Death into Life, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 5

Man’s Future

The Spirit of Man Has a Vision

THE bells! The bells clang for victory. They strike all hearts to thankfulness, and many to joy; but some to cruel memory of past promise, now never to be fulfilled. And some, in the intolerable conflict of hope and new foreboding, are gripped to silence. These, these only, are the eyes of tile spirit of Man, facing the fog-wall.

Heedless of the bells and the trumpets, the processions and the flags and the cheers, the spirit of Man stares at the blank future, with hope but with new foreboding. He presses with all his eyes against the impenetrable fog. So fixedly is he nailed to the blankness of the future that the present sweeps past him unobserved.

He reels into a strange trance. For a pregnant instant, between one beat and the next beat of the crashing bands, he is plucked seemingly quite out of time into eternity, and dropped back headlong upon the advancing wave-crest of the present, enriched with huge experience. For between one blast and the next blast of the trumpets the spirit of Man sees all his future æons, and his senility and death. He sees also the lifetimes of a thousand worlds, and the death-time of the cosmos. He sees the Spirit, the true Spirit, full grown at last but crippled, groping still toward the dark Other. But whether she is taken by her beloved, he cannot know.

He Tries to Remember the Vision

The bells clang on. The crowds in every metropolis still cheer. But the spirit of Man is heedless, rapt in the fading memory of that huge instant.

What was it that seized him? Could he but recapture the lost vision! He remembers only that it was the opening up of an immensity never conceived by man, an immensity that was at once (how insignificant and irritating these threadbare words!) most terrible and yet most beautiful, in a manner humanly unimaginable. And embraced within this vastness, like a cell in a living body, like a little word in a great song, a little tremor in a great orchestration, a flicker of being, long past and yet eternal, there lived and died our universe of space and time, and many-worlded galaxies, and of the many-mannered spirit. Chilled and dismayed by the confused memory of that immensity, the spirit of Man yet longs to be engulfed in it and suffused with it, as the hart the water-brooks. For that vastness, alien beyond all conception, was also (how could this be?) strangely familiar, intimate even. That instant on the remotest peak of being was also (but how, how could this be?) a startling homecoming.

The remotest peak of being? No! The spirit of Man, scrutinizing his future memory, recognizes that he cannot claim to have been there; for even in that soaring instant the presence of the inaccessible Other overhung him. Not to the summit had his assumption borne him, but to a lowly spur, a foothill only. Very far above, cloud-veiled, more guessed than seen, the stark horn itself rose, forbidding, inaccessible to all creatures, even to the spirit of Man. Yet unreasonably lovely. And far below, below the ravines and hanging forests, down in a vast plain, a little stream lay like a faint scribble, one among many, glimpsed through the haze. And this little stream, one of many, the spirit of Man recognized as his own home-universe of space and time, and of many-worlded galaxies.

To us, in our more intimate and temporal experience, our universe is instinct with life and change; yet from the viewpoint of eternity’s foothills it was fixed, complete, with all its surging æons equally present.

Seeking a nearer view, the spirit of Man had swooped downward with hawk-like scrutiny. Poised over our universe, he saw in more detail all the long reaches of our river of time laid out before him, from the stream’s initial wellspring in eternity to its final stagnation in the bog of eternal changelessness.

The Vastness and the Horror

All this he had seen in the great instant. But now, dropped back once more into time, and swept forward on the wavecrest of the present, he tries eagerly but with uncertain success to recapture his late vision.

He dimly recalls that within one stretch of rapids in the stream’s middle reaches a single fixed swirl of ripples was seen to be his own whole life in time. There, half-seen, half-guessed, lay his first waking in Father Adam. And there too his death. And in between lay all his ages, that for us are past or future. There, the gleaming ripple of his childhood’s golden age, there the age of his prophets, there the onset of science. And there also he saw, much as a man on his death-bed may remember an incident of his childhood, the moment of history which we call present. There the bells clanged for victory. There, or but a tremor earlier, the rear-gunner in a certain aeroplane felt a moth’s chance kiss. There, an obscure saint in a city was destroyed, and also leapt to bliss. Today, after that instant of eternity how strange it seems to the spirit of Man that, before his illumination, this our present moment should have appeared as the crux of man’s whole career, perhaps of the whole cosmos! Searching his fading memory of the eternal view, he now affirms that the truth is in fact far otherwise. This moment that for us is present is not, alas, the moment of his rebirth from the chrysalis to become the finished moth. Our struggle is a mere premonitory birthpang, one of many. Not till long ages afterwards, so his memory of the eternal view affirms, does the imago ripen fully and emerge.

Probing his memory to recover the times that for us are future, the spirit of Man sees only the general form of human history. Of the little span that most concerns us, and him also today, the lifetime awaiting men now living, he remembers almost nothing. Even of the next few centuries he recovers only a shadowy and deceptive image. So very long is the æon of his whole career that even a millennium, unless it happens to be in some way unique or momentous in the eternal view, may be as indistinguishable as to us a day among a thousand others far back in childhood. The events of a century or a decade may be quite indiscernible. No doubt here and there some trivial and fleeting incident, such as a casual war or abortive social upheaval, may freakishly obtrude itself in his future memory; but in general such brief events present themselves to him only if they were specially striking or significant.

The war which bulks so largely in all our lives, and in his own life today, his memory does detect; but he recovers little more of our time than the bare outline of the war’s occurrence, and its issue. It was a minute though vivid incident in a far lengthier phase, namely the great world-revolution, which, though today its achievement seems to us almost at hand, lies in fact very far away in the middle distance of his immense lifetime. In the light of his future memory, if memory it is, he now regards today with sobered judgment. For in the decades and centuries to come he seems to see war upon war, each more destructive than the last. Century by century ever more shattering explosives were flung from country to enemy country, from continent to continent, half-circling the planet. Poison gases and the bacteria of disease were in due course freely used. With subatomic power men contrived to blast their cities instantaneously into rubble, to tumble mountains into populous valleys, to sink whole countries under the invading ocean. Nay worse, with new-found psychical techniques enemy governments attacked one another’s populations, driving whole peoples crazy, so that millions turned berserk, slaughtering one another aimlessly in the streets, murdering their own children, flinging themselves off high places, or into the sea.

These maniac deeds the spirit of Man remembers only in a shadowy way, and with the aloofness of one remembering a dream. For he recalls them through his instant of exaltation in eternity, as old unhappy far-off things, needful somehow for the eternal glory, and themselves thereby redeemed.

But when he turns from his remote vision to the actual past, and recalls in intolerable detail the horror of our own war, and of the scientific, the diabolic torturing that preceded it, and behind that all the savagery of men throughout his long experience, the illimitable vistas of man-made horror, past and future, appall him. ‘What present benefit,’ he cries, ‘what remote Utopia or far-off divine event, can recompense the brief personal beings of my flesh for such agony and such curtailment of their fleeting lives?’ And now, quickened by his memory of past distress, his imagination feels the full weight of future pain and sorrow. The torn flesh, the crippled minds, the hopes frustrated, the loves cut short! Inexorably they pile up, century by century, age by age. And with shame and despair the spirit of Man recognizes that much of this huge weight of misery must burden his own conscience. For again and again he himself through ignorance or obtuseness had inspired his members falsely, to their destruction.

‘Surely’, he cries, ‘it would have been better if I had never been conceived on this planet, if terrestrial life had remained for ever subhuman. For, though nature, red in tooth and claw, is brutish, man is devilish.’

But no sooner has this cry escaped him, than he reminds himself that it was but half the truth, nay less. For how tender toward one another could his members be, and how aspiring, when their nature was not poisoned by adverse circumstance! From Father Adam to the last of all human ‘generations men had struggled constantly in their confused, conflicting ways, to be true to the spirit in them. And in some ages, past or to come, whole peoples had reached the very threshold of a gentler, richer humanity.

But all, if he must believe his vision, must in the end be vain. Never in all the future æons, it seems, is man to fulfil his promise: The moth, trembling vainly on the brink of flight must in the end be crushed.

Dismay at that remote disaster weighs down upon the spirit of Man.

But then, like one who has stepped into a deep bog or quicksand, and throws himself on his back for security on the firm ground, the spirit of Man desperately reverts to his high vision of eternity. For the ice peak still strangely holds him. Darkly he knows, or seems to know, that the suffering of a thousand worlds and countless universes is somehow transfigured in eternity. But how? But how? He cannot know. Even on eternity’s foothills he could not know. And now he knows only, as he knew then, but then more clearly, that in eternity all is indeed transfigured. He knows also, with dread but with acceptance, that not only for his little members but for him also the future holds, along with joys and half-awaking, a thousand pains, and in the end annihilation. Yet, knowing this, he also knows in virtue of his instant of eternity, that the agony and sorrow and annihilation will not have been in vain. But how, but how, can it be not in vain?

The Moth Breaks From the Chrysalis

Impatient lest the vision should escape him wholly before he can grasp its import, the spirit of Man scrutinizes it more closely, passing forward along the darkling corridors of his future memory to reach once more and to comprehend more clearly his remembered death and that which followed after, not seemingly to him but to some other, awakened in his death.

He sees that even during the recurrent wars of the near future the new texture of his multiple body was still slowly forming. More and more, mankind was becoming an organism, though still torn and warped by the repeated paroxysms of the disease. An organism, or a mere mechanism? It was a system knit for power, not for the spirit. Alike in peace and in war the lives of his little members were gripped ever more strictly in the organic mesh, a steel mesh alas not of comradeship but of the mechanism which their science had spawned. And so they were knit more and more closely together as the flesh of a single world-wide creature, though a creature still prone to internecine conflicts. And though, through men’s diabolic inventiveness, the horrors of warfare became ever more destructive, they became also briefer and rarer. For the unity of the world-organism painfully but triumphantly reasserted itself, gripping its rebellious organs and all its little individual cells ever more firmly in the steel mesh. At last there was no possibility of any further rebellion. Wars ceased. All the tissues of the imago, it seemed, were fully formed and integrated; but by mechanism and domination only, not in the spirit.

Something was very wrong. The formed creature could not burst the chrysalis. The moth could not free its wings and fly into the new world that awaited it. Humanity, though it had possessed itself of all the resources of its planet, and though the whole life of mankind was fully organized for power, was paralysed. The spirit of Man was paralysed in all his members.

Peering with difficulty into that dreary phase of his career, he sees that though all human beings were at last well grown and prosperous, and all exercised their particular skills fully in the common enterprise, and all had a sufficiency of easy pleasures, yet in none was there clear awareness of the spirit. Reason was fettered, love stifled, and there was no creating. All men performed by rote the activities that were allotted to them, and none, or very few, asked what was the purpose of it all. The tradition of the spirit was lost. Men lived in an endless sleep-walk.

As the centuries and the millennia passed, and the moth, Man, still lay paralysed in the chrysalis, a subtle decay secretly began to lay hold of all its tissues. For the creature could not live its living death for ever without corruption.

The spirit of Man remembers how, when he himself was already faint with the sluggishness of his members, and fearful of annihilation, he put forth a passionate fiat to give light to the clouded minds of men, so that here and there a few were disturbed in their somnambulism. Little by little, these few, groping century by century, and often martyred for their recalcitrance to the great mechanism, re-created the lost wisdom, which the forgotten prophets had long ago conceived, and overlaid with fiction.

It seems to the spirit of Man that for a long age the new awakening made little progress, for it conflicted with the all-powerful mechanism of the world, the steel organic mesh of the world-organism. But little by little, under his desperate goading, the wished-for miracle happened. Century by century, the whole world’s temper changed. The struggle between the still somnolent minds and the awakened minds was world-wide and desperate, the one side armed with the scientific lore and all the mechanical resources of the world, the other armed only with love of the spirit.

At last the masses of men were all smouldering with the new fire, and the great change happened. Control of the world passed suddenly from the somnolent to the awakened. The spirit of Man came at last into his own. The finished creature, Man, burst its bonds. The moth, emerging from the close world of the chrysalis into the great air, spread frail, cramped wings to harden in the sunlight of an ampler world. It was a perfected, yet an imperfect creature; fashioned through and through for life in a new element, yet through and through scarred by the grub’s old disease. For the past ages of hate and fear had left their mark on the very texture of human mentality. Men were no longer slaves, but their minds were moulded to a culture fashioned by men in chains. The moth was formed and free, but weak and sickly. Ever and again its individual members yearned for the lost freedom of the chrysalis, or for the licentious freedom of the disease.

But little by little, so it seems to the spirit of Man, the wings were smoothed out and set, the new tissues strengthened. One by one the old horror’s traces were expunged. Mechanism, formerly man’s tyrant, became his slave, science his willing servant. The earth was transformed from an aimless generator of power into a fitting home for free men and women. And with the change even power itself increased, since free men could foster it better than slaves. And so, with the lavish use of power, coastlines were altered, lost continents lifted from the ocean bed, deserts made fertile, the arctic warmed, cities rebuilt to nobler plans. All men lived in modest affluence, and all had access to all lands in their own vehicles of flight. The children grew up to freedom and friendliness. The young men were indeed sons of the morning. And all citizens, being friends in a common work, spent themselves gladly in the thousand diverse enterprises of the new world. The old, peaceful with fruition, rested in life’s evening, and awaited death as the tired toiler sleep. For in every mind the spirit of Man was present as the final judge of action and the final consolation in all sorrow.

Century after century, age after age, men continued to embellish their planet and explore the universe with the far-reaching eyes of science. Age after age they developed the human spirit into an efflorescence of art, personal awareness and metaphysical imagination. Ever exploring, they came now and then on strange new veins of spiritual ore; they broke suddenly into new worlds of beauty or personal being or abstract truth.

Six Human Worlds

But as time passed there was less and less opening for further venture. Increasingly the generations were forced to repeat the achievements of their forerunners. The whole of life became a gracious ritual, but still a ritual. The instrument was perfected, but the music, though exquisite, was repetitive of the ancient themes. The moth’s wings were ripe for flight, but they could only quiver monotonously and ineffectively. The creature seemingly had not the instinct to take wing.

The spirit of Man recalls how, though in full possession of all his members, he was perplexed and impotent. For life is movement, and adventure; and where they are not, comes a creeping death. It is spirit’s very nature, at whatever level of its being, in all its finite forms, to strive for enrichment through intercourse with other spirit, and in that enrichment to be reborn. Without this soaring, comes the creeping death. The spirit of Man knew well that, unless he could break the spell of this happy but barren ritual, mankind must sink once more into an age-long sleep-walk, even as the ants and bees. And so once more he chose out prophets to rouse men into a new discontent.

In answer to this new call the human race once more bestirred itself. Violently once more the moth’s wings trembled for flight. And that it might at last succeed, men now gave their main energies to perfecting human nature for sensitivity, intelligence, loving and creating.

In due season a race of nobler human beings peopled the earth. They saw with finer and more colourful vision, heard and smelt with more than the dog’s discrimination. Their touching was as delicate as the bee’s. With far-reaching and deep-probing intelligence they swept aside the primitive concepts of their forefathers and fashioned a whole new universe of ideas, adequate to their new experience. Their own nature, too, was limpid to them. And in the subtlety of their self-knowledge and their awareness of each other the spirit of Man became more vital and more lucid. The new human race applied its wisdom to the exploration of earth’s sister planets, in search not of power but of comradeship. In accordance with the exhortation of their prophets, they looked for strange intelligences, alien in idiosyncrasy but identical in underlying spirituality. With these they intended to create a far-ranging community of worlds. But all their gallant exploration revealed merely that man was alone in the solar system. Neither on sultry Venus, where the air could not support life, nor on cold, arid Mars, where life was but a patchwork of lowly vegetation, nor on torrid Mercury nor great Jupiter, nor on any other planet did men find intelligence. The spirit of Man, recalling that chill discovery through his future memory, savours once more the loneliness that assailed him. Looking outward from the remotest planet, men wondered whether perhaps throughout all the starry blackness there lay nowhere at all any peopled sphere but their own dear earth.

But the new mankind would not accept defeat. They set about the daring task of producing, even from human stock, races adapted to live in those desert planets. For such races, living in such different worlds, would surely be so far different in body and mind from terrestrial man that together the peopled planets would indeed create a new diversity and depth of spiritual insight and community.

This was accordingly attempted. And after many centuries of millennia the solar system became a commonwealth of minded worlds, each occupied by a race fitted to its peculiar conditions, and unviable elsewhere. And the spirit of Man was the spirit identical in those diverse populations. Thus Venus, habitable now in virtue of the oxygen suspired by a specially bred vegetation, was the kindly home of a humanity fashioned to her sultry climate. Mars, now gifted with an enriched atmosphere, supported deep-chested giants who leapt and climbed like gibbons in their little world. On massive Jupiter and ringed Saturn pygmies with mighty thighs, and feet like pedestals, held themselves with difficulty upright against the tug and pressure of their planet, and fought the eternal cold with power from fractured atoms. Even on far Uranus small fat-protected human creatures lived in underground cities. Only the two outermost planets remained uncolonized.

Each of the six worlds developed through the centuries its own appropriate way of life, its own art and wisdom. Each was sufficient to itself for life’s necessities, but all shared the luxuries and the art and wisdom of all. Conflict of will between the worlds was not unknown; as when the Uranians demanded that the Terrestrials should equip their Antarctic Continent to be a vast settlement for visiting Uranians, who could live only in the most frigid terrestrial climate. But since all these races, though so diverse, were loyal to the spirit of Man, identical in them all, conflict, though often distressing, was an enrichment.

It seems to the spirit of Man, exploring his future memory, that for a million years or more the races of the solar planets perfected their societies and embellished their cultures. But in the end they too, like the original terrestrial mankind, reached stability, and entered upon a long phase of ritual living.

The spirit of Man, now the mature spirit of six diverse worlds, foresaw once more the creeping death that stagnation promised. Once more he gazed outward toward the stars. All the psychical insight of the six worlds had failed to make contact by any psychic technique with any intelligence beyond the confines of the solar system. Though men were always seemingly upon the brink of some great revolutionary advancement in telepathic skill, they could never achieve it. And physical contact with the few planets of the nearer stars seemed impossible, so vast was the ocean of interstellar space. Every attempt at communication, physical or psychical, proved utterly barren.

For æons the six worlds continued their happy but stereotyped living. Since every age was identical with every previous age, there was less and less for the quick intelligence to do. And so it sank little by little into coma. Science became a traditional mystery, art a dextrous play on age-old conventions, personal relations a matter not of mutual awareness but of formal manners; religion, once a crusade, became merely a comfortable and seemly ritual.

The spirit of Man, like a spectator at a boring play, or a traveller fallen into a snowdrift and struggling against the drowsiness that preludes death, wrestled with the oncoming floods of sleep.

Meanwhile, for thousands and millions of terrestrial years the six worlds continued their frustrated living. The day grew longer. The moon, swinging outward from her parent, showed a smaller disc to Earth’s inhabitants; then, creeping slowly inwards age by age, our satellite grew to a huge portent in the sky; until at last, under the strain of the planet’s gravitation, it broke into a million fragments to form a bright Saturnian ring, which men saw henceforth as a dazzling sunlit arch across the whole night sky. Meanwhile the sun himself, squandering his energy, displayed a smaller disc.

And still the six world-peoples, like six sleep-walkers dancing hand in hand, performed their endless ritual of living.

Æon upon æon this continued. The forms of the constellations changed. One by one the older stars were dimmed, and then extinguished. And one by one those that were still in their prime reached that crisis which so many stars must in their season suffer. Blazing one by one with fantastic effulgence for a few weeks, they then shrink into senility.

The six worlds knew that presently their sun must do likewise, and engulf or sear his planets.

The End of Man

Today, while the bells clang for victory, the spirit of Man recovers from his future memory the temper of that age when expectation of the final catastrophe first possessed the minds of all men. No way could be devised to save the worlds from destruction. Little man could by no means check the forces of an exploding star; nor harness them, nor escape them. The six worlds, living under the shadow of annihilation, changed their temper. And the spirit of Man at last threw off his lethal drowsiness to face a mortal hurt, not in hope that it might be averted, but to prepare himself for his end.

Throughout the six worlds all men and women faced the same urgency. The exact date of the explosion was unpredictable, but it might now occur at any moment, and certainly within a few centuries. For a while the human peoples, self-disciplined to the spirit, debated anxiously whether to commit mass suicide at once or to carry on their affairs in contempt of the future. In the end they decided not to forestall the disaster, not even to cease from procreating. For perhaps, after all, the calculations were faulty, and a thousand years of decorous civilization might still be possible. And even if, as seemed most likely, the end must come within a century, they were determined to meet it with full consciousness and with dignity. Let the children still be born, even if they must soon be slaughtered. Let the spirit of Man experience fully to the last possible moment. Let his vast treasure of experience, gathered through so many æons, be wholly completed before it should be laid with reverence and awe at the feet of the inscrutable Other.

And so for many centuries the six worlds lived on, expecting instant death. During this time they were mainly concerned to explore by psychical means the Spirit’s relation to the Other, and their own prospects in eternity. But their researches discovered nothing. The Other, it seemed, was utterly indifferent to their fate.

Small wonder, then, that despair and savage rebellion against the dark Other at last began to stir among the six world-peoples. The spirit of Man in that last brief moment of his long life was racked once more by conflict among his members. For in each world, though one party remained faithful to the Spirit, another revolted. ‘What is the good, what the good’, they cried, ‘of continuing loyal to that Other, who is utterly inaccessible and indifferent. And why should we persist in service of the Spirit, a mere phantom that has after all no standing in the cosmos, and is a mere figment of our own foolish minds. All the generations, ever since Father Adam, have deceived themselves. We will use our last centuries, or years or moments, solely to snatch pleasure.’ And so under the suspended sword they guzzled every joy that their science could give them. And those upon Uranus, hoping against hope that by some rare chance, or unforeseen eventuality, they might be too far out from the sun to be caught within the actual incandescence, burrowed frantically into the deep rock of their planet, extending their subterranean cities, to escape the coming heat.

But in every world a large number of those ultimate human beings remained loyal to the Spirit. ‘Though we alone’, they said, ‘in all the cosmos may be the Spirit’s vessels, and we so soon to vanish, yet we are for the Spirit even to our last breath.’

The spirit of Man, though once more he was not master of all his members, was absolute in many. Awake, as in no earlier moment of his life, he saluted the Other, and prepared for the last agony, and sleep.

The moth, the finished creature that had never flown, now faced its death. And though despair threatened to paralyse its limbs once more, the tremulous wings now beat with new power, beat bravely, beat with the strength and rhythm almost of flight. But presently wings and flesh and spirit must all be shattered, crushed by giant footfall.

On a certain day the sun’s gathering energies, pent within his shrinking surface, burst suddenly abroad. An expanding sphere of fire welled outwards.

For a few hours the peoples of the six worlds were blinded by sheer light. Then world by world they were engulfed in flame.

The spirit of Man, like the rear-gunner whom so long ago a moth had kissed, was annihilated.

Fifth Interlude

The House Without You

I have come home to an empty house. For three nights and three days it will be without you.

It is the same house as ever, but so different; a hearth without a fire, a lamp unlit, the score of a song that is not being sung. In the dining-room, on your chair’s back an old blue coat waits where you left it. In the kitchen your gardening-gloves hang over the fire-place, while the clock counts the seconds of your absence. In the larder are the dishes you have cooked for me, to last till Friday. In the bedroom, an ancient hair-brush and a crippled comb, scent bottles, books that you never have time to read, and pamphlets, leaflets, papers; and the bed, soon to be freighted on one side only.

The sooner I am asleep the better, for without you this place is not home.

When you are here, it is the very stronghold of reality. The wind may howl around it, but always vainly. True, a welter of phantoms is ever surging against these walls, phantoms of war, social conflicts, evolutionary forces; and, beyond all, the cold unknown. They are all huge and formidable, and some of them must actually be dealt with; and yet all of them, while you are here, are insubstantial, somehow unreal. Even the bombs that shook the house (so that a particular rattling door-handle always cows me) were somehow, for all their screaming and blasting, not quite real.

But now, with you gone away, there is no light here to drive back the invading shadows, no warmth to withstand the outer cold. The phantoms have turned real. The wind’s howl is frightening. The all too tangible weight and pressure of a brute universe thrusts against these frail walls. They sag inward, they crack and gape, revealing the driven clouds, a war-sick planet, and the dying suns, gripped within the eternity of the cold dark.

But on Friday when you come home, the lamp will be lit once more, the song will be sung again, the ghosts will be laid. For the thing that unites us, the spirit that comprises us as the sphere its hemispheres, will be once more and indubitably the heart of reality.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30