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IN the new era whereupon we are entering, and wherein the religions no longer reply to the great questions of mankind, one of the problems on which we crossexamine ourselves most anxiously is that of the life beyond the tomb. Do all things end at death? Is there an imaginable after-life? Whither do we go and what becomes of us? What awaits us on the other side of the frail illusion which we call existence? At the moment when our heart stops beating, does matter triumph, or mind; does eternal light begin, or endless darkness?
Like all that exists, we are imperishable. We cannot conceive that anything should be lost in the universe. By the side of infinity, it is impossible to imagine a state of nothingness into which an atom of matter can fall and be annihilated. All that is will be eternally; all is; and there is nothing that is not. Otherwise, we should be driven to believe that our brain has nothing in common with the universe which it strives to conceive. We should even have to say that it works in the reverse direction to the universe, which is hardly probable, since it is, after all, perhaps but a sort of reflection of the universe.
That which appears to perish or, at least, to disappear and follow upon itself is the form and fashion under which we see imperishable matter; but we do not know with what realities these appearances correspond. They are the texture of the bandage which is laid upon our eyes and which gives them, under the pressure that blinds them, all the images of our life. Remove that bandage: what remains? Do we enter into the reality that undoubtedly exists beyond? Or do the appearances themselves cease to exist for us?
That the state of nothingness is impossible; that, after our death, all subsists in itself and nothing perishes: these are things that hardly interest us. The only point that touches us, in this eternal persistence, is the fate of that small part of our life which used to perceive phenomena during our existence. We call it our consciousness or our ego. This ego, as we conceive it when we reflect upon the consequences of its destruction, this ego is neither our mind nor our body, since we recognise that both are waves that flow away and are renewed incessantly. Is it an immovable point which could not be form or substance, for these are always in evolution, nor life, which is the cause or effect of form and substance? In truth, it is impossible for us to apprehend or define it, to tell where it dwells. When we try to go back to its last source, we find hardly more than a succession of memories, a series of ideas, confused, for that matter, and unsettled, attached to the one instinct of living: a series of habits of our sensibility and of conscious or unconscious reactions against the surrounding phenomena. When all is said, the most steadfast point of that nebula is our memory, which seems, on the other hand, to be a somewhat external, a somewhat accessory faculty and, in any case, one of the frailest faculties of our brain, one of those which disappear the most promptly at the least disturbance of our health.
It matters not; that uncertain, indiscernible, fleeting and precarious ego is so much the centre of our being, interests us so exclusively that every reality of our life disappears before this phantom. It is a matter of utter indifference to us that throughout eternity our body or its substance should know every joy and every glory, undergo the most splendid and delightful transformations, become flower, perfume, beauty, light, air, star; it is likewise indifferent to us that our intellect should expand until it mixes with the life of the worlds, understands and governs it. Our instinct is persuaded that all this will not affect us, will give us no pleasure, will not happen to ourselves; unless that memory of a few almost always insignificant facts accompany us and witness those unimaginable joys. I care not if the loftiest, the freest, the fairest portions of my mind be eternally living and radiant in the supreme gladnesses: they are no longer mine; I do not know them. Death has cut the network of nerves or memories that connected them with I know not what centre wherein lies the sensitive point which I feel to be all myself. They are now set loose, floating in space and time, and their fate is as unknown to me as that of the farthest stars. Anything that occurs exists for me only upon condition that I be able to recall it within that mysterious being which is I know not where and precisely nowhere, which I turn like a mirror about this world whose phenomena take shape only in so far as they are reflected in it.
Thus our longing for immortality destroys itself while expressing itself, since it is on one of the accessory and most transient parts of our whole life that we base all the interest of our after-life. It seems to us that, if our existence be not continued with the greater part of its drawbacks, of the pettinesses and blemishes that characterise it, nothing will distinguish it from that of other beings; that it will become a drop of ignorance in the ocean of the unknown; and that, thenceforth, all that may ensue will no longer concern us.
"What immortality can one promise to men who almost necessarily conceive it in this guise? How can we help it?" asks a puerile, but profound instinct. Any immortality that does not drag with it through eternity, like the fetters of the convict that we were, the strange consciousness formed during a few years of movement, any immortality that does not bear that indelible mark of our identity is for us as though it were not. Most of the religions have understood this and have taken account of that instinct which desires and at the same time destroys the after-life. It is thus that the Catholic Church, going back to the most primitive hopes, promises us not only the integral preservation of our earthly ego, but even the resurrection of our own flesh.
There lies the crux of the riddle. When we demand that this small consciousness, that this sense of a special ego -- almost childish and, in any case, extraordinarily limited: probably an infirmity of our actual intelligence -- should accompany us into the infinity of time in order that we may understand and enjoy it, are we not wishing to perceive an object with the aid of an organ that is not intended to perceive it? Are we not asking that our hand should discover the light or that our eye should take in perfumes? Are we not, on the other hand, acting like a sick man who, in order to recognise himself, to be quite sure that he is himself, should think it necessary to continue his sickness in his health and in the boundless sequence of his days? The comparison, for that matter, is more accurate than is the habit of comparisons. Picture a blind man who is also paralysed and deaf. He has been in this condition from his birth and has just attained his thirtieth year. What can the hours have embroidered on the imageless web of this poor life? The unhappy man must have gathered in the depths of his memory, for lack of other recollections, a few wretched sensations of heat and cold, of weariness and rest, of. more or less keen physical sufferings, of. hunger and thirst. It is probable that all human joys, all our ideal hopes and dreams of paradise will be reduced for him to the confused sense of well-being that follows the allaying of a pain. This, then, is the only possible equipment of that consciousness and that ego. The intellect, having never been invoked from without, will sleep soundly, knowing nothing of itself. Nevertheless, the poor wretch will have his little life to which he will cling by bonds as narrow and eager as though he were the happiest of men. He will dread death; and the idea of entering into eternity without carrying with him the emotions and memories of his dark and silent sick-bed will plunge him into the same despair into which we are plunged by the thought of abandoning a life of glory, light and love for the icy darkness of the tomb.
Let us now suppose that a miracle suddenly quicken his eyes and ears and reveal to him, through the open window at the head of his bed, the dawn rising over the plain, the song of the birds in the trees, the murmuring of the wind in the leaves and of the water against its banks, the ringing of human voices among the morning hills. Let us suppose also that the same miracle, completing its work, restore the use of his limbs. He rises, stretches his arms to that prodigy which as yet for him possesses neither reality nor name: the light! He opens the door, staggers out amidst the effulgence and his whole body dissolves in all these marvels. He enters upon an ineffable life, upon a sky whereof no dream could have given him a foretaste; and, by a freak which is readily admissible in this sort of cure, health, introducing him to this inconceivable and unintelligible existence, wipes out in him all memory of days past.
What will be the state of that ego, of that central focus, the receptacle of all our sensations, the spot in which converges all that belongs in its own right to our life, the supreme point, the "egotic" point of our being, if I may venture to coin a word? Memory being abolished, will that ego recover within itself a few traces of the man that was? A new force, the intellect, awaking and suddenly displaying an unprecedented activity, what relation will that intellect keep up with the inert, dull germ whence it has sprung? At what corner of his past will the man clutch to continue his identity? And yet will there not survive within him some sense or instinct, independent of the memory, the intellect and I know not what other faculties, that will make him recognise that it is indeed in him that the liberating miracle has been wrought, that it is indeed his life and not his neighbour's, transformed, irrecognisable, but substantially the same, that has issued from the silence and the darkness to prolong itself in harmony and light? Can we picture the disarray, the flux and reflux of that bewildered consciousness? Have we any idea in what manner the ego of yesterday will unite with the ego of to-day and how the "egotic" point, the sensitive point of the personality, the only point which we are anxious to preserve intact, will bear itself in that delirium and that upheaval?
Let us first endeavour to reply with sufficient preciseness to this question which comes within the scope of our actual and visible life; and, if we are unable to do this, how can we hope to solve the other problem that presents itself before every man at the moment of his death?
This sensitive point, in which the whole problem is summed up, for it is the only one in question and, except in so far as it is concerned, immortality is certain; this mysterious point, to which, in the presence of death, we attach so high a value, we lose, strange to say, at any moment in life without feeling the least anxiety. Not only is it destroyed nightly in our sleep, but even in waking it is at the mercy of a host of accidents. A wound, a shock, an indisposition, a few glasses of alcohol, a little opium, a little smoke are enough to obliterate it. Even when nothing impairs it, it is not constantly perceptible. We often need an effort, in turning back upon ourselves to recapture it, to become aware that such or such an event is occurring to us. At the least distraction, a happiness passes beside us without touching us, without yielding up to us the pleasure which it contains. One would say that the functions of the organ by which we taste life and bring it home to ourselves are intermittent, often interrupted or suspended and that the presence of our ego, except in pain, is but a rapid and perpetual sequence of departures and returns. What reassures us is that we believe ourselves sure to find it intact on awaking, after the wound, the shock or the distraction, whereas we are persuaded, so fragile do we feel it to be, that it is bound to disappear for ever in the terrible concussion that separates life from death.
One foremost truth, pending others which the future will no doubt reveal, is that in these questions of life and death, our imagination has remained very childish. Almost every elsewhere, it precedes reason; but here it still loiters over the games of the earliest ages. It surrounds itself with the dreams and the barbarous longings wherewith it lulled the hopes and fears of cave-dwelling man. It asks for things that are impossible, because they are too small. It claims privileges which, if obtained, were more to be dreaded than the most enormous disasters with which nihility threatens us. Can we think without shuddering of an eternity contained wholly within our infinitesimal actual consciousness? And behold how, in all this, we obey the illogical whims of what used to be called la folle du logis! Which of us, if he went to sleep to-night in the scientific certainty of awaking in a hundred years as he is to-day, with his body intact, even on condition that he lost all memory of his previous life -- would those memories not be useless? -- which of us would not welcome that secular sleep with the same confidence as the brief, gentle slumbers of his every night? Far from dreading it, would not many hasten to make the trial with eager curiosity? Should we not see numbers of men assail the dispenser of the fairy sleep with their prayers and implore as a favour what they would deem a miraculous prolongation of their life? And yet, during that sleep, how much would remain and how much of themselves would they find again on awaking? What link, at the moment when they closed their eyes, would connect them with the being that was to awake without memories, unknown, in a new world? Nevertheless, their consent and all their hopes at the beginning of that long night would depend upon that non-existing link. There is, in fact, between real death and this sleep only the difference of that awakening deferred for a century, an awakening here as alien to him who had gone to sleep as the birth would be of a posthumous child.
On the other hand, what answer do we make to the question when it has to do not with us, but with the things that breathe with us on earth? Are we concerned, for instance, about the after-life of the animals? The most faithful, affectionate and intelligent dog, once dead; becomes but a repulsive carcass, which we hasten to get rid of. It does not even seem possible to us to ask ourselves if any part of the already spiritual life which we loved in him subsist elsewhere in our memory, or if there be another world for dogs. It would appear rather ridiculous to us that time and space should preserve preciously, for all eternity, among the stars and the boundless mansions of the sky, the soul of a poor beast, made up of five or six touching, but very unsophisticated habits and of the longing to eat and drink, to sleep warm and to greet his kind in the manner which we know. Besides, what could remain of that soul, composed entirely of the few needs of a rudimentary body, when that body has ceased to exist? Yet by' what right do we imagine between ourselves and the animal an abyss that does not exist even between the mineral and the vegetable, the vegetable and the animal?
This right to believe ourselves so far, so different from all that lives upon earth, this pretension to place ourselves in a category and a kingdom to which the very gods whom we have created would not always have access: these are what we must first of all examine.
It would be impossible to set forth all the paralogisms of our imagination on the point which we are discussing. Thus, we are pretty easily resigned to the dissolution of our body in the grave. We are not at all anxious that it should accompany us in the infinity of time. Upon reflection, we should even be vexed were it to escort us with its inevitable drawbacks, its faults, its blemishes and its absurdities. What we intend to take with us is our soul. But what shall we answer to one who asks us if it be possible to conceive that this soul is anything more than the sum total of our intellectual and moral faculties, added, if you will -- to make full measure -- to all those which fall within the jurisdiction of our instinct, our unconsciousness, our subconsciousness? Now, when, at the approach of old age, we see these same faculties become impaired in either ourselves or others, we do not distress ourselves, we do not despair any more than we distress ourselves or despair when we behold the slow decline of our physical strength. We keep intact our dim hope of an after-life. It seems to us quite natural that the state of one set of faculties should depend upon the state of the others. Even when the former are completely destroyed in a being whom we love, we do not consider that we have lost him or that he has lost his ego, his moral personality, of which, however, nothing remains. We should not mourn his loss, we should not think that he was no more, if death preserved those faculties in their state of annihilation. But, if we do not attach a capital importance to the dissolution of our body in the tomb, or to the dissolution of our intellectual faculties during life, what is it that we ask death to spare and of what unrealisable dream do we demand the realisation?
In truth, we cannot, at least for the moment, imagine an acceptable answer to the question of immortality. Why be astonished? Here stands my lamp on my table. It contains no mystery; it is the oldest, the best known and the most familiar object in the house. I see in it oil, a wick, a glass chimney; and all of this forms light. The riddle begins only when I ask myself what this light is, whence it comes when I call it, where it goes when I extinguish it. Then, suddenly, around this small object which I can lift, take to pieces and which might have been fashioned by my hands, the riddle becomes unfathomable. Gather round my table all the men that live upon this earth: not one will be able to tell us what this little flame is which I cause to take birth or to die at my pleasure. And, should one of them venture upon one of those definitions known as scientific, every word of the definition will multiply the unknown and, on every side, open unexpected doors into endless night. If we know nothing of the essence, the destiny, the life of a gleam of familiar light of which all the elements were created by ourselves, of which the source, the proximate causes and the effects are contained within a china bowl, how can we hope to penetrate the mystery of a life of which the simplest elements are situated at millions of years, at thousands of millions of leagues from our intelligence in time and space?
Since humanity began to exist, it has not advanced a single step on the road of the mystery which we are contemplating. No question which we ask ourselves on the subject touches, on my side, the sphere in which our intelligence is formed and moves. There is perhaps no relation possible or imaginable between the organ that puts the question and the reality that ought to reply to it. The most active and searching enquiries of late years have taught us nothing. Learned and conscientious psychical societies, notably in England, have got together an imposing collection of irrefutable facts which prove that the life of the spiritual or nervous being can continue for a certain time after the death of the material being. No sincere mind now dreams of denying the possibility of these facts supported by documentary and other evidence as conclusive as that which serves as a basis for our firmest scientific convictions. But all this merely removes by a few lines, by a few hours the beginning of the mystery. If the ghost of a person whom I love, clearly recognisable and apparently so much alive that I speak to it, enter my room to-night at the very minute when life is quitting the body at a thousand miles from the spot where I am, that is, no doubt, very strange, even as everything is strange in a world of which we do not understand the first word; but it shows at most that the soul, the spirit, the breath, the nervous and indiscernible force of the subtlest part of our matter can disengage itself from that matter and survive it for an instant, even as the flame of a lamp which we extinguish sometimes becomes detached from the wick and hovers for a moment in the darkness. Certainly, the phenomenon is an astonishing one; but given the nature of that spiritual force, we ought to be much more astonished that it is not produced more frequently and at our pleasure, in the fulness of life. In any case, it throws no light upon the question. Never has a single one of those phantasms appeared to have the least consciousness of a new life, of a supraterrestrial life, a life different from that just abandoned by the body whence it emanated. On the contrary, the spiritual life of all of them, at that moment when it ought to be pure, since it is rid of matter, seems greatly inferior to what it was when enveloped in matter. Most of them, in a sort of somnambulistic dulness, pursue mechanically the most insignificant of their accustomed preoccupations. One looks for its hat, which it has left on a chair or table; another is troubled about a small debt or anxious to know the time. And all of them, a little later, at the moment when the real after-life ought to begin, evaporate and disappear for ever. I agree that this proves nothing either for or against the possibility of the after-life. We do not know whether these brief apparitions be the first glimmers of a new or the last of the present existence. Perhaps the dead, for want of a better, thus use and turn to account the last bond that links them and makes them still perceptible to our senses. Perhaps, afterwards, they continue to live around us, but fail, despite all their efforts, to make themselves recognised or to give us an idea of their presence, because we have not the organ needed to perceive them, even as all our efforts would fail to give a man blind from birth the least notion of light or colour. In any case, it is certain that the investigations and the labours of that new science of the "Borderland" as the English call it, have left the problem exactly where it has been since the beginning of human consciousness.
In the invincible ignorance, then, in which we are, our imagination has the choice of our eternal destinies. Now, when we examine the different possibilities, we are compelled to admit that the most beautiful are not the least probable. A first hypothesis, to be put aside off-hand, without discussion, as we have seen, in that of absolute annihilation. A second hypothesis, eagerly cherished by our blind instincts, promises us the more or less integral preservation, through the infinity of time, of our consciousness or our actual ego. We have also studied this hypothesis, which is a little more plausible than the first, but at bottom so narrow, so naive, and puerile that, whether for men or for plants and animals, one sees scarcely a means of finding a reasonable place for it in boundless space and infinite time. Let us add that, of all our possible destinies, it would be the only one to be really dreaded and that annihilation pure and simple would be a thousand times preferable.
There remains the double hypothesis of an after-life without consciousness, or with an enlarged and transformed consciousness, of which that which we possess to-day can give us no idea, which it prevents us rather from conceiving, even as our imperfect eye prevents us from conceiving any other light than that which goes from infra-red to ultra-violet, whereas it is certain that those probably prodigious lights would dazzle on every side, in the darkest night, a pupil shaped differently from ours.
Although double at the first view, the hypothesis is soon brought back to the simple question of consciousness. To say, for instance, as we are tempted to do, that an after-life without consciousness is equivalent to annihilation is to settle a priori and without reflection that problem of consciousness which is the chief and most obscure of all the problems that interest us. It is, as all the metaphysicians have proclaimed, the most difficult that exists, considering that the object of our knowledge is the very thing that is striving to know. What, then, can that mirror ever facing itself do, save reflect itself indefinitely and to no purpose? Nevertheless, in that reflection incapable of emerging from the multiplication of itself sleeps the only ray that is able to throw light upon all the rest. What is to be done? There is no other means of escaping from one's consciousness than to deny it, to look upon it as an organic disease of the terrestrial intelligence, a disease which we must endeavour to cure by an act which must appear to us an act of violent and wilful madness, but which, on the other side of our seeming, is probably an act of sanity.
But escape is impossible; and we return fatally to prowl around our consciousness based upon our memory, the most precarious of all our faculties. It being evident, we say, that nothing can perish, we must needs have lived before our present life. But, as we are unable to connect our previous existence with our actual life, this certainty is as indifferent to us, passes as far from us as all the certainties of our later life. And here we have, before life as after death, the appearance of the mnemonic ego, concerning which it behoves us once more to ask ourselves if what it does during the few days of its activity is really important enough thus to decide, by reference to itself alone, the problem of immortality. From the fact that we enjoy our ego under so exclusive, special, imperfect, fragile and ephemeral a form does it follow that there is no other mode of consciousness, no other means of enjoying life? A nation of men born blind, to return to the comparison which becomes essential, because it best sums up our situation in the midst of the darkness of the worlds, a nation of men blind from their birth, to whom a solitary traveller should reveal the joys of the light, would deny not only that the latter was possible, but even imaginable. As for ourselves, is it not very nearly certain that we lack here below, among a thousand other senses, a sense superior to that of our mnemonic consciousness, in order to have a fuller and surer enjoyment of our ego? May it not be said that we sometimes catch obscure traces or feeble desires of that budding or atrophied sense, oppressed in any case and almost suppressed by the rule of our terrestrial life, which centralises all the evolutions of our existence upon the same sensitive point? Are there not certain confused moments in which, however ruthlessly, however scientifically we may allow for egoism pursued to its most remote and secret sources, there remains in us something absolutely disinterested that takes pleasure in the happiness of others? Is it not also possible that the aimless joys of art, the calm and deep satisfaction into which we are plunged by the contemplation of a beautiful statue, of a perfect building, which does not belong to us, which we shall never see again, which arouses no sensual desire, which can be of no service to us: is it not possible that this satisfaction may be the pale glimmer of a different consciousness that filters through a cranny of our mnemonic consciousness? If we are unable to imagine that different consciousness, that is no reason for denying it. I even believe that it would be wiser to assert that this would be a reason for admitting it. All our life would be spent in the midst of things which we could never have imagined, if our senses, instead of being given to us all together, had been granted to us one by one and from year to year. For that matter, one of these senses, the sense of generation, which awakens only at the approach of puberty, shows us that the discovery of an unexpected world, the displacement of all the axes of our life depends upon an accident of our organism. During childhood, we did not suspect the existence of a whole world of passions, of love's frenzies and sorrows which excite "grown-up people." If some garbled echo of those sounds, by chance, happened to reach our innocent and curious ears, we did not succeed in understanding what manner of fury or madness was thus seizing hold of our elders and we promised ourselves, when the time came, to be more sensible, until the day when love unexpectedly appearing disturbed the centre of gravity of all our feelings and of most of our ideas. We see, therefore, that to imagine or not to imagine depends upon so little that we have no right to doubt the possibility of that which we cannot conceive.
What keeps and will long still keep us from enjoying the treasures of the universe is the hereditary resignation with which we tarry in the gloomy prison of our senses. Our imagination, as we lead it to-day, accommodates itself too readily to that captivity. True, it is the slave of those senses which alone feed it. But it does not sufficiently cultivate within itself the intuitions and presentiments which tell it that it is kept absurdly captive and that it should seek outlets even beyond the most resplendent and infinite circles which it pictures to itself. It is important that our imagination should say to itself, with ever-increasing seriousness, that the real world begins thousands of, millions of leagues beyond its most ambitious and daring dreams. Never was it entitled, nay, bound to be more madly reckless than now. All that it succeeds in building and multiplying in the most enormous space and time that it is capable of conceiving is as nothing compared with what is. Already the smallest revelations of science in our humble daily life teach it that, even in this modest environment, it is unable to cope with reality, that it is being constantly overwhelmed, bewildered, dazzled by all the unexpected that lies hidden in a stone, a grain of salt, a glass of water, a plant, an insect. It is already something to be convinced of this, for that places us in a state of mind that watches every occasion to break through the magic circle of our blindness; it persuades us also that we cannot hope to find decisive truths within this circle, that they all lie beyond it. Man, to maintain his sense of proportion, has a need to tell himself at every moment that, were he suddenly placed amid the realities of the universe, he would be exactly comparable with an ant which, knowing only the narrow pathways, the tiny holes, the approaches and horizons of its ant-heap, should suddenly find itself floating on a straw in the midst of the Atlantic. Pending the time when we shall have left a prison which prevents us from coming into touch with the realities beyond our imagination, we stand a much greater chance of lighting upon a fragment of truth by imagining the most unimaginable things than by striving to lead the dreams of that imagination, through the midst of eternity, between the dikes of logic and of actual possibilities. Let us therefore try, whenever a new dream presents itself, to snatch from before our eyes the bandage of our earthly life. Let us say to ourselves that, among all the possibilities which the universe still hides from us, one of the easiest to realise, one of the most probable, the least ambitious and the least disconcerting is certainly the possibility of enjoying an existence much more spacious, lofty, perfect, durable and secure than that which is offered to us by our actual consciousness. Admitting this possibility -- and there are few as probable -- the problem of our immortality is, in principle, solved. It now becomes a question of grasping or foreseeing its ways and, amid the circumstances that interest us the most, of knowing what part of our intellectual and moral acquirements will pass into our eternal and universal life. This is not the work of to-day or to-morrow; but it would need no incredible miracle to make it the work of some other day. . .
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