The Land Beyond the Blow, by Ambrose Bierce

An Interview with Gnarmag-Zote

Mogon–Zwair and Lalugnan, having the misfortune to lie on opposite sides of a line, naturally hate each other; so each country sends its dangerous political criminals into the other, where they usually enjoy high honors and are sometimes elevated to important office under the crown. I was therefore received in Lalugnan with hospitality and given every encouragement in prosecuting my researches into the history and intellectual life of the people. They are so extraordinary a people, inhabiting so marvelous a country, that everything which the traveler sees, hears or experiences makes a lively and lasting impression upon his mind, and the labor of a lifetime would be required to relate the observation of a single year. I shall notice here only one or two points of national character — those which differ most conspicuously from ours, and in which, consequently, they are least worthy.

With a fatuity hardly more credible than creditable, the Lalugwumps, as they call themselves, deny the immortality of the soul. In all my stay in their country I found only one person who believed in a life “beyond the grave,” as we should say, though as the Lalugwumps are cannibals they would say “beyond the stomach.” In testimony to the consolatory value of the doctrine of another life, I may say that this one true believer had in this life a comparatively unsatisfactory lot, for in early youth he had been struck by a flying stone from a volcano and had lost a considerable part of his brain.

I cannot better set forth the nature and extent of the Lalugwumpian error regarding this matter than by relating a conversation that occurred between me and one of the high officers of the King’s household — a man whose proficiency in all the vices of antiquity, together with his service to the realm in determining the normal radius of curvature in cats’ claws, had elevated him to the highest plane of political preferment. His name was Gnarmag–Zote.

“You tell me,” said he, “that the soul is immaterial. Now, matter is that of which we can have knowledge through one or more of our senses. Of what is immaterial — not matter — we can gain no knowledge in that way. How, then, can we know anything about it?”

Perceiving that he did not rightly apprehend my position I abandoned it and shifted the argument to another ground. “Consider,” I said, “the analogous case of a thought. You will hardly call thought material, yet we know there are thoughts.”

“I beg your pardon, but we do not know that. Thought is not a thing, therefore cannot be in any such sense, for example, as the hand is. We use the word ‘thought’ to designate the result of an action of the brain, precisely as we use the word ‘speed’ to designate the result of an action of a horse’s legs. But can it be said that speed exists in the same way as the legs which produce it exist, or in any way? Is it a thing?”

I was about to disdain to reply, when I saw an old man approaching, with bowed head, apparently in deep distress. As he drew near he saluted my distinguished interlocutor in the manner of the country, by putting out his tongue to its full extent and moving it slowly from side to side. Gnarmag–Zote acknowledged the civility by courteously spitting, and the old man, advancing, seated himself at the great officer’s feet, saying: “Exalted Sir, I have just lost my wife by death, and am in a most melancholy frame of mind. He who has mastered all the vices of the ancients and wrested from nature the secret of the normal curvature of cats’ claws can surely spare from his wisdom a few rays of philosophy to cheer an old man’s gloom. Pray tell me what I shall do to assuage my grief.”

The reader can, perhaps, faintly conceive my astonishment when Gnarmag–Zote gravely replied: “Kill yourself.”

“Surely,” I cried, “you would not have this honest fellow procure oblivion (since you think that death is nothing else) by so rash an act!”

“An act that Gnarmag–Zote advises,” he said, coldly, “is not rash.”

“But death,” I said, “death, whatever else it may be, is an end of life. This old man is now in sorrow almost insupportable. But a few days and it will be supportable; a few months and it will have become no more than a tender melancholy. At last it will disappear, and in the society of his friends, in the skill of his cook, the profits of avarice, the study of how to be querulous and in the pursuit of loquacity, he will again experience the joys of age. Why for a present grief should he deprive himself of all future happiness?”

Gnarmag–Zote looked upon me with something like compassion. “My friend,” said he, “guest of my sovereign and my country, know that in any circumstances, even those upon which true happiness is based and conditioned, death is preferable to life. The sum of miseries in any life (here in Lalugnan at least) exceeds the sum of pleasures; but suppose that it did not. Imagine an existence in which happiness, of whatever intensity, is the rule, and discomfort, of whatever moderation, the exception. Still there is some discomfort. There is none in death, for (as it is given to us to know) that is oblivion, annihilation. True, by dying one loses his happiness as well as his sorrows, but he is not conscious of the loss. Surely, a loss of which one will never know, and which, if it operate to make him less happy, at the same time takes from him the desire and capacity and need of happiness, cannot be an evil. That is so intelligently understood among us here in Lalugnan that suicide is common, and our word for sufferer is the same as that for fool. If this good man had not been an idiot he would have taken his life as soon as he was bereaved.”

“If what you say of the blessing of death is true,” I said, smilingly, for I greatly prided myself on the ingenuity of my thought, “it is unnecessary to commit suicide through grief for the dead; for the more you love the more glad you should be that the object of your affection has passed into so desirable a state as death.”

“So we are — those of us who have cultivated philosophy, history and logic; but this poor fellow is still under the domination of feelings inherited from a million ignorant and superstitious ancestors — for Lalugnan was once as barbarous a country as your own. The most grotesque and frightful conceptions of death, and life after death, were current; and now many of even those whose understandings are emancipated wear upon their feelings the heavy chain of heredity.”

“But,” said I, “granting for the sake of the argument which I am about to build upon the concession” (I could not bring myself to use the idiotic and meaningless phrase, “for the sake of argument”) “that death, especially the death of a Lalugwump, is desirable, yet the act of dying, the transition state between living and being dead, may be accompanied by the most painful physical, and most terrifying mental phenomena. The moment of dissolution may seem to the exalted sensibilities of the moribund a century of horrors.”

The great man smiled again, with a more intolerable benignity than before. “There is no such thing as dying,” he said; “the ‘transition state’ is a creation of your fancy and an evidence of imperfect reason. One is at any time either alive or dead. The one condition cannot shade off into the other. There is no gradation like that between waking and sleeping. By the way, do you recognize a certain resemblance between death and a dreamless sleep?”

“Yes — death as you conceive it to be.”

“Well, does any one fear sleep? Do we not seek it, court it, wish that it may be sound — that is to say, dreamless? We desire occasional annihilation — wish to be dead for eight and ten hours at a time. True, we expect to awake, but that expectation, while it may account for our alacrity in embracing sleep, cannot alter the character of the state that we cheerfully go into. Suppose we did not wake in the morning, never did wake! Would our mental and spiritual condition be in any respect different through all eternity from what it was during the first few hours? After how many hours does oblivion begin to be an evil? The man who loves to sleep yet hates to die might justly be granted everlasting life with everlasting insomnia.”

Gnarmag–Zote paused and appeared to be lost in the profundity of his thoughts, but I could easily enough see that he was only taking breath. The old man whose grief had given this turn to the conversation had fallen asleep and was roaring in the nose like a beast. The rush of a river near by, as it poured up a hill from the ocean, and the shrill singing of several kinds of brilliant quadrupeds were the only other sounds audible. I waited deferentially for the great antiquarian, scientist and courtier to resume, amusing myself meantime by turning over the leaves of an official report by the Minister of War on a new and improved process of making thunder from snail slime. Presently the oracle spoke.

“You have been born,” he said, which was true. “There was, it follows, a time when you had not been born. As we reckon time, it was probably some millions of ages. Of this considerable period you are unable to remember one unhappy moment, and in point of fact there was none. To a Lalugwump that is entirely conclusive as to the relative values of consciousness and oblivion, existence and nonexistence, life and death. This old man lying here at my feet is now, if not dreaming, as if he had never been born. Would not it be cruel and inhuman to wake him back to grief? Is it, then, kind to permit him to wake by the natural action of his own physical energies? I have given him the advice for which he asked. Believing it good advice, and seeing him too irresolute to act, it seems my clear duty to assist him.”

Before I could interfere, even had I dared take the liberty to do so, Gnarmag–Zote struck the old man a terrible blow upon the head with his mace of office. The victim turned upon his back, spread his fingers, shivered convulsively and was dead.

“You need not be shocked,” said the distinguished assassin, coolly: “I have but performed a sacred duty and religious rite. The religion (established first in this realm by King Skanghutch, the sixty-second of that name) consists in the worship of Death. We have sacred books, some three thousand thick volumes, said to be written by inspiration of Death himself, whom no mortal has ever seen, but who is described by our priests as having the figure of a fat young man with a red face and wearing an affable smile. In art he is commonly represented in the costume of a husbandman sowing seeds.

“The priests and sacred books teach that death is the supreme and only good — that the chief duties of man are, therefore, assassination and suicide. Conviction of these cardinal truths is universal among us, but I am sorry to say that many do not honestly live up to the faith. Most of us are commendably zealous in assassination, but slack and lukewarm in suicide. Some justify themselves in this half-hearted observance of the Law and imperfect submission to the Spirit by arguing that if they destroy themselves their usefulness in destroying others will be greatly abridged. ‘I find,’ says one of our most illustrious writers, not without a certain force, it must be confessed, ‘that I can slay many more of others than I can of myself.’

“There are still others, more distinguished for faith than works, who reason that if A kill B, B cannot kill C. So it happens that although many Lalugwumps die, mostly by the hands of others, though some by their own, the country is never wholly depopulated.”

“In my own country,” said I, “is a sect holding somewhat Lalugwumpian views of the evil of life; and among the members it is considered a sin to bestow it. The philosopher Schopenhauer taught the same doctrine, and many of our rulers have shown strong sympathetic leanings toward it by procuring the destruction of many of their own people and those of other nations in what is called war.”

“They are greatly to be commended,” said Gnarmag–Zote, rising to intimate that the conversation was at an end. I respectfully protruded my tongue while he withdrew into his palace, spitting politely and with unusual copiousness in acknowledgment. A few minutes later, but before I had left the spot, two lackeys in livery emerged from the door by which he had entered, and while one shouldered the body of the old man and carried it into the palace kitchen the other informed me that his Highness was graciously pleased to desire my company at dinner that evening. With many expressions of regret I declined the invitation, unaware that to do so was treason. With the circumstances of my escape to the island of Tamtonia the newspapers have made the world already familiar.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31