The New Death
By Winifred Kirkland
[The Atlantic Monthly, May 1918]
We are accustomed in these days to hear many ancient things called new. New Thought, New Poetry, New Religion, are terms which, when stripped of their faddist connotation, can honestly claim a novelty of approach in regard to these three oldest of spiritual activities. By an analogous use of the word new, one may direct attention to the change in standards that is being wrought in everyday living by the present concentration upon death. No one can forget them, no one can get away from them—those boys dead upon the battlefields of Europe. There is not one of us who has not thought more about death within the last three years than in a whole lifetime before, and by their very intensity our thoughts are new. This preoccupation is a force too fresh to be easily formulated, while already it is so pervasive and so profound in its effect upon the motives and the standards which must both sustain a world in agony and rebuild it for the future, that the psychologist may well term this naked intimacy with facts formerly avoided, the New Death.
It is probably more by its poignancy than by its numbers that death has shocked us into a novel realization of its importance. If the European harvest had reaped old men, however many, rather than young, the challenge for explanation would not have been so stinging. The only way in which death could exact from us its due consideration was to break our hearts with pity and baffle our brains with wastage. It may be that the enigma of the youth of the world destroyed is insoluble, but the New Death, this unprecedented readiness at last to look into the unseen, is the effort of popular thought to translate pity into motive, and bewildering waste into a reconstructed relationship to spiritual values.
Not alone by the youth of its victims has the war horrified us into a new adjustment to death, but even more by their type: the shining best are those most surely sacrificed. What is the meaning of the frenzy with which the universe blasts its benefactors before they have lived to bless it? And what is the significance of the strange, the well-nigh occult, reassurance without which we could not carry on the ideals they have left us in the face of such utter prodigality of destruction? What is this grave which the world was coming in its heart and in its daily practices more and more to treat as final? When every one is asking the same question, may it not be that the answers, still hesitant, still experimental, may bring into being a new adaptation of living to dying—a New Death?
The attention of the popular mind to death is not only at variance with the attitude of the accepted leaders of thought, still honestly agnostic, but is contradictory to its own attitude of only a few years ago, when death was still the isolated, not the average, experience of the average person. In the old days the bereaved was a little apart, a little abnormal. We were always glad when our friends set aside their mourning and became again like the rest of us. For an everyday man or woman, death was a subject a little indecorous; they had a little of the old Hebrew abhorrence of it which made the Jews regard its presence as a defilement of their Passover; yet it was a young man's dying which, in the history of religion, re-created that Passover by the promise of a resurrection.
The new, enforced familiarity with fate varies, according to the individual, all the way from uneasiness at the intrusion of the spiritual upon his smugness, to an absorption so engrossing that some of us feel that we cannot go on living one day longer until we have decided what is the relation of dying to every hour of existence. In terms of immediate living, the New Death is the constant influence upon us of the boys who have passed. All the ramifications of experience and of endeavor growing out of our attitude toward our young dead must become a new psychological factor in the world's thought and action. The whole subject is still as formless as it is forceful, but it is already possible to analyze some of its obvious characteristics and to conjecture some possible results to public life and to private thinking. Like many other felt, but not yet formulated, influences of the war, the potentialities of the New Death are still to be discovered, as, led by grief, the souls of survivors seek to penetrate the path whither so imperiously the splendid young dead compel our thoughts.
The New Death, now entering history as an influence, is so far mainly an immense yearning receptivity, an unprecedented humility of both brain and heart toward all the implications of survival. It is a great intuition entering into the lives of the simple, the sort of people who have made the past and will make the future. It does not matter in the least whether or not the intellectuals share this intuition, and it does not matter whether or not the intuition is true, or whether future generations, returned to the lassitude of peace, shall again deny the present perceptions; what does matter is the effect upon emergent public life and private of the fact that everyday men and women are believing that the dead live.
These everyday men and women are not looking to their former teachers, the scientist and the theologian, for light upon death. In the urgency of grief we turn instinctively to more authoritative solace than either of these promises. Before 1914 we had seen the disestablishment of the Church as an unquestioned arbiter; since 1914 we have seen the disestablishment of science as an unquestioned arbiter.
Throughout this testing by tragedy, however, we still pay science this much of respect: we continue to practice its methods; while we no longer give blind acquiescence to its conclusions. In the immense desolations of grief to-day, each person must find his own answer to the supreme enigma. For this intellectual initiative the common man is far better prepared than he knew. Widespread education, widespread communication, have equipped the popular mind for mental achievement which materialism had diverted to grosser directions than it deserved. Transcendent sorrow has now cleared a path for true progress. Science, permeating the commonest education, has given to each one of us a manner of practical approach to any subject that will always safeguard and secure all our advances into wisdom; but no longer can science convince us that we have not a soul when we feel it suffer so. It is impossible for ordinary people any longer to deny that spiritual facts require the exercise of spiritual faculties for their interpretation.
We therefore approach a new wisdom of death by enlisting every capacity we possess, intuitive as well as merely rational, and we seek light along every avenue of approach—philosophy, poetry, science, theology old or new, even spiritism with all its perils. We test each step into the unknown pragmatically, scientifically, for we must have ease from grief if we are not to be paralyzed, and we must have power to remake our own lives and the life of the world in saner accord with eternal purposes, if in any way these can be ascertained. Always the motiving of this universal search is the same—just so much knowledge of dying as will enable us to go on living through this horror. Instant consolation, instant reconstruction, we must attain, if the whole world is not in a moment to be tossed back into chaos. For countless centuries the world has been able to live by evasion: our energy for living has been based upon our ability to forget dying. To-day we wake to such havoc as can never in all the future be offset unless we discover how to make destruction itself the stimulus of an indestructible vigor.
This great popular pressing into the mystery is far too vital for any present crystallization into creed. Unlike the ancient and the mediaeval views, the New Death does not prefigure the circumstances of survival, while it more and more accepts it. The New Death is experimental, humble; it investigates, it does not dogmatize. It practices rather than theorizes. It is also independent, personal; it is the sum total of an attitude lived rather than argued by millions of individuals, who in the intensity of their own experience hardly perceive how widespread is that experience. For the first time in history, immortality has become a practical issue for the common man to meet, or history will cease.
It is because of the intensity of their new need that people are turning less to their old masters, the theologians and the scientists, but with an awed docility are seeking illumination from those who are to-day the supreme critics of death—our young men who are dying. These speak, these act, as men having authority, and the force of their influence on the world they have left cannot be calculated, so powerful are the reasons for this influence.
There is something strangely persistent about any unfulfilled life: it always leaves a curious sense of abnormality and waste, and a deep blind impulse somehow to give the aspirant young soul the earthly gifts it lacked. There is not a family which has ever lost a child which does not always have, as an undercurrent of its thoughts, conjectures of that child's development, and a conscious or unconscious adjustment to that child's' desires. There is always this psychological continuing of an arrested life, and it is inevitably the more powerful, the more personality the dead youth had attained. The supreme example of this fact is seen in the Christian religion, for it was the force of a young man's death which established that religion; it was founded on the psychology of the universal instinct to fulfill an interrupted ministry as being the only outlet left to affection.
More young men, and these more articulate, more capable of inspired utterance, are seeing death to-day than ever before in all time. For one Byron of the past, how many poets and artists and musicians are at this time defending the things of the spirit! The interpretation of fate by such men may be more valuable than that of the aged, for they see dissolution in sharper contrast to vigor; the colors of death are to them more accurate perhaps than to older men whose faculties are duller, and to whom life, being experienced, is not so alluring in promise. The chief value of the testimony of these young heroes, however, is not so much in the words they speak of death, but in the fact that they chose it. If self-preservation exists for the survival of something, may not self-immolation exist for the survival of something? If so, what? We can only grope for an answer, but, groping, we still follow our boys who have passed, feeling that they alone have the right to lead us.
One approaches in reverence the revelations of trench autobiography, which, whether expressed in loftiest poetry or in homeliest slang, comprise the symposium of the sacrificed. The bulk of war autobiography increases daily, making quotation overwhelming, but the uniformity of its revelations is a truth no reader can escape. While his actions are supported by an immense comradeship, the thoughts of the soldier move in a great loneliness; therefore one must give full credit to the singular harmony of utterance, to the strange identity of faith that so many diverse voices speak. Neither must one ever forget the surroundings in which these records were written; if these writers can succeed in believing the spirit superior to the body, surely, of all men who ever loved, their creed is the most triumphant. We ourselves have shrunk at the mere footfall of the undertaker, at the waxen stateliness of a face once ruddy, at the thud of earth upon a seemly coffin; these circumstances have been enough to make our sensitiveness accept the finality of dissolution. None of us have seen a human body in actual decay, but merely because we know it does decay, we have been overwhelmed and have denied the soul's immortality. The boys upon the battlefields have seen the forms of their comrades rot before their eyes for months. What cowardice our old facile doubt seems, compared with the faith of those at the front! And cowardice even more craven seems our love of life, our reluctance to leave earth's treasures, when we perceive the passion of yearning that these men feel for the life they renounce. Was ever the poignancy of parenthood more touchingly expressed than in Harold Chapin's letters to his baby son? And did ever homesickness become so divine a thing as on the battle-lines of Europe? Tortured with the sights and cries and odors of carnage, and yearning in every fibre for the earth they relinquished, the boys of the world have marched unfaltering to their destruction, rebuking in their every gesture our easy despair, and leaving behind them words of confidence coercing us to conviction.
In addition to the force of their idealism and of their written words, the carriage of these young heroes immediately before death must have a peculiar illumination. That multitudes of soldiers have met their end, not only with serenity, but with a high-hearted gayety, is a fact of overwhelming evidence. This hilarity of heroism is the highest proof a man can give of his certainty that soul is more enduring than body; and exhibited so often at the very instant of passing, may be, to the open-minded, argument for some strange reassurance from that other side. Surely conviction of immortality from those who have seen the hideousness of carnage in a degree in which no other men in all history have seen it, is a conviction deserving our respectful study.
What the boys who are gone have said and have practiced in regard to dying, what we who are left can add to their vivid vision from the wisdom of our experience of loss—in this combined testimony of the dead and of the bereaved lies the material for one who tries to formulate from contemporary evidence the elements characterizing the New Death, elements all readily seen to be only different aspects of the effort to discover a set of standards by which to weigh what is destructive against what is deathless.
The first characteristic to impress one is the directness of approach to realities formerly shunned, or obscured by ceremonies, or too elaborately interpreted by theology, or too elaborately denied by science. Lashed by grief to realization, the plain man recalls with wonder his old indifference. The former evasiveness is impossible. Each man is testing for himself the old symbolism, the old creed, the old agnosticism, for its vitality. For the new world to be built, only so much of the old world's ritual and philosophy of death can hold as can bear the purging of such grief as the old world never knew.
Both the bereaved at home and the men at the front exhibit the same impulse to sift all ceremonies. One cannot fail to note in trench memoirs the soldier's utter indifference to the conventions associated with demise. There is everywhere to-day a tendency to examine all our ritual of dissolution, retaining only that which is essentially beautiful and essentially true to our emerging convictions. Symbolism has a more direct relation to our conduct than we are always ready to grant. The old conventions of burial and of grief over-emphasized the importance of the physical and over-emphasized the importance of individual loss, and so were in themselves an obscuration of the new light we are seeking upon the marble face of death. The growing practice of wearing white rather than black for mourning, or of continuing the habitual colors of one's dress; the movement for placing upon the service flag a gold star in memory of a soldier killed, are attempts toward a fresher and truer symbolism expressing our growing protest against the depression and paralysis too often resultant upon the passage of a loved one from the known world to the unknown.
The present force of individual initiative in examining all the former creeds and customs of dissolution is closely connected with another characteristic of the New Death. The practical trend of the new inquiry into the unseen causes us, to seek light from each other in a way we never did before. The new attitude toward death is unlike the old in being the result of universal bereavement and of such a sharing of sympathy as the human soul has never before in all history experienced. In former days people offered condolence genuinely but awkwardly. Sorrow was a loneliness which only the comparatively few who had tasted it understood. We were always a little embarrassed by people who talked easily, even cheerily, of the dead, as if perhaps these had not gone far from us. The old death, like many other things remade by the war, was too often self-absorbed, self-pitying. The old death was a barrier rather than a bond; the New Death is a universal welding of mutual compassion.
More conspicuous than shared sympathy, as an element of the New Death, is the shared resilience of these millions of mourners. The first response to the enigma of that majestic mystery now dominating uncounted homes is not in theories, but in actions, in a great unargued energy. How different from the paralysis of bereavement too readily condoned in the old days! Our boys have died, therefore we must live, is an arresting and illogical conclusion, but surely it is the one which for four years has actuated both the armies and the households of Europe, and is now becoming more and more our own chief inspiration.
The magnificent recuperative promise of that clarion cry, "After the War," does it not draw its first impulse from the ideals of our young dead, ideals we dare not for an instant discontinue? Their example lies upon the survivors like a command that no desolation of grief dares deny. Is not this splendid, dogged hopefulness, on the surface as mad and monstrous as the suffering that has engendered it, a strange, unearthly tribute to the powers of the soul, and a mysterious reassurance for the new world which shall rise from to-day's destruction? We are discovering a strange self-security in those strongholds of the heart which utter loss has rendered unassailable; we are experiencing a strange liberation from the age-old fear of fate.
The word death has for each of us a two-fold meaning; it implies our own passing and the loss of our loved ones. Most of us have a wholesome carelessness of our own fate, but an over-solicitude in regard to those dear to us. The new adaptation of living to dying, if it is to bear the test of the new world's needs, must afford us both a better adjustment of our own mundane existence to its post-mundane possibilities, so that we shall each regard his life with more respect as being perhaps not too surely finite,, and also a new enfranchisement from paralyzing anxiety in regard to those we love. During a long century of materialism, we have always been handicapped by the fear of loss, until in a moment of time, by a supreme irony, all fear has been swept away by utter desolation. Evolution teaches that survival depends on the power of adaptation to environment; is not the effort of each nation to reconstruct this destruction constant evidence of the vast impulse of the human race to discover an adjustment of life to death that shall make for endurance rather than decay?
The immediate expression of this vast impulse to rebuild is for individual men and women the revaluation of humble daily life. More and more each of us feels too small to grasp the world-issues of to-day, yet at the same time finds inactivity unbearable. We turn to the nearest task in desperate desire to make it somehow count for relief and restoration to a war-ridden world. The humdrum suddenly stands forth in beauty, dignified by new motives. Always our attitude is inextricably influenced by the words and the conduct of the boys whose battle-hours are continually before our imaginations. They have been driven to discover what remains to them of joy in spite of the tumult, just as we at home, agonized by each morning's newspaper, suddenly perceive the worth of many experiences too familiar to be prized until contrasted with horror. If in the fire and the mud 'out there,' men can discover things to give them joy and faith, surely we at home can emulate a little of their serenity. As we read the records of their hearts, as we meet corresponding experience in our own, we know that no holocaust can unself the soul, and that the deathless privileges of friendship and of kinship and of the beauty of nature can be interrupted, but never destroyed.
To what a worn commonplace family affection had faded before the war came to menace and thus reveal! Throughout all this land has not every household that possessed a boy treated him with a new sympathy, a real, if often awkward, tenderness? With the threat of loss always over our heads, we are learning how much we love. How beneficent a privilege the mere fact of an unbroken family circle appears, now that yonder by the hearth a shrouded form of mystery sits listening to our careless chat!
As the smallest home humdrum becomes sacred because of the brave homesickness of our boys, so the views from our windows—a wind-blown tree, the sifting of snow, the twitter of a sparrow—suddenly speak to us in a language to which we had never before listened with such understanding; for we know that the men of the trenches have found undreamed-of heartening in the mere line of hills, in the mere recurrence of sunrise and of noon. How gratefully, how gayly, they write of larks and of violets, the soldier-poets, tortured with carnage! No one could read the descriptions by the anonymous young French artist who wrote Lettres d'un Soldat, with their vistas of French landscape sketched in words that could have come only to a painter's pen, and not ever afterwards regard the mere daybreak, so divinely usual, with new reverence. Sunshine and starshine, the grace of a tree etched black against a winter sky—we see these now with new eyes of thankfulness, while they used to be too commonplace for our comforting.
Another lesson from the trenches the constant presence of death in our thought is teaching us to incorporate into our daily living—their glorified epicureanism. Men who know that their every second on earth is numbered, see every instant's experience in fresh focus. Alan Seeger's practice—'to live as if one were saying good-bye to life'—implies such an appreciation of the normal as was never before so accurate, so exquisite, so deeply joyous. In the vast deprivation of to-day we take inventory of our resources, and stand amazed at riches. Is not the present enhancing of daily existence, so that it dares to be frankly sacred, an argument for the true worth of death as a constant, accepted presence to dignify every hour?
This new spiritual valuation of daily existence is still vague, but struggling toward clearness, toward continuity, toward community effort. We long to dignify our daily work by devotion to some cause; we long to know ourselves in line with them, our dead. Always in healthy revulsion at the wastage of their lives, we keep searching, searching for those ultimate standards that shall harmonize their apparent loss with their actual usefulness. We, the obscure, sorrowing fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers of young soldiers killed, we, the mourners all over the world, want to feel that our lives are moving in tune with theirs. And this need for better ordering of our everyday life intensifies our scrutiny of their dying. What is the force so mysterious, so coercive, which commanded them to die? What is the force so mysterious, so coercive, which commands us to live as they would have us live? The New Death is asking with an intensity and a universality never known before. Where are our dead? Is there a God? The need of direction for our energy, and of a standard of valuation, profoundly affects the two most important characteristics of the New Death, its essentially practical acceptance of immortality, its essentially practical approach to God.
Both the bereaved and the young men dead view survival under several different aspects. Created out of a yearning for the physical privileges that are so abruptly denied, there is apparent in the writings of both a wistful half-belief in an actual return to earthly scenes. Have we noticed, in self-examination, that the world-wide devastation of to-day has already destroyed our old instinctive shudder at the supernatural? What living man can do to living man has proved so much more horrible than what ghost or devil might do, that gruesomeness has been transferred from the supernatural to the physical. Both in literature and in life the supernatural as such fails to frighten us. How could we be sorry to have them return to us—the vivid, beautiful boys we loved? Would not any occult assurance of their possible presence be welcome? We have, of course, no sure confidence that they thus return, but at least we have no physical shrinking from the possibility. The New Death conceives an interrelated universe in which spirits still in the flesh; and spirits freed from it may both be associated in some mystic effort toward the future. Certainly the idea of this comradeship is to-day familiar to every soldier, as powerful as it is inarticulate.
Persistence through cooperation, constantly renewed, is a forceful element in the conceptions of survival characteristic of the present-day examination of death. How many fighting men there are to-day whose biography might be compressed into the two words, 'Carry on!' The dedication implicit in the phrase effects a sequence, a survival, in ideal and in effort, that annuls any individual death. The conduct that should be the first instinct of every survivor is compressed into that courage cry, 'Carry on.' It is the soldier's answer in action to the enigma of death, and it is the innermost expression of his love for those who are gone. That no one who has died for a great cause is ever wasted; that the only right expression of grief is a fresh self-dedication to the cause that the loved one loved, is an attitude toward loss that may well pass from the army of warriors to that, greater army of civilians. The New Death is characterized by this new grief, reverently joyous in its consecrated energy, and indicative of that needed adaptation of living to dying which shall liberate us from the old paralysis of bereavement.
The soldier's relation to the dead who have inspired him is in itself a revelation to him of his own influence upon those who shall follow him. He is no mere individual, evanescent, isolated, but is welded into an eternal whole by his responsibility toward the heroic who have preceded him and toward the heroic who shall succeed him. The continuity of an ideal annuls the ephemeral, and establishes upon earth the eternal. Volume after volume of war autobiography reveals the fighter's faith in the future, upholding him through every extremity. It is in their service to the future that young men of proved genius find comfort for their arrested course. With eyes made tragically clear, they perceive that a premature fate may have greater influence than an accomplished career. A profound intuition reveals to them that it is more divine to be a man than to be an artist, and that their deepest peril is to fail the challenge to battle; if they presume to believe themselves more valuable to the world alive than lost, they may choke at its source the well springs of their inspiration. If they choose sacrifice, they have hope that other men may achieve the fulfillment they set aside; while, if they choose life, they may live barren of all achievement.
The French painter gazes from his dug-out into the distant future as he studies the far reverberations of all heroic example:—
'Who shall say that the survivor, the comrade, of some fallen thinker, shall not be the inheritor of his thought? No experience can disprove this sublime intuition. The peasant's son who sees the death of some young scholar, some young artist, may he not perhaps continue the interrupted work? It may become for him the link in an evolution only for an instant suspended. Yet the crucial sacrifice for each is this: to renounce the hope of being the torch-bearer. 'It is a fine thing for the child, in his play, to carry the standard; but for the man, let it be enough to know that the standard will be carried, whatever befall.'
Apart from earthly immortality through heroic endeavor, what does the soldier see for himself, each single lad in the ranks, in that misty land that he knows he is entering? Searching for the answer, one is overwhelmed by the impression given by all trench records: whatever else the soldier may expect of that other side, of one thing he seems absolutely assured, measureless well-being: he is going to a place that is good, and he is going with every faculty alert for new adventure.
Almost nothing in the mass of memoirs reveals any definite shaping of that existence about to begin. Assurance takes almost no color from previous education, Catholic, Protestant, agnostic. All we can perceive is the absolute confidence of a new glad life just opening. This perception of joyous experience is implicit in that beautiful phrase of soldier slang, "Going west.' Going west has always spelled, adventure; it has connoted, too, the inspiration of self-dependence, the fair free chance; it has implied lonely effort, lonely exploration, crowned by an unguessed felicity. Yet to-day the actual Occident is shorn of its stimulus. The earth has been over-discovered; a man may sail clear around it, and arrive at no legendary West. Wherever he goes, other men have been before him. But there is left for us all one land forever undiscovered, one unploughed sea-path for Columbus courage. The British Tommy endows death with all the romance of three thousand years when he calls it 'going west.'
The sense of triumph and delight is as clear a note in the words of the bereaved as in the expectations of those who have gone beyond. That the young and splendid cannot die, that their arrested powers must persist somewhere, is the growing conviction of all who mourn to-day. That vision which through all the ages individuals have glimpsed and have incorporated into inspired living is by universality of loss becoming the vision, no longer of the few, but of the many. The vision of the many is the material out of which the motives of progress are made. They were so beautiful that it is impossible to believe them extinct, those dead boys we long for. Perhaps they would gladly have died for this alone, to free the new world from the old world's dread of death.
Conviction of immortality as shown in the soldier-records is in the main profoundly intuitive, but so powerful and so common that one cannot believe that so many men, and these alert in every fibre, could be altogether deluded. It seems more scientific to query whether perhaps they possess truer illumination than mere intellect, unsupplemented by the subtler capacities of soul evoked by their tragic situation could ever attain.
In so far as their marvelous inner security has for themselves any basis in reason, it rests partly on the immortal renewal which they observe in nature. Sunrise and recurrent star and the pushing up of the indomitable flowers are arguments for human persistence, since man, too, is a part of the great earth force. Apart from the reasoned argument of nature's exhaustless vitality, many a soldier reveals a consciousness of an indestructible immortal something within him. He would still feel this inner confidence even if all communication with external nature were denied him, if he could hear no bird-songs, see no stars. Page after page of Lettres d'un Soldat testify to the sense of eternity which is the core of his courage and his calm. Alan Seeger delights to feel himself in the play of world-forces that are eternal in energy. Rupert Brooke is comforted to be 'a pulse in the eternal mind.' One might envy these three seer-soldiers—French, American, English—what one might call their cosmic security, the content of the atom that perceives itself part of an indestructible whole.
There is, however, in the four-fold sense of survival to be studied in soldier-records—comradeship of idealism, expectation of glad adventure, the reassurance from the vitality of nature the consciousness of something eternal at the centre of the soul—little that is definitely personal, just as there is little that suggests the old conventional doctrines either of science or of theology. In contrast there flashes before us the warm personal hope of Donald Hankey, in his last recorded words: 'If wounded, Blighty. If killed, the Resurrection!'
As one studies the views on survival inherent in the new attitude toward death, one finds that the ideas of those who have gone and the ideas of those who survive differ. The, soldier seems swept on in a great confident current toward some profound blessing and happy experience; but, as in his earthly action his individuality is gladly merged into the mass, so his conception of the after life is not personal, self-occupied. On the other hand, the minds of mourners dwell more intently than ever in history on personal survival, on the continued existence of the boys they have lost, as vivid, separate entities. Yet the two views, confident, the one of the general, the other of the individual beatitude of that new existence, are equally characteristic of the nature of the New Death. The New Death is always essentially the readjustment of daily living to the new fact of universal destruction. The New Death, forced to be instantly practical, seeks not theories, but inspiration to energy. The boy about to die would find these two needs best satisfied by losing himself in the great heroic whole, caring little for individual persistence if only the aim of the universal ideal be attained, while the survivors who had lost him could not be readily comforted by so indefinite an inspiration; they would need assurance that the boy himself whom they loved was still alive beyond the veil. It is the views of survivors that will affect the future. That our dead are alive and the same whom we loved, and that they joyously continue the upward march, is the dominating faith of the New Death. There is in this creed nothing new, except the incalculable novelty that never before did so many people evolve it, each for himself, and never before did so many people practice it as the deepest inspiration of their daily conduct.
Just as the New Death conceives the spirit-world as an ever-pressing reality, requiring an incessant revaluation of our mundane occupations as we attain new spiritual standards, so it looks at God with a new directness. A few years ago we avoided thinking about God as easily as we avoided thinking about death. That indifference is destroyed. In the words both of statesmen and of soldiers to-day, one sees a return to the first condition of true religion—humility. Only the bewilderment of agony could have made us humble enough to be reverent. Because action and conviction require a mutual reinforcement, a condition too often through ignorance of psychology neglected by religious teachers: because we can neither act heartily unless we first believe, nor believe heartily unless we also act; because full conviction is obtained solely by embodiment in action, it is the soldier, through his utter abandonment of self to service, who has to-day attained the clearest religious certainty.
The faith of fighters revealed in their memoirs is vital, unfaltering; but the expression of the same fundamental creed differs according to the individual. The religion of the soldier facing death is a denial of all the old materialism that once infected equally the educated and the uneducated. The color and shape of the faith differ in different men, but not its intensity, its confidence. Its practice is definitely Christian in its democracy, its kindness. As in all departments of life to-day our attitude and action are inextricably influenced by the attitude and action of the young dead always present to our memories, so the religion of the home army accepts the distinctly soldier elements of their creed.
The soldier regards God as the intelligence which martials the moral forces of all time, but as an intelligence, like his general's, to be trusted, rather than understood; and he regards a blind and unquestioning obedience to this direction as the individual's only possible contribution to the ultimate victory. His religion is therefore first, absolute trust, and then, absolute submission. The immediacy of the fighter's need makes it easier for him to attain these two conditions than for us, whose incorporation of creed in conduct Is not so instant a constraint; but the religion at the front and at home has the same frankly intuitive character. The new philosophy of death, born of our naked defenselessness, openly employs intuition, spiritual reassurance, half-occult perhaps, but overpowering. It is not the attributes of God that concern the New Death, but the attitude toward Him, and its practical expression both in public actions and in private.
After decades of materialism a new mysticism is being born. All of us today perceive some great force let loose upon us—for our destruction or our regeneration? A Power is certainly at. work—is it God or devil, for no one dares longer to call it chance? Every instinct answers, God. God and immortality have become facts for our everyday life, while before they were only words, and words avoided. The new thing about faith to-day is that it is voluntarily intuitive, and that its mysticism is not contemplative but active. This mysticism is conscious. The scientific, the materialistic attitude was a stage of growth ordained for our adolescence, but it did not indicate the maturity that we thought it did. Our intuitions of God to-day are more to be relied upon than those of earlier periods that were unaware of pitfalls. The evidence of our mature wisdom is that, having experienced the pitfalls, we have voluntarily returned to a childlike trust. We do not argue about God; we accept Him. We do not argue about survival: we accept it. Universal destruction has swept from us every other dependence. It is frankly an experiment, this new spirituality, this new adjustment, this New Death. For the first time in the world, millions of people are making the adventure of faith, engrossed in the effect of immortality, the effect of God, not as a dogma of the next world, but as a practice for this one. There is nothing new about immortality, there is nothing new about God; there is everything new in the fact that we are at last willing to live as if we believed in both. This is the religion of the New Death.
If, even for a few generations, we act on our conjecture of immortality, the larger vision, the profounder basis of purpose will so advance human existence as to make this war worth its price. Our accepting the finality of dissolution as a law of nature has been a blindness obstructive to progress. The history of civilization is made up of two movements, understanding of natural laws and submission to them. We do not chain the lightning; we first ascertain its laws, and then make all our inventions comply with them. Civilization has been long retarded because we have not ruled our lives in obedience to the laws of death. We have either fought them, or neglected them; we have never built either our private plans or our state edifice frankly in accordance with them. Civilization is first a spiritual advance, and only secondarily a material one. The liberation of the soul, so that it may be, free to conceive and to accomplish, is the first condition of progress, but it is a condition, that has been inextricably hampered by the dread of death. Our highest endeavor has been half surreptitious, based on the chance escape from the constant menace of interruption. We flattered ourselves for a century that science was furthering human development. We know to-day how far it has put it back. Yet for our future we have learned from science the invaluable fact that all new achievement is founded on a daring manipulation of the unknown, on adventuring the application of laws but half divined.
Nature inexhaustibly renews her energies out of decay, in accordance with some sure discernment of what is indestructible. We shall advance our civilization when we learn to imitate the largeness of her gestures and their confidence in some imperishable plan. The more the loss of loved ones makes the world of to-day turn wistfully toward human survival, the more shall its mere possibility inspire our endeavor to bring all earth achievement into better connection with eternity.
The New Death, with its growing conviction of survival, makes men loath to leave the experiences of the present until fully tested, not because the present, as materialism taught, is all, but because it is only a part, and for that very reason a passage to be explored more thoughtfully because the dignity of continuance adds a new dignity to every step of our eternal pilgrimage. If we are immortal, then more beauty, not less, attaches to our mortal sojourn. The more we believe in an eternal sequence for the soul, the more respect we shall have for its physical experience, and the less lightly we shall fling away the mysterious privileges of the flesh. The life beyond the grave may at moments. Entrance our imagination, but it is not on this account over-seductive, but rather it exalts our earth life as being the complement of our after-death life; it may even be far more difficult, therefore more alluring to the daring. If we are deathless beings, then each hour on earth has a new sublimity, each moment may contain some development of our high destiny that it may be portentous to miss. The old view of our dying, which made us seem to ourselves puny and ephemeral beings tossed by chance into a brief consciousness, obstructed all our free growth here and hereafter. It was essentially a maladjustment of living to dying which retarded all genuine progress. The New Death liberates us from our paralyzing puniness by its vista of each man's power to adapt his mortal course to its immortal promise.
As the new intimacy with death frees us from the fear of our own dissolution, transmuting dread into the stimulus of hope, so the New Death provides that adaptation of love to loss which transmutes bereavement into energy. Four years ago the activity of the world was conditioned on our power to forget death. Our dead lay coffined in our hearts. We hesitated to speak of them, as we should have hesitated to ask our friends to go with us to a grave—a visit that for ourselves was either a duty or a solace, but might have hurt the sensibilities of others. Such conduct was to shun death, not to accept it. It was not death that killed our loved ones, it was our manner of concealing grief, as if it were a thing unclean and painful, abnormal as disease. To-day brave grief is a sign of the soul's health.
We used to hide away our loved ones from our conversation, denying them that earthly influence which is one branch of their bourgeoning. To-day, when millions of mothers grieve, it would be travesty to pretend that their lost sons are not their foremost thought. We cannot hide away so many dead. Their presence must enter our daily talk, must mingle with our daily tasks. At last we no longer condemn our dead to graves in a past that we keep private, but allow them their rightful place in our present. They have become so great an army that their earthly influence cannot be buried. We know not what dulling of our present vision the future may contain, but for a while this earth is going frankly to hold its homes open to its dead.
The New Death is that attitude of the soul which looks both forward and back—back to the lives of the boys we have lost, forward to that immortal life they have entered. Between that past of ours, sacred to sorrow, and that eternal future sacred to expectation, lies for each of us an earth-space for endeavor illuminated equally by grief and by hope. The words and the deeds of our dead shed sure radiance upon our way. Our debt to the great Design is to weave into the pattern both their dream and our new reverence for our own destiny. To make each moment granted us pregnant with energy because of the light shed on the physical sojourn by their death past, and by our death to come, that is to bring into the new world a force to make death as creative as it used to be corruptive.
The New Death is the perception of our mortal end as the mere portal of an eternal progression, and the immediate result is the consecration of all living. As we step into the future we test our ground now for its spiritual foundations. If our faith is to lead us where our dead boys have gone, it must be a faith built, like theirs, of spirit-values. On the mere guess that death is a portal is founded the resilience of the hell-rocked world to-day. It is a new illumination, a New Death, when dying can be the greatest inspiration of our everyday energy, the strongest impulse toward daily joy. If only the beauty of the vision the tragedy has revealed can be retained a little while! For this little while has death come into its own as the great enhancer and enricher of life.
This is the lesson that the slain splendor of youth has taught to a moribund world. To construct a new world on the faith that their words and their sacrifice attest is the sole expression permitted to our mourning; it is the sole monument beautiful enough to be their memorial.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald