THE INSTANT OF DEATH
ANNIHILATION AND SURVIVAL
THE MEMBERS OF THE CREW
THE SPIRIT OF THE CREW
THE COMPANY OF SOME WHO WERE KILLED
THE SPIRIT OF SOME WHO WERE KILLED
DEATH OF THE SPIRIT OF THE KILLED
THE INSTANT OF DEATH
the very point of his annihilation the rear-gunner suffered a
strange experience, and one not easily to be told. He had already
swooned free from pain, and was falling headlong into nothingness. In
that final instant, suddenly he woke into awareness of his whole past
life. His whole past universe flashed miraculously upon him in
exquisite early-morning clearness and manifold detail. Once more and
all at once he was aware of all his days and nights, but as a string of
variegated beads laid out before him, alternate light and dark. Each
was figured with the unique experiences of that particular dated night
or day. There, as though present, he saw the day when he had first been
taken to school; the night of an indescribable nightmare which kept its
teeth in him even for many nights and days; the day when, a school-
boy, he had glimpsed divinity in a schoolgirl; the day when he had
started work in a bank; the night of his first operational flight
across the narrow sea. He saw too that the string holding all his days
and nights together was his cherished and continuously growing body,
now in the instant of destruction. Then, it lived, and was the vehicle
of all memory, the medium of all passions and ecstasies, the source of
all teasing hungers and all satisfaction. But now his flesh was in the
very act of death, his mind in the instant of annihilation. Strange,
strange that a mere instant should have room for crowding thoughts and
desires, and contain within itself all his nineteen years!
At one end of the long sequence of his days he saw his first day of all, knotted into the peaceful darkness of the womb, a day of painful and novel churning and pressing, and of an agony of constriction, followed by the sting of cool air on tender skin, and a sudden smack that roused his lungs to their first breath and outcry. In the stress of this earliest and most deeply buried of his memories the rear-gunner was swept again by floods of blind infantile terror, rage and self-pity; and of yearning for the womb's peace. And yet, surveying his first day from the miraculous viewpoint of his last instant, he no longer desired the womb, which seemed now about to swallow him once more, and for ever. Now, all his desire was for life, and the fulfilment of life's frustrated promises. For there before him lay all his days, frustrated; bright with hopes and partial satisfactions, but scored over with countless boredoms, distresses, falsified intimations of future bliss, Greedily he licked up all the sweetness of his precious numbered days, and spat out all their bitterness. And with self-pity he brooded on the mature manhood that he was never to taste.
But now, in this same miraculously pregnant instant at the point of his annihilation, the rear-gunner became aware of a strange conflict within himself. With his whole being, seemingly, he was protesting against annihilation; and yet at the same time he in some deep way accepted annihilation with equanimity. With his whole being, seemingly, he clung greedily to every sweet thing in his lifetime; and yet also he turned away impatiently in search of ulterior ends, It was almost as though two selves of contrary tempers assessed each day and minute of his life, The one was recognizably himself as he had always been, an eager lapper-up of pleasures and spewer-out of pains. The other, the frightening and inhuman intruder, that was so alien and yet somehow more deeply himself than his familiar self could ever be, lapped up nothing, spewed nothing out, This formerly submerged but now active part of him, if such it could be accounted, accepted pleasures and pains alike dispassionately, judging each one for some ulterior significance, inquiring of each whether the issue had in fact been life or death, an increased range and penetration of personal being, or a mere crippling. Thus in assessing the occasion when he had shockingly burnt his hand the rear-gunner was twi-minded about it. As his normal self, he was transfixed by the memory of the pain; but in the other mode of his being, though equally aware of the body's distress, he surveyed it quietly, and with a sort of voiceless laughter at the other's gross enslavement. For this, after all, had been not a crippling but an enlarging, an illuminating, experience. Had it not initiated him into the formidable mystery of suffering? And how could one begin to be a man without such initiation?
But his normal self greeted this incursion of a superior mentality with incomprehension, ridicule and hate. He protested to himself, 'If I must die, I'll die honest to God as I really am, and not be a sham padre or a highbrow. Pain is just hell. I see no good in it, I hate it, I loathe it. To hell with it!'
In his final instant, the rear-gunner tasted again the thousand little experiences of wounded vanity or social mortification that had moth-eaten the fair textile of his life, as when he had been cold-shouldered by the belle of his suburb, or when he had discovered that a new and brilliant friend lived in a shabby street. But now he was torn by the violent discord between his familiar and his more lucid selves. The one surrendered abjectly to the long-past horror of social embarrassment; the other was tortured by shame of a very different order, shame at puerility and meanness. In particular, over the friend's back-street home he was now thrown into an agony of self-contempt. For the friendship, which, as he now saw, might have been a quickening influence in his life, had been poisoned by his snobbery. In that first act of withdrawal, and in many other betrayals, up and down his life, he had given poison to his own soul, so that he became each time a little blinder, a little more heartless.
Assessing his blundering approach to the girl whom he had recently designed to possess, he saw now in his awakened mood that never once had he come face to face with her as a living spirit. Neither of them had any real perception either of themselves or of one another or of their relationship. Each had again and again wounded the other, not by cruelty but by sheer self-absorption and obtuseness. On an occasion when she, in distress over a crushed butterfly, had looked to him for sympathy, he had failed to conceive that her misery might have some hidden source. Secretly contemptuous of her childishness, he had petted her and made love to her. But though she clung to him, a strange chill came over her. And presently he grew exasperated at her unresponsiveness, and ridiculed her for grieving so much over a trifle. Then unaccountably she was seized with violent weeping. The rear-gunner in his last instant and his miraculous lucidity saw, what neither of them had at the time recognized, that through the butterfly's destruction she had glimpsed with lightning suddenness the horror in which countless fighting men and whole populations of the oppressed were at that I moment engulfed. She was flung into a desperate conflict between compassion for the oppressed and a new sense that to participate in slaughter, even for the rescue of the tormented peoples, was hideous sacrilege; though a sacrilege which in a sick world needs must be perpetrated, to avoid a sacrilege more hideous. But all this happened upon a plane of her being which she had never before entered. Bewildered and terrified, she fled from it into mere pity for the butterfly. But vague perplexity and unreasonable terror remained. And in coming to him as an unhappy child rather than as a woman, and in confiding to him a seemingly trivial grief that tapped deeper sorrows, she was calling out to him for more than the familiar love-making; she was imploring him 1 for understanding and for the healing of a wound which she herself dared not scrutinize; in fact she asked for love, for the mutual searching and cherishing of beings diverse in temper, yet members of one another. All this the awakened self of the rear-gunner now recognized. And bitterly he despised himself for his past obtuseness.
Yet in the very act of self-contempt, he also, as his normal self, resented and feared this intrusion of clearer insight. 'What on earth', he demanded, 'has come over me? What's the matter with me? Where does all this highbrow slush come from? Not from me, surely. I'm not like that; I never was. And anyhow, what's a girl for? Damn it, it wasn't up to me to get her out of her silly muddle. All that sob-stuff over an insect!'
In this matter of violence the new self of the rear-gunner revolted with peculiar horror from his normal self. The living boy had always accepted, though with obscure disquiet, the necessity of using violence to defend the right. He himself had been called to kill and to share in killing. For the crew's sake and for his country's sake he had played his part in slaughter, sealing off in a neglected corner of his mind all realization of the actuality, and of the horror and shame that it engendered. He had told himself, 'It's dirty work, but it has got to be done. If we're damned for doing it, well we're damned, but it has got to be done.'
His new self, however, was outraged and bitterly remorseful. His quickened imagination revealed with grim faithfulness the agony of the enemy airman smashed by machine-gun bullets or cannon-shell, and of the enemy citizens shattered or buried or burnt by the crew's bombing. But more shameful even than this horror itself was the spiritual betrayal that made it possible, the betrayal of that which his new perception revealed as the most sacred thing, the bond of brotherhood between all personal beings. New thoughts welled up in him, thoughts which he could only with difficulty express, since his language was limited by the dead boy's crude speech. Searching beyond the range of the rear-gunner's familiar jargon, he brought out from the forgotten recesses of that mind words and phrases dusty with neglect. 'How could I be so--so insensitive,' he questioned, 'so-- coarse-grained, dull-witted, brutish, and so cowardly, as to take part in all that savagery, that wickedness! And how can I ever wipe out, expiate, that sin? I have wakened to find myself up to the neck in filth at the bottom of a deep and stinking pit from which I can never climb.'
But presently his mood changed. Lifted as it were outside himself, he regarded more objectively not only his participation in murder but his whole life of rudderless drifting.
Reverting to the old jargon, 'Poor mut, poor twerp!' he sighed. Then, painfully seeking out words that could express more faithfully his new quickened perception, 'That poor sleep-walker', he said, 'could not possibly have done otherwise. How could so insensitive a being have struck free from the universal sin? How could anyone so scared of disapproval, so cowed by the tribe's censure, have seen that the tribe was wrong, have stood out against the tribe's will? The most that could be expected of him was that he should obey the tribal call to give up his freedom and learn to fight and in the end to die. And this he did.'
But now another thought slowly took shape under the anxious scrutiny of the rear-gunner's newly awakened and more lucid self. Surveying all his fragmentary and hitherto undigested, uncriticized acquaintance with the world of men, he saw that even if he had been clearly conscious of the enormity of slaughter, yet to stand aside would have been wrong. For to stand aside would have been to refuse a desperate call for rescue. Millions of human beings, suffering under the most hideous tyranny, cried out for practical help, and there was no way of bringing them relief save the forlorn attempt of war. To preach human brotherhood and set an example of non-violence would in this case be quite futile. Moreover so deep-seated and subtle was the perversion of all men's minds, so crazily were most men addicted to false values, and so desperate was the present plight of the human race, that nothing but violence, nothing but ruthless slaughter, could prevent the destruction of the very possibility of a better world.
'If I had stood aside', he admitted, 'I should have been a peculiarly ugly kind of snob, I should have been guilty of a sort of snobbery of righteousness. I should have been just washing my hands of the whole mess to keep my precious self clean.'
Yet when he remembered stories he had heard of the selfless devotion of some who refused to take any part in war, he wondered whether they had perhaps some vision that he still lacked, so confident were they that violence must always in the long run inevitably do more harm than good.
But presently he told himself, 'Those visionaries may, just may, be right; and certainly they were true to their own faith. But-- how can one refuse for a doubtful vision a present and urgent cry for help against cruel oppressors, torturers?'
Bewilderment and horror weighed down on him. 'Surely', he cried, 'the world must be sheer hell if the only hope is that millions, in order to rescue the tortured, will force themselves to use all the devilish devices of war, will freely commit this foul crime against-- against what? Call it the spirit. This crime against the spirit, against the very thing that they want to defend. Yes, surely this world of ours is sheer hell.'
But recalling the brighter and fairer things in his own short life, he protested, 'No, not hell, but something lovely that has been spoilt, something of lovely promise but terribly hurt, frustrated. Where was it, and when, and in what form that the poison entered?' These questions were beyond his wit to answer; for his knowledge of the world was but the knowledge of an average young man; and, though his intelligence had been quickened by death, ignorance defeated it.
When the rear-gunner's two selves, if two they were, and if truly 'selves', and if both were indeed 'his', reviewed his final instant of agony and annihilation, their feelings were very different. The normal boy, faced with utter destruction, cried out, seemingly with the whole force of his being, 'Oh, Christ, let me live!' And with that last desperate prayer the rear-gunner himself, the normal, greedy, snobbish, fear-tortured, yet within the crew well-disciplined and comradely, self of the rear-gunner utterly ceased to be. Surely the outcry of that poor self-cherishing and doomed individual mind might well have echoed from star to star, from galaxy to galaxy, might have reached even to the ears of compassionate God, if such there be; with the similar last cries of his six companions and the other slaughtered crews and the many killed citizens in their fiery honeycomb, and all the killed on land and sea and in the air, in every quarter of the planet.
But the other, alien self of the rear-gunner, and the alien self in all the company of the killed, scorned that prayer which all had prayed. 'Not I,' affirmed the rear-gunner in his more lucid mode, or the alien being that had awakened in the rear-gunner's annihilation, 'Surely not I, but some other, was guilty of that cry, some mere brute, some subhuman thing involved with me.'
Thus in his last instant the rear-gunner, like all the killed, had been torn by inner conflict. The normal boy, at the very point of extinction, was outraged by the aloofness and ulterior searching of that stranger within himself. He supposed that the coldness of desire in him must surely be death itself already dissolving his vitality and disintegrating his mind. Yet in the same instant he, his very self (if his self it truly was), his new, alien and quickened self, assessing his past life's little worth, declared, 'All my life I shirked the test. I took the easy line. I lapped up little pleasures and was cowed by little pains. I turned away from every opportunity of growth, held back always by sluggishness or fear or blank obtuseness, smothering the dim light in me at every step by my self-generated fog of trivial cravings. What might I have done, what become, if I had not chosen always to remain a sleep-walker. And now it is too late. Never will those lost openings be restored to me.' Remorse and self-despising gripped him. Particularly he loathed his baser self for that final desperate cry to a divinity in whom he had never really believed, and whose name had hitherto been for him little more than an imprecation. 'Abject creature that I am,' he said, 'nailed to self-pity! What matter that such a moth must die without fulfilment?'
Not that even in his more lucid mentality the rear-gunner accepted annihilation wholly without misgiving. Though he cared nothing for his personal survival, yet it seemed that with his ending must also come an end to something perhaps more worthy. Seemingly the whole little treasure of experience which he had gathered in his brief lifetime must now, with his extinction, be itself extinguished. If only he could know that in some way it contributed to some whole of cosmical or divine experience, as a raindrop to the ocean! But he had no reason to believe that this was so; and in his lucid mode he scorned to believe without reason, merely for comfort. Well, the ocean would not be perceptibly the poorer without his raindrop. Moreover, as he now bitterly realized, he had lived so obtusely that perhaps nothing whatever in his whole life was creatively unique and worthy of preservation. True, but what of his six companions, and the thousands of war dead and all the myriads that had died and were to die in all lands and ages? And what of all those stars that were indeed suns, and the minded worlds that perhaps were sprinkled, however sparsely, up and down the galaxies? Did all their vast treasure of experience simply vanish with the ephemeral individuals who had supported it?
The rear-gunner, even in his more lucid self, was oppressed by the seeming futility of all existence. But he told himself that even the loss of all that treasure mattered nothing. Really what mattered was just that the upshot of all those myriad lives should be the practical advancement of their particular worlds in individual happiness. But happiness? The happiness of insects like himself? Not sheer happiness, then, but the fulfilling of these insects in ever richer, keener, more discriminate, more creative living. (What unfamiliar language this! From what hidden source did it rise up in him?) The fulfilling of insects, generation after generation, in ever finer awareness! Then, was the justification of the æons of misery and pain some final, glorious, cosmical Utopia? And would it be a dreadfully superior Utopia of super-minds intent on super-highbrow activities? Once more oppression seized the rear-gunner. And presently he thought of the inevitable decline and fall of that far-off society. For scientists declared that the whole universe was running down like a clock, and that in the end all life would be extinguished. In imagination he saw a million frozen worlds, each sprinkled with frozen honeycombs that once were cities, their features now almost obliterated by the corpse coverlet of ultimate snow.
The rear-gunner, or that which had awakened in the rear-gunner's final instant, was overwhelmed by a great weariness and loneliness, so that he cared only for sleep. Vaguely he thought of those occasions when, after a hard day, he had dropped into bed, and down, down, into the peace of sleep. (The womb again.) On those nights, had he on the brink been told that, if he slept now, he would never wake again, he would have leapt from his bed; but now, though believing that his sleep was to be eternal, he sighed thankfully and drew the blanket of oblivion over his head. Presently even the ultimate desire for extinction was expunged from him; and with it, all thinking, all awareness.
ANNIHILATION AND SURVIVAL
After an instant or an æon, he who had been the rear-gunner in the aeroplane where the moth was imprisoned woke from his nescience. And it was as though he woke into a new nature.
He took up once more the thread of his meditation, but now the whole climate of his being had changed, as though sleep had profoundly refreshed him. He smiled at his recent despond, reminding himself of the feebleness of human intellect. How should human animals, those upright worms with swelled heads, predict the issue of the æons? And if the last event must indeed be ultimate and eternal death, might not all still be well? After full achievement, what better than sleep? But anyhow, what matter! How foolish to despair over a disaster so remote and so uncertain!
Once more, he considered the chequered rosary of his own past days and nights. Little enough of achievement, certainly, could be seen in them. But he viewed them now no longer with a sense of personal frustration, no longer with exasperation and self-blame. Somehow a weight seemed to have fallen from him, as though an aeroplane had jettisoned its load, and suddenly flown free. Pitifully, but not with self-pity, he now fingered the little rosary of those days and nights. 'Poor boy,' he said, 'so greedy was he for delight, and so misused by the world, and by himself. So unaware was he of all but his trivial hungers and pains. No! Not I! That poor sleep-walker was never I.'
And yet, fingering again those beads of time, and looking more closely into the heart of each obscurely translucent globe, he began to see that there were indeed occasions in the rear-gunner's life of which he could without hesitation declare, 'Now that, yes that, truly was I. Then, and then, and then, I, the real I, did indeed wake in the depth of the dreamer's heart; and I, I, took possession for a while.'
He watched the schoolboy, startled once by seeing with new eyes a certain outlawed schoolmate, so that with fists and tongue and heart he hotly championed him. And when he had so thrillingly greeted divinity in a schoolgirl, his adoration, though callow and muddied with self-importance, was in essence disinterested. Responding to that alien sweetness he had indeed in his childish way saluted divinity. That adoration of another, that craving to live wholly for another's sake, that obscure longing to find with another some still inconceivable but exquisite union and rebirth as 'we'! There had been moments, too, when trees and flowers and clouds had opened strange windows for him. And sometimes, in his training for the air, most unexpectedly, a mathematical formula had stirred him with its economy and far range of significance. Music, too, had now and again struck from him a spark of perplexed worship. And after all, had he not given himself without reserve to the crew's life, in service of a cause how vaguely conceived yet none the less recognized as binding? For that cause he, who feared death as a child the dark, had died.
'Yes!' affirmed the being who had awakened out of the rear-gunner, 'on those occasions it was indeed I, my very self, who saw, felt, spoke, took action.' And as he peered
into the dimly luminous heart of each past day, he recognized everywhere traces of a lucidity which he need not disown, though everywhere it was overlayed with the poor sleep- walker's obtuseness. 'Though he was not I,' he mused, 'yet every day and every night I was astir within him, though drowsily, in the dark womb of his nature.'
'But I?' he wondered, 'Who am I? What is it that I truly am? The creature that gave birth to me, the creature that cried out for immortality, is quite extinguished. It has no part in my future; whilst I, escaping from its death, am cut off from all nourishment from its finished life. And yet I live on. The cord is cut, but the first breath in the new world not taken. Unless this dark isolation ceases, I too, through sheer lack of experience, must soon be annihilated. Oh for a world, a heaven, where at last I can begin to fulfil the promise of my nature! Oh for the clash and concord and creative intercourse with others of my kind with whom I can rise beyond myself to richer, keener being!'
THE MEMBERS OF THE CREW
Musing in this style he suddenly recognized that a world was all the while around him. So absorbed had he been in his inner-drama that he had not noticed it. But now he knew that he had been all the while afloat in the sky over the burning city. He was the centre of an unbroken sphere of vision. Bodiless, his seeing was in no direction obstructed. Below him lay the fiery honeycomb; above, the climbing smoke plumes, with here and there a star, and the moon, now forging through little clouds. On every side he saw war's shafts of light and bursting suns of fire. An obscurity downwind was the fading cloudlet left by the bomber's recent explosion. Presently a near shell-burst engulfed him for a moment in an extremity of light and noise, but painlessly. And then an aeroplane, roaring out of the darkness, traversed harmlessly the very point from which he saw.
But once more his attention was distracted from his physical surroundings, for he became aware of the mental presence of his six killed companions.
The past lives of all were bared, like his own, for contemplation by all seven of them. It was as though all seven stood now together, each viewing all their seven pasts from the final instant in which all had died; as though all together looked along seven radiating tunnels of biography. All were embarrassingly aware of each other's most intimate experience. For though all had rid themselves of their mortal natures, they were as yet not fully equipped for mutual insight. Each was still fettered by much of the ignorance and prejudice of his particular life. And so, in each, the habit of comradeship and self-yielding to the crew's community was now put to new strain by this unwished-for intimacy. Formerly each, while outwardly performing his office in the common life, had preserved an inner sanctuary which the others could not, would not, violate. But now, in a bare instant, mutual perception was thrust on all. Shames formerly covered were now exposed. Conflicts formerly disciplined for the crew's sake, but always smouldering, now flamed.
Secretly, the pilot had always despised the rear-gunner's accent; the rear-gunner had resented the pilot's self-assurance. Forbearance for the crew's sake had restrained each from wounding the other. But now each looked with horror and incipient hate at the other's unexpressed but now unconcealable hostility. The navigator's diffidence, which had forced him always to be the last to go through a door, was now seen by all to be the fruit of secret annoyance and envy. The bomb-aimer's stammer, formerly an occasion for kindly indulgence, though for unexpressed contempt, revealed its root in the shame of an obscene desire which made all shudder and draw away.
There was one of the seven, the engineer, a newcomer, who in the air was wholly of the crew, bound by the filaments of the crew's unity; but off-duty he had remained apart, because of rough speech and manners and an inscrutable reticence. He now appeared to his six companions almost as a member of a strange barbarian tribe, or a creature of another world, never explored by any of the six. They, haling from little surburban villas and secondary schools, felt themselves to be integral to society. They regarded the policeman not indeed as their servant but at least as the necessary defender of orderly and decent living. But this other, nurtured in a northern work-town where work had formerly come almost to a standstill, where the common fate was hunger, sickness and social impotence, saw the whole convention of society's Structure as a device of the prosperous to keep the poor in subjection. Every policeman was for him an enemy. Looking down the vista of his days and nights, this seventh member saw, and his six companions saw with him, a filthy urchin sitting on the kerb-stone playing with a broken bottle in the gutter; while in the six other lifetimes all observed nice children sitting on suburban grass-plots. They watched the schoolboy in a crowded classroom discovering his native power, but constantly hampering himself by rebellious acts and consequent punishments. They saw the young man unemployed, gripped in that steel trap of privation and futility, listening to angry speeches at street comers and in shabby halls, poring over revolutionary tracts, and presently himself making earnestly subversive speeches, or skirmishing with policemen. They saw not only these distressing events but also the inner passion exfoliating day by day in the young man's heart, the passion of the iconoclast and the revolutionary. And they were outraged. For it seemed to these others, who, for all their man-of-the-world cynicism, had never really questioned the fundamental integrity of their society, that this passion sprang merely from self-pride and envy.
But the young revolutionary, looking into the lives of these sons of business men, clerks, shop assistants, mechanics, was amazed. Their parents, one and all, had been compelled by social circumstance to fight for a living against innumerable competitors, all seeking desperately for some foothold on the slope that leads up to affluence but down to penury; yet, these fathers and these sons, though they had been nearly always discontented and harassed, blamed merely their bad luck, or the state of trade, or bolshevik machinations, or the Jews, or the inveterate evil in man's heart. They never had any thought that their troubles were in fact the issue of some deep-lying social disease, and that they were poor little infected cells in the social body. But, to the seventh member of the crew, the engineer, it seemed that for such as these, and indeed for all men, there could never be any hope unless they could learn to understand the great social forces which had produced all this frustration and misery. And understanding would surely drive them to take action together about it.
All seven were plunged into revulsion and protest, long-enduring (so it seemed to them) as a lifetime of painful learning; but, measured in physical time, it happened in the instant. Little by little, yet in the instant, after the spell of bewilderment and horror a change came over the seven emergent spirits of the crew. For each of these beings, who had been through that strange remaking which had befallen the rear-gunner, were now apt for learning. They were no longer simply boys who had died. They were the beings that had been obscurely born of those seven, and had awakened into clear awareness in the extinction of those mortal seven. Therefore, after the first revulsion, they yearned together, each saluting the other's individuality with respect, and seeking mutual insight. The pilot and the rear-gunner laughingly forgave each other. The bomb-aimer's obsession was seen by all no longer as a devilish lust but as a psychical scar left by misfortune. The revolutionary was no longer spurned. For now the six saw that their condemnation of him was less moral than snobbish, a mere unthinking rejection of standards alien to the tribe. They reminded themselves that this seeming enemy of society, whose energy appeared to be sheer hate, had been also their own trusted companion in the crew, one who in action had been well-integrated with them, one to whom all had paid a special though none an intimate admiration.
Eager to do justice, they looked with clearer vision. They saw the schoolboy in his bare home struggling with his homework, while the mother soothed a crying baby. They saw the parents daily trying to conceal mutual irritation under their sorely tried affection. They saw the lad himself noting day by day that the source of all their distress was poverty. And they saw him conceiving through suffering and mutual aid a passion of comradeship for certain schoolmates and young fellow gangsters, and a growing need to give himself in corporate and comradely activity.
They savoured more intelligently the lad's frustration in unemployment; and his induction into the corporate life of the revolutionary Party, where at last he found peace in self- dedication to the revolution. With curiosity, with growing interest, and then with warm accord, they watched the young man's mind form itself by reading and the experience of social action, until he was fully disciplined to a command- ing idea, the conception of mankind as something of high promise but of crippled actuality.
Through his fervour the six themselves now for the first time felt the power of this human gospel. 'It is indeed largely so,' they said, 'though the mortal boys that gave us being knew nothing of it.'
But they saw also, with their newly quickened intelligence, that the revolutionary's majestic vision of class conflict and social evolution, though in a way true and serviceable, reached nowhere into the depths of truth; and that their comrade, spellbound by a theory, had conceived the world too glibly. They were distressed, too, that in service of the revolution he had often broken the moral law that they unquestioningly accepted. For the sake of a political though never for a personal advantage he had often lied; given false interpretations of facts, vilified the personal character of the opponents and half-hearted friends of the revolution. In their post-mortal lucidity they could well understand how revolutionary passion had seemed to justify such conduct; but they were perplexed, recognizing that to behave in this way was to do violence to something sacred, to that temper, that way of life, that universal spirit, which all, obscurely swayed by echoes of the old religion, had dumbly and shame-facedly recognized as in some sense divine. But they could not honestly blame their comrade for this error, if indeed error it was; for its source was the generous passion for the freeing of mankind from bondage. And for their own part the six were now deeply ashamed of their own past obtuse- ness to the world's ills, and to the meaning of the great pattern of events in which all their lives had occurred.
The revolutionary seventh, on his side, having now fully recognized the personal reality of his six companions, looked with misgiving on many things in his own past, fearing that, in blind loyalty to the end, he had often, by lightly choosing evil means, done hurt to something without which the end, the true end, could never be achieved.
And so these disembodied seven, who in their former lives had scarcely ever given attention to the deeper questions, now entered perplexedly upon a philosophical discussion, if indeed such a name can be given to the strange direct interfusing of mind with mind which now swiftly brought them into accord.
Thus at last, through mutual insight, the community of the seven was restored and deepened. Each one of these diverse spirits, strangely born of the lives of seven young Englishmen, contributed his uniqueness to the common enrichment. And thus at last did their friendship find its consummation in intelligent love.
But in this final act of love the seven, as distinct beings, were doomed to attain not only their fulfilment but their end. For the upshot of this mystic fertilization of each by all was that all conceived within themselves co-operatively, or perhaps were gathered up into, a single spirit, which was the living identity of them all. Each with agony and terror but with overriding ecstasy was torn by strange death- or birth-throes. And out of this communal parturition, lethal to the seven, who now all fell headlong into nescience and non-entity, the single new-born spirit took wing.
New-born? Or newly awakened? Conceived perhaps much earlier in the seven's active comradeship, but hitherto somnolent, tranced, impotent, and now at last awake and free. Whatever the metaphysical truth of it, the seven now had died into an identical, more vital being, who was no one of them, nor yet the sum of them, but the heir of all their lives.
THE SPIRIT OF THE CREW
This being woke to find himself at first no more than the fragmentary, ephemeral and single-purposed spirit of a certain bomber crew.
Strange that the seven should be dissolved in a fellowship which, after all, had possessed them so superficially. Each of them had lived almost the whole of his life without any relation to the crew. Only in their final year, their last few months, had they been thrown together. Probably all of them, certainly some, had participated in associations far more expressive of their personal natures than the upstart and grimly simple crew. Yet now in death all died into that stark spirit. Seemingly the cause was that in the moment of death all were intensely concerned in the crew's united action. Moreover, only in the crew had they learnt to discipline their wills fully to a common purpose.
But indeed this simple spirit of a bomber crew was soon to discover in himself strange depths and heights of being. Brooding on the past lives of his seven members, he came to feel that, in some way still dark to him, he was in fact far more than the unity of those seven boys. As the sheer crew-spirit, he remembered those seven bodies as his own seven-fold body, though a body whose organs were often recalcitrant to the precariously enthroned common spirit. For each of his seven members had a life and a sentience and a will of his own. And each had a mentality far richer than the single-purposed spirit of the crew. Only in the air were they fully disciplined to the common will and to the fanatical simplicity of the common spirit. And even in the air they had remained seven individual minds, self-disciplined under a common loyalty.
But now, he who had emerged from the seven, felt that all the while he had been resident in each one of them, identical in each, though for the most part unconscious, deeply submerged, rising into clear perception and integral will only on those occasions when the crew's action was most single-purposed. When it was less so, when some of his members were keyed up for battle and some were reluctant, then it was he himself (so it now seemed to him) who goaded the faint-hearted ones into courage, as a man may goad his own tired muscles into the vigour of desperation.
Looking back, it seemed to him that not merely the seven but the very machine that imprisoned them had been part of his body. For through the seven's well-trained senses and through their instruments, and through their muscles and their mechanical controls, he lived the life of that composite being, biological and mechanical. As a man driving a car may feel the roughness of the road through the tyres, and the steepness of the hill through the straining engine, so he felt through those seven bodies and through the wings and air-screws and straining engines the very texture of the atmosphere, and the thrust and swoop of the plane. And as a man's will controls a car, so he, through the seven minds who were but organs of his own mind, controlled and fought the plane. Looking back into his past, it seemed to him that he had always since the crew's founding been present in each of his members as the identical will for efficient flying, efficient defence, efficient attack, and safe return. In the past he had participated only in the vaguest and most ineffectual manner in the personal lives of his members outside the aeroplane, outside the carapace of their common life in the crew. He knew them only in so far as they were intimate with each other. But now in their death and mutual insight he became fully possessed of all their experience.
In life, each one of them had been an individual boy fleetingly possessed by the crew's unity. Moreover each had been a member also of other communal beings. For each had shared in other groupings, in family, school, team, working gang and innumerable other less durable associations. Looking back into the earlier lives of the seven, the spirit of the crew told himself that in the time before ever they came together as a crew he could have had no part in any of them at all. Indeed in those days, seemingly (though somehow he could not believe it) he had no being anywhere. And even later, in the time of the crew, one or other of his precious members was often possessed for a while by sheer self-concern, or by interest in some corporate being other than the crew. And indeed the young revolutionary, though of all the seven he had been the most self-disciplined to the crew in action, was also in his heart aloof, because dedicated ultimately to a loftier loyalty.
'But I, I, who am I?' questioned the crew's spirit. 'Am I really no more than the ephemeral community of the seven in whose lives I was conceived, and in whose death I discovered myself? And what future, if any, lies before me? In what world can I take action to express my nature more fully than my seven members could ever do?'
For as the crew's simple spirit brooded over the lives of his seven members, all their diverse individualities became absorbed into himself. His nature deepened to include the whole wealth of all their being.
Further, it seemed to him that, though his contact with the world was limited to the experience of his seven members, yet in some manner he was indeed far more than those seven. Though they were in a sense his parents, yet it now seemed to him most insistently that throughout all their lives, and not merely since the forming of the crew, he had always been present within each one of them, feeding on the diversity of the experience of those young human persons, and always an identical spirit in them all. But always, until their death, he had been a sleep-walker.
Nay more. It seemed to him that not only in the seven but in all those whom the seven had ever known, in their lovers, friends, colleagues, enemies, a spirit lived which, if only he could reach out to it, would prove to be himself, or, if not himself, then perhaps some more lucid spirit, that he, like all those others, strangely harboured.
Intently brooding on those seven lives, assessing the quality of their fumbling commerce with their fellow mortals and with the world, this being who seemingly had been born of the seven as the starkly simple spirit of their vivid community in action, now seemed to himself far older than the seven, seemed indeed primeval, perhaps eternal, seemed also to be of umplumbed depth, and subtlety. And now he was possessed by an obscure but passionate longing to be more fully, more lucidly himself, and to come into active commerce and communion with a world. As a sleeper may sometimes struggle vainly and in terror to spring from sleeping into waking, while his limbs remain paralysed, his eyes shut, and his mind crushed down as though under a great weight of water, so this being struggled to wake and be fully himself, and greet the unknown world, the great reality beyond himself.
THE COMPANY OF SOME WHO WERE KILLED
Suddenly the spirit of that crew with whom a moth had been imprisoned became aware of the cloudy moonlit sky and of the burning city, far below. The sirens were sounding to proclaim untranquil and unlasting peace.
He became aware also of a host of presences, bodiless like himself. It was as though a babel of voices deafened him with incoherent clamour; but these were in fact a swarm of spirits shifting, vanishing and reappearing, impinging directly upon his mind with violent conflict and intermittent sweet accord.
After a spell of bewilderment, he discovered that these beings with whom he was in such overwhelming contact were the spirits that had awakened in the final instants of all the killed in that battle, both in the air and on the ground. There were individual beings, and there were composite beings like himself. There were spirits emergent from those isolated killed who had not at the moment of death been deeply absorbed in the common life of any group; the spirits of particular airmen, firemen, soldiers, gunners, citizens. And there were those composite spirits that had awakened in the sudden destruction of whole close-knit crews of aeroplanes and anti-aircraft guns.
The spirit of that moth-accompanied crew found this new experience painful. The tumult and conflict of all these beings entered deeply into his own personality. For, under the stress of these new attractions and repulsions, one or other of his own seven members, who had seemed so well integrated into his own single being, would wake again into individuality and strain away from him. Indeed the whole company of spirits was a strange quivering flux, criss-crossed by ever-changing new patterns of individuality and communion. Individuals coalesced with one another or broke apart to merge themselves in new corporate beings, which might presently be once more disintegrated, or engulfed in greater beings.
An electron within an atom, they say, has no distinct individuality at all. It is a mere factor pervading the whole atom. So, equally, with these disembodied individual spirits, dissolved in corporate beings. But the electron may recover its individuality and leap free from the atom, to join perhaps with some other atom and once more die from individuality into a new corporate being. So also with these spirits. Or again electrons may become links binding atoms together in larger wholes of individuality. So also these spirits.
For instance, the revolutionary member of that crew which had died when a moth died now woke once more into individuality through the influence of other spirits of his temper. But so well had he been merged in the corporate being of his crew that, far from breaking away, he became the link by which the whole sevenfold spirit of that crew found community with all those among the killed who had willed a new world.
The individuals and corporate beings in this company of all the killed seethed like bubbles on the surface of boiling water, appearing, vanishing, merging, separating; or like the ever-shifting patterns of wrinkles on the skin of heated milk.
But one at least among those killed, being of far finer temper than the rest, had a different fate. Like all, she suffered annihilation of her earthly self; but since, even in her earthly self, she had been so little blinded by worldliness, the spirit which woke in her death could pass easily and swiftly through all the strange forms of being which most others must so laboriously climb.
She was a saint of the City. Born to luxury, but also to sincerity, and schooled in the best temper of the old religion, she had early broken with the easeful and gilded life of her own class. She looked for friendliness with the poor. For years they had rejected her; but in the end their hearts were won by her service and her need of them. When the tyranny broke upon the City, she with modest daring, and the formidable prestige of her integrity, had defended the persecuted and rescued the hunted.
Eagerly she reached always outward in friendliness and service; yet the source of all her warmth and strength lay in her inner life of contemplation. She praised the spirit in such forms as were known to her, in field and wood and sky, in human grace and the significance of human words, but above all in human loving. Not for her the subtleties, of the theologians, nor the equal subtleties of the sceptics. For her the perception of love's divinity, and the steep and excellent way.
When death destroyed her, then in virtue of her life's devotion the spirit that awoke in her dying soared on strong wings; until she seemed, she seemed, to be gat4ered up in exquisite communion with the very God whom all her life had praised. But her true and ultimate fate cannot yet fittingly be told.
This saint, alone among all the dead of that battle, sprang straight to bliss; or if not she, then the being that in her dying woke and struck free. Some few others, airmen, citizens and gunners, were gathered quickly into the common being of some church or party or other storied or passionate group. But most remained for long in tumultuous intercourse with their fellow dead.
This merging and union among the spirits of the killed was never painless. For although what drew the spirits into union was always some deep identity of will, yet also, no sooner were they forced into thorough and respiteless intimacy than in sudden revulsion they strained apart.
Agonizingly the massed experience of all these lives was thrust upon each spirit, so that at first their only wish was to avoid the intolerable stress of conflicting opinions and desires. For among these dead were young and old, men and women, masterful and submissive, simple and sophisticated, rich and poor, knaves and heroes and saints. Moreover there were the raiders and their enemies, the attacking airmen and the citizens.
Not only were there antagonists from both sides of the battle, now tortured to find their minds poured together and subtly interfused with enemy minds, and their most sacred values spurned seemingly in the very sanctuary of their own souls; not only so, but worse, for there were many who, though on the same side of the battle, now with horror discovered one another to be at heart poles asunder in temper and ideals. For deeper far than the cleavage of the war was the difference between those who rendered ultimate allegiance to the very essence of spirit, to reason, love and creativity, and those whose hearts were secretly given mainly to personal or tribal power or to any other of the thousand phantasms that distract men. On both sides of the battle many simple spirits were in a confused way sincerely loyal to the light, and on both sides many were secretly wedded to darkness. But in the City the miasma of tribal doctrine grievously blinded even those who were for the spirit.
One thing alone, it seemed, the whole company of the spirits emergent from the killed had in common. All were the issue of lives cut short by violence. Unlike the members of a crew, no common purpose united them. Only death, violent and untimely, held them together as a single company.
But since all these beings, though hampered by the ignorances and prejudices of their mortal progenitors, were beings of lucid nature, their common tragedy of lives cut short was enough to form a stepping-stone to full mutual insight. Little by little, through what seemed to these spirits an age-long lifetime or remaking, though physically all happened within the spell of that brief battle, community triumphed over conflict. All came to appreciate under their many errors the identical truth in all. Conflicts still perplexed them, but now only as differences among friends united in trust, and pressing eagerly toward full mutual insight.
Presently they cried out together, 'Had those poor mortals who generated us been able to see into one another's hearts and minds as we now see, strife would have been less Common on earth, happiness less rare. But we, possessing fully our common inheritance of experience, can create together a true fellowship of spirits, can be translated, each one of us, into the richer, ampler being of our union.'
But no sooner did they rise into this ecstasy of mutual insight than all felt themselves reeling, swooning, into unconsciousness. For in their communion they doomed themselves as individuals to extinction. Together they became the parents, or perhaps rather the midwives, of a single being. Each one of all this company died utterly, but his experience was gathered up into a single, ampler spirit, in whom they as conscious individuals had no part.
THE SPIRIT OF SOME WHO WERE KILLED
This spirit, who was born or who was wakened in the annihilation of all the heterogeneous company of the killed, possessed the pasts of all. He remembered, for instance, how a certain rear-gunner was kissed by a certain moth. And he remembered the composite spirit of that crew. He remembered through many brains the air-fleet's journey across the sea, and equally the preparations of the citizens for defence. The conflicts of will between citizens and attackers, between the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the forward-looking and the backward-yearning, he felt as conflicts between his own discordant moods, in the days before his waking into clear self-knowledge.
For it seemed to him that during the lives of his many members he had always been present in them all; though impotent, paralysed, sunk in a vast and incoherent dream. Always his members were divided from one another in location and in allegiance. And though in every one of them he had sometimes drowsily awakened and assumed precarious rule, never in those past lives had he, the loftier being, ruled for long.
'But I, I, what is it that I really am?' This question tormented him. 'If indeed I am no more than the spirit emergent in this night's killed, how comes it that I was alive in them before ever they were united in death? No! Though I possess the experience of this small company alone, I am indeed far more than their emergent spirit. I am that in all men which craves the light. Then why am I thus confined to a small company, and they all dead? Surely I am far more than the spirit of those few dead. I am the spirit of the dead of all lands and ages, and it is I that am immanent in all the living also. Always, in every generation since men first were men, I, I was the identical spirit in them. Then how comes it that I know nothing but those few ended lives?'
Through his experience of his dead members he now, chafing at the limitations and disabilities of those few, tried to form a clear view of the great world in which they had so briefly and so blindly lived. For though each of them had his unique world-view, none saw far, all saw crookedly. Vaguely therefore, the perplexed spirit of those killed pieced together from his members' experience a fragmentary and incoherent vision of the plight of mankind upon its little planet.
Vaguely he saw the nations summoning all their strength for war; vaguely the slaughter, the hate, the fear, the universal hunger for peace. And still more vaguely he was aware of the deeper crisis of our age, the crumbling of the old world, the painful birth of the new. Vaguely he saw that the perennial inner drama in each man's heart, the battle between darkness and the light, was in this moment of mankind's long life most crucial.
Surveying the fragmentary visions of his members, he was tormented by their inconsistency and triviality, and tantalized by the veiled and surmised features of high truth; so that he cried, 'Blind and paralysed that I am, I must, must wake and be my whole self. I must possess all men. I must know the whole truth about mankind. I must be a power in all men's hearts. I must take action.'
Then suddenly the being who had emerged from those few killed mortals was assailed by the overwhelming onset of a crowding host of presences, by the individual minds of all who had been killed in this long war, and in the last war, and in all wars in all ages, and all who had died violent deaths in any way since man began, and all whose end had come by disease or sheer old age. And when the myriads of the dead had flooded upon him, there came at last the living, the two thousand million, white and black, yellow and brown, living their little various lives under the wide shadow of war. He knew them inwardly through their own experience, but also outwardly through their experience of each other. His consciousness widened to cover the whole field of human mentality; as an exploding star spreads its light-waves in an expanding sphere of illumination through the dark surrounding nebula. The massed experience of all living persons in all lands, fell upon him in an increasing cataract. But though he was compelled to be present in all these minds, he his very self remained distinct from them. They were voices sounding in his ears, not experiences of his own. Seemingly for a lifetime, an aeon, the cataract thundered upon him, while he battled to keep his identity afloat; yet all happened within the instant.
Piecemeal visions of the whole terrestrial globe, seen through two thousand millions pairs of eyes, inexorably assailed him; visions of night and day, of dreamlands and waking life, of tropical jungles and temperate champaigns and the planet's frozen extremities, visions of plains and hills and storms at sea, of remote crofts and shacks and homesteads, and of a thousand cities; visions of factory-work and tillage, of miners at the coal face and hunters in the northern forests, of company meetings and cathedral services; visions of war.
A babel of voices also resounded in his tortured mind, speaking in many languages, all of which were perfectly familiar to him, voices of American citizens discussing investments, of German gauleiters enforcing discipline, of Indian peasants imploring food, of Russian tractor-drivers, Chinese students, and all the kinds and races of humanity. He heard inarticulate bellowings of hate, balanced sentences of persuasion and discussion, whispered instructions passed from soldier to soldier in ambush, and all the sweet and secret communications of lovers. Their embraces also he poignantly felt, in mansions and slums, on haystacks and in dark alleys. Through innumerable hands he felt the soft curves of human limbs, the textures of cloth and wood, and cold metal. Through a host of feet he felt the surface of the earth, the hot desert, the snowfields, the city pavements, the moors. Equally all the smells invaded him, of sweat and roses, corpses and sea breezes, of the hot tarmac and the cold smoke-laden fog, of spent explosives, dust, and blood and entrails. And all the flavours of all the foods and drinks, relished in innumerable mouths and swallowed down the world-population of gullets. He was assailed also by those expulsions which take place every day in every land, whether in immaculate closets or stinking latrines or behind hedges or in the open desert. And those other, those honoured expulsions too he felt, all the birth-pangs of that moment, of young mothers tom and frightened, and mothers old and tired; births sealed by death, and births easy as an animal's.
Not only the physical perceptions of all human sense-organs but also the longings and fears and busy thoughts of all human minds were forced upon him; their inveterate self-cherishing, their self-sacrifice for ends great or petty, their myriad reasonings, in search of profit or of divinity.
And with this he was aware of the corporate and tenuous spirits emergent in all human associations, from the long-lived but nebulous individualities of nations, churches, social classes, to the brief ardent spirits of aircraft crews, of little ships, of party cells, and the intense communions of lovers. He was confronted also with the one-track minds emergent in innumerable special societies, in business firms, professional associations, trade unions, philanthropic associations, little chapels, churches, clubs, and the juvenile spirits of schools and colleges, wrapped in their cocoons of tradition or straining for new growth. The cosmopolitan, but in war- time sadly disintegrated, mind emergent in all pioneering men of science in all the warring lands was also present to him; and the thousand exploring or merely repetitive mentalities of cultural cliques, 'movements', religious fanaticisms, social policies:
The spirit of those killed was now confronted also with those rare and holy individuals, like the City's dead saint, who through intensity of contemplation and integrity of action had become more nearly pure spirit than human individual. These he recognized as beings more lucid than himself. He strained against them, recalcitrant to their excellence; yet at the same time he longed to rise to them and include their clearer nature within himself.
DEATH OF THE SPIRIT OF THE KILLED
Reeling with the impact of all this voluminous and inconsistent experience, the being who had emerged from the killed in a certain battle over a certain city was torn between the desperate need to preserve his identity, and the longing to assimilate all this wealth of experience, and find communion with all these diverse spirits, individual and corporate. Exclusiveness and love struggled within him. For, in contemplating all this host, how could he not feel for them a deep compassion and kinship and yearning? But also, because they threatened his individuality, they were repugnant to him. Again and again he had to remind himself that fellowship and not self-cherishing is the way to the larger life. At last, after how long a struggle, he flung down all his defences and welcomed the invaders.
'All you great cloud of beings,' he cried, 'though we are separate, surely also we are one. In our inmost being we are one. Under our severalty and our idiosyncrasy, we are identical, we are Man.'
But no sooner had he passionately affirmed his unity with that host of others, than a fog of darkness and of oblivion surged against him. Struggling to retain consciousness, he felt himself disintegrating, evaporating, under some powerful influence, as a dewdrop when the sun devours it. Presently he, as an individual being, the transient spirit that had emerged in those few killed, was extinguished. He died into the great spirit of Man.
Death Into Life Contents