I have met a scientist, and now I must tell you about him.
It was at the party, the congested, the conglomerate party, where I was taken "to meet people." If you had been with me, perhaps I could have made con- tact, but the man who had brought me was too soon swept from me by the throng's glacier drift. The few whom he had burdened with me had tried to include me, but we could find no catalytic. I was a goat penned among sheep. The bleating was alien to me, though alas not meaningless. With each new guest's arrival, the flood of sound rose higher. I was a trapped miner, the water rising toward his mouth.
Yet many of these people were individually notable. From press photographs I recognized a cabinet minister, two famous writers, a popular actress, an eminent scientist. Among the bright female silks and the male motley of black and white, there was a high ecclesiastic in purple tunic and breeches. His face was old sandstone, crowned with snow; and under the white cornices of his brows gleamed serpent eyes, of wisdom or of cunning. Individually distinguished, and leaders of my species in this island, why should these creatures seem to me in my loneliness a bunch of chattering monkeys?
Across the room, a young man stood alone in silence. His glass was empty. His cigarette ash dropped unnoticed. Intently, and with a secret smile, he reviewed the huddled flock. I thought of a sparrow hawk on a high branch, watching for prey; then of a mongrel terrier, scruffy, genial, mischievous, none too clean, with mud unnoticed on his muzzle. He was a raw-boned young man, wire-haired, with terrier eyes, and a complexion of uncooked shrimps.
I struck boldly into a current that was setting in his direction. When I had emerged beside him, I waited a little, for decency, and to recover composure; then I said casually, "Do you know these people, mostly? I am told they are all distinguished, all leaders of our society." His response was delayed. Judicially, he replied, "Five percent, perhaps, I know; maybe seven. Leaders? Yes, of stampeding swine, heading for the precipice." There was silence. "These occasions," I ventured, "terrify me. Silly, isn't it!" He answered at once, "Just boring, I call them. When I find myself stranded, I play a game. I study the fauna." Silence fell once more, so I reminded him of my presence by remarking that a crowd of strangers did often strike one as mere fauna.
To my surprise he let loose a flood of fantasy, couched in a jargon that was consciously literary. "First," he said, "I observe that these creatures are all specimens of Homo sapiens, and at bottom palaeolithic savages, though tricked out modernistically in tissues of vegetable fibre or animal hair, or the secretion of caterpillars, with here and there scraps of hide, bits of metal, and a sprinkling of rare crystals. That priest in fancy dress is the successful medicine man, skilled in spells, the practiced ventriloquist who makes the great idol speak laws or threats. That major there, unbelievably kilted, I see as a tribal warrior, with naked cart-horse muscles and a girdle of scalps. That other's waist-coated paunch might never have reached such magnitude in the hard early days of the species; but reduce it somewhat, and you gave the bulging and sweaty headman of the tribe, already past his rule, soon to be done away with by the scalp-girdled one. In the corner, there, a born herd leader wallows in the admiration of those withered women and those youths. See how his ears are pricked for every tremor of opinion, how he laps up the public's whims, to regurgitate them later as his own God-given gospel."
I laughed, and was at ease, sharing the superiority of this little hawk on its high perch; or watching this queerly sophisticated terrier sniffing out vermin.
He continued. "Next I undress them, and see them all nakedly huddled together. And of course naked they really are. That woman with the creased face and bloody claws-I take off her fashioned dress and corsets to observe the sagging belly, the flapping dugs like empty hot-water bottles. The paunched headman, stripped of all trappings, becomes a sheer grizzled human gorilla. That young bitch of the species, all sexed up for market, is now unpainted, unpermed, disheveled, grimy with soot and grease and blood from her savage cooking. And how she stinks! Yet to the prime young male, there, the slut is a seductive morsel. See how he leans toward her! His nakedness betrays an excitement which clothes conveniently mask."
I was enjoying his fantasy. It appealed strongly to the terrier in myself. But a vague protest was brewing in me. I thought of you, so real in person; beneath your simplicity, so complex; in all your doing, so well orientated to the spirit. Did this young man, I wondered, suppose that by stripping the human onion of its coats he would expose some indestructible core of brute humanity?
He continued. "The next gambit goes deeper. Take away from each of them all that is human. But preserve for identification some characteristic feature of each individual; for instance, that paunch, and that priestly dignity, and that lusty musculature. Let us operate on the asking bitch there. We must recreate the ape in her, or at least the subhuman, while somehow preserving the demurely lascivious expression of her whole face. First, then, thicken her, bandy her legs, tip her forward with knuckles to earth for support. Cover her breasts and her whole body with coconut hair. Cut away her saucy chin and her lips like fruit, and plaster them above her eyes to harden into a great brow ridge.
Snip off her nose, revealing the septum. Forget there's meaning in her chatter (if there is), and hear it as sheer auditory sex stimulation, almost as heady to the male as her sexual stink."
He flashed a gleeful look at me; as though the terrier, in his enthralling investigation, had spared a moment to look round and say, "Good fun, isn't it!"
He said, "When you have had enough of her in this near-human repulsiveness, you can amuse yourself by shrinking her to a little goggle-eyed wire-fingered tarsier, scampering along branches and twigs. Then, if you like, see her (always with her expression of veiled bawdiness) as the primitive, undifferentiated mammal. Or remake her still more radically to be a monotreme. Now the young male will have to be content with a cruder and less intimate sexual contact, since he must copulate without penetration. And she will lay eggs. It is a delicate but an amusing operation to remould that marble and sculptured human arm of hers stage by stage back to the sketchy forelimb of a lizard, altering the set of the bones, the proportions of each muscle. And for those Atalanta legs of hers (which one easily pictures under the silk dress) we must achieve a still more radical feat of plastic surgery, crooking them, splaying them sideways, reducing the plump buttocks almost to extinction, and parting them to make room for a great crocodile tail. Now watch her go slithering among (or over) her fellow reptiles, while the male, chained by the nose to the bawdy smell of her, slobbers along behind."
He paused, and I sniggered politely, but anxiously. Again he shot his terrier glance at me and said, "You think I am unfair to her; but after all, that is what she really is even now, under the knickers and the brassiere, in spite of the breasts and the vagina, and the human hypertrophy of the cerebral cortex."
All I could say was, "But if you take away so much of her, where is she?" He answered, "She, of course, is what we see before us and what I have laid bare; but what I have laid bare is the controlling mechanism of the whole system even now." "But, but-" I said, and fell silent.
He resumed his fantasy. "The game can be continued indefinitely. When one is in the mood one can reduce the creatures to the amphibian, the fish, the worm, the micro-organism. Or one may vary it by retaining their human shapes but seeing them inwardly as physiological going concerns. Under the skin see the blood-soaked muscles, pumping blood or air or words; or composing themselves to idiotic smiles or affected laughter; or churning food. The bitch, for instance, has a stomach, a muscular bag stuffed now with sandwiches and cocktails, which it assiduously mixes, till the pulp is ripe for passing down through the tangle of tubing that her neat belly conceals. Meanwhile that crumpled muscular hosepipe, seething like a nest of snakes, is probably dealing with a half-digested mess of chops and chips. And further still, the unwanted rubbish is collecting, to be ejected in due course into the socially approved receptacle. The creature also has a brain, a fantastically subtle texture of fibres, which even now are being activated in inconceivably complex and coordinate rhythms. Mentally these neural events have the form of (presumably) a perception of the young male as an eligible mate, and a using of every wile (primitive and sophisticated) to catch him. Meanwhile at the other end of her anatomy, stored in a recess convenient for access by the male seed, her egg is ripe. It is a pinhead; but it is a continent still mainly unexplored by science. Somewhere within its vast yet microscopic interior lie, meticulously located, all the factors for reproduction of her kind, and indeed of her own special idiosyncrasies, even down to that intriguing twist of the left eyebrow. And if ever she is so careless as to have a child, its whole physique and temperament will be an expression of the chancy collocation of genes (hers and her mate's) in the union of sperm and ovum; in conjunction, of course, with the appropriate environment."
"You are very sure," I said. He replied, "There is no certainty, but the probability is overwhelming."
Then he started a new gambit, saying, "Now let us expose the bitch's fundamental structure. It is an inconceivably complex tissue of the ultimate physical particles or wavetrains, say 1012n of protons, electrons, positrons, neutrons and perhaps other units still to be discovered. Thus the bitch keeps her Atalanta figure, her human complexion, her fruity lips; but within their volume, within the contours of breast, buttock and so on, one must conceive a great void, fretted by midges of electromagnetic potency." The young man paused, then concluded, "But in the end the game palls. It is the early moves that stimulate."
His flight of fantasy seemed to have spent itself. Presently I asked him, "Are you a writer? You have a quick imagination, and you seem to care about words." For his ornate and rather stilted speech had puzzled me. "God, no!" he said. "I am a geneticist, but addicted to verbiage off duty." Then with a sidelong look to measure me he added, "A geneticist, you know, is a biologist who studies inheritance." I replied politely that his profession must be indeed interesting, an endlessly enthralling adventure. He laughed deprecatingly, and said, "Counting flies with black tummies or misshapen wings, breeding monstrosities from nature's well-tried normalities is humdrum work." "But," I said, "the significance of it all!" With a sigh he answered, "The minutiae are so exacting that one almost loses sight of the significance. But doubtless we shall someday produce human monstrosities, men with tails or two heads, or tricks like the waltzing mouse, or special lusts for obedience, or coal mining, or cleaning lavatories."
Provokingly I added, "Or perhaps for the life of the spirit?" The words clearly jarred on his scientific mind, like obscenity in a church, or prayer in a laboratory. After a silence he said, "I have no use for words that are mere emotive noises without clear significance."
We both fell dumb. Presently I ventured, "Tell me! What is your real aim in genetic research?" Without hesitation he answered, "To earn a living; and by work that is not too irksome. Incidentally, of course, impulses of curiosity, self-assertion, cooperation and so on find a healthy outlet." I waited for more, then prompted him, "Is that all? Is there no sense of a calling, or participation in a great common enterprise?" After a further silence he said, "No! That is really all. But greater definition is possible. The study of inheritance appears to be socially desirable, for the advancement of our species. And I, as a social animal and humanly intelligent, direct my social impulses to that end--so far as this can be done without frustrating my far stronger self-regard."
The slow swirl of the crowd had swept us into an alcove, and there, cast high and dry on a window seat, we were almost in seclusion.
I questioned, "What precisely do you mean by 'the advancement' of the species?" He lightly replied, "Oh, more pleasure and less pain for its members; and for this end more power over its environment and over human nature itself. That is where we geneticists come in. We seek control of other species for man's sake, and ultimately the manipulation of man's own genetic makeup, so as to abolish disease and all other grave frustrations, and to evoke new possibilities of pleasurable activity." I asked if he would maintain that up to our day science had in fact increased the possibility of pleasure. "Surely!" he answered. "What with the radio, the cinema, improved travel and so on." I added to his list improved warfare, industrial servitude, modern engines of oppression and mass production of stereotyped minds. But he protested that all this was the consequence not of science itself but of man's foolish use of science. "Man's purposes," he said, "are in the main still primitive. Little by little science itself will change them. For science will become man's wise ruler instead of his misused slave. At present the affairs of the species are directed by scientifically uneducated politicians, charlatans whose policy is determined merely by the need to pander either to the money magnates or to the ignorant swarms in the trade unions."
I commented, "So you would have the scientists themselves rule society." He answered, "Social affairs should of course be directed by the relevant experts in each field." "And who," I demanded, "is to control the experts?" "Why, of course," he said, "the scientifically educated public. And scientists will have to see to it that the whole really educable population is educated scientifically. Surely that is the reasonable goal. Meanwhile, we must pin our faith to the gradual spread of the scientific spirit."
I challenged him, "Are you really confident that science has increased men's pleasure and reduced their pain? Are you quite sure that the mediaeval peasant's life was less pleasurable and more distressful than the modern industrial worker's?" With an affectation of patience, he replied, "All that we actually know is that the wretches were undernourished, undersized, crippled by disease, hard-driven by the landlords and the priests, tormented by religious superstition. Perhaps they enjoyed their condition, but it seems unlikely." "On the other hand," I suggested, "their environment was perhaps more appropriate to their biological nature than the industrial environment. They seem to have enjoyed the round of the seasons and all the varied processes of tillage. And they were securely anchored to the conviction that--well, that goodness mattered." "Goodness," he retorted, with some exasperation, "is another of those emotive noises that mean nothing. And surely it is well known that today primitive peasants all over the world (and they must be very like the mediaeval sort) are only too eager to give up their primitive ways and enjoy the amenities that science offers." I answered, "Oh yes! The poor creatures are given alcohol and the cinema, and soon ' they crave these drugs, and succumb to them."
Evidently my companion felt that he had proved his case, for he ignored my reply, and said, "But to return to the motives of the geneticist. He is mainly kept going by sheer lust of discovery. Intelligence, you see, clamours for exercise, even if only in crossword puzzles. But there is another motive. We crave power; and, being highly social, we crave it not merely in competition with others but also in the cooperative service of our species. At the back of all our minds, I suspect, is this sublimation of the crude lust of power." I provoked him by enquiring if the will to serve the species could be satisfied merely by providing it with more gadgets, amenities, titillations. He shot a wary glance at me before replying, "In the last resort, I suppose, what we want to give our species is not just pleasure, just any sort of pleasure, but the pleasure of power, the satisfaction of the cunning and resolute animal conquering its environment. Evolution favours in the long run the more developed types, those that show more versatility and adaptability in securing power over the environment. Yes! We want to give man greater power over his environment. We want him to be master of his world, and perhaps of other worlds; and of his own nature and destiny."
"But tell me!" I insisted. "What is he to do with his power? What destiny should be choose?"
The young man shrugged. "That," he said, "is not really my affair. Presumably he should choose to make the most of himself and his world, to impress himself as vigorously as possible on the universe. You see, between organism and environment there is constant action and reaction. Through the pressure of man's actual environment the universe makes man what in fact he is; and since, through automatic natural selection, it has made him sensitive, intelligent and versatile, he reacts strongly and effectively on the universe. What in the last resort he should choose depends, I suppose, on what his nature finally demands for fullest satisfaction, what in the last resort he pleases to do." I said, "For you, then, the final criterion is always the feeling of pleasure. The question, what ought man to please to do, is meaningless. Have I understood you?" He paused before replying, and again he shot a wary glance at me. Then cautiously he said, "In a sense the individual 'ought' to serve the species; for only in the advancement of the species can he find the deepest satisfaction." I asked, "But if he does not, as a matter of fact, want to serve the species, if he wants merely individual advantage and personal luxury, does the 'ought' not apply to him at all?" "In the final analysis," he answered, "it does not. The statement that he 'ought' to do otherwise merely registers the fact that he is blind to the greatest satisfaction, enthralled to lesser pleasures, which if he were wise and resolute, he would sacrifice. Apart from this, 'ought' is meaningless, an outgrown relic of our subjection to parental authority and the convention of the herd."
A little wearily, a little sadly and without facing me; a little in the style of the senior amiably condescending to the junior (though I was twice his age), f he gave me a cigarette. The terrier had for the time l1 vanished, and in its place I saw a bored old hound. We smoked in silence, watching the throng.
Presently I said to my companion, "You scientists, v and above all you biologists, seem very sure that in the end you will be able to analyse out the whole of human nature, leaving no unexplained residue." He replied, "Our confidence is strengthened every day. Anyone who spends his life on detailed, and on the whole impressively successful, analysis is bound to realize that the main mechanisms of human behaviour are by now as well established as the principles of engineering. Genes, Mendelian laws, the central nervous system, hormones, individual and social conditioning leave no excuse for postulating a surd. Of course much remains to be discovered, but by now it is quite clear that our nature is strictly determinate, and systematic through and through."
"To the cobblers," I said, "there's nothing like leather! How can you be so confident that science cannot mislead us. It does, of course, throw a bright beam in some directions; but does it, perhaps, impose a deeper darkness in others? May not the very fact of your absorption in the minutiae of your special skill have blinded you to other kinds of experience?"
The party was now disintegrating, and my companion rose to leave. He said, "It is of course possible. But science is a varied and a well-criticized discipline. And the beam searches in every direction. Success has been spectacular. It is difficult to doubt that the course of progressive thought will henceforth be set by science."
As we were parting, I asked him to spare time for a dinner and another talk. Nonchalantly he accepted, and we fixed a date. As an afterthought he invited me to "look in at the Department first," and he would perhaps be able to show me some impressive things.
In due course I appeared at his Department. He took me into a room lined with shelves that were loaded with bottles. In the centre and also under the window were tables bearing many rectangular glass tanks, each containing in miniature the appropriate environment of some beast under study, and in each of these artificial worldlets the creatures listlessly lived.
My companion called out a girl's name, and from another room came an undecorated but not ignorable young woman in trousers and a little threadbare jacket that coped gallantly with her ample breasts. With a man-to-man downrightness she gripped my hand, smiling firmly. But her lips in repose were luscious, and her eyes, though superficially sparkling, were deep as the Atlantic or the evening zenith. Her hair, glossy as old well-polished leather, was drawn severely back; but it too was of a generous nature, revolting against discipline. A heavy strand drooped over one ear, needing constant attention. A hairpin projected from the large but disintegrating bun on her nape. I confess her presence distracted me somewhat from the lowlier fauna.
The two young human specimens, prattling in their biologist's jargon (sprinkled with modern slang) displayed their living treasures. Now and then they spoke of the great man who was their chief and their teacher. They spoke with most irreverent ridicule of his leaning toward religion and his faith in liberalism; but behind their words lurked awe and affection.
Toward each other, these two behaved always with the familiarity and swift understanding that comes to well-tried workmates; but also with a flow of genial banter that was evidently in some way necessary to them to preserve their independence from each other, and to smooth the flow of their common life, their queer symbiosis. For it was evident that in some way each depended on the other, and at the same time was defensive against the other. I soon noticed, too, a subtle difference in their behaviour. While he negligently, almost unwittingly (or was he all the while consciously acting?), performed the ritual of comradeship, she responded with a friendliness that was deliberate and attentive. But I suspected an undercurrent of soreness.
Toward all their creatures, their foster children, they both behaved as though scientific detachment were awkwardly complicated by a sort of shame-faced parental fondness. I was indeed enthralled by their creatures; yet my attention often strayed to themselves, isolated for so much of their time here in this tank, this test tube; as though some superhuman experimenter had singled them out for study, hoping to gain through observation of their mutual reactions new understanding of the human species.
They showed me newts, lizards, frogs; and also (even more distant cousins of Queen Victoria and Jesus Christ) innumerable flies imprisoned in bottles. Some of these creatures were normal products of evolution; some were precious monstrosities, evoked by human ingenuity, and kept alive by a more than maternal devotion. Ordinary newts, with their bladelike tails and inadequate legs (as though copied from a small child's drawing), hung suspended in the water, or glided through the subaqueous jungle, or clambered into the air. But a few were patently and shockingly not ordinary. One such creature miserably supported the burden of two heads. Another carried a half-formed twin attached, to his back. Turning from these oddities, I was shown a normal crested newt (called Archibald). He was induced to display his flame like ornament by the infuriating sight of his own reflection in a bit of mirror. An axolotl, a pallid and feebly animated sausage, inadequately quadruped, stared vacuously, unconscious of his significance for science. Little black lizards, mercurial in the girl's warm hand, were slender as snakes. A unique snake displayed vestigial limbs. Toads lumbered over stones and herbage, bestirring themselves for the chopped meat that was dropped for them. Swarms of little crustaceans, mere fidgeting points of life, explored their bit of ocean or pond for food. Snails clung to leaves or stones. It was pointed out to me that the spiral of the shell was generally coiled clockwise, but occasionally in the opposite direction. And this oddity, I was told, was of special interest because its inheritance depended on the mother alone. The bodies of these creatures, it seems, are asymmetrical through and through, and the dextral and sinistral individuals are mirror images of each other. The young biologist delighted to explain that, since the genital organ is on one side of the head alone, dextrals and sinistrals could never mate with each other, but only with their own kind.
Throughout this scientific exposition, the two humans maintained their banter, snowballing each other with argument, evidence and technical terms. I heard much of allelomorphs, of dominants and recessives, of haploid, of polymorphic varieties, of the exact location of genes on chromosomes.
Leaving the tanks, the young man selected from a certain shelf a certain bottle. There were scores, hundreds, of such bottles, each housing a population of flies; and each population was the issue of some planned interbreeding. A whiff of ether reduced the selected population to temporary impotence, so that they could be poured out on a microscope slide for observation. As I peered through the instrument, the couple spoke of the minute significant differences that I should see, the ruddier and the yellower eyes, the hairy or bald bodies, the stumpy or long antennae, the serviceable or crippled wings. "We have now," the young man said, "recorded nearly a million mutations." His companion took up the thread. "Mostly they are lethal, or at best indifferent; but with them we have mapped out on the chromosomes practically the whole inheritance mechanism of this species." He displayed a printed volume wherein all this work was recorded. "Someday," he said, "our ancestors will have an equally full account of inheritance in man, covering his physical and his mental characters, down to the least idiosyncrasy. The job will, of course, be far more complicated; but there is little doubt that we shall in time analyse out the whole mechanism of human inheritance, and so the basic structure of human nature." The girl continued the theme. "In the end," she said, "we shall breed men as we breed horses and dogs and cattle, creating different types for different functions within the world society; lovers of the tropics and of the arctic, of mining and of flying, of leadership and of obedience, of creative action and of routine, of interplanetary exploration and of terrestrial homekeeping." The young man smiled at me, and winked. He said, "She is rather uncritically sublimating her maternal instinct. Unconsciously, she would like to mother the whole lot." The girl laughed, and replied spiritedly, "Muddleheaded amateur psychologist!"
The show was now over, and the couple were preparing to leave the Department. Taking his mackintosh from behind a door, the young geneticist said, "Well, now you have seen a little of our world, perhaps you can understand why we are confident in science." I concluded my little speech of thanks rather tactlessly, by remarking that science had been said to give power without wisdom. He swung round and faced me to say, "Don't you see that wisdom follows from power. The helpless savage has no wisdom. Wisdom arises only in civilization, and civilization is an expression of economic production." Taking a final glance round the room, he opened the door, adding, "Of course there's a time lag. And so long as our affairs are controlled by ignorant politicians there's a real danger that the wisdom inherent in man's new powers will be frustrated, and the species will destroy itself. Atomic power is a dangerous toy."
I said we must pursue the matter over dinner; and I invited the girl to accompany us. She glanced quickly at her colleague, then refused, excusing herself on the plea that she had work to do at home. And so, after thanks and adieus, I took the young man alone to a restaurant.
My new friend sipped his sherry with serious attention, savouring, analysing, registering the complex experience. Perhaps he noticed that I was amused by his earnestness, for presently he said, "It is wonderful how even the minor experiences repay observation." "Yes," I answered, "but if one attends too closely to some particular field of the universe one has no attention for others." Sighing, he replied, "True indeed! I shall never be an expert wine taster." "The great thing," I suggested, "is to be sure that one has acquaintance with all the main kinds of fields. Specialism is inevitable; but without a comprehensive background it leads to disaster. "Once more the wary glance was shot at me. But he said only, "Of course! And the fields of science are now so many and complex that the scientific background becomes too huge to grasp. However, matters are simplified if one can rule out some great fields as bogus. It is fairly safe to ignore phrenology, astrology, primitive I magic, alchemy, religious doctrine, spiritualism and so on; because all that is evidential in them can be satisfactorily incorporated in one or other of the ever-expanding fields of reliable science."
I sipped the last of my sherry, torn between sympathy and revulsion for this hard young mind. I said, "Surely there are some fields in which science is inadequate, some spheres in which, though it can give a very plausible and up to a point useful analysis, yet one can't help feeling that it misses the essence of the matter." "Such as?'' "Well, art, moral experience, personal love and what I am tempted to call the living core of religious experience."
"How you cling," he said, "to your illusions! Presumably you don't claim that in the exquisite, almost mystical, bliss of drinking this sherry one must suppose some highfalutin factor that science cannot in principle account for. Then why must you suppose it in art and love and so on?" Laughing, I answered, "Of course in all experience there is something beyond the reach of science, namely the complete mystery of experience itself; but in some experiences the inadequacy of science is more flagrant than in others. You see, science can approximately describe your sherry-drinking experience in terms of sensation; but in art, love and the core of religion there are factors which contemporary science can neither explain nor adequately describe." Holding his sherry to the light and peering into it with terrier eagerness, he said, "I claim that it does describe and explain the one sort of experience as effectively as the other. What it excludes is sheer illusion and superstition. Wine, women and song (meaning all art) and religious excitement can all be explained in terms of innate impulses and Pavlov's great principle of conditioning." Savouring his sherry, he added, "And give me wine, rather than women, because it doesn't make irrational claims on one as they do; and the irrational, sentimental factor in oneself does not stupidly side with it, against one's better judgment." When he had chased the last fragrance of his sherry round his mouth, his lips settled into a pout. Feeling my way, I remarked, "Claims that are irrational to the fundamentally unattached individual may be quite rational where there is genuine love." He expostulated, "Love! Another of those misleading and emotive words! If I love a woman, it is because my personality needs intercourse with hers for its fuller expression. Each is food to the other. Neither is really under any sort of obligation to the other, fundamentally, any more than I am under obligation to this soup, or responsible to see that it shall express itself fully." "But surely," I said, "you don't suppose that love is just that!" He answered flatly, "Fundamentally, it is just that. But of course it gets overlaid by muddleheaded sentimentality. And of course it is a cooperative affair, and it won't work unless each party shows a good deal of consideration for the other. The profit must be mutual. Further, we have social impulses, and up to a point each individual needs to regard the other's interests, and the interests of the little group of two. But fundamentally, each remains an independent and self-interested individual. When a woman claims, as she is apt to do, that each should surrender individuality wholly to the other, that both should drown in the common life, she claims something that it would be quite irrational to give. But the hell of it all is that something in oneself takes sides with her, and in maintaining one's independence one feels inadequate and guilty."
We took our soup in silence. I thought of the love in my own life, of us, of you and me. How easily and plausibly our whole relationship could be stated in his language! And what rare good fortune that each of us should have turned out in the long run to be such life-giving food to the other! In excess, no doubt, we surfeit each other; and there are elements in each that the other can never digest. But in the main we are mutually nourishing.
But presently the thought that, after all, rationally I could not care for you at all save only as for my own person's bread of life, not disinterestedly, not for your person's intrinsic beauty, and that you also could care for me only in this self-regarding way, I found desolating. Surely it debased love to triviality, and the universe to futility. There must be more to it than that.
Presently I said, "When there is real love, very much can be willingly sacrificed for the common life; and with profit to the individual, though profit is not the motive. Very much can be sacrificed, but not all, not one's life work, for instance. But much that was cherished may be gladly discarded. In love, as in religion, the primitive, self-absorbed self must be killed, that anew, more generous self may be born. And in love the new self is in a way a common self." He pounced on me. "Sheer superstition!" he said. "The lovers remain completely distinct individuals. There is no possibility of a common self." I answered cautiously, "They remain distinct as centres of awareness; but if indeed they love (or in so far as they love, for all lovers are also individualists), each cherishes the other without thought of profit to his own individuality. And each cherishes the little community of two. The common 'we' is felt by both to be more worthwhile than either of its members."
With asperity he said, "Oh, yes, that does happen. But the cause of this seeming altruism is simply the fact that each needs the other for self-completion. The love that is unconscious of its own basic self-regard is silly, sentimental, irrational, neurotic; like a miser caring for money itself instead of the power that money brings. Just so, the silly lover may be conditioned to love the woman herself instead of the limited enrichment that his personality derives from her. We so easily trick ourselves into irrational emotions."
Laughing, I taunted him, "Irrational emotions, apparently, are just those which seem unreasonable from the point of view of your theory that all human behaviour is at bottom self-regarding. If you would abandon your theory, you might begin to know what love is."
"Christ!" he said, fiercely cutting at the meat on his plate, "I do know what love is. I was married for love. It was good fun, too. In fact we enjoyed each other immensely. But little by little I found I was too deeply entangled with her. The common 'we' was wrapping me round with a web of subtle spider threads, and sucking the life out of me. I would soon be not myself anymore, but a mere part of that 'we.' It was a pleasant enough process, up to a point; but lethal to me, the real, hard, dynamic individual. So long as I was content to be not myself, I was happy in a drowsy, doped way. But sometimes I felt like murder; when she assumed that because I still needed a life of my own, she had failed me, and I did not love her. It was partly my work that she grudged, as something in me that she could not share. Worse, when I showed any interest in other girls, she went all tragic. But I hadn't really changed toward her. I just wanted a bit of variety and refreshment. Well, it was clear to me I must begin cutting the threads. And to my horror I found that I bled at every cut. The irrational sentimentalist in me sided with her, and shrieked with her pain and my own." He looked up at me, and quickly down again. He growled, "Oh, yes! I know love. It's a parasitic disease. It gets into every cell of the body, till there's nothing in one that is the undefiled 'I' anymore. However, I cured myself. I told her we were killing each other, and then I just cleared out, bleeding with love at every pore; but free."
While I was wondering what to say, he began speaking again. "Of course, I soon found I still needed a woman. In the end I cautiously linked up with another girl. I told her straight what I wanted and didn't want; just sexual companionship and no clinging. And she agreed, for she was a scientific worker herself. On this basis we had a lot of fun for a while; but now, hell, she's beginning to want too much. And part of me wants to give it, and to be given it. But once bitten, twice shy. I'm keeping a firm hand on us both, for both our sakes."
Throughout this long confession he had intermittently gobbled his escallop; and I, listening, had forgotten to eat. When his plate was empty, he looked at it with whimsical surprise and exasperation. "Damn!" he said. "It's all gone, and I missed the pleasure of it." We both laughed, and I attacked my food.
Presently I asked my guest to give me a clearer view of that "real, hard, dynamic" individuality of his. What did it really want for itself. "I have told you," he said. "Power, mastery, scientific prestige, a sense of leaving my mark on human society by contributing to human knowledge." Provokingly, I said, "But how irrational! Nothing of this sort is implied in your basic physiological structure. You should be seeking merely chemical equilibrium; and for that end, you should crave merely food, air, water and bodily sexual release of tension. The rest is sheer sentimentality." He laughed. "You can't catch me out that way. Evolutionary forces have given me a conscious nature that needs more than that." I interrupted, warming to my theme. "Much more," I said, "very much more! At every stage of growth we wake to some new range of awareness, become sensitive to some new, subtler features of objective reality; and from the new ranges of objectivity, new values emerge. The child begins to wake from the sheer animal values to the values of personality, prizing the 'I' and the 'you,' and the 'we.' Little by little he discovers society, with all its tangle of conflict and community. Later he may discover humanity, the whole species, with all the values emerging from mankind's long adventure in self-realization in art and science and so on. And finally he may, or he may not, be invaded by the supreme values of, well, of the spirit."
Throughout my monologue, the young scientist had seemingly been interested less in my views than in his fruit flan. But at the word spirit he looked at me with the intentness and awkwardness of a dog facing a cat. He said, "You see! Once abandon the attitude of rigorous scientific analysis, nothing prevents you from sliding right down into the slush of religion. From spirit to the Holy Ghost, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth and so on is a fatally easy descent. And what do you mean by spirit, anyhow? The word should be abolished."
Challenged, I replied uncertainly, "I mean, not God, not a divine personality, but, well, the ideal way of life that the awakened mind cannot but will, when once this ideal has intruded imperiously into consciousness. I mean the way of intelligence and love and creativity, which, when we are fully awake, we feel to be in some sense what we are for." He snorted with indignant triumph, but I continued boldly. "To betray this most lucid intuition is surely to betray something which presents itself to us as sacred. At present we cannot rationalize the experience; but it is far too illuminating and compelling to be denied for the sake of any of our ephemeral theories."
He put down his spoon with emphasis. "Apparently," he said, "you are a confused sort of theist. I prefer the more explicit sort. With them, one knows where one is."
"My point," I said, "is that I know nothing about any kind of Creator or universal personality or God, or about the universe at large, or the status of spirit in the universe. But one thing I do know. What I have called spirit cannot but matter supremely to all conscious beings capable of glimpsing it, wherever in all the wide universe they live. We are animals, yes; but also, in an important sense, we are vessels of the spirit. As for the universe, surely the most appropriate attitude is neither obsequiousness toward a supposed creator nor blind faith that at the heart of it must be love, nor yet the defiant self-pride in humanity, but rather a blend of rapt interest and strict agnosticism. Yet that is not really all. The fully awake human mind must surely feel a kind of dumb piety, an inarticulate worship."
My companion pounced again. He protested, "Piety toward disease germs, worship of blindly destructive natural forces! No! I see no sense in it. Of course, perhaps irrationally, I feel a sort of piety or respect toward the human species, as the most developed thing within our horizon; merely because I have been conditioned by evolutionary forces to respect development. But beyond man, what is there? Just electromagnetic radiation, and the fatal law of entropy. I see nothing admirable in these. Piety toward the universe is just a cock-eyed relic of piety toward its supposed creator; and that, of course, is a relic of the child's respect and fear of the father. No! The adult attitude is to face the universe dispassionately, wary against its brainless power, and quick to snatch advantage from it for one's own and mankind's advancement."
In my turn I protested. "But think! We and the farthest stars are all of the same stuff. If in our tiny bodies it can reach such organization and development, should one not feel a certain awe at the immeasurable potentiality of the cosmos?" He answered, "I, more realistically, regard it merely as a huge field of natural resources awaiting exploitation. Of course, there may be other intelligent species here and there, up and down the galaxies, some perhaps more intelligent than man. But what of it? They are beyond our reach, and I hope we are beyond theirs. If ever we do meet, we shall probably destroy each other. Anyhow, there's our own solar system. Think of the resources awaiting us in the other planets! They will keep us busy for thousands of years, perhaps millions."
Again I protested. "Surely this cult of mere power is trivial. Have Christ and Buddha and the philosophers lived in vain? Can you really have such faith in contemporary scientific ideas? You yourself insist that our science is only provisional and may have to be revolutionised." "Sure!" he answered. "But I can't forestall its development. I must be true to its present findings. Of course, I may extrapolate the course of research a little. I may feel fairly confident that we shall in time possess the whole solar system, or control human inheritance. But I must not open the door to wild superstition and romantic fantasy. To do that would be to betray my most sacred values." "Oh!" I remarked. "So you have sacred values?" He answered gravely, "For me personally, intellectual integrity is sacred. But I have no wish to impose my own subjective standards on others."
We sipped our coffee. Betweenwhiles the young man blew perfect smoke rings, projecting some of them through their widening predecessors. He was justifiably proud of this feat; and he enjoyed my smiling admiration.
He said, "I am creating universes, one after another. The primal nebula, each time, is shot into existence from my divine lips, assuming the form they give it. Then it passes through determinate changes, imposed on it by its own physical nature, spawning galaxies of stars, and a few intelligent races. Little by little the law of entropy irons out all differences of potential, freezes out all its intelligences. The frostbound worlds roll aimlessly on. Here and there, maybe, the smothered ruins of a city runcle the snow blanket. Little by little the galaxies disintegrate. The whole universe is dissipated. Meanwhile I have already created its successor."
"A good symbol!" I said. "You should have been a poet." He answered with emphasis, "I prefer more serious work, and better paid."
I remarked that his universes had a creator. "Yes," he said. "And he creates them not in order that they may achieve developed mentality or spiritual awareness or whatnot, but for lack of anything better to do; and perhaps to show off."
At this, a destructive impulse seized him. Scarcely had each annular cloud started on its career when he annihilated it with a wave of his hand.
I suggested that perhaps the great universe itself might also have a creator. "The hypothesis," he said, "is unnecessary. There seems to have been some sort of a beginning to the present order; but before that, probably something like a reverse process held, with contrary natural laws. Anyhow, what matter? We cannot reach back that far. And if there was a creator, he must have been less intelligent even than this one. At least, I see no evidence that he had any intelligence at all." I suggested that, if indeed there was in any sense a creator, his intelligence probably so far outranged human intelligence that his purposes and methods would be incomprehensible to us. "Of course!" the young man said, with a smile that was half a sneer. "But that is just fantasy. One might just as well suppose him inferior to us, or that he created merely for the fun of destroying, and tormenting."
Saying this, my cynical friend shattered his last universe, then grimly stubbed out his cigarette. "Look!" he said. "I must go. I have a date. Thanks a lot for the dinner."
Third Encounter: A Mystic
First Encounter: A ChristianFour Encounters Contents