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    Pulvis et Umbra

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    Chapter 10
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    We look for some reward of our endeavors and are disappointed; not
    success, not happiness, not even peace of conscience, crowns our
    ineffectual efforts to do well. Our frailties are invincible, are
    virtues barren; the battle goes sore against us to the going down of
    the sun. The canting moralist tells us of right and wrong; and we look
    abroad, even on the face of our small earth, and find them change with
    every climate,[1] and no country where some action is not honoured for
    a virtue and none where it is not branded for a vice; and we look in
    our experience, and find no vital congruity in the wisest rules, but
    at the best a municipal fitness. It is not strange if we are tempted
    to despair of good. We ask too much. Our religions and moralities have
    been trimmed to flatter us, till they are all emasculate and
    sentimentalised, and only please and weaken. Truth is of a rougher
    strain. In the harsh face of life, faith can read a bracing gospel.
    The human race is a thing more ancient than the ten commandments; and
    the bones and revolutions of the Kosmos, in whose joints we are but
    moss and fungus, more ancient still.


    Of the Kosmos in the last resort, science reports many doubtful things
    and all of them appalling. There seems no substance to this solid
    globe on which we stamp: nothing but symbols and ratios. Symbols and
    ratios carry us and bring us forth and beat us down; gravity that
    swings the incommensurable suns and worlds through space, is but a
    figment varying inversely as the squares of distances; and the suns
    and worlds themselves, imponderable figures of abstraction, NH3 and
    H2O.[2] Consideration dares not dwell upon this view; that way madness
    lies;[3] science carries us into zones of speculation, where there is
    no habitable city for the mind of man.

    But take the Kosmos with a grosser faith, as our senses give it to us.
    We behold space sown with rotatory islands; suns and worlds and the
    shards and wrecks of systems: some, like the sun, still blazing; some
    rotting, like the earth; others, like the moon, stable in desolation.
    All of these we take to be made of something we call matter: a thing
    which no analysis can help us to conceive; to whose incredible
    properties no familiarity can reconcile our minds. This stuff, when
    not purified by the lustration of fire, rots uncleanly into something
    we call life; seized through all its atoms with a pediculous malady;
    swelling in tumours that become independent, sometimes even (by an
    abhorrent prodigy) locomotory;[4] one splitting into millions,
    millions cohering into one, as the malady proceeds through varying
    stages. This vital putrescence of the dust, used as we are to it, yet
    strikes us with occasional disgust, and the profusion of worms in a
    piece of ancient turf, or the air of a marsh darkened with insects,
    will sometimes check our breathing so that we aspire for cleaner
    places. But none is clean: the moving sand is infected with lice; the
    pure spring, where it bursts out of the mountain, is a mere issue of
    worms; even in the hard rock the crystal is forming.

    In two main shapes this eruption covers the countenance of the earth:
    the animal and the vegetable: one in some degree the inversion of the
    other: the second rooted to the spot; the first coming detached out of
    its natal mud, and scurrying abroad with the myriad feet of insects or
    towering into the heavens on the wings of birds: a thing so
    inconceivable that, if it be well considered, the heart stops. To what
    passes with the anchored vermin, we have little clue: doubtless they
    have their joys and sorrows, their delights and killing agonies: it
    appears not how. But of the locomotory, to which we ourselves belong,
    we can tell more. These share with us a thousand miracles: the
    miracles of sight, of hearing, of the projection of sound, things that
    bridge space; the miracles of memory and reason, by which the present
    is conceived, and when it is gone, its image kept living in the brains
    of man and brute; the miracle of reproduction, with its imperious
    desires and staggering consequences. And to put the last touch upon
    this mountain mass of the revolting and the inconceivable, all these
    prey upon each other, lives tearing other lives in pieces, cramming
    them inside themselves, and by that summary process, growing fat: the
    vegetarian, the whale, perhaps the tree, not less than the lion of the
    desert; for the vegetarian is only the eater of the dumb.

    Meanwhile our rotary island loaded with predatory life, and more
    drenched with blood, both animal and vegetable, than ever mutinied
    ship, scuds through space with unimaginable speed, and turns alternate
    cheeks to the reverberation of a blazing world, ninety million miles


    What a monstrous spectre is this man, the disease of the agglutinated
    dust, lifting alternate feet or lying drugged with slumber; killing,
    feeding, growing, bringing forth small copies of himself; grown upon
    with hair like grass, fitted with eyes that move and glitter in his
    face; a thing to set children screaming;--and yet looked at nearlier,
    known as his fellows know him, how surprising are his attributes! Poor
    soul, here for so little, cast among so many hardships, filled with
    desires so incommensurate and so inconsistent, savagely surrounded,
    savagely descended, irremediably condemned to prey upon his fellow
    lives: who should have blamed him had he been of a piece with his
    destiny and a being merely barbarous? And we look and behold him
    instead filled with imperfect virtues: infinitely childish, often
    admirably valiant, often touchingly kind; sitting down, amidst his
    momentary life, to debate of right and wrong and the attributes of the
    deity; rising up to do battle for an egg or die for an idea; singling
    out his friends and his mate with cordial affection; bringing forth in
    pain, rearing with long-suffering solicitude, his young. To touch the
    heart of his mystery,[5] we find in him one thought, strange to the
    point of lunacy: the thought of duty;[6] the thought of something
    owing to himself, to his neighbour, to his God: an ideal of decency,
    to which he would rise if it were possible; a limit of shame, below
    which, if it be possible, he will not stoop. The design in most men is
    one of conformity; here and there, in picked natures, it transcends
    itself and soars on the other side, arming martyrs with independence;
    but in all, in their degrees, it is a bosom thought:--Not in man
    alone, for we trace it in dogs and cats whom we know fairly well, and
    doubtless some similar point of honour sways the elephant, the oyster,
    and the louse, of whom we know so little:--But in man, at least, it
    sways with so complete an empire that merely selfish things come
    second, even with the selfish: that appetites are starved, fears are
    conquered, pains supported; that almost the dullest shrinks from the
    reproof of a glance, although it were a child's; and all but the most
    cowardly stand amid the risks of war; and the more noble, having
    strongly conceived an act as due to their ideal, affront and embrace
    death. Strange enough if, with their singular origin and perverted
    practice, they think they are to be rewarded in some future life:
    stranger still, if they are persuaded of the contrary, and think this
    blow, which they solicit, will strike them senseless for eternity. I
    shall be reminded what a tragedy of misconception and misconduct man
    at large presents: of organised injustice, cowardly violence and
    treacherous crime; and of the damning imperfections of the best. They
    cannot be too darkly drawn. Man is indeed marked for failure in his
    efforts to do right. But where the best consistently miscarry, how
    tenfold more remarkable that all should continue to strive; and surely
    we should find it both touching and inspiriting, that in a field from
    which success is banished, our race should not cease to labour.

    If the first view of this creature, stalking in his rotatory isle, be
    a thing to shake the courage of the stoutest, on this nearer sight, he
    startles us with an admiring wonder. It matters not where we look,
    under what climate we observe him, in what stage of society, in what
    depth of ignorance, burthened with what erroneous morality; by
    camp-fires in Assiniboia,[7] the snow powdering his shoulders, the
    wind plucking his blanket, as he sits, passing the ceremonial calumet
    and uttering his grave opinions like a Roman senator; in ships at sea,
    a man inured to hardship and vile pleasures, his brightest hope a
    fiddle in a tavern and a bedizened trull who sells herself to rob him,
    and he for all that simple, innocent, cheerful, kindly like a child,
    constant to toil, brave to drown, for others; in the slums of cities,
    moving among indifferent millions to mechanical employments, without
    hope of change in the future, with scarce a pleasure in the present,
    and yet true to his virtues, honest up to his lights, kind to his
    neighbours, tempted perhaps in vain by the bright gin-palace, perhaps
    long-suffering with the drunken wife that ruins him; in India (a woman
    this time) kneeling with broken cries and streaming tears, as she
    drowns her child in the sacred river;[8] in the brothel, the discard
    of society, living mainly on strong drink, fed with affronts, a fool,
    a thief, the comrade of thieves, and even here keeping the point of
    honour and the touch of pity,[9] often repaying the world's scorn with
    service, often standing firm upon a scruple, and at a certain cost,
    rejecting riches:--everywhere some virtue cherished or affected,
    everywhere some decency of thought and carriage, everywhere the ensign
    of man's ineffectual goodness:--ah! if I could show you this! if I
    could show you these men and women, all the world over, in every stage
    of history, under every abuse of error, under every circumstance of
    failure, without hope, without help, without thanks, still obscurely
    fighting the lost fight of virtue, still clinging, in the brothel or
    on the scaffold, to some rag of honour, the poor jewel of their souls!
    They may seek to escape, and yet they cannot; it is not alone their
    privilege and glory, but their doom; they are condemned to some
    nobility; all their lives long, the desire of good is at their heels,
    the implacable hunter.

    Of all earth's meteors, here at least is the most strange and
    consoling: that this ennobled lemur, this hair-crowned bubble of the
    dust, this inheritor of a few years and sorrows, should yet deny
    himself his rare delights, and add to his frequent pains, and live for
    an ideal, however misconceived. Nor can we stop with man. A new
    doctrine,[10] received with screams a little while ago by canting
    moralists, and still not properly worked into the body of our
    thoughts, lights us a step farther into the heart of this rough but
    noble universe. For nowadays the pride of man denies in vain his
    kinship with the original dust. He stands no longer like a thing
    apart. Close at his heels we see the dog, prince of another genius:
    and in him too, we see dumbly testified the same cultus[11] of an
    unattainable ideal, the same constancy in failure. Does it stop with
    the dog? We look at our feet where the ground is blackened with the
    swarming ant: a creature so small, so far from us in the hierarchy of
    brutes, that we can scarce trace and scarce comprehend his doings; and
    here also, in his ordered polities and rigorous justice, we see
    confessed the law of duty and the fact of individual sin. Does it
    stop, then, with the ant? Rather this desire of well-doing and this
    doom of frailty run through all the grades of life: rather is this
    earth, from the frosty top of Everest[12] to the next margin of the
    internal fire, one stage of ineffectual virtues and one temple of
    pious tears and perseverance. The whole creation groaneth[13] and
    travaileth together. It is the common and the god-like law of life.
    The browsers, the biters, the barkers, the hairy coats of field and
    forest, the squirrel in the oak, the thousand-footed creeper in the
    dust, as they share with us the gift of life, share with us the love
    of an ideal: strive like us--like us are tempted to grow weary of the
    struggle--to do well; like us receive at times unmerited refreshment,
    visitings of support, returns of courage; and are condemned like us to
    be crucified between that double law[14] of the members and the will.
    Are they like us, I wonder in the timid hope of some reward, some
    sugar with the drug? do they, too, stand aghast at unrewarded virtues,
    at the sufferings of those whom, in our partiality, we take to be
    just, and the prosperity of such as, in our blindness, we call wicked?
    It may be, and yet God knows what they should look for. Even while
    they look, even while they repent, the foot of man treads them by
    thousands in the dust, the yelping hounds burst upon their trail, the
    bullet speeds, the knives are heating in the den of the
    vivisectionist;[15] or the dew falls, and the generation of a day is
    blotted out. For these are creatures, compared with whom our weakness
    is strength, our ignorance wisdom, our brief span eternity.

    And as we dwell, we living things, in our isle of terror[16] and under
    the imminent hand of death, God forbid it should be man the erected,
    the reasoner, the wise in his own eyes--God forbid it should be man
    that wearies in well-doing,[17] that despairs of unrewarded effort, or
    utters the language of complaint. Let it be enough for faith, that the
    whole creation groans in mortal frailty, strives with unconquerable
    constancy: Surely not all in vain.[18]


    During the year 1888, part of which was spent by Stevenson at Saranac
    Lake in the Adirondacks he published one article every month in
    _Scribner's Magazine_. _Pulvis et Umbra_ appeared in the April number,
    and was later included in the volume _Across the Plains_ (1892). He
    wrote this particular essay with intense feeling. Writing to Sidney
    Colvin in December 1887, he said, "I get along with my papers for
    _Scribner_ not fast, nor so far specially well; only this last, the
    fourth one.... I do believe is pulled off after a fashion. It is a
    mere sermon: ... but it is true, and I find it touching and
    beneficial, to me at least; and I think there is some fine writing in
    it, some very apt and pregnant phrases. _Pulvis et Umbra_, I call it;
    I might have called it a _Darwinian Sermon_, if I had wanted. Its
    sentiments, although parsonic, will not offend even you, I believe."
    (_Letters_, II, 100.) Writing to Miss Adelaide Boodle in April 1888,
    he said, "I wrote a paper the other day--_Pulvis et Umbra_;--I wrote
    it with great feeling and conviction: to me it seemed bracing and
    healthful, it is in such a world (so seen by me), that I am very glad
    to fight out my battle, and see some fine sunsets, and hear some
    excellent jests between whiles round the camp fire. But I find that to
    some people this vision of mine is a nightmare, and extinguishes all
    ground of faith in God or pleasure in man. Truth I think not so much
    of; for I do not know it. And I could wish in my heart that I had not
    published this paper, if it troubles folk too much: all have not the
    same digestion nor the same sight of things.... Well, I cannot take
    back what I have said; but yet I may add this. If my view be
    everything but the nonsense that it may be--to me it seems
    self-evident and blinding truth--surely of all things it makes this
    world holier. There is nothing in it but the moral side--but the great
    battle and the breathing times with their refreshments. I see no more
    and no less. And if you look again, it is not ugly, and it is filled
    with promise." (_Letters_, II, 123.) The words _Pulvis et Umbra_ mean
    literally "dust and shadow": the phrase, however, is quoted from
    Horace "pulvis et umbra sumus"--_we are dust and ashes_. It forms the
    text of one of Stevenson's familiar discourses on Death, like _Aes

    [Note 1: _Find them change with every climate_, etc. For some striking
    illustrations of this, see Sudermann's drama, _Die Ehre_ (Honour).]

    [Note 2: NH3 and H2O. The first is the chemical formula for ammonia:
    the second, for water.]

    [Note 3: _That way madness lies. King Lear_, III, 4, 21.]

    [Note 4: _A pediculous malady ... locomotory_. Stevenson was fond of
    strange words. "Pediculous" means covered with lice, lousy.]

    [Note 5: _The heart of his mystery. Hamlet_, Act III, Sc. 2, "you
    would pluck out the heart of my mystery." Mystery here means "secret,"
    as in I. _Cor_. XIII, "Behold, I tell you a mystery."]

    [Note 6: _The thought of duty_. Kant said, "Two things fill the mind
    with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the
    more steadily we reflect on them: _the starry heavens above and the
    moral law within_." (Conclusion to the _Practical Reason_--_Kritik der
    praktischen Vernunft_, 1788.)]

    [Note 7: _Assiniboia ... Calumet_. Assinibioia is a district of
    Canada, just west of Manitoba. _Calumet_ is the pipe of peace, used by
    North American Indians when solemnizing treaties etc. Its stem is over
    two feet long, heavily decorated with feathers etc.]

    [Note 8: _Drowns her child in the sacred river_. The sacred river of
    India is the Ganges; before British control, children were often
    sacrificed there by drowning to appease the angry divinity.]

    [Note 9: _The touch of pity_. "No beast so fierce but knows some touch
    of pity." _Richard III_, Act I, Sc. 2, vs. 71. _This ennobled lemur_.
    A lemur is a nocturnal animal, something like a monkey.]

    [Note 10: _A new doctrine_. Evolution. Darwin's _Origin of Species_
    was published in 1859. Many ardent Christians believe in its general
    principles to-day; but at first it was bitterly attacked by orthodox
    and conservative critics. A Princeton professor cried, "Darwinism is

    [Note 11: _Cultus_. Stevenson liked this word. _The swarming ant_.
    "The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the
    summer."--_Proverbs_, XXX. 25. For a wonderful description of an ant
    battle, see Thoreau's _Walden_.]

    [Note 12: _Everest_. Mount Everest in the Himalayas, is the highest
    mountain in the world, with an altitude of about 29,000 feet.]

    [Note 13: _The whole creation groaneth. Romans_, VIII, 22.]

    [Note 14: _That double law of the members_. See Note 10 of Chapter VI

    [Note 15: _Den of the vivisectionist_. See Note 2 of Chapter VI

    [Note 16: _In our isle of terror_. Cf. Herriet, _The White Island_.

    "In this world, the isle of dreams,
    While we sit by sorrow's streams,
    Tears and terrors are our themes."]

    [Note 17: _Man that wearies in well-doing. Galatians_, VI, 9.]

    [Note 18: _Surely not all in vain_. At heart, Stevenson belongs not to
    the pessimists nor the skeptics, but to the optimists and the
    believers. A man may have no formal creed, and yet be a believer.
    Chapter 10
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