Here to return to
AND now we stand before the abyss. It is void of all the dreams with which our fathers peopled it. They thought that they knew what was there; we know only what is not there. It is the vaster by all that we have learned to know nothing of. While waiting for a scientific certainty to break through its darkness — for man has the right to hope for that which he does not yet conceive — the only point that interests us, because it is situated in the little circle which our actual intelligence traces in the thickest blackness of the night, is to know whether the unknown for which we are bound will be dreadful or not.
Outside the religions, there are four imaginable solutions and no more: total annihilation; survival with our consciousness of to-day; survival without any sort of consciousness; lastly, survival in the universal consciousness, or with a consciousness different from that which we possess in this world.
Total annihilation is impossible. We are the prisoners of an infinity without outlet, wherein nothing perishes, wherein everything is dispersed but nothing lost. Neither a body nor a thought can drop out of the universe, out of time and space. Not an atom of our flesh, not a quiver of our nerves will go where they will. cease to be, for there is no place where anything ceases to be. The brightness of a star extinguished millions of years ago still wanders in the ether where our eyes will perhaps behold it this very night, pursuing its endless road. It is the same with all that we see, as with all that we do not see. To be able to do away with a thing, that is to say, to fling it into nothingness, nothingness would have to exist; and, if it exists, under whatever form, it is no longer nothingness. As soon as we try to analyse it, to define it, or to understand it, thought and expressions fail us, or create that which they are struggling to deny. It is as contrary to the nature of our reason and probably of all imaginable reason to conceive nothingness as to conceive limits to infinity. Nothingness, besides, is but a negative infinity, a sort of infinity of darkness opposed to that which our intelligence strives to illumine, or rather it is but a child-name or nickname which our mind has bestowed upon that which it has not attempted to embrace, for we call nothingness all that escapes our senses or our reason and exists without our knowledge.
But, it will perhaps be said, though the annihilation of every world and every thing be impossible, it is not so certain that their death is impossible; and, to us, what is the difference between nothingness and everlasting death? Here again we are led astray by our imagination and by words. We can no more conceive death than we can conceive nothingness. We use the word death to cover those fragments of nothingness which we believe that we understand; but, on closer examination, we are bound to recognise that our idea of death is much too puerile to contain the least truth. It reaches no higher than our own bodies and cannot measure the destinies of the universe. We give the name of death to anything that has a life a little different from ours. Even so do we act towards a world that appears to us motionless and frozen, the moon, for instance, because we are persuaded that any form of existence, animal or vegetable, is extinguished upon it for ever. But it is now some years since we learned that the most inert matter, to outward seeming, is animated by movements so powerful and furious that all animal or vegetable life is no more than sleep and immobility by the side of the swirling eddies and immeasurable energy locked up in a wayside stone.
“There is no room for death!” cried Emily Brontë.
But, even if, in the infinite series of the centuries, all matter should really become inert and motionless, it would none the less persist under one form or another; and persistence, though it were in total immobility, would, after all, be but a form of life stable and silent at last. All that dies falls into life; and all that is born is of the same age as that which dies. If death carried us to nothingness, did birth then draw us out of that same nothingness? Why should the second be more impossible than the first? The higher human thought rises and the wider it expands, the less comprehensible do nothingness and death become. In any case — and this is what matters here — if nothingness were possible, since it could not be anything whatever, it could not be dreadful.