Death into Life, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 4

The Spirit of Man Considers His Plight

The Spirit of Man and the Spirit

RACKED by the pains of war and the many social distresses of his multiple flesh, and by the failure of all his efforts to recover health, the spirit of Man fell faint with despair. His will for life and for the fuller expression of his nature faded into lassitude. The death-will tempted him. Why should he continue to struggle, enticed by a goal beyond his powers? Why not sink quietly into nothingness? His flesh had been at once too frail and too rebellious. He could neither strengthen it for the spirit’s service nor curb it from licentiousness. Homo Sapiens, it seemed, was a species of inadequate design, a mere pterodactyl of the spirit, and no true bird, perfected for flight. A pterodactyl? Rather a strayed moth, doomed to flutter vainly against prison windows till death should still its restlessness.

Then why, why continue the torment of effort? What need, what duty could compel him? No need at all he recognized in himself but for rest, and sleep, and death.

Yet in perplexity he found that even in this ultimate fatigue and disillusionment he could not, or he must not, surrender. It was becoming increasingly clear to him that he, the spirit of Man, was pledged in some obscure way to some greater, some universal Spirit that was indeed his own true essence, yet more purely spirit than he could ever be. And so he must, he must, school himself to become the faithful instrument of that greater, which was at once the unfulfilled promise of his own nature, and yet also (how could this be?) the infinity that had created him by its own limiting, and that had upheld him in every moment of his being. To this, his source and his goal, he must be true. Must? Why must? He could not say. And yet it was certain that he must.

Seeking new strength, the spirit of Man now looked once more outward from his planet toward the stars. For those great fires, those sparks, perhaps, from some still greater, hidden fire, had latterly become for him a symbol reminding him insistently of his littleness, disturbing him with their dark hint of some ulterior greatness. Now therefore he must contemplate them afresh.

In this our moment of Man’s crisis, the astronomers, those eyes through which he studied the heavens, had mostly been drawn aside from their true function into kinds of work urgent for warfare. But a few were left; and these he now impelled with a new wonder, a new will to see their familiar star-fields no longer as fields of mere data for analysis but as enigmatic features of celestial reality; so that through their telescopes and through their brooding minds he too might for a while contemplate the stars, and strive to see himself in true relationship with them. From his grain of rock, with its hot core of iron, and its film of greenery and ocean, he gazed outward through the deeper ocean of the air. There swung the moon, too prematurely senile to bear life; and there the sun, father of all vital growth in Earth, life’s mother. The sun, that one-time god, was after all nothing but a large blaze, a very average, perhaps rather elderly star, a not inexhaustible fountain of vital energy; which, however, might any day explode and devour its little brood of worlds. The spirit of Man scrutinized those worlds, but could make little of them. If some day he could reach to them with feelers of human intelligence, what would he find? Were they perhaps other fertile orbs with presiding spirits like himself, and multiple flesh, alien to his? Or were they just blank worlds of sun-melted rock or of eternal ice, or spheres of inhospitable desert or boundless ocean, with no vital air?

Impatient of his ignorance, he peered beyond the outermost planet, probing the constellations. Seen through mankind’s telescopes, the pin-pricked blackness became a blackness thick-laid with dust of diamonds, with here and there a larger brilliant or some great dazzling gem. But even the least was a star, a sun. Immobile, fixed, inert they seemed; but well he knew how, squadron upon squadron, the great suns flowed and voyaged. And all of them together (how well he knew it) formed a vast whirl of sparks, each solitary as a prisoner, gaoled by sheer distance from its neighbours. But he reminded himself that the whole galaxy, could he have viewed it from, outside, would have seemed a close-knit organism, compact of streaming cells, free-roaming yet obedient to the whole’s nature. Many such seeming organisms, such galaxies, he could indeed see far afield through the directed instruments of his astronomers. And hosts of others, he knew, voyaged beyond human vision, like airborne gulls beyond the horizon, or circling over the antipodean ocean. The spirit of Man seemed almost to know that the whole physical cosmos was itself one organism, with galaxies for members.

And so? And so? Thought surrendered to sheer wonder. Was he, the great spirit of Man, no more, then, than a blood-corpuscle or little atom in the universal organism? Or was he, perhaps, the vital germ of the whole cosmical egg? Was all the rest a lifeless yoke, awaiting his magic? For a moment self-pride swelled him; but at once he recollected that even so, even if by miracle he was the sole vital germ of the whole cosmos, yet not by its own sole power could the germ create the fledgeling, still less could it produce unaided the grown eagle. Only the whole concourse of events could do so. For the eagle’s making there must indeed be the germ; but the yoke also, and the mother’s care, the prey, the flight-enabling air, and all the past, the whole ancestry, even to primitive life in the early ocean, even to the planets’ birth and the primeval nebula and the surmised inscrutable creative act from which all sprang. Little enough the germ’s mere spark of creativity! And he, the half-lucid spirit of earth’s ruling species, even if he dared for a moment to think of himself as the germ of the cosmic egg, he must surely feel not self-glory but humility; and dread, lest, directing his spark falsely, he should frustrate the potency of the whole cosmos, and so betray the Spirit.

And if after all he was one of a great host of spirits in worlds sprinkled throughout the cosmos? This was the more exciting thought. A longing for comradeship with his own kind stirred in him. If he could but co-operate with such beings across the light-years and the parsecs of distance! It was, of course, impossible. Each world-spirit must be loyal to his own vision of the Spirit, in utter isolation from his fellows.

The Spirit! At least he must with his whole will affirm his ultimate loyalty to something other than himself, something perhaps darkly glimpsed beyond the galaxies, but brilliantly, imperiously present within him, as the essence of himself yet infinitely more than himself. In himself, it was the will to be aware, to love, to make. Beyond himself, perhaps it was the will of a greater than himself to fulfil the whole cosmos in wisdom, love and creativity.

The Dark Other

In the days of Man’s infancy his groping members had worshipped gods of their own invention, beings that for him had no plausibility, because they conformed only to the nature of his individual members, not to his own composite nature. But latterly some, though they had at last forsworn all cosmical myths, remained still gropingly loyal to the Spirit in their hearts, until they came to conceive a new divinity, none other than himself, the very spirit of Man.

He judged that in a way they were right; for indeed he himself was the passion of intelligence, love and creative will that smouldered, though deep buried, in every human heart.

But now at last the spirit of Man began to see that this dawning new religion of his members was but a half-truth, and full of danger. For if he, the spirit of Man, was in any manner worshipful, it must be not because he was man but because he was spirit; because, like his little members themselves, his essence was intelligence, love and creative will. Those who worshipped him were indeed true to the Spirit in that they gave allegiance to intelligence, love and creative will; but in circumscribing their allegiance to himself, to the imperfect common spirit of their species, they were false to the universal Spirit, and so to him also, and to their own true nature.

The spirit of Man could not but yearn towards a divinity beyond himself, towards the universal Spirit that was his own essence, yet infinitely more than himself. But also with painful perplexity he recognized in himself an obscure yearning toward something beyond even the universal and lucid Spirit of intelligence, love and creative action; a yearning toward some alien Other, inscrutable, terrible, yet in some strange dread way most beautiful. The great spirit of Man, who had so slowly, so toilfully and painfully, awakened through the ages, now seemed at last to feel blindly the presence of that Other, stripped of all the false images that men had vainly conceived to reveal him. Knowing at least what the Other was not, the spirit of Man seemed to know in a way what he in fact was; yet knew of his actual nature nothing save his bare and terrible otherness. He was not Ra nor Siva nor Chronos nor Jaweh nor Jesus. Nor yet (the thought startled him with bewilderment, almost with vertigo) could it be said for certain even that the dark Other was identical with the Spirit, that he was the perfection of all intelligence, love and creative will. For these, which for the spirit of Man and for all finite spirits of every rank must needs be sacred, might perhaps in the Other be transcended.

Considering thus, the spirit of Man, even in the agony of his body’s conflict, cried out to the Other, ‘Oh, Thou, Thou, Thou!’ but then fell dumb. Presently in his heart he whispered, ‘How should I, his small and lowly creature, address him; how make contact with him? Stars and galaxies declare him, atoms and electrons manifest him. Every insect, every sparrow, every wild flower proves him. Men in all their ways, both good and evil, fatally express him. And I, though loyal utterly to the clear Spirit that is my essence, salute also, and compulsively, him, the Other. And yet I must for ever doubt whether these two are in fact several or identical. Spirit I humbly know, but what is Thou? Dazzling darkness in the eyes! Shattering silence!’

The Rear-Gunner Again

Convinced of his impotence in regard to the Other, the spirit of Man turned once more to consider the Spirit, the more familiar, more intelligible divinity, which so insistently and unmistakably claimed his service.

But could that be called a divinity which, it might well be, was no personal consciousness beyond his own personality but sheerly an imperious ideal claiming his allegiance, perhaps quite irrationally? Was this ideal implanted in him by the Other, to be the law of his being, though not, perhaps, of the Other’s own being at all? He could not know. But with no trace of doubt he knew that for him, as for his little personal members, the way of the Spirit was the way of life. Throughout the swarm of the galaxies, all personal beings of whatever rank of lucidity must of their very nature give allegiance to the Spirit, or else be false to the clear light within them. For all, the way of life must ever be the way of sensitive intelligence, of loving, and of creating. But the modes of these must strangely vary and conflict. Arid to the lowlier creatures the more lucid expressions of the Spirit must often seem perverse. The spirit of Man, recalling the long pilgrimage of his growth, saw that for him the Spirit had indeed taken on many a new guise since he had first so darkly conceived it in the time when he was Father Adam.

In that earliest moment of his life there had been no difference between himself and the self of his one sole member in its most quickened state. But now, because his members were very many, there was a gulf between himself and each one of them. They were so diverse. Even in their expressions of the Spirit they were for ever in conflict; for each was enraptured with some one mode of the Spirit’s manifestation, some one direction or manner of intelligence, or of loving, or of creating. But he, since he comprised all their diversity, participated equally in all their conflicting achievements. He was the identity in all. Moreover his members were so ephemeral; and he perennial; they, so fettered to the particular brief flowering of their individual selves; he, so remote from that enthralment.

It was difficult, therefore, for him to keep aware of the minute but vivid and concrete lives of his members. He was in danger of ignoring them as a man ignores the particular cells of his brain. But since they were indeed personal, and the whole ground of his own personality, to lose touch with them would be to lose himself and die; and to betray the Spirit. Particularly in this moment of his life he must guard against this danger. For recently all his concern had inevitably been with the great world-influences, and with the need for planning and control of the relations of peoples and of social classes. In his absorption in this immense need, he, the very spirit of Man, was once more forgetting the personal lives of men and women.

With earnest sympathy, even with reverence, the spirit of Man now relived the little lives of now one and now another of his myriad members, the living and the dead; or dwelt upon crucial moments of those lives. And amongst others he chose out the rear-gunner in the aeroplane where a moth had fluttered. With fresh wonder and humility he rethought the young man’s thoughts high over the narrow sea. He immersed himself in the obscurity and confusion of the rear-gunner’s mind, as though plunging into a turbid and a murky stream. He felt himself pushed this way and that by currents of unconscious impulse, by childhood fears and hungers, long forgotten. He was seduced by ignorance and false reasoning into innumerable follies and trivial purposes. But also, with a shock of pity he experienced the young man’s hesitant loyalty toward a spirit that he could only obscurely conceive. It was a longing hopelessly led astray by the conventional cynicism of his pose. Through the rear-gunner’s eyes he saw the Spirit not as the clear will for love and reason and creating but as a mere dim and formless light, percolating down through the muddy water. Strange that a being so lacking in clarity should yet, in spite of the torment of his tangled nature and the fetters that society had fastened on him, be able to give his cherished life unfalteringly for so confused and dim a vision of the Spirit. Like the imprisoned moth he was trapped in the great machine, nay he was part of the machine; and yet, unlike the moth, he disciplined himself finally to courage and to comradeship in the crew, in fact to the Spirit, though shamefacedly, almost unwittingly.

What could the great spirit of Man himself do more? Within the wider limits of his own ignorance and frailty, he too could only falteringly serve the Spirit. Moreover what was he but the spiritual unity of all his members? He was greater than each merely because he was the best in all, made one in some occult telepathic union. And yet he wondered. Was he not more truly one than many? Then were his members after all mere figments of his own essential and single being? Were they in fact not real individual spirits at all but mere experiences of his own, though received through a host of different viewpoints? But no! That rear-gunner, in being less than the consciousness of all mankind, in being circumscribed by immense ignorance and inwardly warped by the impact of a faulty society, must surely have been something more positive than a passing thought of the spirit of Man himself, must have been a real though a brief individual; and a gallant individual too, capable of a heroism never to be called for, seemingly, from the great spirit of Man himself. For never, seemingly, would the spirit of Man be called upon to die for that greater Spirit that claimed his loyalty, since he himself was the sole known vessel of that Spirit. A mother carrying her child in her own body fights at once for her child’s life and for her own; and he, fighting for that greater Spirit which he alone could bring forth, was fighting also for his own survival. But the rear-gunner had given his life that something other than himself should survive. And the City’s dead saint had lived to serve those who were far less admirable than herself. Adoring the Spirit, she had for the Spirit’s sake given herself ungrudgingly.

Diseased Chrysalis

Once more the spirit of Man turned to consider the plight of his multiple body as a whole. He could no longer doubt that every organ, every tissue, of his flesh was now in dissolution. His whole substance was turning to fluid for some strange transformation. His whole form was changing like a cloud. What was to be the issue?

Again, as so often before, he earnestly questioned whether this dread transmutation was indeed the final and lethal paroxysm of his corroding disease, which had entered him far back in his childhood, or whether it could after all be a glorious though torturing rebirth. Oh, rebirth it might be, must be! Hitherto, stage by imperceptible stage, the browsing caterpillar had quietly grown; but now the whole creature was disintegrating, for death or fuller life, for the true imago or for some dread parasitic growth. The dying primitive creature had been after all little more than a formless crowd of cells, a mere polyp or sponge, a confusion of free-ranging and undisciplined individuals, organic for local or vocational ends only, in families, tribes, nations, mysteries and social classes. The total life of the race was the issue merely of blind forces, impinging on the little creatures of the swarm, and swaying them through their inveterate self-seeking. But now at last it seemed that he, the spirit of Man, so long almost powerless to control his flesh, might some day come into his own, and reign as the directive mind and will of all humanity. And then, wise from all the mistakes of his past, he would so inspire his members that they would work together freely to turn the earth into a paradise, where, generation by generation, men should fulfil their nature joyfully and ever more gloriously as instruments of the Spirit.

As the war’s end drew near, the spirit of Man saw more starkly that nothing could save him but a new and lucid will for the Spirit, widespread among the peoples. The upstart empires, those cancers in his flesh, must indeed be destroyed; else there could be no health in his body, and his mind must fail; but more, far more, was needed than this desperate surgery. For the poison had spread throughout his blood-stream, and into every organ of his body.

And so in the very year of the military victory the spirit of Man was forced to doubt whether the victors, though professed champions of the Spirit, had any clear conception of what they would do with their victory. Their concern, it seemed, was increasingly with mere power, with the organization of the world to maintain themselves in power. Some wished only to restore the old sponge structure in which they themselves had formerly prospered. Others planned indeed a close-knit world-organism, but one in which every man and woman should be held in place by steel threads not of comradeship but of regulations, a world in which the Spirit would be as fettered as in the cancerous empires themselves.

And now the spirit of Man himself began to doubt what precisely it was that he needed of his members. In the past it had been easy to see that the need was for them to curb and transcend their wild individuality, that they should be disciplined in the common cause, that the old loose tissues of his flesh should be broken down ‘and reshaped into a tighter structure. But no sooner did this end begin to be in sight, no sooner did the victors foresee themselves as controllers of the world, than they themselves became the instruments of a new danger. No sooner did they grasp the need for discipline and world-planning, than they began to forget the purpose of discipline and the goal of planning. Most forgot it, but not all. The saint, killed in the City, and thousands of other humble men and women scattered up and down the world, did not forget.

All the while that the spirit of Man was forcing himself to seek a clearer view of his predicament, his flesh continued to be tormented by the huge convulsion of war. He was in the plight of one who, in a high fever and on the verge of delirium, knows that nothing can save him but a desperate, an almost impossible effort to keep a cool head, and think out his cure, and administer it with precision.

The opposing peoples were now strained to the last extremity, the one side to stave off ruin, the other to win a quick and thorough victory. Great fleets carried great armies to land on the enemy beaches. Great air fleets destroyed city after city. The armies projected themselves in clattering machines and with the fury of innumerable guns across the meadows and the wasted cornfields, and through the wrecked villages. The retreating enemy blasted and burned and tortured. Everywhere the little members of his body accepted discipline and danger, and suffered all manner of pains and mutilations and deaths in the simple hope that by their sacrifice others would be saved, and a happier world made possible. Their sensitive flesh was torn and mangled by the impersonal blast of bombs or the lustful and devilish cruelty of their fellow mortals. They were subjected to scientifically devised torture, or simply destroyed in thousands as vermin, in the

cheapest possible manner; or else, as free citizens and fighters, they choked under the sea, or fell headlong from the sky, or were crushed under falling masonry, or burnt to shrunken faggots of charred flesh and blackened bone.

All this physical agony the spirit of Man himself suffered, for their flesh was his flesh. And even their mental terror of extinction he knew, since he resided in them all. Yet in the midst of this distress, and in spite of it, and because of it, he saw more clearly than ever the truth about himself.

‘Strange and most subtle’, he told himself, even in his agony, ‘is the mutual dependence of these little beings and myself. Unless they are wholly disciplined to my will I am torn and crippled by inner conflict; yet if these cells of my body degenerate from true personality and become indeed mere cells, mere cog-wheels, mere despirited units, utterly obedient to the spiritless organization of the whole, I myself, my true self, must faint into nonentity. For I have no being whatever save as the identity of spirit in each and all of my members. There is only one forlorn hope for me, that they should of their own free will, and not merely by compulsion, discipline themselves for the common good and for the Spirit’s sake. But even this is not enough. While disciplining themselves, they must also contrive to be uncompromisingly loyal each to his own individuality and uniqueness.’

The spirit of Man saw what it was that he must now do. His inspiration of his members must be made more precise. It was useless merely to exhort them vaguely to renewed loyalty to the Spirit. He must declare explicitly just what the Spirit demanded of them in this moment of history.

He therefore set about once more clarifying his own thoughts and his inspiration of his members; even now on, the threshold of his delirium. At the very time when men were at last falteringly beginning to carry out his earlier precept, when the more socially-aware of them were propagating successfully a will for social discipline and world-planning, he must bestir himself desperately to inspire the more spiritually-conscious with a new tenderness for individuality and for sincere personal awareness. To many of his members, and even to his past self, it had seemed that these two inspirations were opposed to one another; yet in fact each of them cried out for the other for its completion.

The spirit of Man accordingly spoke his new message in innumerable hearts in all the war-tortured and state-ridden lands. ‘Remember the great prophet of Love,’ he told them. ‘Slowly you have begun to outgrow the limitations of his teaching, but at the same time you have forgotten his truth. He persuaded you no doubt to believe questionable doctrines, declaring that men were immortal and that God was their loving father, possibilities that lie far beyond human under-standing. But he also made some of you see that all men are members one of another, and that only in the active love of neighbours, of comrades, can man find salvation. Therefore, be tender, oh always tender, to the individual human being. Plan, you must; for your world is in disorder. Control, you must, and in your present emergency you must not shrink from using even bombs and tanks and machine-guns, for some of the Spirit’s enemies are very powerful, and too far perverted to accept any other persuasion. And sometimes, when you yourselves have power, you rightly feel that to be less than firm would be a betrayal. But oh, let firmness be eternally married to tenderness. Even the fallen but still dangerous enemy is human, and a warped instrument of the Spirit. And the little nobody, working in a factory and coming home tired or starved of joy, claims infinite tenderness; even when in his stupidity or blind self-interest he resists benevolent planning. And let it be written across the minds of all rulers in letters of undying fire that unless your planning gives to each little nobody wings and freedom to use them, you plan in vain.’

Millions upon millions responded vaguely to the new inspiration, for the peoples were being harassed by a swarm of tyrannies, great and small, evil or benevolent. They longed as never before for freedom. They were sick to death of discipline, of commands, of forms, of identity numbers and regulations. They desired only to be done with the war, and go back to Civvy Street and a good job, and to have enough money to amuse themselves. Moreover those who had the power of money longed to be free of restrictions on their self-seeking. And so it turned out that this vast craving for freedom was only here and there a will freely to serve the Spirit in personal integrity. It was in the main a desperate thirst to have a good time without responsibility for others.

The spirit of Man’s new-old inspiration was vaguely welcomed by most men, both by people of goodwill, and also by those who willed to restore the old licentious freedom. And these assiduously perverted the new gospel for their own convenience. And so the socially loyal, who demanded planning, condemned the new longing for freedom as a trick of society’s enemies. Very few welcomed it as the completion of their own social gospel.

Once more the spirit of Man’s inspiration of his members failed, perhaps partly through the weakness and confusion of his new prophets, but mostly through the irresistible impetus of social forces which were grinding mankind fatally into the harsh and lethal forms of the world-wide ant-state.

The End of the War

The bells clang for victory. The trumpets blast and the flags wave. Troops march in procession through every city. Crowds cheer. They cheer for a golden but a phantom future. The past is but a pain in the memory. None but the bereaved and the mutilated greatly care for it.

The bells clang for victory, for peace, for the passing of life’s long black-out, for the return to Civvy Street, for the hell of a good time coming; and for the triumph (so the victors say) of the Spirit over the powers of evil that so nearly conquered the planet.

But the spirit of Man does not greatly rejoice; for though one disaster has been gallantly prevented, another is in the offing. One paroxysm of his disease passes, but the disease is not cured. The chrysalis is astir for the great rebirth, but the moth is still imprisoned, and the parasite snugly housed in every cell of his fever-weakened flesh.

The spirit of Man, though hoping still, confronts the future with misgiving.

Fourth Interlude

Time and Eternity

Today! Tomorrow!

Today comprises the whole present universe of infinite detail and inconceivable extent. Today is fields and houses and the huge sky. Today human creatures are being conceived, are born, are loving, hating, dying. Electrons and protons in their myriads are everywhere busily performing their unimaginable antics. Planets attend their suns. Galaxies drift and whirl.

All this today comprises, and with all this the whole past is pastly present in today; Queen Victoria, Babylon, the ice ages, the condensing of the stars in the primeval nebula, and the initial inconceivable explosion of creativity.

But tomorrow? It is a wall of impenetrable fog, out of which anything may come.

When we remember or discover the past, we confront something that is what it is, eternally though pastly. It is such and such, and not otherwise. Our view of it may indeed be false, but it, in itself, is what in fact it was, however darkly it is now veiled. No fiat, not even an Almighty’s, can make the past be other than in fact it was, and eternally is. God himself, if such there be, cannot expunge for me the deeds I now regret.

But the future? It is not veiled, it is nothing. It has still to be created. We ourselves, choosing this course rather than that, must playa part in creating it. Even though we ourselves, perhaps, are but expressions of the whole living past at work within us, yet we, such as we are, are makers of future events that today are not. Today the future actuality is nothing whatever but one or other of the infinite host of possibilities now latent in the present. Or perhaps (for how can we know?) not even latent in the present, but utterly unique and indeterminate.

Yesterday is palpably there, there, just behind me; but receding deeper and deeper into the past, as I live onward along the sequence of the new todays.

But tomorrow?

Yesterday I had porridge and toast for breakfast, as on the day before, and the day before that. Yesterday, according to instruction I caught a train to Preston. I had set my plans so as to reach the station in good time. And because a thousand other strands of planning had been minutely co-ordinated, at the appointed minute the engine driver, who had been waiting in readiness for the guard’s whistle and his waving flag, moved levers. The train crept forward. In that train I found myself sitting opposite a lovely stranger, not according to instruction, nor as the result of any plan. Soon we were talking, looking into one another’s eyes; talking not of love but of nursing and hospitals and the wished-for planned society, and of her Christian God, and of a future life, and of eternity. Before we met, before our two minds struck light from each other, our conversation had no existence anywhere. But then in a fleeting present we began creating it. And now the universe is eternally the richer because of it, since irrevocably the past now holds it, now preserves in a receding yesterday that unexpected, that brief and never-to-be-repeated, warmth and brightness.

With her I have no past but yesterday, and no future; but with you, my best known and loved, I have deep roots in the past, and flowers too, and the future.

Some fifteen thousand yesterdays ago there lies a day when you were a little girl with arms like sticks and a bright cascade of hair. In a green silk frock you came through a door, warmed your hands at the fire, and looked at me for a moment. And now, so real that moment seems, that it might be yesterday! For that particular fraction of the eternal reality is always queerly accessible to me, though fifteen thousand yesterdays ago.

But tomorrow?

Tomorrow, shall I, as it has been planned, catch the bus for Chester? Or shall I miss it? Or will it refuse me, or never start on its journey? Or having absorbed me will it collide with a hearse or a menagerie van? Will the freed lions and tigers chase people along the street? Shall I feel their huge claws in my flesh and smell their breath, and know that for me at least there is no tomorrow? Or perhaps some hidden disease is ready to spring on me tonight? Or a bomb? Or will the laws of nature suddenly change, so that stones leap from the earth, houses become soaring pillars of rubble and dust, and the sea rushes into the sky? Or will the sky itself be drawn aside like a curtain, revealing God on his throne, his accusing finger pointing precisely at abject me? Or at a certain moment of tomorrow will everything simply end? Will there be just nothing any more, no future at all?

I cannot answer these questions with certainty. No man can answer them with certainty. And yet if I were to bet a million pounds to a penny that things will go on, and half a million that they will go on fundamentally much as before, few would call me rash.

Yesterday the events which are now so vividly present and actual were in the main inscrutable and not yet determined. And therefore yesterday they had, we say, no being. And yet, and yet — there are moments when we vaguely sense that, just as the past is eternally real, though pastly, so the future also is eternally what in fact it will be, though for a while futurely to the ever-advancing present. We move forward, and the fog recedes before us, revealing a universe continuous with the present universe, and one which, we irresistibly feel, was there all the while, awaiting us. Could we but by some magic or infra-red illumination pierce the fog-wall, we should see the future universe as in fact it is. So at least we sometimes irresistibly feel. My conversation with that lovely and serious travelling companion — was it not always there, awaiting me, knit irrevocably into the future as it is now irrevocably knit into the past? When I was born, was not that journey awaiting me?

Through the interplay of external causation and my own freely choosing nature, was not that happy encounter already a feature of the eternal fact, though futurely? Was it not equally so when the Saxons first landed on this island, and when the island itself took shape, and when the sun gave birth?

And fifteen thousand yesterdays ago, when you and I first looked at each other, was not our future even then just what in fact it has been? It was of course related to us futurely, and was therefore inaccessible . . . but was it not all the while there, lying in wait for us? One does not suppose that the centre of the earth, because it is inaccessible, is therefore blankly nothing, until someone shall burrow down to it.

And indeed I cannot even be sure that in that moment of our first meeting the future was, in very truth, wholly inaccessible. For in looking into your eyes I did (how I remember it!) have a strange, a startling experience, long since dismissed as fantasy, yet unforgettable. It was as though your eyes were for me windows, and as though curtains were drawn aside, revealing momentarily a wide, an unexpected and unexplored prospect, a view obscure with distance, but none the less an unmistakable prevision of our common destiny. I could not, of course, see it clearly; for it was fleeting, and I was a boy and simple. But I saw, or I seemed to see, what now I recognize as the very thing that has befallen us, the thing that has taken so long to grow, and is only now in these last years flowering. Today our hair is greying, our faces show the years. We can no longer do as once we did. But the flower has opened. And strangely it is the very flower that once I glimpsed even before the seed was sown.

Fantasy, sheer fantasy? Perhaps! But when we think of time and of eternity, intelligence reels. The shrewdest questions that we can ask about them are perhaps falsely shaped, being but flutterings of the still unfledged human mentality.

The initial creative act that blasted this cosmos into being may, or may not (or neither), be in eternity co-real with today, and with the last faint warmth of the last dying star.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00