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Chapter 11

PULVIS ET UMBRA

We look for some reward of our endeavours and are disappointed; not
success, not happiness, not even peace of conscience, crowns our
ineffectual efforts to do well. Our frailties are invincible, our
virtues barren; the battle goes sore against us to the going down
of the sun. The canting moralist tells us of right and wrong; and
we look abroad, even on the face of our small earth, and find them
change with every climate, and no country where some action is not
honoured for a virtue and none where it is not branded for a vice;
and we look in our experience, and find no vital congruity in the
wisest rules, but at the best a municipal fitness. It is not
strange if we are tempted to despair of good. We ask too much.
Our religions and moralities have been trimmed to flatter us, till
they are all emasculate and sentimentalised, and only please and
weaken. Truth is of a rougher strain. In the harsh face of life,
faith can read a bracing gospel. The human race is a thing more
ancient than the ten commandments; and the bones and revolutions of
the Kosmos, in whose joints we are but moss and fungus, more
ancient still.


I


Of the Kosmos in the last resort, science reports many doubtful
things and all of them appalling. There seems no substance to this
solid globe on which we stamp: nothing but symbols and ratios.
Symbols and ratios carry us and bring us forth and beat us down;
gravity that swings the incommensurable suns and worlds through
space, is but a figment varying inversely as the squares of
distances; and the suns and worlds themselves, imponderable figures
of abstraction, NH3, and H2O. Consideration dares not dwell upon
this view; that way madness lies; science carries us into zones of
speculation, where there is no habitable city for the mind of man.

But take the Kosmos with a grosser faith, as our senses give it us.
We behold space sown with rotatory islands, suns and worlds and the
shards and wrecks of systems: some, like the sun, still blazing;
some rotting, like the earth; others, like the moon, stable in
desolation. All of these we take to be made of something we call
matter: a thing which no analysis can help us to conceive; to
whose incredible properties no familiarity can reconcile our minds.
This stuff, when not purified by the lustration of fire, rots
uncleanly into something we call life; seized through all its atoms
with a pediculous malady; swelling in tumours that become
independent, sometimes even (by an abhorrent prodigy) locomotory;
one splitting into millions, millions cohering into one, as the
malady proceeds through varying stages. This vital putrescence of
the dust, used as we are to it, yet strikes us with occasional
disgust, and the profusion of worms in a piece of ancient turf, or
the air of a marsh darkened with insects, will sometimes check our
breathing so that we aspire for cleaner places. But none is clean:
the moving sand is infected with lice; the pure spring, where it
bursts out of the mountain, is a mere issue of worms; even in the
hard rock the crystal is forming.

In two main shapes this eruption covers the countenance of the
earth: the animal and the vegetable: one in some degree the
inversion of the other: the second rooted to the spot; the first
coming detached out of its natal mud, and scurrying abroad with the
myriad feet of insects or towering into the heavens on the wings of
birds: a thing so inconceivable that, if it be well considered,
the heart stops. To what passes with the anchored vermin, we have
little clue, doubtless they have their joys and sorrows, their
delights and killing agonies: it appears not how. But of the
locomotory, to which we ourselves belong, we can tell more. These
share with us a thousand miracles: the miracles of sight, of
hearing, of the projection of sound, things that bridge space; the
miracles of memory and reason, by which the present is conceived,
and when it is gone, its image kept living in the brains of man and
brute; the miracle of reproduction, with its imperious desires and
staggering consequences. And to put the last touch upon this
mountain mass of the revolting and the inconceivable, all these
prey upon each other, lives tearing other lives in pieces, cramming
them inside themselves, and by that summary process, growing fat:
the vegetarian, the whale, perhaps the tree, not less than the lion
of the desert; for the vegetarian is only the eater of the dumb.


Meanwhile our rotatory island loaded with predatory life, and more
drenched with blood, both animal and vegetable, than ever mutinied
ship, scuds through space with unimaginable speed, and turns
alternate cheeks to the reverberation of a blazing world, ninety
million miles away.


II


What a monstrous spectre is this man, the disease of the
agglutinated dust, lifting alternate feet or lying drugged with
slumber; killing, feeding, growing, bringing forth small copies of
himself; grown upon with hair like grass, fitted with eyes that
move and glitter in his face; a thing to set children screaming; -
and yet looked at nearlier, known as his fellows know him, how
surprising are his attributes! Poor soul, here for so little, cast
among so many hardships, filled with desires so incommensurate and
so inconsistent, savagely surrounded, savagely descended,
irremediably condemned to prey upon his fellow lives: who should
have blamed him had he been of a piece with his destiny and a being
merely barbarous? And we look and behold him instead filled with
imperfect virtues: infinitely childish, often admirably valiant,
often touchingly kind; sitting down, amidst his momentary life, to
debate of right and wrong and the attributes of the deity; rising
up to do battle for an egg or die for an idea; singling out his
friends and his mate with cordial affection; bringing forth in
pain, rearing with long-suffering solicitude, his young. To touch
the heart of his mystery, we find, in him one thought, strange to
the point of lunacy: the thought of duty; the thought of something
owing to himself, to his neighbour, to his God: an ideal of
decency, to which he would rise if it were possible; a limit of
shame, below which, if it be possible, he will not stoop. The
design in most men is one of conformity; here and there, in picked
natures, it transcends itself and soars on the other side, arming
martyrs with independence; but in all, in their degrees, it is a
bosom thought: - Not in man alone, for we trace it in dogs and
cats whom we know fairly well, and doubtless some similar point of
honour sways the elephant, the oyster, and the louse, of whom we
know so little: - But in man, at least, it sways with so complete
an empire that merely selfish things come second, even with the
selfish: that appetites are starved, fears are conquered, pains
supported; that almost the dullest shrinks from the reproof of a
glance, although it were a child's; and all but the most cowardly
stand amid the risks of war; and the more noble, having strongly
conceived an act as due to their ideal, affront and embrace death.
Strange enough if, with their singular origin and perverted
practice, they think they are to be rewarded in some future life:
stranger still, if they are persuaded of the contrary, and think
this blow, which they solicit, will strike them senseless for
eternity. I shall be reminded what a tragedy of misconception and
misconduct man at large presents: of organised injustice, cowardly
violence and treacherous crime; and of the damning imperfections of
the best. They cannot be too darkly drawn. Man is indeed marked
for failure in his efforts to do right. But where the best
consistently miscarry, how tenfold more remarkable that all should
continue to strive; and surely we should find it both touching and
inspiriting, that in a field from which success is banished, our
race should not cease to labour.

If the first view of this creature, stalking in his rotatory isle,
be a thing to shake the courage of the stoutest, on this nearer
sight, he startles us with an admiring wonder. It matters not
where we look, under what climate we observe him, in what stage of
society, in what depth of ignorance, burthened with what erroneous
morality; by camp-fires in Assiniboia, the snow powdering his
shoulders, the wind plucking his blanket, as he sits, passing the
ceremonial calumet and uttering his grave opinions like a Roman
senator; in ships at sea, a man inured to hardship and vile
pleasures, his brightest hope a fiddle in a tavern and a bedizened
trull who sells herself to rob him, and he for all that simple,
innocent, cheerful, kindly like a child, constant to toil, brave to
drown, for others; in the slums of cities, moving among indifferent
millions to mechanical employments, without hope of change in the
future, with scarce a pleasure in the present, and yet true to his
virtues, honest up to his lights, kind to his neighbours, tempted
perhaps in vain by the bright gin-palace, perhaps long-suffering
with the drunken wife that ruins him; in India (a woman this time)
kneeling with broken cries and streaming tears, as she drowns her
child in the sacred river; in the brothel, the discard of society,
living mainly on strong drink, fed with affronts, a fool, a thief,
the comrade of thieves, and even here keeping the point of honour
and the touch of pity, often repaying the world's scorn with
service, often standing firm upon a scruple, and at a certain cost,
rejecting riches: - everywhere some virtue cherished or affected,
everywhere some decency of thought and carriage, everywhere the
ensign of man's ineffectual goodness: - ah! if I could show you
this! if I could show you these men and women, all the world over,
in every stage of history, under every abuse of error, under every
circumstance of failure, without hope, without help, without
thanks, still obscurely fighting the lost fight of virtue, still
clinging, in the brothel or on the scaffold, to some rag of honour,
the poor jewel of their souls! They may seek to escape, and yet
they cannot; it is not alone their privilege and glory, but their
doom; they are condemned to some nobility; all their lives long,
the desire of good is at their heels, the implacable hunter.

Of all earth's meteors, here at least is the most strange and
consoling: that this ennobled lemur, this hair-crowned bubble of
the dust, this inheritor of a few years and sorrows, should yet
deny himself his rare delights, and add to his frequent pains, and
live for an ideal, however misconceived. Nor can we stop with man.
A new doctrine, received with screams a little while ago by canting
moralists, and still not properly worked into the body of our
thoughts, lights us a step farther into the heart of this rough but
noble universe. For nowadays the pride of man denies in vain his
kinship with the original dust. He stands no longer like a thing
apart. Close at his heels we see the dog, prince of another genus:
and in him too, we see dumbly testified the same cultus of an
unattainable ideal, the same constancy in failure. Does it stop
with the dog? We look at our feet where the ground is blackened
with the swarming ant: a creature so small, so far from us in the
hierarchy of brutes, that we can scarce trace and scarce comprehend
his doings; and here also, in his ordered politics and rigorous
justice, we see confessed the law of duty and the fact of
individual sin. Does it stop, then, with the ant? Rather this
desire of well-doing and this doom of frailty run through all the
grades of life: rather is this earth, from the frosty top of
Everest to the next margin of the internal fire, one stage of
ineffectual virtues and one temple of pious tears and perseverance.
The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together. It is the
common and the god-like law of life. The browsers, the biters, the
barkers, the hairy coats of field and forest, the squirrel in the
oak, the thousand-footed creeper in the dust, as they share with us
the gift of life, share with us the love of an ideal: strive like
us - like us are tempted to grow weary of the struggle - to do
well; like us receive at times unmerited refreshment, visitings of
support, returns of courage; and are condemned like us to be
crucified between that double law of the members and the will. Are
they like us, I wonder, in the timid hope of some reward, some
sugar with the drug? do they, too, stand aghast at unrewarded
virtues, at the sufferings of those whom, in our partiality, we
take to be just, and the prosperity of such as, in our blindness,
we call wicked? It may be, and yet God knows what they should look
for. Even while they look, even while they repent, the foot of man
treads them by thousands in the dust, the yelping hounds burst upon
their trail, the bullet speeds, the knives are heating in the den
of the vivisectionist; or the dew falls, and the generation of a
day is blotted out. For these are creatures, compared with whom
our weakness is strength, our ignorance wisdom, our brief span
eternity.

And as we dwell, we living things, in our isle of terror and under
the imminent hand of death, God forbid it should be man the
erected, the reasoner, the wise in his own eyes - God forbid it
should be man that wearies in well-doing, that despairs of
unrewarded effort, or utters the language of complaint. Let it be
enough for faith, that the whole creation groans in mortal frailty,
strives with unconquerable constancy: Surely not all in vain.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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