The Inner Galaxy
There is strong archaeological evidence to show that with the birth of human consciousness there was born, like a twin, the impulse to transcend it.
-- Alan McGlashan
Many years ago, I, with another youth of my own age whom I had persuaded to make the journey with me, walked throughout the day up a great mountain. There was a famous astronomical observatory upon the mountain. On certain nights, according to the guidebooks, the lay public might come to the observatory and look upon some remote planetary object. They could also hear a lecture.
The youth and I, who had much eager interest but no money, were unable to join one of the numerous tours organized from the tourist hotels in the valley. Instead, we had trudged for many hours in order to arrive before the crowds of visitors might frustrate our hopes for a glimpse of those far worlds about which we had read so avidly.
This was long ago, and we were naive young men. We thought that, though we were poor, we would be welcome upon the mountain because of our desire to learn. There were reputed to dwell in the observatory men of wisdom who we hoped would receive us kindly since we, too, wished to gaze upon the wonders of outer space. We were, indeed, very unskilled in the ways of the adult world. As it turned out, we were never permitted to see the men of wisdom, or to gaze through the magic glass into outer space. I rather suspect that the eminent astronomers had not taken youths like us into their calculations. There was, it seemed, a relationship we had never suspected between the hotels in the valley and the men who inhabited the observatory upon the mountain.
Although by laborious effort we had succeeded in arriving before the busloads of tourists from the hotels, we were thrust forth and told to take our chances after the tourists had been accommodated. As busload after busload of people roared up before the observatory, we saw that this was an indirect dismissal. It would be dawn before our turn came, if, indeed, they chose to accept us at all.
The guard eyed us and our clothes with sullen distaste. Though it was freezing cold upon the mountain, it was plain we were not welcome in the inn that catered to the tourists. Reluctantly, with a few coins from our little store of change we purchased a bit of chocolate. We looked at each other. Wearily and without a word, we turned and began our long descent through the dark. It would take many hours; nor were we sustained by having seen the shining planet upon which our hopes were fixed.
This was my first experience of the commercial side of outer space, and though I now serve upon a committee that encourages the young in a direction once denied me, I feel that this youthful experience contributed to a certain growing introspection and curiosity about the relationship of science to the world about it.
Something was seriously wrong upon that mountain and among the wise men who flourished there. Knowledge, I had learned in the bleak wind by the shut door, was not free, and many to whom that observatory was only a passing curiosity had easier access to it than we who had climbed painfully for many hours. My memory is from the far days of the 1920s, and I realize that we now beckon enticingly to the youth interested in space where before we ignored him. I still have an uncomfortable feeling, however, that it is the circumstances, and not the actors, which have changed. I remain oppressed by the thought that the venture into space is meaningless unless it coincides with a certain interior expansion, an ever-growing universe within, to correspond with the far flight of the galaxies our telescopes follow from without.
Upon that desolate peak my mind had turned finally inward. It is from that domain, that inner sky, that I choose to speak -- a world of dreams, of light and darkness that we will never escape, even on the far edge of Arcturus. The inward skies of man will accompany him across any void upon which he ventures and will be with him to the end of time. There is just one way in which that inward world differs from outer space. It can be more volatile and mobile, more terrible and impoverished, yet withal more ennobling in its self-consciousness, than the universe that gave it birth. To the educators of this revolutionary generation, the transformations we may induce in that inner sky loom in at least equal importance with the work of those whose goals are set beyond the orbit of the moon.
No one needs to be told that different and private worlds exist in the heads of men. But in a day when some men are listening by radio telescope to the rustling of events at the ends of the universe, the universe of others consists of hopeless poverty amidst the filthy garbage of a city lot. A taxi man I know thinks that the stars are just "up there" and as soon as our vehicles are perfected we can all take off like crowds of summer tourists to Cape Cod. This man expects, and I fear has been encouraged to expect, that such flights will solve the population problem. Again, while I was sitting one night with a poet friend watching a great opera performed in a tent under arc lights, the poet took my arm and pointed silently. Far up, blundering out of the night, a huge Cecropia moth swept past from light to light over the posturings of the actors.
"He doesn't know," my friend whispered excitedly. "He's passing through an alien universe brightly lit but invisible to him. He's in another play; he doesn't see us. He doesn't know. Maybe it's happening right now to us. Where are we? Whose is the real play?"
Between the universe of the moth and the poet, I sat confounded. My mind went back to the heads of alabaster that the kings of the old Egyptian empire sought to endow with eternal life, replacing thus against accident their own frail and perishable brains for the passage through eternity. The pharaohs, like the moth among the arc lights, had been entranced by the flaming journey of the sun. Some had even constructed, hopefully, their own solar boats. Perhaps, I thought, those boats symbolized the frail vessel of which Plato was later to speak -- that vessel on which to risk the voyage of life, or, rather, eternity, which was inevitably man's compulsive interest. As for me, I had come to seek wisdom no longer upon the improvised rafts of proud philosophies. I had seen the moth bum in its passage through the light. I had seen all the vessels fail but one -- that word which Plato sought, and which none could long identify or hold.
There was a real play, but it was a play in which man was destined always to be a searcher, and it would be his true nature he would seek. The fragile vessel was himself, and not among the stars upon the mountain. Was not that what Plotinus had implied? Then if a man were to write further, I considered, he would write of that -- of the last things.
Several years ago, a man in a small California town suffered an odd accident. The accident itself was commonplace. But the psychological episode accompanying it seems so strange that I recount it here. I had been long engaged upon a book I was eager to finish. As I walked, abstracted and alone, toward my office one late afternoon, I caught the toe of my shoe in an ill-placed drain. Some trick of mechanics brought me down over the curb with extraordinary violence. A tremendous crack echoed in my ears. When I next opened my eyes I was lying face down on the sidewalk. My nose was smashed over on one side. Blood from a gash on my forehead was cascading over my face.
Reluctantly I explored further, running my tongue cautiously about my mouth and over my teeth. Under my face a steady rivulet of blood was enlarging to a bright red pool on the sidewalk. It was then, as I peered nearsightedly at my ebbing substance there in the brilliant sunshine, that a surprising thing happened. Confusedly, painfully, indifferent to running feet and the anxious cries of witnesses about me, I lifted a wet hand out of this welter and murmured in compassionate concern, "Oh, don't go. I'm sorry, I've done for you."
The words were not addressed to the crowd gathering about me. They were inside and spoken to no one but a part of myself. I was quite sane, only it was an oddly detached sanity, for I was addressing blood cells, phagocytes, platelets, all the crawling, living, independent wonders that had been part of me and now, through my folly and lack of care, were dying like beached fish on the hot pavement. A great wave of passionate contrition, even of adoration, swept through my mind, a sensation of love on a cosmic scale, for mark that this experience was, in its way, as vast a catastrophe as would be that of a galaxy consciously suffering through the loss of its solar systems.
I was made up of millions of these tiny creatures, their toil, their sacrifices, as they hurried to seal and repair the rent fabric of this vast being whom they had unknowingly, but in love, compounded. And I, for the first time in my mortal existence, did not see these creatures as odd objects under the microscope. Instead, an echo of the force that moved them came up from the deep well of my being and flooded through the shaken circuits of my brain. I was their galaxy, their creation. For the first time, I loved them consciously, even as I was plucked up and away by willing hands. It seemed to me then, and does now in retrospect, that I had caused to the universe I inhabited as many deaths as the explosion of a supernova in the cosmos.
Weeks later, recovering, I paid a visit to the place of the accident. A faint discoloration still marked the sidewalk. I hovered over the spot, obscurely troubled. They were gone, utterly destroyed -- those tiny beings -- but the entity of which they had made a portion still persisted. I shook my head, conscious of the brooding mystery that the poet Dante impelled into his great line: "the love that moves the sun and other stars."
The phrase does not come handily to our lips today. For a century we have chosen to talk continuously about the struggle for existence, about man the brawling half-ape and bestial fighter. We have explored with wavering candles the dark cellars of our subconscious and been appalled by the faces we have encountered there. It will do no harm, therefore, if we choose to examine the history of that great impulse -- love, compassion, call it what one will -- which, however discounted in our time, moved the dying Christ on Golgotha with a power that has reached across two thousand weary years.
"The conviction of wisdom," wrote Montaigne in the sixteenth century, "is the plague of man." Century after century, humanity studies itself in the mirror of fashion, and ever the mirror gives back distortions, which for the moment impose themselves upon man's real image. In one period we believe ourselves governed by immutable laws; in the next, by chance. In one period angels hover over our birth; in the following time we are planetary waifs, the product of a meaningless and ever-altering chemistry. We exchange halos in one era for fangs in another. Our religious and philosophical conceptions change so rapidly that the theological and moral exhortations of one decade become the wastepaper of the next epoch. The ideas for which millions yielded up their lives produce only bored yawns in a later generation.
"We are, I know not how," Montaigne continued, "double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn."
This complex, many-faceted, self-conscious creature now examines himself in the mirror held up to him by the modern students of prehistory. Increasingly he asks of the bony fragments recovered from pre-ice-age strata, not whether they are related to himself, but what manner of creature they proclaim us to be. Of the answer that may come up from underground we are all too evidently afraid. There are even those who have dared prematurely to announce the verdict. "Look," they say, "at the dark instincts that drive you. Look deep into your bloody, fossil, encrusted hearts. Then you will know man. You will know him from the caves to the Berlin wall. Thus he is and thus he will remain. It is written in his bones."
Yet the moment the words are said and documented, either the data are seized upon to give ourselves a fearsome picture to delight and excuse the black side of our natures or, strangely, even beautifully, the picture begins to waver and to change. St. Francis of the birds broods by the waters; Gilbert White of Selborne putters harmlessly with the old pet tortoise in his garden. Ishi, the primitive gentle philosopher, steps real as life from the Sierra forest -- the idyllic man denounced as an invention of Rousseau's, yet the product of a world more primitive than black Africa today.
"Double in ourselves" we are, said Montaigne. Now with that doubleness in mind let us look once more into the fossil past, full into the hollow sockets of the half-men from whom we sprang. Their bones are known; their remains have been turning up for over a century in almost every area of the Old World land mass. They have been found in the caves and gravels of Ice Age Europe, in the cemented breccias of deposits near Peking, in Asian coastal isles like Java, shaken at intervals by turbulent volcanoes. They have been found, as well, in the high uplands of eastern Africa and in the grottoes of the Holy Land.
Nevertheless, the faces of our ancestors remain forever unknown to us even as they stare from the illustrations of the poorest and most obscure textbook. The color of their skins is lost, the texture of their hair unknown, the expression of their once living features is as masked as those of the anonymous cadaver that represents collective humanity in the pages of medical textbooks. It is the same gray anonymity in which man's formidable enemy, the saber-toothed tiger, is lost, or even the dinosaur.
In the case of man, the representations are particularly ungratifying. Man is a creature volatile of expression, and across his features in a day may flow happiness and remorse, rage and charity. Individually, as on a modern street, one should be able to sight the sly, the brutal, and the benignant. If, in the world of fossils, however, we seek the soul of man himself, we are forced to draw it from the empty sockets of skulls or the representations of artists quick to project their own conceptions of the past upon the indifferent dead.
It is man's folly, as it is perhaps a sign of his spiritual aspirations, that he is forever scrutinizing and redefining himself. A mole, so far as we can determine, is content with its dim world below the grass roots, a snow leopard with being what he is -- a drifting ghost in a blizzard. Man, by contrast, is marked by a restless inner eye, which in periods of social violence such as characterize our age, grow~ clouded with anxiety. There are times when our bodies seem to waver from within and bulge lumpishly with the shape of contending forces.
There is danger as well as wisdom, however, in such self-scrutiny. Man, unlike the lower creatures locked safely within their particular endowed natures, possesses freedom. He can define and redefine his own humanity, his own conception of himself. In so doing, he may give wings to the spirit or reshape himself into something more genuinely bestial than any beast of prey obeying its own nature. In this ability to take on the shape of his own dreams, man extends beyond visible nature into another and stranger realm. It is part of each person's individual evolutionary status that he possesses this power in unequal degrees.
Few of us can be saints; few of us are total monsters. To the degree that we let others project upon us erroneous or unbalanced conceptions of our natures, we may unconsciously reshape our own image to less pleasing forms. It is one thing to be "realistic," as many are fond of saying, about human nature. It is another thing entirely to let that consideration set limits to our spiritual aspirations or to precipitate us into cynicism and despair. We are protean in many things, and stand between extremes. There is still great room for the observation of John Donne, however, that "no man doth refine and exalt Nature to the heighth it would beare."
As one surveys the artistic conceptions of the past, whether sculptured or drawn, one frequently encounters an adenoidal, openmouthed brute with a club representing Neanderthal man. Then, by contrast, we encounter a neatly groomed model of Peking man, looking as clear-eyed and intelligent as a broker on his way to the Stock Exchange. Something is obviously wrong here. The well-groomed Peking specimen belongs on the same anatomical level as Pithecanthropus, sometimes represented in older illustrations as possessing snarling fangs. The fangs are a figment of the artist's imagination. They have been stolen from our living relative, the gorilla. The mispictured adenoidal moron with the club is known to have buried his dead with offerings and to have cared for the injured and maimed among his kind.
Men are subjects of society. It is true that they carry bits and pieces of their past about with them, but they also covertly examine in the social mirror of their minds the way they look. Thus there is a quality of illusion about all of us. Emerson knew this well when he asked, in one of his more profound moments, "Why do men feel that the natural history of man has never been written, but he is always leaving behind what you have said of him, and it becomes old and books of metaphysics worthless?"
This comment of Emerson's is perhaps one of the most difficult pieces of wisdom that man has to learn. We are inclined to visualize our psychological make-up as fixed -- as something bestowed upon the first man. In pre-evolutionary times, the human mind, with its reason, its conscience, its free will, was regarded as divinely and immediately created in the human organism just as it stands today.
With the rise of Darwinian evolution in the mid-nineteenth century, the concept of the stably endowed species correctly gave way to the notion of man and other animal forms as transient, imperfect, forever moving from one set of conditions to another. "Cosmic nature," wrote Thomas Huxley, Darwin's colleague and defender, "is no school of virtue .... For his successful progress as far as the savage state, man has been largely indebted to those qualities which he shares with the ape and the tiger."
No intelligent person today, surveying the low skull vault and heavy brow ridges of fossil man, can deny that man has changed through the aeons of prehistory, however difficult may seem the road he has traveled. Natural selection has undoubtedly played a leading role in that process. Here we must proceed with care, if we are not to fall into fallacious reasoning. Otherwise we will emerge from our survey of the past with another set of stereotypes as to the nature of man, which may well prove to be just as rigid and dogmatic as those developed in pre-evolutionary thought -- stereotypes that have been thrust forward even today as evidence of man's bestial nature.
Man's altruistic and innately cooperative character has brought him along the road to civilization far more than the qualities of the ape and tiger of Huxley's analysis. These are bad metaphors at best. The ape is a largely inoffensive social animal, the tiger a solitary carnivorous hunter. To lump them in a comparison with man is spectacular but confusing. As for the fearful war of nature painted by the early evolutionists and symbolized by the tiger, we know today that even the great carnivores exist, normally, in balance with their prey. When satiated and not involved in the hunt, they may stroll scarcely noticed among the herd creatures they stalk.
Some members of the Darwinian circle could only conceive of man achieving his high intellect through the heavy selection of incessant war. Today we know that early man was small and scant in numbers and that most of his efforts must have been given over to food-getting rather than conflict. This is not to minimize his destructive qualities, but his long-drawn-out, helpless childhood, during which his growing brain matured, could only have flourished in the safety of a stable family organization -- groups marked by altruistic and long-continued care of the young.
The nineteenth-century evolutionists, and many philosophers still today, are obsessed by struggle. They try to define natural selection in one sense only -- something that Darwin himself avoided. They ignore all man's finer qualities -- generosity, self-sacrifice, universe searching wisdom -- in the attempt to enclose him in the small capsule that contained the brain of proto-man. Such writers often fail to explore man's growing sense of beauty, the language that has opened and defined his world, the little gifts he came to lay beside his dead.
None of these acts could have been prophesied before man came. They reveal something other than what the pure materialist would be able to draw out of the dark concourse of matter before the genuine emergence of these novel human phenomena into time. There is no definition or description of man possible by reducing him to ape or tree shrew. Once, it is true, the shrew contained him, but he is gone. He has broken from the opened seed pod of the prehominid brain, a thistledown now drifting toward the empty spaces of the universe. He is full of the lights and visions -- yes, and the fearful darknesses -- of the next age of man.
The world we now know is open-ended, unpredictable. Man has partially domesticated himself; in this lies the story of his strange nature, of that love which transcends the small Darwinian matters of tribal cooperation and safety. For man, be it noted, can love the music of Ariel's isle, or, in his heart, that ideal city of the Greeks which is not and yet is forever.
The law of selection that acts upon living creatures in the wild is frequently repressive. A coat color a little off tone and visible, a variation in instinct, may make for death. The powerful creative surge from the under-darkness of nature is held in check, awaiting, perhaps, a season that never comes; the white stag is struck down by the hunter. It is this unending struggle that those who would picture man from the beginning as a monster of terror would delineate -- the man with the stone striking down in barbaric rage, not only his game, but his brother and his son.
Natural selection is real but at the same time it is a shifting chimera, less a "law" than making its own law from age to age. Let us see, before we approach what I shall call domesticated man, what mutual aid can mean in the life of a European sea bird, the common tern. This bird lacks the careful concealing coloration of some of nature's species. It is variable in matters of egg form and nest shape. Capricious deviation in all these features prevails among the terns. The conformist pressures of natural selection have here given way to the creative forces of random mutation. The potential hidden in nature has flowered into a greater variety of behavior. Thus what we call natural selection, "the war of nature," can either enclose living creatures in specialized prisons or, on occasion, open amazing doorways into unsuspected worlds. Even such a lowly relative of man as the existing lemur Propithecus, which lives in groups, may exhibit marked individual variation, because these animals recognize and behave differently toward one another. Conformity has here given way to selective pressure for at least limited physical diversity and corresponding individuality of behavior.
Though the case of man is complicated, it seems evident that just such a remarkable doorway opened when man, as a social animal, fell under selective forces that no longer severely channeled the nature of his mind or the minds of his aberrant offspring. Through language, this creature could communicate his dreams around the cave fires. Inevitably, a great wealth of intellectual diversity, and consequent selective mating, based upon mutual attraction, would emerge from the dark storehouse of nature. The cruel and the gentle would sit at the same fireside, dreaming already in the Stone Age the different dreams they dream today.
The visionary was already awaiting the eternal city; the gifted musician sat hearing in his brain sounds that did not yet exist. All waited upon and yet possessed, in some dim way, the future in their heads. Abysmal darkness and great light lay invisibly about their camps. The phantom cities of the far future awaited latent talents for which, in that unspecialized time, there was no name.
Above all, some of them, a mere handful in any generation perhaps, loved- -- hey loved the animals about them, the song of the wind, the soft voices of women. On the flat surfaces of cave walls the three dimensions of the outside world took animal shape and form. Here -- not with the ax, not with the bow -- man fumbled at the door of his true kingdom. Here, hidden in times of trouble behind silent brows, against the man with the flint, waited St. Francis of the birds -- the lovers, the men who are still forced to walk warily among their kind.
I am middle-aged now, and like the Egyptian heads of buried stone, or like the gentle ones who came before me, I am resigned to wait out man's lingering barbarity. I have walked much to the sea, not knowing what I seek. The west headland I visit is always boiling, even on calm days. Spume leaps up from the sea caverns of buried reefs and the blue and purple of the turbulent waters are roiled and twisted with clashing and opposed currents. I go there frequently and sit for hours on an old whiskey crate half-buried in the sand.
Staring into those uncertain and treacherous waters with their unexpected and lifting apparitions is like looking into the future. You can see its forces constantly gathering, expending themselves, streaming away and streaming back, contorting or violently lifting into huge and grotesque shapes. The meaning escapes one, but day after day the harpy gulls scream and mew over it and the crabs scuttle like spiders along its edge, waving threatening pincers.
But I wander.
On one occasion, there was just this broken crate in the sand, myself, and the sea -- and then this other. I only became aware of him after several days had passed. I first encountered him when I had ventured at low tide up to the verge of the reef beyond which burst that leaping, spouting thunder, which, in my isolated wanderings, I had come to conceive of as containing the future. As I reached the flat, slippery stones over which passed a constant surf, I saw a gray wing tilt upward and move a few feet farther on. It was a big gray-backed gull, who slid quietly down again amidst the encrusted sea growth. He moved just enough, out of old and wise judgment, to keep me at arm's length, no more. He was no longer with his kind, hovering and mewing over the outer rock masses of a dubious future. He had a space of his own on the last edge of the present. He fed there upon such things as the sea brought. He was old and he rested, if one could be said to rest amidst such waters.
I disturbed him once by coming closer, whereupon he rose and tilted slightly in the blast from over the reef. If I did not move, neither did he. Since I am not one to go rushing over dangerous crevices, we achieved, after some days, a dignified relationship. We were both gray, and disinclined toward a future that had come to have little meaning to either of us. We stood or sat a little apart and ignored each other, being, after all, creatures diverse.
Every morning when I came he was there. He was growing thinner, but he still rose at my coming and hovered low upon his great seagoing wings. Then I would seek my box and he would swoop back to the little space that contained his last of life. I came to look for this bird as though we shared some sane, enormously simple secret amidst a little shingle of hard stones and broken beach.
After several days he was gone. A sector of my own life had been sheared away with his going. I shied a stone uncertainly toward the still-spouting future. Nothing came of it; no hand reached out, no shape emerged. The only rational shape had been that aged gull, too wise to venture more than a tilting wing's length upward in such air. Finally, the extremest edge of his space had hesitantly touched mine. Neither of us had much farther to go, and the harsh simplicity of it was somehow appropriate and gratifying. A little salt-washed rock had contained us both.
Here, I thought, is where I shall abide my ending, in the mind at least. Here where the sea grinds coral and bone alike to pebbles, and the crabs come in the night for the recent dead. Here where everything is transmuted and transmutes, but all is living or about to live.
It was here that I came to know the final phase of love in the mind of man -- the phase beyond the evolutionists' meager concentration upon survival. Here I no longer cared about survival -- I merely loved. And the love was meaningless, as the harsh Victorian Darwinists would have understood it or even, equally, those harsh modern materialists of whom Lord Dunsany once said: "It is very seldom that the same man knows much of science, and about the things that were known before ever science came."
I felt, sitting in that desolate spot upon my whiskey crate, a love without issue, tenuous, almost disembodied. It was a love for an old gull, for wild dogs playing in the surf, for a hermit crab in an abandoned shell.
It was a love that had been growing through the unthinking demands of childhood, through the pains and rapture of adult desire. Now it was breaking free, at last, of my worn body, still containing but passing beyond those other loves. Now, at last, it was truly "the bright stranger, the foreign self," of which Emerson had once written.
Through shattered and receding skulls, growing ever smaller behind us in the crannies' of a broken earth, a stranger had crept and made his way. But precisely how he came, and what might be his destiny, except that it is not wholly of our time or this our star, we do not know.
Perhaps it is always the destined role of the compassionate to be strangers among men. To fail and pass, to fail and come again. For the seed of man is thistledown, and a puff of breath may govern it, or a word from a poet torment it into greatness. There are few among us who can notice the passage of a moth's wing across an opera tent at midnight and ask ourselves, "Whose is the real play?"
I had turned to the young man who spoke those words as to one whose eye reached farther than the giant lens upon the mountain in my youth. Before us had seemed to stretch the infinite pathways of space down which, like the questing moth. it was henceforth man's doom to wander. But the void had become to me equally an interior void -- the void of our own minds -- a sea as infinite as the one before which I had been meditating.
Amidst the fall of waters on that desolate shore I watched briefly an exquisitely shaped jellyfish pumping its little umbrella sturdily along only to subside with the next wave on the strand. "Love makyth the lover and the living matters not," an old phrase came hesitantly to my lips. We would win, I thought steadily, if not in human guise then in another, for love was something that life in its infinite prodigality could afford. It was the failures who had always won, but by the time they won they had come to be called successes. This is the final paradox, which men call evolution.