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Originally published in French in 1805, The Last Man is a powerful story of the demise of the human race. Drawing on the traditional account in Revelations, The Last Man was the first end-of-the-world story in future fiction. As the first secular apocalypse story, The Last Man served as the departure point for many other speculative fictions of this type throughout the 19th century, including works by Shelley, Flammarion and Wells. Grainville's masterful imagination is evident in the vast scale of the action as ...
Originally published in French in 1805, The Last Man is a powerful story of the demise of the human race. Drawing on the traditional account in Revelations, The Last Man was the first end-of-the-world story in future fiction. As the first secular apocalypse story, The Last Man served as the departure point for many other speculative fictions of this type throughout the 19th century, including works by Shelley, Flammarion and Wells. Grainville's masterful imagination is evident in the vast scale of the action as Omegarus, the Last Adam, and Syderia, the Last Eve, are led toward the moment when "the light of the sun and the stars is extinguished." This is essential reading for anyone interested in the roots of apocalyptic science fiction.
Near the rains of Palmyra there is a solitary cavern, so greatly feared by the Syrians that they have named it the cavern of death. Men have never entered it without suffering immediate punishment for their temerity. The story is told of some reckless Frenchmen who dared to enter this place with weapons in their hands. The next day, at dawn, they were found slaughtered, and their limbs scattered upon the desert. When the nights are quiet, groaning sounds are heard issuing from this cavern, and often tumultuous cries like the shouts of a great multitude are audible. Sometimes the cavern vomits forth eddying flames, the earth trembles, and the ruins of Palmyra move like the waves of the sea.
I had traveled the length of Africa, had reached the shores of the Red Sea, and had traversed Palestine. I know not what secret inspiration guided me. I wished to see that glorious city where Zenobia once ruled and, in particular, that fearsome cavern believed to be the abode of death. I arrived there accompanied by several Syrians. There was nothing alarming in the aspect of the cavern. The ever-open entrance, shaded by the branches of a wild vine, invited the traveler to rest beneath its lofty vault. No monster guarded the entrance; the fearsome reputation of the place alone served to keep it inaccessible.
While I was studying it attentively, I saw above the cavern a man bearing a torch. His eyes were keen and piercing; his majestic brow suggested a profound tranquillity. One would have said that he was at peace with himself, as if he had always lived in that spot untroubled by any knowledge of fear and hope. I know not how he communicated his thoughts to me, but I understood that he was summoning me into the cavern. I felt myself drawn by a sudden and irresistible force; and, in spite of the terror and the cries of the Syrians who tried to hold me back, I leapt into the cavern.
Astounded at my temerity, I walked for a long time in pitch darkness, which increased as I advanced into that terrible place. Suddenly I was unable to move; my feet refused to obey me, and I was held rooted to the spot, motionless like a statue. I could not breathe. I seemed to be in a void where, alive but unable to act, I felt complete repose - a pleasure unknown to human beings, and so delightful as to surpass the most voluptuous sweetness. Suddenly the darkness which shrouded me rolled away, a pure light illuminated the scene, and I saw the objects which surrounded me.
I found myself in an amphitheater built of the hardest stone, facing a throne of sapphire which resembled in appearance the famous tripod of the priestess of Apollo. The throne was canopied in clouds of gold and azure, and held suspended by an invisible power; a still and smokeless flame gleamed from an infinite number of torches. The walls of the amphitheater were covered with enchanted mirrors in which the gaze met an unbounded horizon. To my right, at the foot of an adamantine pillar was chained a powerful old man: his shoulders were bowed, and he gazed with sadness at the fragments of a broken timepiece and two blood-stained wings that lay on the ground.
Then, without using words and by what means I know not, a spirit which dwelt in the tripod addressed me:
"I have punished with death those reckless mortals who, despite the fear which my dwelling inspires, believed that their audacity would gain them entrance. Do not fear a like fate, you whom I have summoned here. I am the Celestial Spirit to whom the entire future is known. All coming things are to me as if they had already happened. Here, time is enchained, and his empire destroyed. I am the father of premonitions and of dreams. I dictate oracles, and I am the inspiration for famous statesmen. As soon as a mortal has committed a crime, I place before his eyes a vision of the punishment that human justice reserves for him; and, in order to make him suffer, I cause him to foresee his own torment and death. If I have guided your steps to this cavern, it is because I wished to lift for you the veil which hides from mortal men the darkness of futurity, and I wish to make you a witness of the scene which will bring the world to a close. In these enchanted mirrors which surround you, the Last Man will appear before your eyes. There, as in a theater, where the actors represent heroes of old, you will hear him speaking with the most illustrious people of the last ages of earth. You will read the innermost thoughts of his heart, and you will be witness to, and judge of, his actions.
Do not think that this is a mere spectacle to satisfy your curiosity. I have a nobler intention. The Last Man will have no descendants who can know and admire him. My desire is that before he is born, he will be known in memory. I wish to celebrate his struggles and his victories over himself - to tell of the pains he will suffer to shorten those of humanity, to end the reign of time, and to hasten the day of eternal recompense that awaits the just. I wish to reveal to the world this history so well worth the telling. However, you must give me your entire attention. This great spectacle will pass rapidly and then will vanish for ever."
After the Celestial Spirit had revealed his intentions, the air rushed back with a roar into the room where I was. I felt it; I breathed it in; it coursed through my veins and restored the movement I had lost. In like manner, everything changed; everything sprang to life around me. The flame of the torches leapt up; the clouds wreathing the throne assumed pleasing shapes; the old man broke his bonds, took up his wings again, and flew away.
Immediately, in the enchanted mirror in front of me, there appeared a magnificent palace, the work of the most powerful rulers on earth, but already showing signs of decay. Beneath one of its colonnades, a woman advanced slowly. From the divine grace and charm of her figure, I could scarcely believe she was mortal, until I perceived from the sadness of her looks that she was unhappy. A young man walked by her side with downcast eyes and, like her, seemed to be deeply unhappy. Then a voice which seemed to come from the tripod addressed me:
"The name of the young man that you see is Omegarus, and Syderia the name of this woman whose beauty has already touched your heart. You are looking on the last inhabitants of earth, those whom your words must celebrate. This undertaking will often oppress your spirit, and, in the belief that the task is beyond you, you will be tempted to abandon it. Do not despair, however, of the power of your guardian spirit. I will sustain your courage. Remember that there are no obstacles that great effort will not overcome."
As soon as the voice had made known to me that in Omegarus and Syderia I was looking at the last precious representatives of the human race, I felt like a traveler who discovers under great tangles of brambles the last vestiges of a famous city. I gazed eagerly on each in turn. When Omegarus claimed my attention, I regretted that I could not give it to Syderia. I wanted to encompass both together in one single look. Already I had begun to love them and was saddened by their unhappiness. Concerned to know the cause, I addressed the Celestial Spirit in these terms:
"I give you thanks for allowing me to witness the last days of the earth, and for choosing me to make Omegarus and Syderia known to the world. To that task I will consecrate the rest of my life. Inspire me with your spirit and your thoughts. Fill my soul with prophetic fire, and lend my voice the proud sound of the trumpet. But what am I saying? Shall I need your help in making men listen when I tell them what fate has in store for the earth and for their descendants? Ah! if the fate of such dear creatures has sometimes troubled their tender hearts - if they have loved the good earth that nourished them - if the hope of living through the lives of their descendants consoled them for their mortality, they will come and ask me for this history. They will spend their days hearing my account, and I shall never tire of repeating my story. Meanwhile, oh! you whom I invoke! Tell me the cause of the unhappiness of Omegarus and Syderia. They are so young to know misfortune! Will misfortune dog the steps of men from age to age even to their last descendants? Will they, like their fathers, water the ground with their tears?"
While I was invoking the heavenly spirit who presides over the future, Omegarus, Syderia, and the palace where they dwelt vanished. In their place I saw an island encircled by a swampy marsh steaming with sulfur and bitumen, and so close to the gates of Hell that the eye could plainly see them from this desolate place. No light from the firmament and the stars penetrated here. The place was lit by the dull glow of the fires smoldering in its depths. Here there was no mantle of green, nor any living creature - even the birds of ill omen and the serpents had fled.
The only inhabitant of this solitary island was a disconsolate old man whose appearance inspired respect and pity. There, in expiation of a sin that he had committed, Heaven had condemned him to watch sinners entering the infernal regions - a torment he had endured since the beginning of the world, and one which had lost none of its power to make him suffer. When he heard the gates of Hell turn on their hinges, his whole body trembled. His white hair stood on end. In great agitation he tried to flee and to turn away his head; but an invisible force held him prisoner. His gaze remained fixed on the trembling victim until the very moment when the demons had thrown the sinner into the devouring flames.
This venerable old man was Adam, the Father of Mankind, banished to this island here by divine justice. It was his disobedience that brought sin into the world. In order to punish him, God decreed that he should be forced to watch the chastisement of his guilty descendants whom he had set on their sinful path. Not knowing how long this torment would endure, he had throughout the ages lived in daily expectation of his deliverance. It never came. He was so worn out with his yearning for deliverance that he no longer had the strength to desire it, and was resigned to eternal suffering. In that moment when hope, dying in his heart, had ceased to soften his pains, he saw in the distance a small cloud advancing toward him more swiftly than the wind. It stopped, and from it stepped the angel Ithuriel - he who, in the garden of Eden, had been the messenger of the Creator.
Greatly moved at this sight, the Father of Men tried to speak, but could only utter inarticulate sounds. His spirit was in turmoil; and the more he strove to control his agitation, the more it increased until it overwhelmed him. At times he seemed to be stupefied - wild-eyed, his whole frame trembling and shuddering - until eventually he regained control of himself. He remained motionless as if resting from a long labor, and, as soon as he could speak, he addressed the angel in these words: "You have the semblance of that celestial spirit who sometimes deigned to visit me in the garden of Eden. How I have suffered since that happy time! Surely eternity has passed since then. Do you come to announce the end of my sufferings?"
And with those words he stopped of a sudden to allow the angel to reply. Open-mouthed, he did not dare to move for fear of missing any of the angel's words. "I come," said the heavenly messenger, "to conduct you to earth where the Almighty has called you to implement the divine plan which He will disclose to you. By supernatural means He will reveal it to you. On the success of your mission depends your deliverance which will come on the very day when the earth is destroyed. I know no more. I can only tell you that a great revolution is preparing. The heavens are in turmoil; the Almighty has awakened from His repose. He has deployed legions of angels throughout the world who only wait for His signal to do His will. At this moment their hosts fill the entire void from the throne of God to the bounds of the universe."
Ithuriel ceased speaking, and Adam waited with eager attention to hear more. Every word the angel spoke filled his soul with hope and joy - he felt himself reborn. "Oh thrice happy day!" he exclaimed, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, bearing His divine commands. Can I believe your promises? Will I really behold again the vault of heaven? Will I see again the sun which bathes the world in light, which my eyes have not seen for so many centuries? Will I see once more the lamp of night which was my nuptial torch? I shall see again my children and the soft green of the fields. I shall hear again the sound of human voices"
At these words Adam threw himself at the feet of the angel and clasped them in a long embrace. He could barely support the new influx of feelings until the copious tears of joy began to flow. Finally, he rose and said: "Lead me wherever you wish, if only it is far from this detestable island. Would that I might never return here! I have witnessed passing before my eyes all those guilty souls condemned to eternal suffering, who cursed their first father and the day of their birth. I have seen the gates of Hell opening, a sound which will long reverberate in my ears; and, when they were opened, I have heard the groans and cries that came from that place of torment. At times I have seen the fires of Hell. May those fearful scenes never afflict my eyes again. And now I beg you - you, my liberator - let us leave immediately by the shortest way. Let us take wing through the air."
His prayer was heard. Ithutiel enveloped him in a dark cloud and, without losing an instant, swept him through the skies. They sped rapidly through the airy regions and came to earth in the realms of France, not far from the dwelling place of Omegarus. "Behold," said the angel to the Father of Mankind, "you stand now on the soil where you were first created. If you do not wish to start all over again those centuries of torment on that island you have left, you must bring to a successful conclusion the mission which the Almighty will entrust to you." At these words the angel vanished from his sight, and the cloud which cloaked the Father of Mankind melted away.
As soon as Adam recognized the earth, he threw himself down upon it in a transport of joy. With outstretched arms he embraced it, kissing it fervently. "Oh! my native land," he cried, "my first home, is it really you I touch?" Then, eager to see his surroundings, he rose abruptly and looked with keenest interest around him. The sun had just risen. The Father of Mankind was struck with astonishment when he saw plain and mountain denuded of verdure, lifeless and bare as a rock. The trees were wasting away, their bark encrusted with a whitish deposit. The feeble rays of the sun shed a pale and somber light on the scene.
Excerpted from The Last Man by I. F. Clarke
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Appendix||Preface to the Second Edition of Le Dernier Homme (1811)||137|