“For now should I have lain still
and been quiet, I should
have slept; then, had I been at rest, with kings and counsellors
of the earth, which built solitary places for themselves.”
How far the loss of personal consciousness by absorption into universal infinity is identical with the eternal rest desired by Job might be long disputed. Sir Thomas Browne, having heard of the Brahmin or Buddhist conceptions of futurity, would draw a thin distinction:
“Others,” he says, “rather than be lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing, were content to recede into the common being; and make one particle of the public soul of all things, which was no more than to return into their unknown and divine original again.”
In effect this doctrine comes very near Maeterlinck’s plea of comfort. Annihilation, he says, is impossible, because nothing is destructible. But when confronted with the eternal antinomy of death, that both the end and the survival of personality are equally inconceivable, he hesitates. He admits that survival without consciousness would be the same as the annihilation o self (in which case he maintains death could be no evil, bringing only eternal sleep). But he rejects this solution as flattering only to ignorance, and has visions of a new ego collecting a fresh nucleus round itself and developing in infinity. For the “narrow ego” which we partly know—the humble self of memories and identity, the soul that sums up experience into some kind of unity—he expresses considerable contempt, as a frail and forgetful thing; and he seeks to waft us away into an intellect devoid of senses, which he says almost certainly exists, and into an infinity which is “nothing if it be not felicity.”
I do not know. A man may say what he pleases about intellect devoid of senses, or about the felicity of infinity. One statement may be as true as the other, or the reverse of both may be true. Talk of that kind rests on no sounder basis than the old assertions about the houris and the happy hunting-grounds, and it brings no surer consolation. Even when Maeterlinck tells us that it is impossible for the universe to be a mistake, and that our own reason necessarily corresponds with the eternal laws of the universe, we may answer that we hope, and even believe, that he is right, but on such a basis we can found no certainty whatever. Nor does the self, when, warm with life, inspired with vital passion, and energising for its own fulfilment, it stands horrified before the gulf of death, fearing no conceivable torment, but only the cessation of its power and identity—at such a moment that inward and isolated self can derive no reassurance from the dim possibility of some future nucleus, under cover of which it may pass into the felicity of the universal infinite, stripped of its memory, its present personality, and its flesh.