A Man Divided, by Olaf Stapledon


Victor’s Early Life

From 1890 to 1912

THAT SAME AFTERNOON, while I was in my bedroom at the hotel, packing my hired clothes, and wondering how Victor was dealing with the parents, he came in dressed in an old tweed coat and flannels. He flung himself into the easy chair and said, “Thank God, oh, thank God, that’s over! How wise of me, quite unconsciously wise, to fetch you along to be best man. You were a sort of touchstone, or the alarm clock that woke me.”

While I was pondering this, and mechanically packing, he changed the subject. “Harry, old man,” he said, “don’t go home yet, unless you must. The least I can do after getting you into this mess is to tell you more about myself. It’s rather urgent, because I may go back into my sleep-life at any minute. If you can spare a few hours, let’s walk somewhere.”

This suggestion itself was surprising, Victor normally despised the humblest form of physical exercise. Tennis, rugger, swimming, he enjoyed; and in all of them he was competent, in some brilliant. Walking he regarded as a mug’s game. It was a means of transport to be resorted to only when his sports car was off the road.

And now, though the car was available to take us quickly into open country, he asked me, rather sheepishly, if I should mind going by bus. Sensing my surprise, he added, “You see, the car means the other life, the sleep-walker’s life, and so it — well, it gives me the creeps.”

How I remember that bus journey of nearly thirty years ago! The bus was crowded, and we had to stand. The solid tyres chattered our teeth together like dice in a box. When the conductor came for our fares, Victor surprised me by muddling the transaction. The conductor, with unspoken contempt, handed back the superfluous coins. Victor looked at them, not with the shame of the business man who had fallen short of the sacred virtue of business efficiency, but with a laugh which seemed to express relief at his own carelessness. He then became entirely absorbed in watching our fellow passengers, with the same wide-eyed fascination as he had displayed in the vestry. He stared so hard and so unselfconsciously that people began to grow restive and resentful. He was particularly attentive to a comfortable body with an amiable face, who finally remarked with an attempt at severity, “Young man, control your eyes!” Suddenly realizing that he was not behaving correctly, Victor chuckled and said in a breezy voice, “Sorry! You mustn’t mind me. I’ve been — well I’ve been asleep for several months, and it’s so exciting to see people again; real people, and not just dreams.” A florid man, who evidently considered himself a wag, remarked, “They’ve let you out too soon, lad. If I were you I’d take the next bus back.” There was a general titter. Victor grinned; then winked, as he nudged me and said, “It’s all right. My keeper’s with me.”

At the terminus we set out along a suburban street that presently became more like a country road. Then came a path through woods and fields. At last Victor began to tell me the strange facts about himself which threw light not only on his conduct at the church but also on my earlier relations with him. But while part of his mind was occupied with recounting his biography, another part seemed to be intensely concentrated in his senses. With alert eyes he looked about him at the scenery. Sometimes he would stop to examine a leaf or a beetle as though he had never seen such a thing before, or pause at a stile to run his fingers curiously, lovingly, along the grain of the wood, or dabble his hand in a stream with childish delight, or sniff the complicated fragrance of a handful of earth. Once, when a woodpecker called, he stood still to listen. “What’s that bird?” he asked. “What a lot I miss in my sleep-life!”

All this was notable enough in itself, but far more so to anyone who knew Victor’s customary indifference to all, such commonplace experiences. Normally his interest was almost wholly limited to motors, sport, business, feminine charm, and the stability of society. His only other subject was human character, which he judged with a quick eye for a man’s less reputable motives, and no eye at all for his personality as a whole. This, at least, was the case with Victor in his normal mood; but if this had been the whole Victor, I should never have grown to admire him.

I shall report as much as I can reconstruct of our memorable conversation on that walk, but probably I shall fail to convey my vivid impression of Victor’s quickened vitality and intelligence, or the sense of his anxiety to make full use of his brief spell of lucidity while it lasted. However, I shall not miss any important facts, for I subsequently persuaded him to help me to write fairly full notes about all that he told me.

“Well,” he said, plunging at the root of the matter, “I am apparently some sort of divided personality, but a queer sort; and up to today I have never said a word about it to anyone. My first waking up, so far as I know, was at my prep school. It was only a half-waking, and it lasted only for a minute or I so, but it was something startlingly new to me. I had been, charged with circulating smutty drawings, and really I hadn’t even seen the things. The Head lectured me on smut and on lying, and then whacked me. The whacking stung me into life, or stung me awake. After about the third stroke the pain suddenly became much more violent than it had been, and I began to yell, having been the proper little silent Englishman up to that point. I bolted for the door, but the Head caught me. For a moment we faced one another, he with a horrible look that I couldn’t understand at the time, but it seemed all wrong. It reminded me of our dog when I found him guzzling a beefsteak in the larder, growling hideously while he went on gulping the stuff down. I was so startled by the Head’s new face that I let out a throat-breaking scream, and tried to bash him on the nose. You see, faces had been just masks before that waking, and now here was one that turned into a window with a soul looking out of it, and a soul (I vaguely felt) in a very terrible state. I remember quite distinctly feeling all in a flash that God almighty had turned out to be just a filthy monster. I yelled out ‘Beast! Why do you like hurting me?’ Then I think I must have fainted, for I can’t remember anything more. Needless to say, I was expelled.”

Victor fell silent, contemplating the past with his twisted smile. When I asked him whether the waking came often after that incident, he remained silent. We were now leaning over the rail of a footbridge above a stream, and Victor was all the while intently watching several fishes that were dimly visible in the dark water.

“My mind,” he suddenly said, “is like this stream. When I am my real self it’s clear right to the bottom, with all sorts of live things moving about at different levels. When I am that I thick-headed snob, the water is muddy. Awake, I can look down into my mind and see every little minnow of a desire, every little sprat of a thought, busily nosing about, feeding and growing, or fading into old age, or being hunted down and swallowed up by stronger creatures. Yes, and when I am fully awake, I can not only see them but control them, tame them, order them, all to do as I will, make them dance to my tune; ‘I’ being always a something outside the water, or floating on its surface. The image breaks down, but perhaps you see what I mean. In the dream-life I am the sport of those creatures (or at least of some of them) that come nosing up through the opaque water, pushing me hither and thither with the swirl of their lashing tails, and sometimes threatening to swallow me, my real self. In fact, they do sometimes completely swallow my real self. Over and over again I have simply been completely identified with one or other of those brutes. Do you see what I mean?”

“Partly,” I said; and again I asked if the waking state happened often.

“Not often, but more frequently as time goes on. And it tends to last longer, and also to be more thorough.” He sighed, and said, “Perhaps some day I shall be permanently awake. But I hardly dare hope for that. For the present, full waking comes seldom, and never lasts long, just long enough to get me into the most distressing scrapes, and then, let the wretched dreamer suffer for it. Once, when I was about seventeen, I woke when I was persecuting some miserable fag. I was taking a high moral line with him over some very small crime of his, and leading sadistically up to a thrashing. Suddenly I saw the kid as a live human person, and at the same time I caught a terrifying glimpse of myself as the cad I was. I saw as clear as daylight what was happening in my own mind. The affair with the Head of my prep. school had roused an ugly monster from some dark cranny at the bottom of the river, and this creature had been ranging about ever since, devouring a lot of harmless small-fry, and growing fat and strong, unseen under the muddy water. The sudden waking seemed to be due to the commotion caused by this brute even on the surface of my mind. The danger woke me, and in a flash I saw right down into the depths. I can remember the unendurable shame of waking to find myself behaving so disgustingly. I forget exactly what happened in consequence. But I can remember being so upset that I said, ‘Gosh I How you must hate me, Johnson minor, and quite right too!’ Then I actually wrote a note telling him if ever he saw me being a cad again he must remind me how, when I did it before, I woke up and was sorry. I signed the thing and gave it him. Naturally the kid was bewildered by my sudden change, and frightened, I think. But he took the note: Well, a few days later he had an excellent opportunity of using it, and he did use it. In my somnolent, doltish phase, I couldn’t remember a thing about the earlier, awake phase. When he showed me the note I had written and signed, I was confident it was a forgery. Of course I was furious. And of course I regarded his behaviour as insufferable cheek. With great gusto I whacked him. Naturally this incident was soon known to the whole school. I used to be frightfully popular, being good at games and correct about school etiquette. But this affair broke my popularity completely. Everyone despised and distrusted me. And as popularity was my ruling passion (though I didn’t know it), I went through agonies trying to restore my position. Sometimes I half succeeded. But always, just when everything seemed going well, I would wake up for a few minutes and do something outrageous, so that the fat was in the fire all over again.”

Victor fell silent, gazing down into the stream, with folded arms on the rail of the bridge. Suddenly he stood upright, with a laugh that was also a sigh, stretching himself as though in relief after some kind of bondage. We moved along the path. “Tell me,” I said, “when you say you saw the kid as a live human person, what do you really mean? Telepathy?”

“No, no! Perhaps telepathy may have something to do with it sometimes, but mainly it’s just a heightening of imaginative insight. The other person’s tone of voice and facial expression, the whole smell of him, so to speak, suddenly flash a meaning at me. Johnson minor suddenly became a vivid picture of a desperately perplexed and frightened little person. And also I saw myself with the same imaginative penetration. I saw myself as he saw me, and indeed very much more clearly than he could possibly have seen me.”

“You see,” he said, looking round at me with an open smile which was impossible to the normal Victor, “it’s not only other people that come clear, and not only my own mind, but everything. To pursue the metaphor, not only the stream turns limpid, but the banks, the fields, the people in them, the sky, the whole universe become — yes, limpid. I see into everything, in a sense. Not, of course, spatially, like X-rays. Not mystically either, seeing God in them, or what not. Rather, instead of being just coloured shapes, they become bewilderingly pregnant symbols; pregnant with whatever was relevant to them in my past experience. That’s it! The wretched Johnson minor’s puckered brows and quivering lip suddenly flooded me with all my forgotten experience of such things, and with anew, shattering insight into their meaning in terms of the mental suffering of Johnson himself, there and then.”

I think it was at this point that Victor bent down to watch a violent drama that had staged itself in a cobweb strung between the tall grasses beside our path. But he did not stop talking. “Sometimes,” he said, “I seem able to trace the waking to some event outside myself. It’s the impact of experience that shakes me into life — Johnson minor’s struggle not to blub, or the conjunction of you and Edith and the marriage service. The sight of this spider preparing its dinner might do the trick, if ever my sleep-walking self could stoop to notice such things. God! what a spectacle it is, isn’t it!” He jerked out an almost frightened laugh. “See how he’s tying up the wretched fly like a struggling parcel! Over and over the string goes, and tighter and tighter. And the poor devil goes on buzzing, steadily as a machine. Ha! There’s one of his wings roped now. And he’s getting tired. It’s like catching a lion in a net in the Sahara, or one of those gladiatorial duels with net and sword. Now the whole string bag is finished, and next comes the feasting.”

Another question occurred to me. “When you slipped back into the dream-life after the Johnson minor incident, you had no idea (as you said) of what had happened in the wide-awake state. Then, is the waking state also vague about the events of the dreaming state. For instance, have you now forgotten what happened before you ‘woke’ in the church this morning?”

“No, no!” He laughed rather bitterly. “In the wide-awake life I remember the sleep-walker life with most distressing clarity, and often in far more detail than the somnambulist could notice when things were actually happening. I remember it all not only more clearly but in a new light, from a new angle. For instance, I remember damning you brutally yesterday because you had booked us several three-star hotels instead of the four-star ones I had demanded for the honeymoon tour. And I remember, too, what I did not notice at the time, namely that your look of contrition had also a tinge of disgust and contempt about it. Now, of course, my outburst fills me with unutterable shame. At least it does, and it doesn’t; because when I look harder at the memory it doesn’t really seem mine at all, not something I did, but something that stupid snob did, who shares my body. Then again, I remember saying ‘good-night’ to Edith on the evening before the wedding. The greedy-respectful kiss, and the soapy remarks! Now, it makes me shudder, both for myself and for her. I wonder just how much damage that fool somnambulist has done to her. What I did to her, breaking off the match, was just the pain of a necessary operation. It had to be. (But, oh, I hope she gets through with it quickly.) What he did was to keep on for months poisoning her with his insincerity and false values. Yes! The memory of last night’s ‘goodnight’ makes me go hot all over. Then, I (if I must say ‘I’ and not ‘he’) thought of myself as the romantic lover, worshipping the beloved as a being of superior calibre, almost divine; and ready to live for her all the rest of my life. But looking back, I see precisely what was happening in my mind, and it’s not at all edifying. Of course there was plenty of good healthy physical lust for Edith’s extremely seductive body; but it was presented to the somnambulist not as lust at all but as the physical consequence of my adoration of her pure spirit. Now, it makes me squirm. And what sort of a pure spirit has she, poor girl? No doubt, deep down inside her there’s a little smothered germ of honesty and generosity, the true and pure Edith. But it hardly ever manages to express itself, because of the loads of false conventions and false values overlying it. And while I was protesting my selfless devotion to her as a person, what I was actually thinking (though I didn’t notice it) was that she was an excellent match for me, well trained in all the antics of our sort of people, perhaps rather ‘better class’ than myself, thoroughly presentable, something to show off with complacency. But far from worshipping her, I felt that I was definitely better stuff in a way, and that she was really only raw material for me to work up into a first-class partner. Sometimes, for instance, she had shown a tendency to think for herself. That sort of thing mustn’t be allowed. Her function was to be the adoring and helpful wife.”

He paused, then concluded, “So you see my wide-awake self does very clearly remember the experiences of the other. If it didn’t it wouldn’t have any background at all. It would be merely an infant mind. The actual sum of its existence has been far shorter than the other’s.”

“Do you mean it’s never active for more than a few minutes or hours?”

“Sometimes days, even weeks; and its spells grow longer as I grow older. For the present, at any rate. But I can’t help fearing that the general stiffening that sets in in middle age will reverse the process. Now let me get back to my story. My first really important spell of wide-awake living was brought on by you, in our third year at Oxford, when we first got to know each other.”

“Now,” I interrupted, “I understand why you were so inconsequent; first stand-offish, then friendly, then cold again.”

“It began,” he said, “after that bump supper, when some of us, all a bit tight, invaded your room. Instead of taking it lying down, you had the cheek to make a fuss, so we began chucking things out of the window into the quad. You actually put up a fight, which was surprising and amusing, because we had always regarded you as a worm. You had come from some bloody little unheard-of grammar school, and you had an accent like the mud on a provincial street. We weren’t going to stand cheek from that sort. No doubt you remember, when you were being I held down, I stared at you as offensively as I could, and said you reminded me of my hosier. It was then that I came awake. It was your pinched little face that did it. Instead of seeing you as just a type, and a despised type, I suddenly saw you, as I had seen Johnson minor. Somehow I saw you being torn between contempt for us all and irrational envy and self-abasement. And I saw how horribly hurt you were, not simply by our brutality but by your own involuntary treason to yourself.”

Interrupting Victor, I said, “I can distinctly remember how your face suddenly changed. Your eyes opened wide with surprise, and your mouth too. Then you turned away with an odd, awkward little laugh. You picked up a book, and sat on the arm of the easy chair, apparently reading.”

“Yes, but really I was just feeling mortally ashamed.”

“Then suddenly you shut the book, gently, and laid it on the table, and said something about this being pretty caddish, really, and what about stopping it. Then there was an argument, but finally your gang took itself off; and you — it struck me as odd at the time — stayed behind to help me clear up the mess. Remember? First I tried to push you off with the others, and then when you began to go, meek as a lamb, I suddenly changed my mind. What a grind it was, wasn’t it, fetching the damaged books and furniture from the quad up the staircase to the top floor.”

“Yes, and when we had finished, you offered me cocoa! Cocoa! My God! To me, who considered myself one of the bloods! But I had the sense to accept, for I was thoroughly awake by then. And it was a damned good drink, too. And we sat there talking till the small hours, till you nearly fell asleep. Then I borrowed your Bateson’s Heredity and took it off to my own room. By breakfast time I had just about finished it. That first talk we had was an eye-opener to me. Do you remember how we leapt about from heredity to socialism, religion, astronomy, like a couple of monkeys swinging from branch to branch. Monkeying with the universe! You had the advantage of far greater knowledge, and I had an absolutely fresh, innocent zest.”

“And a diabolical quick-wittedness,” I added, “an intelligence that frightened me.”


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