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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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Keys to heaven are the keys to a better life.

CHAPTER XV

The Mystery of Personality

It will have been noticed that throughout this book there has been a tendency to return again and again to the question of what we mean by the Self. As I have said before (see ch. xii., supra), one might very naturally suppose that as the ego underruns all experience, and we cannot make any observation of the world at all except through its activity, the general problem of the nature of the ego would be the first to be attacked, and the very first to be solved; whereas, curiously enough, it seems to be the last! Only towards the conclusion of philosophical speculation does the importance of this problem force itself on men’s minds. Nevertheless, I think we may say that in the department of philosophy it is the great main problem which lies before this age for solution; and that one of the greatest services a man can do is—by psychologic study and manifold experience, by poetical expression, especially in lyrical form, and by philosophic thought and investigation—to make clear to himself and the world what he means by the letter ‘I,’ what he means by his ‘self.’

To the unthinking person nothing seems 263 simpler, more obvious, than his own existence—and hardly needing definition. Yet the least thought shows how complex and elusive this ‘self’ is. It is one of those cases with which the world teems—a juggle of the open daylight—in which an object appears so perfectly simple, frank, innocent, and without concealment, and yet is really profoundly complex, deliberate, and unfathomable.

The most elementary considerations easily illustrate what I mean.[138] When we speak of the ego, do we mean the self of to-day, or of yesterday, or of some years back—or possibly some years in the future when we shall have found the expression now unhappily denied us? Do we mean the self of boyhood, or even of babyhood? or do we mean that of maturity, or of old age? Do we mean the self indicated by the mind alone, or by the spirit, apart from the body? or do we mean that indicated specially by the body, or even (as some folk seem to consider) by the clothes? It would be very puzzling to be asked to place one’s finger, so to speak, on any one of these manifestations as really and completely representative. Rather perhaps we should be inclined, if pressed, to say that our real self was something underrunning all these forms—that it required all the expressions, from infancy, through maturity, even to old age, and all the apparatus of body and mind, in order to convey its meaning; and that to pin it down to any particular moment 264 of time, or to any particular phase of the material or spiritual, would be to do it a great injustice.

If so, we seem at once compelled to think of the Self as something greatly larger than any ordinary form of it that we know, as something perhaps on a different plane of being—underrunning, and therefore in a sense beyond, Time; and similarly underrunning, and therefore in a sense beyond, both body and mind. And this all the more, because, as I have said on an earlier page, we all feel that at best much of our real selves remains in life-long defect of expression; and that there are great deeps of the Under-self (as in chapter viii.) which, though organically related to our ordinary consciousness, are still for the most part hidden and unexplored. All, in fact, points to the existence within us of a very profound self, which so far we may justifiably conclude to be much greater than any one known manifestation of it; which requires for its expression the forms of a lifetime; and still stretches on and beyond; which perhaps belongs to another sphere of being—as the ship in the air and the sunlight belongs to another sphere than the hull buried deep in the water.

But we may go further in our exploration of the “abysmal deeps.” We have once or twice in the foregoing chapters alluded to the possibility of the self dividing into two personalities, or even more. We have supposed, for instance, that at death the psychic organism may possibly split up—some more terrestrial portion remaining 265 operant and active on the earth-plane, and some other portion removing to a subtler and more ethereal region. Are we—we may ask—and those others who propound the same ideas talking nonsense in doing so? Is it anyhow possible for a self to be active in two bodies or in two places at the same time? It may indeed seem impossible and absurd—until we envisage the actual facts; but when we do so, when we study the facts of the alternation of personalities, so much in evidence at the present time, when we find that two or more personalities, or coherent bodies of consciousness, may not only succeed each other in one human organism, but may simultaneously be active in the same,[139] when we find that there is such a thing as ‘bilocation,’ and that the apparition of a person may come and deliver a message while the original person is far away and otherwise engaged, when we notice carefully our own internal psychology and find that we not unfrequently “talk to ourselves” and in other ways behave as two persons in one body—we see that the absurdity or unlikelihood of the suggestion may not by any means be so great as supposed, and that we may after all be forced to largely remodel our conception of what Personality is.[140]

266 That one Personality should divide into two or more may seem to be foreign to our habitual views; yet we must remember that worms, annelids, and molluscs of various kinds commonly so divide; and though it is puzzling to think what becomes of the ‘I’ or ‘self’ of a sea-anemone when the latter is cut in twain and each part goes its way as a new creature, we must not therefore refuse to envisage the fact and the problem thus flowing from it. As to the Protozoa, which certainly exhibit signs of considerable intelligence, fission of one cell into two or more is one of the most normal and frequent events of their lives. The same, of course, is true of the elementary cells of the human body; the fission even of whole organs of the body is not uncommon, though more pathological in character; and the fission of the personality, as just mentioned, is quite frequent; and in some cases—as in the well-known case of Sally Beauchamp—very striking, on account of the furious apparent opposition developed between one portion and another.[141]

The conception therefore of Personality must, it would seem, include the thought of possible bilocation—that is, of possible manifestation in two places at the same time; and it must not refuse the thought of inclusion—i.e. of one personality being possibly included within another—as 267 of living and intelligent cells within the body.[142] Furthermore, we must not only allow division of self as one of the attributes of personality, but also, apparently, fusion with other selves. This may seem far-fetched and unreasonable at first, but on consideration we cannot but see that in one degree or another it is quite in the order of Nature. The Protozoa, of course, quite frequently combine with each other, and so make a new start in life; in the higher organisms the sperm-cell and germ-cell fuse completely for the conception of the offspring, and the organisms themselves fuse partially and interchange elements during the process of conjunction; and in the psychology of love among human beings we notice a similar fusion, and sometimes also almost a confusion, of personalities.

The little self-conscious mind (of the civilized man) no doubt protests against all this. It desires to think of itself as a separate and definite entity, distinct from (and perhaps superior to) all others; and it finds any theories of possible fission or fusion of personalities quite baffling and impracticable. Yet in the light of the All-self—the key-thought of this book—the whole thing is obvious, and there is really no difficulty, except perhaps in the linking up (through memory) of the continuity of each lesser self.

What we said in the last chapter, namely that “the personal self-consciousness can only survive 268 by ever fading and changing toward the universal,” must be borne in mind. Continual expansion is a normal condition of consciousness. Time is an integral element of it.[143] Consciousness must continually grow. Through memory it preserves the past, through the present it adds to its stores. The author of The Science of Peace illustrates the subject (p. 303) by asking us to consider the spheres of consciousness of various officials in a country whose departments more or less overlap each other: “There are administrative officers in charge of each department, whose consciousness may be said to include the consciousness of their subordinates in that department, to exclude those of their compeers, and to be in turn included in those of their superiors. The more complicated the machinery of the government, the better the illustration will be of inclusions and exclusions and partial or complete coincidences, and overlappings and communions of consciousness. At last we come to the head of the government, whose consciousness may be said to include the consciousnesses, whose knowledge and power include the knowledges and powers of all the public servants in the land, and whose consciousness is so expanded as to enable him to be in touch with them all and feel and act through them all constantly. An officer promoted through the grades of such an administration would clearly pass through expansions of consciousness.... Such expansion 269 of consciousness, then, is not in its nature more mysterious and recondite than any other item in the world-process, but a thing of daily and hourly occurrence. In terms of metaphysic it is the coming of an individual Self into relation with a larger and larger not-self.”

In the light of the All-self, I say, the difficulties disappear. It is the question of Memory (explicit or implicit) which seems to decide the limits of personalities and their survival. The One Self is experiencing in all forms, but the stores of experience and memory are kept separate. Here is a man who has a Town house and a Country house and an Italian villa. When he changes his abode from one to the other he becomes to a great extent a different person. His surroundings and associations, his pursuits and occupations, his dress and habits, his language may be, are changed. It may even happen that each of his three lives goes on growing and expanding after its own pattern, and becoming more and more different from the two others; and yet the ultimate person behind them all remains the same. Is it not possible that the lives of us human beings may go on expanding and growing each according to its own law, and yet the ultimate individual or Being behind them all may remain the same?

If a worm be supposed to have memory (and worms no doubt have memory in some degree), then it might well be supposed that, if divided in two, each of the parts would inherit the 270 said memory complete. But from that moment the experiences of the two portions, moving in different directions, would bifurcate, and the future stores of memory would be different. Thus we should have a bifurcation of the stream of memory, and a bifurcation of personality—until ultimately, as time went on, and the common memory faded into the background, the two new personalities would begin to feel themselves almost quite separate. Is not this again something like what may have happened to ourselves from Creation’s birth? The stream of life has bifurcated and bifurcated till we have lost our common memory and have become convinced of the absolute separation of our personalities one from the other.

On the other hand, the conjunction and fusion of two streams of memory in one is as probable and intelligible as the bifurcation of one into two. Two protozoa fuse; but the race-self in one is the same as in the other, and in reality the process is only a fusion of organic memories and experiences. A man who had been in the habit of changing every year from his Town to his Country house might some day find it convenient to combine his establishments in one suburban residence. Certainly if he had so far forgot himself that in changing houses he had always quite changed his memories, then it would seem impossible to him to combine the two lives in one. Otherwise there would be no difficulty in the process. The stores of one establishment, 271 with their associations and memories would after a time (and not without some maturation-divisions and extrusions!) be got into relation with the stores of the other establishment; and the two bodies of memory and association would settle down together.


All this seems to suggest to us that our conception of personality must be considerably altered from its ordinary form, and rendered more fluent, in order to tally with the real facts. There is no such thing as a fixed and limited personality, of definite content and character, which we can credit to our account, or to the account of our friends. All is in flux and change, the consciousness ever enlarging, the ego which is at the root of that consciousness ever growing in the knowledge of itself as a vital portion of the All-self. That last alone is fixed; that alone as the ‘universal witness’ is permanent. But the streams of memory and experience, by which from all sides that central fact and consciousness is reached, are infinite in number and variety. It is in the continuity of a stream of memory that what we call personality must be supposed to consist; and when this continuity covers not only a single life, but extends from life to life, then we must find a new name for the persistent being and call him not a personality, but, if we will, an individuality. Such individualities must exist by millions and billions; they must be as numerous as all the possible lines of experience (and these are 272 quasi-infinite in number) by which the soul may grow from its birth in the simplest speck of matter to its realization of divine and universal life. The author (Bhagavan Das) of The Science of Peace illustrates this infinitude of individualities, and how they are all contained in the All-self, and each in a sense as an aspect of the One, by the simile of a museum or gallery. “If a spectator,” he says (p. 289), “wondered unrestingly through the halls of a vast museum or great art gallery, at the dead of night, with a single small lamp in one hand, each of the natural objects, the pictured scenes, the statues, the portraits, would be illumined by that lamp in succession for a single moment, while all the rest were in darkness, and after that single moment would fall into darkness again. Let there now be not one but countless such spectators, as many in endless numbers as the objects of sight within the place, each spectator wandering in and out incessantly through the great crowd of all the others, each lamp bringing momentarily into light one object, and for only that spectator who holds that lamp.” Then he goes on to say that each line or succession of experiences might represent an individuality; each individuality in the end would reach the totality of experience, but in a different order and in a different manner from any other; and all the individualities would all the time—though changing themselves—remain within the unchanging intelligence of the absolute, and would only be 273 exploring that intelligence each in a different order. “For,” he again says (p. 317), “an individuality can no otherwise be described, discriminated and fixed, than by enumerating the experiences of that individual, by narrating its biography.”

We may also illustrate the matter by the conception of a Tree. A single leaf at the end of a twig may seem to have a little separate self of its own; but it is very ephemeral. It perishes with the season and another leaf takes its place. There is a deeper self, in the twig, which endures, and from which new leaves spring. And again the twig springs from a small spray, which is the source of other twigs and leaves. Should the leaf desire to trace its complete and total self it would have to follow its life-line through the twig and the spray, to the branch, and so right down to the central trunk. It could not stop at any halfway point, and say, This is my final self. But on its way to the trunk, at different points, it would find that its sap or life was flowing into other twigs and leaves, as well as the twig and leaf first mentioned. It would come into relation, so to speak, with other bodies beside the first. If we were to call the first leaf and twig a personality we should have to call some deeper self involving many twigs and leaves an Individuality, and so on to the All-self of the tree. The self of every leaf would approach the main trunk along a different line, and through various ranges of individuality; but all would ultimately participate in one whole.

274 I think some such view is clearly the most satisfactory way of looking at the matter. We are all essentially one; our differentiation from each other does not consist in differences in the central ego, but in the different lines of experience and memory. We can none of us boast, at any point, of a rounded, definite and stationary self, apart from all others; but we are all approaching the universal from different sides. Yet, also, it is perfectly true that consciousness is born in us first through our very limitations. Through the very obstacles that surround us, and through the things that seem to divide us from others, first simple consciousness and then self-consciousness are born. Then comes a time when the limitations and the barriers become intolerable. The soul that at first gloried in them comes to find the burden of self-consciousness too great. Why should it be forever John Smith? As Mrs. Stetson says:—

“What an exceeding rest ’twill be

When I can leave off being Me!...

Done with the varying distress

Of retroactive consciousness!...

Why should I long to have John Smith

Eternally to struggle with?”

When the consciousness arises of this fact, that we need not be tied to John Smith forever—that our real self is far vaster, and essentially one with others, then in each of us the Divine Soul is born; a vista of glory and splendor opens in front, and 275 on all sides the barriers fall to the ground. On the way to this supreme conclusion the stream of memories which one calls oneself may of course take on form after form; it may bifurcate, or it may fuse with other streams. That does not very much matter. The real identity, once established, can hardly be lost. For every leaf there is a channel of sap which connects it with the main trunk. Personality is real, but it yields itself up in the greater Individual of which it is the expression; and the individual or divine soul is real—enduring perhaps many thousands of years—but it yields itself up ultimately in the All. Finally, in that union, Memory itself, in its mortal form, ceases, for it is swallowed up in actual realization, in the power of actual presence in all space and time. The divine soul which has thus completed its union needs memory no more. It is there wherever it desires to be. As the author of Siderische Geburt (Berlin, 1910) says, “We mortals are separated from the divine all-embracing universal Vision; and Memory is only a first glimmering reawakening—a beginning of renewed seraphic life and a coming into relation with all that lies beyond the little world-corner of our presence.”[144]


At first sight, and to one who does not yet realize the inner unity of being, these views on the nature of Personality and Individuality may 276 appear strange and even painful. For such a person the thought of the dissociation of his ‘self,’ of its separation into two or more parts—either in life or in death—and the divergence of the two parts from each other, must be grotesque and terrible, and verging even towards madness. And so also must be the thought of the possible dissociation of the personalities of his friends. And yet it may be necessary for us at length and by degrees to understand and assimilate such a view. Certain it is that, as we come to understand it, we shall see that any dissociation that may occur can only be of the superficial elements—something of the nature of a divergence of the chains of memory; and that dissociation of the real and intimate self is a thing quite impossible. We shall see that by degrees the self may learn to deal with such dissociations, and to express itself in various guises, and in more than one personality at a time. If, for instance, there does occur at death a certain break-up of the psychic organism—if the animal soul, and the human soul, and the divine soul do to a certain extent part from each other and go along different ways, we may see that it is quite possible that the personal stream of memory may correspondingly branch in different directions. One portion of the consciousness, having always been animal and terrestrial in character, may identify itself mainly with the animal vitality of the residue and its corresponding memories—and may persevere for some time as a wandering passional centre, 277 liable to attach itself to the organisms of living folk, or to figure as a ‘ghost’ of very limited activities and occupied with eternal repetitions of the same action; another portion, more distinctly human, may linger in some intermediate state, partly in touch with the earth-life and the souls of mortal friends, yet partly drawn onward into wider spheres; and may function on for a long time in a kind of dreamland—creating perhaps the objects of its own consumption till it wearies of them, or building up imaginative worlds of occupations and activities similar to our own, as in “the happy hunting grounds” of Indians, or the worlds described from time to time by mediumistic ‘controls.’ And again a third portion may pass into that far wider and grander state of being which we have described—that of the ‘divine’ soul which recognizes its equality and unity with all others, and its freedom of the whole universe. In all these cases the main stream of memory, branching, must pour itself into the section of life which follows, and render the latter quite continuous with the former—though naturally with some differences, both in the memories transmitted, and in the degrees of community, in each case.

We may apply these considerations to the question of the messages and apparitions from the unseen world which have been alluded to in former chapters. How far or in what special way these communications really represent the active and continuing consciousness of our 278 departed friends is a question which is generally admitted to be most doubtful and difficult. And its difficulty is not lessened, I think, by our conclusions (so far) on the nature of Personality. If the stream of a man’s earth-life memory may diverge at death into two or more streams, then it must remain difficult for us to say whether the communication which is coming to us proceeds from a mere overflow of that stream, which has eddied itself, so to speak, into the brain of the medium; or from some ‘astral’ shell of the departed one, which has already begun decaying and dissipating, in our atmosphere; or again from the true soul of the man which is pushing forward into the world beyond. Probably we do not yet know enough about the matter to form decisive judgments. In either case the memory exhibited may be surprisingly perfect. And it seems to me that in most cases nothing but personal evidence and personal detail, even down to the minutest points, can decide—and even then not in such a way as to decide for others. And perhaps it is best and most natural so. In our world of ordinary life it is so. If an apparent stranger turns up from the other side of the earth and claims a far-back acquaintance; if another makes the same claim over the telephone; if a known friend behaves strangely, and we are in doubt whether to attribute his conduct to bona fides or to incipient madness; in these and a thousand other cases, personal relationship and personal understanding (though by no means 279 unerring) count for more than all science and legal proof. And perhaps this is the healthiest way to take the subject: not to be over-curious or speculative or sentimental, but where solid help and a permanent and useful relationship seems to be gained, there to accept the communications as so far commending and justifying themselves.

If, as I have just said, there is something a little disquieting and even terrible in the thought that our personality may thus be subject to rupture or dissociation into two or more portions, that matter after all depends upon how we look upon it—whether from below, as it were, or from above. There is nothing particularly terrible in the thought that our bodily organs and parts—our “Little Marys,” and so forth—may have (probably do have) very distinct personalities of their own. We look down upon them, so to speak, and include them. And we shall one day no doubt, and in the realization of our greater selves, have the splendid experience of including two (or more) bodies—of having them at our service, and available for command and expression. Even now we are sometimes conscious of having one envelope of a more ethereal and intense nature, swift and far-reaching both in movement and perception in the innermost regions, and another more local body, in touch with terrestrial life. And there would be nothing surprising or dreadful in finding, after death, that an ethereal and a terrestrial body were both still at our 280 command—though both perhaps more developed and more differentiated from each other than at present;—or even that we might be capable of inhabiting several such bodies.

It is of course puzzling, under our ordinary conceptions of Space and Time, to imagine how it could be possible to deal with several bodies at the same time; but in reality it is no more puzzling than the problem which we habitually solve every day and every hour of our lives. How do we, for instance, deal with and dispose the activities of our hands and our feet and our eyes and our brain, with simultaneous care, say, in walking through the streets? We inhabit these separate organs, these distinct personalities, simultaneously, and ordain their movements and gather in their perceptions by the act of attention. Attention in the world of the spirit corresponds to extension in the physical world. Whatever your spirit attends to, that some physical radiation from yourself extends to. And similarly if you had bodies in different worlds and regions, by the simple act of attention your spirit would reach them. Nevertheless—to return to the one body and the various organs, like hands and feet and eyes, which we seem to have under control—it is clear that our minds could not possibly overlook all the details of their management, unless there were some general ordaining spirit in the body which was in close touch and sympathy, and ready to act with and aid us; and similarly it is clear that we could not ordain and 281 organize any movement of a secondary body at a distance—even though ‘belonging’ to us—unless there were a spirit, in that body and the intervening spaces, in touch and sympathy with ours. It is the knowledge that there is such a community of life, such an abounding Self, which gives the ‘divine’ soul its great joy and its great power—“for whatever he desires, that he obtains from the Self.” He who knows has indeed the freedom of the universe, and of all its powers—who knows that the Spirit of the whole is his own.

It is natural therefore to suppose that that portion of the consciousness which has circled and centred very definitely and conclusively round the All-self—or such aspect of the same as specially belongs to it; or (what perhaps comes to the same thing) has circled very definitely round the divine soul of a loved one; will pass through death easily and without much loss of continuity. It will with its attendant memories pass easily and continuously into the inmost sphere; or (to put the matter in another way) remaining in that sphere it will simply become aware that a mass of husks have been shed off, which clouded it. It will become aware of the glorious state of being to which it has always implicitly belonged, and of its connection with not one only but many bodies.

It may be—and I think one almost feels that it must be—that the most intimate self of any of us cannot be realized short of externalization in 282 a vast number of separate manifestations or lives. One has the impression with regard to one’s body, that “this is one of my bodies”; or that “this body represents a portion of myself”; but one does not feel “this body represents my total, complete and final self.” And as we have just suggested that in a more intimate state of being we may become distinctly aware of having relation to several bodies simultaneously, so the world-old doctrine of reincarnation in its general form has long suggested that our most intimate selves are related to a great number of bodies in succession to each other in Time. The higher or inner Individual—of agelong and æonian life—is reincarnated (it is said) thousands of times; thus to embody that aspect of the Divine which it represents.

These embodiments may be in forms by no means resembling each other—though doubtless there will be a thread of similarity running through; and one embodiment may have little idea (except in moments of inspiration) of its relation to the others, or of any continuity of memory between itself and the others. Yet the memories of these lives and embodiments passing into the inner sphere are ultimately gathered together and drawn up to constitute that most glorious world of each Being of which we have spoken—a world in which each overlooks and ordains its various lives and manifestations as from a mountain-top. These are indeed “the ageless immortal gods who seek ever 283 to come in the forms of men”—whom we ever and anon seem to feel and hear knocking at the inner door of our little local selves, as though they would gain admittance and acknowledgment.

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