Last Men in London, by Olaf Stapledon

2 Exploring the Past

i. The Portal to the Past

IT was with an overwhelming sense of the mystery and formidable beauty of existence that I hastened, after the racial awakening, toward that Arctic settlement which we call the Portal to the Past. Travelling now by flying-boat, I soon reached the icefields; and by noon the great towers which marked my destination stood like bristles on the horizon. Already I encountered many other boats and boatless flyers, bound for the same goal. Presently I arrived, docked my little vessel in her appointed garage, and entered the great white gate of the particular tower which concerned me. Greeting some of my colleagues, I passed through the entrance hall and stepped into one of the many lifts. In a few moments I had sunk a thousand feet below the ground. I then proceeded along a lofty and well-lit passage, in the walls of which were doors, at intervals of a hundred yards. One of these I opened. Within was a comfortable room, in which were chairs, a table, cupboards, and a bed. At the far side of the room was a window, opening from ceiling to ground, and beyond it a delightful sunny garden. How could this be, you wonder, a thousand feet below ground? Had you walked out into the garden, you would have seen that in the luminous blue ceiling there blazed an artificial sun, and you would have felt a refreshing breeze, which issued from among the bushes.

Behind every one of the doors in the many underground passages you would have found similar rooms and gardens, varying only in detail according to the tastes of their occupiers. Such are the apartments where we explorers of the past undertake our strange adventures. You ask, why in the Arctic, why underground? Our work demands that the mind shall be isolated from the contemporary human world; only in a remote land, and beneath its surface, can we escape the telepathic influence of the world-population. Our telepathic intercourse is based on the transmission and reception of ethereal vibrations from brain to brain.

Normally our powers of reception are kept under strict control, so that we receive messages only when we will. But, in the peculiar trance which is our medium for exploring the past, this control fails; so that, unless the explorer is isolated, his mind is lashed like a pond in which torrential rain is falling.

When I had entered my room and shut my door, I went out into my garden and walked up and down for a while, preparing my mind for its adventure. I then brought out from the room a drawer full of rolls of microscopically figured tape, which in my world take the place of books. In normal circumstances these little rolls work by systematically interrupting the radiation of a special instrument. This radiation penetrates the brain of the ‘reader’, and is interpreted telepathically by the telepathic organ of his brain. But since in the catacombs no radiation other than the normal solar wave-lengths is permitted, we explorers have to learn actually to read the rolls, with the aid of a microscope.

I now spent many hours lying on the turf in the sunshine, reading about the epoch which I was to visit. After a while I re-entered the room and pressed a button in the wall. A tray appeared, bearing an appetizing meal. When I had finished this, and dismissed the tray, I returned to the garden and my studies. For a period equivalent to about ten days I lived in this manner, studying, meditating, eating occasionally, but sleeping not at all. Sometimes I would break off my studies to tend my garden. Frequently I would swim about in the pond among the bushes. But for the most part I merely browsed on my books or on my own records of the past. Toward the end of this period of preparation, I grew desperately sleepy. To keep myself awake, I had to walk up and down more and more, and my dips in the pond became more frequent. It was almost time to be gone. I drew my little bed out into the garden and made it ready to receive me. I pressed another button, which would make day slowly become night. I took a final dip and a final walk, then staggered to my bed and lay down in the twilight.

But even yet I must not sleep. Instead, I concentrated my attention on the recurrent rise and fall of my own breathing, and on the nature of time. This process I had to maintain for about thirty hours, without food or sleep or any respite. Toward the end of this period, had you seen me, you would have said that I was at last falling asleep, and finally you would have declared me to be in a very profound slumber. And so in a manner I was, save that a single organ in my brain, usually dormant, was now intensively active, and preparing to take possession of my whole body as soon as my brain should have been refreshed by its deep sleep. After a couple of days of unconsciousness I did indeed wake, but not to the familiar surroundings.

For months, even years or decades, my body might now remain inert upon its bed, save for periodic risings to perform its natural functions of eating, drinking and excretion. Frequently also it would walk for hours at a time in the garden or bathe in the pond. But these activities would be carried out in complete abstraction, and had anyone spoken to me at these times, I should have been unaware. For the higher centres of my brain were wholly possessed by the past. To anyone watching me during these routine activities, I should have appeared as a sleep-walker. At these times, no less than during the long periods of quiescence on my bed, the observer would have seen that my face, and sometimes my whole body, was constantly influenced by emotion and thought. For during the whole trance, of course, my brain would be experiencing sequences of events in the remote past, and my whole body would respond to these experiences with my normal emotional reactions. Thus to the observer I should appear to be asleep and dreaming, save that my expressions would be far more definite and systematic than those of a dreamer.

Here I will mention one point of philosophical interest. The duration of the trance has no relation to the duration of the past events observed. Thus I might lie in my comfortable prison for a year, and in that time I might observe many years of past events, or many thousands of years, or even the whole span of man’s history. The length of the trance depends only on the complexity of the matter observed. I might for instance spend a year in observing an immense number of simultaneous events which took only a few minutes to occur. Or I might cover the whole life of one individual in far more detail than was afforded by his own consciousness of his life story. Or I might sweep through whole epochs, tracing out only some one simple thread of change. In fact the length of the trance depends simply on the brain’s capacity to assimilate, not upon the actual duration of the events observed.

When as much material has been gathered as can be conveniently grasped, the explorer gradually withdraws his attention from the past. He then sinks into an undisturbed sleep which may last for several weeks. During this phase his body shows none of that ceaseless emotional expression which is characteristic of the main trance. It lies inert, as though stunned. Finally the explorer’s attention begins to concentrate itself again, and to revert once more to his own body and its surroundings. He wakes, and lies for a while passively accepting the new visual impressions. He then lives in his apartments for months or years recording his experiences in rough notes, to be organized at a later date. Sometimes, when this process is finished, he chooses to return at once, without respite, to the past for further data. Sometimes he leaves his room to confer with other workers. Sometimes he decides to drop his work and return to the contemporary world for refreshment.

ii. Difficulties and Dangers

How it comes that at the moment of the onset of the trance the explorer is freed from the limitations of his own date and place I cannot tell you. Suffice it that the process involves both a special organ in the brain and a special technique, which has to be learned through a long apprenticeship. In that moment of awakening the worker has seemingly a confused experience of all the great successive epochal phases of the human spirit, up to his own date. But as the content of that supreme moment almost wholly escapes his memory as soon as it is past, it is impossible to say anything definite about it. He seems, indeed, to see in a flash, as though from another dimension of time, the whole historical order of events. Of course, he sees them only schematically. Their vast complexity of detail cannot be grasped in an instantaneous view. What he experiences can only be described (unintelligibly I fear) as a summation of all happening, of all physical, mental and spiritual flux. One is tempted to say also that he is aware of the human aspect of this flux as a vast slumber of the spirit, punctuated with moments of watchfulness, a vast stagnation troubled here and there with tremors of tense activity. Though all this is seen in an instant, it does not appear static, but alive with real passage and change.

This sublime moment must not be permitted to endure, for it is lethal. Immediately the explorer must begin to select that part of the historical order which he desires to study. To do this he must adopt the fundamental attitude of mind, or temperamental flavour, which he knows to be distinctive of the desired period. This process demands very great skill, and involves a host of uncouth and nerve-racking experiences. As soon as he begins to succeed in assuming the appropriate mental attitude, all the periods save that which he has chosen fade out of his consciousness, and the chosen period becomes increasingly detailed. He has then to specialize his mental attitude still further, so as to select a particular phase or group-culture within his period. And this specialization he may carry further again, till he has brought himself into the mind of some particular individual at a particular moment. Having once gained a footing in the individual mind, he can henceforth follow all its experiences from within; or, if he prefers, he can remain in one moment of that mind, and study its microscopic detail.

Such is the essence of our method. First we have to attain the momentary glimpse of eternity, or, more precisely, to take up for one instant the point of view of eternity. Then by imagination and sympathy we have to re-enter the stream of time by assuming the fundamental form of the minds or the mind that we wish to observe. In this process we have to work by means of a very delicate ‘selectivity’, not wholly unlike that physical selectivity which you exercise when you pick up ethereal messages on a particular wavelength. But this process of picking up past minds is far more delicate, since the system of basic mental patterns is very much more complex than the one-dimensional series of wave-frequencies.

When our ancestors first acquired the power of ‘entering into the point of view of eternity’ they suffered many disasters through ignorance of its principles. Very many of the earliest explorers succumbed simply by failing to keep their bodies alive during the trance. Their sleep turned into death. Others fell into such violent convulsions that they damaged themselves irreparably, and were mercifully killed by the superintendents. In other cases the normal trance lasted indefinitely, the body remaining alive but unresponsive for millions of years. A section of the catacombs was until recently filled with these persons, who were looked after by the attendants in the hope that some day they might wake. But a few thousand years ago it was decided to do away with some, and use others for experimental purposes.

Of the early explorers who successfully emerged from ‘the point of view of eternity’ into some past epoch, many returned insane. Others, though sane when they woke, kept falling into the trance again and again. Others were so embittered by their experiences that they became plague-spots in the community, and had to be requested to stop their hearts. Of these, some few refused, and remained at large, doing so much damage that finally they were put to death. One or two of the pioneers, and one or two of my contemporaries also, have returned from the trance with a peculiar kind of insanity, which suggested that they had actually found their way into the future, and that they still regarded our contemporary world as an episode in the remote past. Unfortunately they could give no account of their experiences; but in one of the earliest cases the recorded ravings seem to refer to the Mad Star, which did not earn its name until long afterwards.

In the early stages of the work few persons were engaged on it, and all that they could do was to collect random incidents from the very recent past. Gradually, however, the technique was greatly improved. It became possible to inspect almost any sequence of events in the history of our own species. This could only be done because the basic mental patterns of all the races of our own species had already been fairly well worked out by our psychologists and historians. Later, however, the psychologists began to formulate a vast theoretical system of possible basic mental patterns; and after some barren experimenting the explorers finally learned to assume certain of these patterns in the trance. The result was startling. Not only did they, as was expected, gain access to many primitive cultures upon Neptune, but also they began to find themselves sometimes in alien worlds, apparently much smaller than their familiar planet. The proportions of common things were all altered. The seas rose into great waves; the lands were often buckled into huge mountain ranges. The native organisms, though unfortified by artificial atoms, were able to attain great size and yet remain slender and agile. And these facts were observed through the medium of human types the existence of which had never been guessed. The very planets which these races inhabited could not be identified. No wonder, since all traces of Earth and Venus had long ago been wiped out by the solar collision that had driven man to Neptune.

This discovery of past worlds was even more exciting to us than the discovery of America to your own ancestors; for it entailed incidentally the overthrow of a well-grounded theory, which traced the evolution of the human race to a primitive Neptunian organism. Interest in the exploration of the past now greatly increased. The technique was developed far beyond the dreams of the early explorers. Little by little the outline of man’s whole history on Earth and Venus was plotted, and tract after tract of it was elaborated in some detail.

In observing these extinct species, the explorers found traces of experience very different from their own. Although, of course, the basic mental pattern or temperamental ground-plan was in every case one which the explorer himself had been able to conceive, and even in a manner assume, in order to make contact with these primitive beings at all, yet when the contact had been made, he seemed to enter into a new mental world. For instance, he had to deal with minds whose sensory powers were much more limited than his own. Looking through those primitive eyes, he saw things in much less detail than through his own eyes, so that, though he observed everything with all the precision that his host’s crude vision could afford, yet everything seemed to him blurred, and out of focus. The colours of objects, too, were diluted and simplified; for several colours familiar to us are hidden from more primitive eyes. Consequently the world as seen through those eyes appears to us at first strangely drab, almost monochromatic, as though the observer himself had become partially colour-blind. The other senses also are impoverished. For instance, all touched shapes and textures seem curiously vague and muffled. The sensations of sexual intercourse, too, which with us are richly variegated and expressive, are reduced in the primitive to a nauseating sameness and formlessness. It is impossible for you to realize the jarring, maddening effects of this coarseness and emptiness of all the sensory fields, especially to the inexperienced explorer, who has not yet learned to submit his spirit generously to the primitive.

In the sphere of thought, we find all the primitive species of man, however different from one another, equally remote from ourselves. Even the most advanced members of the most advanced primitive species inhabit worlds of thought which to us seem naive and grotesque. The explorer finds himself condemned to cramp the wings of his mind within the caging of some gimcrack theory or myth, which, if he willed, he could easily shatter. Even in those rare cases in which the ground-plan of some edifice of primitive thought happens to be true to the simplest basic facts of the cosmos, as in your own theory of relativity, the superstructure which it ought to support is wholly absent. The explorer thus has the impression that the cosmos, with himself in it, has been flattened into a two-dimensional map.

In the sphere of desire the explorer has to deal with very unfamiliar and very jarring kinds of experience. In all human species, of course, the most fundamental animal desires are much the same, the desires for safety, food, a mate, and companionship; but the kind of food, the kind of companionship, and so on, which the primitive human mind seeks, are often very foreign and distasteful to us. Take the case of food. Of course the explorer’s body, lying in the catacombs on Neptune, does not, if perchance he is inhabiting some primitive glutton of the past, suffer dyspepsia; save occasionally, through the influence of suggestion. But none the less he may experience acute distress, for his brain is forced to accept sensory complexes of overeating which in normal life would disgust him. And they disgust him now. Even when overeating does not occur, the food percepts are often repulsive to our centres of taste and odour. In the matter of personal beauty, too, the explorer is at first repelled by the grotesque caricature of humanity which among primitive species passes for perfection, much as you yourselves may be repelled by the too-human animality of apes. Often, when he is following the growth of some primitive love-sentiment in your epoch, he is nauseated by the adored object, and by the intimacy in which he is reluctantly entangled. It is much as though a part of the mind were to watch the other part entrapped into romantic adoration of a female ape; as if with infinite disgust one were to find himself pressing against those hairy thighs. But indeed in this matter, as in others, since it is not mere animality that disgusts, but the failure to be human, the explorer is far more outraged than if he were compelled to cohabit with an ape. With familiarity, however, these repulsions can be surmounted. Just as your disgust of the ape’s approximation to the human is a weakness in you, due to lack of vision and sympathy, so our tendency to a disgust of your own crude approximation to the human is a weakness in us, which we have to learn to transform into a reverent, though often ironical, sympathy. Just as the surgeon may become accustomed to delving among viscera, and may even find beauty in them, so the explorer may and must accustom himself to all these primitive forms, and find beauty in them too. Of course the beauty which he discovers in the adored yet repulsive ape-woman is never simply identical with the beauty which delights the adoring ape-man; for it is a beauty which includes within itself both that which delights the primitive and that which disgusts the developed mind.

To all the preoccupations then, and to all the ways of life, and all the ideals, of the early races, the explorer must react with that delight which triumphs over contempt and disgust. Of course there is very much in this sphere which he can whole-heartedly enjoy, since much in primitive life is the unspoiled behaviour of the animal, and much also improves upon the animal. But at a very early stage primitive man begins to torture his own nature into grotesque forms, inadvertently or by intent; much as, inadvertently, he tortures his domestic animals, and by intent he turns his pets into freaks and caricatures. This violation of his own nature increases as he gains power, and reaches its height in primitive industrial communities such as your own. In such phases the individual body and spirit become more and more distorted, impoverished, noisome. The early explorer, studying these phases, was hard put to it to prevent his overwhelming indignation and nausea from spoiling his study. He had, of course, to observe it all as though it were happening to himself, since he observed it through the suffering minds of its victims. And so he was almost in the position of a sick doctor, whose spirit must triumph by delighting in the study of his own disease.

Grotesque sentiments such as the lust of business success or economic power of any kind, and indeed every purely self-regarding passion, from that of the social climber to that of the salvation-seeking ascetic, are experienced by the explorer with something of that shame which the child, emerging into adolescence, may feel toward the still-clinging fascination of his outgrown toys, or with such disgust as the youth may feel when he wakes from some unworthy sexual infatuation. But this shame and disgust the explorer must learn to transcend as the surgeon the disgust of blood. Even the passions of hate and gratuitous cruelty, so widespread in your own and all other primitive species, he must learn to accept with sympathy, in spite of his spontaneous revulsion from them and his well-justified moral condemnation of them.

One great difference between ourselves and most primitive minds is that, while in us all motives are fully conscious, fully open to introspection, in them scarcely any of their more complex motives are ever brought fully to light. Thus when the explorer is following some train of action in a primitive mind, he very often observes an immense discrepancy between the mind’s own view of its motives and the real motives which he himself sees to be in fact the source of the activity. To experience all the daily and hourly perversities of a life-long complex, to experience them not merely through clinical observation but in the most intimate manner, puts him to an extremely severe strain. At every turn his own mind is wrenched by the conflict in the mind that he is observing. And in him the conflict is wholly conscious and shattering. Not a few of our early observers became infected by the disorder which they had been studying, so that when they returned to their native world they could no longer behave with perfect sanity, and had to be destroyed.

To sum up, then, the earlier explorers were often desperately fatigued by the monotony of primitive existence and the sameness of primitive minds; and also they fell into disgust, an agony of disgust, with the crudity, insensitivity and folly of the primitive. From the one point of view it might be said that the Neptunian found himself condemned to sift the almost identical sand-grains of a desert, and even to record the minute distinctive features of each grain. From the other point of view, it was as though he had been banished from the adult world to the nursery or the jungle, and was actually imprisoned in the mind of babe or beast. For, once settled in the mind which he has chosen to study, the explorer is indeed a captive until study calls him elsewhere. Though he thinks his own thoughts, he perceives only what the other perceives, and is forced to endure every least sensation, thought, desire and emotion of the other, be it never so banal. Like one who feels within his own mind the beginnings of some mania or obsession which, though he recognizes that it is irrational or base, he cannot control, so the explorer is doomed to experience sympathetically all his subject’s thinking and desiring, even while he is nauseated by it. No wonder, then, that many early explorers were tortured by disgust or ennui.

Long before my time, most of these dangers and irks of exploration had been greatly reduced. One serious trouble, however, remains, and has even increased. A great army of workers was of course bred with special aptitudes for supra-temporal experience, and with special insight into the primitive types of mind. These new workers were given also a special enthusiasm and sympathy in respect of the past; and herein lay their danger. In my day every member of the race has something of this enthusiasm and sympathy; and we explorers have them in an extreme degree. So enthralling do we find the past, even in all its monotony and squalor, that many have succumbed to its spell, and lost all footing in the present world. Rapt in some great movement of history, or in some individual life-story, the explorer may lose, little by little, all memory of the future world of which he is a native, may in fact cease to be a future mind inspecting a past mind, and become instead a mere undertone or freakish propensity in the past mind itself, or in many past minds. In time even this may vanish, so that the explorer becomes identical with the explored. If this occurs, his own body, situated in the future and in Neptune, gradually disintegrates and dies.

Certain other troubles hamper even the most modern explorers, in spite of improved technique. The method by which we enter a past epoch is, as I have said, this process of shaping our minds to the basic pattern or ground tone of the epoch to be studied. But when the explorer desires to enter a particular individual, he must try to assume the complex form or temperament which is distinctive of that individual; or else he must seize on one unique desire or thought, which he supposes to be peculiar to that individual at a certain date of his life. Now this process of mental infection or association does not necessarily work in his favour. Often, when he is trying to establish himself in some mind, or even when he has long been established, some chance association in his own thought-process may suddenly snatch him away from the object of his study and fling him into some other mind. Sometimes this other is a contemporary of the recent object of study; but often it is a mind in some different epoch or world. When this happens, not only is the study broken short, but also the explorer may be very seriously damaged. His brain, on Neptune, suffers such a fundamental and rapid readjustment that it is grievously jarred and strained, and may never recover. Even if he does not actually succumb, he may have to take a long holiday for recuperation. Fortunately, however, it is only the more extravagant dislocations that are really dangerous. Occasional jolts into minds of the same basic pattern as the original object of study are more exasperating than harmful.

Often when the explorer is resident in a particular individual he encounters through that individual’s perception another individual, who, he thinks, would repay immediate study. He has then to observe this other carefully through the perceptions of the first, so as to discover, if possible, some entry into his mind. This may be very difficult, since one primitive mind’s awareness of another is often so erroneous and biased that the perceptions which would make for true understanding of the other fail to occur. Moreover there is always the danger that, when the explorer attempts this ‘change of mounts’ he may fall between them, and be flung violently once more into his native location in time and space. Or again, he may at the critical moment be snatched by some chance association into some other epoch or world. Such accidents are of course very damaging, and may prove fatal.

Here I may mention that some minds, scattered up and down the ages, defeat all attempts to enter them. They are very rare, only one in millions of millions; but they are such as we should most desire to enter. Each one of these rare beings has caused the ruin of a great company of our most able explorers. They must be in some vital respect alien to us, so that we cannot assume their nature accurately enough to enter them. Possibly they are themselves subject to an influence future even to us. Possibly they are possessed and subtly transformed by minds native to some world in a remote stellar system. Possibly, even, they are under the direct influence of the cosmical mind, which, we hope, will awaken in the most remote of all futures.

Explorers of the past incur one other danger which I may mention. Sometimes the past individual under observation dies suddenly, before the explorer can foresee the death, and free himself. In many cases, of course, he knows the date at which the other’s death will occur, and can therefore, having prepared himself for a normal departure, observe the course of events right up to the moment of death, and yet escape before it is too late. But sometimes, especially in pioneering in some unexplored region of history, the explorer is as ignorant of the immediate future as the observed mind itself.. In such cases a dagger, a bullet, a flash of lightning, even an unforeseen heart-failure, may fling him back to his own world with a shattering jerk, which may irreparably damage his brain, or even kill him outright. Many of the early observers of your recent European War were caught in this manner. Resident in the mind of some soldier in action, the observer himself was annihilated by the shell that destroyed the observed. If burial were one of our practices, we, like you, might have our war graves of 1914 to 1918, though they would not have been dug till two thousand million years later. Nor would they be decorated by national emblems. Nor would they bear the cross.

iii. Influencing Past Minds

Our power of taking effect on past minds is much more restricted than our power of passively observing their processes. It is also a much more recent acquisition. To you it seems impossible; for future events, you suppose, have no being whatever until their predecessors have already ceased to exist. I can only repeat that, though future events have indeed no temporal being until their predecessors have ceased to exist with temporal being, all events have also eternal being. This does not mean that time is unreal, but that evanescence is not the whole truth about the passing of events. Now some minds, such as ours, which are to some extent capable of taking up the point of view of eternity, and of experiencing the eternal aspects of past events in other minds, can also to some extent contribute to the experience of those minds in the past. Thus when I am observing your mental processes, my activity of observing is, in one sense, located in the past. Although it is carried out from the point of view of my own experience in the future, it enters the past through the eternal side of past events in your minds. When I act upon your minds, as for instance in inculcating thoughts and images in the writer of this book, that activity of mine is located in your age. Yet it is done, so to speak, from my purchase in the future, and with all my Neptunian experience in view.

From this rare but important action of the future on the past it follows that past events, which themselves cause future events, are in part the product of future events. This may seem unintelligible. But in fact there is no more mystery in it than in the reciprocal interaction of two minds that know one another. The one, which owes its form partly to the other, is itself one factor determining the other’s form.

As I said before, the only way in which we can influence a past mind is by suggesting in that mind some idea or desire, or other mental event, which is intelligible to a mind of that particular order, and is capable of being formulated in terms of its own experience. Some minds are much more receptive than others. The great majority are wholly impervious to our influence; and, even among those who are not insensitive, very many are so strictly dominated by their own desires and prejudices that any thought or valuation which we consider worth suggesting to them is at once violently rejected.

There are many complications and difficulties in this strange work. In the first place we may chance to do serious damage to the past mind by unwise influence, for instance by presenting it with ideas which are too disturbing to its nature. For though some ideas are so foreign to a mind that they are simply rejected, others, though alien to the superficial part of its nature, may be incendiary to the submerged part, as sparks falling upon tinder. Thus an idea which to the explorer seems straightforward and harmless may produce in the past mind a self-discrepant experience both of revelation and of horror; and the resulting conflict throughout the mind may lead to catastrophe. Or the idea may so captivate and exalt the unfortunate person that he loses all sense of proportion, is instigated to some fantastic course of action, and finally comes into serious collision with his society.

Another difficulty lies in the fact that our influence is not always voluntary. Thoughts and desires of our own, which we have no intention of transmitting, may sometimes find their way into the mind under observation; and their effect may be disastrous. For instance, a sudden surge of contempt or indignation on the part of an inexperienced explorer, when he observes his ‘host’ commit some egregious folly or meanness, may flood a hitherto complacent mind with bewildering self-contempt. And this novel experience, coming thus without preparation, may shatter the whole flimsy structure of the mind by destroying its carapace of self-pride. Or again, the explorer’s own clear-eyed and ecstatic view of the cosmos, as both tragic and worshipful, may sear the optimistic faith of a primitive religious mind, without being able to raise it to the loftier worship.

Our influence, then, upon the past is a very much more precarious and restricted power than our past-exploration. All that we can do is to offer to a very small minority of minds some vague hint of a truth or of a beauty which would otherwise be missed, or some special precept, or seminal idea, relevant to the mind’s particular circumstances. This may be done either by a constant ‘tilting’ of the mind in a certain general direction, or, much more rarely, by occasional impregnation of the mind with some precise idea or valuation. In very exceptional cases, which number no more than one in many thousands of millions, we can subject the individual to a constant stream of detailed suggestion which he himself can embody in a more or less faithful report. But here we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. To undergo this detailed suggestion, the individual must be extremely receptive; but in the main those that are extremely receptive lack originality, so that, in spite of their detailed receptivity, they either entirely miss the true spirit of the communication, or fail to embody it in a manner capable of stirring their fellows. On the other hand the highly original minds, even when they are also very receptive, tend deliberately to ignore the detail of the suggestion. Thus they produce works which, though true to the spirit of the suggestion, are embodied in manners expressive of their own genius.

iv. Hovering Over Time

I must now give you a more precise idea of the strange experiences which befall the explorer when he is trying to get a footing in some particular moment of some particular past mind. Each explorer has his own technique, and each adventure its own vicissitudes; but I shall tell simply of my own approach to your world and epoch on that occasion which I have already begun to describe.

Emerging presently from that ineffable moment in which I participated in the eternal view, I was at the outset conscious of a vague restlessness, a most poignant yet indefinite yearning, and along with this a violent and confused agitation of all my senses. Even though this was not my first excursion into these realms, I was overwhelmed with the pathos of man’s ever-unsatisfied and blindly fumbling desire, and equally by the tyranny of his rare joys and the torture of his distresses. At the outset this yearning and this sensory tumult were, so to speak, all that there was of me; but with an effort I woke to something more precise. I held the obscure thing away from me, and looked at it calmly. As I did so, it developed under my very eyes, the eyes of my mind, into a surge of specific primitive cravings and passions, which, though I lived them as my own, I also regarded, as it were, from a great height of aloofness. I was now experiencing the summed and confused experiences of all mankind. They came to me with the vagueness of a composite photograph, but also with that sense of multitude, of innumerable individual uniquenesses, which one may sometimes catch in listening to the murmur of a great crowd. Yet all these multitudinous experiences were in a manner mine, and combined into one experience, like the single deliverance of a man’s two eyes. I was terrified and longed for safety, hungry and lusted for food. I was enraged against some obscure adversary. I tasted the joy of murder, and equally the final despair of the victim. I was solitary, and my flesh burned with sexual potency; outcast, and my mind hungered for companionship.

Against this vast enduring background of primitive craving I experienced also momentary gleams of loftier desire, rare and faint as voices heard above the storm. I felt the longing and the delight of spiritual intimacy with another mind, the longing and the delight of truth, the longing and the delight and glory of participation in a great community, the longing and the delight of faith. I felt also the terror, the despair, the peace and final ecstasy, which is the way of true worship. But all these illuminations of the spirit were no more than stars piercing for a moment the storm-cloud of the primitive.

While I was undergoing all these obscure impulses, tumultuous messages were also pouring in through all my senses. At first indeed I received such a medley of impressions that I was aware only of a nondescript and distressing commotion. But, as I attended to this, the matter of the various senses began to differentiate itself. Thus at first I seemed to be subjected to a general pressure all over my body; but under scrutiny this developed into a profusion of hardnesses and softnesses, roughnesses and smoothnesses, rotundities and angularities. I felt the pressure of earth under my feet. I felt myself lying on hard ground, and then on a kindly bed. With my hands I felt a multitude of textures, as of stone, tree-trunks, fur, and the incomparable touch of human flesh, in all its repellent and its enticing modes. I felt also a vague warmth and chill, which, by attending to them, I could develop into violent heat and cold, or the bite of fire and frost. Innumerable pains invaded me. At first they seemed to struggle against a sense of physical well-being, a tingling healthiness; but soon pain triumphed; for it had at the outset a compelling poignancy which increased alarmingly under attention. The whole surface of my body, it seemed, was tortured; and my internal organs were all gripped in agony. My brain throbbed and burned, and was stabbed through and through in all directions. But in truth the brain that was thus tormented was not mine, nor the bowels mine, nor the skin. The source of my torture lay in the innumerable bodies of my predecessors. Wrenching my attention from this horror, I noticed a confusion of tastes, fragrances and stenches. And along with these there came sounds. A muffled roar, as of the sea or a distant bombardment, grew as I listened to it into a crashing and shrieking, which reverberated through my whole body. By a special act of attention, a straining of the mind’s ear, I could penetrate beyond this uproar, and hear an obscure vocal sound, which, as I listened, became inarticulate lamentation, flecked here and there with laughter.

In the field of vision I experienced at first nothing but a vague brightness above and obscurity below. This was due to the fact that in most minds of all periods, save those in which indoor life predominates over outdoor life, daytime-experience contains in the main a light sky and a darker ground. As soon as I began to attend to the matter of this vision, it revealed itself as being after all rich with detail. First, both in the light and in the dark field, there moved unrecognizable shadowy forms and occasional colours. Then aloft I began to see white clouds sailing in blue sky, then widespread rain-cloud, then thunder-cloud, and then in a moment the broad unbroken blue; then night, obscure, starry, moonlit, and again obscure. Below, I saw sometimes hills, crags, tree-tops, meadows, bright flowers and plumage, sometimes breakers on the shore, sometimes huts, mansions in many styles, or congested towns, sometimes interiors of splendour or comfortable homeliness or squalor. All these forms kept appearing, vanishing, reappearing, invading one another and exterminating one another, like the visions that haunt us between waking and sleeping. I saw also forms of beasts, and human forms of all the species, from hairy pithecanthropus, and your own fantastically clothed half-human kind, to those large and noble beings who were the last Terrestrials, and the bat-like fliers of Venus, and my own immediate ancestors on Neptune. I saw limbs writhing in agony, limbs dancing, limbs straining in toil and sport, fair limbs embracing, limbs grotesque and crippled. Faces also appeared and vanished, singly or in crowds, faces eager and disillusioned, faces twisted by pain, or by rapacity, faces expressionless as pebbles, faces of terror, hate, meanness, faces of peace and of exultation; child faces, faces of maturity all aglow with life, faces grey, wrinkled, sagging, old; and faces of the dead, impassive, sealed against experience.

Along with these visions of humanity, would sometimes come faint sexual sensations, which, when I attended to them, opened out into a whole world of amorous experience, of lyrical first matings and desolate repetitions, of violations, thwarted crises, lonely makeshifts, of the bland unions of long-tried lovers, of senile failures, and the whole gamut of perversions.

Intermingled with these purely perceptual visions, there came to me all manner of experiences of personal relationships. I was flooded with the lovings and hatings, of all men and women, by their co-operations and rivalries, by all the modes of leadership, by all fealties and servitudes. I became a mother toiling for a son whose thought was not of her; I became a son held within the soft, strong meshes of his home. I had a glimpse, as it were both from without and from within their minds, of myriads of the boys and girls of all the species, opening their eyes in amazement upon life, knowing neither what they ought to be doing with it nor even how to wrest from it the simple joys they so vaguely conceived. I glimpsed likewise the myriads of grown men and women, with all their hopes thwarted, and their minds desperately concerned only to keep their bodies alive, or at most their heads above their fellows. And the old I glimpsed also, with their lives written indelibly into the great story of worlds. Through their eyes I watched the young things rising up all around them and beyond them, like birds that rise and leave their wounded on the ground. It seemed too that I entered into the minds of the innumerable toilers of all the aeons. I felt the ache and the leaden weight of their limbs, the sick ache of their eye-balls, and the hopelessness of their crippled souls. I felt also the calm of spirit, the strenuous peacefulness, of those few who are wholly and gladly possessed by their work.

There poured in upon me also all the thoughts and fantasies and ideals of all men and women in all ages. My mind reeled and staggered in the tide of them, and was swept to and fro upon the great ocean of whimsies and dreams, doctrines and theories. With the prehuman beings, I fashioned imaginatively, step by step, the whole world of perceptual common sense, that tissue of theories and images, so true and so false, which to most human beings of all species appears to be the unquestionable real. I observed, as in my own mind, the flashes of primeval genius that had gone to the making of that great medley of fact and fiction. With the ape-men, too, I projected souls into trees and mountains, storms and stars. And with them also I felt the first painful birth-throes of true intellect. To trap my prey, to beguile my mate, or build my shelter, I reasoned, I put two and two together. But every motion of this reason I distorted with fantasies born of mere desire, and when this hybrid failed me I blamed reason.

All manner of laborious reasonings and intricate bright myths flashed across my mind and vanished. In the twinkling of an eye I savoured cosmology after cosmology, I saw Shiva, Odin, Zeus, Jaweh and his fair offspring Jesus, and innumerable other god-heads, of wrath and righteousness, of wisdom, of power, of love, emanations from the minds of all the races, all the species of man. And with these I tried out a million sciences and philosophies, amongst which, as yet ever so faint and remote, like the voices of two bright confident quarrelling children, that‘materialism’ and that‘spiritism’ which resound throughout your little play-room world. Theories, theories, myriads upon myriads of them, streamed over me like wind-borne leaves, like the contents of some titanic paper-factory flung aloft by the storm, like dust-clouds in the hurricane advance of the mind. Gasping in this vast whirling aridity, I almost forgot that in every mote of it lay some few spores of the organic truth, most often parched and dead, but sometimes living, pregnant, significant.

v. Descent Among the First Men

During the whole of this early stage of my adventure I was already trying to select from the confusion of experiences something which might serve to bring me nearer to your own particular phase of the human process. My chief method of directing myself toward your age is, as I have already said, to assume imaginatively, and as precisely as possible, first the basic temperamental pattern of your species, and then the particular form of it which is characteristic of your period, and of that unique point and moment of individuality which I desire to study. This work I was already attempting; but it was hampered on this occasion, and on most others, by the prodigious influx of perceptions, thoughts and emotions which I have attempted to describe. I was like a swimmer swept hither and thither by great waves, and scarcely able to make the particular rocky creek which is his haven.

I had first to conceive, and emotionally assume, the general form of all primitive human mentality, so as to exclude from my view the whole of my own species, and also that other, abortive, phase of spiritual maturity, which took place just before man left the earth. I had to become in imagination a bewildered limited being, ignorant of its own nature, ever racked by inner conflicts which eluded its apprehension, ever yearning to be whole, yet ever carried away by momentary cravings which were ludicrous even in its own estimation. With patience I was able to achieve this piece of inner play-acting with such success that I began to have definite but fleeting glimpses of individuals and incidents among the primitive kinds of men, now a winged Venerian, skimming his wild ocean, now a woman of the Third Men, ruddy and lithe, feeding her beasts, now a scarcely human early inhabitant of Neptune. These individuals I perceived, of course, through the eyes of some contemporary; and if ever I troubled to look at ‘my own’ body during these experiences, I perceived it to be not my familiar body at all, but of the same species as the observed individual. Perceiving through the eyes of past beings, I perceived their bodies as though they were each in turn my own body.

I had now to select that mode of the primitive which is distinctive of your own species, a mode characterized by repressed sexuality, excessive self-regard, and an intelligence which is both rudimentary and in bondage to unruly cravings. Now though all the races of your species in all its stages manifest, in spite of their differences, one unique blend of these factors, yet the process of imaginatively assuming this mode of mentality is dangerous; for there is another species, one of our fore-runners on Neptune, which is strangely like you in this respect. I now found myself, as often before, oscillating painfully between these two phases of man’s career. I saw now the hills and tall trees of Earth, now the plains and bushes of Neptune. I assumed now the spidery limbs and jaunty gait of a Terrestrial, now the elephantine legs, kangaroo arms and grave demeanour of an early Neptunian. I listened for a moment to Attic disputation, then suddenly to primitive Neptunian grunts and clicks. It was as though I were listening-in with a radio set of bad selectivity. Or, to change the image, I was a storm-tossed buzzard among the hills, beneath me a dividing range, on either side of it a valley. Into one of these valleys I purposed to descend, but the wind kept thrusting me back over the ridge into the other. At one moment I saw beneath me the desired valley; then, after a vain struggle, the other. At length, however, by a violent effort of attention I succeeded in concentrating upon your species and avoiding the other. Gradually the imagery and thought which flooded in on me came to be entirely derived from the First Men, in one or other of their phases.

But my experience was still chaotic. I had indeed a strong but vague apprehension of your species as a historic whole, of its many long phases of somnolence and its few brief effulgences. And after careful inspection I detected that sense of cosmical tragedy which overwhelmed, or, from your point of view, will overwhelm, the more intelligent of your descendants, when they realize that their species is setting inevitably into decline. But for the most part I had merely a sickening confusion of random samples from all your ages. Thus, at one moment I was an Aurignacian, engraving his cave wall with vivid shapes of deer and bison, while my fellow hunters peered with admiration through the smoke. Now I was a Chinese citizen of that Americanized world-state which lies future to you; and I was speaking in worn and polluted English to my Soudanese wife. Now I was an Elizabethan dame, tight-laced and plastered with jewellery. Suddenly I flashed many thousands of years ahead into that Patagonian civilization which is the last weary effort of your species. I was a prematurely aged boy, prostrate in a temple before the grotesque image of power. Not until many more of these visions had appeared, and been dismissed, did I find myself approximately in your age. I was an Indian confronting a topeed, bare-kneed Englishman. Rage was in my heart, fear, contempt and subterfuge, and as little understanding of the other as he had of me.

Fatigued but now more hopeful, I forced myself rigorously into the mentality which is common to most members of a primitive industrialistic community. To you this curious mode of experience is so familiar that you do not suspect its rarity and oddity, though many of you feel that it is neither wholesome nor inevitable. That you may realize the violent effort of imagination and emotional control that was now incumbent on me, I will set down the main features which render the primitive industrial mentality so difficult for the explorer. To revert to the image which I have already used, it is as though the buzzard, having successfully descended into the valley of his choice, were now to enter the ventilation shaft of an old disused mine, and were to sink downwards in the dark through fetid air, with scarcely room to keep his wings outspread. No wonder that he suffers considerable distress and incurs serious dangers, before he finally alights amongst the pale and eyeless fauna of the pit. No wonder that his own eyes take time to accustom themselves to the dim phosphorescence which is the sole illumination of that world. When the explorer seeks to establish himself in your society, he has first to assume that jarred and restless mood which is common to all those whose habitual environment is alien to their native capacities. In particular he must imaginatively produce in himself the lifelong strain of perceiving streets, traffic, and stuffy interiors, instead of the landscapes which originally moulded his capacities. He must also reconstruct in himself the unconscious obsession with matter, or rather with the control of matter by machinery and chemical manipulation. He must conceive also the mind’s unwitting obeisance and self-distrust before its robot offspring. Further, he must subject his own free-roaming spirit to the hideous effects of a narrow specialism, both of body and mind. He must conceive the almost inconceivable ignorance and groping hate of the being whose life is moulded to one narrow round of duties and perceptions. Equally he must conceive the profound unwitting guiltiness of the primitive industrial master, and also of that idle scum that floats on the surface of all primitive industrial societies.

Little by little I reproduced in myself this cramped and ungenerous mode of the mind; and, as I did so, visions of your world came crowding in upon me with increasing vividness. I became a half-naked woman in a coal-mine of your Industrial Revolution. I crept on hands and knees along a low gallery. Tugging at the collar like a beast, I dragged a truck. The trace passed between my legs. I was whimpering, not from any present discomfort, but because I had lost a keepsake. This incident was obviously a century or more too early, but others followed, and more and more of them were of your period. I had now to seek out a particular individual among you, and a particular moment of his life. But in doing so, I nearly suffered catastrophe. On Venus there was once, or rather from your point of view there will be, an industrial phase much like your own in certain respects, although the species which produced it was very different from yours. Into that epoch I was suddenly flung by I know not what detail of identity. A face which was obviously not of the First Men, a pale and blinking frog-like face, with a running sore beneath the left eye and a fantastic hat cocked backwards, slowly grimaced at me. For one anxious moment I feared that I should be trapped in that Venerian phase of man, with my mind still moulded to the mentality of the First Men. But by a desperate effort of concentration upon the Terrestrial mode of experience I managed to disengage myself from this dangerous irrelevance. And with one leap I found myself back again at the desired point of your history.

vi. In the Streets of London

I was in a town. A great red vehicle, roaring and trumpeting, was in the act of swooping upon me. Leaping out of its track, I ran to the pavement where two contrary streams of pedestrians brushed past one another. As the archaic chariot left me, I saw on its flank the English word ‘General’, in letters of gold. I had already become familiar with this device on my previous visit to your world, and I now knew that I must be in London somewhere between the invention of the motor-omnibus and the socialization of all such vehicles under a metropolitan authority. The clothes of the women pedestrians were of the style worn in 1914. Skirts left the ankle exposed, waists were confined within broad belts of ribbon, hats were large, and poised high on the crown. Clearly I had struck the right period, but who was I, or rather who was my host? I noted with satisfaction that his basic mental pattern fitted very precisely the mood which I had already myself assumed to take me to my chosen object of study. Surely this must be the young man whom I sought. I shall not reveal his name, since with its aid he or his relatives might recognize the portrait, or the setting, which I must give in some detail. I shall therefore refer to him simply as Paul. I had already observed him on an earlier visit, but now I proposed to follow him through the most critical moment of the career of his species.

Paul was gravely agitated. I noticed a visual image looming in the recesses of his mind, an image not open to his own introspection. It was the face of his pet enemy of childhood days, and it was streaming with tears and blood. The child Paul had just put an end to this lad’s bullying by defending himself with a table-fork. He now consciously felt once more (though he knew not why) the horror and guilt that he had suffered long ago at the sight of his enemy’s damaged cheek. The experience was now accompanied by confused images of khaki, bayonets, and the theme of a patriotic song. Paul was experiencing, and I experienced through him, a distressing conflict of blood-loathing and martial fervour. Evidently I had come upon Paul in the midst of his great crisis. Like so many of his contemporaries, he was faced with the necessity of deciding whether he would or would not fight for king and country and gallant little Belgium. But with Paul the situation was complicated by the fact that ever since his childhood I had been tampering with his mind so as to make him more sensitive to the momentous issues which were at stake.

Had I needed further confirmation that my host was indeed Paul, it was available. He was now passing a shop which bore a panel of mirror between its windows. Such mirrors I had often noticed in your cities, cunning devices for attracting the attention of your amusingly and fatally self-gratulatory species. My host slackened his pace and gazed into the mirror. Indeed he actually halted for a moment. I at once recognized the youthful and anxious face that I had perforce so often observed in the shaving-glass. But I noticed that its habitual expression of watchful self-reserve was now intensified with some kind of suppressed but haunting terror. Neptunian vision detected also, contrasting with this callow distress, a gleam of contemptuous irony, new in Paul.

Only for a moment did Paul regard himself. With a blush and an impatient jerk he turned away, and looked anxiously to see if any one had been watching him. Immediately, with a deeper blush, he faced the mirror again, and pretended to be searching for grit, in his eye. Amongst the crowd of passers-by, two figures were approaching, and almost upon us. The young man was in khaki. The girl clung to his arm with demure possessiveness. He did not notice Paul, but she caught Paul’s eyes as he was turning toward the mirror. In the fraction of a second that elapsed before his eyes could free themselves, he saw that she dismissed him as no true male, that she thanked God her man was a soldier, and that she was ready to do her bit by yielding herself unconditionally to him. Real tears welled in Paul’s eyes to wash out the imaginary grit. I took a hasty glance at the most recent memories of my host, and saw that, while he had been walking along the Strand after his lunch he had been subject to several encounters of this sort, real or imaginary. By now he was badly shaken. He turned down a side-street, and wandered along the Embankment. Presently he was calmed by the quietly flowing water, still more, perhaps, by the Obelisk, that proud ancient captive among Lilliputians. To Paul it seemed refreshingly indifferent to their ant-wars. Suddenly his peace was shattered. Half a dozen urchins approached in military formation, accompanied by martial rhythms on an old tin can. As they passed him, one of them struck up on a mouth-organ an excruciating but recognizable version of a catchy song already in vogue among the troops. I felt Paul’s mind rear and plunge beneath me like a startled horse. Many times he had heard that tune; many columns of troops he had seen, with full equipment, marching toward the great railway terminus for entrainment toward the coast. But this commonplace little incident stirred him more deeply. It filled him with a desperate longing to be at one with the herd, to forget himself in the herd’s emotions, to sacrifice himself heroically to the herd’s gods.

A visual image now flashed into his view, a shop-front converted into a recruiting office. The window displayed posters to incite the laggard, ‘Your king and country need you’, and so on. This image Paul now greeted with a violent assent. On the heels of that swift mental gesture there followed a fleeting tactual image of a hand’s pressure on his hand, as though the whole nation were congratulating him on his decision.

Paul hurried away from the river with an almost swaggering gait. He took a short cut by back-streets to the recruiting office that he had so often passed, and as often circumvented so as to avoid its blatant reproaches. Street after street he threaded, and in each: succeeding street his resolution was less secure and his swagger less evident. The only clear conviction in his mind, was that, whichever course he finally took, he would regret it, and feel ashamed that he had not taken the other. His perplexity was the outcome not only of the objective moral problem as to what course was in fact the right course, but also of a subjective psychological problem, namely what would his motives really be if he took this course, and what if he took that.

I myself, observing his mind as he hurried along in dangerous abstraction among pedestrians and vehicles, was able to detect in him many motives hidden from his own observation. There is no need to give a complete inventory of the tangled impulses that were pulling him hither and thither in his perplexity, but one point must be made clear because of its significance. Paul’s indecision was in fact only superficial, was indeed illusory. To me, though not to Paul himself, it was evident that he had resolved on his course a good month earlier, and that however much he might seem to himself to be vacillating, his will was already fixed. This curious state of affairs was due to the fact that his deciding motive was not clearly apprehended; while at the same time he was very poignantly aware of a conflict between other motives which were not strictly relevant to the problem at all. Thus, he dared not enlist, lest his motive should be merely moral cowardice; he dared not refuse to enlist, lest his motive should be merely physical cowardice or moral pride. Whatever course he chose would almost certainly spring from purely selfish motives. In fact although the decision had indeed really been made long ago, he had ever since been chafing within his illusory cage of morality and selfishness, like a captive beast that rubs itself painfully against its bars without hope of escape.

The same forlorn task was occupying him when at last the recruiting office leapt into view. It was a corner house, diagonally opposite him. He stepped off the pavement, dodged the traffic, and was already half-way across, when his resolution finally vanished.

At the door stood a sergeant with a red, white and blue cockade. He had already sighted Paul, and was preparing to greet him with acquisitive geniality. Paul’s legs continued to carry him toward the door, though weakly; but Paul’s mind now woke to a surprisingly clear conviction that, whatever the reason, this thing must not be done. He reached the pavement. The sergeant stood aside to let him pass. Paul was almost in the doorway when he suddenly veered and scuttled away. His conviction vanished, but he continued to hurry along the pavement. Tears came to his eyes, and he whimpered to himself, ‘Coward, Coward’; with which verdict the sergeant doubtless agreed.

But to me, the detached observer, it was evident that though Paul was on the whole more of a coward than the average, and would have made a very bad soldier, it was not cowardice that had put him to flight. It is difficult to describe the determining though deeply hidden motive which, on this occasion as on others, snatched him away from the recruiting office. It was a motive present also in the majority of his contemporaries, though in few was it able to disturb the operation of more familiar motives. The real determinant of Paul’s behaviour was an obscure intuition, which your psychologists mostly fail to recognize as a basic and unanalysable factor in your nature. They fail to recognize it, because in you it is so precarious and so blind. You have no satisfactory name for it, since few of you are at all clearly aware of it. Call it, if you will, loyalty to the enterprise of life on your planet and among the stars; but realize that, though it is a natural product of age-long events, and though it cannot express itself at all unless it is evoked by education, it becomes, at a certain stage of evolution, a bias as strong and unreasoned as the bias in favour of food or offspring. Indeed these propensities are but gropings toward this more general but equally non-rational bias. This it was that in Paul, partly through my earlier influence, partly through his own constitution, was strong enough to turn him aside on the threshold of the recruiting office. This it was that in the majority of Paul’s contemporaries caused, indeed, grave agony of mind, but could not bring them to refuse war.

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