A Man Divided, by Olaf Stapledon

12

Strange Triumph

From 1946 to 1948

I RETURNED TO INDIA for a short spell of work before retiring to the home country. My long stay in the East had already told on my health, and I looked forward eagerly to some modest and unexacting job in England to keep me going for a few years until the time should come to retire completely from active life. I promised myself that I would first take some post in England, something not too arduous, that would allow me enough leisure to work up a full-length biography of Victor. He had agreed to this project, on condition that the book should not be published till after his death. If I should die first, which seemed to me quite likely, the manuscript was to be held by my executors until Victor had followed me. I looked forward to seeing much more of Victor when I finally settled in England, and I hoped to gain a much more intimate understanding of the true Victor’s ideas. If he failed to publish his ever-rewritten book before his death, I was to have the task of editing it and publishing at least a large part of it posthumously.

My plans were frustrated. Some nine months after my return to India I received a disquieting letter from Maggie. Victor’s condition seemed to have deteriorated. He was faithfully continuing his work; and indeed, when he had sufficient strength to carry out his teaching, he was a more successful teacher than he had ever been; but he seemed to be profoundly and morbidly depressed about himself and the world. He was seriously overworking, both in preparing his official lectures and in reading book after book on religious or philosophical subjects. He generally stayed up half the night reading, or just thinking. Maggie could not make up her mind whether he was heroically and forlornly struggling to mimic his ‘brother’ by finding some great illumination, or whether, on the contrary, he was rebelling against the resented influence of the true Victor.

He had started a course of ruthless asceticism. Alcohol and tobacco he had given up entirely. Food he had strictly rationed to something much less than the official ration. He said that if the Germans had to starve, so must he. Undernourishment had undermined his bodily health, though (so he said) it was quickening his mind. All the same, Maggie learned from his students that he was often too tired to cope with a class properly. All occasional pleasures, such as films and plays, motoring week-ends and country walks, he had abandoned. Had he wanted to walk, he could not have done it, for he had no spare energy. Toward Margaret, on whom till recently he had rather extravagantly doted, he now maintained a strange aloofness, alternating with gleams of hungry love. Toward Maggie herself, though he treated her with even more than his habitual tenderness, he seemed at heart aloof. She had tried to persuade him to tell her what was troubling him, but he refused to be drawn. He insisted on sleeping in a separate room, because (so he said) his nocturnal meditations would disturb her. He never laughed, never smiled, save professionally at his classes. He had apparently lost all interest in the life of the society in which he lived, and in the whole surrounding universe. Even his work he performed rather as a discipline than from a sense of its importance. His attention seemed wholly withdrawn upon his own inner life. But this too, so far as she could judge, gave him no real satisfaction. Maggie was, of course, greatly distressed and frightened. She feared that sooner or later he would have a complete mental breakdown. In her letter to me, she said, “My poor Victor is desperately groping for the light, but I cannot help feeling that the powers of darkness, whatever they maybe, are closing in on him. I think he is putting up a great fight against them, but I am sure he has chosen quite the wrong tactics. Nothing that I can say succeeds in persuading him to live more naturally and openly. Oh, how I long for the return of my own true Victor! But it is now an age since he came, and I begin to fear I shall never see him again.”

A few months after receiving this letter, I was shocked by a cable from Magpie announcing Victor’s death. An airmail letter followed, saying that one morning he had failed to appear at breakfast, so she went up to his room, and found him apparently asleep; but he was dead. A post mortem proved that he had taken one of the modern poisons which send one quietly to sleep, never to wake again. He had left no last message for her. And she found that all the true Victor’s manuscripts had been destroyed. She greatly blamed herself, for having agreed, some ten years earlier, to restore them all to the study, where the secondary Victor (by then a reformed character) could examine them whenever he was in the mood for it.

The disaster of Victor’s death, Maggie said, was the more distressing because the true Victor had recently appeared rather more frequently, and his last visit had been prolonged for more than a week. She had begun to hope for his permanent re-establishment. He had told her of the other’s intention to kill himself, and she had been anxiously watching him. On one occasion an attempt had actually been made; but in the nick of time the true Victor had re-appeared. She therefore hoped that this happy issue would be repeated whenever the impulse for suicide recurred. In this, alas, she was mistaken.

A long letter from the true Victor, she said, was on its way to me. But it had been sent by the sea mail, and might not reach me for some time.

Maggie allows me to quote the closing passage of her letter to me. “From the bottom of my heart I am thankful for my life with Victor. We both suffered very much. And in the end came a dismal tragedy. But in spite of everything, I feel that the true Victor has won through. In our last week together we were happy, more happy than ever before. He seemed to have an ecstatic peace which was infectious. He was telling me about it, but he disappeared before he had made me fully understand. But I have felt that peace. And now I feel — well, grief, of course, since I shall never see my darling again; but not grief only. Much deeper in my heart, I feel joy. Somehow, in the last week he taught me more than in the whole of the rest of his life. And perhaps he himself learned more. He has tried to express something of this in his letter to you, but words can give only a pale ghost of the peace and joy which his presence radiated through and through me during those most happy days. And even now that he is gone, I feel convinced that in some sense beyond my intelligence he is always with me; he, the true Victor, my pride and my joy.”

In due course I received Victor’s letter. I will end this inadequate biography of my friend by quoting his last letter in full. It is a remarkable and a moving document. Parts of it are either beyond my comprehension or else sheer verbiage. The reader must judge for himself. My own feeling about it is that while the letter shows the potential greatness of my dead friend, both in intelligence and in large-heartedness and spiritual vision (if I may so put the matter), it also shows considerable traces of mental derangement, due, no doubt, to the strain of his situation. The opening reference to myself, far kinder than I deserve, shows Victor’s unfailing magnanimity.

“DEAR HARRY.

“It is unlikely that we shall meet again, and I feel I must say something to you before it is too late.

“First of all, Harry, I want to say ‘thank you’ for your friendship, your patience and kindness through all the years since we were at Oxford. I have never said anything like this to you before. I have always counted on you. I have always accepted from you without any spoken gratitude. And often I have been inconsiderate and impatient. For this I cannot make amends; but let me at least say that our friendship has been one of the happiest and most valued things in my life, and that you, more than anyone else, have taught me what the relation between man and man should be.

“I woke a few days ago in strange circumstances. I was in bed in the Dolt’s room. In the palm of my hand there was a little white pill. Thinking that it was an aspirin, I put it in my mouth. But the Dolt’s memories were now flooding back on me, and I quickly realized that he had decided to kill us both. I hastily spat out the pill and rinsed my mouth. My watch told me it was half-past one. I went to Maggie’s room.

“If he does it again, shall I again wake in time to thwart him? I cannot feel confident of it. The knowledge that this may be my last few days of life seems to have intensified my vitality. Everything that happens to me, everything that I do, has a new meaning, and glows (so to speak) with an inner light.

“We have seized the opportunity of a complete holiday in this glorious English spring. (Fancy my fool ‘brother’ wanting to kill himself and me in this weather, with all the buds bursting!) We have been out in the country every day. I don’t know which is more delightful, lying on one’s back in a field, with Maggie, and listening to larks and an early cuckoo, or swinging across the moor, with Maggie, watching the cloud shadows on the hills, and an occasional hare start up and streak away round the hill’s shoulder. ‘Swinging across the moor’ is a very false image. ‘Painfully plodding’ would be better; for the Dolt had been starving our common body. But now, there’s some sort of fire in me that drives the body far beyond its natural strength.

“What a joy seeing is! Even when it is done through aging eyes that give neither the precision nor the brilliance of childhood’s seeing. The poor old physical instrument is no longer ‘optically perfect,’ but the relish, the zest, is as fresh and breathtaking as it was in my still-remembered babyhood. O lovely world; tragic, sordid, brutal, and yet lovely! The sturdy hog-backs of the moors! The frail geometry of a spider’s web! This morning I was making the porridge for breakfast. Have you ever noticed how at a certain stage the quick waves of gruel gradually turn to heavy, sluggish, velvet foldings? Rather like the smooth hide rippling on a puma’s shoulders. Then the stuff boils. Subterranean explosions in the little molten world form ephemeral craters. You watch the show, fascinated, till a projectile of lava rises into the stratosphere and scalds your hand. Strange how even pain itself has a sort of tigerish loveliness! I mean, when one is really awake, and can experience it with a full sense of its spiritual meaning. But alas, alas! Man can only reach this all-redeeming illumination in his rare and precarious moments of full consciousness. And most of us are doomed never to reach so far. This is the ultimate tragedy at the heart of the universe. Ultimate? No! Seeming ultimate, only while one is in the trance of lonely selfhood. But in fact we are indeed all members one of another, and of the Whole. Even the least of us is at heart the Whole. And in the Whole’s glory his suffering is redeemed. But, oh, Harry, how I stammer and drivel, trying to express the inexpressible that I have indeed, though darkly, seen.”

“In these few happy days that have been given me, I spend much of my time just looking at things. For instance at Maggie. Aging suits her. She was lovely when I first saw her, so many years ago; but now, though she has lost all the sweet physical freshness, in another way she’s lovelier. The spirit, one might say, shines so clearly through that experienced, that tempered and beautifully weathered smile. If only she could enjoy the present fully, without thought of the future, or without fear of the future! I must show her how to do that before I go. I shall succeed. I shall teach her to see everything from the point of view of eternity. In these few days we are creating something eternally lovely. We are completing our thank-offering to eternity. Our music rises to its last triumphant note. I hope, indeed I am sure, that when I am gone you and Maggie will be very close friends. I am not commending her to your care, for she is strong, and I have no fears for her. But your friendship will mean much to her.

“And the children! That’s a joy you have missed, Harry, watching children grow, and being glad to be needed by them, and glad to watch them be themselves, and not what one had wanted them to be. I find it hard to forgive my accursed other self for harming them. Colin will bear the marks for ever. There’s a wry twist in his character, a streak of cynicism that need not have been. But he’s tough and sane, and complete master of himself. And even the Dolt’s clumsy treatment could not seriously mar the gentleness that Maggie taught him. Sheila, bless her, is less damaged. I know no one, not even Maggie, more serene. As for that diabolically attractive minx, Margaret, I expect she’ll be all right when she has got over the spoiling that the doting Dolt slopped over her till quite recently. Of course she hardly knows me. And she’s piqued because I don’t fuss over her.

“How exquisite every moment of experience is! Even such a little thing as the forming of these words with my pen! See! This bit of handwriting shall be a real work of art, in its little way; precise but fluent. Each letter’s economical form echoes so much of history, monkish, Roman, Greek, Phoenician, and Egyptian. How long, I wonder, will men continue to use symbols formed in this great tradition? Will man in the end outgrow the need for writing? Or will man and writing cease together? Well, I may not use these signs much longer. This may be the last time I shall practise this homely, lovely art. Meanwhile, since writing is the matter in hand, I will delight in conforming to its canons. Strange, how even in the careful forming of a single word (that word ‘strange’ for instance) we can express so much yet fall so short of our intention!

“I am writing in my little study. At bottom it is my study, not the Dolt’s. I chose the furniture, and placed it conveniently. But my other self has been in possession so long that he has largely imposed his character on the room. There’s a picture of his, sophisticatedly modern, but not quite sincere. There’s a pile of back numbers of the Autocar — not mine at all.

“On my desk, here, there’s a folded newspaper. Bad paper, smudgy printing, incredibly vulgar advertisements. A symbol of all that is driving my other self to suicide. And yet — I can forgive the thing its wretchedness. Seen as the focal point of a vast tragic symbolism, it becomes strangely beautiful in its pathetic vulgarity. And the poor trapped souls that produced it — I don’t insult them with forgiveness; I just salute them as fellow mortals. There’s a very bad drawing of a girl in her undies, advertising nylons. Her sex, of course, is wildly exaggerated. Face, laughably debased — lovely. Breasts, pert. Figure, too slim; legs far too long for body. Every line of the drawing, falsely slick. The whole thing is loathsome, of course; but, oh, pathetic! Look hard into it, and you can see the real loveliness that it garbles. Strangely, you can see in it the spirit battling vainly for life against the choking horror of our civilization, against commercialism’s fatal exaggeration of self-interest, of self-display, of self-regarding sexuality. Strange how, in the light of the Whole, the ugly thing itself borrows beauty! Not that we should therefore tolerate it or preserve it; for its virtue lies in its ugliness, in its failure to be beautiful. And the same of evil. In the light of the Whole it is transfigured, redeemed. Not that it is therefore to be tolerated; for its virtue dies in its essential badness, in its tragic failure to be good. In action, our allegiance to the spirit obliges us to struggle with all our strength against evil; and yet in contemplation, when the majestic pregnancy of the Whole obscurely reveals itself to us, and worship is wrung from us, we cannot but accept, and with joy.

“Inevitably the horror of our civilization and of the whole universe, drives the poor blind Dolt to suicide. But that is not what it does to me.. This vulgar little drawing, the whole vulgar tragedy of our civilization — though in action I oppose them all with all my strength, in contemplation I find myself accepting them reverently, perhaps quite irrationally. I respect them as I respect a man struggling against a mortal disease or incipient insanity. Because everywhere the spirit shows through, struggling for the light, and yet fatally slipping, slipping, farther down into darkness. To hell with the poor Dolt’s death-wish, where indeed it belongs. My wish is wholly for life, life eternal, not just for my own little individuality, which is essentially and rightly ephemeral, but for the spirit that is the perennial and Cosmical music inherent in the lives of all ephemeral individuals.

“Maggie is all the while with me in my study. For I must have all I can of her, and she of me, while it is possible. She is sewing. Her needle moves in and out of the material as she takes up a needleful of stitches. It’s like a line of little glistening porpoises threading across a white sea. My life with her has been like that — in and out, in and out. Latterly, alas, mostly out. And now all our intermittent days, weeks, months, and our too few years, come crowding into memory. I examine the stitches of our past. So irregular, but such a bright thread! Compared with the young waitress of so long ago she’s physically mere smouldering ash, left after a blazing fire. But to the seeing eye there’s another light irradiating the dear dying ash. The Dolt, poor fool, could never properly see that light. He does begin to appreciate Maggie, does love her in a way, but never as she deserves. Incredible to me that living with Maggie, year in and year out, couldn’t kill his death-wish! When I think of him as my own baser self, how I loathe him! But when I think of him as something other than me, a poor blind creature vainly groping for the light, I pity him. I even respect him, for in his fumbling way, he put up a good fight, against odds that I never had to face.

“I ask you, Harry, to cast your mind back to that dismal walk you had with me, with my Dolt self, I mean, on the moor in a blizzard. He (or I) bemused you with his plausible death-excuses! What he said was all true in a way, but all half-truth. True, that man’s plight is grim. True that poisoned institutions poison all our minds, and falsify every possible act. But we are not doomed. A world where there is sunshine, and where people sometimes love, sometimes think honestly, sometimes make glorious things, is not doomed. Our fate depends at least in part on ourselves; or rather, not simply on our poor frail individualistic selves, but on the strength of the universal spirit in us. Lest you should think I’m going back on my agnosticism, believe me I don’t mean by ‘universal spirit,’ a universal ‘being’ or soul or person; I still mean just the ideal of spiritual living that beckons all half-awakened beings and claims possession of them. Maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe there is the universal soul or person or God. But since we don’t know, and cannot know (being only the poor little insects that we are), let us for God’s sake (or for the spirit’s sake) be true to our own little insect intelligence, and not pre tend we understand what is beyond our understanding.

“Out of the horror of our contemporary world, out of our sense of doom, our doltish nightmare, comes a new hope of true waking. The war was an alarm clock that disturbed our sleep. We are at last sufficiently shocked for waking; and if we will, we can now wake properly. And people are waking. I saw it whenever I took over the Dolt’s discussions with soldiers and airmen. Those groups of bewildered sleep-walkers were all restless for waking, all shyly groping for the light, even when they pretended still to be cynics. Of course, the whole thing may go awry. People may all be drugged into sleep again, or we may wreck the planet with atomic power, before the new temper can take effect. But now, at least there is the widespread waking, and at least the possibility of a new world. Strange glorious changes are striving for birth. God! Far from wishing death, I should be glad of a new lease of life, a second and a third lifetime, to play some part in the great waking. I long for it; and yet, while I am fully awake, I find I gladly accept whatever comes. Of course, even if at last mankind does win through, there’ll be no Utopia but only a widespread breaking through into rather more lucid experience and more creative ways of living. There’ll be new problems, new conflicts, new hopes and despairs, new joys and agonies. There’ll be merely an outgrowing of nursery troubles and infantile growing pains and diseases, and at last a hesitant, precarious, painful, dangerous staggering into a world of adult experience.

“But let us for the sake of argument suppose that the very worst does happen, and that within a quarter of a century, or a quarter of a year, mankind destroys itself, and lethal radiation turns the whole surface of the earth into a desert, inhospitable to life — what then? Were those who foresaw it fools to remain alive, vainly striving against it? No! Even the destruction of a living world is worth living through, however painful; if one is awake, if one can see the disaster as an episode in the perennial struggle of the spirit in the innumerable successive hosts of individuals in all the worlds. My own life has been mainly a dismal failure, and yet it was infinitely worth living. And if mankind fails, yet mankind has been infinitely worth while. Already, and whatever happens, this planet, this grain that spawned our imperfect kind, is well justified. The solar system, the whole universe, is well justified; yes, even if man is the only, and a sadly imperfect, vessel of the spirit, and doomed. For no tragedy, not even a cosmical tragedy, can wipe out what man (in his low degree) has in fact achieved, through the grace of his vision of the spirit, his precarious and yet commanding vision of the spirit.

“But how unlikely that man is the sole vessel! Consider the pregnant stars! Consider the great galaxies! Can any sane mind then suppose that man is the sole vessel?

“And I must tell you again, Harry, that in my sadly curtailed spiritual researches and exercises, though I have had little success, at least I have won through (by the grace of the spirit) to feel the indescribable unity that comprises all our severalness. And in my dim sense of that unity of all spirit I have heard (so to speak) the faint, far-off murmur of the hosts of individual lives throughout the cosmos and the aeons. And I have felt — but once more language utterly fails, and thinking also. And yet, though what I have felt beyond that cosmical murmur is really beyond all telling, I find I must stammer out something about it, however misleadingly. I have felt — oh, how can I put it without falsifying it utterly? I have felt all baseness and pain, and all sorrow, transmuted into glory; all agony, from the pain-flash of a crushed fly to the despair of Jesus on the Cross, turn to joy. But what am I saying? Of course I don’t mean that the poor little tortured fly and the tragic disillusioned Jesus and all other sufferers enter severally into everlasting bliss, as individuals. Maybe in some strange sense they do, though it must be a sense quite unsatisfying to those who clamour for individual salvation. But all this is beside the point. The news I am trying to report to you is something of a different kind. Perhaps I can give a hint of it by saying simply that nothing is merely lost. Everything contributes. All the agonies, and the joys too, are gathered up into the whole single music of existence, the music which enjoys itself. And so the agony, which in the loneliness of our finite individuality is unredeemed and hideous and meaningless, contributes to the music, is significant; and in consciousness of its own significance in the whole it is itself transfigured into joy. All this talk, you may say, is sheer verbiage. And of course it is, if you are looking for literal truth. But I know, I know now, that it is poetically true, like the statement that the sun, when he pushes the clouds aside, laughs.

“After re-reading that paragraph I fear it will mean nothing to you. But in its halting way it does mean something to me, in virtue of my actual experience. Does it to you?

“But, Harry, before I say ‘goodbye,’ I must say one other thing. This cosmical transfiguration of all our experience is something quite apart from individual survival of death, whether survival for a while only or for ever. The transfiguration I now know to be true, but I cannot describe it or even clearly think it. Survival, on the other hand, is an intelligible idea, up to a point; but I have no news to give of it. Maybe death is simply the complete ending of us; and if so, let us be grateful for eternal sleep. Maybe we go on from aeon to aeon in subsequent temporal lives, within this formidable universe, for the progressive fashioning of our individual souls; so that ultimately each may contribute fully to the music. Such ‘re-incarnation’ is a possibility that may well daunt us, in view of the weariness that comes to one toward the end even of this single life. But perhaps we start the next one refreshed. And how exhilarating, provided one had the opportunity for creative work! But should I find Maggie? (God! I should want her!) Maybe I should and I shouldn’t. Well, I’m for the venture! (What a jest if the Dolt wakes up and finds himself living again! He’d be as sick as a dog!) Then there’s another possibility. Maybe we wake in some completely other temporal and spatial (or non-spatial) system of existence, made not of stars and the void, of light and dark and pressure and all our sense characters, but of something — inconceivable to us. Or again, maybe at death we are gathered up at once into eternity. Annihilated as individuals, maybe we wake to remember that all along we have been the eternal spirit, the world soul, or God. Maybe, maybe! But what does it matter? The important thing is that, whatever happens to us as individuals, the spirit does matter, and the spirit is; though even after all those years of puzzling I’m damned if I can say what it is; except that it is just what we all (when we are properly awake) know does matter, just awareness, love and creative action in relation to an objective universe.

“But I still haven’t said what I wanted to say. It’s this. If I do survive, I shall do my best to make some sort of contact with Maggie, and with you too, Harry, you old sceptic. So, both of you, please keep an ear open for the telephone bell, so to speak. I may have something important to say. I have told her I shall put a call through to her, if I possibly can. Unless, of course, I become so thoroughly absorbed in the affairs of that other world that I simply forget all about this one; and all about Maggie. But if I do that, shall I be ‘I’ at all, in any important sense? Surely the surviving thing could not be ‘I’ if it cared no more for Maggie, if it looked askance at the whole loveliness and horror of this world, and the whole struggle of mankind. And yet — suppose, when one entered another sphere of being, one were to see clearly that any harking back to this world was a desertion of the other world, and that the spirit must be expressed independently in each? Who knows! But the one supreme thing is sure — the intrinsic and paramount excellence of the spirit, and its fundamental identity in all worlds. Whatever our individual fate, this is enough to make our lives worth while.”

“As for me, I find myself entirely reconciled to any of the fates that are surmised. My expectation, on the whole, is that when I have died there will be no actual ‘I’ Victor Smith,’ any more; though perhaps some queer fragments of my memories may haunt people in this world for a while, like disembodied dreams flitting from mind to mind. But this is unimportant.

“Well, there it is! Goodbye, Harry! Whatever happens, the universe contains you and me eternally as two individual fibres in its texture, and as their friendly contact. Those Oxford days of ours are part of eternity; so are your forbearance and kindness on my abortive wedding day, and all your patience, including your reading of this rather chaotic letter. Enjoy your life’s autumn! In a way I am sorry to miss the last phase, for it might be the best of all. But no matter! All’s well.

“Good luck, and goodbye!”

“Victor”

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