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An essay by Maurice Maeterlinck

The Will Of Earth

Title:     The Will Of Earth
Author: Maurice Maeterlinck [More Titles by Maeterlinck]

To-day's conflict is but a revival of that which has not ceased to drench the west of Europe in blood since the historical birth of the continent. The two chief episodes in the conflict, as we all know, are the invasion of Roman Gaul, including the north of Italy, by the Franks and the successive conquests of England by the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. Without delaying to consider questions of race, which are complex, uncertain and always open to discussion, we may, regarding the matter from another aspect, perceive in the persistency and the bitterness of this conflict the clash of two wills, of which one or the other succumbs for a moment, only to rise up again with increased energy and obstinacy. On the one hand is the will of earth or nature, which, in the human species as in all others, openly favours brute or physical force; and on the other hand is the will of humanity, or at least of a portion of humanity, which seeks to establish the empire of other more subtle and less animal forces. It is incontestable that hitherto the former has always won the day. But it is equally incontestable that its victory has always been only apparent and of brief duration. It has regularly suffered defeat in its very triumph. Gaul, invaded and overrun, presently absorbs her victor, even as England little by little transforms her conquerors. On the morrow of victory, the instruments of the will of earth turn upon her and arm the hand of the vanquished. It is probable that the same phenomenon would recur once more to-day, were events to follow the course prescribed by destiny. Germany, after crushing and enslaving the greater part of Europe, after driving her back and burdening her with innumerable woes, would end by turning against the will which she represents; and that will, which until to-day had always found in this race a docile tool and its favourite accomplices, would be forced to seek these elsewhere, a task less easy than of old.

But now, to the amazement of all those who will one day consider them in cold blood, events are suddenly ascending the irresistible current and, for the first time since we have been in a position to observe it, the adverse will is encountering an unexpected and insurmountable resistance. If this resistance, as we can now no longer doubt, maintains itself victoriously to the end, there will never perhaps have been such a sudden change in the history of mankind; for man will have gained, over the will of earth or nature or fatality, a triumph infinitely more significant, more heavily fraught with consequences and perhaps more decisive than all those which, in other provinces, appear to have crowned his efforts more brilliantly.

Let us not then be surprised that this resistance should be stupendous, or that it should be prolonged beyond anything that our experience of wars has taught us to expect. It was our prompt and easy defeat that was written in the annals of destiny. We had against us all the force accumulated since the birth of Europe. We have to set history revolving in the reverse direction. We are on the point of succeeding; and, if it be true that intelligent beings watch us from the vantage-point of other worlds, they will assuredly witness the most curious spectacle that our planet has offered them since they discovered it amid the dust of stars that glitters in space around it. They must be telling themselves in amazement that the ancient and fundamental laws of earth are suddenly being transgressed.

Suddenly? That is going too far. This transgression of a lower law, which was no longer of the stature of mankind, had been preparing for a very long time; but it was within an ace of being hideously punished. It succeeded only by the aid of a part of those who formerly swelled the great wave which they are to-day resisting by our side, as though something in the history of the world or the plans of destiny had altered, or rather as though we ourselves had at last succeeded in altering that something and in modifying laws to which until this day we were wholly subject.

But it must not be thought that the conflict will end with the victory. The deep-seated forces of earth will not be at once disarmed; for a long time to come the invisible war will be waged under the reign of peace. If we are not careful, victory may even be more disastrous to us than defeat. For defeat, indeed, like previous defeats, would have been merely a victory postponed. It would have absorbed, exhausted, dispersed the enemy, by scattering him about the world, whereas our victory will bring upon us a twofold peril. It will leave the enemy in a state of savage isolation in which, thrown back upon himself, cramped, purified by misfortune and poverty, he will secretly reinforce his formidable virtues, while we, for our part, no longer held in check by his unbearable but salutary menace, will give rein to failings and vices which sooner or later will place us at his mercy. Before thinking of peace, then, we must make sure of the future and render it powerless to injure us. We cannot take too many precautions, for we are setting ourselves against the manifest desire of the power that bears us.

This is why our efforts are difficult and worthy of praise. We are setting ourselves--we cannot too often repeat it--against the will of earth. Our enemies are urged forward by a force that drives us back. They are marching with nature, whereas we are striving against the great current that sweeps the globe. The earth has an idea, which is no longer ours. She remains convinced that man is an animal in all things like other animals. She has not yet observed that he is withdrawing himself from the herd. She does not yet know that he has climbed her highest mountain-peaks. She has not yet heard tell of justice, pity, loyalty and honour; she does not realize what they are, or confounds them with weakness, clumsiness, fear and stupidity. She has stopped short at the original certitudes which were indispensable to the beginnings of life. She is lagging behind us; and the interval that divides us is rapidly increasing. She thinks less quickly; she has not yet had time to understand us. Moreover, she does not reckon as we do; and for her the centuries are less than our years. She is slow because she is almost eternal, while we are prompt because we have not many hours before us. It may be that one day her thought will overtake ours; in the meantime, we have to vindicate our advance and to prove to ourselves, as we are beginning to do, that it is lawful to be in the right as against her, that our advance is not fatal and that it is possible to maintain it.

For it is becoming difficult to argue that earth or nature is always right and that those who do not blindly follow earth's impulse are necessarily doomed to perish. We have learnt to observe her more attentively and we have won the right to judge her. We have discovered that, far from being infallible, she is continually making mistakes. She gropes and hesitates. She does not know precisely what she wants. She begins by making stupendous blunders. She first peoples the world with uncouth and incoherent monsters, not one of which is capable of living; these all disappear. Gradually she acquires, at the cost of the life which she creates, an experience that is the cruel fruit of the immeasurable suffering which she unfeelingly inflicts. At last she grows wiser, curbs and amends herself, corrects herself, returns upon her footsteps, repairs her errors, expending her best energies and her highest intelligence upon the correction. It is incontestable that she is improving her methods, that she is more skillful, more prudent, less extravagant than at the outset. And yet the fact remains that, in every department of life, in every organism, down to our own bodies, there is a survival of bad workmanship, of twofold functions, of oversights, changes of intention, absurdities, useless complications and meaningless waste. We therefore have no reason to believe that our enemies are in the right because earth is with them. Earth does not possess the truth any more than we do. She seeks it, even as we do, and discovers it no more readily. She seems to know no more than we whither she is going nor whither she is being led by that which leads all things. We must not listen to her without enquiry; and we need not distress ourselves or despair because we are not of her opinion. We are not dealing with an infallible and unchangeable wisdom, to oppose which in our thoughts would be madness. We are actually proving to her that it is she who is in the wrong; that man's reason for existence is loftier than that which she provisionally assigned to him; that he is already outstripping all that she foresaw; and that she does wrong to delay his advance. She is, for that matter, full of goodwill, is able on occasion to recognize her mistakes and to obviate their disastrous results and by no means takes refuge in majestic and inflexible self-conceit. If we are able to persevere, we shall be able to convince her. This will take much time, for, I repeat, she is slow, though in no wise obstinate. It will take much time because a very long future is in question, a very great change and the most important victory that man has ever hoped to win.

[The end]
Maurice Maeterlinck's essay: Will Of Earth