Here to return to
OUR ULTIMATE CONSCIOUSNESS
SURVIVAL with our present consciousness is nearly as impossible and nearly as incomprehensible as total annihilation. Moreover, even if it were admissible, it could not be dreadful. This is certain that, when the body disappears, all physical sufferings will disappear at the same time; for we cannot imagine a spirit suffering in a body which it no longer possesses. With them will vanish simultaneously all that we call mental or moral sufferings, seeing that all of them, if we examine them well, spring from the ties and habits of our senses. Our spirit feels the reaction of the sufferings of our body or of the bodies that surround it; it cannot suffer in itself or through itself. Slighted affection, shattered love, disappointments, failures, despair, betrayal, personal humiliations, as well as the sorrows and the loss of those whom it loves, acquire their potent sting only by passing through the body which it animates. Outside its own pain, which is the pain of not knowing, the spirit, once delivered from its flesh, could suffer only in the recollection of the flesh. It is possible that it still grieves over the troubles of those whom it has left behind on earth. But to its eyes, since it no longer reckons the days, these troubles will seem so brief that it will not grasp their duration; and, knowing what they are and knowing whither they lead, it will not behold their severity.
The spirit is insensible to all that is not happiness. It is made only for infinite joy, which is the joy of knowing and understanding. It can grieve only at perceiving its own limits; but to perceive those limits, when there are no more bonds to space and time, is already to transcend them.
It becomes a question of knowing whether that spirit, sheltered from all sorrow, will remain itself, will perceive and recognise itself in the bosom of infinity and up to what point it is important that it should recognise itself. This brings us to the problems of survival without consciousness, or survival with a consciousness different from that of to-day.
Survival without consciousness seems at first sight the more probable. From the point of view of the good or ill awaiting us on the other side of the grave, it amounts to annihilation. It is lawful, therefore, for those who prefer the easiest solution and the most consistent with the present state of human thought to limit their anxiety to that. They have nothing to dread; for, on close inspection, every fear, if any remained, should deck itself with hopes. The body disintegrates and can no longer suffer; the mind, separated from the source of pleasure and pain, is extinguished, scattered and and lost in a boundless darkness; and what comes is the great peace so often prayed for, the sleep without measure, without dreams and without awakening.
But this is only a solution that fosters indolence. If we press those who speak of survival without consciousness, we perceive that they mean only their present consciousness, for man conceives no other; and we have just seen that it is almost impossible for that manner of consciousness to persist in infinity.
Unless, indeed, they would deny every sort of consciousness, even that cosmic consciousness into which their own will fall. But this were to solve very quickly and very blindly, with a stroke of the sword in the night, the greatest and most mysterious question that can arise in a man’s brain.
It is evident that, in the depths of our thought limited on every side, we shall never be able to form the least idea of an infinite consciousness. There is even an essential antinomy between the words consciousness and infinity. To speak of consciousness is to mean the most definite thing conceivable in the finite; consciousness, properly speaking, is the finite self-concentrated in order to discover and feel its closest limits, to the end that it may enjoy them as closely as possibly. On the other hand, it is impossible for us to separate the idea of intelligence from the idea of consciousness. Any intelligence that does not seem capable of transforming itself into consciousness becomes for us a mysterious phenomenon to which we give names more mysterious still, lest we should have to admit that we understand nothing of it at all. Now, on this little earth of ours, which is but a dot in space, we see expended in every scale of life, as for instance, in the wonderful combinations and organisms of the insect world, a mass of intelligence so vast that our human intelligence cannot even dream of assessing it. Everything that exists — and man first of all — is incessantly drawing upon that inexhaustible reserve. We are therefore irresistibly driven to ask ourselves if that cosmic intelligence is not the emanation of an infinite consciousness, or if it must not, sooner or later, elaborate one. And this sets us tossing between two irreducible impossibilities. What is most probable is that here again we are judging everything from the lowlands of our anthropomorphism. At the summit of our infinitesimal life, we see only intelligence and consciousness, the extreme point of thought; and from this we infer that, at the summits of all lives, there could be naught but intelligence and consciousness, whereas these perhaps occupy only an inferior place in the hierarchy of spiritual or other possibilities.
Survival absolutely denuded of consciousness would, therefore, be possible only if we deny the existence of a cosmic consciousness. When once we admit this consciousness, under whatsoever form, we are bound to share in it; and, up to a certain point, the question is indistinguishable from that of the continuance of a more or less modified consciousness. There is, for the moment, no hope of solving it; but we are free to grope in its darkness, which is not perhaps equally dense at all points.
Here begins the open sea. Here begins the splendid adventure, the only one abreast with human curiosity, the only one that soars as high as its highest longing. Let us accustom ourselves to regard death as a form of life which we do not yet understand; let us learn to look upon it with the same eye that looks upon birth; and soon our mind will be accompanied to the steps of the tomb with the same glad expectation that greets a birth.
Suppose that a child in its mother’s womb were endowed with a certain consciousness; that unborn twins, for instance, could, in some obscure fashion, exchange their impressions and communicate their hopes and fears to each other. Having known naught but the warm maternal shades, they would not feel straitened nor unhappy there. They would probably have no other idea than to prolong as long as possible that life of abundance free from cares and of sleep free from alarms. But, if, even as we are aware that we must die, they too knew that they must be born, that is to say, that they must suddenly leave the shelter of that gentle darkness and bandon for ever that captive but peaceful existence, to be precipitated into an absolutely different, unimaginable and boundless world, how great would be their anxieties and their fears! And yet there is no reason why our own anxieties and fears should be more justified or less ridiculous. The character, the spirit, the intentions, the benevolence or the indifference of the unknown to which we are subject do not alter between our birth and our death. We remain always in the same infinity, in the same universe. It is perfectly reasonable and legitimate to persuade ourselves that the tomb is no more dreadful than the cradle. It would even be legitimate and reasonable to accept the cradle only on account of the tomb. If, before being born, we were permitted to choose between the great peace of non-existence and a life that should not be completed by the glorious hour of death, which of us, knowing what he ought to know, would accept the disquieting problem of an existence that would not lead to the reassuring mystery of its end? Which of us would wish to come into a world where we can learn so little, if he did not know that he must enter it if he would leave it and learn more? The best thing about life is that it prepares this hour for us, that it is the one and only road leading to the magic gateway and into that incomparable mystery where misfortunes and sufferings will no longer be possible, because we shall have lost the body that produced them; where the worst that can befall us is the dreamless sleep which we number among the greatest boons on earth; where, lastly, it is almost unimaginable that a thought should not survive to mingle with the substance of the universe, that is to say, with infinity, which, if it be not a waste of indifference can be nothing but a sea of joy.
Before fathoming that sea, let us remark to those who aspire to maintain their ego that they are calling for the sufferings which they dread. The ego implies limits. The ego cannot subsist except in so far as it is separated from that which surrounds it. The stronger the ego, the narrower its limits and the clearer the separation. The more painful too; for the mind, if it remain as we know it — and we are not able to imagine it different — will no sooner have seen its limits than it will wish to overstep them; and, the more separated it feels, the greater will be its longing to unite with that which lies outside. There will therefore be an eternal struggle between its being and its aspirations. And really it would have served no object to be born and die only to arrive at these interminable contests. Have we not here yet one more proof that our ego, as we conceive it, could never subsist in the infinity where it must needs go, since it cannot go elsewhere? It behoves us therefore to clear away conceptions that emanate only from our body, even as the mists that veil the daylight from our sight emanate only from the lowlands. Pascal has said, once and for all:
“The narrow limits of our being conceal infinity from our view.”
On the other hand — for we must keep nothing back, nor turn from the adverse darkness should it seem nearest to the truth, nor show any bias on the other hand, we can grant to those who yearn to remain as they are that the survival of an atom of themselves would suffice for a new entrance into an infinity from which their body no longer separates them.
If it seems impossible that anything — a movement, a vibration, a radiation — should stop or disappear, why then should thought be lost? There will, no doubt, subsist more than one idea powerful enough to allure the new ego, which will nourish itself and thrive on all that it will find in that boundless environment, just as the other ego, on this earth, nourished itself and throve on all that it met there. Since we have been able to acquire our present consciousness, why should it be impossible for us to acquire another? For that ego which is so dear to us and which we believe ourselves to possess was not made in a day; it is not at present what it was at the hour of our birth. Much more chance than purpose has entered into it; and much more alien substance than any inborn substance which it contained. It is but a long series of acquisitions and transformations, of which we do not become aware until the awakening of our memory; and its kernel, of which we do not know the nature, is perhaps more immaterial and less concrete than a thought. If the new environment which we enter on leaving our mother’s womb transforms us to such a point that there is, so to speak, no connection between the embryo that we were and the man that we have become, is it not right to think that the far newer, stranger, wider and richer environment which we enter on quitting life will transform us even more? We can see in what happens to us here a figure of what awaits us elsewhere and can readily admit that our spiritual being, liberated from its body, if it does not mingle at the first onset with the infinite, will develop itself there gradually, will choose itself a substance and, no longer trammelled by space and time, will go on for ever growing. It is very possible that our loftiest wishes of to-day will become the law of our future development. It is very possible that our best thoughts will welcome us on the farther shore and that the quality of our intellect will determine that of the infinite which crystallises around it. Every hypothesis is permissible and every question, provided it be addressed to happiness; for unhappiness is no longer able to answer us. It finds no place in the human imagination that methodically explores the future. And, whatever be the force that survives us and presides over our existence in the other world, this existence, to presume the worst, could be no less great, no less happy than that of to-day. It will have no other career than infinity; and infinity is nothing if it be not felicity. In any case, it seems fairly certain that we spend in this world the only narrow, grudging, obscure and sorrowful moment of our destiny.
We have said that the peculiar sorrow of the mind is the sorrow of not knowing or not understanding, which includes the sorrow of being powerless; for he who knows the supreme causes, being no longer paralysed by matter, becomes one with them and acts with them; and he who understands ends by approving, or else the universe would be a mistake, which is not possible, an infinite mistake being inconceivable. I do not believe that another sorrow of the sheer mind can be imagined. The only one sorrow which, at first thought, might seem admissible — and which, in any case, could be but ephemeral — would arise from the sight of the pain and misery remaining on the earth which we have left. But this sorrow, after all, would be but one aspect and an insignificant phase of the sorrow of being powerless and of not understanding. As for the latter, though it is not only beyond the domain of our intelligence, but even at an insuperable distance from our imagination, we may say that it would be intolerable only if it were without hope. But, for that, the universe would have to abandon any attempt to understand itself, or else admit within itself an object that remained for ever foreign to it. Either the mind will not perceive its limits and, consequently, will not suffer from them, or else it will overstep them as it perceives them; for how could the universe have parts eternally condemned to form no part of itself and of its knowledge? Hence we cannot understand that the torture of not understanding, supposing it to exist for a moment, should not end by absorption in the state of infinity, which, if it be not happiness as we comprehend it, could be naught but an indifference higher and purer than joy.