3. PROSPECTS OF THE RACE

The longer I stayed on the Other Earth, the more I suspected that there must be some important underlying difference between this human race and my own. In some sense the difference was obviously one of balance. Homo sapiens was on the whole better integrated, more gifted with common sense, less apt to fall into extravagance through mental dissociation.

Perhaps the most striking example of the extravagance of the Other Men was the part played by religion in their more advanced societies. Religion was a much greater power than on my own planet; and the religious teachings of the prophets of old were able to kindle even my alien and sluggish heart with fervor. Yet religion, as it occurred around me in contemporary society, was far from edifying.

I must begin by explaining that in the development of religion on the Other Earth gustatory sensation had played a very great part. Tribal gods had of course been endowed with the taste-characters most moving to the tribe’s own members. Later, when monotheisms arose, descriptions of God’s power, his wisdom, his justice, his benevolence, were accompanied by descriptions of his taste. In mystical literature God was often likened to an ancient and mellow wine; and some reports of religious experience suggested that this gustatory-ecstasy was in many ways akin to the reverent zest of our own wine-tasters, savoring some rare vintage.

Unfortunately, owing to the diversity of gustatory huma? types, there had seldom been any widespread agreement as to the taste of God. Religious wars had been waged to decid whether he was in the main sweet or salt, or whether his preponderant flavor was one of the many gustatory charac ters which my own race cannot conceive. Some teachers insist ed that only the feet could taste him, others only the hands 01 the mouth, others that he could be experienced only in the subtle complex of gustatory flavors known as the immaculate union, which was a sensual, and mainly sexual, ecstasy induced by contemplation of intercourse with the deity.

Other teachers declared that, though God was indeed tasty, it was not through any bodily instrument but to the naked spirit that his essence was revealed; and that his was a flavor more subtle and delicious than the flavor of the beloved, since it included all that was most fragrant and spiritual in man, and infinitely more.

Some went so far as to declare that God should be thought of not as a person at all but as actually being this flavor. Bvalltu used to say, “Either God is the universe, or he is the flavor of creativity pervading all things.”

Some ten or fifteen centuries earlier, when religion, so far as I could tell, was most vital, there were no churches or priesthoods; but every man’s life was dominated by religious ideas to an extent which to me was almost incredible. Later, churches and priesthoods had returned, to play an important part in preserving what was now evidently a declining religious consciousness. Still later, a few centuries before the Industrial Revolution, institutional religion had gained such a hold on the most civilized peoples that three-quarters of their total income was spent on the upkeep of religious institutions. The working classes, indeed, who slaved for the owners in return for a mere pittance, gave much of their miserable earnings to the priests, and lived in more abject squalor than need have been.

Science and industry had brought one of those sudden and extreme revolutions of thought which were so characteristic of the Other Men. Nearly all the churches were destroyed or turned into temporary factories or industrial museums. Atheism, lately persecuted, became fashionable. All the best minds turned agnostic. More recently, however, apparently in horror at the effects of a materialistic culture which was far more cynical and blatant than our own, the most industrialized peoples began to turn once more to religion. A spiritistic foundation was provided for natural science. The old churches were re-sanctified, and so many new religious edifices were built that they were soon as plentiful as cinema houses with us. Indeed, the new churches gradually absorbed the cinema, and provided non-stop picture shows in which sensual orgies and ecclesiastical propaganda were skilfully blended.

At the time of my visit the churches had regained all their lost power. Radio had indeed at one time competed with them, but was successfully absorbed. They still refused to broadcast the immaculate union, which gained fresh prestige from the popular belief that it was too spiritual to be transmitted on the ether. The more advanced clerics, however, had agreed that if ever the universal system of “radio-bliss” was established, this difficulty might be overcome. Communism, meanwhile, still maintained its irreligious convention; but in the two great Communist countries the officially organized “irreligion” was becoming a religion in all but name. It had its institutions, its priesthood, its ritual, its morality, its system of absolution, its metaphysical doctrines, which, though devoutly materialistic, were none the less superstitious. And the flavor of deity had been displaced by the flavor of the proletariat.

Religion, then, was a very real force in the life of all these peoples. But there was something puzzling about their devout-ness. In a sense it was sincere, and even beneficial; for in very small personal temptations and very obvious and stereotyped moral choices, the Other Men were far more conscientious than my own kind. But I discovered that the typical modern Other Man was conscientious only in conventional situations, and that in genuine moral sensibility he was strangely lacking. Thus, though practical generosity and superficial comradeship were more usual than with us, the most diabolic mental persecution was perpetrated with a clear conscience. The more sensitive had always to be on their guard. The deeper kinds of intimacy and mutual reliance were precarious and rare. In this passionately social world, loneliness dogged the spirit. People were constantly “getting together,” but they never really got there. Everyone was terrified of being alone with himself; yet in company, in spite of the universal assumption of comradeship, these strange beings remained as remote from one another as the stars. For everyone searched his neighbor’s eyes for the image of himself, and never saw anything else. Or if he did, he was outraged and terrified.

Another perplexing fact about the religious life of the Other Men at the time of my visit was this. Though all were devout, and blasphemy was regarded with horror, the general attitude to the deity was one of blasphemous commercialism. Men assumed that the flavor of deity could be bought for all eternity with money or with ritual. Further, the God whom they worshipped with the superb and heart-searching language of an earlier age was now conceived either as a just but jealous employer or as an indulgent parent, or else as sheer physical energy. The crowning vulgarity was the conviction that in no earlier age had religion been so widespread and so enlightened. It was almost universally agreed that the profound teachings of the prophetic era were only now being understood in the sense in which they had originally been intended by the prophets themselves. Contemporary writers and broadcasters claimed to be re-interpreting the scriptures to suit the enlightened religious needs of an age which called itself the Age of Scientific Religion. Now behind all the complacency which characterized the civilization of the Other Men before the outbreak of the war I had often detected a vague restlessness and anxiety. Of course for the most part people went about their affairs with the same absorbed and self-satisfied interest as on my own planet. They were far too busy making a living, marrying, rearing families, trying to get the better of one another, to spare time for conscious doubt about the aim of life. Yet they had often the air of one who has forgotten some very important thing and is racking his brains to recover it, or of an aging preacher who uses the old stirring phrases without clear apprehension of their significance. Increasingly I suspected that this race, in spite of all its triumphs, was now living on the great ideas of its past, mouthing concepts that it no longer had the sensibility to understand, paying verbal homage to ideals which it could no longer sincerely will, and behaving within a system of institutions many of which could only be worked successfully by minds of a slightly finer temper. These institutions, I suspected, must have been created by a race endowed not only with much greater intelligence, but with a much stronger and more comprehensive capacity for community than was now possible on the Other Earth. They seemed to be based on the assumption that men were on the whole kindly, reasonable and self-disciplined.

I had often questioned Bvalltu on this subject, but he had always turned my question aside. It will be remembered that, though I had access to all his thoughts so long as he did not positively wish to withhold them, he could always, if he made a special effort, think privately. I had long suspected that he was keeping something from me, when at last he told me the strange and tragic facts.

It was a few days after the bombardment of the metropolis of his country. Through Bvalltu’s eyes and the goggles of his gas-mask I saw the results of that bombardment. We had missed the horror itself, but had attempted to return to the city to play some part in the rescue work. Little could be done. So great was the heat still radiated from the city’s incandescent heart, that we could not penetrate beyond the first suburb. Even there, the streets were obliterated, choked with fallen buildings. Human bodies, crushed and charred, projected here and there from masses of tumbled masonry. Most of the population was hidden under the ruins. In the open spaces many lay gassed. Salvage parties impotently wandered. Between the smoke-clouds the Other Sun occasionally appeared, and even a daytime star.

After clambering among the ruins for some time, seeking Vainly to give help, Bvalltu sat down. The devastation round about us seemed to “loosen his tongue,” if I may use such a phrase to express a sudden frankness in his thinking toward myself. I had said something to the effect that a future age would look back on all this madness and destruction with amazement. He sighed through his gas-mask, and said, “My unhappy race has probably now doomed itself irrevocably.” I expostulated; for though ours was about the fortieth city to be destroyed, there would surely some day be a recovery, and the race would at last pass through this crisis and go forward from strength to strength. Bvalltu then told me of the strange matters which, he said, he had often intended to tell me, but somehow he had always shunned doing so. Though many scientists and students of the contemporary world-society had now some vague suspicion of the truth, it was clearly known only to himself and a few others.

The species, he said, was apparently subject to strange and long-drawn-out fluctuations of nature, fluctuations which lasted for some twenty thousand years. All races in all climates seemed to manifest this vast rhythm of the spirit, and to suffer it simultaneously. Its cause was unknown. Though it seemed to be due to an influence affecting the whole planet at once, perhaps it actually radiated from a single starting point, but spread rapidly into all lands. Very recently an advanced scientist had suggested that it might be due to variations in the intensity of “cosmic rays.” Geological evidence had established that such a fluctuation of cosmical radiation did occur, caused perhaps by variations in a neighboring cluster of young stars. It was still doubtful whether the psychological rhythm and the astronomical rhythm coincided, but many facts pointed to the conclusion that when the rays were more violent the human spirit declined.

Bvalitu was not convinced by this story. On the whole he inclined to the opinion that the rhythmical waxing and waning of human mentality was due to causes nearer home. Whatever the true explanation, it was almost certain that a high degree of civilization had been attained many times in the past, and that some potent influence had over and over again damped down the mental vigor of the human race. In the troughs of these vast waves Other Man sank to a state of mental and spiritual dullness more abject than anything which my own race had ever known since it awoke from the subhuman. But at the wave’s crest man’s intellectual power, moral integrity, and spiritual insight seem to have risen to a pitch that we should regard as superhuman.

Again and again the race would emerge from savagery, and pass through barbarian culture into a phase of worldwide brilliance and sensibility. Whole populations would conceive simultaneously an ever-increasing capacity for generosity, self-knowledge, self-discipline, for dispassionate and penetrating thought and uncontaminated religious feeling.

Consequently within a few centuries the whole world would blossom with free and happy societies. Average human beings would attain an unprecedented clarity of mind, and by massed action do away with all grave social injustices and private cruelties. Subsequent generations, inherently sound, and blessed with a favorable environment, would create a world-wide Utopia of awakened beings.

Presently a general loosening of fiber would set in. The golden age would be followed by a silver age. Living on the achievements of the past, the leaders of thought would lose themselves in a jungle of subtlety, or fall exhausted into mere slovenliness. At the same time moral sensibility would decline. Men would become on the whole less sincere, less self-searching, less sensitive to the needs of others, in fact less capable of community. Social machinery, which had worked well so long as citizens attained a certain level of humanity, would be dislocated by injustice and corruption. Tyrants and tyrannical oligarchies would set about destroying liberty. Hate-mad submerged classes would give them good excuse. Little by little, though the material benefits of civilization might smolder on for centuries, the flame of the spirit would die down into a mere flicker in a few isolated individuals. Then would come sheer barbarism, followed by the trough of almost sub-human savagery.

On the whole there seemed to have been a higher achievement on the more recent crests of the wave than on those of the “geological” past. So at least some anthropologists persuaded themselves. It was confidently believed that the present apex of civilization was the most brilliant of all, that its best was as yet to come, and that by means of its unique scientific knowledge it would discover how to preserve the mentality of the race from a recurrence of deterioration.

The present condition of the species was certainly exceptional. In no earlier recorded cycle had science and mechanization advanced to such lengths. So far as could be inferred from the fragmentary relics of the previous cycle, mechanical invention had never passed beyond the crude machinery known in our own mid-nineteenth century. The still earlier cycles, it was believed, stagnated at even earlier stages in their industrial revolutions.

Now though it was generally assumed in intellectual circles that the best was yet to be, Bvalltu and his friends were convinced that the crest of the wave had already occurred many centuries ago. To most men, of course, the decade before the war had seemed better and more civilized than any earlier age. In their view civilization and mechanization were almost identical, and never before had there been such a triumph of mechanization. The benefits of a scientific civilization were obvious. For the fortunate class there was more comfort, better health, increased stature, a prolongation of youth, and a system of technical knowledge so vast and intricate that no man could know more than its outline or some tiny corner of its detail. Moreover, increased communications had brought all the peoples into contact. Local idiosyncrasies were fading out before the radio, the cinema, and the gramophone. In comparison with these hopeful signs it was easily overlooked that the human constitution, though strengthened by improved conditions, was intrinsically less stable than formerly. Certain disintegrative diseases were slowly but surely increasing. In particular, diseases of the nervous system were becoming more common and more pernicious. Cynics used to say that the mental hospitals would soon outnumber even the churches. But the cynics were only jesters. It was almost universally agreed that, in spite of wars and economic troubles and social upheavals, all was now well, and the future would be better.

The truth, said Bvalitu, was almost certainly otherwise. There was, as I had suspected, unmistakable evidence that the average of intelligence and of moral integrity throughout the world had declined; and they would probably continue to do so. Already the race was living on its past. All the great seminal ideas of the modern world had been conceived cen-turies ago. Since then, world-changing applications of these ideas had indeed been made; but none of these sensational inventions had depended on the extreme kind of penetrating the whole course of thought in an earlier age. Recently there had been, Bvalltu admitted, a spate of revolutionary scientific discoveries and theories, but not one of them, he said, contained any really novel principle. They were all re-combinations of familiar principles. Scientific method, invented some centuries ago, was so fertile a technique that it might well continue to yield rich fruit for centuries to come even in the hands of workers incapable of any high degree of originality.

But it was not in the field of science so much as in moral and practical activity that the deterioration of mental caliber was most evident. I myself, with Bvalltu’s aid, had learnt to appreciate to some extent the literature of that amazing period, many centuries earlier, when every country seemed to blossom with art, philosophy and religion; when people after people had changed its whole social and political order so as to secure a measure of freedom and prosperity to all men; when state after state had courageously disarmed, risking destruction but reaping peace and prosperity; when police forces were disbanded, prisons turned into libraries or colleges; when weapons and even locks and keys came to be known only as museum pieces; when the four great established priesthoods of the world had exposed their own mysteries, given their wealth to the poor, and led the triumphant campaign for community; or had taken to agriculture, handicrafts, teaching, as befitted humble supporters of the new priestless, faithless, Godless religion of world-wide community and inarticulate worship. After some five hundred years locks and keys, weapons and doctrines, began to return. The golden age left behind it only a lovely and incredible tradition, and a set of principles which, though now sadly misconceived, were still the best influences in a distraught world.

Those scientists who attributed mental deterioration to the increase of cosmic rays affirmed that if the race had discovered science many centuries earlier, when it had still before it the period of greatest vitality, all would have been well. It would soon have mastered the social problems which industrial civilization entails. It would have created not merely a “mediaeval” but a highly mechanized Utopia. It would almost certainly have discovered how to cope with the excess of cosmic rays and prevent deterioration. But science had come too late. Bvalltu, on the other hand, suspected that deterioration was due to some factor in human nature itself. He was inclined to believe that it was a consequence of civilization, that in changing the whole environment of the human species, seemingly for the better, science had unwittingly brought about a state of affairs hostile to spiritual vigor. He did not pretend to know whether the disaster was caused by the increase of artificial food, or the increased nervous strain of modern conditions, or interference with natural selection, or the softer upbringing of children, or to some other cause. Perhaps it should be attributed to none of these comparatively recent influences; for evidence did suggest that deterioration had set in at the very beginning of the scientific age, if not even earlier. It might be that some mysterious factor in the conditions of the golden age itself had started the rot. It might even be, he suggested, that genuine community generated its own poison, that the young human being, brought up in a perfected society, in a veritable “city of God” on earth, must inevitably revolt toward moral and intellectual laziness, toward romantic individualism and sheer devilment; and that once this disposition had taken root, science and a mechanized civilization had augmented the spiritual decay.

Shortly before I left the Other Earth a geologist discovered a fossil diagram of a very complicated radio set. It appeared to be a lithographic plate which had been made some ten million years earlier. The highly developed society which produced it had left no other trace. This find was a shock to the intelligent world; but the comforting view was spread abroad that some non-human and less hardy species had long ago attained a brief flicker of civilization. It was agreed that man, once he had reached such a height of culture, would never have fallen from it.

In Bvalltu’s view man had climbed approximately to the same height time after time, only to be undone by some hidden consequence of his own achievement.

When Bvalltu propounded this theory, among the ruins of Us native city, I suggested that some time, if not this time, man would successfully pass this critical point in his career. Bvalitu then spoke of another matter which seemed to indicate that we were witnessing the final act of this long-drawn-out and repetitive drama. It was known to scientists that, owing to the weak gravitational hold of their world, the atmosphere, already scant, was steadily deceasing. Sooner or later humanity would have to face the problem of stopping this constant leakage of precious oxygen. Hitherto life had successfully adapted itself to the progressive rarefaction of atmosphere, but the human physique had already reached the limit of adaptability in this respect. If the loss were not soon checked, the race would inevitably decline. The only hope was that some means to deal with the atmospheric problem would be discovered before the onset of the next age of barbarism. There had only been a slight possibility that this would be achieved. This slender hope the war had destroyed by setting the clock of scientific research back for a century just at the time when human nature itself was deteriorating and might never again be able to tackle so difficult a problem.

The thought of the disaster which almost certainly lay in wait for the Other Men threw me into a horror of doubt about the universe in which such a thing could happen. That a whole world of intelligent beings could be destroyed was not an unfamiliar idea to me; but there is a great difference between an abstract possibility and a concrete and inescapable danger. On my native planet, whenever I had been dismayed by the suffering and the futility of individuals, I had taken comfort in the thought that at least the massed effect of all our blind striving must be the slow but glorious awakening of the human spirit. This hope, this certainty, had been the one sure consolation. But now I saw that there was no guarantee of any such triumph. It seemed that the universe, or the maker of the universe, must be indifferent to the fate of worlds. That there should be endless struggle and suffering and waste must of’course be accepted; and gladly, for these were the very soil in which the spirit grew. But that all struggle should be finally, absolutely vain, that a whole world of sensitive spirits fail and die, must be sheer evil. In my horror it seemed to me that Hate must be the Star Maker.

Not so to Bvalitu. “Even if the powers destroy us,” he said, “who are we, to condemn them? As well might a fleeting word judge the speaker that forms it. Perhaps they use us for their own hihg ends, use our strength and our weakness, our joy and our pain, in some theme inconceivable to us, and excellent.” But I protested, “What theme could justify such waste, such futility? And how can we help judging; and how otherwise can we judge than by the light of our own hearts, by which we judge ourselves? It would be base to praise the Star Maker, knowing that he was too insensitive to care about the fate of his worlds.” Bvalitu was silent in his mind for a moment. Then he looked up, searching among the smoke-clouds for a daytime star. And then he said to me in his mind, “If he saved all the worlds, but tormented just one man, would you forgive him? Or if he was a little harsh only to one stupid child? What has our pain to do with it, or our failure? Star Maker! It is a good word, though we can have no notion of its meaning. Oh, Star Maker, even if you destroy me, I must praise you. Even if you torture my dearest. Even if you torment and waste all your lovely worlds, the little figments of your imagination, yet I must praise you. For if you do so, it must be right. In me it would be wrong, but in you it must be right.”

He looked down once more upon the ruined city, then continued, “And if after all there is no Star Maker, if the great company of galaxies leapt into being of their own accord, and even if this little nasty world of ours is the only habitation of the spirit anywhere among the stars, and this world doomed, even so, even so, I must praise. But if there is no Star Maker, what can it be that I praise? I do not know. I will call it only the sharp tang and savor of existence. But to call it this is to say little.”