In trying to formulate what I believe I have to begin with what I disbelieve. I disbelieve in progress, the pursuit of happiness and all the concomitant notions and projects for creating a society in which human beings find ever greater contentment by being given in ever greater abundance the means to satisfy their material and bodily hopes and desires. In other words, I consider that the way of life in urbanised, rich countries, as it exists today, and as it is likely to go on developing, is probably the most degraded and unillumined ever to come to pass on earth. The half-century in which I have been consciously alive seems to me to have been quite exceptionally destructive, murderous and brutal. More people have been killed and terrorised, more driven from their homes and native places; more of the past's heritage has been destroyed, more lies propagated and base persuasion engaged in, with less compensatory achievement in art, literature and imaginative understanding, than in any comparable period of history.
Ever since I can remember, the image of earthly power, whether in the guise of schoolmaster, mayor, judge, prime minister, monarch or any other, has seemed to me derisory. I was enchanted when I first read in the Pensees (Pascal being one of the small, sublime band of fellow-humans to whom one may turn and say in the deepest humility: 'I agree') about how magistrates and rulers had to be garbed in their ridiculous ceremonial robes, crowns and diadems. Otherwise, who would not see through their threadbare prentensions? I am conscious of having been ruled by buffoons, taught by idiots, preached at by hypocrites and preyed upon by charlatans in the guise of advertisers and other professional persuaders, as well as by verbose demagogues and ideologues of many opinions, all false.
Nor, as far as I am concerned, is there any recompense in the so-called achievements of science. It is true that in my lifetime more progress has been made in unravelling the composition and mechanism of the material universe than previously in the whole of recorded time. This does not at all excite my mind, or even my curiosity. The atom has been split; the universe has been discovered, and will soon be explored. Neither achievement has any bearing on what alone interests mewhy life exists, and what is the significance, if any, of my minute and sotransitory part in it. All the world in a grain of sand; all the universe too. If I could understand a grain of sand I should understand everything. Why, then, should going to the moon and Mars, or spending a holiday along the Milky Way, be expected to advance me farther in my quest than going to Manchester and Liverpool, or spending a holiday in Brighton?
Education, the great mumbo-jumbo and fraud of the age, purports to equip us to live, and is prescribed as a universal remedy for everything, from juvenile delinquency to premature senility. For the most part, it only serves to enlarge stupidity, inflate conceit, enhance credulity and put those subjected to it, at the mercy of brain-washers with printing presses, radio and television at their disposal. I have seen pictures of huge, ungainly, prehistoric monsters who developed such a weight of protective shell that they sank under its burden and became extinct. Our civilisation likewise is sinking under the burden of its own wealth, and the necessity to consume it; of its own happiness, and the necessity to provide and sustain the fantasies which embody it; of its own security, and the ever more fabulously destructive nuclear devices considered essential to it. Thus burdened, it, too, may well soon become extinct. As this fact sinks into the collective consciousness, the resort to drugs, dreams, fantasies and other escapist devices, particularly sex, becomes ever more marked.
Living thus in the twilight of a spent civilisation, amidst its ludicrous and frightening shadows, what is there to believe? Curiously enough, these twilit circumstances provide a setting in which, as it seems to me, the purpose which lies behind them stands out with particular clarity. As human love only shines in all its splendour when the last tiny glimmer of desire has been
extinguished, so we have to make the world a wilderness to find God in it. The meaning of the universe lies beyond history, as love lies beyond desire. That meaning shines forth in moments of illumination (which come and go so unaccountably; though, I am thankful to say, never quite ceasinga sound as of music, far, far away, and drowned by other more tumultuous noises, but still to be faintly and fitfully heard) with an inconceivable clarity and luminosity. It breaks like a crystalline dawn out of darkness, and the deeper the darkness the more crystalline the dawn.
Let me express it, as I have often thought of it, in terms of a stage. In the middle is the workday world where we live our daily lives, earning a living, reading newspapers, exchanging money, recording votes, chattering and eating and desiring. I call this the Cafe Limbo. On the left of the stage is an area of darkness within which shapes and movements can be faintly discerned, and inconclusive noises heard; sounds and sweet airs which, as on Caliban's island, give delight and hurt not. I call this Life. The right of the stage is bright with arc-lamps like a television studio. This is where history is unfolded and news is made; this is where we live our public, collective lives, seat and unseat rulers, declare wars and negotiate peace, glow with patriotism and get carried away with revolutionary zeal, enact laws, declaim rhetoric, swear eternal passion and sink into abysses of desolation. I call this the Legend.
Across this triple stage, between Life, the Cafe Limbo and the Legend, a drama is endlessly presented. Two forces shape the playthe Imagination which belongs to Life, and the Will which belongs to the Legend. Out of the Imagination comes love, understanding, goodness, self-abnegation; every true synthesis ever grasped or to be grasped. Out of the Will comes lust, hatred, cupidity, adulation, power, oratory; every false antithesis ever propounded or to be propounded. Those who belong exclusively or predominantly to Life are saints, mystics and artists. In extreme casesChrist, for instancethey have to be killed. (This is superbly explained in the famous Grand Inquisitor passage in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky being, like Pascal, of the small sublime band.) Those who belong exclusively or predominantly to the Legend are power-maniacs, rulers, heroes, demagogues and liberators. In extreme cases Hitler, for instancethey bring about their own destruction. In Life there is suffering, deprivation and sanity; in the Legend, happiness, abundance and madness.
Most of us spend the greater part of our time in the Cafe Limbo, casting an occasional glance in the direction of Life, and more than an occasional one in the direction of the Legend. Laughter is our best recourse, with the bar to provide a fillip as and when required. The Cafe Limbo is licensed. When a character passes from the Legend into Life he brings some of the light with him; shining like a glow-worm, until gradually the light subsides and goes out, swallowed up in the darkness of Life.
This same pattern may be traced more particularly and tragically in a single countenance, as anyone will be aware who has had occasion to watch over a loved face hovering between sanity and madness. (And many have; for as we abolish the ills and pains of the flesh we multiply those of the mind. By the time men are finally delivered from disease and decayall pasteurised, their genes counted and rearranged, fitted with new, replaceable, plastic organs, able to eat, copulate and perform other physical functions innocuously and hygienically as and when desiredthey will all be mad, and the world one huge psychiatric ward.) You study the loved, distracted face as a scholar might study some ancient manuscript, looking for a key to its incomprehensibility. What you see is a fight to the death between the Will and the Imagination. If the former wins, then the flickering light will be put out for ever; if the latter, it will shine again, to burn with a steady radiance, and you can cry out from a full heart: 'Oh, beloved, you have come back to me.'
I am well aware that, psychiatrically speaking, this is nonsensical. Yet I believe it. I see these two forces struggling for mastery in each individual soul; in mine, in all men's; in each collectivity, throughout our earth and throughout the immeasurable universe. One is of darkness and one of light; one wants to drag us down into the dark trough to rut and gorge there, and the other to raise us up into the azure sky, beyond appetite, where love is all-embracing, all-encompassing, and the dark confusion of life sorts itself out, like an orderly, smiling countryside suddenly glimpsed from a high hill as the mists disperse in the sun's light and warmth. One is the Devil and the other God. I have known both, and I believe in both.
For us Western Europeans, the Christian religion has expressed this ancient, and, as I consider, obvious dichotomy in terms of breath-taking simplicity and sublimity. It was not the first word on the subject, nor will it be the last; but it is still our word. I accept it. I believe, as is written in the New Testament, that if we would save our lives we must lose them, that we cannot live by bread alone; that we must die in the flesh to be reborn in the spirit, and that the flesh lusts contrary to the spirit and the spirit contrary to the flesh; that God cannot see a sparrow fall to the ground without concern, and has counted the hairs of each head, so that all that lives deserves our respect and reverence, and no one man can conceivably be more important, of greater significance, or in any way more deserving of consideration than any other. God is our father, we are his children, and so one family, brothers and sisters together.
It is true that these basic propositions of Christianity have got cluttered up with dogma of various kinds which I find often incomprehensible, irrelevant and even repugnant. All the same, I should be proud and happy to be able to call myself a Christian; to dare to measure myself against that sublimely high standard of human values and human behaviour. In this I take comfort from another saying of Pascal, thrown out like a lifeline to all sceptical minds throughout the agesthat whoever looks for God has found him.
At its most obscurantist and debased, the Christian position still seems to me preferable to any scientific-materialist one, however cogent and enlightened. The evangelist with his lurid tract, calling upon me to repent for the Day of Judgment is at hand, is a burning and shining light compared with the eugenist who claims the right to decide in his broiler-house mind which lives should be protracted and which must be put out; or with the colporteurs of sterility who so complacently and self-righteously display their assortment of contraceptives to the so called 'backward' peoples of the world as our civilisation's noblest achievement and most precious gift.
The absurdities of the kingdom of heaven, as conceived in the minds of simple believers, are obvious enoughpearly gates, angelic choirs, golden crowns and shining raiment. But what are we to think of the sheer imbecility of the kingdom of heaven on earth, as envisaged and recommended by the most authoritative and powerful voices of our time? Wealth increasing for evermore, and its beneficiaries, rich in hire-purchase, stupefied with the tclly and with sex, comprehensively educated, told by Professor Hoyle how the world began and by Bertrand Russell how it will end; venturing forth on the broad highways, three lanes a side, with lay-bye to rest in and birth pills to keep them intacta, if not virgo, blood spattering the tarmac as an extra thrill; heaven Iying about them in the supermarket, the rainbow ending in the nearest bingo hall, leisure burgeoning out in multitudinous shining aerials rising like dreaming spires into the sky; happiness in as many colours as there are pillsgreen and yellow and blue and red and shining white; many mansions, mansions of light and chromium, climbing ever upwards. This kingdom, surely, can only be for posterity an unending source of wry derisionalways assuming there is to be any posterity. The backdrop, after all, is the mushroom cloud; as the Gadarene herd frisk and frolic they draw ever nearer to the cliff's precipitous edge.
I recognise, of course, that this statement of belief is partly governed by the circumstance that I am old, and in at most a decade or so will be dead. In earlier years I should doubtless have expressed things differently. Now the prospect of death overshadows all others. I am like a man on a sea voyage nearing his destination. When I embarked I worried about having a cabin with a porthole, whether I should be asked to sit at the captain's table, who were the more attractive and important passengers. All such considerations become pointless when I shall so soon be disembarking.
As I do not believe that earthly life can bring any lasting satisfaction, the prospect of death holds no terrors. Those saints who pronounced themselves in love with death displayed, I consider, the best of sense; not a Freudian death-wish. The world that I shall soon be leaving seems more than ever beautiful; especially its remoter parts, grass and trees and sea and rivers and little streams and sloping hills, where the image of eternity is more clearly stamped than among streets and houses. Those I love I can love even more, since I have nothing to ask of them but their love; the passion to accumulate possessions, or to be noticed and important, is too evidently absurd to be any longer entertained.
A sense of how extraordinarily happy I have been, and of enormous gratitude to my creator, overwhelms me often. I believe with a passionate, unshakable conviction that in all circumstances and at all times life is a blessed gift; that the spirit which animates it is one of love, not hate or indifference, of light, not darkness, of creativity, not destruction, of order, not chaos; that, since all lifemen, creatures, plants, as well as insensate matterand all that is known about it, now and henceforth, have been benevolently, not malevolently, conceived, when the eyes see no more and the mind thinks no more, and this hand now writing is inert, whatever lies beyond will similarly be benevolently, not malevolently or indifferently, conceived. If it is nothing, then for nothingness I offer thanks; if another mode of existence, with this old worn-out husk of a body left behind, like a butterfly extricating itself from its chrysalis, and this floundering muddled mind, now at best seeing through a glass darkly, given a longer range and a new precision, then for that likewise I offer thanks.
Observer, 26 June 1966
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