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WHEN we behold the terrible loss of so many young lives, when we see so many incarnations of physical and moral vigour, of intellect and of glorious promise pitilessly cut off in their first flower, we are on the verge of despair. Never before have the fairest energies and aspirations of men been flung recklessly and incessantly into an abyss whence comes no sound or answer. Never since it came into existence has humanity squandered its treasure, its substance and its prospects so lavishly. For more than twelve months, on every battlefield, where the bravest, the truest, the most ardent and self-sacrificing are necessarily the first to die and where the less courageous, the less generous, the weak, the ailing, in a word the less desirable, alone possess some chance of escaping the carnage, for over twelve months a sort of monstrous inverse selection has been in operation, one which seems to be deliberately seeking the downfall of the human race. And we wonder uneasily what the state of the world will be after the great trial and what will be left of it and what will be the future of this stunted race, shorn of all the best and noblest part of it.
The problem is certainly one of the darkest that have ever vexed the minds of men. It contains a material truth before which we remain defenceless; and, if we accept it as it stands, we can discover no remedy for the evil that threatens us. But material and tangible truths are never anything but a more or less salient angle of greater and deeper-lying truths. And, on the other hand, mankind appears to be such a necessary and indestructible force of nature that it has always, hitherto, not only survived the most desperate ordeals, but succeeded in benefiting by them and emerging greater and stronger than before.
We know that peace is better than war; it were madness to compare the two. We know that, if this cataclysm let loose by an act of unutterable folly had not come upon the world, mankind would doubtless have reached ere long a zenith of wonderful achievement whose manifestations it is impossible to foreshadow. We know that, if a third or a fourth part of the fabulous sums expended on extermination and destruction had been devoted to works of peace, all the iniquities that poison the air we breathe would have been triumphantly redressed and that the social question, the one great question, that matter of life and death which justice demands that posterity should face, would have found its definite solution, once and for all, in a happiness which now perhaps even our sons and grandsons will not realize. We know that the disappearance of two or three million young existences, cut down when they were on the point of bearing fruit, will leave in history a void that will not be easily filled, even as we know that among those dead were mighty intellects, treasures of genius which will not come back again and which contained inventions and discoveries that will now perhaps be lost to us for centuries. We know that we shall never grasp the consequences of this thrusting back of progress and of this unprecedented devastation. But, granting all this, it is a good thing to recover our balance and stand upon our feet. There is no irreparable loss. Everything is transformed, nothing perishes and that which seems to be hurled into destruction is not destroyed at all. Our moral world, even as our physical world, is a vast but hermetically sealed sphere, whence naught can issue, whence naught can fall, to be dissolved in space. All that exists, all that comes into being upon this earth remains there and bears fruit; and the most appalling wastage is but material or spiritual riches flung away for an instant, to fall to the ground again in a new form. There is no escape or leakage, no filtering through cracks, no missing the mark, not even waste or neglect. All this heroism poured out on every side does not leave our planet; and the reason why the courage of our fighters seems so general and yet so extraordinary is that all the might of the dead has passed into the survivors all those forces of wisdom, patience, honour and self-sacrifice which increase day by day and which we ourselves, who are far from the field of danger, feel rising within us without knowing whence that the dead do not cease to live and that they direct all our actions, are exalted by our virtues and become gods.
Lafcadio Hearn, the writer who has most closely studied and understood that wonderful ancestor-worship, says:
“One of the surprises of our future will certainly be a return to beliefs and ideas long ago abandoned upon the mere assumption that they contained no truth—beliefs still called barbarous, pagan, medićval, by those who condemn them out of traditional habit. Year after year the researches of science afford us new proof that the savage, the barbarian, the idolater, the monk, each and all have arrived, by different paths, as near to some point of eternal truth as any thinker of the nineteenth century. We are now learning also, that the theories of the astrologers and of the alchemists were but partially, not totally, wrong. We have they come are nothing but the souls of the heroes gathered and absorbed by our own souls.
It is well at times to contemplate invisible things as though we saw them with our eyes. This was the aim of all the great religions, when they represented under forms appropriate to the civilization of their day, the latent, deep, instinctive, general and essential truths which are the guiding principles of mankind. All have felt and recognized that loftiest of all truths, the communion of the living and the dead, and have given it various names designating the same mysterious verity: the Christians know it as revival of merit, the Buddhists as reincarnation, or transmigration of souls, and the Japanese as Shintoism, or ancestor-worship. The last are more fully convinced than any other nation could follow with our eyes all that is happening in the spiritual world that rises above us on every side, we should no doubt see that it is the same with the moral force that seems to be lost on the field of slaughter. It knows where to go, it knows its goal, it does not hesitate. All that our wonderful dead relinquish they bequeath to us; and when they die for us, they leave us their lives not in any strained metaphorical sense, but in a very real and direct way. Virtue goes out of every man who falls while performing a deed of glory; and that virtue drops down upon us; and nothing of him is lost and nothing evaporates in the shock of a premature end. He gives us in one solitary and mighty stroke what he would have given us in a long life of duty and love. Death does not injure life; it is powerless against it. Life’s aggregate never changes. What death takes from those who fall enters into those who reason even to suppose that no dream of the invisible world has ever been dreamed, that no hypothesis of the unseen has ever been imagined—which future science will not prove to have contained some germ of reality.”1
1Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Life, chapter xiv., “Some thoughts about Ancestor-Worship.”
There are many things which might be added to these lines, notably all that the most recent of our sciences, metapsychics, is engaged in discovering with regard to the miraculous faculties of our subconsciousness.
But, to return more directly to what we were saying, was it not observed that, after the great battles of the Napoleonic era, the birth-rate increased in an extraordinary manner, as though the lives suddenly cut short in their prime were not really dead and were eager to be back again in our midst and complete their career? If we are left standing. The number of lamps grows less, but the flame rises higher. Death is in no wise the gainer so long as there are living men. The more it exercises its ravages, the more it increases the intensity of that which it cannot touch; the more it pursues its phantom victories, the better does it prove to us that man will end by conquering death.
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