Death into Life, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 8

Here and Now

THE vision which the spirit of Man has laboured to recapture fades even from memory. Bells and trumpets conquer it under their loud cataract. Nothing more is to be recovered of the reality that faced the spirit of Man in his instant of eternity.

Reality? Was it indeed reality or a dream, a figment of his own sickness?

Strange that the whole vast panorama of time and of eternity, recently so actual, should now have paled into the mere memory of a dispelled hallucination! Like a snowflake dropped in water, it has melted, vanished. The warm present has dissolved it. Vainly now the spirit of Man thrusts his sight against the fog-wall. He cannot pierce it. Eternity is once more infinitely remote; and inconceivable, just an empty word. The vista of the future æons is mere fantasy. Even tomorrow, lying one little pace ahead, lies hidden.

Yielding to the present’s insistent clamour, the spirit of Man observes today’s mankind. Can men, he wonders, rise beyond themselves in this great moment? Oh that they may falsify the recent tragic vision, and at one bound cross the Rubicon that has so long restrained them! But are they the stuff for such a venture? Has their recent world-wide agony strengthened or weakened them? Has suffering purged or broken them? Will the moth now burst its chrysalis bonds, or is it poisoned at last fatally?

The spirit of Man perceives that the swarms of men are in unison at least in their will for peace, for a long respite from war’s strain and horror; but lust for vengeance and fear of retribution force them into sharp discordancy; and equally the will for power and glory opposes itself to the passion to end all tyranny. And if men crave peace, it is less for love’s sake than for fear’s. Over the prostrate enemy the victors grasp comradely hands; but gauge each other with a wary eye. In all the celebrant cities the crowds are drunk with music and with impatient hope; but here and there a sober and a silent watcher is chilled with doubt.

Recently the conquered peoples, freed one by one, had blessed their liberators with flowers and wine and kisses; then, one by one disillusioned, they had cooled, or even turned futile arms against their new conquerors. For these victors, intent on order, on repairing the world’s crushed tissues, had not been tender to the unruly germs of the new world-creature, whose strange, unlovely, foetal shape repels all those who cannot read its promise. Order, the victors conceived too simply, in an outworn pattern. Their touch, blindly healing, had favoured not the moth’s unfinished shaping but the dissolute organs of the grub; not the new, the wakening Man, but the old sleep-walker.

So it seems to the anxious spirit of Man, watching through his many eyes his own tortured flesh. Wherever war has passed, and where the tyrant armies have withdrawn from their untenable conquests, and ebbed back towards their central stronghome, desolation lies in the wake of the retreating flood. Fields are barren; for the young men were taken away to be work-slaves in the enemy lands. Villages, if not wrecked and burned for vengeance, are starving, their food-stores rifled. Cities are crippled or utterly destroyed, their machinery smashed or stolen. And everywhere the human creatures, harshly moulded by years of warfare or years of oppression or years of vain though supremely brave secret resistance to the foreign tyrant, are now too familiar with harshness, are unserene, are tinder to every spark. Marred by hunger, by uncared-for sickness, by respiteless fear or sudden terror, by impotent hate or outraged love, they are gaunt and deadly tired; are listless, and yet quick to puerile or senile passion, whether of friendliness or loathing, impulsive gratitude or spite. Too long one sole crude need has grimly ruled these conquered; ruled all of them save the heroic resisters; the need not for God, or the soul’s salvation, nor for mankind’s liberation, nor even for the rescue of their country, but just for food and clothing, a bare pittance, endlessly sought and never adequate. For this, and for avoidance of the conqueror’s harshness, they have daily schemed and ventured. Strange that, in spite of all, some had found time and strength to work for a happier future, to fan courage and hope through secret newspapers and radio, and with the example of their own heroism.

But later, when the foul tide had ebbed, and the first liberations had been celebrated, still the martyred and bewildered peoples starved. For the unfinished war still claimed the ships, the trains, the lorries. And because of their continued misery, and because the men of money were seen to be creeping back into power, some bitter voices affirmed that liberation had proved a mockery. And then, because these unhappy peoples were all overwrought with suffering, they snatched up once more guerrilla weapons, and so provoked their liberator-conquerors to harshness.

What new mentality, the spirit of Man wonders, what new temper, savage, and maddened by suffering, or perhaps by very suffering purged and kindled to ruthless, piercing insight, will presently blaze from this tormented continent?

The plight of the liberated, though severe, is more easily to be borne than the ruin of the defeated enemy. For not only have they suffered war’s extreme ravage but also the curse of all their victims is upon them. Yet, by nature not inhuman, they have bowels and brains as prone to gentleness as any other people’s, and no more prone to devilry. Un-toward circumstance has savaged them, as a horse by brutal treatment is turned vicious. And so this proud perverted nation, too faithful to their false prophet, must now suffer for the evil that they did in the prophet’s name. For now the newly liberated peoples are hot for vengeance. Hateful vengeance, masquerading as justice or security, demands its due. Kill! Kill the war-criminals, who founded the concentration camps, who tore off finger-nails, who beat sensitive flesh to pulp or slowly burnt it, who cut off women’s breasts and crushed men’s testicles, who tortured children before the eyes of their parents, to force betrayal. At last they shall pay in their own suffering, even to the least of petty officials who carried out the commanded brutality. And for the masses, if it is not practicable or politic to slaughter all those millions, at least their war power must be utterly and for ever destroyed. Seize or smash their vast machinery, seal up their mines, divide their land among the victors, brand them all as criminals, use the skilled and unskilled workers all as slaves to make good the huge damage in all the lands that they overran! Twice in a generation their barbaric power-lust brought the world to war. Now at last the penalty! Already the slow lava-flood of conquest has seared their fields, trampled their villages and cities, devoured their young men and women. And now, from the east westwards, and from the west eastwards, fleeing populations have poured into the constricted heart of their country, like beasts before a forest fire.

Their armies were pushed back until all resistance broke. Today the victors meet.

Today, while in all other lands the bells rejoice, in one ruined metropolis they are silent. And silent crowds line the streets, watching the armed procession of invaders, and awaiting retribution. But some eagerly cheer. Formerly secret resisters to the fallen tyranny, now at last they are freely vocal. Others, changing their allegiance with the change of wind, give tongue in loud false welcomes.

The spirit of Man, peering through the sombre minds of those defeated citizens, reviews their plight with horror and with pity. He blames them, of course, for their past betrayal of the Spirit; as he blames all men, and blames himself, for inveterate frailty and perversity. But he knows, what the victors fear to recognize, that a great part of this distracted people secretly loathed and condemned the prophet and his tyranny, but dared not speak against it, since to murmur was to court inhuman punishment. He knows too that thousands were not deterred even by this threat. They accepted harsh imprisonment, disease, torture, mental ruin and finally slaughter, rather than keep silent. These he salutes as the noblest of his members. And this whole tragic people he now chiefly pities for their desolation, and for the vengeance that the indignant, the short-sighted victors prepare for them.

During the final agony of the city’s resistance, government broke down, order vanished. The city’s population, formerly so disciplined, became a rabble of desperate and lawless individualists. But no! For even in this chaos friends could still be loyal to friends, mothers were still faithful to their children, lovers to one another. In their extremity these citizens manifested not only their worst but also their best. Here and there, after long oblivion, they rediscovered their best. For they were human. And what extremity, what unsurpassed calamity was theirs! Their honeycomb of dwellings all trodden down, they sheltered in the wreckage, defending their chosen crannies against the swarming homeless creatures from east and west; and from the escaped slaves, imported toilers from the conquered lands, now breaking free, and waging their own private savage war of vengeance against the citizens. Famished prowlers attacked each other for scraps of food, or banded themselves together to storm the stores, overpowering the police. The sick and the dying lay untended among the ruins. For the emaciated bodies of these once proud citizens could not resist the plagues that swept through the city; and the dead were too many to be removed.

But now at last the war is over. The sirens cry no more. Overhead ten thousand aircraft of the victors circle and stream, displaying power.

With horror and foreboding the spirit of Man searches the minds of these distressful citizens, and their compatriots up and down that ruined land. What part will they play in the new world, a world balanced on the knife-edge between hope and despair, a world in which the neurotic mentality will be tinder for every spark of discord? The elder and the gentler citizens, who for so long dared not even whisper their yearning for a long-lost and happier city and a kindlier nation, now openly praise those times; though they themselves by acquiescence had helped to murder the old order and install the new and evil state. But the young? They had no part in that happier age. They never breathed the faith which for their forefathers was the very air of life. From childhood their minds were trained and twisted to the new, diabolic faith. And though many of them are now sickened of savagery, they are ignorant of the spirit. Bewildered, they wake at last from the nightmare illusion into which they were born, and that they could not but take for reality. And now, in a new, strange daylight world, they dare not move. They have no bearings in it. Like a blind man given sight, they are merely confused and paralysed by their new perception. Some are enticed by it to grope furtively, uncomprehendingly and with many a tumble, along the way of gentleness that they have been so thoroughly schooled to scorn. For these there is hope. But others, too deeply addicted to the drugs of hate and violence, too jealously resentful towards all friendly, happier beings, too fiercely at war with their own gentler nature, remain incurably the crazy heroes or perverted saints or mere hooligans that harsh circumstance has made them. Bitter and incredulous at their leader’s fall and their fatherland’s catastrophe, they swear vengeance, dedicating themselves to the next war, and to the enslavement of all mankind.

Feeling inwardly the perverted heroism of these lost souls, the spirit of Man shudders. Theirs are the same bowels and brains as other men’s. Once they were little hopeful children, little straight green shoots of true humanity. But the poisoned blizzard seared and twisted them. Counting the host of them, the spirit of Man despairs. For the victors plan vengeance; and vengeance breeds contrary vengeance; and where vengeance rules men’s minds, perverts and hooligans are very acceptable as instruments, and as leaders.

But the conquered are only one people among many. The spirit of Man turns his grave scrutiny upon the conquerors, those marching men, weathered, apt for hardihood, and for slaughter, with bullet or shell, with bayonet or hand-grenade or knife. He considers, too, those many boys in the upper air, those pilots, gunners and the rest, machine-trapped all of them, yet for the crew’s sake self-disciplined and comradely. He feels in the hearts of all these invaders a deep, crushed-down horror of warfare, and a longing for the ways of peace. In all of them he finds the unclear but urgent need for some gentler and more deeply rooted ‘we’ than the stern comradeship of war-time crew or company. And with this need for gentleness arises a vague tenderness towards all men, even towards the conquered. For though at one moment these conquerors profess stern retribution, in the next they may be sharing their rations with a hungry citizen. In all of them the lust for vengeance is strongly countered by a blindfold, urgent, desperate movement towards the spirit; the very movement that so bewilderingly stirs the war-racked citizens themselves.

Is this, then, inquires the spirit of Man with sudden hope, the new world’s new temper?

But now he turns from the victorious invaders in the city’s streets and sky to watch the homelands of these conquerors. There too smoulders the same longing; but how confused, how seamed with fears and greeds and a thousand plain stupidities.

In the west, believers in money scheme to save mankind by their money-power; sincerely, for their hearts are touched by mankind’s distress. But their own too-well-remembered triumphs of free commerce, and their sly hope of further gain, blind them to the world’s new needs, to its need of a supreme world-purpose and world-plan, and its need that all men should feel themselves one in the spirit. These believers in money propose to create, by sheer free commerce, prosperity for all men, and for themselves dominance and vast riches; forgetting the harsh lesson of the planless past. And the spirit? Even those whose minds are not bemused by money conceive the spirit far too simply, in the the form that money fostered. For them the individual, who is the seat of money-power and the pioneer of all great enterprise, is also the sole vessel of the spirit. And this is true, but not the whole truth. Nowhere but in the awareness, the wisdom, the loving, the creative action, of individuals can the spirit be; but these self-confident individualists dare not see that the brigand individual, who would be self-complete and unrestrained, is the spirit’s main enemy. We are members one of another.

The spirit of Man turns eastward to the great new society where money-power has been tamed, where men have planned resolutely, ruthlessly, for the common welfare. But here too the upshot is uncertain. Here, as elsewhere, burns the will for the spirit, though unacknowledged and unnamed. But here they conceive it as social discipline and social power, the power of the first great comradely community to develop all its potency for the fulfilling of its citizens in health and wealth, and in that pattern of mentality which the new state’s masters and the hosts of their willing followers declare most admirable. For them the main theme is the ability for practical service and willing discipline in the common work. The spirit of Man knows well that this fellowship in work is a factor in the true spirit, and one disparaged in the west. But if this is not balanced by the west’s loyalty to the individual’s own perception of the spirit in his own heart-searching and solitariness, and in his own salutation of his own friend’s uniqueness, the spirit must surely wither. With anxious doubt the spirit of Man watches this great people’s crusading enthusiasm for their new order. He feels inwardly their impatience with unbelievers, their will for conformity, their fiery, arrogant, ruthless loyalty to the new society. How well justified; but also how dangerous! Are they, after all, heading for a new tyranny, and for the world-wide ant-state? Or is their mass-mindedness a passing mood, caused by all their suffering and their common danger? And will this most socially conscious of all peoples become presently also the most spiritually aware? Will they, when the present stress is over, recover their heart-searching and their solitariness, to pursue with fresh earnestness and new penetration the questing, the mystical, vision of their own earlier sages?

And what of those other eastern peoples? What of those dark-skinned and still unfree dwellers in the great peninsula, whose sages were most mystical of all? And those more easterly, with faces of old ivory, whose way of life is the most ancient; but today in the hard school of war they work out together a way most new, though deeply founded on the past? And what of the darkest peoples, who now uneasily stir in their long servitude?

With doubt but with hope the spirit of Man surveys the condition of his multiple flesh. The ferment is world-wide and deep. Surely the world-creature is straining to break the chrysalis bonds. The moth will soon be free, will spread wing and fly, will live its ardent life beyond the grub’s farthest range of vision.

But the spirit of Man’s own recent tragic vision of Man’s future still daunts him.

But then, once more, beyond the stars and æons he darkly feels the Other, and in mystery finds peace.

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