ften, during an air raid on London in 1940, I would hear a bomber diving downwards with a roar, as though its trajectory described a valley in the mountain-high air inhabited by aircraft. Then I would reassure myself by imagining that, in the whole area of the county of London, there were no more houses, but that the bomber was gyring and diving over an empty plain covered in darkness. This picture was both reassuring and exact: for it fixed my attention on my own smallness as a target compared with the immensity of London. And this was the reality. Only my fears were exposed.
If I thought of London as the London of my mind, and not as a geographical expanse, I only imagined places I knew and whose names occurred to me: Oxford Street, Piccadilly, St. Paul's, Liverpool Street, Kensington, Paddington, Maida Vale, Hampstead, and so forth. And even these places were represented in my mind only by the names of a few familiar features, churches, streets and squares, and not by all the other streets and the innumerable buildings which I did not know.
Although the raids stopped, or happened only at rare intervals, this picture of the aeroplane over the huge plain with the people concealed in crevices, can be enlarged to a vision of the new phase of domination and threat by machine-power politics, which the world had now entered and which did not end with the peace. The aeroplane filled ever-widening circles in the minds of people beneath it; but the pilot and even the officers who commanded him at bases, their masters in governments and the vanquished and victors of the war, were diminished, until it seemed that they no longer had wills of their own, but were automata controlled by the mechanism of war.
It was a sign of this submission of human beings to the mechanical forces they had called into being and put into motion against one another that I was no longer interested in the personality of Hitler, since, having begun the war, he had not the power to make it stop.
Everyone had shrunk in his own mind as well as in the minds of his fellow-beings, because his attention was diverted to events dwarfing individuals. These events could only lead to more battles and a victory catastrophic for the winning, as for the losing side. Personal misfortunes seemed of minor importance compared with the universal nature of the disaster overtaking civilization. So that in the summer of 1940, when invasion seemed imminent, a friend could say to me: "Within six weeks from now, if I blow out my brains and they spatter all over the carpet, in my own home and with my family in the room, no one will think it worth noticing."
We lived in a trance-like condition in which, from our fixed positions in our island-fortress-prison, we witnessed, as in a dream, not only armies, but whole populations controlled by the magnetic force of power. Even in the minds of those who knew them well, France and other continental countries had become mental concepts only, areas in our minds where incredible things happened; there, puppet dictators transmitted orders received from Germany, and Germany, a vast arsenal of mechanical power, added to its resources the industries of other nations and the slave labour of their peoples. Even today, France under the Occupation remains to me an idea only, to which I can attach little reality, a hallucinated vision of folly, betrayal, and despairing courage. So that, if some French friend begins to speak of his life during those years, I stare at him as though expecting to see him change into a different person.
During these months, a most poignant event, the suicide of Virginia Woolf, was observed by me as through a thick pane of glass, seen very clearly, but all sound shut out: the personal tragedy seen through the vast transparent impersonal one.
For the time being, the only hope was that the current of power should be reversed and turned back on those who had first employed it: that the pendulum of the bombers, swinging over us, should swing back again over Germany. Yet to admit this was an admission of spiritual defeat: for it was to say that hope lay in power, in opposing despair with despair. We said this, with the result that we are still saying it. All this has implied the surrender of the only true hope for civilizationthe conviction of the individual that his inner life can affect outward events and that, whether or not he does so, he is responsible for them.
From now on, the fate of individuals was more and more controlled by a public fate which itself seemed beyond control. For control implies not merely putting a machinery into motion, but also being able to make it stop: modern war is a machine easy to make start, but it can only be stopped at the moment when it has destroyed or been destroyed by another war machine. Control means being able to relate a programme of action to the results of that action. Now we had arrived at a stage when a large part of the resources of great nations were poured into programmes of which no one could foresee the results. All this was only leading to subsequent plans for making atomic and hydrogen bombs to defend East against West or West against East in a meaningless struggle between potential ashes to gain a world of ashes. For, in the course of the struggle, the vast "machinery of production," together with its capitalist or proletarian owners, and all the sacred theories of whichever class, would be as outmoded as its own ruins, like the civilization and theories of Babylonian astrologers.
That part of living which was devoted to spiritual and personal values, became a marginal activity in society, and for individuals a side-line, unless they happened to be old, sick, or socially unreliable. The most serious result was the effect on the minds of individuals, particularly the young, who found themselves in a world where no action of theirs, and nothing they created or thought, could alter the course of events. Here, though, on the level of thought and spiritual life, was the real challenge. For it is intolerable that men who, with their minds, have invented machines of destruction, and in their policies made themselves the half-slaves of these machines, should not be able to unthink what is a product of their intellects.
Excerpted from World Within World by Stephen Spender. Copyright © 2001 by Stephen Spender. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.