Last Men in London, by Olaf Stapledon

8 The Modern World

i. Paul Undertakes His Task

WITH this spiritual achievement solidly accomplished, Paul was ready to observe London and the world with new eyes. In fact he was now well fitted to carry out the main work that I had purposed for him. He himself would have been content simply to carry on his teaching with new vitality and conscientiousness, and for the rest to pursue with deeper understanding his leisurely tour of the countries of the mind. But he was soon to discover that more was demanded of him, and that he who had so lately learned the lesson of quietness, must now embark on a life more active, more resolute, than anything that he had formerly attempted.

His new purpose dawned on him slowly, and as it became clear to him and formidable, he both lusted in it and feared it. His final and precise apprehension of it flashed upon him as he was waiting on the top of a stationary and throbbing motor-omnibus outside the great railway terminus of Cannon Street, watching the streams of bowlered or soft-hatted business men, hurrying to their offices. There surged through him suddenly a violent hunger, or was it a sacred call, to apprehend precisely and with understanding the whole phenomenon of the modern world, to see it in relation to his recent vision, to discover its deeper significance. So insistent was this new craving that he had to restrain himself from descending there and then into the street to ask each of the crowd in turn what he was really doing with his life, and why.

Paul was frightened by the violence of his own desire, and by its quality of freakishness, even of insanity. He pulled himself together and argued against it. It would interfere with his own work, and with his peace of mind. He was not fitted for any such world-study. Moreover, he ought not to give up his life to merely apprehending; he must do, must serve. However well he should understand, the world would be none the better.

As the days passed, however, this new craving took firmer hold of him. He felt it growing into an irresistible, an insane obsession. So violently did he strive to exorcize it, that he was threatened with breakdown. Clearly, if he were forced to pursue my purpose against this desperate reluctance, he would pursue it ill. I therefore decided that, in order to gain his willing co-operation, I must attempt to give him a frank and precise explanation of my relations with him. This would be a difficult undertaking, and one which would have been impossible to carry out on any but a carefully selected and prepared individual.

One night, as Paul was lying in bed, I constructed in his imagination a detailed image of myself as I should have appeared to his eyes. He saw me as a great grey human monolith, snake-eyed. I then spoke to him, through his own imagination. I explained that I was a human being of the remote future, living upon Neptune, and that it was my task to study the Terrestrial ages of Man. For this work, I said, I had chosen him as my instrument. If necessary I could by an inner compulsion force him to work for me, but the work would fare better if he would enter into it willingly. I explained that, by helping me to render something of Terrestrial history into the consciousness of my own species, which, I said, was mentally far more advanced than his own, he would be serving not only me but his own kind.

Next morning Paul recalled the night’s experience with amazement, but dismissed it as a dream. On succeeding nights I influenced him again, giving him more detail of my world and my power over himself. I referred him, moreover, to two books. One of these, already published, was An Experiment with Time, by J. W. Dunne, This work, I told him, though to the Neptunian mind it was philosophically naive, might help him to understand the incursion of future events into the present. The other book, which would be called Last and First Men, had yet to appear.

When Paul encountered the first of these books, he was profoundly disturbed, and still more so when, some months later, he read the other in manuscript. He now became convinced of the reality of my intercourse with him. For a while he was terrified and revolted at the knowledge that another human mind had access to his every thought, and could even induce him to think and desire as it was not in his own nature to think and desire. That his character should be largely the product of another mind seemed to him at first an intolerable violation of his privacy, nay, of his identity. I had therefore to remind him, patiently and night by night, that even apart from my power over him he was an expression of influences other than himself, that whatever was distinctive of him was not truly his at all. ‘You forget’, I said, ‘that your nature is the product of an infinite mesh of causes; of evolution, of the hither-thither turmoil of human history, and finally of your parents, of Katherine, of the war, and of your boys. Will you then rebel because yet another influence, hitherto unsuspected, is discovered to have part in you, an influence, too, which has very greatly increased your spiritual stature? If so, your recent illumination on the Down was less deep than it should have been. You have not realized in your heart that the bare private individuality is a negligible thing, that what is glorious or base is the form which circumstance imposes on it. I myself am in the same case with you. I am the product of a vast web of circumstance, and my mind is probably open to the critical inspection and even the influence of I know not what beings superior to myself. Compared with you I am indeed of a higher order of mentality, but no credit is due to me for this greater richness and significance of my nature. As well might the concluding chord of a symphony take credit for the significance poured into it by all its predecessors. There is of course in both of us, and in all men, and all living things, and all sub-vital beings, the one universal miracle of spontaneous doing, which is the essential life of all existence. Through the aid or the limitation of circumstance some may do much, others little. What matter which of us does which? All the tones of the music are needed for the music’s perfection. And it is the music alone that matters, not the glorification of this instrument or that.’

In a few days Paul was reconciled to his fate to such an extent that he began eagerly to debate with himself how he should gratify the new passion which hitherto he had only with difficulty restrained. The fervour with which he embarked on his task combined the lusty hunger of an appetite with the exaltation of a sacred duty.

I further prepared him by making him realize that his recent experience on the Down was the vital spark lacking to all typical modern thought, the missing and all-relevant word without which its jumble of verbiage could never make sense, the still small voice which alone, working in each heart, could ever bring peace to the modern world. Paul knew, of course, that this experience of his was by no means unique. Other ages had more profoundly entered into it. Even in his own age it sometimes occurred. But it had played little part in the common life of the mind; the few who had known it had nearly always withdrawn into their inner fortress. Disengaging themselves from the dross which confuses modern thought, they had at the same time unwittingly rejected a treasure which had never before come within man’s reach. Contenting themselves with vain repetitions of old truths, they were deaf to the new truth which was as yet but stammeringly expressing itself in men’s minds. They could see very clearly the central error of the modern spirit, namely, the belief that reality is wholly included in the world of sense. Revolting from this folly, they erroneously declared this world a phantom and a snare, and naively conceived that in their ecstasy the soul, escaping from illusion, found herself at last untrammelled and immortal. I was at pains to make Paul see unmistakably that, for those who have entered superficially into the life of the spirit, this is the most insidious, the most lethal of all snares.

On the day after his illumination upon the Down, Paul had told himself that he had escaped from the foundering vessel of himself. The swarms of his fellow men and women all over the world could do nothing but labour incessantly from wave to wave of the maelstrom, pausing only now and then on some crest to look around them and realize that they were ploughing a waste of waters; and that one and all must sink. Paul saw them tormented by self-prizing; though also more nobly tortured and exalted by personal love, and by the intensified pain of watching the beloved’s pain. This it was, indeed, that chiefly dignified them above the beasts. But this also it was that tethered them to the waste of waters, like foundering may-flies. Their interest was almost wholly personal, either in self-regard, or hate, or love; but increasingly they saw that in the waste of existence there could be no lasting home for personal spirits anywhere, and so no permanency of comfort for anyone’s beloved. Each of them, and each beloved, must settle heavily down into old age, like leaky vessels. If only they could have sunk in battle array fighting for some great cause! But their sailing orders had not come through to them, or had been so mutilated that they found no clear direction.

Thus Paul had figured things out on the day after his illumination. By some miracle he himself, seemingly, had escaped from the foundering vessel of himself. He had escaped simply by a leap of the imagination, a soaring flight into the upper air; whence, selfless, he could watch the shipwreck of himself and all selves with a strange, still compassion, but without revolt. Yet subsequently, under my continued influence, he saw that this image was false and dangerous. He had not escaped. No self could escape. And now at last he realized that escape was not desirable. For he had seen something of the beauty for which all selves, if they could but see it, would suffer gladly, and gladly be annihilated.

Paul now once more turned his attention to the world that it was his task to observe. Suddenly a truth, which he had long vaguely known, but had never before clearly stated to himself, became both clear and urgent. At last he saw the situation of his species unambiguously from the cosmical point of view. He saw what it was that he and his contemporaries should be doing with their world. Fate had given them an opportunity which had been withheld from every early age. They had stumbled on the power of controlling the destiny of the human race.

They had already gained some mastery over physical nature, and a far greater mastery was seemingly in store for them. Already their world had become one world, as it had never been before. Moreover, they must some day learn how to remake human nature itself, for good or for ill. If they could begin to outgrow their limitations of will, if they could feel beyond their self-regard, their tribal jealousies and their constant puerile obsessions, then they could begin not only to construct a Utopia of happy individuals, but to make of their planet a single and most potent instrument of the spirit, capable of music hitherto unconceived.

What humanity should do with itself in the far future, no one could tell; but one conviction now stood out with certainty in Paul’s mind, namely, that over all the trivial and inconsistent purposes that kept the tribes of men in conflict with one another, there was one purpose which should be the supreme and inviolate purpose of all men today, namely, to evoke in every extant human being the fullest possible aliveness, and to enable all men to work; together harmoniously for the making of a nobler, a more alive human nature.

Some such purpose as this was obscurely dawning in many minds throughout the Western and even the Eastern world. But though they were many, they were a minute proportion of the whole; and their vision was unclear, their will unsure. Opposed to them were many violent powers, and the dead-weight of custom, not only in the world but in themselves also. What chance was there that these few groping minds would wrench the great world into a new way of living? Paul now with eager interest, nay with passion, with awe, with grim zest, took up his task of watching and assessing the intense little drama of your age.

Lest he should lose sight of the wider bearings of that drama, Paul first meditated on the cosmical significance of human endeavour, which now for the first time was beginning to be tentatively apprehended by man himself. The immediate outcome of his meditation was this poem:

Is man a disease
that the blood of a senile star
cannot resist?
And when the constellations regard us.
is it fear, disgust, horror.
(at a plague-stricken brother
derelict from beauty).
that stares yonder
so sharply?
Gas the stars are.
They regard us not.
they judge us not.
they care for nothing.
We are alone in the hollow sky.
Then ours, though out of reach, those trinkets.
ours the sleeping and uncommanded genii
of those old lamps;
ours by right of mentality;
by right of agony.
by right of long heart-searching.
by right of all we must do with them
when our day comes.
when we have outlived our childishness.
when we have outgrown
the recurrent insanity of senility.
Then surely at last man.
and not bickering monkeys.
shall occupy the universe.

ii. The Research

Paul now devoted all his leisure to his great exploration. He began tentatively, by reading much modern literature, and talking politics and philosophy with his friends. Both these occupations were of course familiar to him; but whereas formerly they had been pursued in the spirit of the tourist, a rather bewildered tourist, now they were carried out with passion and an assurance which to Paul himself seemed miraculous. This beginning led him on to make a careful study of the mentality of the whole teaching profession, both in schools and universities; and this in turn developed into a wide and profound research into all manner of mental types and occupations from road-menders to cabinet ministers. With my constant help, and to his own surprise, the silent and retiring young schoolmaster, who had always been so painfully conscious of the barrier between himself and his kind, began actively to seek out whatever contacts promised to be significant for his task. With amazement he discovered in himself a talent for devising inoffensive methods of making acquaintance with all sorts of persons whom he needed for his collection. Indeed, he pursued his work very much in the spirit of a collector in love with his specimens, and eager to discover by wealth of instances the laws of their being. If one day he happened to conceive that such and such a well-known personage or humble neighbour could give him light, he would be tormented by a violent, almost sexual, craving to meet the chosen one, and would leave no stone unturned until he had achieved his end.

Under my influence he also developed a captivating power of social intercourse, which, however, would only come into action in special circumstances. In the ordinary trivial social occasions he remained as a rule clumsy, diffident and tiresome; but in any situation which was relevant to his task, he seemed to come alive, to be a different person, and one that he thoroughly delighted to be. It was not merely that he discovered a gift of conversation. Sometimes he would say almost nothing. But what he did say would have a startling effect on his hearer, drawing him out, compelling him to get a clear view of his own work and aims, forcing him to unburden himself in a confession, such that at the close of it he would perhaps declare, ‘Yes, that is really how I face the world, though till today I hardly thought of it that way.’ Sometimes, however, Paul himself would be almost voluble, commenting with a strangely modest assurance on the other’s function; Often he would find himself assuming for the occasion an appropriate personality, a mask peculiarly suited to appear intelligent and sympathetic to this particular man or woman. Paul was sometimes shocked at the insincerity of this histrionic behaviour; though he pursued it, for the sake of its extraordinary effectiveness. And indeed it was not really insincere, for it was but the natural result of his new and intense imaginative insight into other minds. Sometimes when he was in the presence of two very different individuals whom he had previously encountered apart, he would be hard put to it to assume for each the right mask without rousing the other’s indignation. Thus, to give a rather crude example of this kind of predicament, having on Monday won the confidence of a member of the Communist Party, and on Tuesday the benevolence of a British Patriot, he happened on Wednesday to come upon them both together in violent altercation. Both at first greeted him as an ally, but before he fled he had been reviled by each in turn.

One curious limitation of Paul’s talent he found very distressing. Brilliant as he was at evoking in others a clearer consciousness of their own deeper thoughts and desires, he was incapable of impressing them with his own ideas. Strong in his own recent spiritual experiences, and in his increasing grasp of the contemporary world, he yet failed completely to express himself on these subjects. This was but natural, for he was no genius, still less a prophet; and, save in the office in which I needed him and inspired him, he remained inarticulate. This incapacity disturbed him increasingly as the months and years passed. For increasingly he became convinced that the modern world was heading toward a huge disaster, and that nothing could save it but the awakening of the mass of men into a new mood and greater insight. More and more clearly he saw in his own meditations just what this awakening must be. Yet he could never make it clear to others, for as soon as he tried to express himself, he fell stammering or mute. The trouble lay partly in his incompetence, but partly also in the fact that through my help he had seen both sides of a truth which to his fellows was almost never revealed thus in the solid. Paul’s interlocutor, therefore, was sure to be blind either to one or to the other aspect of Paul’s central conviction; either to his sense of obligation in the heroic and cosmically urgent enterprise of man upon his planet, or to his seemingly inconsistent perception of the finished, the inhuman, beauty of the cosmos.

Most painfully when he was with members of the ‘intelligentsia’ did his mental paralysis seize him. He made contact with many writers and artists. Each of these brilliant beings he treated at first with doglike respect, believing that at last he had come into the presence of one who had broken into new truth. But somehow he never went very far with any of them. For a while he delighted them, because he stimulated them to apprehend their own vision with a new clarity. But since their visions were not as a rule very profound, they and he soon saw all there was to see in them. At this point Paul’s talent invariably disappeared, and henceforth they thought him dull, bourgeois, not worth knowing. He could no longer hold their attention. He had not the necessary flow of personal tittle-tattle to carry him through when deeper interests flagged. On the other hand, if ever he dared to tell them his own views, he merely made a fool of himself, and was treated either with kindly ridicule or with inattention. Thus, though he came to know his way about the intellectual life of London, he was never taken into any circle or school. Most circles had at one time or other tolerated him on their fringes; yet he remained unknown, for no one ever bothered to mention him to anyone else. Thus it happened that he was always apart, always able to look on without pledging his faith to any creed, his intellect to any theory. Every creed, every theory, he secretly tested and sooner or later rejected in the light of his own recent illumination. In this manner Paul served my purpose admirably. As a tissue-section, to be studied under the microscope, may be stained to bring out details of structure that would otherwise have remained invisible, so Paul, whom I had treated with a tincture of Neptunian vision, revealed in exquisite detail the primitive organs of his mind, some of which took the stain and others not. Obviously it is impossible to reveal the whole issue of the experiment to readers of this book, since they themselves suffer from Paul’s limitations.

Throughout these crowded years Paul still carried on his daily work at the school, though inevitably as his attention became more and more occupied, his teaching suffered. All his free time, all his holidays, he now spent on his task of exploration. It was a strange life, so rich in human intercourse, and yet so lonely; for he dared not tell anyone of the real purpose of his activities, of their Neptunian aspect, lest he should bethought insane. To his friends he appeared to have been bitten by some queer bug of curiosity, which, they said, had filled him with a quite aimless mania for inquiry, and was ruining his work.

To aid his project he undertook a number of enterprises, none of which he did well, since at heart he regarded them only as means of the pursuit of his secret purpose. He worked for a political party, lectured to classes organized by the Workers’ Educational Association, collaborated in a social survey of a poor district. Also he haunted certain public-houses, attended revivalist meetings, became intimate with burglars, swindlers, and one or two uncaught murderers, who, he found, were extremely thankful for the opportunity of unburdening themselves under the spell of his mysteriously aloof sympathy and understanding. He made contact with many prostitutes and keepers of brothels. He respectfully explored the minds of homosexuals, and others whose hungers did not conform to the lusts of their fellows. He found his way into many chambers of suffering, and was present at many death-beds. He was welcomed in mining villages, and in slum tenements. He discussed revolution in the homes of artisans. Equally he was received in the houses of bank managers, of ship-owners, of great industrial employers. He conferred with bishops, and also with the dignitaries of science, but no less eagerly with vagabonds; over stolen delicacies, seated behind hedges. Part of one summer he spent as a dock labourer, and part of another as a harvest hand in the West of England. He travelled steerage on an emigrant ship, and worked his passage on a tramp steamer along the Baltic coasts. He made a brief but crowded pilgrimage to Russia, and came home a Communist, with a difference. He tramped and bicycled in Western Europe; and in England he made contact with many visitors from the East. Yet also he found time to keep abreast of contemporary literature, to haunt studios, to discuss epistemology and ethics with bright young Cambridge philosophers.

In all this work he found that he was constantly and sometimes sternly guided by an inner power, which, though I never again openly communicated with him, he knew to spring from me. Thus he was endowed with an infallible gift of selection and of detective inquiry. Through my help he covered in a few years the whole field of modern life, yet he never wasted his strength on vain explorations. With the precision of a hawk he descended upon the significant individual, the significant movement; and with a hawk’s assurance he neglected the irrelevant. Sometimes his own impulses would run counter to my guidance. Then he would find himself directed by a mysterious, an inner and hypnotic, impulsion, either to give up what he had planned to do, or to embark on some adventure for which his own nature had no inclination.

Month by month, year by year, there took shape in Paul’s mind a new and lucid image of his world, an image at once terrible and exquisite, tragic and farcical. It is difficult to give an idea of this new vision of Paul’s, for its power depended largely on the immense intricacy and diversity of his recent experience; on his sense of the hosts of individuals swarming upon the planet, here sparsely scattered, there congested into great clusters and lumps of humanity, here machine-ridden, there ground into the earth from which they sucked their scanty livelihood. Speaking in ten thousand mutually incomprehensible dialects, living in manners reprehensible or ludicrous to one another, thinking by concepts unintelligible to one another, they worshipped in modes repugnant to one another. This new sense of the mere bulk and variety of men was deepened in Paul’s mind by his enhanced apprehension of individuality in himself and others, his awed realization that each single unit in all these earth-devastating locust armies carried about with it a whole cognized universe, was the plangent instrument of an intense and self-important theme of mind. For Paul had by now learned very thoroughly to perceive the reality of all human beings and of the world with that penetrating insight which I had first elicited from him in childhood. On the other hand, since he was never wholly forgetful of the stars, the shock between his sense of human littleness in the cosmos and his new sense of man’s physical bulk and spiritual intensity increased his wonder. Thus in spite of his perception of the indefeasible reality of everyday things, he had also an overwhelming conviction that the whole fabric of common experience, nay the whole agreed universe of human and biological and astronomical fact, though real, concealed some vaster reality.

It must not be forgotten that throughout his exploration Paul was jealously mindful of my presence within him, and that his sense of an ulterior, a concealed, reality, was derived partly from the knowledge that within himself, or above himself, there was concealed a more exalted being. He knew that I was ever behind his eyes, ever attentive in his ears, ever pondering and sifting the currents of his brain. Yet, save when I swayed him with unaccountable cravings and reluctances, my presence was wholly unperceived.

It must be remembered that I used Paul in two manners, both as a transparent instrument of observation, and as a sample of your mentality. I was interested not only in the external facts which he recorded, but in his reaction to them, in the contrast between his appraisement of them and my own. That contrast I may express by saying that whereas I myself regarded the Terrestrial sphere primarily with detachment, though with detachment which held within itself a passion of imaginative sympathy, Paul regarded all things primarily from the human point of view, though he was able also by a continuous effort to maintain himself upon the loftier plane. For me it was a triumph of imagination that I could enter so fully into your remote and fantastic world. For Paul it was a triumph that in spite of his fervent humanity, his compassion and indignation, he could now regard his world with celestial aloofness. Thus the two of us together were like two different musical instruments playing against one another in two different tempos to produce a single intricacy of rhythm.

To the Neptunian intelligence, however, there was a slightly nauseating pathos even in Paul’s most chastened enthusiasm. Only through the secret and ironical influence of my presence within him could he avoid taking the fate of his world too much to heart. The mind that has but lately received a commanding revelation which exalts it above the pettiness of daily life is very prone to a certain extravagance, a certain farcical pomp, in its devotion. The Neptunian mind, on the other hand, born into the faith and needing no sententious conversion, was sometimes impelled by Paul’s solemnity to wonder whether even the final tragedy of man on Neptune called most for grief or for laughter.

iii. Fruits of the Research

Paul had already made it clear in his own mind what the human aim should be. Man should be striving into ever-increasing richness of personality. He should be preparing his planet and his many races of persons to embody the great theme of spirit which was as yet so dimly, so reluctantly, conceived. In fact man should be preparing to fulfil his office as a centre in which the cosmos might rejoice in itself, and whence it might exfoliate into ever more brilliant being. Paul found also in his heart a conviction, calm, though humanly reluctant, that in the end must come downfall; and that though man must strive with all his strength and constancy of purpose, he must yet continually create in his heart the peace, the acceptance, the cold bright star of cognizance which if we name it we misname.

In his exploration Paul sought to discover what progress man was making in this twofold venture. He found a world in which, far from perceiving the cosmical aspect of humanity, men were for the most part insensitive even to the purely human aspect, the need to make a world of full-blown and joyful human individuals. Men lived together in close proximity, yet with scarcely more knowledge of one another than jungle trees, which blindly jostle and choke, each striving only to raise its head above its neighbours. Beings with so little perception of their fellows had but a vague apprehension of the human forest as a whole, and almost none of its potentialities. Some confused and dreamlike awareness of man’s cosmical function no doubt there was. As a very faint breeze, it spread among the waiting tree-tops. But what was to come of it?

In such a world there was one kind of work which seemed to Paul, not indeed the most important, for many operations were equally important, but the most directly productive work of all, namely, education. Among the teachers, as in all walks of life, Paul found that, though some were indeed pioneers of the new world-order, many were almost entirely blind to the deeper meaning of their task. Even those few who had eyes to see could do but little. Their pupils had at all costs to be fitted for life in a world careless of the spirit, careless of the true ends of living, and thoughtful only for the means. They must be equipped for the economic struggle. They must become good business men, good engineers and chemists, good typists and secretaries, good husband-catchers, even if the process prevented them irrevocably from becoming fully alive human beings. And so the population of the Western world was made up for the most part of strange thwarted creatures, skilled in this or that economic activity, but blind to the hope and the plight of the human race. For them the sum of duty was to play the economic game shrewdly and according to rule, to keep their wives in comfort and respectability, their husbands well fed and contented, to make their offspring into quick and relentless little gladiators for the arena of world-prices. One and all they ignored that the arena was not merely the market or the stock exchange, but the sand-multitudinous waste of stars.

Of the innumerable constructors, the engineers, architects, chemists, many were using their powers merely for gladiatorial victory. Even those who were sincere workers had but the vaguest notion of their function in the world. For them it was enough to serve faithfully some imposing individual, some firm, or at best some national State. They conceived the goal of corporate human endeavour in terms of comfort, efficiency, and power, in terms of manufactures, oil, electricity, sewage disposal, town-planning, aeroplanes and big guns. When they were not at work, they killed time by motor-touring, the cinema, games, domesticity or sexual adventures. Now and then they registered a political vote, without having any serious knowledge of the matters at stake. Yet within the limits of their own work they truly lived; their creative minds were zestfully obedient to the laws of the materials in which they worked, to the strength and elasticity of metals, the forms of cantilevers, the affinities of atoms.

Of much the same mentality, though dealing with a different material, were the doctors and surgeons; for whom men and women were precariously adjusted machines, walking bags of intestines, boxes of telephone nerves, chemical factories liable to go wrong at any minute, fields for exploration and fee-making, possible seats of pain, the great evil, and of death, which, though often preferable, was never to be encouraged. They were familiar equally with death, and birth, conception and contraception, and all the basic agonies and pities. They protected themselves against the intolerable dead-weight of human suffering, sometimes by callousness of imagination, sometimes by drink or sport or private felicity, sometimes by myths of compensation in eternity. A few faced the bleak truth unflinchingly yet also with unquenched compassion. But nearly all, though loyal to the militant life in human bodies, were too hard pressed to be familiar with the uncouth exploratory ventures of human minds. And so, through very loyalty to life, they were for the most part blind to the other, the supernal, beauty.

Even more insulated, those very different servants of human vitality, the agriculturists, whose minds were fashioned to the soil they worked on, lived richly within the limits of their work, yet were but obscurely, delusively, conscious of the world beyond their acres. In the straightness of their furrows, and the fullness of their crops, in their sleek bulls and stallions, they knew the joy of the maker; and they knew beauty. But what else had they? They had to thrust and heave from morning till night. They had to feed their beasts. Brooding over their crops, dreading floods and droughts, they had not time for the world. Yet they enviously despised the town-dwellers. They censured all newfangled ways, they condescended to teach their sons the lore of their grandfathers, and they guarded their daughters as prize heifers. They put on black clothes for chapel, to pray for good weather. They believed themselves the essential roots of the State. They measured national greatness in terms of wheat and yeoman muscle. The younger ones, town-infected with their motor-bicycles, their wireless, their artificial silks, their political views, their new-fangled morals, revolted against enslavement to the soil. Both young and old alike were vaguely unquiet, disorientated, sensing even in their fields the futility of existence.

Most typical of your isolation from one another were the seamen, who, imprisoned nine parts of their lives in a heaving box of steel, looked out complainingly upon a world of oceans and coasts. They despised the landsmen, but they were ever in search of a shore job. Monastic, by turns celibate and polygamous, they were childlike in their unworldly innocence, brutelike in their mental blindness, godlike (to Paul’s estimation) in their patience and courage. They loved the flag as no landsman could love it. They were exclusively British (or German or what not) but loyal also to the universal brotherhood of the sea (or disloyal), and faithful to the owners (or unfaithful). Day after day they toiled, shirked, slandered, threatened one another with knives; but in face of the typhoon they could discover amongst themselves a deep, an inviolable communion. They measured all persons by seamanship, crew-discipline, and all things by seaworthiness and ship-shapeliness. They took the stars for signposts and timepieces, and on Sundays for the lamps of angels. Contemptuous of democracy, innocent of communism, careless of evolution, they ignored that the liquid beneath their keels was but a film between the solid earth and the void, but a passing phenomenon between the volcanic confusion of yesterday and the all-gripping ice-fields of tomorrow.

Seemingly very different, yet at bottom the same, was the case of the industrial workers of all occupations and ranks, whose dreams echoed with the roar of machinery. For the mass of them, work was but a slavery, and the height of bliss was to be well paid in idleness. They loudly despised the wealthy, yet in their hearts they desired only to mimic them, to display expensive pleasures, to have powers of swift locomotion. What else could they look for, with their stunted minds? Many were unemployed, and spiritually dying of mere futility. Some, dole-shamed, fought for self-esteem, cursing the world that had no use for them; others, dole-contented, were eager to plunder the society that had outlawed them. But many there were among the industrial workers who waited only to be wrought and disciplined to become the storm troops of a new order. Many there were who earnestly willed to make a new world and not merely to destroy an old one. But what world? Who could seize this half-fashioned instrument, temper it, and use it? Who had both the courage and the cunning to do so? Seemingly only those who had been themselves so tempered and hardened by persecution that they could not conceive any final beatitude for man beyond regimentation in a proletarian or a fascist State.

Certainly the politicians could never seize that weapon. They climbed by their tongues; and when they reached the tree-top, they could do nothing but chatter like squirrels, while the storm cracked the branches, and the roots parted.

The journalists? Was it they who could fertilize the waiting seed of the new world? Little seekers after copy, they made their living by the sale of habit-forming drugs. They had their loyalties, like the rest of men; but they trusted that in preserving the tradition of the Press, or in serving some great journal, they served well enough. They ignored that in the main their journals spread poison, lies, the mentality of society’s baser parts. They made sex obscene, war noble, and patriotism the height of virtue. A few there were of another kind, who sought to bring to light what the authorities would keep dark, whose aim it was to make men think by offering them sugared pills of wisdom, spiced problems of state-craft, peepshows of remote lands and lives, glimpses of the whole of things. They were indeed possible trumpeters of a new order, though not world-builders. But they were few and hobbled, for at every turn they must please or go under. And the thought which they so devotedly spread was of necessity over-simplified and vulgarized, to suit the spirit of the times.

The civil servants, could they remake the world? Wrought and tempered to a great tradition of loyalty, they were devoted only to the smooth-running and just-functioning and minor improvement of the social machine.

The social workers, so formidable with eye-witnessed facts, so indignant with the machine, so kindly-firm with ‘cases’, so loyal to the social gospel, and to the fulfilling of personality, so contemptuous of cosmical irrelevances, and morally outraged by those who, even in a foundering world, have an eye for beauty! They had their part to play, but they were repairers, physicians, not procreators of a new world.

The religious folk, who should have been society’s red blood-corpuscles, transfusing their spiritual treasure into all its tissues, had settled down to become a huge proliferating parasite. Mostly of the middle class, they projected their business interests into another world by regular payments of premiums on an eternal-life assurance policy; or they compensated for this world’s unkindness by conceiving themselves each as the sole beloved in the arms of Jesus, or at least as a life member in the very select celestial club. But some, teased by a half-seen vision, by a conviction of majesty, of beauty they knew not whereabouts nor of what kind, were persuaded to explain their bewildered ecstasy by ancient myths and fantasies. For the sake of their bright, featureless, guiding star, they believed what was no longer credible and desired what it was now base to desire.

The scientists, so pious toward physical facts, so arch-priestly to their fellow-men, were indeed a noble army of miners after truths; but they were imprisoned in deep galleries, isolated even from each other in their thousand saps. Daily they opened up new veins of the precious metal; and sent the bright ingots aloft, to be mortised into the golden temple of knowledge, with its great thronged halls of physics, astronomy and chemistry, biology and psychology; or to be put to commercial use, whether for the increase of happiness, or for killing, or for spiritual debasement, or to be instrumental in one way or another to the achievement of pure cognizance. Two kinds of scientists Paul found. Some were but eyeless cave-reptiles, or moles who came reluctantly into the upper world, nosing across men’s path, concealing their bewilderment under dust-clouds of pronouncements. Some, though innocent of philosophy, ventured to set up metaphysical edifices, in which they repeated all the structural defects of the old systems, or were sent toppling by the dizzying of their own unschooled desires, whether for the supremacy of mind, or for the immortality of the individual. The public, tricked by the same unschooled desires, applauded their acrobatic feats, and was blind to their disaster. Others, more cautious, knew that all scientific knowledge was of numbers only, yet that with the incantation of numbers new worlds might be made. They were preparing to take charge of mankind, to make the planet into a single well-planned estate, and to re-orientate human nature. But what kind of a world would they desire to make, whose knowledge was only of numbers?

But the philosophers themselves were scarcely more helpful. Some still hoped to reach up to reality (which the scientists had missed) by tiptoeing on a precarious scaffold of words. Others, preening their intellectual consciences, abjured all such adventures. They were content merely to melt down and remodel the truth ingots of the scientists, and to build them together upon the high, the ever-unfinished tower of the golden temple; Some were so in love with particularity that they ignored the universal, others so impressed by the unity of all things that they overlooked discreteness. Yet doubtless by exchange of findings and by mutual devastation they were year by year approaching, corporately, irresistibly, but asymptotically, toward a central truth; which lay ever at hand, yet infinitely remote, because eternally beyond the comprehension of half-human minds. For, like their fellows, the philosophers of the species had a blind spot in the centre of the mind’s vision, so that what they looked at directly they could never see. Like archaeologists who lovingly study and classify the script of a forgotten language but have found no key to its meaning, the philosophers were wise chiefly in knowing that whoever claims to interpret the rigmarole of half-human experience is either a fool or a charlatan.

There were the artists, despisers of the mere analytical intelligence. What hope lay with them? Microcosmic creators, for whom love and hate and life itself were but the matter of art, in their view the whole meaning of human existence seemed to lie solely in the apprehension of forms intrinsically ‘significant’, and in the embodiment of visions without irrelevance. Athletes of the spirit, by the very intensity of their single aesthetic achievement they were prone to cut themselves off from the still-living, though desperately imperilled world.

There were others, artists and half-artists, who were leaders of thought in Paul’s day, publicists, novelists, playwrights, even poets. Some still preached the Utopia of individuals, the private man’s heaven on earth, ignorant that this ideal had lost its spell, that it must be sought not as an end but as a means, that it must borrow fervour from some deeper fire. Some affirmed, pontifically or with the licence of a jester, that all human endeavour expresses unwittingly the urge of some cryptic, evolving, deity, which tries out this and that organic form, this and that human purpose, in pursuit of an end hidden even from itself. Some, ridiculing all superstition, declared existence to be nothing but electrons, protons, ethereal undulations, and superstitiously asserted that cognisance, passion and will are identical with certain electrical disturbances in nerve fibres or muscles. Some, zestfully proclaiming the futility of the cosmos and the impotence of man, cherished their own calm or heroic emotions, and deployed their cloak of fortitude and flowing rhetoric, mannequins even on the steps of the scaffold. Some, whose sole care was to avoid the taunt of credulity, and the taunt of emotionalism, fastidiously, elegantly, shook off from their fingers the dust of belief, the uncleanness of enthusiasm. Some, because reason (jockeyed and overpressed by so many riders) had failed to take her fences, condemned her as a jade fit only for the knackers; and led out in her stead a dark horse, a gift horse whose mouth must not be inspected, a wooden horse, bellyful of trouble. Some, gleefully discovering that the hated righteousness of their fathers drew its fervour from disreputable and unacknowledged cravings, preached therefore that primeval lusts alone directed all human activities. Some, because their puritan mothers dared not receive the revelation of the senses, themselves wallowed in the sacred wine till their minds drowned. Some were so tangled in the love of mother, and the discord of mother and mate, that they received from woman not nourishment, not strength, but a sweet and torturing poison, without which they could not live, by which their minds were corroded. Some, exquisitely discriminating the myriad flavours and perfumes of experience, cared only to refine the palate to the precision of a wine-taster; but registered all their subtle apprehensions with a desolate or with a defiant conviction of futility, a sense of some huge omission in the nature of things or in man’s percipience. Some cognized their modern world but as flotsam gyrating on the cosmical flux, a film or ordure in which men and women swam spluttering, among disintegrated cigarette-ends, clattering cans, banana skins, toffee papers, and other disused sheathings. For them filth was the more excruciating by reason of their intuitions of purity violated, of austerity desecrated. Others there were, no less excruciated, who nevertheless by natatory prowess reached the mud-flats of old doctrine, whereat last they thankfully reclined, ‘wrapped in the old miasmal mist’, and surrounded by the rising tide.

What was the upshot of Paul’s whole exploration? For me there issued in my own mind the pure, the delighted cognizance, both of Paul’s world and of Paul himself, the appraising organ that I had chosen. For Paul the upshot was a sense of horror and of exaltation, a sense that he was participating in a torrent of momentous happenings whose final issue he could but vaguely guess, but whose immediate direction was toward ruin.

He saw clearly that man, the most successful of all Terrestrial animals, who had mastered all rivals and taken the whole planet as his hunting-ground, could not master himself, could not even decide what to do with himself. All over the West man was visibly in decline. The great wave of European energy, which gave him mastery over nature, which carried the European peoples into every continent, which lent them for a while unprecedented intellectual vision and moral sensitivity, now visibly failed. And what had come of it? The Black Country and its counterpart in all Western lands, mechanized life, rival imperialisms, aerial bombardment, poison gas; for the mind, a deep and deadly self-disgust, a numbing and unacknowledged shame, a sense of huge opportunities missed, of a unique trust betrayed, and therewith a vast resentment against earlier generations, against human nature, against fate, against the universe. What more? An attempt to cover up guilt and futility by mechanical triumphs, business hustle, and the sound of a hundred million gramophones and radio-sets.

Paul asked himself ‘How has all this happened?’ And he answered, ‘Because we cannot look into our minds and see what really affords lasting satisfaction, and what is merely reputed to do so; because our individuality is a dimensionless point, because our personalities are but masks with nothing behind them. But in the East, where they say man is less superficial, what is happening? There, presumably, men have seen truths which the West has missed, But they stared at their truths till they fell into a hypnotic trance which lasted for centuries. They made it an excuse for shunning the world and all its claims, for gratifying themselves in private beatitude. And now, when at the hands of the West the world is forced on them irresistibly, they fall into the very same errors that they condemn in us. And the Russians? Socially they are the hope of the world. But have they as individual beings any more reality, any more percipience, than the rest of us?’

Over this despair, this disgust of human futility, Paul triumphed by taking both a longer and a wider view.

‘We shall win through,’ he told himself. ‘We must. Little by little, year by year, aeon by aeon, and in spite of long dark ages, man will master himself, will gain deeper insight, will make a better world. And if not man, then surely some other will in the end fulfil his office as the cosmical eye and heart and hand. If in our little moment he is in regression, what matter? The great music must not always be triumphant music. There are other songs beside the songs of victory. And all songs must find their singers.’

Shortly after the final meditation in which he summed up the whole issue of his inquiry, Paul wrote a poem in which he made it clear to himself, though with a certain bitterness, that he cared more for the music which is spirit than for the human or any other instrument. In the final couplet there appears the self-conscious disillusionment which is characteristic of your age.

If man encounter
on his proud adventure
other intelligence?
If mind more able.
ranging among the galaxies.
noose this colt and break him
to be a beast of draught and burden
for ends beyond him?
If man’s aim and his passion be ludicrous.
and the flight of Pegasus
but a mulish caper?
Dobbin! Pull your weight!
Better be the donkey of the Lord.
whacked on beauty’s errand.
than the wild ass of the desert
without destination.
Vision! From star to star the human donkey
transports God’s old street organ and his monkey.

iv. Paul Settles Down

Paul had by now almost fulfilled the task that I had demanded of him. Not only had he collected for me an immense store of facts about the crisis of his species, facts the significance of which he himself often entirely failed to see, but also in his own experience he had already afforded me a very precise insight into the capacity of his kind. He had shown me, through years of inner turmoil, the aspirations and reluctances of a primitive being haunted by visions from a higher sphere. In particular he had shown me the limits of your intelligence and of your will. There were innumerable problems which Paul even with my patient help could never understand. There were austerities of beauty which even with my most earnest illumination he could not admire. But one test at least Paul had triumphantly passed. He had shown that it was possible for the average mentality of the First Men, under careful tuition, to apprehend without any doubt whatever the two supreme and seemingly discordant offices of the individual mind, namely, loyalty to man and worship of fate. To the Last Men these offices are displayed as organic to one another; but to the First Men, they are for ever discrepant. Paul’s intellect at least saw this discrepancy, and refused to be put off with false solutions of the problem. For the rest though he so clearly recognized that all human purposes should be subordinated to these two supreme ends, he himself, like the rest of his kind, was but a frail vessel.

Since I had no further use for Paul as a visual and auditory instrument through which to examine your world, I now ceased to trouble him with the insatiable lust of inquiry which had mastered him since the conclusion of the war. Hitherto he had pursued his task indefatigably, but now his energy began to flag. This was due partly to the withdrawal of my stimulation, partly to the fact that his uncapacious brain was already charged to the full and could bear no more, partly also to the long physical strain of the double life which he had led. For Paul had indeed been wearing himself out. Katherine, with whom he still spent an occasional week, had declared that he was withering before his time, that his arms and legs were sticks and his ribs an old rat-trap. Privately she had noted also that his embraces had lost their vigour. She had urged him to ‘take things easy for a while’. And now at last he discovered that he had in fact neither the energy nor the inclination to pursue the old racketing way of life.

I made it clear to him that I required no more work of him, but that I should continue to be with him to observe the movements of his mind during his normal career. For, though I had no further use for him as an exploratory instrument, it was my intention to watch the way in which his Neptunian tincture would influence him in middle age and senility. At this juncture Paul displayed rather interestingly the weakness of his kind by futile rebellion, and an attempt to pursue a heroic career for which he was unsuited. I must not dwell upon this incident, but it may be briefly recorded for the light which it throws upon your nature. He had already, it will be remembered, become convinced that his race was heading for a huge disaster, from which nothing could save it but an impossible change of heart, of native capacity. In spite of the current ‘world-economic crisis’, he had no serious expectation of a sudden catastrophe; but he had come to believe in a long-drawn-out spiritual decline, masked by a revival of material prosperity. He looked forward to centuries, perhaps millennia, of stagnation, in which the half-awakened mind of man would have sunk back once more into stupor. But he saw this phase as but a momentary episode in the life of the planet. And he saw the little huge tragedy of the modern world as, after all, acceptable, a feature of cosmical beauty. He knew, moreover, not clearly but yet with conviction, that he himself had played some small part in apprehending the drama of his age for the cognizance of the mature and final human mind. He knew also that without my continuous support he had no outstanding ability. Yet, though fundamentally he had accepted all this, and was indeed profoundly at peace, he could not express this acceptance and this peace in conduct. He could not bring himself to participate in the tragedy without making efforts to avert it, efforts which he knew must be futile, because in the first place he himself was not made of the stuff of prophets, and because in the second place the nature of his species was inadequate. Though he knew it was so, an irrational fury of partisanship now seized him. Instead of continuing the work which he could do tolerably well, instead of striving by his school-teaching to elicit in certain young minds an enhanced percipience and delight, he must needs take it upon himself to become the prophet of a new social and spiritual order.

It is no part of my purpose to tell in detail how Paul, after earnestly seeking excuses for a project which he knew to be ridiculous, gave up his post in the school; how he devoted himself to writing and speaking, in fact to preaching the new truth that he supposed himself to possess; how he tried to gather round him a group of collaborators, whom secretly he regarded as disciples; how he made contact once more with his old acquaintance the author of Last and First Men, hailed that timid and comfort-loving creature as a fellow-prophet, and was hastily dismissed for a lunatic; how, subsequently, his literary products proved even to himself their inability to find their way into print, and his efforts at vocal prophecy earned him the reputation of a crank and a bore; how he tried to persuade the Communists that he knew their mind better than they did themselves; how he was expelled from the Communist Party as an incorrigible bourgeois; how the communistically inclined editor of a well-known literary journal, who at first hoped to bring Paul within his own circle, was soon very thankful to get rid of him; how after several disorderly scenes in Hyde Park, Paul was eventually marched off by the police, from whose care he finally escaped only to take up his abode in the Lunatic Asylum near his suburban home; how after some months of enforced meditation he was at last released, thoroughly cured of his disease; how, finally, but not until many far-reaching wires had been pulled in his interest, he was re-established in his old school. These facts I record chiefly so that I may also record another. Throughout this fantastic phase of his life, Paul remained inwardly the calm, the compassionately amused spectator of his own madness.

Of his subsequent career I need only say that within a year he had settled himself firmly into harness once more, with the determination never again to see the inside of a lunatic asylum. He became indeed an admirable schoolmaster of the more advanced and sympathetic type, bent upon reform, but cautious. In consequence of my influence during his youth he was now able to earn a reputation for daring ideas, yet also for patience, tact and extreme conscientiousness. In due season he married, begat children, became a head master, and introduced far-reaching novelties into his school, in respect of curriculum, teaching methods, and dress. From the point of view of readers of this book, the tense of this last sentence should have been future, for up to the date of publication, Paul remains a bachelor, Nevertheless I have already observed his future career, and can report that, when the time comes for him to retire, he will look back on his work with thankfulness and modest pride; that, having earlier determined to commit suicide soon after his retirement, he will change his mind and allow himself a year or two to re-assess his life and his world in the mellow light of a peaceful old age; that during this period he will afford me much further knowledge of the senescent phase of your individuality, with its strange blend of wisdom and puerility, its increased potentiality of insight, progressively thwarted by neural decay; that when there is no further reason for him to remain alive, Paul will no longer have the resolution to kill himself, and will be trapped in the quagmire of senility.

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