I knew a man once who made a great case of Death, saying that he esteemed a country according to its regard for the conception of Death, and according to the respect which it paid to that conception. He also said that he considered individuals by much the same standard, but that he did not judge them so strictly in the matter, because (said he) great masses of men are more permanently concerned with great issues; whereas private citizens are disturbed by little particular things which interfere with their little particular lives, and so distract them from the general end.
This was upon a river called Boutonne, in Vendée, and at the time I did not understand what he meant because as yet I had had no experience of these things. But this man to whom I spoke had had three kinds of experience; first, he had himself been very probably the occasion of Death in others, for he had been a soldier in a war of conquest where the Europeans were few and the Barbarians many! secondly, he had been himself very often wounded, and more than once all but killed; thirdly, he was at the time he told me this thing an old man who must in any case soon come to that experience or catastrophe of which he spoke.
He was an innkeeper, the father of two daughters, and his inn was by the side of the river, but the road ran between. His face was more anxiously earnest than is commonly the face of a French peasant, as though he had suffered more than do ordinarily that very prosperous, very virile, and very self-governing race of men. He had also about him what many men show who have come sharply against the great realities, that is, a sort of diffidence in talking of ordinary things. I could see that in the matters of his household he allowed himself to be led by women. Meanwhile he continued to talk to me over the table upon this business of Death, and as he talked he showed that desire to persuade which is in itself the strongest motive of interest in any human discourse.
He said to me that those who affected to despise the consideration of Death knew nothing of it; that they had never seen it close and might be compared to men who spoke of battles when they had only read books about battles, or who spoke of sea-sickness though they had never seen the sea. This last metaphor he used with some pride, for he had crossed the Mediterranean from Provence to Africa some five or six times, and had upon each occasion suffered horribly; for, of course, his garrison had been upon the edge of the desert, and he had been a soldier beyond the Atlas. He told me that those who affected to neglect or to despise Death were worse than children talking of grown-up things, and were more like prigs talking of physical things of which they knew nothing.
I told him then that there were many such men, especially in the town of Geneva. This, he said, he could well believe, though he had never travelled there, and had hardly heard the name of the place. But he knew it for some foreign town. He told me, also, that there were men about in his own part of the world who pretended that since Death was an accident like any other, and, moreover, one as certain as hunger or as sleep, it was not to be considered. These, he said, were the worst debaters upon his favourite subject.
Now as he talked in this fashion I confess that I was very bored. I had desired to go on to Angouléme upon my bicycle, and I was at that age when all human beings think themselves immortal. I had desired to get off the main high road into the hills upon the left, to the east of it, and I was at an age when the cessation of mundane experience is not a conceivable thing. Moreover, this innkeeper had been pointed out to me as a man who could give very useful information upon the nature of the roads I had to travel, and it had never occurred to me that he would switch me off after dinner upon a hobby of his own. To-day, after a wider travel, I know well that all innkeepers have hobbies, and that an abstract or mystical hobby of this sort is amongst the best with which to pass an evening. But no matter, I am talking of then and not now. He kept me, therefore, uninterested as I was, and continued:
"People who put Death away from them, who do not neglect or despise it but who stop thinking about it, annoy me very much. We have in this village a chemist of such a kind. He will have it that, five minutes afterwards, a man thinks no more about it." Having gone so far, the innkeeper, clenching his hands and fixing me with a brilliant glance from his old eyes, said:
"With such men I will have nothing to do!"
Indeed, that his chief subject should be treated in such a fashion was odious to him, and rightly, for of the half-dozen things worth strict consideration, there is no doubt that his hobby was the chief, and to have one's hobby vulgarly despised is intolerable.
The innkeeper then went on to tell me that so far as he could make out it was a man's business to consider this subject of Death continually, to wonder upon it, and, if he could, to extract its meaning. Of the men I had met so far in life, only the Scotch and certain of the Western French went on in this metaphysical manner: thus a Breton, a Basque, and a man in Ecclefechan (I hope I spell it right) and another in Jedburgh had already each of them sent me to my bed confused upon the matter of free will. So this Western innkeeper refused to leave his thesis. It was incredible to him that a Sentient Being who perpetually accumulated experience, who grew riper and riper, more and more full of such knowledge as was native to himself and complementary to his nature, should at the very crisis of his success in all things intellectual and emotional, cease suddenly. It was further an object to him of vast curiosity why such a being, since a future was essential to it, should find that future veiled.
He presented to me a picture of men perpetually passing through a field of vision out of the dark and into the dark. He showed me these men, not growing and falling as fruits do (so the modern vulgar conception goes) but alive throughout their transit: pouring like an unbroken river from one sharp limit of the horizon whence they entered into life to that other sharp limit where they poured out from life, not through decay, but through a sudden catastrophe.
"I," said he, "shall die, I do suppose, with a full consciousness of my being and with a great fear in my eyes. And though many die decrepit and senile, that is not the normal death of men, for men have in them something of a self-creative power, which pushes them on to the further realisation of themselves, right up to the edge of their doom."
I put his words in English after a great many years, but they were something of this kind, for he was a metaphysical sort of man.
It was now near midnight, and I could bear with such discussions no longer; my fatigue was great and the hour at which I had to rise next day was early. It was, therefore, in but a drowsy state that I heard him continue his discourse. He told me a long story of how he had seen one day a company of young men of the New Army, the conscripts, go marching past his house along the river through a driving snow. He said that first he heard them singing long before he saw them, that then they came out like ghosts for a moment through the drift, that then in the half light of the winter dawn they clearly appeared, all in step for once, swinging forward, muffled in their dark blue coats, and still singing to the lift of their feet; that then on their way to the seaport, they passed again into the blinding scurry of the snow, that they seemed like ghosts again for a moment behind the veil of it, and that long after they had disappeared their singing could still be heard.
By this time I was most confused as to what lesson he would convey, and sleep had nearly overcome me, but I remember his telling me that such a sight stood to him at the moment and did still stand for the passage of the French Armies perpetually on into the dark, century after century, destroyed for the most part upon fields of battle. He told me that he felt like one who had seen the retreat from Moscow, and he would, I am sure, had I not determined to leave him and to take at least some little sleep, have asked me what fate there was for those single private soldiers, each real, each existent, while the Army which they made up and of whose "destruction" men spoke, was but a number, a notion, a name. He would have pestered me, if my mind had still been active, as to what their secret destinies were who lay, each man alone, twisted round the guns after the failure to hold the Bridge of the Beresina. He might have gone deeper, but I was too tired to listen to him any more.
This human debate of ours (and very one-sided it was!) is now resolved, for in the interval since it was engaged the innkeeper himself has died.
~Hilaire Belloc: from On Nothing & Kindred Subjects.(1908)