Death into Life, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 7

Salvation

The Spirit of Man Grieves for Men

THE Spirit of Man is daunted by his station on the middle heights of the great hierarchy of being. Above him rise range upon range of spirits, up to the universal Spirit; and beyond, even beyond the very Spirit whose essence is intelligence and love and gallant creating, towers the veiled, the inconceivable Other.

The spirit of Man is daunted by the knowledge that he himself, like men and women, must in due season die. And yet, contemplating his death, he finds full peace in the expectation that his life must give some slight enrichment to loftier beings than himself, and finally to the very Spirit.

But then, looking downward upon the myriad little individuals alive or dead, on earth and on the host of worlds, he sees that very few of them are capable of that peace; so fettered is each one to his own individuality, fearing extinction as a child the dark. Compassion stabs the spirit of Man on account of the littleness, the helplessness, the cruel frustration and torment, of the swarms of these minute abortively personal beings.

Hot protest surges suddenly in him against the Other, who seemingly permits this misery.

But then, remembering the glimpsed high peak of being, the cold, the fair, the dread, he whispers in his own heart, ‘Thou! Oh, Thou! Your little short-lived creature scorns to judge you. And yet — could I but see, but feel, your will’s rightness! But Thou! Were I to condemn, yet must I adore.’

And now a thought dawns on his mind’s darkness, a thought about his own experienced salvation, and so about the salvation of all spirits. ‘There is nothing positive,’ he says, ‘nothing essential in me at all save the universal Spirit herself, deprived in me of all her nature but the little part that can find expression within the cramping limits of humanity. In my dying she, who is more I than I myself, strikes free. And in her freeing I (so says my recent vision) find completeness. What dies in my death, dies utterly; but what survives is utterly fulfilled in the untrammelled Spirit. And further, in that vision of my future death, did I not see myself in death’s instant re-live my whole terrestrial life, watching it with new eyes from the high foothills of eternity? Did I not see my sorrows and my shames, my errors and my hounding remorse, all transfigured, all duly placed as features within the grave and lovely pattern of the cosmos. And if this is so for me, is it not so also for all the lesser spirits, even to men and women, even to dogs and lizards, trees and moulds and the disease bacteria; even to the ultimate sparks of spirit within each atom? When death annihilates them, the spirit in them strikes free and climbs the heights of being, to waken fully as the universal Spirit. And will not she, each time this happens, she whose very essence is love, lovingly look back upon those little lives, and in compassion re-create those little spirits for a while within her vastness, so that each may see its little life transfigured in the pattern of eternity. And then will not each little re-created spirit, having found this fulness and salvation, gladly sleep again for ever? In each of them what utterly dies is his separateness and his blindness. If this is “he”, then “he” is indeed destroyed; but if “he” is that alien who wakes in his dying, then “he” it is who rises to the very foothills of eternity, and sees his little earthly life transfigured.’

Surmising in this way about the lowlier spirits, the spirit of Man recovers peace of mind. For if this thought be true all, even to the least, find a salvation more blissful than any that any of them could have the wit to conceive.

But now the spirit of Man finds his new peace still precarious. For once more he remembers the dread, though worship-compelling, Other. And once more doubting, he fears once more for the salvation of his fellow spirits; so uncaring seems the Other, so unresponsive, so heartless. Yet, fearing, the spirit of Man still adores. For the very Spirit herself, in her extremity of death and loneliness, still adores. ‘And so’, he cries, ‘must all the lesser spirits too, when they are re-created within the very Spirit. Their salvation is assured.’

The spirit of Man’s mood changes. Brooding on the terrestrial lives of men and women and their ineluctable moulding by brute circumstance and blind historical forces, he loses all sense of the Other. The strange intoxication leaves him. And at last he complains, ‘The Other? What Other is there but the blind idiot, Fate, or the quite unworshipful outer darkness, the thoughtless void?’

His fog-bound mind stands paralysed.

But once more his mood changes. ‘At least,’ he cries, ‘if the Other is a mere projection of my own desire and fear, still there is the Spirit, the indubitable Spirit; in me, and men, and all the worlds. And to the Spirit I shall be loyal without reserve.’

The spirit of Man prays to the very Spirit, ‘Possess me wholly! Let me be the filled vessel, the perfected instrument! Give me the heart, the wit, the imagination, to serve effectively in your cosmical war against the darkness, and the void, and idiot Fate!’

But no sooner has he prayed, than, seemingly in unlooked-for answer to his prayer, he is seized again by the irresistible presence of the Other; so that he can only whisper, ‘Thou! Oh, Thou!’

The Rear-Gunner, and Others

The spirit of Man, brooding still on his vision, conceives how each of the lowly spirits might be re-created in the vastness of the Spirit; for it still seems to him that the infinite tenderness of the universal Spirit toward every kind of personal being must impel her to this high act of love, this reawakening of all lesser finite spirits to receive salvation and then the ultimate bliss of sleep.

The rear-gunner of that aircraft in which a moth had fluttered, must surely have found salvation. He who had been destroyed with all that crew, he who had died and wakened to be the crew’s spirit, and then the spirit of the killed in a certain battle, and then the spirit of Man, and then of this whole cosmos, and then at last the very Spirit herself, yearning toward the Other, even he found salvation. And the salvation that he found was not merely the vicarious salvation of dying that nobler spirit might in his death strike free. For out of the charity of the universal Spirit the minute annihilated spirit of the rear-gunner was re-formed for a while within the vastness of the universal Spirit.

The rear-gunner reverted to his little earthly life and death, but with confused knowledge of the past and future of mankind, and of a host of worlds, and of eternity’s foothills, and of the glimpsed high peak of being.

‘When I was imprisoned’, he mused, ‘in that aircraft, and in the somnolent nature of that boy, how dark and cheerless was my prison! Peering through the bars, I saw nothing but man’s harshness and the indifferent stars. How forlornly, over the narrow sea, I strained for courage! When the moth touched me to longing and self-pity, how near I was to breaking! And how fantastic, ludicrous, and how phantasmal, was that whole little universe that I had spun round myself, cocoon-wise, conceiving it to be no fiction but the huge and harsh reality! Yes, and my poor muddled, self-bound attempt at loving, so blind, so desperately astray from love’s true course! But now at last I have lived, and truly loved. I have loved beauty in a host of worlds. Even on little Earth I have loved so much, and in a thousand veins. I have loved Helen and Cleopatra, and others as lovely and more lovable. I have praised with Dante his Beatrice. And I have fully known what in my lifetime was denied me utterly, the marriage of true minds, and a lifetime’s deepening harmony. Yes, and I have listened to Socrates in Athens, and comprehended fully the wisdom of Gautama. I have walked with Jesus in the cornfields. And though now, once more limited by my human littleness, I can but vaguely conceive the glories that I have experienced, yet I know that I have indeed delighted in all terrestrial and all cosmical beauty, all human and all cosmical goodness. I have weighed all such thought as lies within the range of any finite spirit. Wakened far beyond the dim lucidity of Man, I have admired the high social beauty of the Cosmical Republic, and served it in the gallant lives of its many citizens. And in the death of the cosmos I have wakened as the universal Spirit. And then I, the very Spirit, looking back with compassion at me, the martyred boy, have re-created him that he may find salvation. And I, the boy, have seen my little irksome and meaningless earthly life woven into the glorious pattern of cosmical being; and there transfigured. But also, as the universal Spirit, I have fluttered papery wings against the shut window of the ultimate prison, vainly yearning toward the Other. I have participated in the Spirit’s death. Beyond that, all is darkness, not of desolation, surely, but of mystery. And now I, who was a boy killed in battle, am reconciled to that frustration of my earthly self, and even to the Spirit’s ultimate death. Little I, dying into the greatest I, have found salvation. And now I, that boy, desire for my little self nothing but sleep, dissolution in the vastness of the Spirit. And I, the very Spirit, though I too must die, and shall not within the whole span of time find union with the Other, have found salvation. For my beauty will be perfected for him, to take or to destroy.’

Thus the rear-gunner, who was killed in company with his six companions and with a moth, found his salvation. And then in peace he sank into eternal sleep.

The revolutionary engineer of that aircraft crew also had his reawakening. ‘When I was imprisoned,’ he said, ‘in that eager boy, I really believed that the millennium was at hand, and that it would be won by such as I, and that it would be simply a world-wide Terrestrial Soviet Republic. But now, after how many stages of my post-mortal growth and grim remaking, I know better. How often have I been forced to watch the Revolution thwarted, even on the Earth! And in the end I have seen its long-belated triumph on that planet turn stale and lethal through sheer stagnation. I have seen the same in world after world. But also I have watched the founding of the great Cosmical Republic, and its glory, and its final death. On Earth and in a swarm of worlds I have entered into the many ways of life which that boy could not conceive, or which he noted only to condemn them as irrelevant to the Revolution. I have gauged all the subtle flavours of personality, human and non-human. I have been remade by the great arts, and by careful philosophy. I who was that boy was very ruthless, very blind; but I did, according to my dim light, see and serve mankind’s immediate need. And now, I who was so restless have found peace. I who was so hot a champion of man’s fulfilment, and even (all unwittingly) of the Spirit’s triumph, I, who was so fierce a rebel against the power of tyrants, have accepted man’s frustration and the Spirit’s ultimate death at the hands seemingly of the tyrant Other. Strange that I, who so cherished man and scorned religion, should now worship not only the universal Spirit but the tyrant Other; who, if he exists, is seemingly indifferent to our prayers and to our worship. Perhaps he is no more than a figment of our craving. Then, at least how glorious a craving! But the Spirit is no figment. And in the Spirit, I, who was once a rash boy, but have travelled so far and learnt so much, have seen my little earthly life transfigured. And now, all my desire for this poor human self is sleep, dissolution in the Spirit. And what if she too in her death must be dissolved in sleep before the mighty Other will take her?’

Thereupon, the re-created spirit of that boy slept.

The saint in a war-tortured city woke again within the vastness of the Spirit. ‘How very strange,’ she mused, ‘how surprisingly different from my expectation has death been, and how much more wonderful! At first it seemed that I was lifted straight to full communion with thy God, such bliss enfolded me. It was no merely private bliss; for I felt that in this heaven all my friends were equally included, my neighbour the plumber who was so good to me, the pale mother whose boy was killed (but in that heaven she found him), the Jew I saved from the police, the prostitute who nursed me through my sickness, all these and all other good-hearted people shared, it seemed, that bliss. Yes, and all sinners too, it seemed, were remade and brought into that heaven. But I did not long remain in static ecstasy. Things were happening round me, things never dreamed of in my simple faith. The gulfs of history opened before me, and the future, and all the hosts of living worlds, and the incredible diversity of spirit in them all. And most strangely the God who had gathered me to himself, who had wakened me to his vastness and perfection, who was indeed the universal Spirit in us all, seemed most perplexingly to be after all a finite, a created spirit. And beyond him loomed that dread Other, whom in all my earthly days I had feared; and so denied, affirming always that the very Creator himself was love, and that beyond him there was nothing. But now my own past longing for my God of love was transformed into the yearning of the universal Spirit for that Other, the dread, the hidden, the frosty-fair, the source and crown of all things. Him, whether he be love or wholly inconceivable, I needs must worship. The Spirit, his creature, grows in loveliness, and prepares herself to be his bride. Yet he remains ever unseen and unresponsive. At last she dies. And then? Does he perhaps destroy the perfected creature that he has killed; or does she wake into eternity, and in his unveiled presence; and in joy of mutual love are they two made one? However stern her fate, she gladly welcomes it, because he wills it. And so she has salvation. And I too, who am at once she and this little earthly self re-created in her vastness, have salvation. Seeing my little life transfigured, I crave nothing now but sleep. And she too, the very Spirit, whether her fate be slow death and then absolute sleep or inconceivable eternal life, has peace.’

And so the saint who died in the tormented City slept.

There also died the false prophet of the fallen empire. In the instant of his death, as in all deaths, the little mundane self was confronted with a newly awakened, alien self, who now scrutinized and weighed the dark and blood-stained rosary of his life’s days. ‘Not I,’ he cried, ‘it could not have been I, who poisoned the minds of millions with false reasoning, and their hearts with false values. Not I glorified might and cruelty and lying. And oh, it was not I but some devil in me that tortured so many sensitive creatures in my rage for power.’ But the mundane self of the false prophet, in the instant of his annihilation, protested, ‘It was in loathing of their canting gentleness that I praised might and cruelty, and in hate of their canting truth that I praised falsehood. And it was on a people who craved my discipline and my inspiration that I imposed my will. I was the high instrument of fate. But in the end fate betrayed me.’ The false prophet’s new and alien self replied, ‘An instrument of fate, but no less a traitor to the Spirit, which in my youth I vaguely knew, like all men. Then stage by stage, and wilfully, I misconceived it, until at last I gloried in the part of Antichrist. I played with men’s fears and hates and bloodlust, till in the end fate, far from betraying me, did indeed deal justly with me. But “me”, “I”? Surely that evil pervert was not I. For I am pledged wholly to the Spirit. And though for that creature’s sins I must pay, perhaps in an eternity of torment, yet I praise whole-heartedly, ungrudgingly, the Spirit.’

The being that had awakened in the false prophet’s death had much to learn; for, though his will was clean, he was still deeply entangled in the ignorance and falsehood and false values of his earthly self. But after his agony of remorse had spent itself, and after many torturing stages of remaking under the stern pressure of the new-learnt truth about mankind, he woke at last, as all men wake, to find himself the very spirit of Man, and then the cosmical spirit, and finally the universal Spirit herself, yearning toward the Other.

But presently, within the vastness of the Spirit the little earthly self of the false prophet was re-created for a while. Wise with the Spirit’s wisdom, he looked down on his little earthly life, and sighed. ‘I did great evil,’ he mused, ‘epoch-making evil. Of my own will I wickedly did it. The currents of that little world’s events fatally combined with my own weak vision and self-importance and frustration to drag me down into that life of horror. But now, having indeed suffered my purgatory, I am remade. And now I see my little hateful self no longer hateful, but transfigured. The agony of shame and guilt is passed. Now, looking back, I would not change that life. I would not have it otherwise. My evil, though in me utterly evil, was a needed feature of the whole’s form. Someone had to play that part. And so I, even I, who was so wicked, find salvation. And now, what more can I desire for my earthly self but sleep?’

The spirit of Man, contemplating such possibilities of individual salvation, reminds himself that these thoughts are his own mind’s figments. ‘Can they,’, he wonders, ‘be indeed veridical, or are they sheer fantasy? And if they are true, is not all well with the world?’ Listening in the depth of his own being, he strains for some clear answer. No answer comes but silence. And for his own part he knows that he has outgrown the need for any such consolation. Strange peace possesses him. He whispers in his own being’s depth, ‘Oh, Thou, Thou! So be it!’

Seventh Interlude

Growing Old in Spring-Time

Larks are singing their way up airy ladders, peewits rapturously tumbling down them. The gorse is gay. Our rhubarb, lusty and rude, spreads great palms to grab the light. Young potato-shoots sketchily rule dotted lines across the beds. Your early peas are shoving their little green noses up through the earth; and in the frame your cabbage seedlings, in huddled queues, await their turn for ampler and more dangerous living. On the hawthorn’s sheltered side a foam of blossom is spreading. In the field an immense concourse of oat-seedlings, a mighty youth-movement, uniformed in green, hales the sun with up-stretched arms.

Spring is painting the earth’s old face young again, is actually rejuvenating her.

Even we, the ageing gardeners, are sun-warmed with an illusion of youthfulness. When the cuckoo calls, we pause for a moment in our weeding, our digging; to listen, and exchange smiles. But our backs are stiff with stooping, our muscles too quickly tire. Old eyes, unaided, can scarcely tell a chaffinch from a linnet.

We too, once upon a time, were part of the spring. But now our season is autumn. There will come an April when we shall be as out of place as a pile of last year’s potato haulms that no one has had time to burn.

Growing old is of course tiresome, yet in a way illuminating. Though the body’s ecstasies begin to fade, yet somehow they have an added, a strange and solemn significance, like holy rites long practised yet ever fresh. The mind too is ageing. Already, though as yet almost imperceptibly, it begins to lose its grip. Memories will not promptly come when called. Or they crowd in unwanted, confusing thought. Exasperation is too easily roused. Danger, pain, and all harsh change of circumstance become more daunting, because the strength to cope with them is hard to summon. Youth’s gift of sudden and reshaping insight comes no more. And the future, unless by accident or design my life is cut short, will bring sheer dotage. Strange, how little it disturbs me that I, who am interested most in Man and the cosmos, shall fall away from the adult mentality and lapse into the second childhood! The high themes will be too much for me. I shall finger my memories in public and repeat my anecdotes. (And you, who are the younger, with what patience and gentleness you will correct me!) A little later my feeble craving will be only for warmth and sleep and such food as I can digest. And then I shall be a burden; to myself, to you, and to the young. It is no sunny prospect. Yet, seen in its whole setting, it becomes an acceptable though a sombre detail.

And short of dotage, life’s autumn has its own glory, unconceived in youth. Young, I was a mere bubble of ego, and the universe was no more than a close filmy skin containing me; old, I am reduced almost to a point, but a sentient point, upon which a vast reality, depth beyond depth, is focussed. In a way I am at once dimensionless yet also infinite. I am almost nothing, yet I include a panoramic aspect of the infinity beyond me. The view is, of course, fragmentary, and must be largely false; but it presents itself to me as a subtle, a far-flung, a dread but lovely universe.

The dying fires of my body, and the cravings of this withering ego, seem now so unimportant, so dwarfed by the urgent needs of a whole tumultuous human world, and by the imagined potentiality of the myriad stars, and the unseen yet ever darkly present majesty beyond the heavens. The failing body still clings to life, still clamours for such delights as it can still achieve. And all too often I still succumb to its unruly greeds or fears, false to the outer reality and the central spirit that possesses me. The withering self still craves security, immortality, and even the trappings of dignity; but shamefacedly, with self-ridicule. Though all too often I conduct myself slavishly, I am no longer enslaved. Increasingly I identify myself not with those cravings but with the great outer reality and the central spirit. When the body dies, and I myself, may be, sink into eternal sleep, I shall have lost so little. For the cosmos will go on; and the spirit, in innumerable other centres, will go on. In losing this infinitesimal ‘me’, I lose, after all, nothing.

Further, in ageing, in this slow withering away of cherished delights and vaunted powers, there is a kind of purgation, as though in readiness for some grave impending event. The victim is being shorn and cleansed in preparation for the altar. But the universal spirit that inwardly possessed him is now slowly discarding the idiosyncrasies of this outworn individual, is now stretching long-cramped wings, impatient for flight.

Those dear delights, those modest powers, all that is the cherished me, I willingly let go. Others will repeat them, and some more splendidly. For me, when this tiresome ageing is fulfilled, the welcome end is sleep.

But you? But we? The fair thing that has awakened in us, must that too sleep for ever? Or does it, since its essence is of the spirit, strike free?

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