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Pulvis et Umbra

We look for some reward of our endeavors and are disappointed; not
success, not happiness, not even peace of conscience, crowns our
ineffectual efforts to do well. Our frailties are invincible, are
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,[1] 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.


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.[2] Consideration dares not dwell upon this view; that way madness
lies;[3] 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 to 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;[4] 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 rotary 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


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,[5] we find in him one thought, strange to the
point of lunacy: the thought of duty;[6] 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,[7] 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;[8] 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,[9] 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,[10] 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 genius:
and in him too, we see dumbly testified the same cultus[11] 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 polities 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[12] 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[13] 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[14] 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;[15] 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[16] 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,[17] 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.[18]


During the year 1888, part of which was spent by Stevenson at Saranac
Lake in the Adirondacks he published one article every month in
_Scribner's Magazine_. _Pulvis et Umbra_ appeared in the April number,
and was later included in the volume _Across the Plains_ (1892). He
wrote this particular essay with intense feeling. Writing to Sidney
Colvin in December 1887, he said, "I get along with my papers for
_Scribner_ not fast, nor so far specially well; only this last, the
fourth one.... I do believe is pulled off after a fashion. It is a
mere sermon: ... but it is true, and I find it touching and
beneficial, to me at least; and I think there is some fine writing in
it, some very apt and pregnant phrases. _Pulvis et Umbra_, I call it;
I might have called it a _Darwinian Sermon_, if I had wanted. Its
sentiments, although parsonic, will not offend even you, I believe."
(_Letters_, II, 100.) Writing to Miss Adelaide Boodle in April 1888,
he said, "I wrote a paper the other day--_Pulvis et Umbra_;--I wrote
it with great feeling and conviction: to me it seemed bracing and
healthful, it is in such a world (so seen by me), that I am very glad
to fight out my battle, and see some fine sunsets, and hear some
excellent jests between whiles round the camp fire. But I find that to
some people this vision of mine is a nightmare, and extinguishes all
ground of faith in God or pleasure in man. Truth I think not so much
of; for I do not know it. And I could wish in my heart that I had not
published this paper, if it troubles folk too much: all have not the
same digestion nor the same sight of things.... Well, I cannot take
back what I have said; but yet I may add this. If my view be
everything but the nonsense that it may be--to me it seems
self-evident and blinding truth--surely of all things it makes this
world holier. There is nothing in it but the moral side--but the great
battle and the breathing times with their refreshments. I see no more
and no less. And if you look again, it is not ugly, and it is filled
with promise." (_Letters_, II, 123.) The words _Pulvis et Umbra_ mean
literally "dust and shadow": the phrase, however, is quoted from
Horace "pulvis et umbra sumus"--_we are dust and ashes_. It forms the
text of one of Stevenson's familiar discourses on Death, like _Aes

[Note 1: _Find them change with every climate_, etc. For some striking
illustrations of this, see Sudermann's drama, _Die Ehre_ (Honour).]

[Note 2: NH3 and H2O. The first is the chemical formula for ammonia:
the second, for water.]

[Note 3: _That way madness lies. King Lear_, III, 4, 21.]

[Note 4: _A pediculous malady ... locomotory_. Stevenson was fond of
strange words. "Pediculous" means covered with lice, lousy.]

[Note 5: _The heart of his mystery. Hamlet_, Act III, Sc. 2, "you
would pluck out the heart of my mystery." Mystery here means "secret,"
as in I. _Cor_. XIII, "Behold, I tell you a mystery."]

[Note 6: _The thought of duty_. Kant said, "Two things fill the mind
with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the
more steadily we reflect on them: _the starry heavens above and the
moral law within_." (Conclusion to the _Practical Reason_--_Kritik der
praktischen Vernunft_, 1788.)]

[Note 7: _Assiniboia ... Calumet_. Assinibioia is a district of
Canada, just west of Manitoba. _Calumet_ is the pipe of peace, used by
North American Indians when solemnizing treaties etc. Its stem is over
two feet long, heavily decorated with feathers etc.]

[Note 8: _Drowns her child in the sacred river_. The sacred river of
India is the Ganges; before British control, children were often
sacrificed there by drowning to appease the angry divinity.]

[Note 9: _The touch of pity_. "No beast so fierce but knows some touch
of pity." _Richard III_, Act I, Sc. 2, vs. 71. _This ennobled lemur_.
A lemur is a nocturnal animal, something like a monkey.]

[Note 10: _A new doctrine_. Evolution. Darwin's _Origin of Species_
was published in 1859. Many ardent Christians believe in its general
principles to-day; but at first it was bitterly attacked by orthodox
and conservative critics. A Princeton professor cried, "Darwinism is

[Note 11: _Cultus_. Stevenson liked this word. _The swarming ant_.
"The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the
summer."--_Proverbs_, XXX. 25. For a wonderful description of an ant
battle, see Thoreau's _Walden_.]

[Note 12: _Everest_. Mount Everest in the Himalayas, is the highest
mountain in the world, with an altitude of about 29,000 feet.]

[Note 13: _The whole creation groaneth. Romans_, VIII, 22.]

[Note 14: _That double law of the members_. See Note 10 of Chapter VI

[Note 15: _Den of the vivisectionist_. See Note 2 of Chapter VI

[Note 16: _In our isle of terror_. Cf. Herriet, _The White Island_.

"In this world, the isle of dreams,
While we sit by sorrow's streams,
Tears and terrors are our themes."]

[Note 17: _Man that wearies in well-doing. Galatians_, VI, 9.]

[Note 18: _Surely not all in vain_. At heart, Stevenson belongs not to
the pessimists nor the skeptics, but to the optimists and the
believers. A man may have no formal creed, and yet be a believer.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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