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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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CHAPTER VII

Is there an After-Death State?

In the last chapter Death was compared to Birth, and it was said that probably the passage of the human soul into another world, on the other side of death, exactly corresponded to Birth—to the birth of a babe into this world. And certainly, seeing these apparent movements into the visible and away from it again, it is very natural to assume that there is such another and hidden world, and to speculate upon its nature.

But it may fairly be asked, is there after all any reason for supposing that there is a definite state of existence of any kind on that side? Is it not quite likely that there is only vacancy and nothingness, or at best a mere formless pulp (of ether and electrons, or whatever it may be) out of which souls are born and into which they return again at death? It is this question which I propose to discuss in the present chapter.

Historically speaking, we know of course that early and primitive folk, letting their imaginations loose, peopled that ‘other side’ and rather promiscuously, with all sorts of fairy beings and phantom processions. Giant grizzly bears, divine 112 jackals, elves, dwarfs, satans, holy ghosts, lunar pitris, flaming sun-gods, and so forth, ruled and raged behind the curtain—in front of which the shivering mortal stood. But as time went on, the growing exactitude of thought and science made it more and more impossible to idly accept these imaginings; and it may be said that about the middle of last century these cosmogonies—for the more thoughtful among the populations of the Western world—finally perished, and gave place for the most part to a simple negative attitude. It was allowed that intelligences and personalities (human and animal) moved on this side of the veil, and were plainly distinguishable as operating in the actual world; but they, it was held, were more or less isolated and probably accidental products of a mechanical universe. That mechanical arrangement of atoms, and so forth, which we could now largely map out and measure, and which doubtless in the future we should be able completely to define—that was the universe, and somehow or other included everything. One of its properties was that it would run down like a clock, and would eventuate in time in a cold sun and a dead earth—and there was an end of it! Any intelligent existence behind or on the other side of this veil of mechanism was too problematical to be worth discussing; in all probability on that side was mere nothingness and vacancy.

Such, very roughly stated, was the attitude of the fairly intelligent and educated man about 113 fifty years ago, but since that time the outgrowths of science and human inquiry have been so astounding as to leave that position far behind. The obvious signs of intelligence in the minutest cells, almost invisible to the naked eye, the very mysterious arcana of growth in such cells (partly described in a former chapter), the myriad action of similarly intelligent microbes, the strange psychology of plants, and the equally strange psychic sensitiveness (apparently) of metals, the sudden transformations and variations both of plants and animals, the existence of the X and N rays of light, and of countless other vibrations of which our ordinary senses render no account, the phenomena of radium and radiant matter, the marvels of wireless telegraphy, the mysterious facts connected with hypnotism and the subliminal consciousness, and the certainty now that telepathic communication can take place between human beings thousands of miles apart—all these things have convinced us that the subtlest forces and energies, totally unmeasurable by our instruments, and saturated or at least suffused with intelligence, are at work all around us. They have convinced us that gloomy phrases about cold suns and dead earths are mere sentiment and nonsense. Cold worlds there may certainly be, but nothing is more certain than that worlds on worlds, and spheres on spheres, stretch behind and beyond the actually seen—spheres so microscopic as to totally elude us, or so vast and cosmic as to elude, spheres of vibration which elude, 114 spheres of other senses than ours, spheres aerial, ethereal, magnetic, mental, subliminal. The iris-veil of our ordinary existence may truly be rent, but the visible world, the world we know, is no longer now a film on the surface of an empty bubble, but a curtain concealing a vast and teeming life, reaching down endless, in layer on layer, into the very heart of the universe. And whereas, in the former time of which I have been speaking, we might have agreed that life could not well continue after the death of the body, to-day we should, as a first guess, be inclined to think that life is more full and rich on the other side of death than on this side. “I do not doubt,” says Whitman, “that from under the feet and beside the hands and face I am cognizant of, are now looking faces I am not cognizant of, calm and actual faces—I do not doubt interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have their exteriors, and that the eyesight has another eyesight, and the hearing another hearing, and the voice another voice.”

We come, then, to this problem of Death and Birth in a similarly modified spirit, and with a predisposition to believe that they do really indicate passages from one definite world or plane or region of existence to another. And here is the place to point out, and to guard ourselves against, a common error in the use of the word Death. Death is not a state. There may be an after-death state; but death itself is the passage into that state, or—better—the passage out of the 115 present state. So Birth is not a state. There may be a pre-birth state; but birth itself is the passage into the present state. Either we pass through death into another life and condition of being; or else we are extinguished. In the former case there is clearly no state of death; and in the latter case there is no such state—because there is no self to be dead or to know itself dead. As Lucretius says,[49] endeavoring to disabuse man of the fear of the grave:—

“So to be mortal fills his mind with dread,

  Forgetting that in real death can be

No self, to mourn that other self as dead,

  Or stand and weep at death’s indignity.”

Birth and Death, then, we may look upon as two contrary movements, to some degree complementary and balancing each other; and it is possible that thus, from consideration of the one, we may be able to infer things about the other. One such thing that we may be able to infer is that Love presides over, or is intimately associated with, both movements.

The connection of Love with Birth is of course obvious. In some profound yet hidden way, almost throughout creation, the birth or generation of one creature is connected with the precedent love and sex-fusion of two others. And the connection of Love with Death, though not so prominent, can similarly almost everywhere 116 be traced. The whole of poetry in literature teems with this subject; and so does the poetry of Nature! If we are to believe the Garden of Eden story, Love and Death came into the world together; and it certainly is curious that in the age-long evolution of animal forms the same thing seems to have happened. The Protozoa at first, propagating by simple division, were endued with a kind of immortality. But then came a period when a pair found they could enter into a joint life of renewed fecundity by fusing with each other. They literally died in each other, and rose again in a numerous progeny; so that love and death were simultaneous and synonymous. Sometimes parturition and death were simultaneous. The mother-cell perished in the very act of giving birth to her brood. Then again came the aggregation of cells into living groups—the formation of ‘colonial’ organisms; and it was then that distinctive sex-differentiation and sex-organs appeared, and with the capacity of sex also the capacity of death through the disruption of the colony. Everywhere love is associated with death. The expenditure of seed in the male animal is an incipient death; the formation of the seed vessel, and the glory and color of the flowering plant, are already the signs of its decay. “Both Weismann and Goette,” say Geddes and Thomson,[50] “note how many insects (locusts, butterflies, ephemerids, and so forth) die a few 117 hours after the production of ova. The exhaustion is fatal, and the males are also involved. In fact, as we should expect from the katabolic temperament, it is the males which are especially liable to exhaustion.... Every one is familiar with the close association of love and death in the common May-flies. Emergence into winged liberty, the love-dance, and the process of fertilization, the deposition of eggs, and the death of both parents, are often the crowded events of a few hours. In higher animals, the fatality of the reproductive sacrifice has been greatly lessened, yet death may tragically persist, even in human life, as the direct Nemesis of love.”

George Macdonald, in one of his books (Phantastes, vol. i. p. 191), feigns a race of beings, for whom death is not so much the ‘nemesis’ of love, as its natural and inevitable outcome. Seized by a great love, too great for mortal expression, “looking too deep into each other’s eyes,” they (with great presence of mind, it must be said!) breathe their souls out in death, and so take their departure to another world. Heine touches the same note in his poem, the “Asra”:—

            “Ich bin aus Jemen,

Und mein stamm sind jene Asra,

Welche sterben wenn sie lieben.”

And scores of scarcely noticed paragraphs in our daily papers, brief tales of single or double suicide, present us with a dim outline of how—even 118 in the mean conditions and surroundings of our modern days—every now and then there comes to one or other a longing, a passion, and a revelation of a desire so intense, that, breaking the bounds of a useless life, it demands swift utterance in death.

Some deep and profound suggestion there is in all this—some hint of a life whose very form and nature is love, and which finds its deliverance and nativity only through the abandonment of the body—even as our ordinary life, conceived in love, finds its delivery into this world through what we call birth. At the very least it suggests that Death may have a great deal more to do with Love, and may be more deeply allied to it than is generally supposed. And it may suggest that the two things, being in some sense the most important occupations of the human race, should be frankly recognized as such, and should both be accordingly prepared for.

Another thing, about which we may be able to infer something from the analogy between Birth and Death, is the fate of the soul at death. If we can trace in any way the relation of the soul to the body at the time of the first appearance of the latter, that may shed light on the relation which will hold at its disappearance. We cannot certainly define very strictly what we mean by the word ‘soul’; but we are all very well aware that associated with our bodies, and in some sense pervading them with its intelligence, is a conscious (as well as subconscious) being which we call the 119 self or soul; and we are all puzzled at times to understand what is the relation between this and the body. Now we have seen (ch. ii.) the genesis of the body from a single fertilized cell or germ almost microscopic in size, and its growth by continual and myriadfold division into, say, a human form; and we have seen that every cell in the perfect and final form—every cell, of eye, or liver, or of any part or organ—is there by linear descent or division from that first cell, though variously adapted and differentiated during the process. We are therefore almost compelled to conclude that that intelligent self (conscious or subconscious) which we are so distinctly aware of as associated with our mature bodies was there also, associated with the first germ.[51] It may not truly have been outwardly manifest or unfolded into evidence at that primitive stage. It could not well be. But it was there, even in its totality, and unless it had been there, we could not now be what we are. The conscious and subconscious self has been within us all along, unfolding and manifesting itself with the unfoldment and development of the body; and indeed to all appearances guiding that development. And more, we may fairly say—having regard to the mode of development of the tissue—that it dwells even in its entirety within every normal and healthy cell of our 120 present bodies, and is the formative essence thereof.

Let me give an illustration. Sometimes in the morning you may see a bush glittering all over with dewdrops; every leaf has such a tiny jewel hanging from it. If now you look you will see in each dewdrop a miniature picture of the far landscape. Or, to take a closer illustration, some shrubs have, embedded in the very tissue of their leaves, tiny transparent and lens-like glands which yield to close scrutiny similar miniatures of the world beyond. Exactly, then, like these plants, we may think of the whole human body as trembling in light—each cell containing (if we could but see it!) a luminous image of the presiding genius or self of the body.

The question is often asked: Where is the self? does it reside in the head, or in the heart, or perhaps in the liver? is it an aural halo pervading and surrounding the body, or is it a single microscopic cell far hidden in the interior, or is it an invisible atom? Here apparently is the answer. It animates every cell. It pervades the whole body, and seeks expression in every part of it. Some cells, as we have said before, are differentiated so as to express especially this faculty, others to express especially that; but the human soul or self stands behind them all. Look at a baby’s face, and its growing sparkling expression—an individual being coming newly into the world, obviously seeking, feeling, 121 tentatively finding its way forward—every morning a thinnest veil falling from its features! Playing through the whole body, is an intelligence, seeking expression. Helen Keller, the girl both deaf and blind, describes most graphically her agonizing experiences at the age of six or seven, when her growing powers of body and mind demanded the expression which her physical disabilities so cruelly denied. “The desire to express myself grew,”[52] she says; “the few signs I used became less and less adequate, and my failures to make myself understood were invariably followed by outbursts of passion. I felt as if invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself.” And then most touching, the description of her relief, “the thrill of surprise, the joy of discovery,” when she at last, about the age of ten, was able to utter her first intelligible words. In some degree like Helen Keller’s is perhaps the experience of every babe that is born into the world.

It seems to me, therefore, that each person is practically compelled to think of his ‘self’ as moving behind or as associated with or animating every cell in the healthy body; and as having been so associated with the first germ of the same, even though that was a thing well-nigh invisible to the naked eye. You were there, you are there now, at the root of your bodily life. You may not, certainly, except at moments, be distinctly conscious of this your complete relation 122 to the body; but, as we have already said, the term self must be held to include the large subconscious tracts which occasionally flash up into consciousness, and which, when they do so flash, almost always confirm this relation; nor must we lose from sight the still more deeply buried physiological or animal soul, whose operations we seem to be able to trace from earliest days, guiding all the complex of organic growth and development, and apparently conscious in its own way with a very wonderful sort of intelligence.[53]

All this compels us, I think, not only to picture to ourselves the mental self or soul as associated with the body, and taking part in its development from the first inception of the latter; but also to picture that self as in its entirety considerably greater and more extensive than the ordinary conscious self, and even as greater than any bodily expression or manifestation which it succeeds in gaining. We are compelled, I think, to regard the real self as at all times only partially manifested.

I think this latter point is obvious; for when, and at what period in life, is manifestation complete? Certainly not in babyhood, when the faculties are only unfolding; certainly not in old age, when they are decaying and falling away. Is it, then, in maturity and middle life? But during all that period the output of expression 123 and character in a man is constantly changing; and which of all these changes of raiment is completely representative? Do we not rather feel that to express our real selves every phase from childhood through maturity even into extreme old age ought to be taken into account? Nay, more than that; for have we not—perhaps most of us—a profound feeling and conviction that there are elements deep down in our natures, which never have been expressed, and never can or will be expressed in our present and actual lives? Do we not all feel that our best is only a fraction of what we want to say? And what must we think of the strange facts of multiple personality? Do they not suggest that our real self has facets so opposite, so divergent, that for a long time they may appear quite disconnected with each other; until ultimately (as has happened in actual cases) they have been visibly reconciled and harmonized in a new and more perfect character?

With regard to this view that the real person is so much greater than his visible manifestation, Frederick Myers and Oliver Lodge have used the simile of a ship. And it is a fine one. A ship gliding through the sea has a manifestation of its own, a very partial one, in the waterworld below—a ponderous hull moving in the upper layers of that world—a form encrusted with barnacles and sea-weed. But what denizen of the deep could have any inkling or idea of the real life of that ship in the aerial plane—the 124 glory of sails and spars trimmed to the breeze and glancing in the sun, the blue arch of heaven flecked with clouds, the leaping waves and the boundless horizon around the ship as she speeds onward, the ingenious provision for her voyage, the compass, the helmsman and the captain directing her course? Surely (except in moments of divination and inspiration) we have little idea of what we really are! But there are such moments—moments of profound grief, of passionate love, of great and splendid angers and enthusiasms which dart light back into the farthest recesses of our natures and astonish us with the vision they disclose. And (perhaps more often) there are moments which disclose the wonder-self in others. If we do not recognize (which is naturally not easy!) our own divinity, it is certain that we cannot really love without discovering a divine being in the loved one—a being remote, resplendent, inaccessible, who calls for and indeed demands our devotion, but of whom the mortal form is most obviously a mere symbol and disguise. There are times when this strange illumination falls on people at large, and we see them as gods walking: when we look even on the tired overworked mother in the slum, and her face is shining like heaven; or on the ploughboy in the field with his team, and see the mould and the material of ancient heroes. Yet of what is really nearest to them all the time these folk say nothing, and we are astonished to find them haggling over halfpence 125 or seriously troubled about wire-worms. It is as if a play, or some kind of deliberate mystification, were being carried on—with disguises a little too thin. We see, as plain as day—and nothing can contravene our conclusion—that it is only a fraction of the real person that is concerned.

Your self, then, I say—covering by that word not only all that you and your friends usually include in it, but probably a good deal more—existed, with all its potentialities and capacities even in association with the first primitive germ of your present body.[54] That germ was microscopic in size, and its inner workings and transformations were ultra-microscopic in character. We do not know whence they originated; and 126 whether we think of the soul which was associated with them as ultra-microscopic in its nature or as fourth-dimensional does not much matter. We only perceive that it, the soul, must have been there, in an unseen world of some kind, pushing forward toward its manifestation in the visible.[55] I do not think we can well escape this conclusion.

But if we conclude that the soul existed before Birth, or, more properly, at or before conception, in some such invisible world, then that it should so exist after Death is equally possible, nay, probable. For after conception, by continual multiplication and differentiation of cells, the soul framed for itself organs of expression and manifestation, and thus gradually came into our world of sight and sense and ordinary intelligence; and so, by some reverse process, we may suppose that in decay and death the soul gradually loses these organs and their coördination, and retires into the invisible. Whatever the nature of this invisible may be—whether, as I say, a world of things too minute for human perception, or too vast for the same, or whether a world which eludes us by the simple artifice of everywhere and in everything running parallel to the things of the world—only in another dimension imperceptible to us—in any case it seems reasonable to suppose that the soul is still there, fulfilling its nature and its destiny, 127 of which its earth-life has only been one episode.[56]

And if the apparent loss of consciousness (the loss of the ordinary consciousness at any rate) which often takes place during the death-change, seems to point to extinction and not to continuance, I think that that need not disturb us. For in sleep, in our nightly sleep, the same suspension of the ordinary consciousness takes place, as we very well know; yet all the time the subconsciousness is functioning away—sorting out sounds, bidding us wake for some, allowing us to sleep through others, discriminating disturbances, carrying on the physiologies of the body, posting sentinels in the reflexes—and guarding us from harm—till untired in the morning it knits together again the ravelled thread of the ordinary consciousness and renews our waking activities. And if this happens in our ordinary and nightly sleep, it seems at any rate possible that something similar may happen in death. Indeed 128 there is much evidence to show that while at the hour of death the supraliminal consciousness often passes into a state of quiescence or abeyance, the subliminal, or at any rate some portion of the subliminal, becomes unusually active. Audition grows strangely keen—so much so that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether the things heard have been apprehended by extension of the ordinary faculty or whether by a species of clairaudience. Vision similarly passes into clairvoyance, the patient becomes extraordinarily sensitive to telepathic influences, and knows what is going on at a distance;[57] and not only so, but he radiates influences to a distance. All the phenomena of wraiths and dying messages, now so well substantiated—of apparitions and impressions projected with force at the moment of death into the minds of distant friends—prove clearly the increased activity and vitality (one may say) of the subliminal self at that time; and this points, as I say, not to extinction and disorganization, but perhaps to the transfer of consciousness more decisively into hidden regions of our being. One hears sometimes of a dying person who, prevented from departure by the tears and entreaties of surrounding friends, cries out “Oh! let me die!” and one remembers the case, above mentioned, of the apparently dead mother who, so to speak, called herself back to life by the thought of her orphaned children. Such cases as these do not look like loss of continuity; 129 rather they look as if a keen intelligence were still there, well aware of its earth-life, but drawn onward by an inevitable force, and passing into a new phase, of swifter subtler activity in perhaps a more ethereal body.

That the human soul does pass through great transformations—moultings and sloughings and metamorphoses—and so forward from one stage to another, we know from the facts of life. Physiologically the body takes on a new phase at birth, and another at weaning and teething, and another at puberty, and another in age at the ‘change of life,’ and so on; and transformations of the soul or inner life (some of them very remarkable) are associated with these outer phases. The last great bodily change is obviously accompanied—as we have just indicated—by the development or extension of hidden psychic powers. What exactly that final transformation may be, we can only at present speculate; but we can see that, like the others, when it arrives it has already become very necessary and inevitable. At every such former stage—whether it be birth, or teething, or puberty, or what not—there has been constriction or strangulation. The growing inner life has found its conditions too limited for it, and has burst forth into new form and utterance. In this final change the bodily conditions altogether seem to have grown too limited. With an irresistible impulse and an agonizing joy of liberation the soul sweeps out, or is fearfully swept, into its new sphere. Sometimes doubtless 130 the passage is one of pain and terror; far more often, and in the great majority of cases, it is peaceful and calm, with a deep sense of relief; occasionally it is radiant with ecstasy, as if the new life already cast its splendor in advance.[58]

Yes, we cannot withhold the belief that there is an after-death state—a state which in a sense is present with us, and has been present, all our lives; but which—for reasons that at present we can only vaguely apprehend—has been folded from our consciousness.

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