woman has wanted to know how they could get their hands on a copy of Jeanne de Vietinghoff’s The Understanding of Good.
The Understanding of Good, first published in French (L’Intelligence du Bien, 2nd edition, 1915) a century ago this year, is indeed written in the language of another time. It has also lost some of its original nuance and meaning that could not quite be captured in English. What’s more, it is a work that would require careful reading in any language, in any time. So what is it about this particular book that warrants making it available again after a hundred years of collecting dust? This will be discovered only by readers willing to give to this extraordinary work the time it deserves.
This was the way I first approached The Understanding of Good. I continued on, even through difficult passages, hoping to find whatever jewels of wisdom I might uncover. How could I not? The supreme Yourcenar had compared its author to Diotima, the woman who “undertook to explain God to the banqueters of Plato’s Symposium.” As it turned out, I had unearthed much more than a long neglected treasure of a book. Jeanne de Vietinghoff has since remained one of the handful of authors to whom I return whenever I am in need of inspiration.
Jeanne Bricou was born into an upper class family in Brussels in 1875. Though Protestant, she was educated in a convent school where she showed signs of brilliance at an early age. In her mid-twenties she married the German-Baltic Baron, Conrad von Vietinghoff, and began a life which included giving birth to and rearing two sons, travel throughout Europe, and a continued intense, intellectual life. Though she lived a life of privilege, it was her inner life that consumed all of her energies. Her hunger for spiritual enrichment was so urgent, so impassioned, she could only devote her life to it and surround herself with people who did the same. Her home ― over the years in Paris, Wiesbaden, Geneva, and Zurich ― was the frequent meeting place of like-minded seekers and the scene of much contemplation of the deeper questions of life.
During her short life (she died of cancer at age fifty) Jeanne de Vietinghoff produced six books: Impressions d’Ame (Impressions of a Soul), 1909; La Liberte Interieure (Inner Freedom), 1912; L’Intelligence du Bien (The Understanding of Good), 1915; Au Seuil d’un Monde Nouveau (On the Threshold of a New World), 1923; L’Autre Devoir: Histoire d’une Ame (The Other Duty: History of a Soul) 1924; and Sur L’Art de Vivre (On the Art of Living), 1927 (posthumous). Though her works were well-received both by readers and critics during her lifetime, Jeanne de Vietinghoff has been virtually forgotten in her home countries and, except for the glimmer of recognition that came through The Words of a Woman, completely unknown in other parts of the world. Hers would not be the first important voice to have been silenced for years only to be revived at some future time when her message is most needed.
In the midst of our busy days we seem unable to pause that we may listen to the soul and seek the invisible truths … Life tends to shackle us, to stifle in us the real being that we are and which it is our duty to emancipate and expand. Once securely fettered…by family ties, by the obligations of our careers…all individual growth is checked and we become the plaything of circumstance…Thus, humanity, instead of being enriched by the blessings it pursues, constantly grows poorer in force, in hope, and in true happiness.
Jeanne de Vietinghoff was one of those rare souls who are able to speak to us about the life of the soul and remind us that this is our true life, the only life that matters. She urges us to look beyond our worldly existence ― our circumstances, our life-course, even our relationships ― and see that the only thing that can bring us true happiness is our development as spiritual beings. That development, that unfolding of the soul, she insists, can only happen through the constant search for truth and through the effort we invest in listening to our own souls.
The Understanding of Good will appeal to readers who are hungry for spiritual sustenance and open to finding it in places other than the established forms. It will especially appeal to those whose conception of God cannot be contained within established forms. As Marguerite Yourcenar said, “We can learn from this exceptional woman how to disengage ourselves from the external forms in which we enclose God. The higher we rise, the more we hold sway over our beliefs. Ultimately, Jeanne de Vietinghoff came more and more to belong to that invisible church, without a name or dogmas, in which all sincerities live in communion … She unceasingly evolved from everyday wisdom to a higher wisdom and…from the loving God of little children to the infinite Deity of the sage.”
Jeanne de Vietinghoff was a devout believer ― in God, in humankind, in the power that drives the universe unceasingly forward. Though she remained a Christian throughout her life and speaks of Jesus with the purest reverence, above all, she was a seeker after truth, a lover of truth. Searching, questioning, doubt ― these are the indispensible tools, she tells us, of both the ardent believer and the disciple of truth. These are “the filters that purify our faith, giving it a personal value which it would not otherwise have had.” “Doubt is the sign of the purest love,” she says, “and he who has never known it will not be able to grasp the highest conceptions of the Divine, that which only a tried faith can reveal to him.”
In The Understanding of Good, Jeanne de Vietinghoff explains that by “understanding” she means “the wisdom of the soul,” for it is only through the soul, she asserts, that we achieve true understanding. The “good” she speaks of is not the good that is defined for us by our religious beliefs or by human laws but by the higher authority that speaks to us through our innermost being.
The more enlightened our perception becomes, the more instinctively it transfers the problem of responsibility from the realm of our common conscience to that of our profoundly individual sense of justice; it no longer concerns itself with what a man ought to do or say but with what he ought to be in relation to the intimate and divine ideal that exists within him.
The true good, the good that sustains us, does not depend on our poor, vacillating attempts at obedience, charity and faith, but on our fidelity to the universal progress of the ever-increasing good.
Little is known about the philosophical and literary influences in Jeanne de Vietinghoff’s life. Clearly, her reading was both wide and deep. Marguerite Yourcenar saw Plato in her. One also sees Plotinus and other followers of Plato who expanded Plato’s ideas about the soul. I especially see Ralph Waldo Emerson, so strikingly in fact, it has seemed to me at times that Jeanne de Vietinghoff was channeling Emerson ― his ideas about “soul reliance,” about the nature of good, the dynamism of truth, the importance of doubt in developing true faith, the law of compensation at play in all of life. Emerson’s unique brand of idealism, his emphasis on the life of the soul, his unyielding faith in the good in the soul of man ― these are all given new life and force in Jeanne de Vietinghoff’s The Understanding of Good.
I was not surprised to learn that among Madame Vietinghoff’s friends was literary Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck, a devotee of Emerson, who no doubt raised Emersonian thought in many conversations with her. One also sees in her ideas the Eastern thought, which surely emerged in her discussions with Maeterlinck and with Romain Rolland, another literary Nobel laureate who was among her circle of friends and who, like Maeterlinck – and Emerson – searched deeply into the world’s great spiritual traditions.
As I imagine those evening gatherings at her home, rich with conversation among Madame and her friends, I feel certain that one of the questions they pursued was this: Are the ideas of the world’s great thinkers absorbed by those who follow them and then expressed in new and creative forms? Or are the great thinkers of every time direct receivers of the same universal truths?
Jeanne de Vietinghoff was both an absorber and a receiver. She was also driven to become a communicator. She found that in order to live a meaningful life, to devote herself to the progress of her soul, she could only become a creative writer.
Where Jeanne de Vietinghoff surpasses even some of the great mystic-writers, in my view, is in her understanding of the human heart and of the role love plays in our spiritual development. It was on this subject that she most assisted me in making the female voice in The Words of a Woman the full, rounded voice of a real woman, a woman who had lived and loved deeply. I was especially moved by her statement: “Love, for so many people, simply a fortuitous circumstance, is for others life itself … For no ambition, no joy can replace that marvelous unfolding which true love brings to the soul.”
What woman would not at some time in her life relate deeply with Madame’s assertion that “Man looks for repose and distraction in love, while woman seeks in it the unfolding of her being.” And who, in the midst of heartbreak would not be consoled by her thought that “Even the wisest are sometimes deceived and are obliged to pass through the hard school of misplaced love.” “The quality of love does not depend on the one who inspires it,” she assures us, “but on him who feels it.”
Jeanne de Vietinghoff achieved a perspective that enabled her to recognize love as a powerful means of “initiation into the high joy of the wise.” The key, she tells us, in love as in life, is to rely on “the quiet force within us,” the force that renders us completely independent of our life circumstances “by giving us the power to discern and to separate our higher from our lower self.” “For we depend less on what happens in our lives,” she asserts, “than on what passes in our souls.”
In discovering Jeanne de Vietinghoff’s poetic philosophy of the soul, I experienced real life being breathed into the ethereal form of a “Shakespeare’s sister” ― the original impetus for The Words of a Woman, which came from Virginia Woolf. To my surprise, this long-neglected female author, Jeanne de Vietinghoff, also crystallized for me what it means to become a creative writer. In The Understanding of Good she speaks to every person who has struggled to find his or her own voice, to “develop the truth that is peculiarly ours.”
Man becomes a creator when, after the innumerable stages of adaptation to external influences, he finally grasps what is really his own, what he receives as a personal message.
We can only create original and productive art by giving ourselves for what we are and seeking to be worth much in order that we may give much.
In creative writing, as in all things, she contends, we must learn to trust in our own souls.
Yes, in Jeanne de Vietinghoff’s 1910 The Understanding of Good one hears loud echoes of the preceding century’s New England Transcendentalism. One even recognizes in her expression the uniquely Emersonian style, the almost stream of consciousness, which invites the reader into the process of thinking. But the thing that strikes me most about Jeanne de Vietinghoff for which I have only Ralph Waldo Emerson as a basis of comparison is the way they were each perceived by the people who knew them. This is where we find the real power behind all of their shared ideas, behind the singleness of their “courage to entertain high hopes and noble dreams.” Rarely do we hear, even of great literary sages, that the strongest impression they made was not in what they wrote but in the people they were, in the exemplary way in which they lived their lives. As Yourcenar expressed it of the woman she knew personally, the woman from whom she received the highest inspiration: “There is something much rarer than competence, talent, or even genius ― and that is nobility of soul.”
Jeanne de Vietinghoff’s The Understanding of Good is a work we may return to again and again for the deeper understanding we find each time. It is a work that convinces us not only of the nobility of the soul through which such truths found expression but also of the higher source from which they came.
Christine Mary McGinley
November 6, 2015
From The Understanding of Good: Thoughts on Some of Life’s Higher Issues
Gleam of Light Press, 2016
Copyright © 2016 Christine Mary McGinley
Note: Photos are added here that are not contained in the book.