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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter 13 : What is called Death


The forest giant now lay low in the sunlight waiting the return of its substances to their kindred elements of time or space. For the moment the tree was dead, since it kept yet its living shape; but when nothing of it remained recognisable, it would be as if it had never been. Long and short lives, rich and poor lives, are all made equal at the moment when they have ended.

Like the mass of beings and plants and things, our tree found rest in death. After so many and with so many we ask anxiously, "What is this Death?" a sempiternal, unanswered, fresh and vital question. No one has yet solved it, and probably no one will, for we cannot experience death and retain our power to register its effects. Sometimes we can feel it coming near, or imagine we do, and at that time may try to describe its onset; but such an experience has nothing in common with veritable death. To know it, and to impart our knowledge of it to others, would entail our having control of our faculties, whereas death's first act is to deprive us of just that control.

How much has been said and thought and written about death! And without effect. We should make up our minds that nothing is to be added to what we already know about it. We continually strain to realise the flavour of death by heaping up a confused mass of ideas, by strange and inordinate imaginings, by deliberately forcing our thought and dealing to a point beyond control. Yet these are not means and ways by which to learn; for in our wildest dreams, in our most fearful phantasies, or strangest visions, in all that is unfamiliar, runs the thread of life. We can have no dreams or hallucinations or inventions, born of true imagination or of a fit of madness, unless life give them us - and so how can they hold an idea or sense of death? And this is why we will never, in anticipation, taste death.

We cannot even distinguish and analyse for ourselves the fashion in which death will some day bear us away from life. Death is the non-existent, made not out of silence (which noise explains), nor out of darkness (which light would explain), but out of something inconceivably absolute. Sleep implies an awakening, dreams imply the powers of seeing, thinking, hearing, inertness implies the power of movement; so that nothing in our range of experience, from complete peace to utter terror, can plant in us a true sense of death, and probably no man, to the end of the world, will ever be able to explain it in terms of others' deaths or of his own.

When our spirit has departed (that is, when the bond between the secret and innumerable forces whose continued contact makes our life is at last unloosed), we are only vague shapes in deliquescence. The dead keep nothing of their ancient character. What had been their life is submerged in the infinite whole, as myriads of particles of varying elements. In nature alone is the power to dispose of these dispersed and impalpable essences; so it is finally impossible that an entity such as our present should ever again come together and act after our death. We are, and we will cease to be: that much is certain; but what we will be can never be told.

In some purple and grey evening of the closing year, one of those pale hours which seem to dissolve away our flesh that our spirit may grow more reinforced in itself, we can sit and dream of those who were dear to us, whom life has left so that they are no more found. With far-away eyes and hearts heavy with memories we remember our dead, how brilliant their faces, how dear their voices, how moving their presences once were to us: and from memories so harrowing we have not wracking despair and agony, but only pitying tears, which seem inadequate as issue of the certainty that we will never see again those looks nor hear those voices nor feel those presences. These dead were all in all to us, and yet they have gone without trace left either for us or for the world.

And why does our reason not swoon in a nerve-shattering flood of horror when it sees the deaths of people whom we loved, or whom we have merely seen doing and moving, people who have pleased us or hurt us, whose warm hands (full and trembling with life) have touched ours, whose glances have met our own; why are we not terrified as we stand by at their supreme moment when life and death meet, and a world in the winking of an eye is reduced to nothing? And when we have lost our familiar friends, how can we go on living, and talking? how can we take pleasure in things or be sorry, in our usual fashion? And how think of them after they have gone, with such calm regret and resignation, whereas it was a frenzied grief, touching madness, which the anticipation of their future deaths evoked in us?

The answer to these questions is that the knowledge how we must ourselves some day die is always stirring in us, forms part of our flesh and blood, moves in our nerves, and finds our own inevitable destined end prefigured in each death of those about us. We say, or rather we feel obscurely, that what is happening to them will some day happen to us, when the fatal time comes for us to pay this dread tribute which they are paying.

Perhaps it is the same current of ideas, which makes collective disaster, such as war or pestilence, less frightful to us than the tragedies of individuals. The consciousness that we are ourselves exposed to such perils reduces our commiseration, not out of egotism (as is commonly thought), but from a sense that we too will bear our part in the eventual expiation. The idea that in our turn we will suffer this softens in some odd way our dread of the inevitable and the distress we might feel at another's pitiable situation.

The younger sequoia trees which had survived the greatest of their family would flourish for a long while yet, and enjoy the vigour of their cool fragrant sap; but the fall of the giant would be theirs in the end. They would go brittle and inert before the fatal hour. Neither the light of day, nor warmth, nor the kindly earth would any more be profitable to them. Their substance would dissolve infallibly into a fine red dust, smelling mournfully of age. Only time and space, of all the universe, remain for ever changeless.

There was a bustle of ants in the heavy dust of the decaying wood, up and down the fallen trunk of the giant tree, now flecked with alternate bars of light and shade. Here as elsewhere life and death succeeded one another. Flowers bloom as flowers fade, creatures are born as others die, fresh springs rise up here as rivers grow dry elsewhere, crystals are formed as others split: and all the while earth goes forward towards its frozen fate. In high heaven the wheeling stars prepare themselves to receive life, or to grow desolate; all is in flux, transforms itself, repeats itself, dies: even what seems to us most assured and everlasting. While we ourselves, atoms of the universe, endure our sentence of imprisonment in life according to inexorable law, until the term of death.

In such a chaos, where, amidst millions of clashing forces, millions of destinies are being worked out, what can be the purpose of the all-seeing Eye? what inconceivable end has He designed for the living and for the dead, for the stars, for all creation? Our souls and bodies, our births and goings-out, the details and the wholes, what is the final inexpressible combination which will resolve them all? whither does the huge inexplicable movement tend?

In face of such a problem let us remember how we mitigate our terror by being able to take ourselves and our puny acts seriously. They are so small compared with the constellations of the stars, and yet they absorb us. We are able to laugh and cry, to love and hate, in our narrow bounds, forgetting for the while the agony of the unknown which encompasses us, and forgetting to ask the how and why, the purpose of each act of life, its relation to the universe. We are able to exist by and according to the impulses of our own flesh and spirit, as each species exists according to the particular measure and direction of its means.

The forest giant also had its time. A pine-seed after manifold adventures transformed itself, in a course of admirable permutations, into a mighty tree for more than seventy centuries. Yet its hour struck: and in its fate can be read the fates of all created things, after due allowance has been made for variety in age and kind and size. The giant at last lay in peace upon the fertile ground, having had its life, like us, and like us having nothing thereafter in eternity or in the infinite: though while it lived it obeyed the nature of its kind, and all powers in earth and heaven seemed leagued in its support.

So we do all, while we exist. In the small circle which it is happiness for us to fill, we repeat the experience of those who have gone before; and in the breathing air, in the shining light, the dancing heat, the darkening shadow, in the rhythm of the friendly world we carry through to the end the courses laid down for us. And vainly do we seek to learn not merely whence we come and whither we go, but what and why we are, while we exist.

Chapter 14 >>



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