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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter 14 : The Theory of Eternal Sleeplessness

What can chaos be but the mass of elements not yet conjoined with those other atoms which have been embodied and which have returned to the mass?

The fallen tree was now sunken in an endless sleep. The rays of the sun playing over its ruined trunk gradually absorbed its colours. The discoloured redness of its substance, the yellow of its rotted dust, the fresh green of its last shoots slowly faded, while the winds took away its antique smell and the blue atmosphere re-incorporated the oxygen, the carbon, and the last elements of moisture in its wood. Finally the whole shape of the former tree disappeared, so that there remained on earth no visible or tangible trace of its former inhabitant; though its substance still existed. Its component parts could be found in the light and air, in the clouds, in a vibration, a breath, on a stone, either in material substances or in invisible radiations. They were the old elements of the sequoia, exactly as they had been in essence, though now their forms were so different that they conjured up no memories of the vanished tree. On the analogy it may well be that the solid particles, the liquids, the essences which together make up our apparent forms, have had equally varied incarnations, have been beautiful or vile, have been drab or splendid, have been delicious-smelling, have encountered a thousand unexpected changes and adventures before they were re-born as us. The energy which moves us, the matter which gives us substance, the impulses which excite us, the dreams which trouble us, and the occasional mysteries which vibrate in our souls and bodies may come from sources thousands of years old, and through a myriad phases of existence.

In face of these unexplored ramifications of our personality it seems impossible that we should ever be able to tie effect to cause, or learn the reason of these secret longings of ours, or of those strange instincts and reactions, those preferences, those fears. They come to us from so far, the forces which order our doings: and though each element remains intact and unadulterated, yet signs of the many moments they have passed embodied in various shapes cling to them always, like fine dust.

One wonders whence came the particles which composed the giant tree, from what previous embodiments, and into what shapes they reassembled after the pine was dead. What had been green in the tree might be black or transparent when next its elements took visible form. What had made the tree seem solid might be liquid or vapour in the new assemblage. The fragrant pine-fumes might be solid and common next time. Common? Well, hardly perhaps, for there is neither beautiful nor ugly, noble nor ignoble in the universe. Such qualities are conferred upon things by their impact upon our senses. This or that vortex of atoms which to-day gives us exquisite dreams may in a later evolution be some combination utterly hateful to our taste. A process which wounds us to-day may to-morrow bring forth a marvellous constellation of molecules. The indestructible elements whirl unceasing in the universe, moving from an out-worn structure to a new one, dissolving and amalgamating without rest till they rejoin the everlasting silence - whence they will leap out again to like adventures, or towards yet unknown variations, in turn to scatter in a dust of atoms. An embodiment may last for a day or for hundreds of thousands of years; but its inevitable end is in the chaos of infinity.

On the sun-bathed earth an irrefragable peace had at last drowned the ruins of the tree. With its death one particular adventure in creation was run. The forces which had made it tangible would continue to function, but their specific combination as a pine-tree was ended for ever. The forest giant henceforward would be as before its birth - a part of the body of eternal nature. Around it the rhythm of the world would flow, neither faster nor slower than of old, with light and shadow, ice and fire, birth and death, all things just as before, but not it: these similar conditions cannot be of this tree's atoms, nor partakers of its life, nor a union of its elements. Its race was run: as in this world all things must some while end. The tree with the ruddy trunk and green needles was dead: and they are dead, or will die, those insects with the gaudy wing-cases, the bright-scaled fish, the downy birds, the sharp-fanged animals, proud mankind, diamonds of the purest water, black carbon, seas, mountains, world and suns. The eternal universal is built up of perishable parts, and our blind career is only a succession of incidents like or unlike, a drawn-out flicker of beginnings and endings, a steady stream of sensations, of bubbles swelling up and bursting, one single life made up of a myriad lives. They beat and flow and scatter, to be re-born after each change.

We are all ephemeral in terms of our allotted situation, and eternal in terms of the universe. Everything which is still, as everything which moves about us, is no more than a whirl of situations constantly made and unmade: and so our substances, those which now make up ourselves, will infallibly scatter us some day. Elements seem to grow tired at last of being confined in one special shape, to be weary of being so long a man, a stone, a river, a fire. Their weariness is ours, in sum. We feel vigorous or weak, joyful or sad, perturbed or resigned according to the prosperity of our cells: and we all, whatever our age and health, encounter hours in which, without reason given, our whole being longs for annihilation. At other times - in common experience it happens often at that hour when lamps should be lit - there swells up in us an indeterminate wish to be other than we are: and our flesh goes dead, our hearts cold, our heads empty of desire.

May this not be our dissatisfied elements, desirous of change, speaking within us? And the often-just premonitions of death which come to men, how explain them other than as the stirring of our elements quickened by radiations from the unknown? The trouble of those stricken by a sudden and mortal fate, their inexplicable distress, the panic-stricken flock of teeming thoughts vainly seeking escape in their shadowy subconsciousness - all this morbid poignant possessed state must be due to our cells' foreknowledge that shortly their architecture will be changed. Our independent life puts no obstacle in the way of that universal ebb and flow, which sets through us and subjects us to the same law of eternal change which rules the rest of chaos.

For these reasons the close of a career should not be to us a melancholy sight. To be born, to exist, to die should seem simple, natural, unchangeable things, only shades of difference even when considered to the farthest obscurity of their never-ending course. But to be eternal, there is a vision which exceeds! To be eternal!

The universe withstands, unmoved, the passing of trees and beings and things. In its season everything must defile before the mirror of changeless time. Plants in their fading go the way of suns as they grow cold, of dreams as they pass on waking, of an insect as it perishes. In the imperishable universe things are born only to die. We, as atoms of the stream of life, can stiffen ourselves with the knowledge that we suffer only the common fate of all created things; that the same fate rules both material and spiritual things, men and stars following one curve in their careers; and that in nature no situation can endure unaltered.

As we dwell on it, the idea of being eternal becomes impossible to our spirits. To be infinitely active for ever, what a prospect of overwhelming sameness! Perpetual life would be for us no less than a never-ending sleeplessness. We would have to endure with a constant endurance of constant circumstances, while others about us were born and died, while plants grew green and withered, whilst the rivers ran, and the suns burned themselves out; we would have to watch the ebb and flow of things, and the measured flight of hours, the evolution of form, the levelling of fine distinction. The same dreams, the same senses would function, without ever a stop, without ever a relieving variation - what a vision of weariness and monotonous despair! Like a great wide eye in which were mirrored chaos and its thousand ghostly shapes, an eye limpid but glassy, strained and aching with its long stare, over which it was ordered that no easeful lid might ever close.

Everlasting life for men an everlasting insomnia? Let us call to mind some of those nights when sleep would not visit us, when open-eyed we gazed into the dark as though it were luminous, our temples all one ring of ice, and in our stagnant veins a biding weariness which nothing could relieve. Life throbbed in our ears with an unchanging beat. The air about us might be loud with rumour, or be silent; there might be a clock ticking, or a storm raging in the night outside, but anyhow, and however our mood, the sleeplessness always in the end prevailed over all circumstances, and knotted up the customary arabesques of our sensation into one pattern, mechanical and terrifying in its regularity. A cold terror would take hold of us - the lucid ordered distraction of severe insomnia - and we would be lost in a passionless despair, in that desert of opaque oppression which is ultimate fatigue.

Each cell in us called aloud on sleep, while our whole being thrummed with the rhythm of life. The entire existence of the aged and the very sick is an unended longing for repose, and no small part of the agony and horror of a death-bed is this cruel wakefulness which holds the eyes ever on the watch. Eternal peace has no terrors for the dying: but if that necessary nescience was not to follow after, if their wakefulness was to endure world without end - what then?

Despite our pains life is sweet, while it runs within its proper bounds; but it would be intolerable if it were endless. On this mortal earth the giant tree had passed into its last rest, leaving the general current of life behind it to continue unchecked. The sequoia, even if it had had the power, would not have been sorry no longer to breathe in the odours of the world, nor feel the sunlight, nor pump the sap up and down its weather-beaten trunk. At its hour of death it was desiring death, the great sleep in which lay repose, with all its strength, even with its finest stomata, its inmost grain, its remotest root; and if this was the issue of its seven thousand years, such should be the issue of a dog's corresponding fifteen years, of a man's seventy years, of a planet's millions.

In the midst of eternity an age is not so long.

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