Darkness and the Light, by Olaf Stapledon

2 — The Modern Age

AT SOME DATE which to readers of this book is far off in the future I became aware that I had long been dreamily witnessing a flux of human events. Peering back into my post-mortal memory as though into a second infancy, I came upon fragments of what must have been a long age of turmoil. Within that age must have lain, or must lie, the period that readers of this book call modern, a moment within a longer period during which the struggle between the light and the darkness remained inconclusive.

On the one side was the sluggish reptilian will for ease and sleep and death, rising sometimes to active hate and destructiveness; on the other side the still blindfold and blundering will for the lucid and coherent spirit. Each generation, it seemed, set out with courage and hope, and with some real aptitude for the life of love and wisdom, but also with the fatal human frailty, and in circumstances hostile to the generous development of the spirit. Each in turn, in the upshot of innumerable solitary ephemeral struggles, sank into middle age, disillusioned or fanatical, inert or obsessively greedy for personal power.

The world was a chrysalis world, but the chrysalis was damaged. Under the stress of science and mechanization the old order had become effete, the old patterns of life could no longer be healthily lived; yet the new order and the new mentality could not be born. The swarms of human creatures whose minds had been moulded to the old patterns were plunged from security into insecurity and bewilderment. Creatures specialized by circumstance to knit themselves into the existing but disintegrating social texture found themselves adrift in dreadful chaos, their talents useless, their minds out-moded, their values falsified. And so, like bees in a queenless hive, they floundered into primitive ways. They became marauding gangsters, or clamoured for some new, strong, ruthless and barbaric tribal order, into which they might once more themselves. In this nadir of civilization, this wide-craving for the savage and the stark, this night of spirit, there rose to power the basest and hitherto most despised of human types, the hooligan and the gun-man, who recognized no values but personal dominance, whose vengeful aim was to trample the civilization that spurned them, and to rule for brigandage alone a new gangster society.

Thus, wherever the breakdown of the old order was far gone, a new order did indeed begin to emerge, ruthless, barbaric, but armed with science and intricately fashioned for war. And war in that age, though not perpetual, was never far away. In one region or another of the planet there was nearly always war. No sooner had one war ended than another began elsewhere. And where there was no actual war, there was the constant fear of wars to come.

The crux for this unfinished human species, half animal but potentially humane, had always been the inconclusive effort to will true community, true and integrated union of individual spirits, personal, diverse, but mutually comprehending and mutually cherishing. And always the groping impulse for community had been frustrated by the failure to distinguish between true community and the savage unity of the pack; and on the other hand between a man’s duty to the innermost spirit and mere subtle self-pride, and again between love and mere possessiveness.

And now, in this final balance of the strife between light and darkness, the newly won Aladdin’s lamp, science, had given men such power for good and evil that they inevitably must either win speedily through to true community or set foot upon a steepening slope leading to annihilation. In the immediate contacts of man with man, and in the affairs of cities, provinces, slates and social classes, and further (newest and most dangerous necessity) in the ordering of the planet as a whole, there must now begin some glimmer of a new spirit; or else, failing in the great test, man must slide into a new and irrevocable savagery. And in a world close-knit by science savagery brings death.

In the new world, made one by trains, ships, aeroplanes and radio there was room for one society only. But a world-wide society must inevitably be planned and organized in every detail. Not otherwise can freedom and fulfilment be secured for all individuals. The old haphazard order so favourable to the fortunate and cunning self-seeker, was everywhere vanishing. Inevitably men’s lives were bound to be more and more regulated by authority. But what authority, and in what spirit? A great planned state, controlled without insight into true community, must turn to tyranny. And, armed with science for oppression and propaganda, it must inevitably destroy the humanity of its citizens. Only the insight and the will of true community can wield rightly a state’s authority, let alone a world’s.

Lacking that insight and that will, the states of the world in the age of balanced light and darkness bore very heavily on their citizens and on one another. For national safety men’s actions were increasingly controlled by the state, their minds increasingly moulded to the formal pattern that the state required of them. All men were disciplined and standardized. Everyone had an official place and task in the huge common work of defence and attack. Anyone who protested or was lukewarm must be destroyed. The state was always in danger, and every nerve was constantly at strain. And because each state carefully sowed treason among the citizens of other states, no man could trust his neighbour. Husbands and wives suspected one another. Children proudly informed against their parents. Under the strain even of peace-time life, all minds were damaged. Lunacy spread like a plague. The most sane, though in their own view their judgment was unwarped, were in fact fear-tortured neurotics. And so the race, as a whole, teased by its obscure vision of the spirit, its frail loyalty to love and reason, surrendered itself in the main to its baser nature.

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