the rest of loren eiseley’s the invisible pyramid, chapter one

“When I lie in bed now and await the hastening of Halley’s comet, Iwould like to find my way back just once to that single, precise instant when the star dragon thrust out its tongue. Perhaps the story of all dragons since comes from that moment. Men have long memories when the memories are clothed in myth. But I drowse, and the train whistle mingles and howls with the heaven-sweeping light in my dream. It is 1910. I am going back once more.”





It may now appear that I have been wandering mentally amidst irrelevant and strange events—time glimpsed through a blowing curtain of dust, and, among fallen stones and badland pinnacles, bones denoting not just the erosion of ages but the mysterious transformation of living bodies.


Man after man in the immediately post-Darwinian days would stare into his mirror at the bony contours of a skull that held some grinning secret beyond the simple fact of death. Anatomists at the dissecting table would turn up odd vestigial muscles and organs. Our bodies held outdated machinery as strange as that to be found in the attics of old houses. Into these anatomical depths few would care to probe. But there were scholars who were not averse to delving among fossils, and the skulls they found or diagnosed would multiply. These would be recognized at last for what they were, the dropped masks of the beginning of Nature’s last great play—the play of man.


Strangely, it is a different play, though made partly of old ingredients. In three billion years of life upon the planet, this play had never been acted upon the great stage before. We come at a unique moment in geological history, and we ourselves are equally unique. We have brought with us out of the forest darkness a new unprophesiable world—a latent, lurking universe within our heads.


In the world of Charles Darwin, evolution was particulate; it contained and traced the history of fins, claws, wings, and teeth. The Darwinian circle was immersed in the study of the response of the individual organism to its environment, and the selective impact of the environment upon its creatures. By contrast, just as biological evolution had brought the magic of the endlessly new in organic form, so the evolving brain, through speech, had literally created a superorganic structure unimaginable until its emergence.


Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary, perceived that with the emergence of the human brain, man had, to a previously inconceivable degree, passed out of the domain of the particulate evolution of biological organs and had entered upon what we may call history. Human beings, in whom the power of communication had arisen, were leaving the realm of phylogeny for the realm of history, which was to contain, henceforth, our final destiny. After three billion years of biological effort, man alone had seemingly evaded the oblique trap of biological specialization. He had done so by the development of a specialized organ—the brain—whose essential purpose was to evade specialization.


The tongue and the hand, so disproportionately exaggerated in his motor cortex, were to be its primary instruments. With these he would elude channelized instinct and channelized organic development. The creature who had dropped from some long-ago tree into the grass had managed to totter upright and free the grasping forelimb. Brain, hand, and tongue would henceforth evolve together. Fin, fur, and paw would vanish into the mists of the past. Henceforth it would be the brain that clothed and unclothed man. Fire would warm him, flint would strike for him, vessels would carry him over dangerous waters.


In the end, with the naked body of an awkward and hastily readjusted climber, he would plumb the seas’ depths and mount, with wings spun in his brain, the heights of air. Enormous computations upon the movements of far bodies in space would roll in seconds from his computers. His great machines would leap faster at his bidding than the slower speed of his own nerves.


Because of speech, drawn from an infinitesimal spark along a nerve end, the vague, ill-defined surroundings of the animal world would be transformed, named, and categorized. Mind would reach into a past before its becoming; the misty future experienced by dim animal instinct would leap into sudden, clear perspective. Language, whose constituents have come down the long traverse of millennia as rolled and pounded by circumstance as a flint ax churned in a river bed, leaves no direct traces of its dim beginnings. With the first hieroglyph, oral tradition would become history. Out of a spoken sound, man’s first and last source of inexhaustible power, would emerge the phantom world which the anthropologist prosaically calls culture. Its bridges, its towers, and its lightnings lie potential in a little globe of gray matter that can fade and blow away on any wind. The novelty of evolutionary progression through time has begotten another novelty, the novelty of history, the evolutionary flow of ideas in the heads of men.


The role of the brain is analogous in a distant way to the action of mutation in generating improbabilities in the organic realm. Moreover, the human brain appears to be a remarkably solitary product of this same organic process which, in actuality, it has transcended. In this sense life has produced a newly emergent instrument capable of transmitting a greatly speeded-up social heredity based not upon the gene but instead upon communication. In its present technological phase it has brought the ends of the world into conflict and at the same time is reaching outward into space.


About ourselves there always lingers a penumbral rainbow—what A. L. Kroeber termed the superorganic—that cloud of ideas, visions, institutions which hover about, indeed constitute human society, but which can be dissected from no single brain. This rainbow, which exists in all heads and dies with none, is the essential part of man. Through it he becomes what we call human, and not otherwise.


Man is not a creature to be contained in a solitary skull vault, nor is he measurable as, say, a saber-toothed cat or a bison is measurable. Something, the rainbow dancing before his eyes, the word uttered by the cave fire at evening, eludes us and runs onward. It is gone when we come with our spades upon the cold ashes of the campfire four hundred thousand years removed.


Paradoxically, the purpose of the human brain is to escape physical specialization by the projections of thought. There is no parallel organism with which to compare ourselves. The creature from which we arose has perished. On the direct hominid line there is no twilight world of living fossils which we can subject to examination. At best we are forced to make inferences from less closely related primates whose activities lie below the threshold of speech.


The nineteenth century, in the efforts of men like Hughlings Jackson, came to see the brain as an organ whose primary parts had been laid down successively in evolutionary time, a little like the fossil strata in the earth itself. The centers of conscious thought were the last superficial deposit on the surface of a more ancient and instinctive brain. As the roots of our phylogenetic tree pierce deep into earth’s past, so our human consciousness is similarly embedded in, and in part constructed of, pathways which were laid down before man in his present form existed. To acknowledge this fact is still to comprehend as little of the brain’s true secrets as an individual might understand of the dawning of his own consciousness from a single egg cell.


The long, slow turn of world-time as the geologist has known it, and the invisibly moving hour hand of evolution perceived only yesterday by the biologist, have given way in the human realm to a fantastically accelerated social evolution induced by industrial technology. So fast does this change progress that a growing child strives to master the institutional customs of a society which, compared with the pace of past history, compresses centuries of change into his lifetime. I myself, like others of my generation, was born in an age which has already perished. At my death I will look my last upon a nation which, save for some linguistic continuity, will seem increasingly alien and remote. It will be as though I peered upon my youth through misty centuries. I will not be merely old; I will be a genuine fossil embedded in onrushing man-made time before my actual death.





"There never was a first man or a first primate," Dr. Glenn Jepsen of Princeton once remarked iconoclastically. The distinguished paleontologist then added that the "billions of genetic filaments in our ancestral phyletic cord are of many lengths, no two precisely the same. We have not had our oversized brain very long but the pentadactyl pattern of our extremities originated deep in . . . the Paleozoic." Moreover, we have, of late, discovered that our bipedal, man-ape ancestors seem to have flourished for a surprisingly long time without any increase in their cranial content whatever—some four or five million years, in fact.


It used to be thought that the brain of proto-man would have had to develop very early to enable him to survive upright upon the ground at all. Oddly, it now appears that man survived so well under these circumstances that it is difficult to say why, in the end, he became man at all. His bipedal pre-man phase lasted much longer—five or six times at least—than his whole archaeological history down to this very moment. What makes the whole story so mystifying is that the expansion of his neurocranium took place relatively rapidly during the million years or so of Ice Age time, and has not been traced below this point. The supposed weak-bodied creature whom Darwin nervously tried to fit into his conception of the war of nature on the continents is thought to have romped through a longer geological time period than his large-brained descendants may ever see.


We know that at least two million years ago the creature could make some simple use of stones and bones and may possibly have fashioned crude windbreaks. He was still small-brained in human terms, however, and if his linguistic potentialities were increasing there remains no satisfactory evidence of the fact. Thus we are confronted with the question why man, as we know him, arose, and why, having arisen, he found his way out of the green confines of his original world. Not all the human beings even of our existing species did. Though their brains are comparable to our own, they have lingered on, something less than one per cent of today’s populations, at the edge of a morning twilight that we have forgotten. There can thus be no ready assertion that man’s departure from his first world, the world of chameleon-like shifts and forest changes, waseither ordained or inevitable. Neither can it be said that visible tools created brains. Some of the forest peoples—though clever to adapt—survive with a paucity of technical equipment.


As to why our pygmoid ancestors, or, more accurately, some group of them, took the road to larger brains we do not know. Most of the suggestions made would just as readily fit a number of non-human primate forms which did not develop large brains. Our line is gone, and while the behavior of our existing relatives is worth examination we cannot unravel out of another genetic strand the complete story of our own.


Not without interest is the fact that much of this development is correlated with the advances and recessions of the continental ice fields. It is conceivable, at least, that some part of the human stock was being exposed during this time to relentless genetic pressures and then, in inter-glacial times, to renewed relaxation of barriers and consequent genetic mixture. A few scattered finds from remote portions of the Euro-Asiatic land mass will never clarify this suspicion. For hundreds of thousands of years of crucial human history we have not a single bone as a document.


There is another curious thing about the Ice Age. Except for the emergence of genuinely modern man toward the close of its icy winter, it is an age of death, not a birth time of species. Extinction has always followed life relentlessly through the long eras of earth’s history. The Pleistocene above all else was a time of great extinctions. Many big animals perished, and though man’s hunting technology was improving, his numbers were still modest. He did not then possess the capacity to ravage continents in the way he was later to do.


The dinosaurs vanished before man appeared on earth, and their disappearance has caused much debate. They died out over a period many millions of years in extent and at a time when the low warm continents lapped by inland seas were giving way to bleaker highlands. The events of the Ice Age are markedly different. First of all, many big mammals—mammoth, mastodon, sloth, long-horned bison—survived the great ice sheets only to die at their close. It is true that man, by then dispersing over the continents, may have had something to do with their final extermination, but there perished also certain creatures like the dire wolves, in which man could have taken little direct interest.


We are thus presented, in contrast to the situation at the close of the age of reptiles, with a narrowly demarcated line of a few thousand years in which a great variety of earth’s northern fauna died out while man survived. Along with the growing desiccation in Southwest Asia, these extinctions gave man, the hunter, a mighty push outside his original game-filled Eden. He had to turn to plant domestication to survive, and plants, it just happens, are the primary road to a settled life and the basic supplies from which cities and civilizations arise. A half-dying green kingdom, one might say, forced man out of a relationship which might otherwise have continued down to the present.


But, the question persists, why did so many creatures die in so little time after marching back and forth with the advancing or retreating ice through so many thousand years? Just recently the moon voyage has hinted at a possible clue, though it must be ventured very tentatively when man’s observational stay upon the moon has been so short.


The Apollo 11 astronauts observed and succeeded in photographing melted or glazed droplets concentrated on points and edges of moon rock. Dr. Thomas Gold, director of Cornell University’s Center for Radio Physics, has suggested that these glasslike concretions are evidence of melting, produced by a giant solar flare activated for only a few moments, but of an unexpected intensity. Giant storms are known to lick outward from the sun’s surface, but a solar disturbance of the magnitude required to account for such a melting—if it was indeed sun-produced —would have seemed from earth like the flame of a dragon’s breath. Most of the ultraviolet of the sun-storm, generated perhaps by a comet hurtling into the sun’s surface, would have been absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere. A temperature effect on earth need not have been pronounced so long as the flare was momentary. The unprotected surface of the moon, however, would have received the full impact of the dragon’s tongue.


Dr. Gold has calculated by various means that the event, if actually produced by a solar flare, lies somewhere close to thirty thousand years from us in time and is therefore unrecorded in the annals of man. But here is the curious thing. The period involved lies in the closing Ice Age, in the narrow time zone of vast extinctions in the northern hemisphere. Was the giant flare, an unheard-of phenomenon, in some way involved with the long dying of certain of the great mammals that followed? Seemingly the earth escaped visible damage because of its enveloping blanket of air. No living man knows what the flicking tongue of a dragon star might do, however, or what radiation impact or atmospheric change might have been precipitated upon earth. Some scholars are loath to accept the solar-flare version of the moon glaze because of the stupendous energy which would have to be expended, and the general known stability of the sun. But men are short-lived, and solar catastrophes like the sunward disintegration of a comet would be exceedingly rare. Until more satisfactory evidence is at hand, most scientists will probably prefer to regard the glazed rock as splashed by the heat of meteoritic impact.


Nevertheless, the turbulent outpouring of even ordinary solar flares is on so gigantic a scale as to be terrifying in a close-up view. Until there is further evidence that ours is not a sleepy dragon star, one may wonder just what happened thirty thousand years ago, and why, among so many deaths, it was man who survived. Whatever occurred, whether by ice withdrawal or the momentary penetration of the ultraviolet into our atmosphere, man’s world was changed. Perhaps there is something after all to the story of his eviction from the green Garden.


When I lie in bed now and await the hastening of Halley’s comet, I would like to find my way back just once to that single, precise instant when the star dragon thrust out its tongue. Perhaps the story of all dragons since comes from that moment. Men have long memories when the memories are clothed in myth. But I drowse, and the train whistle mingles and howls with the heaven-sweeping light in my dream. It is 1910. I am going back once more.


“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."


Bookseller Photo 




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








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.





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.


french hegel: blanchot, baitalle and kojève

Near the beginning of Lars Iyer’s recent Blanchot’s Communism: Art, Philosophy and the Political, one comes across this nice piece of Kojèvean exegesis:


How, then, does it begin? How does the human being step into history? Everything begins, for Bataille, as for Kojève, with death. As Kojève explains, death permits the leap above ‘mere animal sentiment of self [Selbstgefühl]’ in order for the human being to attain properly human ‘self-consciousness [Selbstsbewu_tsein]’, which is to say, ‘conceptual and discursive consciousness in general’ – ‘the risk of life accepted without any necessity’, death as a sheer leap into the unknown. Everything begins with death. ‘The death of a human being is essentially different from the ‘end’ of an animal or plant’; the latter is merely imposed from without.5 The animal cannot assume its end, but merely unfolds innate possibilities, actualising only what it has been given by virtue of its biology. Nothing begins anew with the birth of the animal; it does not bring itself into the origin – it does not leap. The flies that circle blindly around my room this year are the same as the flies that circled last year, but the human being who struggles into birth inherits an understanding of the world, a culture, and is able to transform and to transmit this inheritance in turn. The birth of the human being is a leap. But it is so because to understand, for the human being, is also to die. For Kojève, it is death that lifts the human being from nature and grants it freedom. The human being, unlike the animal, is able to watch itself die; it is self-conscious.

How should one understand this? The human being irrupts into the field of Nature, which, for Kojève, is always merely ‘static given-Being [Sein]’, self-identical and mute.6 The human being undoes given-Being, by introducing ‘Other-Being [Anderssein]’, that is, ‘negation of itself as given and creation of itself as other than this given’.7 This is why Kojève differentiates his phenomenological anthropology, which ‘describes human existence as it “appears” [erscheint] or “manifests” itself to the very one who experiences it’,8 from a scientific one, like Gall’s phrenology. The animal merely lives, but the living human being acts. True, plants and animals develop, but that development is itself determined by what is given beforehand. As Bataille comments, the animal ‘is itself lost in nature (and in the totality of all that is)’.9 Freedom, by contrast, is the negation of human ‘nature’, which is to say, for Kojève, ‘of the “possibilities” which he has already realized’.10 Negation is an overcoming of what has already been received as a possibility and to that extent is always a leap, always the realisation of a hitherto unforeseen possibility. Action, negativity, is the overcoming of the given. It is by violently asserting autonomy with respect to nature, by making war against what is merely innate or inherited, that the dimension of history opens, understood as the ‘appearings’ of the human being and its world and hence the topic of phenomenology.

This capacity to negate, this freedom, governs the human being from the very beginning. To begin, with the human being inherits the body, a natural being. As Bataille comments, ‘Man is first of all an animal, that is to say the very thing he negates’; ‘to negate nature is to negate the animal which props up man’s negativity’.11 Thus the body is itself negated through action. But how does the human being survive the own destruction of the body? The human being is reborn from the ashes of its natural being because it is self-conscious, because it can watch itself die. The human being is a dialectical being, which means, for Kojève, that it preserves that which is originally given. Although negation is always a negation of a determined and specific identity, it simultaneously preserves this same identity. In its continuity and its progression, history always presumes the negation of the real and its preservation. As Kojève writes, ‘to describe Man as a dialectical entity is to describe him as a negating Action that negates the given within which is born, and as a Product created by that very negation, on the basis of the given which was negated’.12 Thus, the human being can preserve itself in the negation of its own natural being. The death of the body, is, in this sense, assumed by the human being such that it becomes the product of human action, of freedom. The fruits of activity, of dying, are preserved in and through the transmission of history.

Death, for Kojève, is the negation through which the human being ‘“goes beyond” or “transcends” the given-being which he himself is’.13 It is because it risks death that the human being is a dialectical being. For the animal, death is suffered as an end – it merely befalls the animal to the extent that Kojève claims ‘death does not actually exist for it’.14 The animal lives out its possibilities without negating them. As Bataille comments, ‘no doubt the individual fly dies, but today’s flies are the same as those of last year. Last year’s have died? … Perhaps, but nothing has disappeared. The flies remain, equal to themselves like the waves of the sea’.15 Kojève’s animal cannot watch itself die. It is not even finite, in the sense that it possesses a sense of its division from other animals. It belongs to what Bataille calls an ‘undifferentiated continuity’.16 Animal desire, Kojève grants, destroys what is given as nature – the animal ‘realises and reveals its superiority to plants by eating them’; and yet, by the same stroke, ‘by feeding on plants, the animal depends on them and hence does not manage fully to go beyond them’.17 Animal desire is filled by a ‘natural, biological content’.18 The animal falls back into the natural domain from which it appeared, briefly, to liberate itself. This is why the animal does not enter into becoming, time and history. No animal, even the strongest, can be more than a wave in the movement of the waters of this animality; all of them belong to the continuity as water does to water. The animal lives, but the human being acts, which is to say, dies. Death drives the human being out of the continuity of animal life. The human being, by contrast, does not enjoy a simple subsistence, but dies, and for this reason is always and already beyond the situation in which it finds itself. It runs up against the fact that it will die. Thus, Kojève writes, ‘man is mortal for himself ’; only the human being ‘can die in the proper sense of the word’.19 The human being can die, and death can become what he calls a ‘dialectical finiteness’ because the human being always dies prematurely, that is, because there are always more possibilities that it could negate.20 Whilst the offspring of the animal inherit nothing, repeating the same movement, the human being has the chance of giving birth to an inheritor, to the child who can take up the work of negation and prolong history.




5. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, edited by Allan Bloom, translated by James H. Nichols (Cornell University Press, 1980), 242.

6. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 200.

7. Ibid., 200.

8. Ibid., 261.

9. Bataille, Theory of Religion, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 15.

10. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 250.

11. Bataille, Theory of Religion, 15.

12. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 234.

13. Ibid., 256.

14. Ibid., 255.

15. Bataille, Theory of Religion, 15.

16. Ibid., 29.

17. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 39.

18. Ibid., 39.

19. Ibid., 255.

20. Ibid.



natural man was naturally happy (but no one thought to ask natural woman how she was feeling)

Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, first published in 1816, went through three editions before achieving its final form and remains one of the classics of Europe’s literature, and in certain ways presages the fiction of Gustave Flaubert. From Wikipedia:
It tells the story of an alienated young man, Adolphe, who falls in love with an older woman, Ellénore, the Polish mistress of the Comte de P***. Their illicit relationship serves to isolate them from their friends and from society at large. The book eschews all conventional descriptions of exteriors for the sake of detailed accounts of feelings and states of mind.
Adolphe is shot through with prose that shimmers over the intersections of psychological fiction and social philosophy; this passage, with its allusions to Rousseau’s ideas of the alienating nature of society and the innate purity of “natural man,” reminds one that today it is chiefly as a political philosopher that Constant is remembered, if at all:
Woe to the man who in the first moments of a love-affair does not believe that it will last forever! Woe to him who even in the arms of the mistress who has just yielded to him maintains an awareness of the trouble to come and foresees that he may later tear himself away! At the moment when she abandons herself to her passion every woman is in a sense touching and sublime. It is not sensual pleasure, not nature, nor our bodies which corrupt us; it is the scheming to which life in society accustoms us and the reflections to which experience gives rise. I loved and respected Ellenore a thousand times more after she had given herself to me. I walked proudly among men and looked upon them with the eye of a conqueror. The very air I breathed was a pure delight. I eagerly went out to meet nature and thank her for the immense and unhoped-for gift she had deigned to bestow on me.
— Benjamin Constant, Adolphe