Much is being said of the beyond in these days, perhaps because people no longer believe in it. Then there is Eusapia Palladino, whose performances, it seems, favor mysterious beliefs. Tables dance and tilt, violins play by themselves, and this puts perspicacious folk on the road to the beyond. Huysmans was converted in just this way. It is far easier to confuse the human reason than the laws of gravity.
Nevertheless, what is the beyond? I believe only in that country which I can locate. Where do you place it? The spirits locate it about us. Do you wish to speak with Mme. de Montespan? Here she is. With Napoleon? He hastens to respond. Would you consult Saint Anthony in regard to some lost object? Nothing more easy. The inhabitants of die beyond are at our disposal. They come as soon as they are bidden and reply most gently. And in order to prove that the two realms bear a strong resemblance to each other, they are even glad to talk plenty of nonsense: their intelligence never rises above the level of those who summon them.
This benevolent and familiar beyond does not, however, win universal approval. The immense majority of believers need a truly mysterious beyond, one that shall be inaccessible and unfathomable. Where is this beyond? Yonder, yonder, very far away.—But just where?—Far, far off, I tell you; farther than you could ever calculate.—And how are you assured of its reality?—By reason itself. It is impossible that man should die totally. This is proved by his very desire for immortality.
The early Christians were not in the least embarrassed in the matter of placing heaven. They beheld it on high, beyond the clouds, in a brilliant, serene region. Christ, by his ascension, had shown them the way. The expression has gone into the language: to rise to heaven. It no longer means anything since it has become known that the earth rotates on its own axis and that, consequently, there is for us in space neither above nor below. In order to rise to heaven at midnight one would have to take the same direction by which, at noon, he would descend. Heaven, then, cannot be situated on high. As to hell, which was formerly placed in the interior of the earth, let us not speak. The theologians of today make many reservations as to hell; they have learned that the prospect of cooking eternally in a huge caldron is not of a nature to excite much religious enthusiasm in the crowds. The beyond to which we are invited is a benign place. It is not quite the paradise of Mahomet; it is that of Fénélon,—a perfumed landscape where the streams are of milk, the pebbles of candy, the soil of chocolate. It still remains to locate this celestial confectionery in space.
Some have thought of the planets. But suppose they are really inhabited, as M. Flammarion hopes, and as is moreover fairly probable? Then let us seek farther, farther still. Let us question the uttermost stars,—those which our naked eye cannot see,—even those that the telescopes will never discover.
Their answer is known. They reply that they are worlds, suns, surrounded by earths, some living like ours, others dead like the moon. Analogy permits us to believe that what we do not see resembles greatly what we do see. If we were transported to the regions where simple folk place the beyond, we would turn back to our own earth and say, doubtless: The beyond is situated yonder.
There is no reasonably conceivable beyond. The entire universe is built upon the same plan and its component parts are limited by nothing. An immensity in which grains of sand whirl about at the mercy of the wind of infinity.
Beyond—Beyond what? One must know what he is talking about. We are creatures habituated to precision. When a man of the fourteenth-century thought of future life, his notion was very simple, but fairly clear. He beheld the blessed ranged upon the steps of a vast stage. In the background was an organ, played by an angel, and the music was so sweet that the whole audience was spell-bound: and this was to continue for all eternity! Today we would with difficulty accept such a paradise fashioned in the manner familiar to the devotees of large concerts. A little variety would be welcome. The taste for extended travel, for example, has gradually influenced the notion that certain persons form of the blessed life. Whereupon it becomes a paradise for Cook’s tourists. Excursions are made to the rings of Saturn, just as, in their earthly life, they journeyed to the White Nile or to Japan. Somewhat farther than the first, but of the same genre.
The most ardent travelers rise, in their imaginations, from sun to sun, thrilled with the idea of a never-ending exploration filled with ever-renewed wonders.
These perpetual vacations seem a bit boresome to me. What will be proposed to me next? Here are the modern religions and philosophies, the Christians and the spiritualists, who offer me the contemplation of God. Very well. But God is no more admirable in the rings of Saturn or in Sirius than in the wings of a butterfly or in the eyes of a woman. What next? Wait. You speak of a woman,—doubtless of her whom you love? Here is the paradise of Mahomet, with its white, buxom houris, their hands ever perfumed, their caresses ever new.
Yes, that is more tempting. It is human, at least. But do the women, too, find lovers to their taste there? This paradise bears too much resemblance to a conquered town, where the victors disport themselves with the women captives. And it resembles altogether too much something less honest. At the end of an hour I should feel like leaving.
Well, suppose we remain upon earth, after all? Suppose we bravely accept the death of our dreams at the same time as the death of our bodies? This beyond is decidedly uncertain, quite vague and mobile. I do not believe that it exists everywhere; I believe that it is nowhere except in our infantile imaginations. Born with us, it will end at the same moment that we do, to be born anew in our posterity.
The beyond is the earthly tomorrow, as we bequeath it to our heirs and as they modify it by their efforts and in accordance with their tastes.