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The Drama of Love and Death Edward Carpenter

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The Drama of Love and Death

by Edward Carpenter

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The Art of Dying

We have suggested in the last paper that some day possibly we may arrive at an intelligent handling of love and its problems, by which at length the passion may cease to be the cause of endless shipwreck and despair to mortals, and become a favorable and friendly divinity obedient to our service. Somewhat thus has been man’s experience with all the great powers of Nature—with fire and flood on the earth, with the winds and lightning of heaven. With intelligent treatment they have become his very ready helpers and allies. And, as indicated in the outset of this book, we may fairly expect the same conclusion with regard to the great natural event and process termed Death. The time has come when we are really called upon to face up to the fact of our decease from the present conditions of life, physical and mental; when we are called upon to study and to understand this fact, and by understanding to become masters of the change which it represents—and able to convert it to our great use and advantage.

Hitherto—as I shall have occasion presently to point out—there has been singularly little 70 study of this science, either from the clinical, the physiological, or the psychological points of view; and the art of dying, for example (which is the subject of this chapter), seems to have been entirely neglected.

No doubt it may be said that this is a difficult art—difficult to study, and more difficult still to practise; yet, after all, that seems only the more reason for approaching it. The art of avoiding death commands much attention, and there are hundreds and thousands of books on that subject; yet since none can really avoid the experience and all must sooner or later pass through it, it might be thought that the art of meeting one’s end with discretion and presence of mind would at least command as much attention.

There ought, one would say—and considering the continual presence of this great ocean waiting to receive us—to be lessons on the subject of its navigation free of charge, and available for all who wish, just as there are lessons in swimming for sailors. And though it may be true that since, as a rule, one cannot die more than once, it is difficult to obtain the needed practice, yet even so one may with perseverance get some approach to doing so. There are a good many recorded cases of people who have apparently died, and after an interval of a few minutes or a few hours have come to life again. I knew a married lady, some years back, who after a long period of illness was given up by the doctors, and gradually sank till to all appearances she passed 71 away. The medical man pronounced life to be extinct, and the relatives began to make the usual arrangements for her funeral. However, being devoted to her children, and anxious to see them through a critical period, she had made up her mind not to die, and being a woman of strong will she clung to her resolution. Two or three hours elapsed, and then, to the surprise and joy of her friends she returned from ‘the other side’—after which she lived three or four years, sufficiently long to carry out what was needed for her family. And though in this case she had no very distinct experience to report of another state of existence, yet the fact of her ‘will to live’ having persevered through the sleep or apparent death of her body and upper mind, was sufficient to convince her of survival of some sort on a deeper plane, and to disarm all fear and hesitation when death finally came.

Probably, on the ordinary mental plane, death very much resembles sleep, and its actual arrival is almost imperceptible; but, in the deeper regions of the mind, there are not unfrequently signs or suggestions of a great awakening. An expression of ecstasy often overspreads the features; sometimes there are sudden apparent recognitions of friends who have already passed away;[36] in many cases there seems to be a great extension of memory and perception; and in not 72 a few a distinct sensation of flying or moving upwards.[37] To these and other similar considerations I shall return later. At present I would prefer to keep to the more physical aspects of the question; but even so far, one cannot help feeling that—whatever collateral drawbacks there may be in death—in the way of painful illness, parting with friends, disturbance and abandonment of plans, and so forth—the experience itself must be enormously interesting. Talk about starting on a journey; but what must the longest sea-voyage be, compared with this one, with its wonderful vista, and visions, and voices calling? And again, since it is an experience that all must go through, and that countless millons of our fellows have gone through and are still continually going through, for that very reason alone it has a fascination; and one feels that had one the opportunity to avoid it one would hardly wish to do so.

As I have said, it is curious that there is next to no instruction or guidance commonly provided or accessible in this matter. I mean especially on the physical side. What are our medical folk doing? There are lots of books on childbirth and the science of parturition, and the best methods of making the transition easy; but when it comes to the end of life and the event corresponding and complementary to birth, there is little except silence and dismay.

73 The usual course of preparation for this most important event seems to be (barring accidents) something as follows:—a physically unhealthy and morally stupid life, which inevitably leads to degenerative tendencies and ultimately to distinct disease; then one or two breakdowns, which lead to panic, and the summoning of doctors; then partial recovery, and a repetition da capo of the whole series, without any of the least improvement in the general style of life; then of course worse breakdown and panic, leading at last to violent drugs, injections, operations, and so forth, in the hope of prolonging existence a few hours; and finally death arriving, not graciously, but in the sense of a dismal defeat and rout to everybody concerned; and to the patient a hurried, confused and embittered end, robbed of all decency and dignity.

Now this won’t do! When one thinks of the deaths of animals—so composed on the whole—the calm, the quietude, the dignity even, and the absence as a rule of very acute or obvious suffering; or when one thinks of the very similar conditions of death among many savage peoples; one cannot but ask, Why this difference? One cannot but say, It really will not do for us ‘the heirs of all the ages’ to go on behaving in this feeble and foolish way—leading lives which utterly unfit us for the inevitable end of life, and stricken with most incompetent panic and dismay when the very thing arrives which we have foreseen and which we have had such ample time to prepare for.

74 Death—from whatever point of view we look at it—seems to be a break-up of the unity of the creature.[38] It is a dislocation and to some degree a rending asunder. But such dislocation and break-up may be of a healthy and normal type, or it may be unhealthy and of the nature of disease. In the first case it may chiefly consist in the getting rid or shedding off of an out-worn husk, which is simply left behind—much in the same way as the chrysalis sheath of a moth or other insect is left behind, or as the husks of a growing bud or bulb are peeled off. Many an old person seems to die in this way—the body being the scene of little or no disturbance or conflict, but simply withering up, while often at the same time the spiritual nature of the man becomes strangely luminous and penetrating. Here there is a certain dislocation, but no painful rending asunder. The centre of life seems merely to retire to a more inward and subtle region, where it perchance nourishes an even brighter flame than before; and the outer body is peeled off as a sort of outworn shell. But in other cases death is undoubtedly very different. Instead of the one centre simply withdrawing inward in the way indicated, while at the same time preserving almost to the last a general unity of the creature, rebellious and insubordinate centres spring up and introduce serious conflict into the organism. These are of course 75 diseases, or centres of disease—either in the body, like tumors, alien growths, nests of microbes, and so forth; or in the mind, like violent passions, greeds, anxieties, fears, rigid habits. And forming thus independent centres they tear and rend the body and mind between them till at last death supervenes—not at all on account of the voluntary withdrawal of the inner person to more ethereal regions, but simply through the destruction of the organism in which that person functions.

It is evident (whatever view one may take of that inner person and its perduration into other regions of existence) that the former mode of death is the more normal, natural and desirable of the two, and the one which we should encourage and cultivate; and that the latter is likely to be painful, undignified, and even repulsive.

From this point of view, to strengthen the organizing, regulating power of the body, as against local growths and insurgencies, seems (in general terms) the best line to take—the best way of prolonging life, and of rendering death fairly easy and negotiable. The outlying centres—as represented by the various organs and faculties, both of the body and of the mind—have to be kept during life in subordination to the main centre, and as far as possible in decent harness and exercise, so as to become neither too slack on the one hand, nor too rowdy and insolent on the other. In this way, when the 76 vital forces decay, these organs and faculties remain still subservient to the central being, and becoming comparatively quiescent make room for its further passage and development. There are, indeed, some cases of death, in which the whole inner spirit and consciousness of the man seems to pass on unchanged, while the rabble rout of the body simply falls away, or is left behind, like a disused garment or husk as we have said.

It should, however, be noted that the strengthening of the organizing and regulating forces does not and must not mean the introduction of rigid and quasi-tyrannical habits (however ‘good’ such habits may be supposed to be). The interior Person—as we shall see later—is far too great and free to be adequately represented by any such habits or regulations, even the ‘best,’ and they really belong to the lower mind or body. Their dominance leads to an ossifying or woodening and valetudinarian tendency in the organism, which is as bad in its way as the uncontrolled or inflammatory tendency.

To avoid these opposite pitfalls, and to live sanely and sensibly, in a certain close touch with Nature and with the roots of human life, is no doubt difficult, especially under the ordinary conditions of civilization; yet it is surely well worth while—both for the sake of life itself and for the termination of it. And to keep a certain command of the situation during the mid-period of one’s day is probably the best way toward commanding the situation at the end. But the 77 ordinary medical methods—with their drugs, their stimulants, their sleeping-draughts, their operations, their injections of morphia, serums, and so forth, are surely acting all the time in the opposite direction. Their tendency surely is to confuse and weaken the central agency, while at the same time they excite and sometimes madden the local centres—till not unfrequently the patient dies, confused, unconscious, wrecked, and a mass of disorders and corruption. The launching of a ship on the great ocean is a thing that is prepared for, even during all the period when the vessel is being built and perfected. I am not a professional; but will no one write a manual on the subject, even from the medical and physiological point of view—How to prepare for death.... How to go through this great change with some degree of satisfaction, command, and intelligence? Above all, may we have a truce to the so common and unworthy conspiracies between doctors, nurses, and relatives, by which for the sake of keeping the patient a few hours (or at most a few days) longer alive, the unfortunate one—instead of being let alone and allowed to die peacefully as far as may be, and as indeed in nine cases out of ten he himself desires—is on the contrary tormented (defenceless as he is) with operations, inoculations and medical insults of all kinds up to the very last? The thing has become a positive scandal; and though the ignorant importunities of lay relatives may sometimes be 78 deplorable, yet the prospect in one’s last moments of falling into the hands of professionals is even worse, and adds a new terror to dissolution. It is at any rate a consolation to know that whatever pains and torments of illness may have preceded, they generally pass away before the end; and notwithstanding such current expressions as ‘death-agonies,’ ‘last struggle,’ and so forth, the hour of death itself is mercifully calm and peaceful. Walt Whitman, who, in his hospital labors in the American Civil War, must have been present at a vast number of deathbeds, has recorded that in the great majority of cases the end comes quite simply, as an ordinary event of the day, “like having your breakfast.? “Death is no more painful than birth,? says Dr. Edward Clark in his book on Visions: a Study of False Sight;[39] and most doctors will agree to the general truth of this expression.

There is a certain sacredness in Death, which should surely be respected. There is too, we may say, in most cases, a sure instinct which comes to the patient of what is impending and of what is needed; and every effort should be made to secure to the sufferer a quiet period during which he may effect the passage, for himself, disturbed as little as possible by the grief of friends or the interferences of attendants. 79

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