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

Chapter 10

The World’s Plight

I SHALL now try to give some idea of John’s reactions to our world by setting down, more or less at random, some of his comments on individuals and types, institutions and movements, which he studied during this period.

Let us begin with the psychiatrist. John’s verdict on this eminent manipulator of minds seemed to me to show both his contempt for Homo sapiens and his sympathetic appreciation of the difficulties of beings that are neither sheer animal nor fully human.

After our last visit to the consulting-room, indeed before the door was closed behind us, John indulged in a long chuckling laugh that reminded me of the cry of a startled grouse. “Poor devil!” he cried. “What else could he do anyhow? He’s got to seem wise at all costs, even when he’s absolutely blank. He’s in the same fix as a successful medium. He’s not just a quack. There’s a lot of real sound stuff in his trade. No doubt when he’s dealing with straightforward cases of a fairly low mental order, with troubles that are at bottom primitive, he fixes them up all right. But even then he doesn’t really know what he’s doing or how he gets his cures. Of course, he has his theories, and they’re damned useful, too. He gives the wretched patient doses of twaddle, as a doctor might give bread pills, and the poor fool laps it all up and feels hopeful and manages to cure himself. But when another sort of case comes along, who is living habitually on a mental storey about six floors above our friend’s own snug little flat, so to speak, there must be a glorious fiasco. How can a mind of his calibre possibly understand a mind that’s at all aware of the really human things? I don’t mean the highbrow things. I mean subtle human contacts, and world contacts. He is a sort of highbrow, with his modern pictures and his books on the unconscious. But he’s not human in the full sense, even according to the standards of Homo sapiens. He’s not really grown up. And so, though he doesn’t know it, the poor man is all at sea when he comes up against really grown-up people. For instance, in spite of his modern pictures, he hasn’t a notion what art is after, though he thinks he has. And he knows less of philosophy, real philosophy, than an ostrich knows about the upper air. You can’t blame him. His wings just wouldn’t carry his big fleshy pedestrian mind. But that’s no reason why he should make matters worse by burying his head in the sand and kidding himself he sees the foundations of human nature. When a really winged case comes along, with all sorts of troubles due to not giving his wings exercise, our friend hasn’t the slightest perception what’s the matter. He says in effect, ‘Wings? What’s wings? Just flapdoodle. Look at mine. Get ’em atrophied as quick as possible, and bury your head in the sand to make sure.’ In fact he puts the patients into a sort of coma of the spirit. If it lasts, he’s permanently ‘cured’, poor man, and completely worthless. Often it does last, because your psychiatrist is an extremely good suggestionist. He could turn a saint into a satyr by mere sleight of mind. God! Think of a civilization that hands over the cure of souls to toughs like that! Of course, you can’t blame him. He’s a decent sort on his own plane, and doing his bit. But it’s no use expecting a vet to mend a fallen angel.”

If John was critical of psychiatry, he was no less so of the churches. It was not only with the purpose of studying Homo sapiens that he had begun to take an interest in religious practices and doctrines. His motive was partly (so he told me) the hope that some light might be thrown upon certain new and perplexing experiences of his own which might perhaps be of the kind that the normal species called religious. He actually attended a few services at churches and chapels. He always returned from these expeditions in a state of excitement, which found outlet sometimes in ribald jests about the proceedings, sometimes in almost hysterical exasperation and perplexity. Coming out from an emotional chapel service of the Bethel type he remarked, “Ninety-nine per cent, slush and one per cent. — something else, but what?” A tensity about his voice made me turn to look at him. To my amazement I saw tears in his eyes. Now John’s lachrymatory reflexes were normally under absolute voluntary control. Since his infancy I had never known him weep except by deliberate policy. Yet these were apparently spontaneous tears, and he seemed unconscious of them. Suddenly he laughed and said, “This soul-saving! If one were God, wouldn’t one laugh at it, or squirm! What does it matter whether we’re saved or not? Sheer blasphemy to want to be, I should say. But what is it that does matter, and comes through all the slush like light through a filthy window?”

On Armistice Day he persuaded me to go with him to a service in a Roman Catholic cathedral. The great building was crowded. Artificiality and insincerity were blotted out by the solemnity of the occasion. The ritual was somehow disturbing even to an agnostic like me. One felt a rather terrifying sense of the power which worship in the grand tradition could have upon massed and susceptible believers.

John had entered the cathedral in his normal mood of aloof interest in the passions of Homo sapiens. But as the service proceeded, he became less aloof and more absorbed. He ceased to look about him with his inscrutable hawklike stare. His attention, I felt, was no longer concentrated on individuals of the congregation, or on the choir, or on the priest, but on the totality of the situation. An expression strangely foreign to all that I knew of him now began to flicker on his face, an expression with which I was to become very familiar in later years, but cannot to this day satisfactorily interpret. It suggested surprise, perplexity, a kind of incredulous rapture, and withal a slightly bitter amusement. I naturally assumed that John was relishing the folly and self-importance of our kind; but when we were leaving the cathedral he startled me by saying, “How splendid it might be, if only they could keep from wanting their God to be human!” He must have seen that I was taken aback for he laughed and said, “Oh, of course I see it’s nearly all tripe. That priest! The way he bows to the altar is enough to show the sort he is. The whole thing is askew, intellectually and emotionally; but — well, don’t you get that echo of something not wrong, of some experience that happened ages ago, and was right and glorious? I suppose it happened to Jesus and his friends. And something remotely like it was happening to about a fiftieth of that congregation. Couldn’t you feel it happening? But, of course, as soon as they got it they spoilt it by trying to fit it all into the damned silly theories their Church gives them.”

I suggested to John that this excitement which he and others experienced was just the sense of a great crowd and a solemn occasion, and that we should not “project” that excitement, and persuade ourselves we were in touch with something superhuman.

John looked quickly at me, then burst into hearty laughter. “My dear man,” he said, and this I believe was almost the first time he used this devastating expression, “even if you can’t tell the difference between being excited by a crowd and the other thing, I can. And a good many of your own kind can, too, till they let the psychologists muddle them.”

I tried to persuade him to be more explicit, but he only said, “I’m just a kid, and it’s all new to me. Even Jesus couldn’t really say what it was he saw. As a matter of fact, he didn’t try to say much about it. He talked mostly about the way it could change people. When he did talk about it, itself, he nearly always said the wrong thing, or else they reported him all wrong. But how do I know? I’m only a kid.”

It was in a very different mood that John returned from an interview with a dignitary of the Anglican Church, one who was at the time well known for his efforts to revitalize the Church by making its central doctrines live once more in men’s hearts. John had been away for some days. When he returned he seemed much less interested in the Churchman than in an earlier encounter with a Communist. After listening to a disquisition on Marxism I said, “But what about the Reverend Gentleman?”

“Oh, yes, of course, there was the Reverend Gentleman, too. A dear man, so sensible and understanding. I wish the Communist bloke could be a bit sensible, and a bit dear. But Homo sapiens evidently can’t be that when he has any sort of fire in him. Funny how members of your species, when they do get any sort of real insight and grasp some essential truth, like Communism, nearly always go crazy with it. Funny, too, what a religious fellow that Communist really is. Of course, he doesn’t know it, and he hates the word. Says men ought to care for Man and nothing else. A moral sort of cove, he is, full of ‘oughts.’ Denies morality, and then damns people for not being Communist saints. Says men are all fools or knaves or waiters unless you can get ’em to care for the Class War. Of course, he tells you the Class War is needed to emancipate the Workers. But what really gets him about it isn’t that. The fire inside him, though he doesn’t know it, is a passion for what he calls dialectical materialism, for the dialectic of history. The one selfishness in him is the longing to be an instrument of the Dialectic, and oddly enough what he really means by that, in his heart of hearts, is what Christians so quaintly describe as the law of God, or God’s will. Strange! He says the sound element in Christianity was love of one’s fellow men. But he doesn’t really love them, not as actual persons. He’d slaughter the lot of them if he thought that was part of the dialectic of history. What he really shares with Christians, real Christians, is a most obscure but teasing, firing awareness of something super-individual. Of course, he thinks it’s just the mass of individuals, the group. But he’s wrong. What’s the group, anyhow, but just everybody lumped together, and nearly all fools or limps or knaves? It’s not simply the group that fires him. It’s justice, righteousness, and the whole spiritual music that ought to be made by the group. Damned funny that! Of course, I know all Communists are not religious, some are merely — well, like that bloody little man the other day. But this fellow is religious. And so was Lenin, I guess. It’s not enough to say his root motive was desire to avenge his brother. In a sense that’s true. But one can feel behind nearly everything he said a sense of being the chosen instrument of Fate, of the Dialectic, of what might almost as well be called God.”

“And the Reverend Gentleman?” I queried.

“The Reverend Gentleman? Oh, him! Well, he’s religious in about the same sense as firelight is sunshine. The coal-trees once lapped up the sun’s full blaze, and now in the grate they give off a glow and a flicker that snugs up his room nicely, so long as the curtains are drawn and the night kept at arm’s length. Outside, every one is floundering about in the dark and the wet, and all he can do is to tell them to make a nice little fire and squat down in front of it. One or two he actually fetches into his own beautiful room, and they drip all over the carpet, and leave muddy marks, and spit into the fire. He gets very unhappy about it, but he puts up with it nobly because, though he hasn’t a notion what worship is, he does up to a point try to love his neighbours. Funny, that, when you think of the Communist who doesn’t. Of course, if people got really nasty, the Reverend would phone the police.”

Lest the reader should suppose that John was not critical of the Communists, I will quote some of his comments on that other Communist, referred to above. “He knows in an obscure way that he’s an utter waster, though he pretends to himself that he’s noble and unfortunate. Of course he is unfortunate, frightfully unfortunate, in being the sort he is. And of course that’s society’s fault as much as his own. So the wretched creature has to spend his life putting out his tongue at society, or at the powers that be in society. He’s just a hate-bag. But even his hate isn’t really sincere. It’s a posture of self-defence, self-justification, not like the hate that smashed the Tsar, and turned creative and made Russia. Things haven’t got bad enough for that in England yet. At present all that can be done by blokes like this is to spout hate and give the other side a fine excuse for repressing Communism. Of course, hosts of well-off people and would-be-well-off people are just as ashamed of themselves subconsciously as that blighter, and just as full of hate, and in need of a scapegoat to exercise their hate upon. He and his like are a godsend to them.”

I said there was more excuse for the have-nots to hate than for the haves. This remark brought from John a bit of analysis and prophecy that has since been largely justified.

“You talk,” he said, “as if hate were rational, as if men only hated what they had reason to hate. If you want to understand modern Europe and the world, you have to keep in mind three things that are really quite distinct although they are all tangled up together. First there’s this almost universal need to hate something, rationally or irrationally, to find something to unload your own sins on to, and then smash it. In perfectly healthy minds (even of your species) this need to hate plays a small part. But nearly all minds are damnably unhealthy, and so they must have something to hate. Mostly, they just hate their neighbours or their wives or husbands or parents or children. But they get a much more exalted sort of excitement by hating foreigners. A nation, after all, is just a society for hating foreigners, a sort of super-hate-club. The second thing to bear in mind is the obvious one of economic disorder. The people with economic power try to run the world for their own profit. Not long ago they succeeded, more or less, but now the job has got beyond them, and, as we all know, there’s the hell of a mess. This gives hate a new outlet. The have-nots with very good reason exercise their hate upon the haves, who have made the mess and can’t clean it up. The haves fear and therefore zestfully hate the have-nots. What people can’t realize is that if there were no deep-rooted need to hate in almost every mind the social problem would be at least intelligently faced, perhaps solved. Then there’s the third factor, namely, the growing sense that there’s something all wrong with modern solely-scientific culture. I don’t mean that people are intellectually doubtful about science. It’s much deeper than that. They are simply finding that modern culture isn’t enough to live by. It just doesn’t work in practice. It has got a screw loose somewhere. Or some vital bit of it is dead. Now this horror against modern culture, against science and mechanization and standardization, is only just beginning to be a serious factor. It’s newer than Bolshevism. The Bolshies, and all the socially left-wing people, are still content with modern culture. Or rather, they put all its faults down to capitalism, dear innocent theorists. But the essence of it they still accept. They’re rationalistic, scientific, mechanistic, brass-tack-istic. But another crowd, scattered about all over the place, are having the hell of a deep revulsion against all this. They don’t know what’s the matter with it, but they’re sure it’s not enough. Some of them, feeling that lack, just creep back into church, specially the Roman Church. But too much water has passed under the bridge since the churches were alive, so that’s no real use. The crowds who can’t swallow the Christian dope are terribly in need of something, though they don’t know what, or even know they’re in need at all. And this deep need gets mixed up with their hate-need; and, if they’re middle class, it gets mixed up also with their fear of social revolution. And this fear, along with their hate-need, may get played on by any crook with an axe to grind, or by any able man with an itch for bossing. That’s what happened in Italy. That sort of thing will spread. I’d bet my boots that in a few years there’ll be a tremendous anti-left movement all over Europe, inspired partly by fear and hate, partly by that vague, fumbling suspicion that there’s something all wrong with scientific culture. It’s more than an intellectual suspicion. It’s a certainty of the bowels, call it a sort of brute-blind religious hunger. Didn’t you feel the beginnings of it in Germany last year when we were there? A deep, still-unconscious revulsion from mechanism, and from rationality, and from democracy, and from sanity. That’s it, a confused craving to be mad, possessed in some way. Just the thing for the well-to-do haters to use for their own ends. That’s what’s going to get Europe. And its power depends on its being a hotch-potch of self-seeking, sheer hate, and this bewildered hunger of the soul, which is so worthy and so easily twisted into something bloody. If Christianity could hold it in and discipline it, it might do wonders. But Christianity’s played out. So these folk will probably invent some ghastly religion of their own. Their God will be the God of the hate-club, the nation. That’s what’s coming. The new Messiahs (one for each tribe) won’t triumph by love and gentleness, but by hate and ruthlessness. Just because that’s what you all really want, at the bottom of your poor diseased bowels and crazy minds. Jesus Christ!”

I was not much impressed by this tirade. I said the best minds had outgrown that old tribal god, and the rest would follow the best minds in the long run. John’s laughter disconcerted me.

“The best minds!” he said. “One of the main troubles of your unhappy species is that the best minds can go even farther astray than the second best, much farther than the umpteenth best. That’s what has been happening during the last few centuries. Swarms of the best minds have been leading the populace down blind alley after blind alley, and doing it with tremendous courage and resource. Your trouble, as a species, is that you can’t keep hold of everything at once. Any one who is very wide awake toward one set of facts invariably loses sight of all the other equally important sets. And as you have practically no inner experience to orientate you, compass-wise, to the cardinal points of reality, there’s no telling how far astray you’ll go, once you start in the wrong direction.”

Here I interjected, “Surely that is one of the penalties of being gifted with intelligence; it may lead one forward, but it may lead one badly astray.”

John replied, “It’s one of the penalties of being more than beast and less than fully human. Pterodactyls had a great advantage over the old-fashioned creepy-crawly lizards, but they had their special dangers. Because they could fly a bit, they could crash. Finally, they were outclassed by birds. Well, I’m a bird.”

He paused, and then said, “Centuries ago all the best minds were in the Church. In those days there was nothing to compare with Christianity for practical significance and theoretical interest. And so the best minds swarmed upon it, and generation after generation of them used their bright intelligences on it. Little by little they smothered the actual living spirit of religion, with their busy theorizing. Not only so but they also used their religion, or rather their precious doctrines, to explain all physical events. Presently there came along a generation of best minds that found all this ratiocination very unconvincing, and began watching how things really did happen in physical nature. They and their successors made modern science, and gave man physical power, and changed the face of the earth. All this was as impressive in its own way as the effects of religion had been, real live religion, in a quite different way, centuries earlier. So now nearly all the best minds buzzed off to science, or to the job of working out a new scientific view of the universe and a new scientific way of feeling and acting. And being so impressed by science and by industry and the business attitude to life, they lost whatever trace of the old religion they ever had, and also they became even more blind to their own inner nature than they need have been. They were too busy with science, or industry, or empire-building, to bother about interior things. Of course, a few of the best minds, and some ordinary folk, had mistrusted fashionable thought all the way through. But after the war mistrust became widespread. The war made Nineteenth Century culture look pretty silly, didn’t it? So what happened? Some of the best minds (the best minds, mind you) tumbled helter-skelter back to the Churches. Others, the most social ones, declared that we ought all to live to improve mankind, or to make the future generations happy. Others, feeling that mankind was really past hope, just struck a fine attitude of despair, based either on contempt and hate of their fellows or on a compassion which was at bottom self-pity. Others, the bright young things of literature and art, set out to enjoy themselves as best they might in a crashing world. They were out for pleasure at any price, pleasure not entirely unrefined. For instance, though they demanded unrestrained sexual pleasure, it was to be highly conscious and discriminating. They also demanded aesthetic pleasure of a rather self-indulgent sort, and the thoroughly self-indulgent pleasure of tasting ideas, just for their spiciness or tang, so to speak. Bright young things! Yes, blowflies of a decaying civilization. Poor wretches! How they must hate themselves, really. But damn it, after all, they’re mostly good stuff gone wrong.”

John had recently spent some weeks studying the intelligentsia. He had made his entry into Bloomsbury by acting the part of a precocious genius, and allowing a well-known writer to exhibit him as a curio. Evidently he flung himself into the life of these brilliant and disorientated young men and women with characteristic thoroughness, for when he returned he was something of a wreck. I need not retail his account of his experiences, but his analysis of the plight of the leaders of our thought is worth reporting.

“You see,” he said, “they really are in a sense the leaders of thought, or leaders of fashion in thought. What they think and feel today, the rest think and feel next year or so. And some of them really are, according to the standards of Hom. sap., first-class minds, or might have been, in different circumstances, (Of course, most are just riff-raff, but they don’t count.) Well, the situation’s really very simple, and very desperate. Here is the centre to which nearly all the best sensibility and best intellect of the country gets attracted in the expectation of meeting its kind and enriching its experience; but what happens? The poor little flies find themselves caught in a web, a subtle mesh of convention, so subtle in fact that most of them are unaware of it. They buzz and buzz and imagine they are free fliers, when as a matter of fact each one is stuck fast on his particular strand of the web. Of course, they have the reputation of being the most unconventional people of all. The centre imposes on them a convention of unconventionality, of daring thought and conduct. But they can only be ‘daring’ within the limits of their convention. They have a sameness of intellectual and moral taste which makes them fundamentally all alike in spite of their quite blatant superficial differences. That wouldn’t matter so much if their taste were really discriminate taste, but it’s not, in most cases; and such innate powers of precision and delicacy as they actually have get dulled by the convention. If the convention were a sound one, all might be well, but it’s not. It consists in trying to be ‘brilliant’ and ‘original’, and in craving ‘experience’. Some of them are brilliant and original according to the standards of your species; and some of them have the gift for experience. But when they do achieve brilliance and experience, this is in spite of the web, and consists at best in a certain flutter and agitation, not in flight. The influence of the all-pervading convention turns brilliance into brightness, originality into perversity, and deadens the mind to all but the cruder sorts of experience. I don’t mean merely crudity in sex-experience and personal relations, though indeed their quite sound will to break the old customs and avoid sentimentality at all costs has led them in the end to a jading and coarsening extravagance. What I mean is crudity of — well, of spirit. Though they are often very intelligent (for your species) they haven’t got any of the finer aspects of experience to use their intelligence on. And that seems to be due partly to a complete lack of spiritual discipline, partly to an obscure, half-conscious funk. You see they’re all very sensitive creatures, very susceptible to pleasure and pain; and early in their lives, whenever they bumped into anything like a fundamental experience, they found it terribly upsetting. And so they formed habits of avoiding that sort of thing. And they made up for this persistent avoidance by drenching themselves in all sorts of minor and superficial (though sensational) experiences; and also by talking big about Experience with a capital E, and buzzing intellectually.”

This analysis made me feel uncomfortable, for though I was not one of “them” I could not disguise from myself that the same sort of condemnation might apply to me. John evidently saw my thoughts, for he grinned, and moreover indulged in an entirely vulgar wink. Then he said, “Strikes home, old thing, doesn’t it? Never mind, you’re not in the web. You’re an outsider. Fate has kept you safely fluttering in the backward North.”

Some weeks after this conversation John’s mood seemed to change. Hitherto he had been light-hearted, sometimes even ribald, both in the actual pursuit of his investigation and in his comments. In his more serious phases he displayed the sympathetic though aloof interest of an anthropologist observing the customs of a primitive tribe. He had always been ready to talk about his experiences and to defend his judgements. But now he began to be much less communicative, and, when he did condescend to talk, much more terse and grim. Banter and friendly contemptuousness vanished. In their place he developed a devastating habit of coldly, wearily pulling to pieces whatever one said to him. Finally this reaction also vanished, and his only response to any remark of general interest was a steady gloomy stare. So might a lonely man gaze at his frisking dog when the need of human intercourse was beginning to fret him. Had any one other than John treated one in that way, the act would have been offensive. Coming from John it was merely disturbing. It roused in me a painful self-consciousness, and an irresistible tendency to look away and busy myself with something.

Once only did John express himself freely. By appointment I had met him in his subterranean workshop to discuss a financial project which I proposed to undertake. He was lying in his little bunk, swinging one leg over the side. Both hands were behind his head. I embarked on my theme, but his attention was obviously elsewhere. “Damn it, can’t you listen?” I said. “Are you inventing a gadget or what?”

“Not inventing,” he replied, “discovering.”

There was such solemnity in his voice that a wave of irrational panic seized me. “Oh, for God’s sake do be explicit. What’s up with you these days? Can’t you tell a fellow?” He transferred his gaze from the ceiling to my face. He stared. I started to fill my pipe.

“Yes, I’ll tell you,” he said, “if I can, or as much as I can. Some time ago I asked myself a question, namely this. Is the plight of the world today a mere incident, an illness that might have been avoided and may be cured? Or is it something inherent in the very nature of your species? Well, I have got my answer. Homo sapiens is a spider trying to crawl out of a basin. The higher he crawls, the steeper the hill. Sooner or later, down he goes. So long as he’s on the bottom, he can get along quite nicely, but as soon as he starts climbing, he begins to slip. And the higher he climbs the farther he falls. It doesn’t matter which direction he tries. He can make civilization after civilization, but every time, long before he begins to be really civilized, skid!”

I protested against John’s assurance. “It may be so,” I said, “but how can you possibly know? Hom. sap. is an inventive animal. Might not the spider some time or other contrive to make his feet sticky? Or — well, suppose he’s not a spider at all but a beetle. Beetles have wings. They often forget how to use them, but — aren’t there signs that Hom. sap’s present climb is different from all the others? Mechanical power is a stickiness for his feet. And I believe his wing-cases are stirring, too.”

John regarded me in silence. Pulling himself together, he said, as if from a great distance, “No wings. No wings.” Then, in a more normal voice, “And as for mechanical power, if he knew how to use it, it might help him up a few steps farther, but he doesn’t. You see, for every type of creature there’s a limit of possible development of capacity, a limit inherent in the ground plan of its organization. Homo sapiens reached his limit a million years ago, but he has only recently begun to use his powers dangerously. In achieving science and mechanism he has brought about a state of affairs which cannot be dealt with properly save by capacity which is much more developed than his. Of course, he may not slip just yet. He may succeed in muddling through this particular crisis of history. But if he does, it will only be muddling through to stagnation, not to the soaring that even he in his own heart is desperately craving. Mechanical power, you see, is indeed vitally necessary to the full development of the human spirit; but to the sub-human spirit it is lethal.”

“But, how can you know that? Aren’t you being a bit too confident in your own judgement?”

John’s lips compressed themselves and assumed a crooked smile. “You’re right,” he said. “There’s just one possibility that I have not mentioned. If the species as a whole, or a large proportion of the world population, were to be divinely inspired, so that their nature became truly human at a stride, all would soon be well.”

I took this for irony, but he went on to say, “Oh, no, I’m quite serious. It’s possible; if you interpret ‘divinely inspired’ to mean lifted out of their pettiness by a sudden and spontaneous access of strength to their own rudimentary spiritual nature. It happens again and again in individuals here and there. When Christianity came, it happened to large numbers. But they were a very small proportion of the whole, and the thing petered out. Short of that kind of thing, or rather something much more widespread and much more powerful than the Christian miracle, there’s no hope. The early Christians, you see, and the early Buddhists and so on, remained at bottom what I should call sub-human, in spite of their miracle. In intelligence they remained what they were before the miracle; and in will, though they were profoundly changed by the new thing in them, the change was insecure. Or rather the new thing seldom managed to integrate their whole being into a new and harmonious order. Its rule was precarious. The new psychological compound, so to speak, was a terribly unstable compound. Or, putting it in another way, they managed to become saints, but seldom angels. The sub-human and the human were always in violent conflict in them. And so they mostly got obsessed with the idea of sin, and saving their souls, instead of being able to pass on to live the new life with fluency and joy, and with creative effect in the world.”

At this point we fell silent. I relit my pipe, and John remarked, “Match number nine, you funny old thing!” It was true. There lay the eight burnt matches, though I had no recollection of using them. John from his position on the bed could not see the ash-tray. He must have noticed the actual re-lightings. It was simply that he observed whatever happened however engrossed he might be. “You funnier young thing!” I retorted.

Presently he began talking again. He kept his eye on me, but I felt that he was talking rather to himself than to me. “At one time,” he said, “I thought I should simply take charge of the world and help Homo sapiens to remake himself on a more human plan. But now I realize that only what men call ‘God’ could do that. Unless perhaps a great invasion of superior beings from another planet, or another dimension, could do it. But I doubt if they would trouble to do it. They would probably merely use the Terrestrials as cattle or museum pieces or pets, or just vermin. All the same, if they wanted to make a better job of Hom. sap. I expect they could. But I can’t do it. I believe, if I set my mind to it, I could fairly easily secure power and take charge of the normal species; and, once in charge, I could make a much more satisfactory world, and a much happier world; but always I should have to accept the ultimate limitations of capacity in the normal species. To make them try to live beyond their capacity would be like trying to civilize a pack of monkeys. There would be worse chaos than ever, and they would unite against me, and sooner or later destroy me. So I’d just have to accept the creature with all its limitations. And that would be to waste my best powers. I might as well spend my life chicken-farming.”

“You arrogant young cub!” I protested. “I don’t believe we are as bad as you think.”

“Oh, don’t you! Of course not, you’re one of the pack,” he said. “Look here, now! I’ve spent some time and trouble poking about in Europe, and what do I find? In my simplicity I thought the fellows who had come to the top, the best minds, the leaders in every walk, would be something like real human beings, fundamentally sane, rational, efficient, self-detached, loyal to the best in them. Actually they are nothing of the sort. Mostly they’re even below the average. Their position has underminded them. Think of old Z (naming a Cabinet minister). You’d be amazed if you could see him as I have seen him. He simply can’t experience anything clearly and correctly, except things that bear on his petty little self-esteem. Everything has to penetrate to him through a sort of eider-down of preconceived notions, clichés, diplomatic phrases. He has no more idea of the real issues in politics today than a mayfly has of the fish in the stream it’s fluttering on. He has, of course, the trick of using a lot of phrases that might mean very important things, but they don’t mean them to him. They are just counters for him, to be used in the game of politics. He’s simply not alive, to the real things. That’s what’s the matter with him. And take Y, the Press magnate. He’s just a nimble-witted little guttersnipe who has found out how to hoax the world into giving him money and power. Talk to him about the real things, and he just hasn’t a notion what you’re driving at. But it’s not only that sort that terrify me with their combination of power and inanity. Take the real leaders, take young X, whose revolutionary ideas are going to have a huge effect on social thought. He’s got a brain, and he’s using it on the right side, and he has nerve, too. But — well, I’ve seen enough of him to spot his real motive, hidden from himself, of course. He had a thin time long ago, and now he wants to get his own back, he wants to make the oppressor frightened of him. He wants to use the have-nots to break the haves, for his own satisfaction. Well, let him get his own back, and good luck to him. But fancy taking that as your life’s goal, even unconsciously! It has made him do damned good work, but it has crippled him, too, poor devil. Or take that philosopher bloke, W, who did so much toward showing up the old school with their simple trust in words. He’s really in much the same fix as X. I know him pretty well, the perky old bird. And knowing him I can see the mainspring of all that brilliant work quite clearly, namely, the idea of himself as bowing to no man and no god, as purged of prejudice and sentimentality, as faithful to reason yet not blindly trustful of it. All that is admirable. But it obsesses him, and actually warps his reasoning. You can’t be a real philosopher if you have an obsession. On the other hand, take V. He knows all about electrons and all about galaxies, and he’s first class at his job. Further, he has glimmers of spiritual experience. Well, what’s the mechanism this time? He’s a kind creature, very sympathetic. And he likes to think that the universe is all right from the human point of view. Hence all his explorations and speculations. Well, so long as he sticks to science he is sound enough. But his spiritual experience tells him science is all very superficial. Right, again; but his is not very deep spiritual experience, and it gets all mixed up with kindliness, and he tells us things about the universe that are sheer inventions of his kindliness.”

John paused. Then with a sigh he resumed. “It’s no good going on about it. The upshot is simple enough. Homo sapiens is at the end of his tether, and I’m not going to spend my life tinkering a doomed species.”

“You’re mighty sure of yourself, aren’t you?” I put in. “Yes,” he said, “perfectly sure of myself in some ways, and still utterly unsure in others, in ways I can’t explain. But one thing is stark clear. If I were to take over Hom. sap. I should freeze up inside, and grow quite incapable of doing what is my real job. That job is what I’m not yet sure about, and can’t possibly explain. But it begins with something very interior to me. Of course, it’s not just saving my soul. I, as an individual, might damn myself without spoiling the world. Indeed, my damning myself might happen to be an added beauty to the world. I don’t matter on my own account, but I have it in me to do something that does matter. This I know. And I’m pretty sure I have to begin with — well, interior discovery of objective reality, in preparation for objective creation. Can you make anything of that?”

“Not much,” I said, “but go on.”

“No,” he said, “I won’t go on along that line, but I’ll tell you something else. I’ve had the hell of a fright lately. And I’m not easily frightened. This was only the second time, ever. I went to the Cup Tie Final last week to see the crowd. You remember, it was a close fight (and a damned good game from beginning to end) and three minutes before time there was trouble over a foul. The ball went into goal before the referee’s whistle had got going for the foul, and that goal would have won the match. Well, the crowd got all het up about it, as you probably heard. That’s what frightened me. I don’t mean I was scared of being hurt in a row. No, I should have quite enjoyed a bit of a row, if I’d known which side to be on, and there’d been something to fight about. But there wasn’t. It clearly was a foul. Their precious, ‘sporting instinct’ ought to have kept them straight, but it didn’t. They just lost their heads, went brute-mad over it. What got me was the sudden sense of being different from every one else, of being a human being alone in a vast herd of cattle. Here was a fair sample of the world’s population, of the sixteen hundred millions of Homo sapiens. And this fair sample was expressing itself in a thoroughly characteristic way, an inarticulate bellowing and braying, and here was I, a raw, ignorant, blundering little creature, but human, really human, perhaps the only real human being in the world; and just because I was really human, and had in me the possibility of some new and transcendent spiritual achievement, I was more important than all the rest of the sixteen hundred million put together. That was a terrifying thought in itself. What made matters worse was the bellowing crowd. Not that I was afraid of them, but of the thing they were a sample of. Not that I was afraid as a private individual, so to speak. The thought was very exhilarating from that point of view. If they had turned on me, I’d have made a damned good fight for it. What terrified me was the thought of the immense responsibility, and the immense odds against my fulfilling it.”

John fell silent; and I was so stunned by his prodigious self-importance that I had nothing to say. Presently he began again.

“Of course I know, Fido old thing, the whole business must seem fantastic to you. But, perhaps, by being a bit more precise on one point I may make the thing clearer. It’s already pretty common knowledge of course that another world-war is likely, and that if it does come it may very well be the end of civilization, But I know something that makes the whole situation look much worse than it’s generally thought to be. I don’t really know what will happen to the species in the long run, but I do know that unless a miracle happens there is bound to be a most ghastly mess in the short run for psychological reasons. I have looked pretty carefully into lots of minds, big and little, and it’s devastatingly clear to me that in big matters Homo sapiens is a species with very slight educable capacity. He has entirely failed to learn his lesson from the last war. He shows no more practical intelligence than a moth that has fluttered through a candle-flame once and will do so again as soon as it has recovered from the shock. And again and yet again, till its wings are burnt. Intellectually many people realize the danger. But they are not the sort to act on the awareness, It’s as though the moth knew that the flame meant death, yet simply couldn’t stop its wings from taking it there, Then what with this new crazy religion of nationalism that’s beginning, and the steady improvement in the technique of destruction, a huge disaster is simply inevitable, barring a miracle, which of course may happen. There might be some sort of sudden leap forward to a more human mentality, and therefore a world-wide social and religious revolution. But apart from that possibility I should give the disease fifteen to twenty years to come to a head. Then one fine day a few great powers will attack one another, and — phut! Civilization will have gone in a few weeks, Now, of course, if I took charge I could probably stave off the smash. But, as I say, it would mean chucking the really vital thing I can do. Chicken-farming is not worth such a sacrifice. The upshot is, Fido, I’m through with your bloody awful species. I must strike out on my own, and, if possible, in such a way as to avoid being smashed in the coming disaster.”


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