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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 XII

Reincarnation

There is a good deal of talk indulged in, on the subject of Reincarnation—talk of a rather cheap character. One does not quite see what is the use of saying that the ego will be reincarnated again some day, unless one has some sort of idea what one means by the ego, and unless one has some understanding of the sense in which the word “reincarnation” is used. If it is meant that your local and external self, approximately as you and your friends know it to-day—including dress, facial outline, professional skill, accomplishments, habits of mind and body, interests and enthusiasms—is going to repeat itself again in five or five hundred years, or has already appeared in this form in the past; one can only say “impossible!” and “I trust not!” For all these things depend on date, locality, heredity, surrounding institutions, social habits, current morality, and so forth, which—though they have certainly played their part in the spirit’s growth—must infallibly be different at any other period (short of the whole universe repeating itself). And anyhow to have them repeated again da capo at some future time would be terribly dull. 216 But if you say “Of course I don’t mean anything so silly as that,” it becomes incumbent on you to say what you do mean.

Supposing, for instance, you had been planked down a baby in the Arabian desert, and grown up to maturity or middle age there, instead of where you are, would any of your present-day friends recognize you? Where would be your charming piano-playing, your excellent cricket, your rather sloppy water-color painting, your up-to-dateness in the theatrical world? Where your morality (with three wives of course) or your religion (something about “Christian dogs”), or where your British sang froid and impeccability? And if it is obvious that in such a case as this you would, owing to the changed conditions, be changed out of all recognition, much more—one might say—would this be the case if you had been born five hundred years ago, or were to be born again five hundred years hence. Your whole outlook on life, and its whole impress on you, would be different.

Of course I am not meaning, by these remarks, to say that reincarnation is in itself impossible or absurd; that would be prejudging the question. All I mean at present is that if we are going to study this subject, or theorize upon it, it is really necessary to define in some degree the terms which we use. I do not say that you, the reader, might not be reincarnated, but I think it is clear that if you were, we should have a good deal of trouble in following and 217 finding you! It is clear that the you, so reappearing, would not be your well-known local and external self, but some deep nucleus, difficult perhaps for your best friend to recognize, and possibly even unknown or unrecognized by yourself at present. And similarly of some friend that you love for a thousand little tricks and ways. We all have such friends, and at times cherish a sentimental romance of their being restored to us in some future æon habited in their old guise and with their well-worn frocks and coats. But surely it is no good playing at hide-and-seek like that. The common difficulties about the conventional heaven—the difficulty about meeting your old friend who used to be so good at after-dinner stories, about meeting him with a harp in his hand and sitting on a damp cloud—is no whit the less a difficulty whatever future world may be the rendezvous. He would be changed (externally) and we should be changed, and it might well happen that if we did seem to recall any former intimacy we should both feel like strangers, and be as shy and tentative in our approaches to each other as school-children.

What do we mean by the letter “I”? and what do we mean by the word Reincarnation? These two questions wait for a reply.

The first is a terribly difficult question. It lies (though neglected by the philosophers themselves) at the root of all philosophy. Perhaps really all life and experience are nothing but an 218 immense search for the answer. What do we mean by the Ego? It is a sort of fundamental question, which it might be supposed would precede all other questions, but which as a matter of fact seems to be postponed to all others, and is the last to be solved. All we can at the outset be sure of in the way of answer is the enormous extent and depth of the being we are setting out to define. We sometimes think of the ego as a mere point of consciousness, or we think of the ordinary self of daily life as a fragile and ephemeral entity bounded by a few bodily tissues and a few mental views and habits. But even the slight discussion of the subject in former chapters of this book (chapters vi., vii., and so forth) has revealed to us the vast underlying stores and faculties which must be included—the wonderful powers of memory, the subtle capacities of perception at a distance, or without the usual organs of sight and hearing, the power of creating images out of the depths of one’s mind, and of impressing them telepathically upon others, the faculty of clairvoyance in past and future time, and so forth. The more we try to fathom this ego, with which we supposed ourselves so familiar, the more we are amazed at its labyrinthine profundity, and the more we are astonished to think that we should ever have ventured to limit it to such a petty formula and conventional symbol as we commonly do—not 219 only in our judgment of friends, but even in our estimate of ourselves.

Reincarnation, as we have already said, can hardly be the reappearance, in a new life on earth (or even in some other sphere), of the very local and superficial traits which we know so well in ourselves and our friends—which are mainly a response to local and superficial conditions, and which mainly constitute what we call our personalities. If reincarnation does occur, it must obviously consist in the reappearance or remanifestation of some such very interior self as we have just spoken of—some deep individuality (as opposed to personality), some divine æonian soul, some offshoot perhaps of an age-long enduring Race-soul, or World-self—and in that sort of sense only shall I use the word in future.

In that sense the idea is feasible and illuminative. It explains the obvious limitations and localism of our personalities, as being more or less passing and temporary embodiments of our true selves; and it represents the latter as immense storehouses of experience from all manner of places and times, and similarly as centres of world-activity operating in different fields of time and space. At the same time, it presents various difficulties. For one thing, it poses the difficulty that for each of us this vast interior being is, as a rule, so deeply buried that both oneself and one’s friends are only faintly conscious—if at all—of its true outline. And if one does 220 not recognize this being, of what use is it to us? It is true that we sometimes meet people who at first sight give us a strong impression of far-back intimacy; but this is only a vague impression and hardly sufficient to afford proof of pre-existence. The only way of meeting this difficulty seems to be to suppose, as residing in this inner being or true self, another order of consciousness, faint intimations of which we even now have, and by which, as it grows and develops, we may some day clearly recognize our true selves and true nature.

Another difficulty is that (as already said) for any satisfactory sense of survival continuity of memory is needed; and we should have to suppose that the memory of each earth-life was continued into and stored up in this deeper soul or æonian self. Memory would not normally pass from one embodiment or incarnation to another, but each stream would flow into the central self and there be stored. And I think we may admit that this is by no means impossible. Indeed there are not a few facts (some already mentioned) with regard to the recovery of memory which make the mater probable. Though any given earth-life in a given form could not be repeated, the memory of such an earth-life, fresh and clear, may survive for an indefinite time in the crystal mirror of the deeper consciousness.[127] And it is 221 perhaps allowable to suppose that in this way, and with the lifting of the opaque veil of our present consciousness, we may some day come clearly into the presence of friends we have lost.

Here again, however, one has to be on one’s guard. The mere fact of remembering (or thinking one remembers), in this our terrestrial life and with our terrestrial consciousness, some detail or other of a previous terrestrial life proves little—for, for aught we know, quite apart from our psychic selves, a streak of memory of more physical origin from some ancestor may have come down even several generations, and may be surviving in one’s brain.[128] Indeed it is extremely probable that all organic matter carries memory with it, and not unlikely that inorganic matter does so too. If you thought, for instance, that you remembered seeing Charles the First beheaded—if you had a rather distinct picture in your mind of the scene at Whitehall, which you afterwards found by investigation to be corroborated in its details, you might at first jump to the conclusion that you had really lived at that time, and witnessed the scene. But after all it might merely be that an ancestor of yours had been 222 there, and that the vividly impressed picture had somehow persevered in some subterranean channel of memory and emerged again in your mind. Even then you might contend that, since it was your memory, you must have been there—or at any rate some fraction of yourself in the ancestor, which now has become incorporated in your personality. There are a good many stories of this kind going about, which point to the possibility of the transmission of shreds of remembrance through hereditary channels, and suggest the idea of an active Race-memory, or Earth-memory, in itself continuous—a storehouse of experiences, but fed continually by the individuals of the race, and coruscating forth again in other individuals.[129] Indeed one can hardly withhold belief in the existence of such a larger life, or identity, ‘reincarnated’ if one likes to use the expression, in thousands or millions of individuals; but to be satisfactorily assured of the reincarnation of one distinct and individual person is another thing, and would almost demand that there should be forthcoming not only shreds and streaks of remembrance, but a pretty continuous and consistent memory of a whole former life.

Thus the whole question which we are discussing is baffled and rendered the more complex by the doubt as to what is meant by the word “I.” It is clear, from what we have already said, that one person may use it to indicate (1) the quite local and superficial self; while another may have 223 in mind (2) a much profounder being (the underlying self) whose depths and qualities we have by no means fathomed; while others, again, may be thinking (3) of the self of the Race or the Earth, or (4) the All-self of the universe.

I present these questions and doubts, not—as I have said—for the purpose of discrediting the possibility of Reincarnation, but by way of showing how complex and difficult the problem is, and how much some exact thought and definition is needed in dealing with it. At the same time, in pleading for exact thought I would also urge that in avoiding the whirlpools of sentimentalism we should be careful not to fall upon the rocks of a dry and barren formalism. Systems of hard and fast doctrines on these subjects—even though issued with all the authority of ancient tradition, and enunciated in a long-dead jargon—are the most unfruitful and uninspiring of things. They seem to contain no germ of vitality and are liable to paralyze the mind that feeds upon them. Besides the drawback—as I have pointed out before—that all such systems are inevitably false. Nature does not, in any department, work upon a cut-and-dried system; and while at the outset of an investigation we often seem to discern something of that kind, further study invariably discloses an astounding variety of order and method. It may be well therefore to be prepared to find a general principle of Reincarnation in operation in the world, but worked out, in actual fact, in a great variety of ways.

224 Certainly there comes into our minds, at a certain grade of their development, a deep persuasion of the truth, in some sense, of reincarnation—that “the Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, hath had elsewhere its setting.” It blossoms, this persuasion, in a curious way, in the very depths of the mind; and in moments of inner illumination, or deep feeling, is discerned in a way that seems to leave no room for doubt. At the same time, it not only has this intuitive sanction, but it commends itself also to the intellect, because at a certain stage we perceive very clearly both how vast is the whole curve of progress which the soul has to cover from its first birth to its final liberation, and how tiny is the arc represented by a single lifetime—the two thoughts almost compelling us to believe in a succession of lives as the only explanation or solution. We are compelled towards a practical belief in Reincarnation, and yet (as above) we have to confess that our conception of what it really is, or what we mean by it, is only vague. This, however, is no more than what happens in a hundred other cases. The young bird starts building a nest for the first time, driven by some strange instinct to do so, and yet it can only have a very dim notion of the meaning and uses the nest will subserve when finished. And we found our lives on deep intuitions—of social solidarity, of personal responsibility, of free will, and so forth—and yet it is only later and by degrees that we learn what these things actually mean.

225 Referring, then, to the four alternative forms of the self given two or three pages back, and taking the last first, we may say definitely, I think, that as far as the self of each one of us is identified (4) with the All-self of the universe, its reincarnation is assured. Its reincarnation indeed is perpetual, inexhaustible, multitudinous beyond words, filling all space and time. Though the consciousness of this self is deeply buried, yet it is there, in each one of us. Occasionally—if even only for a moment—it rises to the surface, bringing a sense of splendor and of joy indescribable—the absolute freedom and password of all creation, the recognition of oneself everywhere and in all forms. But this phase of the self—I need hardly say—is for the most part hidden; and more common is it perhaps for the Race-self (3) to rise into our consciousness with more or less distinct assurance that we live again and are re-embodied in other members of the race to which we belong. The common life of the race carries us away and overmasters us with a strange sense of identity and community of being. Heroisms and devotions—as of men dying for their country, or bees for their hive—spring from this; and superb intoxications of joy. The whole of the life of primitive races and tribes, and the life of the animals and insects, illustrates it—in warfares, migrations, crusades, frantic enthusiasms, mad festivals—the genius of the race rushing on from point to point, inspiring its children, incarnating itself without end in successive individuals.

226 It is not so uncommon, I say, for us to be able to identify ourselves with this great Race-self, and to feel its thrill and pulse within our veins. And it might well be thought that, with these two forms of reincarnation (3) and (4) and the immense joy they bring, we should be content: even as all the tribes of the animals and the angels are content.

But it seems that man—when the civilization-period sets in, and after that—is not content. The little individual soul, now first coming to the consciousness of its own separateness, sets up a claim for an immortality and a reincarnation of its very own—apart from the Race-self, apart even from the Divine self. It demands that its ego should continue indefinitely into the farthest fields of Time—a separate entity, perpetually re-embodied. Can such a claim—in the light of what has been said above—be possibly conceded?

Certainly not. We have seen the absurdity of supposing that the local and superficial self (1) can ever recur again or be re-embodied in that form, except as a mere matter of memory (or possibly of a repetition of the whole universal order). And as to the underlying self (2), whatever exactly it may be, there are a thousand reasons for seeing that as a wholly separate entity the same must be true of that. I may refer the reader to The Art of Creation, the whole argument of which is to show that even the mere attempt to think of itself as a separate entity involves the human soul in hopeless confusion and 227 disintegration; and I may remind the reader that we know nothing in the whole universe which is thus separate and apart, and that the conception, whether from a physical point of view or a psychological point of view, is impossible to maintain. That being so, there remains only to consider the possibility of the underlying self or individual soul being re-embodied—not as an absolutely separate entity, but as affiliated to some greater Life which shall afford the basis of successive incarnations. The problem is narrowed down, practically to the question whether the individual may not obtain some kind of individual reincarnation through the Race-self, or possibly through the All-self of the universe.

And here I will state what I personally think and believe about this problem, leaving the reasons for the present to commend themselves. I think that in the early stages—in animal and primitive human life—the Race-self is paramount; that each individual self proceeds from it, in much the same way as a bud proceeds from the stem of a growing plant, or even as a single cell forms part of the tissue of the stem; and is absorbed into it again at death. There are no individual and death-surviving souls produced, apart from the Race-soul. In the great race or family of bunny-rabbits, for instance—though there are certainly individual differences of character—just as there are differentiations of tissue-cells in the stem of a plant—it is difficult to believe that there are individual 228 and immortal souls. Each little self springs from the race, and is an embodiment of it, representing in various degree its characteristics; and at death—in some way which we do not yet quite understand[130]—returns thither, yielding its experiences to the stores of the race-experience. The same is probably true of the great mass of the higher animals, even up to the primitive and earliest Man. The Race-self in all these cases moves onward, upgathering the experiences of the individuals, wise with their united knowledge, and rich with their countless memories. And these tracts again, of experience, knowledge and memory, largely in a vague and generalized form, but sometimes in sharp, individualized and detailed form, are transmitted from the Race-self to its later individuals and offshots. Thus a kind of broken reincarnation occurs, by which streaks of memory and habit pass down time from one individual to another, and by which perhaps—in us later races—the persistent ‘intimations of immortality’ and persuasions of having lived before are accounted for.

I think that this process, of mixed and broken reincarnation, may go on for countless generations—the animal or animal-human souls so differentiated from the race-soul returning continually to the latter at death. But that a period may come when the Race-self (illustrated by the growing plant-stem) may exhibit distinct buds—the 229 embryos, as it were, of independent souls—which will not return and be lost again in the race-soul, but will persevere for a long period and continually attain to more differentiation and internal coherence and sense of identity. In such cases any reincarnations that occur connected with these buds—though mingled with the race-life—will become much less broken than before, and more distinctly individual; till at last a phase is reached when such a soul-bud, almost detached from the race-life, may be reincarnated (or let us say ‘re-embodied’) as a separate entity, with a kind of immortality of its own.

It must be at this stage that the characteristic human soul of the Civilization-period is evolved—which coheres quite firmly round itself, which protests and revolts against death, which even largely throws off its allegiance to the race-soul, and to the laws and solidarities of the race-life, and which has an enormous and overweening sense of identity and self-importance, claiming for itself, as I have just said, a kind of separate persistence. Here ensues, as may be imagined, a terrible period of confusion and trouble—the whole period of competitive civilization. The splendid claim of identity and immortality is made; but for the time being it is spoiled by what we call ‘selfishness,’ the mirror is cracked through ignorance. The Soul has disowned her allegiance to mere instinct and the race-self, and has yet not found a firm footing beyond—is only floundering in the bogs of self-consciousness and 230 anxiety. What kind of Re-embodiment may belong to this period we shall best perhaps see when we have considered the further course of the argument.

For at last the process of transition completes itself. The human soul tossed about beyond endurance at length discovers within itself a divine Nucleus—a nucleus of growth and life and refuge and security, apart from its own fragility, quite apart from the race-life, independent of all the latter’s laws and conventions and sanctions and traditions, independent of caste or color, of world-period or locality; and from that moment it (the soul) rests; it ceases (like the little rose of Jericho) from its desert wanderings; it radiates itself and begins to grow from a new centre; it is born again; it becomes the beginning of what may be called a Divine Soul. The man becomes conscious of an ethereal body forming within, unassailable or at least undestroyable by Death; and it is probable that, during this period, the subtle organism which we have already termed the Inner or Spiritual Body (ch. x.) is actually forming and defining and, so to speak, consolidating itself. The subtle body of a more perfect being is forming—a body which can pass unharmed through walls, fire, water, which can navigate the air and the planetary spaces, and which is built on the basis of the ether, itself the all-pervading life-substance of creation. A divine soul is coming to expression, an ego indeed, marvellously different and distinct from 231 all other egos, and ever more majestic and unique growing; but rooted deep in the universal self, and ever from that root expanding and sharing the life of that self and of all its children.

With the formation of this divine soul, re-embodiment in its complete and adequate sense commences. The spiritual or subtle body formed within the gross body retains its characteristics after the death of the latter (many of which characteristics no doubt hardly gained expression in the one life just ended)—and passes on to other spheres, there to assume more or less definitely material bodies according to the sphere and the conditions in which it may need to move. It may seek re-embodiment on earth through ordinary heredity and childbirth—in which case presumably it enters into the growing germ, and moulds the development of the latter to an adequate, if not to a quite perfect and unsullied, expression of itself. If the reincarnation is to be into ordinary human and terrestrial life, this is probably the only available method. And it would seem that some advanced and well-nigh perfect souls do adopt this method, appearing as infants with a kind of divinity about them, and a germinal purity so great as to seem to proceed from an ‘immaculate conception.’

But to most, in this stage, the toil and tedium of passing through embryonic life and physical birth and infancy may well appear intolerable; and since by now they have developed the subtle 232 or spiritual body and the powers belonging to it, this ordeal is no longer necessary. The subtle body can—as we have gathered from former chapters—by a process of condensation clothe itself in a visible or even tangible vesture,[131] and may function, at any rate for a time, in such outer or apparitional form without going through all the abracadabra of birth. If on the earth, such functioning can only be very temporary, owing to the difficulty here of the conditions, and of the supply of the necessary condensation-material; but in other and less ponderous spheres the difficulty is probably much less, and the formation of suitable bodies comparatively easy. Anyhow, it will be seen that reincarnation of this second kind is unitary and single in character instead of being divided or fragmentary; it is unalloyed instead of being broken and mixed;[132] and a vision rises before us, in connection with it, of ever-growing forms and more perfect life-embodiments carrying out, one after another in long succession, the evolution and expression of each divine soul or separate ray of universal being.

Thus in answer to query two, on an early page of this chapter, we may say that there are two kinds of reincarnation proper—quite different from each other:—(1) That of the race-self 233 in which the individual members of the race share only in a streaky fashion, each going back at death into the race-soul, and emptying its memories and experiences into that soul for general sporadic inheritance, but not for transmission in mass to any one later individual; and (2) that of the individual who has found his divine soul and evolved his inner body to a point where it cannot be broken up again; and who is thus reincarnated or re-embodied complete through successive materializations or condensations, in other spheres and without again undergoing the ordinary race-birth and death.

But though these two represent the normal forms of reincarnation, a third kind should be added which represents the transition from one to the other, and which is important for us because it mainly covers the period in which we now are—the great period of civilization. We saw how the soul of the animal is so close to the race-self, and so little differentiated from it, that it probably returns quite easily into the race-self at death; and this is likely to be the same with very early or primitive man. But when the distinctly human soul begins to form and to shape itself, it does not so easily forget its individuality and obliterate itself in that from which it sprang. And so we have the tentative, half-formed human soul, by no means well assured of itself, or certain of its own powers, and by no means perfect or contented, but much persuaded of its own importance and anxiously seeking reincarnation 234 as a separate entity—and seeking this by the only means available to it, i.e. through heredity and birth as a member of the race.

It is a painful situation and experience. The soul, as human and not animal soul, is longing to separate itself from the race, to mark its distinction and independence—yet it has not, so far, found the divine nucleus which alone can give it real independence; and it can only gain expression and manifestation through the race-self and the ordinary paraphernalia of birth and death. It has learned no other way. Moreover, it is not yet completely differentiated from the race-self. It thus arrives at what can only be a very mingled and broken expression. Some father-stream and some mother-stream uniting, as it were, in the psychological neighborhood of this half-formed soul give it the desired opportunity; and blending itself with them it comes down into the world—a being of triple nature, embryonic and incompletely formed in itself, and utilizing as best it can the diverse elements of its maternal and paternal sources. Its career, consequently, and its life on earth are marked by a continual inner struggle and conflict—both physiological and psychological (due to the effort of the soul to bend the race-life and the elements of corporeal heredity to its own uses), and in strange contrast both with the hardihood and calm insouciance of the animals, in whom the race-life is untampered, 235 and with the transparent health and serenity of those other beings in whom the divine soul has finally established its sovereignty.

Such, briefly described, are I believe the outlines of the reincarnation story. To put it in a few words, the whole process by which the race-self evolves and finally gives birth to myriads of free, independent and deathless individuals curiously resembles and may well be illustrated by a certain biological phenomenon common both in the vegetable and the animal worlds. Some growing stem or portion of tissue, perhaps of a plant, perhaps of a sponge or higher organism, is at first of a simple homogeneous character, fairly uniform and undifferentiated: but after a time it exhibits knobs and inequalities, which presently define themselves in a sort of botryoidal or clustered bud-like growth (as, for instance, in the spadix of an arum or the ovary of a mammal); finally these knobs or buds become entirely distinct and fully formed, and are thrown off ‘free,’ as seeds (in the case of plants and animals), or gemmules (in the case of sponges), or spores (in ferns and mosses), or as fresh and complete individuals in many aquatic creatures—in any case to enter on the beginnings of a free and independent life of their own. This kind of process, anyhow, is found in every department of biology, and it may well be that it extends upward even into the highest domains. The growing stem—proliferating cells without number, which are born and die in a kind of even 236 uniformity within the limits of the stem—corresponds to the race-self in its early stages; the formation of knobs and buds in various degrees of clustered development corresponds to the partial growth of human souls out of the race-soul; and the liberation of the buds and germs corresponds to the liberation of the human souls into the freedom of a universal life.

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