“at four i had been fixed with the compulsive vertigo of vast distance and even more endless time”

…echoes of Beckettian existentialism in Loren Eisely:

 

 

"I think we are now well across the last ice, toward the beginning. There is no fire of any sort but we do not miss it. We are far to the south and the climate is warm. We have no tools except an occasional bone club. We walk upright, but I think we are now animals. We are small — pygmies, in fact. We wear no clothes. We no longer stare at the stars or think of the unreal. The dead are dead. No one follows us at nightfall. Do not repeat this. I think we are animals. I think we have reached beyond the bridge. We are happy here. Tell no one."

 

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one: THE STAR DRAGON

 

 

Already at the origin of the species man was equal to what he was destined to become.

 

 —JEAN ROSTAND

 

  

 

THE STAR DRAGON

 

In the year 1910 Halley’s comet—the comet that among many visitations had flared in 1066 over the Norman invasion of England—was again brightening the night skies of earth. "Menace of the Skies," shrieked the more lurid newspapers.

 

Like hundreds of other little boys of the new century, I was held up in my father’s arms under the cottonwoods of a cold and leafless spring to see the hurtling emissary of the void. My father told me something then that is one of my earliest and most cherished memories.

 

"If you live to be an old man," he said carefully, fixing my eyes on the midnight spectacle, "you will see it again. It will come back in seventy-five years. Remember," he whispered in my ear, "I will be gone, but you will see it. All that time it will be traveling in the dark, but somewhere, far out there"—he swept a hand toward the blue horizon ofthe plains—"it will turn back. It is running glittering through millions of miles."

 

I tightened my hold on my father’s neck and stared uncomprehendingly at the heavens. Once more he spoke against my ear and for us two alone. "Remember, all you have to do is to be careful and wait. You will be seventy-eight or seventy-nine years old. I think you will live to see it—for me," he whispered a little sadly with the foreknowledge that was part of his nature.

 

"Yes, Papa," I said dutifully, having little or no grasp of seventy-five years or millions of miles on the floorless pathways of space. Nevertheless I was destined to recall the incident all my life. It was out of love for a sad man who clung to me as I to him that, young though I was, I remembered. There are long years still to pass, and already I am breathing like a tired runner, but the voice still sounds in my ears and I know with the sureness of maturity that the great wild satellite has reversed its course and is speeding on its homeward journey toward the sun.

 

At four I had been fixed with the compulsive vertigo of vast distance and even more endless time. I had received, through inherited temperament and inclination, a nostalgic admonition to tarry. Besides, I had given what amounted to a desperate promise. "Yes, Papa," I had said with the generosity of childhood, not knowing the chances that men faced in life. This year, after a visit to my doctor, I had written anxiously to an astronomer friend. "Brad," I had asked, "where is Halley’s comet reported on the homeward track? I know it must have turned the elliptic, but where do you calculate it now, how far—and how long, how long—?"

 

I have his answer before me. "You’re pushing things, old man," he writes. "Don’t expect us to see it yet—you’re too young. The orbit is roughly eighteen astronomical units or one billion six hundred and fifty million miles. It headed back this way probably in nineteen forty-eight."

 

Nineteen forty-eight. I grope wearily amidst memories of the Cold War, Korea, the Berlin blockade, spies, the impossible-to-be-kept secrets of the atom. All that time through the black void the tiny pinpoint of light has been hurrying, hurrying, running faster than I, thousands of miles faster as it curves toward home. Because of my father and the promise I had made, a kind of personal bond has been projected between me and the comet. I do not think of what it heralded over Hastings in 1066. I think it is racing sunward so that I can see it stretched once more across the heavens and momently restore the innocence of 1910.

 

But there is inner time, "personal, private chronometry," a brain surgeon once told me. There is also outer time that harries us ruthlessly to our deaths. Some nights in a dark room, staring at the ceiling, I can see the light like a mote in my eye, like a far-off train headlight glimpsed long ago as a child on the prairies of the West. The mournful howl of the train whistle echoes in my head and mingles with the night’s black spaces. The voice is that of the comet as I hear it, climbing upward on the arc of space. At last in the dark I compose myself for sleep. I pull the blanket up to my chin and think of radar ceaselessly sweeping the horizon, and the intercontinental missiles resting in their blast-hardened pits.

 

But no, I dream deeper, slipping back like a sorcerer through the wood of time. Life was no better, not even as safe, proportionately, in the neolithic hill forts whose tiny trenches can be seen from the air over the British downs. A little band of men, with their families beside them, crouched sleepless with ill-made swords, awaiting an attack at dawn. And before that, the caves and the freezing cold, with the ice creeping ever southward autumn by autumn.

 

The dead we buried in red ochre under the fire pit, the red standing for blood, for we were quick in analogies and magic. The ochre was for life elsewhere and farewell. We tramped away in our furred garb and the leaves and snow washed over the place of our youth. We worked always toward the south across the tundra following the long trail of the mammoth. Someone saw a vast flame in the sky and pointed, but itwas not called Halley’s comet then. You could see it glinting through the green light and the falling snow.

 

Farther backward still across twin ice advances and two long interglacial summers. We were cruder now, our eyes wild and uncertain, less sure that we were men. We no longer had sewn garments, and our only weapon was a heavy pointed stone, unhafted and held in the hand. Even our faces had taken on the cavernous look of the places we inhabited. There were difficulties about making fire, and we could not always achieve it. The dead were left where they fell. Women wept less, and the bands were smaller. Our memories consisted of dim lights under heavy sockets of bone. We did not paint pictures, or increase, by magic, the slain beasts. We talked, but the words we needed were fewer. Often we went hungry. It was a sturdy child that survived. We meant well but we were terrifyingly ignorant and given to frustrated anger. There was too much locked up in us that we could not express.

 

We were being used, and perhaps it was against this that we unconsciously raged the most. We were neither beast nor man. We were only a bridge transmitting life. I say we were almost animals and knew little, but this we felt and raged against. There were no words to help us. No one could think of them. Sometimes we were stalked by the huge cats, but it was the inner stalking that was most terrible. I saw a star in the sky with a flaming tail and cowered, shaking, into a bush, making uncouth sounds. It is not laughable. Animals do not do this. They do not see the world as we do—even we.

 

I think we are now well across the last ice, toward the beginning. There is no fire of any sort but we do not miss it. We are far to the south and the climate is warm. We have no tools except an occasional bone club. We walk upright, but I think we are now animals. We are small— pygmies, in fact. We wear no clothes. We no longer stare at the stars or think of the unreal. The dead are dead. No one follows us at nightfall. Do not repeat this. I think we are animals. I think we have reached beyond the bridge. We are happy here. Tell no one.

 

I sigh in my sleep but I cannot hold to the other side of the bridge—the animal side. The comet turns blazing on its far run into space. Slowly I plod once more with the furred ones up the ladder of time. We cross one ice and then another. There is much weeping, too much of memory. It is all to do over again and go on. The white-robed men think well in Athens. I heard a man named Pindar acclaim something that implied we have a likeness to the immortals. "What course after nightfall," he questioned, "has destiny written that we must run to the end?"

 

What course after nightfall? I have followed the comet’s track returning and returning while our minds and our bodies changed. The comet will appear once more. I will follow it that far. Then I will no longer be part of the bridge. Perhaps I will be released to go back. Time and space are my inheritance from my father and the star. I will climb no further up the ladder of fiery return. I will go forward only one more rung. What will await me there is not pleasant, but it is in the star’s destiny as well as mine. I lie awake once more on the dark bed. I feel my heart beating, and wait for the hurrying light.

 

  

II

  

In 1804, well over a century and a half ago, Captain William Clark recorded in his diary far up the unknown Missouri that ahead of the little expedition that he shared with Meriwether Lewis hung a formidable curtain of blowing dust through which they could not see.

 

"Tell us what is new," the few savants in the newborn American republic had advised the explorers when they departed westward. Men continued to have strange expectations of what lay hidden in the still uncharted wilds behind the screen of the great eastern forest. Some thought that the mammoth, whose bones had been foundat Big Bone Lick, in Kentucky, might still wander alive and trumpeting in that vast hinterland. The "dreadful curtain" through which the youthful captains peered on that cold, forbidding day in January could have hidden anything. Indeed the cloud itself was symbolic. It represented time in inconceivable quantities—time, not safe, not contained in Christian quantity, but rather vast as the elemental dust storm itself.

 

The dust in those remote regions was the dust of ice ages, of mountains wearing away under the splintering of frost and sun. The Platte was slowly carrying a mountain range to the sea over giant fans of gravel. Fremont’s men would later report the strange and grotesque sculptures of the wind in stone. It was true that a few years earlier the Scottish physician James Hutton had philosophically conceived such time as possible. His views had largely proved unwelcome and had been dismissed in Europe. On the far-western divide, however, amid the roar of waters falling toward an unknown western ocean, men, frontiersmen though they were, must have felt with an increasing tinge of awe the weight of ages unknown to man.

 

Huge bones bulked in the exposed strata and were measured with wonder. No man knew their names or their antiquity. New things the savants had sought surrounded the explorers, not in the sense of the living survival of great elephants but rather in the sense of a vaster novelty —the extension of time itself. It was as though man for the first time was intruding upon some gigantic stage not devised for him. Among these wastes one felt as though inhuman actors had departed, as though the drama of life had reached an unexpected climax.

 

One catches this same lost feeling in the remarks of another traveler, Alexis de Tocqueville, venturing into the virgin forest far from the pruned orchards of France. "Here," he said, "man seems to enter life furtively. Everything enters into a silence so profound, a stillness so complete that the soul feels penetrated by a sort of religious terror." Even in the untouched forest, time had taken on this same American quality: "Immense trees," de Tocqueville wrote in awe, "retained by the surrounding branches, hang suspended in the air and fall into dust without touching the earth."

 

It is perhaps a significant coincidence that man’s full recognition of biological novelty, of the invisible transformations of the living substance itself, came close upon the heels of the discovery of the vast wilderness stage which still held the tumbled bones of the former actors. It was a domain which had remained largely unknown to Europeans. Sir Charles Lyell, who, in the 18305, successfully revived Hutton’s lost doctrines of geological antiquity, visited the United States in the 18405 and lectured here to enthralled thousands. Finally, it was Charles Darwin, the voyager-naturalist, who, as a convinced follower of Lyell, had gazed upon a comparable wilderness in South America and had succeeded, in his mind’s eye, in peopling the abandoned stage with the creatures of former epochs. It was almost as though Europe, though rife with speculation since the time of the great voyagers, could not quite escape its man-centeredness or its preoccupation with civilized hedgerows and formal gardens. Its thinkers had still to breathe, like Darwin, the thin air of Andean highlands, or hear the falling of stones in mountain cataracts.

 

To see his role on the world stage, Western man had twice to revise his conception of time: once from the brevity of a few thousand years to eons of inconceivable antiquity, and, a second time, with far more difficulty, to perceive that this lengthened time-span was peopled with wraiths and changing cloud forms. Time was not just aged rocks and trees, alike since the beginning of creation; its living aspect did not consist merely of endless Oriental cycles of civilizations rising and declining. Instead, the  living flesh itself was alterable. Our seeming stability of form was an illusion fostered by the few millennia of written history. Behind that history lay the vast and unrecorded gloom of ice ages inhabited by the great beasts which the explorers, at Thomas Jefferson’s bidding, had sought through the blowing curtain of the dust.

 

Man, but not man in the garb we know, had cracked marrow bones in those dim shadows before his footprints vanished amidst the grass of wild savannahs. For interminable ages winged reptiles had hovered over the shores of ancient seas; creatures still more strange had paddled in the silence of enormous swamps. Finally, in that long backward range of time, it was possible to emerge upon shores which no longer betrayed signs of life, because life had become mere potential.

 

At thatpoint one could have seen life as the novelty it truly is. "Tell us what is new," reiterated the eager scientists to the explorers. Past mid-century, an answer could be made. It was life itself that was eternally, constantly new. Dust settled and blew the same from age to age; mountains were worn down to rise again. Only life, that furtive intruder drifting across marsh and field and mountain, altered its masks upon the age-old stage. And as the masks were discarded they did not come again as did the lava of the upthrust mountain cores. Species died as individuals died, or, if they did not perish, they were altered beyond recognition and recall. Man cannot restore the body that once shaped his mind. The bird upon the bough cannot, any more than a summer’s yellow butterfly, again materialize the chrysalis from which it sprang.

 

Indeed, in the end, life can be seen not only as a novelty moving through time toward an endlessly diverging series of possible futures but also as a complete phantom. If we had only the scattered chemicals of the cast-off forms and no experience in ourselves of life’s existence, we would not be able to identify its reality or its mutability by any chemical test known to us. The only thing which infuses a handful of dust with such uncanny potential is our empirical knowledge that the phenomenon called life exists, and that it constantly pursues an unseen arrow which is irreversible.

 

Through the anatomical effort and puzzle-fitting of many men, time, by the mid-nineteenth century, had become gigantic. When On the Origin of Species was published, the great stage was seen not alone to have been playing to remote, forgotten audiences; the actors themselves still went masked into a future no man could anticipate. Some straggled out and died in the wings. But still the play persisted. As one watched, one could see that the play had one very strange quality about it: the characters, most of them, began in a kind of generous latitude of living space and ended by being pinched out of existence in a grimy corner.

 

Once in a while, it is true, a prisoner escaped just when all seemed over for him. This happened when some oxygen-starved Devonian fish managed to stump ashore on their fins and become the first vertebrate invaders of the land. By and large, however, the evolutionary story had a certain unhappy quality.

 

The evolutionary hero became a victim of his success and then could not turn backward; he prospered and grew too large and was set upon by clever enemies evolving about him. Or he specialized in diet, and the plants upon which he fed became increasingly rare. Or he survived at the cost of shutting out the light and eating his way into living rock like some mollusks. Or he hid in deserts and survived through rarity and supersensitive ears. In cold climates he reduced his temperature with the season, dulled his heart to long-drawn spasmodic effort, and slept most of his life away. Or, parasitically, he slumbered in the warm intestinal darkness of the tapeworm’s eyeless world.

 

Restricted and dark were many of these niches, and equally dark and malignant were some of the survivors. The oblique corner with no outlet had narrowed upon them all. Biological evolution could be denned as one long series of specializations—hoofs that prevented hands, wings that, while opening the wide reaches of the air, prevented the manipulation of tools. The list was endless. Each creature was a tiny fraction of the life force; the greater portion had died with the environments that created them. Others had continued to evolve, but always their transformations seemed to present a more skilled adaptation to an increasingly narrow corridor of existence. Success too frequently meant specialization, and specialization, ironically, was the beginning of the road to extinction. This was the essential theme that time had dramatized upon the giant stage.

  

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