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The Life Beyond

1910


You have no doubt noticed that certain books produce a sort of physical
effect on one--mostly an audible effect. I am not alluding here to Blue
books or to books of statistics. The effect of these is simply
exasperating and no more. No! the books I have in mind are just the
common books of commerce you and I read when we have five minutes to
spare, the usual hired books published by ordinary publishers, printed by
ordinary printers, and censored (when they happen to be novels) by the
usual circulating libraries, the guardians of our firesides, whose names
are household words within the four seas.

To see the fair and the brave of this free country surrendering
themselves with unbounded trust to the direction of the circulating
libraries is very touching. It is even, in a sense, a beautiful
spectacle, because, as you know, humility is a rare and fragrant virtue;
and what can be more humble than to surrender your morals and your
intellect to the judgment of one of your tradesmen? I suppose that there
are some very perfect people who allow the Army and Navy Stores to censor
their diet. So much merit, however, I imagine, is not frequently met
with here below. The flesh, alas! is weak, and--from a certain point of
view--so important!

A superficial person might be rendered miserable by the simple question:
What would become of us if the circulating libraries ceased to exist? It
is a horrid and almost indelicate supposition, but let us be brave and
face the truth. On this earth of ours nothing lasts. _Tout passe, tout
casse, tout lasse_. Imagine the utter wreck overtaking the morals of our
beautiful country-houses should the circulating libraries suddenly die!
But pray do not shudder. There is no occasion.

Their spirit shall survive. I declare this from inward conviction, and
also from scientific information received lately. For observe: the
circulating libraries are human institutions. I beg you to follow me
closely. They are human institutions, and being human, they are not
animal, and, therefore, they are spiritual. Thus, any man with enough
money to take a shop, stock his shelves, and pay for advertisements shall
be able to evoke the pure and censorious spectre of the circulating
libraries whenever his own commercial spirit moves him.

For, and this is the information alluded to above, Science, having in its
infinite wanderings run up against various wonders and mysteries, is
apparently willing now to allow a spiritual quality to man and, I
conclude, to all his works as well.

I do not know exactly what this "Science" may be; and I do not think that
anybody else knows; but that is the information stated shortly. It is
contained in a book reposing under my thoughtful eyes. {5} I know it is
not a censored book, because I can see for myself that it is not a novel.
The author, on his side, warns me that it is not philosophy, that it is
not metaphysics, that it is not natural science. After this
comprehensive warning, the definition of the book becomes, you will
admit, a pretty hard nut to crack.

But meantime let us return for a moment to my opening remark about the
physical effect of some common, hired books. A few of them (not
necessarily books of verse) are melodious; the music some others make for
you as you read has the disagreeable emphasis of a barrel-organ; the
tinkling-cymbals book (it was not written by a humorist) I only met once.
But there is infinite variety in the noises books do make. I have now on
my shelves a book apparently of the most valuable kind which, before I
have read half-a-dozen lines, begins to make a noise like a buzz-saw. I
am inconsolable; I shall never, I fear, discover what it is all about,
for the buzzing covers the words, and at every try I am absolutely forced
to give it up ere the end of the page is reached.

The book, however, which I have found so difficult to define, is by no
means noisy. As a mere piece of writing it may be described as being
breathless itself and taking the reader's breath away, not by the
magnitude of its message but by a sort of anxious volubility in the
delivery. The constantly elusive argument and the illustrative
quotations go on without a single reflective pause. For this reason
alone the reading of that work is a fatiguing process.

The author himself (I use his own words) "suspects" that what he has
written "may be theology after all." It may be. It is not my place
either to allay or to confirm the author's suspicion of his own work. But
I will state its main thesis: "That science regarded in the gross
dictates the spirituality of man and strongly implies a spiritual destiny
for individual human beings." This means: Existence after Death--that
is, Immortality.

To find out its value you must go to the book. But I will observe here
that an Immortality liable at any moment to betray itself fatuously by
the forcible incantations of Mr. Stead or Professor Crookes is scarcely
worth having. Can you imagine anything more squalid than an Immortality
at the beck and call of Eusapia Palladino? That woman lives on the top
floor of a Neapolitan house, and gets our poor, pitiful, august dead,
flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, spirit of our spirit, who have
loved, suffered and died, as we must love, suffer, and die--she gets them
to beat tambourines in a corner and protrude shadowy limbs through a
curtain. This is particularly horrible, because, if one had to put one's
faith in these things one could not even die safely from disgust, as one
would long to do.

And to believe that these manifestations, which the author evidently
takes for modern miracles, will stay our tottering faith; to believe that
the new psychology has, only the other day, discovered man to be a
"spiritual mystery," is really carrying humility towards that universal
provider, Science, too far.

* * * * *

We moderns have complicated our old perplexities to the point of
absurdity; our perplexities older than religion itself. It is not for
nothing that for so many centuries the priest, mounting the steps of the
altar, murmurs, "Why art thou sad, my soul, and why dost thou trouble
me?" Since the day of Creation two veiled figures, Doubt and Melancholy,
are pacing endlessly in the sunshine of the world. What humanity needs
is not the promise of scientific immortality, but compassionate pity in
this life and infinite mercy on the Day of Judgment.

And, for the rest, during this transient hour of our pilgrimage, we may
well be content to repeat the Invocation of Sar Peladan. Sar Peladan was
an occultist, a seer, a modern magician. He believed in astrology, in
the spirits of the air, in elves; he was marvellously and deliciously
absurd. Incidentally he wrote some incomprehensible poems and a few
pages of harmonious prose, for, you must know, "a magician is nothing
else but a great harmonist." Here are some eight lines of the
magnificent Invocation. Let me, however, warn you, strictly between
ourselves, that my translation is execrable. I am sorry to say I am no
magician.

"O Nature, indulgent Mother, forgive! Open your arms to the son,
prodigal and weary.

"I have attempted to tear asunder the veil you have hung to conceal from
us the pain of life, and I have been wounded by the mystery. . . .
OEdipus, half way to finding the word of the enigma, young Faust,
regretting already the simple life, the life of the heart, I come back to
you repentant, reconciled, O gentle deceiver!"

Joseph Conrad