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   Chapter 15 No.15

Essays in the Art of Writing By Robert Louis Stevenson Characters: 13945

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03

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

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

Of all earth's meteors, here at least is the most strange and consoling: that this ennobled lemur, this hair-crowned bubble of the dust, this inheritor of a few years and sorrows, should yet deny himself his rare delights, and add to his frequent pains, and live for an ideal, however misconceived. Nor can we stop with man. A new doctrine,[10] received with screams a little while ago by canting moralists, and still not properly worked into the body of our thoughts, lights us a step farther into the heart of this rough but noble universe. For nowadays the pride of man denies in vain his kinship with the original dust. He stands no longer like a thing apart. Close at his heels we see the dog, prince of another genius: and in him too, we see dumbly testified the same cultus[11] of an unattainable ideal, the same constancy in failure. Does it stop with the dog? We look at our feet where the ground is blackened with the swarming ant: a creature so small, so far from us in the hierarchy of brutes, that we can scarce trace and scarce comprehend his doings; and here also, in his ordered polities and rigorous justice, we see confessed the law of duty and the fact of individual sin. Does it stop, then, with the ant? Rather this desire of well-doing and this doom of frailty run through all the grades of life: rather is this earth, from the frosty top of Everest[12] to the next margin of the internal fire, one stage of ineffectual virtues and one temple of pio

us tears and perseverance. The whole creation groaneth[13] and travaileth together. It is the common and the god-like law of life. The browsers, the biters, the barkers, the hairy coats of field and forest, the squirrel in the oak, the thousand-footed creeper in the dust, as they share with us the gift of life, share with us the love of an ideal: strive like us-like us are tempted to grow weary of the struggle-to do well; like us receive at times unmerited refreshment, visitings of support, returns of courage; and are condemned like us to be crucified between that double law[14] of the members and the will. Are they like us, I wonder in the timid hope of some reward, some sugar with the drug? do they, too, stand aghast at unrewarded virtues, at the sufferings of those whom, in our partiality, we take to be just, and the prosperity of such as, in our blindness, we call wicked? It may be, and yet God knows what they should look for. Even while they look, even while they repent, the foot of man treads them by thousands in the dust, the yelping hounds burst upon their trail, the bullet speeds, the knives are heating in the den of the vivisectionist;[15] or the dew falls, and the generation of a day is blotted out. For these are creatures, compared with whom our weakness is strength, our ignorance wisdom, our brief span eternity.

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


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

[Note 1: Find them change with every climate, etc. For some striking illustrations of this, see Sudermann's drama, Die Ehre (Honour).]

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

[Note 3: That way madness lies. King Lear, III, 4, 21.]

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

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

[Note 6: The thought of duty. Kant said, "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within." (Conclusion to the Practical Reason-Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788.)]

[Note 7: Assiniboia … Calumet. Assinibioia is a district of

Canada, just west of Manitoba. Calumet is the pipe of peace, used by

North American Indians when solemnizing treaties etc. Its stem is over

two feet long, heavily decorated with feathers etc.]

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

[Note 9: The touch of pity. "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity." Richard III, Act I, Sc. 2, vs. 71. This ennobled lemur. A lemur is a nocturnal animal, something like a monkey.]

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

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

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

[Note 13: The whole creation groaneth. Romans, VIII, 22.]

[Note 14: That double law of the members. See Note 10 of Chapter VI above.]

[Note 15: Den of the vivisectionist. See Note 2 of Chapter VI above.]

[Note 16: In our isle of terror. Cf. Herriet, The White Island.

"In this world, the isle of dreams,

While we sit by sorrow's streams,

Tears and terrors are our themes."]

[Note 17: Man that wearies in well-doing. Galatians, VI, 9.]

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

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