A Man Divided, by Olaf Stapledon

7

Uncertain Happiness

From 1921 to 1924

VICTOR TOLD ME that when he had established himself in his job, he formed a habit of going over to see Maggie every few weeks. They became increasingly friendly, and their friendship (so Maggie subsequently told me) opened up new mental horizons for her. She had always been something of a reader, but her tastes were very undeveloped. Victor introduced her to contemporary writing; and though at first she found much of it exasperating, or too difficult, or downright horrid, she soon, with his help, began to understand what writers like D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce were trying to do. She was driven on by her predilection for the modern; but she did not allow herself to be hypnotized by literary fashion. A fundamental sincerity and common sense saved her from persuading herself that she appreciated, or even that she understood, works that were beyond her.

Of T. S. Eliot, she said that it all sounded marvellous, but she couldn’t make head or tail of it. The scientific fantasies and sociological novels of Wells she could understand, and she read them with zest, and a sense of mind-stretching; but also, she said, with a vague feeling that the whole of this “modern wisdom” was somehow incomplete, perhaps superficial. When Victor introduced her to Freud, she had reacted first with revulsion, then with an exciting sense of emancipation, and finally with mingled enthusiasm and suspicion. “I can see,” she told Victor, “that we are more or less what Freud says we are; but I just can’t believe that is all there is to us.” It was the same with Marxism. She could not bring herself to read more than the Communist Manifesto; but Victor’s own account of Marxist theories fascinated her. It made her realize for the first time the power of economic conditions over men’s minds and actions. But again she had a nagging suspicion. “It’s all terribly clever,” she said, “and I suppose it’s true. But — there must be another truth, too, of a different sort. I mean — people are not just like what he says they are.”

Victor also passed on to her in their many talks a great deal of scrappy scientific and historical information that had never before come her way; information about human evolution, Mendelian laws of heredity, prehistory, the new theories of the structure of atoms, the life-story of stars, and of the great nebulae. Sometimes he overdid it. He would ramble on, absorbed in his own intellectual interests, so that she lost the thread, and her attention would wander. Presently she would break in on his monologue with some bit of frivolity, to bring him back to earth. Then, she told me, she could feel a momentary shock pass through his mind; but almost at once he would adjust himself to her mood. Never was he hurt or superior. Often he was apologetic for his “prosiness.” Latterly, as they became more sensitive to each other, he would himself break off into lighter talk before she had begun to tire. As time passed, she became less easily tired, more determined to worry through to the heart of each subject.

He sometimes put her into a state of fascinated bewilderment by sketchy references to the new physical theories of relativity and the quantum. He himself had absorbed a good deal on these subjects in his scanty spare time, and I have no doubt that he had a gift for presenting it in a vivid way. Maggie herself, though of course she could not follow complicated mathematical arguments, was evidently enthralled by the new picture of the universe that was gradually presented to her. And the scientific attitude itself seems to have been very attractive to her. This, she felt, was the real “modern spirit” that she had always longed to master. Just what she meant by the “modern spirit,” she probably could not have said. She might have called it common sense and contempt for superstition. Much later she would have described it as a blend of common sense, daring imagination and rigorous intellectual integrity. Seeing it through Victor’s mind, she saw it at its best. And with his help, and her own freshness of approach, she saw also its snares.

The upshot of all this strange “course in modern thought,” that Victor gave her, was that she came to grasp something of what her Great–Aunt Abigail had meant when she said that the old wisdom and the new wisdom were both necessary and each incomplete without the other.

During this period her relationship with Victor was almost entirely “platonic,” a warm friendship, with the sexual aspect kept well in the background. Sometimes they walked arm-inarm or hand-inhand. Sometimes, when they said “goodbye,” she would allow herself to be kissed, and he would respond (she said) with thrilling gentleness but without trace of passion. Little by little she realized that this very odd kind of courtship was having a deep effect on her. Victor became the dominant factor in her life, and she looked forward with impatience to every visit. Moreover, toward him she felt none of that revulsion against physical contact that she had acquired from her unfortunate experiences in Scotland. On the contrary, she found herself longing for greater physical intimacy with Victor.

Yet for many months he remained more like a devoted brother than a lover. Well on in the second year of their acquaintance she herself began to make shy advances. She would cling to his hand, lean enticingly against him, permit herself a new ardour in the parting kiss. But though he certainly never rebuffed her, he responded always with affection rather than passion. Once more the bitter suspicion arose in her mind that he was after all not really physically attracted by her, even if he was not actually repelled. Bewildered and hurt, she ceased to try to “make things easy for him,” and even went so far as to adopt a colder manner, and to refuse ostentatiously even the slight physical contact that he offered. On the rare occasions when he took her hand, she withdrew it.

I learned from Victor himself, in our conversation in my hotel, that his policy had been deliberate. At first, suspecting that she had had unhappy sexual experiences, he determined to win her affection without making any sexual advances to her. Later a new motive confirmed him in this policy of refraining from wooing her. Already before the time when she herself had begun to treat him more warmly, he was becoming painfully aware that his awake personality was, after all, not as securely established as he had supposed. And in these circumstances he felt that he must not take advantage of her new disposition. Indeed, he even thought of putting an end to his visits. But the trouble was as yet slight, and he persuaded himself that so drastic a course was not necessary. (This decision, he confessed to me, was too easily reached, and therefore itself an indication that he was no longer in his most fully lucid state.)

He had been seriously overworking, and he was sometimes desperately tired. At these times he suffered from fierce head-aches, which always ended in an irresistible “attack of sleepiness.” The dread that if he did sleep he might wake up as “the other” drove him to resist sleep to the utmost of his power. He would read or write far into the night, and in the end collapse into heavy sleep in his chair. Several times he remained in this condition till the afternoon of the following day, when he awoke cold, frightened, and unrefreshed. The very fact that he was frightened added to his fright; for when he was really awake he could regard every kind of danger, even the danger of slipping back into his old self, with lofty detachment. He noted also that when he re-examined any work that he had done on the previous evening, it generally seemed to be of poor quality. His only comfort was that, tired and distressed as he was, he at no time lost his grip on the true values. He never reverted to the conventional and snobbish values of the Dolt.

In consequence of this change of his condition, then, Victor was determined not to let himself make love to Maggie. He could not tolerate the thought that she should become entangled with the Dolt. On the other hand, he felt an increased need for her company. And always, when he had seen her, he found himself immediately restored to full clarity of mind. The bracing effect of her presence lasted for several weeks. But sooner or later the trouble would return. After each attack he longed uncontrollably for her; and this very passion, he suspected, was itself evidence that even after the attack had passed, he was not fully himself. For in his most lucid mood, though he longed with equal ardour, his detachment, his fundamental dispassion, enabled him to stand outside his passion and control it. But after an attack, he was so transported with longing for Maggie, that he had no thought but to arrange a meeting with her as soon as possible. Until he found himself actually in her presence he could think of nothing but her, and his own desperate need of her. Yet, strangely, as soon as he reached her, the fog vanished from his mind, and he was completely self-possessed. Though indeed he longed to hold her closely to him and kiss her with ardour, he was entirely capable of treating her with the usual calm friendliness. To do more than this, he felt, would be utterly base.

When Maggie began to make it obvious that warmer treatment would be acceptable, the effect was to make Victor realize even more clearly that it would be unfair to respond. But he was in a dilemma. Things had by now gone too far. If he were to tell her frankly that his grip on himself was weakening, and that he must therefore keep away from her, she might well (since she was of a generous and courageous nature) give herself to him when he was recovering from an attack and unable to control his passion for her.

Another policy suggested itself. He might deliberately give her the impression that he no longer loved her, and so compel her to free herself. But again, he knew that after each attack he would vitiate this plan by clamouring for her. Moreover, he found, to his own surprise, that to deny his love for her was somehow morally repugnant to him. Vaguely he felt that it would be a violation of something more important even than Maggie’s happiness. The thing that he had hoped for, their spiritual unity (as he called it) had already been conceived in their deepening friendship. To destroy this by acting a lie to her, even for her own individual comfort, would be murder of something spiritually vital. Besides, he told himself, even from the point of view of her individual happiness, this ruthless policy would not really succeed. Already she was deeply dependent on him. To break with her would be not merely to inflict on her a period of sharp distress but also to make her feel for ever after that love, even in its fullest expression, was after all open to decay. Such a feeling, coming on top of her past unhappy experiences, might well turn her into an embittered cynic.

Victor spent much of his precious time with Maggie brooding on his dilemma; and this absorption no doubt increased her impression of his aloofness.

The crisis came after a particularly bad attack. He woke from his heavy sleep late in the afternoon; too late to catch the train to an outlying town where he was due to take one of his weekly classes. He woke in a state of overwhelming depression. He was conscious, too, while he was lying between sleep and waking, of a definite revulsion against his whole present life and all his interests. He felt a vague, guilty nostalgia for his former circumstances. Realizing the significance of this little experience, he sprang from his bed in terror that his lucid personality was at last being submerged. But he was still more or less himself; though distraught, and so not himself at his best.

He took a cold bath, dressed, shaved, asked his motherly landlady to give him a meal, and telephoned to the university to say that he was ill and could not keep his appointment. After his meal he wrote a long and emotional letter to Maggie, explaining his past coolness and his present plight, and imploring her to save him and herself by coming to live with him. He also said that he would visit her in a couple of days (on her next free afternoon), so that they could talk the whole matter over and make the necessary arrangements. He ended with passionate endearments, and the statement, “I need you desperately; and you, me. If you come to me, you may suffer terribly, but you will live.”

The receipt of this letter naturally threw Maggie into a state of violent agitation. It was no use to write to him, as he would have left his lodgings before the letter could reach him. When he arrived, she was waiting for him in the little crowd at the exit from the platform. He dropped his bag, seized her in his arms, and pressed his lips hungrily to hers. She responded without reserve, and broke down in tears. The crowd tried not to watch them. It was Victor who disengaged himself, with a heavy sigh. They walked off arm-inarm, with her hand clinging to his. “Oh, why, why,” she said, “didn’t you tell me about it long ago?” By now Victor had regained full clarity, and was deeply regretting his letter. After a silence, he said, “You must forget all that I wrote to you. At least you must ignore it. I was not myself. I was grossly exaggerating. Now that I am with you, I am properly awake again, and I see how silly I was. The letter simply wasn’t written by me, but by some sort of sleepy half-me. In the train I was longing, longing to have you, and I didn’t care how bad it would be for you. But now I see that I mustn’t drag you down with me. And I mustn’t win you by appealing for your pity. No, the whole thing makes me squirm, now.” She was protesting. “No! no! You have got it all wrong. You must let me come to you and help you. My life is meaningless without you.” But he insisted that he must fight his own battle, and that he would win through; and that when he was quite right again, he would come back to her, and ask her to marry him, and she would be able to choose freely. She replied that she had already made up her mind to join with him. She added, “And don’t you see, the harm is done. We are far too tangled up together for me to live without you, whatever happens. I shall come right away with you now, and stick to you through everything.” He said he could not possibly risk her finding herself married to the Dolt. “But, my dear,” she said, “we needn’t get married. We are married at heart now. We’ll fix things with the law later, when we have won through, and children are coming.” But Victor was immovable. “I should never forgive myself,” he said, “and my shame would spoil everything for us.”

Maggie tried a new line. She said, “You are simply too proud. I don’t believe you do really love me, after all. If you did, you would be glad to let me help you. You love your proud self more than me. You want to let me stay stranded and miserable and useless, just so that you can prove that you don’t depend on anybody. The Victor that I love is not the proud one but the one that cried to me for help.” This remark shook him. But he said, “It’s not myself that I love better than you; it’s — well it’s — O God, I don’t know! It’s something not me and yet in me, using me; something I must be true to at all costs, ‘I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honour more.’ But it’s not honour merely. It’s — some would say ‘God’ but I don’t know anything about God. It’s — well, the spirit. I must not sin against the spirit. And you mustn’t want me to.”

This conversation was carried on in undertones as they sat with their heads together in the bus that was taking them out to their usual haunts. On the walk itself he tried in vain to lead her off into impersonal matters, but she kept reverting to their problem. Before they parted he promised that he would be more careful not to overtire himself, and he explained that he was going to practise a “new technique of mental discipline” which he felt sure would strengthen him. He added, “You have strengthened me immensely today. Now that I know you know all about it, I feel I shall never slip again.” But she clung to his hand, and wailed, “I want to help, I do so want to help by being with you always.” She made him promise that if he felt that he was not succeeding with his task, he would tell her, and let her come to him at once, before the danger threatened too seriously. He readily promised, and pointed out that in the confused state after an attack he apparently could not help rushing to her. And then, looking into her strange slate-and-russet eyes, he said, “Powerful witch! You had cast your spell on me even before I met you. I think, too, that it was your magic that saved me when I so nearly tied myself to Edith. It was the sight of you at breakfast that did the trick, repulsive creature though you seemed to me then. And it is your magic that jerks me fully awake when I meet you after my attacks.” He kissed her hand, and added, “But remember, you must keep your magic off me for a bit, till I have regained my self-respect.” She agreed, but with misgiving. During this little speech, Maggie had thought of her great-aunt’s never wholly forgotten prophecy. She wondered.

All she said was, but with the tenderest smile (so he told me), “Proud, selfish man! You don’t really know what love is. I do. Once I didn’t, but now I do. You taught me; and yet you don’t really know, yourself. If you really, really loved me, you wouldn’t stand on your dignity. You’d just say, ‘Look! We are in for a bad time together, but we’ll win through together. And even if we don’t, it’s together we must face the disaster’.” But he replied, “No, my dear, you don’t understand. When I first saw you, we met as equals. I did not know how weak I was. But now — I know I’m morally sick, and I must conquer the devil in me with my own strength before I can meet you as an equal once more.” To this she replied, “My father used to tell us that man could never save himself with his own strength alone. If he could, my father said, it would be bad for him, because it would make him proud; and so, after all, he would be damned. Father used to say it was Christ’s work alone to save us.” Victor thought for a moment, before saying, “I do see that there’s important truth in the old view. I can only be saved by something other than just me; but by something universal, not by another person, not even by you and your magic. Only the spirit itself can save me; and only by simply revealing itself to me more commandingly.”

It was time to part. Lowering his face toward her, he said, “One kiss might be allowed the patient, don’t you think?” Their lips met. She said, “I shall pray for you. I don’t think I believe in God, but I must pray for you.” He smiled, and stepped into the train.

Victor went back to his work greatly refreshed and strengthened. For a month or so, in fact till the end of the winter, all went well. He wrote to her often, and welcomed her letters; but he did not go to see her. He was careful not to overstrain himself, and he pursued his “unorthodox spiritual discipline,” by which he hoped to banish “the Dolt” into the dungeon of his unconscious for ever. He did not tell me much about this new technique, beyond saying that it involved concentrating his attention on the “spirit” at frequent intervals throughout the day, and practising certain spiritual exercises every night before going to bed, and while he was falling asleep. He gave up the policy of resisting sleep. On the contrary, he allowed himself as much as he wanted, which in his lucid state was seldom more than four hours, and generally much less. He told Maggie that the attacks had ceased, that he hoped to be secure in a couple of months, and that he was longing to see her.

Then suddenly the stream of his brief letters ended. She continued to write to him, imploring him for news; but vainly.

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