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Title: Death
Author: Maeterlinck, Maurice, 1862-1949
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Death" ***

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Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

New York
Dodd, Mead & Company

Copyright, 1911
By Maurice Maeterlinck
Published, January, 1912

All rights reserved

      *      *      *      *      *







 The text in each case is an extract from one of the above mentioned


      *      *      *      *      *

[Illustration: Camera Portrait by E. O. Hoppé, London]


  CHAP.                                           PAGE

      I OUR IDEA OF DEATH                           3

     II A PRIMITIVE IDEA                            5

          IDEA OF DEATH                            10

          GOES BEFORE                              12

          TO MAN ALONE                             14

          THE PANGS OF DEATH                       17

    VII THEIR ARGUMENTS                            19


          NOT BELONG TO DEATH                      25


     XI ANNIHILATION IMPOSSIBLE                    33


   XIII IT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE                        39

    XIV THE SAME, CONTINUED                        45

          BE DREADFUL                              48


   XVII THE SAME, CONTINUED                        54

         TORTURE                                   57

          DEVELOP ITSELF IN INFINITY               60

          OUR MIND                                 65




          AND OUR SENSES CAN ADMIT                 77

    XXV OUR FAITH IN INFINITY                      81

   XXVI THE SAME, CONTINUED                        84

  XXVII SHALL WE BE UNHAPPY THERE?                 87


   XXIX THE SAME, CONTINUED                        95

          THEM                                     99

          SUFFERING                               102




It has been well said:

"Death and death alone is what we must consult about life; and not
some vague future or survival, in which we shall not be present. It is
our own end; and everything happens in the interval between death and
now. Do not talk to me of those imaginary prolongations which wield
over us the childish spell of number; do not talk to me--to me who am
to die outright--of societies and peoples! There is no reality, there
is no true duration, save that between the cradle and the grave. The
rest is mere bombast, show, delusion! They call me a master because of
some magic in my speech and thoughts; but I am a frightened child in
the presence of death!"[1]

[Footnote 1: Marie Lenéru, _Les Affranchis_, Act III.,
Sc. iv.]



That is where we stand. For us, death is the one event that counts in
our life and in our universe. It is the point whereat all that escapes
our vigilance unites and conspires against our happiness. The more our
thoughts struggle to turn away from it, the closer do they press
around it. The more we dread it, the more dreadful it becomes, for it
battens but on our fears. He who seeks to forget it burdens his memory
with it; he who tries to shun it meets naught else. But, though we
think of death incessantly, we do so unconsciously, without learning
to know death. We compel our attention to turn its back upon it,
instead of going to it with uplifted head. We exhaust all our forces,
which ought to face death boldly, in distracting our will from it. We
deliver death into the dim hands of instinct and we grant it not one
hour of our intelligence. Is it surprising that the idea of death,
which should be the most perfect and the most luminous--being the most
persistent and the most inevitable--remains the flimsiest of our ideas
and the only one that is backward? How should we know the one power
which we never looked in the face? How could it profit by flashes
kindled only to help us escape it? To fathom its abysses, we wait
until the most enfeebled, the most disordered moments of our life
arrive. We do not think of death until we have no longer the strength,
I will not say, to think, but even to breathe. A man returning among
us from another century would not recognize without difficulty, in the
depths of a present-day soul, the image of his gods, of his duty, of
his love or of his universe; but the figure of death, when everything
has changed around it and when even that which composes it and
upon which it rests has vanished, he would find almost untouched,
rough-drawn as it was by our fathers, hundreds, nay, thousands of
years ago. Our intelligence, grown so bold and active, has not worked
upon this figure, has added no single touch to it. Though we may no
longer believe in the tortures of the damned, all the vital cells of
the most skeptical among us are still steeped in the appalling mystery
of the Hebrew Sheol, the pagan Hades, or the Christian Hell. Though it
may no longer be lighted by very definite flames, the gulf still opens
at the end of life, and, if less known, is all the more formidable.
And, therefore, when the impending hour strikes to which we dared not
raise our eyes, everything fails us at the same time. Those two or
three uncertain ideas whereon, without examining them, we had meant to
lean, give way like rushes beneath the weight of the last moments. In
vain we seek a refuge among reflections that rave or are strange to us
and do not know the roads to our heart. No one awaits us on the last
shore where all is unprepared, where naught remains afoot save terror.



It were a salutary thing for each of us to work out his idea of death
in the light of his days and the strength of his intelligence and to
learn to stand by it. He would say to death:

"I know not who you are, or I would be your master; but, in days when
my eyes saw clearer than to-day, I learnt what you are not: that is
enough to prevent you from becoming my master."

He would thus carry, imprinted on his memory, a tried image
against which the last agony would not prevail and in which the
phantom-stricken eyes would take fresh comfort. Instead of the
terrible prayer of the dying, which is the prayer of the depths, he
would say his own prayer, that of the peaks of his life, where would
be gathered, like angels of peace, the most limpid, the most pellucid
thoughts of his life. Is not that the prayer of prayers? After all,
what is a true and worthy prayer, if not the most ardent and
disinterested effort to reach and grasp the unknown?



"The doctors and the priests," said Napoleon, "have long been making
death grievous."

Let us, then, learn to look upon it as it is in itself, free from the
horrors of matter and stripped of the terrors of the imagination. Let
us first get rid of all that goes before and does not belong to it.
Thus, we impute to it the tortures of the last illness; and that is
not right. Illnesses have nothing in common with that which ends them.
They form part of life and not of death. We easily forget the most
cruel sufferings that restore us to health; and the first sun of
convalescence destroys the most unbearable memories of the chamber of
pain. But let death come; and at once we overwhelm it with all the
evil done before it. Not a tear but is remembered and used as a
reproach, not a cry of pain but becomes a cry of accusation. Death
alone bears the weight of the errors of nature or the ignorance of
science that have uselessly prolonged torments in whose name we curse
death because it puts an end to them.



In point of fact, whereas the sicknesses belong to nature or to life,
the agony, which seems peculiar to death, is wholly in the hands of
men. Now what we most dread is the awful struggle at the end and
especially the hateful moment of rupture which we shall perhaps see
approaching during long hours of helplessness and which suddenly hurls
us, disarmed, abandoned and stripped, into an unknown that is the home
of the only invincible terrors which the human soul has ever felt.

It is twice unjust to impute the torments of that moment to death. We
shall see presently in what manner a man of to-day, if he would remain
faithful to his ideas, should picture to himself the unknown into
which death flings us. Let us confine ourselves here to the last
struggle. As science progresses, it prolongs the agony which is
the most dreadful moment and the sharpest peak of human pain and
horror, for the witnesses, at least; for, often, the sensibility
of him who, in Bossuet's phrase, is "at bay with death," is already
greatly blunted and perceives no more than the distant murmur of the
sufferings which he seems to be enduring. All the doctors consider
it their first duty to protract as long as possible even the most
excruciating convulsions of the most hopeless agony. Who has not, at
a bedside, twenty times wished and not once dared to throw himself at
their feet and implore them to show mercy? They are filled with so
great a certainty and the duty which they obey leaves so little room
for the least doubt that pity and reason, blinded by tears, curb their
revolt and shrink back before a law which all recognize and revere as
the highest law of human conscience.



One day, this prejudice will strike us as barbarian. Its roots go down
to the unacknowledged fears left in the heart by religions that have
long since died out in the mind of men. That is why the doctors act
as though they were convinced that there is no known torture but is
preferable to those awaiting us in the unknown. They seem persuaded
that every minute gained amidst the most intolerable sufferings is
snatched from the incomparably more dreadful sufferings which the
mysteries of the hereafter reserve for men; and, of two evils to
avoid that which they know to be imaginary, they choose the real one.
Besides, in thus postponing the end of a torture, which, as good
Seneca says, is the best part of that torture, they are only yielding
to the unanimous error which daily strengthens the circle wherein it
is confined: the prolongation of the agony increasing the horror of
death; and the horror of death demanding the prolongation of the



They, on their part, say or might say that, in the present stage of
science, two or three cases excepted, there is never a certainty of
death. Not to support life to its last limits, even at the cost of
insupportable torments, were perhaps to kill. Doubtless there is not
one chance in a hundred thousand that the sufferer escape. No matter.
If that chance exist which, in the majority of cases, will give but a
few days, or, at the utmost, a few months of a life that will not
be the real life, but much rather, as the Latin said, "an extended
death," those hundred thousand torments will not have been in vain.
A single hour snatched from death outweighs a whole existence of

Here are, face to face, two values that cannot be compared; and, if we
mean to weigh them in the same balance, we must heap the scale which
we see with all that remains to us, that is, with every imaginable
pain, for at the decisive hour this is the only weight which counts
and which is heavy enough to raise by a few degrees the other scale
that dips into what we do not see and is loaded with the thick
darkness of another world.



Increased by so many adventitious horrors, the horror of death becomes
such that, without reasoning, we accept the doctors' reasons. And yet
there is one point on which they are beginning to yield and to agree.
They are slowly consenting, when there is no hope left, if not to
deaden, at least to lull the last agonies. Formerly, none of them
would have dared to do so; and, even to-day, many of them hesitate
and, like misers, measure out drop by drop the clemency and peace
which they grudge and which they ought to lavish, dreading lest they
should weaken the last resistance, that is to say, the most useless
and painful quiverings of life that does not wish to give place to the
coming quiet.

It is not for me to decide whether their pity might show greater
daring. It is enough to state once more that all this does not concern
death. It happens before it and below it. It is not the arrival of
death, but the departure of life that is appalling. It is not death,
but life that we must act upon. It is not death that attacks life; it
is life that wrongfully resists death. Evils hasten up from every
side at the approach of death, but not at its call; and, though they
gather round it, they did not come with it. Do you accuse sleep of
the fatigue that oppresses you if you do not yield to it? All those
strugglings, those waitings, those tossings, those tragic cursings are
on this same side of the slope to which we cling and not on the other
side. They are, for that matter, accidental and temporary and emanate
only from our ignorance. All our knowledge only helps us to die in
greater pain than the animals that know nothing. A day will come when
science will turn against its error and no longer hesitate to shorten
our misfortunes. A day will come when it will dare and act with
certainty; when life, grown wiser, will depart silently at its hour,
knowing that it has reached its term, even as it withdraws silently
every evening, knowing that its task is done. Once the doctor and
the sick man have learnt what they have to learn, there will be no
physical nor metaphysical reason why the advent of death should not be
as salutary as that of sleep. Perhaps even, as there will be other
things to consider, it will be possible to surround death with deeper
delights and fairer dreams. Henceforth, in any case, once death is
exonerated from all that goes before, it will be easier to face it
without fear and to enlighten that which follows after.



Death, as we usually picture it, has two terrors looming behind it.
The first has neither face nor shape and overshadows the whole region
of our mind; the other is more definite, more explicit, but almost as
powerful and strikes all our senses. Let us first examine the latter.

Even as we impute to death all the evils that precede it, so do we add
to the dread which it inspires all that happens beyond it, thus doing
it the same injustice at its going as at its coming. Is it death that
digs our graves and orders us to keep there that which was made to
disappear? If we cannot think without horror of the fate of the
beloved in the grave, is it death or we that placed him there? Because
death carries the spirit to some place unknown, shall we reproach it
with our bestowal of the body which it leaves with us? Death descends
upon us to take away a life or change its form: let us judge it by
what it does and not by what we do before it comes and after it is
gone. And it is already far away when we begin the frightful work
which we try hard to prolong as much as we possibly can, as though we
were persuaded that it is our only security against forgetfulness. I
am well aware that, from any other than the human point of view, this
proceeding is very innoxious. Looked upon from a sufficient height,
decomposing flesh is no more repulsive than a fading flower or a
crumbling stone. But, when all is said, it offends our senses, shocks
our memory, daunts our courage, whereas it would be so easy for us to
avoid the hateful test. Purified by fire, the memory lives in the
heights as a beautiful idea; and death is naught but an immortal birth
cradled in flames. This has been well understood by the wisest and
happiest nations in history. What happens in our graves poisons our
thoughts together with our bodies. The figure of death, in the
imagination of men, depends before all upon the form of burial; and
the funeral rites govern not only the fate of those who depart, but
also the happiness of those who stay, for they raise in the very
background of life the great image upon which their eyes linger in
consolation or despair.



There is, therefore, but one terror particular to death: that of the
unknown into which it hurls us. In facing it, let us not delay in
putting from our minds all that the positive religions have left
there. Let us remember only that it is not for us to prove that they
are not proved, but for them to establish that they are true. Now not
one of them brings us a proof before which a candid intelligence can
bow. Nor would it suffice if that intelligence were able to bow; for
man lawfully to believe and thus to limit his endless seeking, the
proof would need to be irresistible. The God offered to us by the best
and strongest proof has given us our reason to employ loyally and
fully, that is to say, to try to attain, before all and in all things,
that which appears to be the truth. Can He exact that we should
accept, in spite of it, a belief of which the wisest and the most
ardent do not, from the human point of view, deny the uncertainty?
He proposes for our consideration a very doubtful story which, even
if scientifically established, would prove nothing and which is
buttressed by prophecies and miracles no less uncertain. If not by
our reason, by what then would He have us decide? By usage? By the
accidents of race or birth, by some æsthetic or sentimental hazard? Or
has He set within us another higher and surer faculty before which the
understanding must yield? If so, where is it? What is its name? If
that God punishes us for not having blindly followed a faith that
does not force itself irresistibly upon the intelligence which He
gave us; if He chastises us for not having made, in the presence of
the great enigma with which He confronts us, a choice which condemns
the best and most divine part of that which He has placed in us,
we have nothing left to reply: we are the dupes of a cruel and
incomprehensible sport, we are the victims of a terrible snare and an
immense injustice; and, whatever the torments wherewith the latter
loads us, they will be less intolerable than the eternal presence of
its Author.



Here we stand before the abyss. It is void of all the dreams with
which our fathers peopled it. They thought that they knew what was
there; we know only what is not there. It has enlarged itself with all
that we have learnt to know nothing of. While waiting for a scientific
certainty to break through its darkness--for man has the right to hope
for that which he does not yet conceive--the only point that interests
us, because it is situated in the little circle which our actual
intelligence traces in the thickest blackness of the night, is to know
whether the unknown for which we are bound will be dreadful or not.

Outside the religions, there are four imaginable solutions and no
more: total annihilation; survival with our consciousness of to-day;
survival without any sort of consciousness; lastly, survival with
universal consciousness different from that which we possess in this

Total annihilation is impossible. We are the prisoners of an infinity
without outlet, wherein nothing perishes, wherein everything is
dispersed, but nothing lost. Neither a body nor a thought can drop out
of the universe, out of time and space. Not an atom of our flesh, not
a quiver of our nerves will go where they will cease to be, for there
is no place where anything ceases to be. The brightness of a star
extinguished millions of years ago still wanders in the ether where
our eyes will perhaps behold it this very night, pursuing its endless
road. It is the same with all that we see, as with all that we do not
see. To be able to do away with a thing, that is to say, to fling it
into nothingness, nothingness would have to exist; and, if it exist,
under whatever form, it is no longer nothingness. As soon as we
try to analyze it, to define it, or to understand it, thoughts and
expressions fail us, or create that which they are struggling to deny.
It is as contrary to the nature of our reason and probably of all
imaginable reason to conceive nothingness as to conceive limits to
infinity. Nothingness, besides, is but a negative infinity, a sort of
infinity of darkness opposed to that which our intelligence strives to
enlighten, or rather it is but a child-name or nickname which our mind
has bestowed upon that which it has not attempted to embrace, for we
call nothingness all that which escapes our senses or our reason and
exists without our knowledge. The more that human thought rises and
increases, the less comprehensible does nothingness become. In any
case--and this is what matters here--if nothingness were possible,
since it could not be anything whatever, it could not be dreadful.



Next comes survival with our consciousness of to-day. I have broached
this question in an essay on _Immortality_,[2] of which I will only
reproduce an essential passage, contenting myself with supporting it
with a few new considerations.

[Footnote 2: This essay forms part of the volume published under the
title of _The Measure of the Hours_.--TRANSLATOR'S NOTE.]

What composes this sense of the ego which turns each of us into
the centre of the universe, the only point that matters in space
and time? Is it formed of sensations of our body, or of thoughts
independent of our body? Would our body be conscious of itself without
our mind? And, on the other hand, what would our mind be without our
body? We know bodies without mind, but no mind without a body. It is
almost certain that an intellect devoid of senses, devoid of organs to
create and nourish it, exists; but it is impossible to imagine that
ours could thus exist and yet remain similar to that which derived
from our sensibility all that gave it life.



This ego, as we conceive it when we reflect upon the consequences of
its destruction, this ego is neither our mind nor our body, since
we recognize that both are waves that flow away and are renewed
incessantly. Is it an immovable point, which could not be form or
substance, for these are always in evolution, nor life, which is the
cause or effect of form and substance? In truth, it is impossible for
us to apprehend or define it, to tell where it dwells. When we try to
go back to its last source, we find hardly more than a succession of
memories, a series of ideas, confused, for that matter, and unsettled,
attached to the one instinct of living: a series of habits of our
sensibility and of conscious or unconscious reactions against the
surrounding phenomena. When all is said, the most steadfast point of
that nebula is our memory, which seems, on the other hand, to be a
somewhat external, a somewhat accessory faculty and, in any case, one
of the frailest faculties of our brain, one of those which disappear
the most promptly at the least disturbance of our health. "As an
English poet has very truly said, that which clamours aloud for
eternity is the very part of me that will perish."

It matters not: that uncertain, indiscernible, fleeting and precarious
ego is so much the centre of our being, interests us so exclusively,
that every reality of our life disappears before this phantom. It is a
matter of utter indifference to us that throughout eternity our body
or its substance should know every joy and every glory, undergo the
most splendid and delightful transformations, become flower, perfume,
beauty, light, air, star; it is likewise indifferent to us that our
intellect should expand until it mixes with the life of the worlds,
understands and governs it. We are persuaded that all this will not
affect us, will give us no pleasure, will not happen to ourselves,
unless that memory of a few almost always insignificant facts
accompany us and witness those unimaginable joys.

"I care not," says this narrow ego, in its firm resolve to understand
nothing. "I care not if the loftiest, the freest, the fairest portions
of my mind be eternally living and radiant in the supreme gladnesses:
they are no longer mine; I do not know them. Death has cut the network
of nerves or memories that connected them with I know not what centre
wherein lies the sensitive point which I feel to be all myself. They
are now set loose, floating in space and time, and their fate is as
unknown to me as that of the most distant constellations. Anything
that occurs exists for me only upon condition that I be able to
recall it within that mysterious being which is I know not where and
precisely nowhere, which I turn like a mirror about this world whose
phenomena take shape only in so far as they are reflected in it."

Let us then consider that all that composes our consciousness comes
first of all from our body. Our mind does but organize that which
is supplied by our senses; and even the images and words--which in
reality are but images--by the aid of which it strives to tear itself
from those senses and deny their sway are borrowed from them. How
could that mind remain what it was when there is nothing left to it of
that which formed it? When our mind no longer has a body, what shall
it carry with it into infinity whereby to recognize itself, seeing
that it knows itself only by grace of that body? A few memories of a
life in common? Will those memories, which were already fading in this
world, suffice to separate it for ever from the rest of the universe,
in boundless space and in unlimited time?



"But," I shall be told, "there is more in us than the intellect
discovers. We have many things within us which our senses have not
placed there; we contain a being superior to the one we know."

That is probable, nay, certain: the share occupied by unconsciousness,
that is to say, by that which represents the universe, is enormous and
preponderant. But how shall the ego which we know and whose destiny
alone concerns us recognize all those things and that superior being
whom it has never known? What will it do in the presence of that
stranger? If I be told that stranger is myself, I will readily agree;
but was that which upon earth felt and measured my joys and sorrows
and gave birth to the few memories and thoughts that remain to me,
was that this unmoved, unseen stranger who existed in me without my
cognizance, even as I am probably about to live in him without his
concerning himself with a presence that will bring him but the pitiful
recollection of a thing that is no more? Now that he has taken my
place, while destroying, in order to acquire a greater consciousness,
all that formed my small consciousness here below, is it not another
life commencing, a life whose joys and sorrows will pass above my
head, not even brushing with their new wings that which I feel myself
to be to-day?



It seems, therefore, that a survival with our present consciousness is
as impossible and as incomprehensible as total annihilation. Moreover,
even if it were admissible, it would not be dreadful. It is certain
that, when the body disappears, all physical sufferings will disappear
at the same time; for we cannot imagine a soul suffering in a body
which it no longer possesses. With them will vanish simultaneously all
that we call mental or moral sufferings, seeing that all of them, if
we examine them well, spring from the ties and habits of our senses.
Our soul feels the reaction of the sufferings of our body, or of
the bodies that surround it; it cannot suffer in itself or through
itself. Slighted affection, shattered love, disappointments, failures,
despair, treachery, personal humiliations, as well as the afflictions
and the loss of those whom it loves, acquire the sting that hurts it
only by passing through the body which it animates. Outside its own
sorrow, which is the sorrow of not knowing, the soul, once delivered
from its body, could suffer only at the recollection of that body. It
is possible that it still grieves over the troubles of those whom it
has left behind on earth. But, in the eyes of that which no longer
counts the days, those troubles will seem so brief that it will not
grasp their duration; and, knowing what they are and whither they
lead, it will not behold their severity.

The soul is insensible to all that is not happiness. It is made only
for infinite joy, which is the joy of knowing and understanding. It
can grieve only at perceiving its own limits; but to perceive those
limits, when one is no longer bound by space and time, is already to
transcend them.



There remains but the survival without consciousness, or survival with
a consciousness different from that of to-day.

A survival without consciousness seems at first sight the most
probable. From the point of view of the good or ill awaiting us on the
other side of the grave, it amounts to annihilation. It is lawful,
therefore, for those who prefer the easiest solution and that most
consistent with the present state of human thought, to set that limit
to their anxiety there. They have nothing to dread; for every fear, if
any remain, would, if we look into it carefully, deck itself with
hopes. The body disintegrates and can no longer suffer; the mind,
separated from the source of pleasure and pain, is extinguished,
scattered and lost in a boundless darkness; and what comes is the
great peace so often prayed for, the sleep without measure, without
dreams and without awakening.

But this is only a solution that flatters indolence. If we press those
who speak of a survival without consciousness, we perceive that they
mean only their present consciousness, for man conceives no other; and
we have just seen that it is almost impossible for that manner of
consciousness to persist in infinity.

Unless, indeed, they would deny every sort of consciousness, even that
of the universe into which their own will fall. But that means solving
very quickly and very blindly, with a stroke of the sword in the
night, the greatest and most mysterious question that can arise in a
man's brain.



This question is closely allied to our modified consciousness. There
is for the moment no hope of solving it; but we are free to grope in
its darkness, which is not perhaps equally dense at all points.

Here begins the open sea. Here begins the glorious adventure, the only
one abreast with human curiosity, the only one that soars as high as
its highest longing. Let us accustom ourselves to regard death as a
form of life which we do not yet understand; let us learn to look
upon it with the same eye that looks upon birth; and soon our mind
will be accompanied to the steps of the tomb with the same glad
expectation that greets a birth. If, before being born, we were
permitted to choose between the great peace of non-existence and
a life that should not be completed by the magnificent hour of
death, which of us, knowing what we ought to know, would accept
the disquieting problem of an existence that would not end in the
reassuring mystery of its conclusion? Which of us would care to come
into a world where there is so little to learn, if he did not know
that he must enter it if he would leave it and learn more? The best
part of life is that it prepares this hour for us, that it is the one
and only road leading to the magic gateway and into that incomparable
mystery where misfortunes and sufferings will no longer be possible,
because we shall have lost the body that produced them; where the
worst that can befall us is the dreamless sleep which we count among
the number of the greatest boons on earth; where, lastly, it is almost
unimaginable that a thought can survive to mingle with the substance
of the universe, that is to say, with infinity, which, if it be not a
waste of indifference, can be nothing but a sea of joy.



Before fathoming that sea, let us remark to those who aspire to
maintain their ego that they are calling down the sufferings which
they dread. The ego implies limits. The ego cannot subsist except in
so far as it is separated from that which surrounds it. The stronger
the ego, the narrower its limits and the clearer the separation. The
more painful too; for the mind, if it remain as we know it--and we are
not able to imagine it different--will no sooner have seen its limits
than it will wish to overstep them: and, the more separated it feels,
the greater will be its longing to unite with that which lies outside.
There will therefore be an eternal struggle between its being and its
aspirations. And really there were no object in being born and dying
only for the purpose of these endless contests. Have we not here yet
one more proof that our ego, as we conceive it, could never subsist in
the infinity where it must needs go, since it cannot go elsewhere? It
behooves us therefore to get rid of imaginations that emanate only
from our body, even as the mists that veil the daylight from our sight
emanate only from low places. Pascal has said, once and for all: "The
narrow limits of our being conceal infinity from our view."



On the other hand--for we must be honest, probe the conflicting
darkness which we believe nearest to the truth and show no bias--on
the other hand, we can grant to those who are wedded to the thought
of remaining as they are that the survival of a mere particle of
themselves would suffice to renew them again in the heart of an
infinity wherefrom their body no longer separates them. If it seems
impossible that anything--a movement, a vibration, a radiation--should
stop or disappear, why then should thought be lost? There will, no
doubt, subsist more than one idea powerful enough to allure the new
ego, which will nourish itself and thrive on all that it will find in
that new and endless environment, just as the other ego, on this
earth, nourished itself and throve on all that it met there. Since we
have been able to acquire our present consciousness, why should it be
impossible for us to acquire another? For that ego which is so dear to
us and which we believe ourselves to possess was not made in a day;
it is not at present what it was at the hour of our birth. Much
more chance than purpose has entered into it; and much more foreign
substance than any inborn substance which it contained. It is but a
long series of acquisitions and transformations, of which we do not
become aware until the awakening of our memory; and its nucleus, of
which we do not know the nature, is perhaps more immaterial and less
concrete than a thought. If the new environment which we enter on
leaving our mother's womb transforms us to such a point that there is,
so to speak, no connexion between the embryo that we were and the man
that we have become, is it not right to think that the much newer,
more unknown, wider and more fertile environment which we enter on
quitting life will transform us even more? One can see in what happens
to us here a figure of that which awaits us elsewhere and readily
admit that our spiritual being, liberated from its body, if it does
not mingle at the first onset with the infinite, will develop itself
there gradually, will choose itself a substance and, no longer
trammelled by space and time, will grow without end. It is very
possible that our loftiest wishes of to-day will become the law of our
future development. It is very possible that our best thoughts will
welcome us on the other bank and that the quality of our intellect
will determine that of the infinite that crystallizes around it. Every
hypothesis is permissible and every question, provided it be addressed
to happiness; for unhappiness is no longer able to answer us. It
finds no place in the human imagination that explores the future
methodically. And, whatever be the force that survives us and presides
over our existence in the other world, this existence, to presume the
worst, could be no less great, no less happy than that of to-day. It
will have no other career than infinity; and infinity is nothing if it
be not felicity. In any case, it seems fairly certain that we spend in
this world the only narrow, grudging, obscure and sorrowful moment of
our destiny.



We have said that the one sorrow of the mind is the sorrow of
not knowing or not understanding, which contains the sorrow of
powerlessness; for he who knows the supreme causes, being no longer
paralyzed by matter, becomes one with them and acts with them; and he
who understands ends by approving, or else the universe would be a
mistake, which is not possible. I do not believe that another sorrow
of the sheer mind can be imagined. The only one which, before
reflection, might seem admissible and which, in any case, could be
but ephemeral would arise from the sight of the pain and misery that
remain on the earth which we have left. But this sorrow, after all,
would be but one side and an insignificant phase of the sorrow of
powerlessness and of not understanding. As for the latter, though it
is not only beyond the domain of our intelligence, but even at an
insuperable distance from our imagination, we may say that it would be
intolerable only if it were without hope. But, in order to be without
hope, the universe would have to abandon any attempt to understand
itself, or admit within itself an object that remained for ever
foreign to it. Either the mind will not perceive its limits and,
consequently, will not suffer from them, or else it will overstep them
as it perceives them; for how could the universe have parts eternally
condemned to form no part of itself and of its knowledge? Hence we
cannot understand that the torture of not understanding, supposing it
to exist for a moment, should not end by mingling with the state of
infinity, which, if it be not happiness as we comprehend it, could be
naught but an indifference higher and purer than joy.



Let us turn our thoughts towards it. The problem extends beyond
humanity and embraces all things. It is possible, I think, to view
infinity under two distinct aspects and try to foresee our fate
therein. Let us contemplate the first of these aspects. We are plunged
into a universe that has no limits in space or time. It never began,
nor will it ever end. It could not have an aim, for, if it had one,
it would have attained it in the infinity of years that preceded
us. It is not making for anywhere, for it would have arrived there;
consequently, all that the worlds within its pale, all that we
ourselves do can have no influence upon it. If it have no thought,
it will never have one. If it have one, that thought has been at its
climax since all time and will remain there, changeless and immovable.
It is as young as it has ever been and as old as it will ever be. It
has made in the past all the efforts and all the experiments which it
will make in the future; and, as all the possible combinations have
been exhausted since all time, it does not seem as if that which has
not taken place in the eternity that extends before our birth can
happen in that which will follow after our death. If it have not
become conscious, it will never become so; if it know not what it
wishes, it will continue in ignorance, hopelessly, knowing all or
knowing nothing and remaining as near its end as its beginning.



All this would be, if not intelligible, at least acceptable to our
reason; but in that universe float thousands of millions of worlds
limited by space and time. They are born, they die and they are born
again. They form part of the whole; and we see, therefore, that parts
of that which has neither beginning nor end themselves begin and end.
We, in fact, know only those parts; and they are of a number so
infinite that in our eyes they fill all infinity. That which is going
nowhere teems with that which appears to be going somewhere. That
which has always known what it wants, or will never learn, seems
eternally to be making more or less unfortunate experiments. What
is that which has already attained perfection trying to achieve?
Everything that we discover in that which could not possibly have an
aim looks as though it were pursuing one with inconceivable ardour;
and the spirit that animates what we see in that which should know
everything and possess itself seems to know nothing and to seek itself
without intermission. Thus all that is apparent to our senses in
infinity gainsays that which our reason is compelled to ascribe to
it. According as we fathom it, we understand better the depth of our
want of understanding; and, the more we strive to penetrate the two
incomprehensibilities that stand face to face, the more they
contradict each other.



What will become of us amid all this obscurity? Shall we leave the
finite wherein we dwell to be swallowed up in this or the other
infinite? In other words, shall we end by mingling with the infinite
which our reason conceives, or shall we remain eternally in that which
our eyes behold, that is to say, in numberless changing and ephemeral
worlds? Shall we never leave those worlds which seem doomed to die and
to be reborn eternally, to enter at last into that which, since all
eternity, can neither have been born nor have died and which exists
without either future or past? Shall we one day escape, with all that
surrounds us, from the unhappy experiments, to find our way at last
into peace, wisdom, the changeless and boundless consciousness, or
into the hopeless unconsciousness? Shall we have the fate which our
senses foretell, or that which our intelligence demands? Or are both
senses and intelligence illusions, puny implements, vain weapons of
a brief hour that were never intended to probe or contend with the
universe? If there really be a contradiction, is it wise to accept it
and to deem impossible that which we do not understand, seeing that we
understand almost nothing? Is truth not at an immeasurable distance
from those inconsistencies which appear to us enormous and irreducible
and which, doubtless, are of no more importance than the rain that
falls upon the sea?



But, even to our poor understanding of to-day, the discrepancy between
the infinity conceived by our reason and that perceived by our senses
is perhaps more apparent than real. When we say that, in a universe
that has existed since all eternity, every experiment, every possible
combination has been made; when we declare that there is not a chance
that that which has not taken place in the uncountable past can take
place in the uncountable future, our imagination attributes to the
infinity of time a preponderance which it cannot possess. In truth,
all that infinity contains must be as infinite as the time at its
disposal; and the chances, encounters and combinations that lie
therein have not been exhausted in the eternity that goes before us
any more than they could be in the eternity that comes after us. There
is, therefore, no climax, no changelessness, no immovability. It is
probable that the universe is seeking and finding itself every day,
that it has not become entirely conscious and does not yet know what
it wants. It is almost certain that its ideal is still veiled by the
shadow of its immensity and almost evident that the experiments and
chances are following one upon the other in unimaginable worlds,
compared wherewith all those which we see on starry nights are no more
than a pinch of gold-dust in the ocean depths. Lastly, it is very
nearly sure that we ourselves, or whatever remains of us--it matters
not--will profit one day by those experiments and those chances. That
which has not yet happened may suddenly supervene; and the best state,
as well as the supreme wisdom which will recognize and establish it,
is perhaps ready to arise from the clash of circumstance. It were not
at all astonishing if the consciousness of the universe, in the
endeavour to form itself, had not yet met with the aid of the
necessary chances and if human thought were seconding one of those
decisive chances. Here there is a hope. Small as man and his thought
may appear, he has exactly the value of the most enormous forces that
he is able to conceive, since there is neither great nor small in the
immeasurable; and, if our body equalled the dimensions of all the
worlds which our eyes can see, it would have exactly the same weight
and the same importance with regard to the universe that it has
to-day. The mind alone perhaps occupies in infinity a space which
comparisons do not reduce to nothing.



Whatever the ultimate truth may be, whether we admit the abstract,
absolute and perfect infinity--the changeless, immovable infinity
which has attained perfection and which knows everything, to which our
reason tends--or whether we prefer that offered to us by the evidence,
here below undeniable, of our senses--the infinity which seeks itself,
which is still evolving and not yet established--it behoves us above
all to foresee in it our fate, which, in any case, must end by
absorption in that very infinity.

The first infinity, the ideal infinity, is so strangely contrary to
all that we see that it is best not to attack it until we have tried
to explore the second. Moreover, it is quite possible that it may
succeed the other. As we have said, that which has not taken place in
the eternity before may happen in the eternity after us; and nothing
save innumerous accidents is opposed to the prospect that the universe
may at last acquire the integral consciousness that will establish it
at its climax. After giving a glance, useless, for that matter, and
impotent, at all that may perhaps arise, we shall try to interrogate,
without hope of answer, the mystery of the boundless peace into which
it is possible that we may sink with the other worlds.



Behold us, then, in the infinity of those worlds, the stellar
infinity, the infinity of the heavens, which assuredly veils other
things from our eyes, but could never be a total illusion. It seems to
us to be peopled only with objects--planets, suns, stars, nebulæ,
atoms, imponderous fluids--which move, unite and separate, repel and
attract one another, which shrink and expand, displace one another
incessantly and never arrive, which measure space in that which has
no limit and number the hours in that which has no term. In a word,
we are in an infinity that seems to have almost the same character,
the same habits as that power in the midst of which we breathe and
which, upon our earth, we call nature or life.

What will be our fate in that infinity? It is not vain to ask one's
self the question, even if we should mingle with it after losing all
consciousness, all notion of the ego, even if our existence should be
no more than a little substance without name, soul or matter--one
cannot tell--suspended in the equally nameless abyss that replaces
time and space. It is not vain to ask one's self the question, for we
are concerned with the history of the worlds or of the universe; and
this history, far more than that of our petty existence, is our own
great history, in which perhaps something of ourselves or something
incomparably better and vaster will end by finding us again some day.



Shall we be unhappy there? It is hardly reassuring when we consider
the habits of our nature and remember that we form part of a universe
that has not yet collected its wisdom. We have seen, it is true, that
good and bad fortune exist only in so far as regards our body and
that, when we have lost the agent of our sufferings, we shall not meet
any of the earthly sorrows again. But our anxiety does not end here;
and will not our mind, lingering upon our erstwhile sorrows, drifting
derelict from world to world, unknown to itself in the unknowable that
seeks itself hopelessly; will not our mind know here the frightful
torture of which we have already spoken and which is doubtless the
last which the imagination can touch with its wing? Lastly, if there
were nothing left of our body and our mind, there would still remain
the matter and the spirit (or, at least, the obviously single force to
which we give that double name) which composed them and whose fate
must be no more indifferent to us than our own fate; for, let us
repeat, from our death onwards, the adventure of the universe becomes
our own adventure. Let us not, therefore, say to ourselves:

"What can it matter? We shall not be there."

We shall be there always, because everything will be there.



Will all this to which we shall belong, in a world ever seeking
itself, continue a prey to new, unceasing and perhaps painful
experiments? Since the part that we were was unhappy, why should the
part that we shall be enjoy a better fortune? Who can assure us that
those unending combinations and endeavours will not be more sorrowful,
more awkward and more baneful than those which we are leaving; and how
shall we explain that these have come about after so many millions of
others which should have opened the eyes of the genius of infinity? It
is idle to persuade ourselves, as Hindu wisdom would, that our sorrows
are but illusions and appearances: it is none the less true that they
make us very really unhappy. Has the universe elsewhere a more
complete consciousness, a more just and serene principle of thought
than on this earth and in the worlds which we perceive? And, if it be
true that it has somewhere attained that better thought, why does the
thought that presides over the destinies of our earth not profit by
it? Could no communication be possible between worlds which must have
been born of the same idea and are steeped in it? What would be the
mystery of that isolation? Are we to believe that the earth marks the
most advanced stage and the most favoured experiment? What, then, can
the thought of the universe have done and against what darkness must
it have struggled, to have come no farther than this? But, on the
other hand, can it have been stayed by that darkness or by those
obstacles which, being unable to arise from any elsewhere, can but
have sprung from itself? Who then could have set those insoluble
problems to infinity and from what more remote and profound region
than itself would they have issued? Some one, after all, must know
what they ask; and, as behind infinity there can be none that is not
infinity itself, it is impossible to imagine a malignant will in a
will that leaves no point around it but what it fills entirely. Or are
the experiments begun in the stars continued mechanically, by virtue
of the force acquired, without regard to their uselessness and to
their pitiful consequences, according to the custom of nature, which
knows nothing of our parsimony and squanders the suns in space as it
does the seed on earth, knowing that nothing can be lost? Or, again,
is the whole question of our peace and happiness, like that of the
fate of the worlds, reduced to knowing whether or not the infinity of
endeavours and combinations be equal to that of eternity? Or, lastly,
to come to the greatest probability, is it we who deceive ourselves,
who know nothing, who see nothing and who consider imperfect that
which is perhaps faultless, we, who are but an infinitesimal fragment
of the intelligence which we judge with the aid of the little shreds
of thought which it has vouchsafed to lend us?



How could we reply, how could our thoughts and glances penetrate the
infinite and the invisible, we who neither understand nor even see the
thing by which we see and which is the source of all our thoughts? In
fact, as has been very justly observed, man does not see light itself.
He sees only matter, or rather the small part of the great worlds
which he knows by the name of matter, touched by light. He does not
perceive the immense rays that cross the heavens save at the moment
when they are stopped by an object of the nature of those which his
eye is accustomed to see upon this earth: were it otherwise, the whole
space filled with innumerable suns and boundless forces, instead of
being an abyss of absolute darkness which absorbs and extinguishes the
clusters of beams that shoot across it from every side, would be but a
prodigious, untenable ocean of flashes. Shakespeare's famous lines:

     "There are more things in heaven and earth,
     Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

have long since become utterly inadequate. There are no longer
more things than our philosophy can dream of or imagine: there is
none but things which it cannot dream of, there is nothing but the
unimaginable; and, if we do not even see the light, which is the only
thing that we believed we saw, it may be said that there is nothing
all around us but the invisible.

We move in the illusion of seeing and knowing that which is strictly
indispensable to our little lives. As for all the rest, which is
well-nigh everything, our organs not only debar us from reaching,
seeing or feeling it, but even restrain us from suspecting what it
is, just as they would prevent us from understanding it, if an
intelligence of a different order were to bethink itself of revealing
or explaining it to us. It is impossible for us, therefore, to
appreciate in any degree whatsoever, in the smallest conceivable
respect, the present state of the universe and to say, as long as we
are men, whether it follows a straight line or describes an immense
circle, whether it is growing wiser or madder, whether it is advancing
towards the eternity which has no end or retracing its steps towards
that which had no beginning. Our sole privilege within our tiny
confines is to struggle towards that which appears to us the best and
to remain heroically persuaded that no part of what we do within those
confines can ever be wholly lost.



But let not all these insoluble questions drive us towards fear. From
the point of view of our future beyond the grave, it is in no way
necessary that we should have an answer to everything. Whether the
universe have already found its consciousness, whether it find it one
day or see it everlastingly, it could not exist for the purpose of
being unhappy and of suffering, neither in its entirety, nor in any
one of its parts; and it matters little if the latter be invisible or
incommensurable, considering that the smallest is as great as the
greatest in what has neither limit nor measure. To torture a point
is the same thing as to torture the worlds; and, if it torture the
worlds, it is its own substance that it tortures. Its very destiny, in
which we are placed, protects us. Our sufferings there could be but
ephemeral; and nothing matters that is not eternal. It is possible,
although somewhat incomprehensible, that parts should err and go
astray; but it is impossible that sorrow should be one of its lasting
and necessary laws; for it would have brought that law to bear against
itself. In like manner, the universe is and must be its own law and
its sole master; if not, the law or the master whom it must obey
would then be the universe; and the centre of a word which we
pronounce without being able to grasp its scope would be simply
displaced. If it be unhappy, that means that it wills its own
unhappiness; if it will its unhappiness, it is mad; and, if it appear
to us mad, that means that our reason works contrary to everything and
to the only laws possible, seeing that they are eternal, or, to speak
more humbly, that it judges what it wholly fails to understand.



Everything, therefore, must finish, or perhaps everything already is,
if not in a state of happiness, at least in a state exempt from all
suffering, all anxiety, all lasting unhappiness; and what, after all,
is our happiness upon this earth, if it be not the absence of sorrow,
anxiety and unhappiness?

But it is childish to talk of happiness and unhappiness where
infinity is in question. The idea which we entertain of happiness and
unhappiness is something so special, so human, so fragile that it
does not exceed our stature and falls to dust as soon as we go beyond
its little sphere. It proceeds entirely from a few accidents of our
nerves, which are made to appreciate very slight happenings, but which
could as easily have felt everything the reverse way and taken
pleasure in that which is now pain. We believe that we see nothing
hanging over us but catastrophes, deaths, torments and disasters; we
shiver at the mere thought of the great interplanetary spaces, with
their cold and formidable and gloomy solitudes; and we imagine that
the revolving worlds are as unhappy as ourselves because they freeze,
or clash together, or are consumed in unutterable flames. We infer
from this that the genius of the universe is an outrageous tyrant,
seized with a monstrous madness, and that it delights only in the
torture of itself and all that it contains. To millions of stars, each
many thousand times larger than our sun, to nebulæ whose nature and
dimensions no figure, no word in our languages is able to express, we
attribute our momentary sensibility, the little ephemeral and chance
working of our nerves; and we are convinced that life there must be
impossible or appalling, because we should feel too hot or too
cold. It were much wiser to say to ourselves that it would need but
a trifle, a few papillæ more or less to our skin, the slightest
modification of our eyes and ears, to turn the temperature, the
silence and the darkness of space into a delicious spring-time, an
unequalled music, a divine light. It were much more reasonable to
persuade ourselves that the catastrophes which we think that we behold
are life itself, the joy and one or other of those immense festivals
of mind and matter in which death, thrusting aside at last our two
enemies, time and space, will soon permit us to take part. Each
world dissolving, extinguished, crumbling, burnt or colliding with
another world and pulverized means the commencement of a magnificent
experiment, the dawn of a marvellous hope and perhaps an unexpected
happiness drawn direct from the inexhaustible unknown. What though
they freeze or flame, collect or disperse, pursue or flee one
another: mind and matter, no longer united by the same pitiful hazard
that joined them in us, must rejoice at all that happens; for all is
but birth and re-birth, a departure into an unknown filled with
wonderful promises and maybe an anticipation of some unutterable

And, should they stand still one day, become fixed and remain
motionless, it will not be that they have encountered calamity,
nullity or death; but they will have entered into a thing so fair, so
great, so happy and bathed in such certainties that they will for ever
prefer it to all the prodigious chances of an infinity which nothing
can impoverish.

      *      *      *      *      *

Transcriber's note:

Minor changes have been made to correct typesetters' errors; otherwise
every effort has been made to remain true to the author's words and

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