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An essay by Maurice Maeterlinck

The Might Of The Dead

Title:     The Might Of The Dead
Author: Maurice Maeterlinck [More Titles by Maeterlinck]

In _A Beleaguered City_, a little book which, in its curious way, is a masterpiece, Mrs. Oliphant shows us the dead of a provincial town suddenly waxing indignant over the conduct and the morals of those inhabiting the town which they had founded. They rise up in rebellion, invest the houses, the streets, the market-places and, by the pressure of their innumerable multitude, all-powerful though invisible, repulse the living, thrust them out of doors and, setting a strict watch, permit them to return to their roof-trees only after a treaty of peace and penitence has purified their hearts, atoned for their offences and ensured a more worthy future.

There is undoubtedly a great truth beneath this fiction, which appears too far-fetched because we perceive only material and ephemeral realities. The dead live and move in our midst far more really and effectually than the most venturesome imagination could depict. It is very doubtful whether they remain in their graves. It even seems increasingly certain that they never allowed themselves to be confined there. Under the tombstones where we believe them to lie imprisoned there are only a few ashes, which are no longer theirs, which they have abandoned without regret and which, in all probability, they no longer deign to remember. All that was themselves continues to have its being in our midst. How and under what aspect? After all these thousands, perhaps millions, of years, we do not yet know; and no religion has been able to tell us with satisfying certainty, though all have striven to do so; but we may, by means of certain tokens, hope to learn.

Without further considering a mighty but obscure truth, which it is for the moment impossible to state precisely or to render palpable, let us concern ourselves with one which cannot be disputed. As I have said elsewhere, whatever our religious faith may be, there is in any case one place where our dead cannot perish, where they continue to exist as really as when they were in the flesh and often more actively; and this living abiding-place, this consecrated spot, which for those whom we have lost becomes heaven or hell according as we draw close to or depart from their thoughts and their desires, is in us.

And their thoughts and their desires are always higher than our own. It is, therefore, by uplifting ourselves that we approach them. It is we who must take the first steps, for they can no longer descend, whereas it is always possible for us to rise; for the dead, whatever they have been in life, become better than the best of us. The least worthy of them, in shedding the body, have shed its vices, its littlenesses, its weaknesses, which soon pass from our memory as well; and the spirit alone remains, which is pure in every man and able to desire only what is good. There are no wicked dead because there are no wicked souls. This is why, as we purify ourselves, we restore life to those who were no more and transform our memory, which they inhabit, into heaven.

And what was always true of all the dead is far more true to-day when only the best are chosen for the tomb. In the region which we believe to be under the earth, which we call the kingdom of the shades and which in reality is the ethereal region and the kingdom of light, there are at this moment perturbations no less profound than those which we are experiencing on the surface of our earth. The young dead are invading it from every side; and since the beginning of this world they have never been so numerous, so full of energy and zeal. Whereas in the customary sequence of the years the dwelling-place of those who leave us receives only weary and exhausted lives, there is not one in this incomparable host who, to borrow Pericles' expression, "has not departed from life at the height of glory." Not one of them but has gone up, not down, to his death clad in the greatest sacrifice that man can make for an idea which cannot die. All that we have hitherto believed, all that we have striven to attain beyond ourselves, all that has lifted us to the level at which we stand, all that has overcome the evil days and the evil instincts of human nature: all this could have been no more than lies and illusions if such men as these, such a mass of merit and of glory, were really annihilated, had really forever disappeared, were forever useless and voiceless, forever without influence in a world to which they have given life.

It is hardly possible that this could be so as regards the external survival of the dead; but it is absolutely certain that it is not so as regards their survival in ourselves. Here nothing is lost and no one perishes. Our memories are to-day peopled by a multitude of heroes struck down in the flower of their youth and very different from the pale and languid cohort of the past, composed almost wholly of the sick and the aged, who already had ceased to exist before leaving the earth. We must tell ourselves that now, in each of our homes, both in our cities and in the country-side, both in the palace and in the meanest hovel, there lives and reigns a young dead man in the glory of his strength. He fills the poorest, darkest dwelling with a splendour of which it had never ventured to dream. His constant presence, imperious and inevitable, diffuses through it and maintains a religion and ideas which it had never known there before, hallows everything around it, forces the eyes to look higher and the spirit to refrain from descending, purifies the air that is breathed and the speech that is held and the thoughts that are mustered there and, little by little, ennobles and uplifts a whole people on a scale of unexampled vastness.

Such dead as these have a power as profound, as fruitful as life and less precarious. It is terrible that this experience should have been made, for it is the most pitiless and the first in such enormous masses that mankind has ever undergone; but, now that the ordeal is almost over, we shall soon derive from it the most unexpected fruits. It will not be long before we see the differences increase and the destinies diverge between the nations which have acquired all these dead and all this glory and those which were deprived of them; and we shall perceive with amazement that those nations which have lost the most are those which have kept their riches and their men. There are losses which are inestimable gains; and there are gains whereby the future is lost. There are dead whom the living cannot replace and the mere thought of whom accomplishes things which their bodies could not perform. There are dead whose energy surpasses death and recovers life; and we are almost every one of us at this moment the mandataries of a being greater, nobler, graver, wiser and more truly living than ourselves. With all those who accompany him, he will be our judge, if it is the fact that the dead weigh the soul of the living and that on their verdict our happiness depends. He will be our guide and our protector, for it is the first time, since history has revealed its misfortunes to us, that man has felt so great a host of such mighty dead soaring above his head and speaking within his heart.

We shall live henceforward under their laws, which will be more just but not more severe nor more cheerless than ours; for it is a mistake to suppose that the dead love nothing but gloom; they love only the justice and the truth which are the eternal forms of happiness. From the depths of this justice and this truth in which they are all immersed, they will help us to destroy the great falsehoods of existence: for war and death, if they sow innumerable miseries and misfortunes, have at least the merit of destroying as many lies as they occasion evils. And all the sacrifices which they have made for us will have been in vain--and this is not possible--if they do not first of all bring about the fall of the lies on which we live and which it is not necessary to name, for each of us knows his own and is ashamed of them and will be eager to make an end of them. They will teach us, before all else, from the depths of our hearts which are their living tombs, to love those who outlive them, since it is in them alone that they wholly exist.

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Maurice Maeterlinck's essay: Might Of The Dead