THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A MICROBE, WHO, IN A FORMER EXISTENCE, HAD BEEN A MAN— HIS PRESENT HABITAT BEING THE ORGANISM OF A TRAMP, BLITZOWSKI. (WRITTEN AT DUBLIN, NEW HAMPSHIRE, 1905)
(See Chapter ccxxxv)
Our world (the tramp) is as large and grand and awe-compelling to us microscopic creatures as is man’s world to man. Our tramp is mountainous, there are vast oceans in him, and lakes that are sea-like for size, there are many rivers (veins and arteries) which are fifteen miles across, and of a length so stupendous as to make the Mississippi and the Amazon trifling little Rhode Island brooks by comparison. As for our minor rivers, they are multitudinous, and the dutiable commerce of disease which they carry is rich beyond the dreams of the American custom-house.
Take a man like Sir Oliver Lodge, and what secret of Nature can be hidden from him? He says: “A billion, that is a million millions, of atoms is truly an immense number, but the resulting aggregate is still excessively minute. A portion of substance consisting, of a billion atoms is only barely visible with the highest power of a microscope; and a speck or granule, in order to be visible to the naked eye, like a grain of lycopodium-dust, must be a million times bigger still.”
The human eye could see it then — that dainty little speck. But with my microbe-eye I could see every individual of the whirling billions of atoms that compose the speck. Nothing is ever at rest — wood, iron, water, everything is alive, everything is raging, whirling, whizzing, day and night and night and day, nothing is dead, there is no such thing as death, everything is full of bristling life, tremendous life, even the bones of the crusader that perished before Jerusalem eight centuries ago. There are no vegetables, all things are animal; each electron is an animal, each molecule is a collection of animals, and each has an appointed duty to perform and a soul to be saved. Heaven was not made for man alone, and oblivion and neglect reserved for the rest of His creatures. He gave them life, He gave them humble services to perform, they have performed them, and they will not be forgotten, they will have their reward. Man-always vain, windy, conceited-thinks he will be in the majority there. He will be disappointed. Let him humble himself. But for the despised microbe and the persecuted bacillus, who needed a home and nourishment, he would not have been created. He has a mission, therefore a reason for existing: let him do the service he was made for, and keep quiet.
Three weeks ago I was a man myself, and thought and felt as men think and feel; I have lived 3,000 years since then [microbic time], and I see the foolishness of it now. We live to learn, and fortunate are we when we are wise enough to profit by it.
In matters pertaining to microscopy we necessarily have an advantage here over the scientist of the earth, because, as I have just been indicating, we see with our naked eyes minutenesses which no man-made microscope can detect, and are therefore able to register as facts many things which exist for him as theories only. Indeed, we know as facts several things which he has not yet divined even by theory. For example, he does not suspect that there is no life but animal life, and that all atoms are individual animals endowed each with a certain degree of consciousness, great or small, each with likes and dislikes, predilections and aversions — that, in a word, each has a character, a character of its own. Yet such is the case. Some of the molecules of a stone have an aversion for some of those of a vegetable or any other creature and will not associate with them — and would not be allowed to, if they tried. Nothing is more particular about society than a molecule. And so there are no end of castes; in this matter India is not a circumstance.
“Tell me, Franklin [a microbe of great learning], is the ocean an individual, an animal, a creature?”
“Then water — any water-is an individual?”
“Suppose you remove a drop of it? Is what is left an individual?”
“Yes, and so is the drop.”
“Suppose you divide the drop?”
“Then you have two individuals.”
“Suppose you separate the hydrogen and the oxygen?”
“Again you have two individuals. But you haven’t water any more.”
“Of course. Certainly. Well, suppose you combine them again, but in a new way: make the proportions equal — one part oxygen to one of hydrogen?”
“But you know you can’t. They won’t combine on equal terms.”
I was ashamed to have made that blunder. I was embarrassed; to cover it I started to say we used to combine them like that where I came from, but thought better of it, and stood pat.
“Now then,” I said, “it amounts to this: water is an individual, an animal, and is alive; remove the hydrogen and it is an animal and is alive; the remaining oxygen is also an individual, an animal, and is alive. Recapitulation: the two individuals combined constitute a third individual — and yet each continues to be an individual.”
I glanced at Franklin, but . . . upon reflection, held my peace. I could have pointed out to him that here was mute Nature explaining the sublime mystery of the Trinity so luminously — that even the commonest understanding could comprehend it, whereas many a trained master of words had labored to do it with speech and failed. But he would not have known what I was talking about. After a moment I resumed:
“Listen — and see if I have understood you rightly, to wit: All the atoms that constitute each oxygen molecule are separate individuals, and each is a living animal; all the atoms that constitute each hydrogen molecule are separate individuals, and each one is a living animal; each drop of water consists of millions of living animals, the drop itself is an individual, a living animal, and the wide ocean is another. Is that it?”
“Yes, that is correct.”
“By George, it beats the band!”
He liked the expression, and set it down in his tablets.
“Franklin, we’ve got it down fine. And to think — there are other animals that are still smaller than a hydrogen atom, and yet it is so small that it takes five thousand of them to make a molecule — a molecule so minute that it could get into a microbe’s eye and he wouldn’t know it was there!”
“Yes, the wee creatures that inhabit the bodies of us germs and feed upon us, and rot us with disease: Ah, what could they have been created for? They give us pain, they make our lives miserable, they murder us-and where is the use of it all, where the wisdom? Ah, friend Bkshp [microbic orthography], we live in a strange and unaccountable world; our birth is a mystery, our little life is a mystery, a trouble, we pass and are seen no more; all is mystery, mystery, mystery; we know not whence we came, nor why; we know not whither we go, nor why we go. We only know we were not made in vain, we only know we were made for a wise purpose, and that all is well! We shall not be cast aside in contumely and unblest after all we have suffered. Let us be patient, let us not repine, let us trust. The humblest of us is cared for — oh, believe it! — and this fleeting stay is not the end!”
You notice that? He did not suspect that he, also, was engaged in gnawing, torturing, defiling, rotting, and murdering a fellow-creature — he and all the swarming billions of his race. None of them suspects it. That is significant. It is suggestive — irresistibly suggestive — insistently suggestive. It hints at the possibility that the procession of known and listed devourers and persecutors is not complete. It suggests the possibility, and substantially the certainty, that man is himself a microbe, and his globe a blood-corpuscle drifting with its shining brethren of the Milky Way down a vein of the Master and Maker of all things, whose body, mayhap — glimpsed part-wise from the earth by night, and receding and lost to view in the measureless remotenesses of space — is what men name the Universe.
Yes, that was all old to me, but to find that our little old familiar microbes were themselves loaded up with microbes that fed them, enriched them, and persistently and faithfully preserved them and their poor old tramp-planet from destruction — oh, that was new, and too delicious!
I wanted to see them! I was in a fever to see them! I had lenses to two-million power, but of course the field was no bigger than a person’s finger-nail, and so it wasn’t possible to compass a considerable spectacle or a landscape with them; whereas what I had been craving was a thirty-foot field, which would represent a spread of several miles of country and show up things in a way to make them worth looking at. The boys and I had often tried to contrive this improvement, but had failed.
I mentioned the matter to the Duke and it made him smile. He said it was a quite simple thing-he had it at home. I was eager to bargain for the secret, but he said it was a trifle and not worth bargaining for. He said:
“Hasn’t it occurred to you that all you have to do is to bend an X-ray to an angle-value of 8.4 and refract it with a parabolism, and there you are?”
Upon my word, I had never thought of that simple thing! You could have knocked me down with a feather.
We rigged a microscope for an exhibition at once and put a drop of my blood under it, which got mashed flat when the lens got shut down upon it. The result was beyond my dreams. The field stretched miles away, green and undulating, threaded with streams and roads, and bordered all down the mellowing distances with picturesque hills. And there was a great white city of tents; and everywhere were parks of artillery and divisions of cavalry and infantry waiting. We had hit a lucky moment, evidently there was going to be a march-past or some thing like that. At the front where the chief banner flew there was a large and showy tent, with showy guards on duty, and about it were some other tents of a swell kind.
The warriors — particularly the officers — were lovely to look at, they were so trim-built and so graceful and so handsomely uniformed. They were quite distinct, vividly distinct, for it was a fine day, and they were so immensely magnified that they looked to be fully a finger-nail high.207 Everywhere you could see officers moving smartly about, and they looked gay, but the common soldiers looked sad. Many wife-swinks [” Swinks,” an atomic race] and daughter-swinks and sweetheart-swinks were about — crying, mainly. It seemed to indicate that this was a case of war, not a summer-camp for exercise, and that the poor labor-swinks were being torn from their planet-saving industries to go and distribute civilization and other forms of suffering among the feeble benighted somewhere; else why should the swinkesses cry?
207 [My own expression, and a quite happy one. I said to the Duke: “Your Grace, they’re just about finger-milers!” “How do you mean, m’ lord?” “This. You notice the stately General standing there with his hand resting upon the muzzle of a cannon? Well, if you could stick your little finger down against the ground alongside of him his plumes would just reach up to where your nail joins the flesh.” The Duke said “finger-milers was good”-good and exact; and he afterward used it several times himself.]
The cavalry was very fine — shiny black horses, shapely and spirited; and presently when a flash of light struck a lifted bugle (delivering a command which we couldn’t hear) and a division came tearing down on a gallop it was a stirring and gallant sight, until the dust rose an inch — the Duke thought more — and swallowed it up in a rolling and tumbling long gray cloud, with bright weapons glinting and sparkling in it.
Before long the real business of the occasion began. A battalion of priests arrived carrying sacred pictures. That settled it: this was war; these far-stretching masses of troops were bound for the front. Their little monarch came out now, the sweetest little thing that ever travestied the human shape I think, and he lifted up his hands and blessed the passing armies, and they looked as grateful as they could, and made signs of humble and real reverence as they drifted by the holy pictures.
It was beautiful — the whole thing; and wonderful, too, when those serried masses swung into line and went marching down the valley under the long array of fluttering flags.
Evidently they were going somewhere to fight for their king, which was the little manny that blessed them; and to preserve him and his brethren that occupied the other swell tents; to civilize and grasp a valuable little unwatched country for them somewhere. But the little fellow and his brethren didn’t fall in — that was a noticeable particular. They didn’t fight; they stayed at home, where it was safe, and waited for the swag.
Very well, then-what ought we to do? Had we no moral duty to perform? Ought we to allow this war to begin? Was it not our duty to stop it, in the name of right and righteousness? Was it not our duty to administer a rebuke to this selfish and heartless Family?
The Duke was struck by that, and greatly moved. He felt as I did about it, and was ready to do whatever was right, and thought we ought to pour boiling water on the Family and extinguish it, which we did.
It extinguished the armies, too, which was not intended. We both regretted this, but the Duke said that these people were nothing to us, and deserved extinction anyway for being so poor-spirited as to serve such a Family. He was loyally doing the like himself, and so was I, but I don’t think we thought of that. And it wasn’t just the same, anyway, because we were sooflaskies, and they were only swinks.
Franklin realizes that no atom is destructible; that it has always existed and will exist forever; but he thinks all atoms will go out of this world some day and continue their life in a happier one. Old Tolliver thinks no atom’s life will ever end, but he also thinks Blitzowski is the only world it will ever see, and that at no time in its eternity will it be either worse off or better off than it is now and always has been. Of course he thinks the planet Blitzowski is itself eternal and indestructible — at any rate he says he thinks that. It could make me sad, only I know better. D. T. will fetch Blitzy yet one of these days.
But these are alien thoughts, human thoughts, and they falsely indicate that I do not want this tramp to go on living. What would become of me if he should disintegrate? My molecules would scatter all around and take up new quarters in hundreds of plants and animals; each would carry its special feelings along with it, each would be content in its new estate, but where should I be? I should not have a rag of a feeling left, after my disintegration — with his — was complete. Nothing to think with, nothing to grieve or rejoice with, nothing to hope or despair with. There would be no more me. I should be musing and thinking and dreaming somewhere else — in some distant animal maybe — perhaps a cat — by proxy of my oxygen I should be raging and fuming in some other creatures — a rat, perhaps; I should be smiling and hoping in still another child of Nature — heir to my hydrogen — a weed, or a cabbage, or something; my carbonic acid (ambition) would be dreaming dreams in some lowly wood-violet that was longing for a showy career; thus my details would be doing as much feeling as ever, but I should not be aware of it, it would all be going on for the benefit of those others, and I not in it at all. I should be gradually wasting away, atom by atom, molecule by molecule, as the years went on, and at last I should be all distributed, and nothing left of what had once been Me. It is curious, and not without impressiveness: I should still be alive, intensely alive, but so scattered that I would not know it. I should not be dead — no, one cannot call it that — but I should be the next thing to it. And to think what centuries and ages and aeons would drift over me before the disintegration was finished, the last bone turned to gas and blown away! I wish I knew what it is going to feel like, to lie helpless such a weary, weary time, and see my faculties decay and depart, one by one, like lights which burn low, and flicker and perish, until the ever-deepening gloom and darkness which — oh, away, away with these horrors, and let me think of something wholesome!
My tramp is only 85; there is good hope that he will live ten years longer — 500,000 of my microbe years. So may it be.
Oh, dear, we are all so wise! Each of us knows it all, and knows he knows it all — the rest, to a man, are fools and deluded. One man knows there is a hell, the next one knows there isn’t; one man knows high tariff is right, the next man knows it isn’t; one man knows monarchy is best, the next one knows it isn’t; one age knows there are witches, the next one knows there aren’t; one sect knows its religion is the only true one, there are sixty-four thousand five hundred million sects that know it isn’t so. There is not a mind present among this multitude of verdict-deliverers that is the superior of the minds that persuade and represent the rest of the divisions of the multitude. Yet this sarcastic fact does not humble the arrogance nor diminish the know-it-all bulk of a single verdict-maker of the lot by so much as a shade. Mind is plainly an ass, but it will be many ages before it finds it out, no doubt. Why do we respect the opinions of any man or any microbe that ever lived? I swear I don’t know. Why do I respect my own? Well — that is different.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00