Death into Life, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 6

The Cosmos, and Beyond

The Cosmical Community

TODAY, while the bells clang for victory, the spirit of Man remembers futurely the instant of his death. His vision, snatched between one stroke and the next stroke of the bells, was just the vision that will confront him in his future dying, now precognized. With perplexity and wonder he now in future memory reviews his dying. For in that instant he, even as had happened to a certain rear-gunner æons earlier, was both destroyed and wakened.

In the very act of falling headlong into eternal sleep and nothingness, the spirit of Man saw all his ages miraculously displayed before him, from his conception in Father Adam to the destruction of his six world-peoples. The many phases of his life were all present to him, like a string of beads, various, each one variegated and darkly translucent. Each obscurely revealed within itself depths of meaning formerly hidden from him.

And in that instant of his annihilation, while he assessed each movement of his life, he was anxiously aware that another being, not his familiar self, was also judging; watching, as it were, over his shoulder. This alien self, that was not his familiar self yet had always been rooted in him, entangled in his every desire and thought and act, but mainly impotent and tranced, seemed now fully awake, and intent on extricating himself stage by stage from that prolonged entanglement in merely human living. The spirit of Man in his last moment yearned for continued life, and grieved over his æons of drowsy grub-hood, his tormenting stagnation in the chrysalis, his moth-maturity, so full of promise and yet so marred and barren, and finally his pointless slaughter; but the other self within him, the pure spirit in him, regarded his tragedy and all his errors with detachment. He cried, ‘Not I, not I, that half-awakened, still self-pitying, man-bound spirit! Too feebly and erringly he inspired and ruled his members. No! He was not I. But I, I, what is it that I am?’

The spirit of Man, in the instant of his annihilation, feared, and yet adored this newly awakened being within him, sprung seemingly from his own spiritual substance, yet alien, lofty, and freed in his annihilation.

Searching more closely his future memory of his end, the spirit of Man recalls with human horror the slaughter of all his members, and his own extinction. And with a surge of personal resentment he sees the strange other self, that was seemingly not himself at all, triumph and exult in his annihilation. But immediately, in the light of his own miraculous vision from the foothills of eternity, both downward into time and upward to eternity’s high peak, horror and resentment fade. He views his end with grave acquiescence, even with exaltation. Though doomed to annihilation, he identifies himself with that alien survivor. For that which died in his dying, though it was his own dear self, was but the vessel, the shell, the husk of that which survived. This at least the spirit of Man knows well, through his moment of eternal vision.

For this he knows. In that far future moment of man’s destruction he, the spirit of six worlds, vanished into oblivion, experiencing no further happenings at all. But that within him, which was not himself, yet in some dark way more than himself, woke to its true nature; and rediscovered itself to be the spirit not merely of Man’s six worlds but of a host of worlds, scattered throughout many galaxies of stars. This ampler spirit had indeed all along been conscious in that many-worlded host. To him, in his voluminous and many-worlded life, that simple spirit of one planetary system, the lowly spirit of Man, had been no more than one theme of dream-like yearning and thinking which he performed, as it were, absent-mindedly, while his attention was engaged with loftier matters.

The great company of worlds which together supported this high spirit were great and small, young and old, sprinkled among the galaxies like a few seeds adrift in the vast air.

These worlds were of two orders. Many, like the six human worlds, were too lowly to enter into the single and lucid awareness of that great spirit. Blindly, unwittingly, they contributed their part in the conscious spirit of the whole, as cells and muscles and intestines contribute unwittingly to the mind of a man. But other worlds, more developed and lucid, were like the brain-cells that together are conscious as the man’s individual mind. These more lucid worlds, though greatly diverse in idiosyncrasy, were all alike in that their peoples had reached to psychic powers impossible to men. By consciousness of their underlying psychical identity they kept in touch with one another across the intervening spatial void. For in the dimensions of the spirit no gulfs divided them. In the spirit they were consciously together, they were one. Thus their worlds were indeed the multiple brain of a cosmical spirit.

The concern of these awakened worlds (so it seems to the lowly spirit of Man) was almost wholly with the life of the spirit. But of the nature of the spirit’s life on this high plane the lowly spirit of Man perforce knows almost nothing, since his mentality is of a lowlier order. This alone he knows: that the cosmical community of worlds like all true spirit was intent on contemplation of all the sensuous and spiritual subtlety of the cosmos, and chiefly the subtle mutual awareness of personal beings of every order; intent also on creating through ever new forms of art and philosophy and personal intercourse, new modes of the spirit.

In this high common enterprise the lowly spirit of Man in his six worlds had, of course, no conscious part whatever. For the human moth had never dared to fly into that high psychic sphere where world-peoples are consciously one spirit. Man seemingly was too lowly a creature for such adventure. His function in the life of the whole was seemingly no more than to contribute unwittingly to the ground-tone or temper of the great cosmical spirit’s life.

Or was his case more tragic? Perhaps Man was indeed potentially of the sort to play a conscious part in the whole’s life, but maybe he was so crippled that he remained for ever impotent. Perhaps the six worlds were by nature fit to enter consciously into the cosmical spirit, but perhaps Man had been too grossly poisoned by some alien and hostile influence ever to fulfil his true destiny. The moth was indeed seemingly meant for flight, but its chronic disease had crippled it beyond recovery.

And if this is indeed, as seems most likely, the truth about the six human worlds, maybe it is the truth also about many other of the abortive worlds up and down the galaxies. So at least it appears to the spirit if Man, searching his future memory. For seemingly even the great singular spirit of the cosmical community of worlds was himself not wholly fulfilled. Seemingly he too was frustrated, crippled by the widespread disease that frustrated so many of his members.

The spirit of Man obscurely remembers futurely the great diversity of the many worlds and races of the cosmical community. Most were in a way man-like, but some were of strange inhuman physique and mentality, inhuman too in their modes of sensing and in their ways of life. Some indeed were so alien that the spirit of Man, now sunk back to his terrestrial status, recovers only an inarticulate feeling of them as beings incomprehensible to man; as when, on waking, we try to recapture a strange dream or nightmare, and can say of it only that no words can describe it, no human thought conceive it. But some worlds, glimpsed by the spirit of Man in a spate of shifting, fleeting, dream-like vision, he can at least in outline seize. Of these, some were strange spheres inhabited not by races of separate individuals at all but by a continuous vital tissue spread over the whole world’s surface. Of the races of individuals, many were very alien to Man. Some few there were whose native element was ocean; some were winged creatures of the air who, by a strange tilt of fortune, had reached and surpassed the human range of insight.

It seems to the spirit of Man, however, that most worlds of the cosmical community were peopled by creatures man-like in general form. Planets of the terrestrial type were the most kindly homes for life. Though previously the spirit of Man had remembered futurely his own future career continuously up to the moment of his annihilation, now, confronted in memory with a host of man-like worlds, he half doubts which of all these man-like races was in fact the race that he himself had possessed. Was he indeed the spirit of those six worlds that their sun had devoured? Or was he, after all, one of those other man-like races, of better fortune, that had in the end become members of the cosmical community? Or perhaps he was one of the many that had never even emerged from the chrysalis; or one of those most unfortunate spirits whose members had learnt too soon to rifle the energies of the atom, before they had spiritually awakened to the right use of power. Many such dangerous adolescent races his vision now obscurely reveals. One at least wielded its destructive energy so murderously in internecine warfare that its world became an unpeopled desert. Some, using their power to remould their own biological nature before they knew what was truly to be desired, rendered themselves physically inviable, or simply insane. And not a few, ignorantly tampering with mighty forces, burst their planets into whiffs of asteroids.

The more the spirit of Man broods upon the host of worlds, the more he doubts as to which of the many glimpsed man-like races was indeed his own. Perhaps after all he had been resident in one of those few races that had moved forward from strength to strength till in due season they had learnt the art of exploring the whole cosmos by telepathy and clairvoyance; one of those who had in due season played a pioneering part in founding the cosmical community. He cannot tell. But most probably, yes, almost certainly, he must be indeed the spirit of those six lowly worlds, destroyed by fire.

Life and Death of the Cosmos

The spirit of Man remembers that from his viewpoint on the foothills of eternity he saw the birth and the death and the whole life of the cosmos. He witnessed the first instant of cosmical time when the creative fiat of the supreme Other issued in a spaceless point of light, pregnant with all the energies of the future cosmos. But of the fiat itself and of its source, he knows nothing. For even in his eternal instant the peak was but a lofty whiteness scarred with precipices, glimpsed fitfully beyond the high white clouds. But well he remembers how, from the inscrutable fiat, space and time and all physical energy and finite spiritual potency gushed forth.

From that first moment of cosmical time the expanding gas-cloud swelled and swelled, and presently disintegrated into cloudlets. These in turn, whirling and flattening and trailing spiral streamers, crumbled into stars. And here and there, a flying whirlpool of primeval power collided with some star and tore from its substance the material for future planets. And here and there among these new worlds sprang life; and here and there, spirit.

One by one the galaxies matured. More and more of the minded worlds made psychic contact with each other across the deserts of space; or rather they probed psychically down into their own nature till they reached their hidden unity of spirit. And in their diversity, and their underlying identity of spirit, the cosmical community grew ever richer in experience and more single in purpose. And in this singleness and richness awoke the spirit of this many-galaxied universe, this cosmos. For the spirit of this cosmos was simply the identity of experience and of will presiding in all this rich diversity; and it precariously commanded allegiance through all conflict. Again and again there was bitter inter-mundane strife in which the weapons were not physical but psychical. The antagonists, separated by impassable tracts of space, could none the less destroy each other’s minds by direct psychic impact of mind on mind, or disintegrate one another’s hard-won community by subtle dissemination of psychic poison among the minds of the enemy world. The causes of this cosmical strife lay always in discord about the way in which the community of worlds could best fulfil its destiny as the vessel of spirit. These wars were all religious wars. The casualties were worlds poisoned beyond recovery, derelicts of spirit.

It seems to the lowly spirit of Man, recalling his high vision, that although again and again such conflicts tortured the cosmical community, and though many a noble world was lost by sheer misadventure, yet as the æons passed the cosmical community gained concord and strength. Its member worlds became more and more intent upon their common purpose. And this common purpose, so it seems to the lowly spirit of Man, was the will that every individual life in all those diverse worlds should be a theme of rich and true experience and of spiritual creating; and that each individual should be knit inwardly by sensitive love into the lives of some few diverse others, and by far-flung threads of comradeship into the whole life of his world, and of the cosmical community; and that the cosmical spirit should preside unquestioned in every mind, and be the single experience of the whole cosmical community, fulfilled in knowledge and in love.

But the life of the cosmos could not last for ever. Even as each minded world, each man and woman, each little fly and moth, must in its season die, so also must the great spirit of a cosmos.

Already the myriad beings of the cosmos foresaw the cosmical death. The physical energies of the cosmos were constantly dissipated. Star after star was extinguished, like a spark drifting on the wind. World after world was compelled to maintain its heat and life artificially by the disintegration of the atoms of its planet’s rock. Race after race was forced to refashion itself eugenically for life not on a planet but on the cooled surface of its former sun. After æons beyond computation, the cosmos became a dark waste with here and there a few sparks of artificial light, where the races of intelligent beings still struggled to keep alive, and to maintain the cosmical spirit in full lucidity until the end. The dying community of the cosmos, indeed, now planned its fading life for one unshakable purpose. So long as the races could still maintain the cosmical spirit in full lucidity they would live on, to gain for the spirit the last possible wealth of experience. But when at last they were faced with inevitable degeneration, then one by one the races would destroy themselves. For it was the constant will of the cosmical beings that the cosmical spirit should die not inch by inch but in full lucidity. Ever since the first intelligences in the first of all the worlds had first become vessels of the cosmical spirit, they had also yearned with fear and adoration toward the dark Other, the cosmical spirit’s alleged creator. But not till the cosmical spirit should be fully grown in beauty and in wisdom and in the power to love, could he (or she, for all spirits of composite growth must needs be hermaphrodite) be ripe to know the Other.

In the last days of the cosmos, the spirit of the cosmos longed impatiently to meet her unseen lover, knowing nothing of him but that she had great need of him. And she had strong faith that he too needed her. But the issue of her death was not to be as she had expected.

The Spirit and the Other

To the spirit of Man upon the foothills of eternity it seemed that, long before this physical cosmos had sunk into the death of ultimate darkness and cold and stillness, the cosmical spirit died utterly; but that in her annihilation the essence in her, which was indeed the single and essential and universal Spirit, survived; and that the Spirit disentangled itself (or himself or herself) from the dying idiosyncrasy of this cosmos, and came into her own as indeed the very Spirit, identical in all the innumerable spheres of created being, of which our cosmos is but one.

Of those alien spheres of created being the spirit of Man, searching his brief vision of eternity, recovers nothing but the vague conviction that such alien spheres did indeed exist, and that to beings nurtured in this cosmos they must be for ever inconceivable. He knows merely that they are wholly disconnected with this cosmos, save in the experience of the Spirit which is identical in them all; and that in each one of them, as in this cosmos, the Spirit strives constantly to wake into wisdom and love and universal community and further creating.

Obscurely it appears to the lowly spirit of Man, recalling his vision of eternity, that the spirit of each cosmos, at some moment of its cosmical time, dies; and that the single and universal Spirit, disentangling herself from all these deaths, preserves in her own singular awareness the whole treasure of experience conceived in each cosmos.

Obscurely it appears to him that the universal Spirit, beautiful with all the beauty of every cosmos, yearns for communion with the dark Other, her creator. For in this union of the creature and the creator love surely is fulfilled.

But the lowly spirit of Man, peering from eternity’s foothills, sees only that the universal Spirit, fulfilled with the beauty of all spheres of created being, dies, and, whether in that ultimate death she, like all lesser spirits, is annihilated so that a loftier spirit may strike free; or whether, dying, she swoons into blissful union with her creator; or whether, even for her, the dark Other remains utterly inscrutable and inaccessible, the lowly spirit of Man cannot know.

Sixth Interlude

The Broken Toy

When the dearest, friendliest toy was broken, and the desperate child ran to you weeping, your whole will was to console. Let the world wait, the telephone ring unanswered, the train be missed. Nothing, sublunary or celestial, must come between you and the soothing of this grief. With kisses, hugs, exhortations for courage, and slyly intruding jokes, oh soften the tragedy, and rouse at last a wan, reluctant, ludicrous, watery smile!

Or perhaps you would say, ‘Let’s see if Daddy can mend poor Jumbo’. Then I, feebly rebellious, but mastered by the urgency in tearful eyes, and the sight of your tenderness, would set about clumsy surgery, so that Jumbo might return to the loving arms, patched, maimed or squinting, but more or less himself.

This passion of tenderness, which blazed in the child for the toy, in you for the child, sprang (so my heart confidently affirmed) from the heart of the cosmos.

But the perennial slaughter of the innocents? And Hitler’s gospel? And the stern law of entropy?

The comforted child beamed on mended Jumbo, and you on the child.

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