Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 12

John in the Wilderness

JOHN said that when he had begun to realize the tragic futility of Homo sapiens he was seized with “a panicky sense of doom.” and along with that “a passion of loneliness.” He felt more lonely in the presence of others than in isolation. At the same time, apparently, something strange was happening to his own mind. At first he thought perhaps he was going mad, but clung to the faith that he was after all merely growing up. Anyhow he was convinced that he must cut right adrift and face this upheaval in himself undisturbed, It was as though a grub were to feel premonitions of dissolution and regeneration, and to set purposefully about protecting itself with a cocoon.

Further, if I understood him, he felt spiritually contaminated by contact with the civilization of Homo sapiens. He felt he must for a while at least strip away every vestige of it from his own person, face the universe in absolute nakedness, prove that he could stand by himself, without depending in any way whatever on the primitive and debased creatures who dominated the planet. At first I thought this hunger for the simple life was merely an excuse for a boyish adventure, but now I realize that it did have for him a grave importance which I could only dimly comprehend.

Of some such kind were the motives that drove him into the wildest region of this island. The thoroughness with which he carried out his plan amazed me. He simply walked out of a Highland railway station, had a good meal in an inn, strode up on to the moors toward the high mountains, and, when he judged himself safe from interruption, took off all his clothes, including his shoes, and buried them in a hole among the rocks. He then took his bearings carefully, so as to be able to recover his property in due season, and moved away in his nakedness, seeking food and shelter in the wilderness.

His first days were evidently a terrible ordeal. The weather turned wet and cold. John, it must be remembered, was an extremely hardy creature, and he had prepared himself for this adventure by a course of exposure, and by studying beforehand all possible means of securing food in the valleys and moors of Scotland without so much as a knife or a piece of string to aid him. But fate was at first against him. The bad weather made shelter a necessity, and in seeking it he had to spend much time that might otherwise have been spent in the search for food.

He passed the first night under a projecting rock, wrapped in heather and grass that he had collected before the weather broke. Next day he caught a frog, dismembered it with a sharp stone, and ate it raw. He also ate large quantities of dandelion leaves, and other green stuff which from previous study he knew to be edible. Certain fungi, too, contributed to his diet on that day, and indeed throughout his adventure. On the second day he was feeling “pretty queer.” On the third evening he was in a high fever, with a bad cough and diarrhoea. On the previous day, foreseeing possible illness, he had greatly improved his shelter, and laid by a store of such food as he considered least indigestible. For some days, he didn’t know how long, he lay desperately sick, scarcely able to crawl to the stream for water. “I must have been delirious at one time,” he said, “because I seemed to have a visit from Pax. Then I came to and found there wasn’t any Pax, and I thought I was dying, and I loved myself desperately, knowing I was indeed a rare bright thing. And it was torture to be just wasted like that. And then that unspeakable joy came, that joy of seeing things as it were through God’s eyes, and finding them after all right, fitting, in the picture.” There followed a few days of convalescence, during which, he said, “I seemed to have lost touch completely with all the motives of my adventure. I just lay and wondered why I had been such a self-important fool. Fortunately, before I was strong enough to crawl back to civilization I lashed myself into facing this spiritual decay. For even in my most abject state I vaguely knew that somewhere there was another ‘I’, and a better one. Well, I set my teeth and determined to go on with the job even if it killed me.”

Soon after he had come to this decision some local boys with a dog came up the hill right on to his hiding-place. He leapt up and fled. They must have caught a glimpse of his small naked figure, for they gave chase, hallooing excitedly. As soon as he was on his feet he realized that his legs were like water. He collapsed. “But then,” he said, “I suddenly managed to tap some deep reserve of vitality, so to speak. I simply jumped up and ran like hell round a corner of hillside, and farther, to a rocky place. There I climbed a pretty bad pitch into a hole I knew of and had counted on. Then I must have fainted. In fact, I think I must have lain unconscious for almost twenty-four hours, for when I came to, the sun seemed to have gone back to early morning. I was cold as death, and one huge ache, and so weak I couldn’t move from the twisted position I was in.”

Later in the day he managed to crawl back to his lair, and with great difficulty moved his bedding to a safer but less comfortable spot. The weather was now hot and bright. For ten days or so he spent nearly all his time creeping about in search of frogs, lizards, snails, birds’ eggs and green stuff, or just lying in the sun recovering his strength. Sometimes he managed to catch a few fish by “tickling” them in a pool in the river. The whole of one day he spent in trying to get a flame by striking sparks from stones on a handful of dry grass. At last he succeeded, and began to cook his meal, in an ecstasy of pride and anticipation. Suddenly he noticed a man, far away but obviously interested in the smoke of his fire. He put it out at once and decided to go much farther into the wilds.

Meanwhile, though his feet had been hardened with long practice at home, they were now terribly sore, and quite unfit for “a walking tour.” He made moccasins out of ropes of twisted grass which he bound round his feet and ankles. They kept in place for a while, but were always either coming undone or wearing through. After many days of exploration, and several nights without shelter, two of which were wet, he found the high cave where later the climbers discovered him. “It was only just in time,” he said. “I was in a pretty bad state. Feet swollen and bleeding, ghastly cough, diarrhoea. But in that cave I soon felt snugger than I had ever felt in my life, by contrast with the past few weeks. I made myself a lovely bed, and a fireplace, and I felt fairly safe from intrusion, because mine was a remote mountain, and anyhow very few people could climb those rocks. Not far below there were grouse and ptarmigan; and deer. On my first morning, sitting in the sun on my roof, positively happy, I watched a herd of them crossing a moor, stepping so finely, ears spread, heads high.”

The deer seem to have become his chief interest for a while. He was fascinated by their beauty and freedom. True, they now depended for their existence on a luxurious civilization; but equally they had existed before there was any civilization at all. Moreover, he coveted the huge material wealth that the slaughter of one stag would afford him. And he had apparently a queer lust to try his strength and cunning against a worthy quarry. For at this time he was content to be almost wholly the primitive hunter, “though with a recollection, away at the back of my mind, that all this was just a process of getting clean in spirit for a very different enterprise.”

For ten days or so he did little but devise means for catching birds and hares, and spent all spare time in resting, recuperating, and brooding over the deer. His first hare, caught after many failures, he took by arranging a trap in its runway. A huge stone was precariously held in position by a light stick, which the creature dislodged. Its back was broken. But a fox ate most of it in the night. From its skin, however, he made a rough bow-string, also soles and thongs for his foot-gear. By splitting its thigh bones and filing them on the rock he made some fragile little knives to help him in preparing his food. Also he made some minute sharp arrowheads. With a diversity of traps, and his toy bow and arrows, and vast patience and aptitude, he managed to secure enough game to restore him to normal strength. Practically his whole time was spent in hunting, trapping, cooking, making little tools of bone or wood or stone. Every night he rolled himself in his grass bedding dead tired, but at peace. Sometimes he took his bedding outside the cave and slept on a ledge of the precipice, under stars and driving cloud.

But there were the deer; and beyond them the spiritual problem which was the real motive of his adventure, and had not yet been consciously faced at all. It was clear that if he did not greatly improve his way of life, he would have no time for that concentrated meditation and spiritual exercise which he so greatly needed. The killing of the stag became a symbol for him. The thought of it stirred unwonted feelings in him. “It was as though all the hunters of the past challenged me,” he said, “and as though, as though — well, as though the angels of God ordered me to do this little mighty deed in preparation for mightier deeds to come. I dreamt of stags, of their beauty and power and speed. I schemed and plotted, and rejected every plan. I stalked the herd, weaponless, intent only on learning their ways. One day I came upon some deer-stalkers, and I stalked them too, until they brought down a stag of ten; and how I despised them for their easy slaughter. To me they were just vermin preying upon my game. But when I had thought that thought, I laughed at myself; for I had no more right to the creatures than any one else.”

The story of how John finally took his stag seemed to me almost incredible, yet I could not but believe it. He had marked down as his quarry the finest beast of the herd, an eight-year-old monarch, bearing besides his brow, bay and tray, “three on top” on the right, and four on the left, The weight of antler gave his head a superb poise. One day John and the stag met one another face to face round a shoulder of moor. They stood for full three seconds, twenty paces apart, gazing at one another, the stag’s wide nostrils taking the scent of him. Then the beast swung round and cantered easefully away.

When John described that meeting, his strange eyes seemed to glow with dark fire. He said, I remember, “With my soul I saluted him. Then I pitied him, because he was doomed, and in the prime. But I remembered that I too was doomed. I suddenly knew that I should never reach my prime. And I laughed aloud, for him and for me, because life is brief and wild, and death too is in the picture.”

John took long to decide on the method of his attack. Should he dig a pit for him, or lasso him with a cord of hide, or set a mighty stone to fell him, or pierce him with a bone-pointed arrow? Few of these devices seemed practicable; all but the last seemed ugly, and that last was not practicable. For some time he busied himself making dirks of various kinds, of wood, of the fragile bones of hares, of keen stone splinters from a neighbouring mountain. Patient experiment produced at last a preposterous little stiletto of hard wood pointed with bone, the whole “streamlined” by filing upon the rock. With this fantastic weapon and his knowledge of anatomy, he proposed to leap on the stag from a hiding-place and pierce its heart. And this in the end he did, after many days of fruitless stalking and waiting. There was a little glade where the deer sometimes grazed, and beside it a rock some ten feet high. On the top of this rock he secreted himself early one morning, when the wind was such that his scent would not betray him. The great stag came round the shoulder of hill, attended by three hinds. Cautiously they sniffed and peered; then, at last, lowered their heads and peacefully grazed. Hour after hour John lay, waiting for the right beast to stray below the rock. But it was as though the stag deliberately avoided the danger-spot. Finally the four deer left the glade. Two more days were spent in vain watching. Not till the fourth day did John leap from the rock upon the back of the grazing stag, bringing it down with its right flank to the ground. Before the creature could regain its feet John had thrust his primitive weapon home with all his weight. The stag half righted itself, wildly swung its antlers, tearing John’s arm, then collapsed. And John, to his own surprise, behaved in a style most unseemly in a hunter. For the third time in his life, he burst into spontaneous tears.

For days afterwards he struggled to dismember the carcass with his inadequate implements. This task proved even more difficult than the killing, but in the end he found himself with a large quantity of meat, an invaluable hide, and the antlers, which, with desperate efforts, he smashed in pieces with a great stone and worked up as knives and other tools, by scraping them on the rocks.

At the end he could hardly lift his hands with fatigue, and they were covered with bleeding blisters. But the deed was accomplished. The hunters of all the ages saluted him, for he had done what none of them could have done. A child, he had gone naked into the wilderness and conquered it. And the angels of heaven smiled at him, and beckoned him to a higher adventure.

John’s way of life now changed. It had become a fairly easy matter for him to keep himself alive, and even in comfort. He set his traps, and let fly his arrows, and gathered his green things; but all was now routine work. He was able to carry it out while giving his best attention to the strange and disturbing events which were beginning to occur within his own mind.

It is obviously quite impossible for me to give anything like a true account of the spiritual side of John’s adventure in the wilderness. Yet to ignore it would be to ignore all that was most distinctive in John. I must at least try to set down as much of it as I was able to understand, for that little seems to me to have real significance for beings of my own species. Even if as a matter of fact I have merely misunderstood what he told me, my misunderstanding afforded at least to me a real enlightenment.

For a time he seems to have been chiefly concerned with art. He “sang against the waterfall.” He made and played his pan-pipes, apparently adopting some weird scale of his own. He played strange themes and figures on the shores of the loch, in the woods, on the mountain-tops, and in his rock home. He decorated his tools with engraved angles and curves consonant with their form and use. On pieces of bone and stone he recorded symbolically his adventures with fish and birds; and with the stag. He devised strange shapes which epitomized for him the tragedy of Homo sapiens, and the promise of his own kind. At the same time he was allowing the perceptual forms with which he was surrounded to work themselves deeply into his mind. He accepted with insight the quality of moor and sky and crag. From the bottom of his heart he gave thanks for all these subtle contacts with material reality; and found in them a spiritual refreshment which we also find, though confusedly and grudgingly. He was also constantly, and ever surprisingly, illuminated by the beauty of the beasts and birds on which he preyed, a beauty significant of their power and their frailty, their vitality and their obtuseness. Such perceived organic forms seem to have moved him far more deeply than I could comprehend. The stag, in particular, that he had killed and devoured, and now daily used, seems to have had some deep symbolism for him which I could but dimly appreciate, and will not attempt to describe. I remember his exclaiming, “How I knew him and praised him! And his death was his life’s crown.”

This remark epitomized, I believe, some new enlightenment which John was now receiving about himself and about Homo sapiens and indeed about all living things. The actual nature of that enlightenment I find it impossible to conceive, but certain dim reflections of it I do seem able to detect, and must try to record.

It will be remembered that John had shown, even as an infant, a surprising detachment and strange relish in situations in which he himself was the sufferer. Referring to this, he now said, “I could always enjoy the ‘realness’ and the neatness of my own pains and griefs, even while I detested them. But now I found myself faced with something of quite a new order of horribleness, and one which I could not get into place. Hitherto my distresses had been merely isolated smarts and temporary frustrations, but now I saw my whole future as something at once much more vivid and much more painfully frustrated than anything I had conceived. You see, I knew so clearly by now that I was a unique being, far more awake than other people. I was beginning to understand myself and discover all sorts of new and exquisite capacities in myself; and at the same time I saw now all too clearly that I was up against a savage race which would never tolerate me or my kind, and would sooner or later smash me with its brute weight. And when I told myself that after all this didn’t really matter, and that I was just a little self-important microbe making a fuss over nothing, something in me cried out imperiously that, even if I was of no account, the things I could do, the beauty I could make, and the worship that I was now beginning to conceive, did most emphatically matter, and must be brought to fruition. And I saw that there would be no fruition, that the exquisite things that it was my office to do would never be done. This was a sort of agony altogether different from anything that my adolescent mind had ever known.”

While he was wrestling with this horror, and before he had triumphed over it, there came upon him the realization that for members of the normal species every pain, every distress of body and of mind, had this character of insurmountable hideousness which he himself had found only in respect of the highest reach of his experience, and was determined to conquer even there. It came as a shocking revelation to him that normal human beings were quite incapable of detachment and zest even in sufferings upon the personal plane. In fact he realized clearly for the first time the torture that lies in wait at every turn for beings who are more sensitive and more awakened than the beasts and yet not sensitive enough, not fully awakened. The thought of the agony of this world of nightmare-ridden half-men crushed him as nothing else had ever done.

His attitude to the normal species was undergoing a great change. When he had fled into the wilderness his dominant reaction was disgust. One or two of us he unreasonably cherished, but as a species he loathed us. He had recently seen too much, lived at too close quarters, been fouled and poisoned. His researches into the world of men had been too devastating for a mind which, though superior in quality, was immature and delicate. But the wild had cleansed him, healed him, brought him to sanity again. He could now put Homo sapiens at arm’s length for study and appreciation. And he saw that, though no divinity, the creature was after all a noble and even a lovable beast, indeed the noblest and most lovable of them all; nay further, that its very repulsiveness lay in its being something more than beast, but not enough more. A normal human being, he now ungrudgingly admitted, was indeed a spirit of a higher order than any beast, though in the main obtuse, heartless, unfaithful to the best in himself.

Realizing all this, and realizing for the first time the incapacity of Homo sapiens to accept his pains and sorrows with equanimity, John was overwhelmed with pity, a passion which he had not hitherto experienced in any intensity; save on particular occasions, as when Judy’s dog was run over by a car, and when Pax was ill and in great pain. And even then his pity was always tempered by his assumption that every one, even little Judy, could always “look at it from outside and enjoy it,” as he himself could do.

For many days John seems to have been at grips with this newly realized problem of the absoluteness of evil, and the novel fact that beings that were tissues of folly and baseness could yet be pitiable and, in their kind, beautiful. What he sought was not an intellectual solution but an emotional enlightenment. And this, little by little, he seems to have gained. When I pressed him to tell me more of this strange enlightenment, he said it was just “seeing my own fate and the piteous plight of the normal species in the same way as I had always, since I was a kid, seen bumps and burns and disappointments. It was a case of delighting in their clear-cut form, and in their unity with the rest of things, and the way they — how shall I put it? — deepened and quickened the universe.” Here, I remember, John paused, then repeated, “Yes, deepened and quickened the universe — that’s the main point. But it wasn’t a case of understanding that they did so, but just seeing and feeling that they did so.”

I asked him if what he meant was some kind of coming face to face with God. He laughed, and said, “What do I know about God? No more than the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that’s nothing whatever.”

He said that when McWhist and Norton came upon him in the cave he was “still desperately puzzling things out,” and that their presence filled him just for a moment with the old disgust at their species, but that he had really done with all that long ago, and when he saw them there, looking so blank, he remembered his first close meeting with the stag. And suddenly the stag seemed to symbolize the whole normal human species, as a thing with a great beauty and dignity of its own, and a rightness of its own, so long as it was not put into situations too difficult for it. Homo sapiens, poor thing, had floundered into a situation too difficult for him, namely the present world-situation. The thought of Homo sapiens trying to run a mechanized civilization suddenly seemed to him as ludicrous and pathetic as the thought of a stag in the driving-seat of a motor-car.

I took this opportunity of asking him about the “miracle” with which he had so impressed his visitors. He laughed again. “Well,” he said, “I had been discovering all sorts of odd powers. For instance I found that by a kind of telepathy I could get in touch with Pax and talk to her. It’s true. You can ask her about it. Also I could sometimes feel what you were thinking about, though you were too dull to catch my messages and respond to me. And I had made queer little visits to events in my own past life. I just lived them again, with full vividness, as though they were ‘now.’ And in a telepathic way I had begun to get something very like evidence that after all I was not the only one of my kind in the world, that there were in fact quite a number of us scattered about in different countries. And then again, when McWhist and Norton appeared in the cave I found that by looking at them I could read the whole of their past lives in their faces, and I saw how thoroughly sound they both were within the limitations of their kind! And I think I saw something about their future, something that I won’t tell you. Then, when it was necessary to impress them, I suddenly got the idea of lifting the roof and clearing away the blizzard so that we could see the stars. And I knew perfectly well that I could do it, so I did it.”

I looked at John with misgiving. “Oh yes,” he said, “I know you think I’m mad, and that all I did was to hypnotize them. Well, put it that I hypnotized myself too, for I saw the whole thing as clearly as they did. But, believe me, to say I hypnotized us all is no more true and no less true than to say I actually shifted the rock and the blizzard. The truth of the matter was something much more subtle and tremendous than any plain little physical miracle could ever be. But never mind that. The important thing was that, when I did see the stars (riotously darting in all directions according to the caprice of their own wild natures, yet in every movement confirming the law), the whole tangled horror that had tormented me finally presented itself to me in its true and beautiful shape. And I knew that the first, blind stage of my childhood had ended.”

I had indeed sensed a change in John. Even physically he had altered strikingly during his six months’ absence. He was harder, more close-knit; and there were lines on his face suggestive of ordeals triumphantly passed. Mentally, though still capable of a most disconcerting impishness, he had also acquired that indefinable peacefulness and strength which is quite impossible to the adolescent of the normal species, and is very seldom acquired even by the mature. He himself said that his “discovery of sheer evil” had fortified him. When I asked, “how fortified?” he said, “My dear, it is a great strength to have faced the worst and to have felt it a feature of beauty. Nothing ever after can shake one.”

He was right. By what magic he did it I do not know, but in all his future, and in the final destruction of all that he most cherished, he accepted the worst not with resignation, merely, but with a strange joy that must remain to the rest of us incomprehensible.

I will mention one other point that emerged in my long talk with John. It will be remembered that after performing his “miracle” he apologized for it. I questioned him on this matter, and he said something like this: “To enjoy exercising one’s powers is healthy. Children enjoy learning to walk. Artists enjoy painting pictures. As a baby I exulted in the tricks I could do with numbers, and later in my inventions, and recently in killing my stag. And of course the full exercise of one’s powers really is part of the life of the spirit. But it is only a part, and sometimes we are inclined to take it as the whole purpose of our existence, especially when we discover new powers. Well, in Scotland, when I began to come into all those queer powers that I mentioned just now, I was tempted to regard the exercise of them as the true end of my life. I said to myself, ‘Now at last, in these wonderful ways, I shall indeed advance the spirit.’ But after the momentary exaltation of lifting the rock I saw clearly that such acts were in no sense the goal of the spirit, but just a by-play of its true life, amusing, and sometimes useful, and often dangerous, but never themselves the goal.”

“Then tell me,” I said, perhaps rather excitedly, “what is the goal, the true life of the spirit?” John suddenly grinned like a boy of ten, and laughed that damnably disturbing laugh of his, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you, Mr. Journalist,” he said, “It is time your interview was concluded. Even if I knew what the true life of the spirit was. I couldn’t put it into English, or any ‘sapient’ language. And if I could, you wouldn’t understand.” After a pause he added, “Perhaps we might safely say this much about it anyhow. It’s not doing any one particular kind of thing, like miracles, or even good deeds. It’s doing everything that comes along to be done, and doing it not only with all one’s might but with — spiritual taste, discrimination, full consciousness of what one is doing. Yes, it’s that. And it’s more. It’s — praise of life, and of all things in their true setting.” Once more he laughed, and said, “What stuff! To describe the spiritual life, we should have to remake language from the foundations upwards.”

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