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Conversation on Immortality
L. I might not find it impossible to imagine - which would, of course, in no way prove that it could happen in reality, were it not for one objection that ruins your entire argument and makes your flight of fancy contrast unfavourably with Spinoza's non-committal conception of an everlasting essence of a particular body. Spinoza holds, quite soberly and modestly and in harmony with the facts, that memory presupposes a body. And memory, my dear Bergmann, is the very essence of a Self How can you speak of the same Self in an ancestor and a descendant when you have to admit, at the same time, that any trace of life's memories is necessarily extinguished by the loss of an old and the birth of a new organism? Or would you be so bold as to claim that memory is not the first characteristic of self-consciousness or Ego?
B. What about amnesia? Would you call a man who has lost his memory the same man?
L. Physically, yes. Mentally, no.
B. Is that not a bit sweeping, an understanding based on popular speech? Suppose there were nothing wrong with a person except the loss of memory, would that person not show the same or a very similar character? And would that person not, although changed at the surface of the conscious being, remain the same in the depths of his/her soul? Is it not possible to distinguish Self and memory? If we assume that the deeper Self, the active Self, is not the one consciously represented by adding together the subjective side of our experiences, if we take the conscious Self as a constantly belated representation of the active Self, of the non-conscious and non-voluntary source of our consciousness, remaining, as it were, constantly just below the threshold of conscious life, then we will find it logical that this deeper Self precedes even memory and remembered experiences.
In order to understand the nature of the Self and of consciousness, we probably need to learn a great deal more about sleep. There may be many more kinds of sleep than we usually distinguish. Instead of saying that the stream of conscious life rises continuously from subconsciousness, it may be more appropriate to speak of that stream in terms of being awake and being asleep. Thus, our state of being awake is, in fact, at any moment, a continuous process of incessant awakening from a basic biological state of constant partial sleep. The state of sleeping in the normal sense, the basic state, would simply become exclusive. It may be one of the functions of normal sleep constantly to annihilate memory content of no particular value.
Moreover, the relation between conscious life and this basic condition of sleeping consciousness seems to undergo an essential, long drawn-out alteration extending over the whole of a life. One might speak of a developing consciousness from childhood to maturity, of the whole of life, again, as a process of continuous relative awakening. And finally, there could be an awakening of the constellation of organism and collective life giving life to a particular consciousness. That would be an awakening of the root of a Self into a new organism. If, of course, you insist on having your nice little Self exactly as you are accustomed to having it, with all the memories of your particular household and personal quarrels, then, indeed, I admit that you cannot have it for ever. But I confess that I cannot help finding a certain meanness in such a desire in face of the gigantic life and death mystery of Nature. Why be so small-minded when life is such an enormous gift, one that your conscious self has done nothing to bring about and the miraculous pattern of which makes us expect what is normally unsuspected rather than what is trivial. Why not think of the possibility of a changed Self, a Self and non-Self in one. That is, why not think of the possibility that if we are content to have the essence of our Self preserved, namely that which is of value to the collectivity, then we may have it. But we can hardly be conscious of this essence of our Self in the same way as we are conscious of the work and manifestation of that Self. Suppose that you could be sure that it will be you who will be saying I, even though you will not be able to remember your former experiences, you, in so far as you would again strive to exert your particular faculties and to realize your deepest concerns, would you not be content with that? Nature does not preserve that which is worthless and does not ultimately destroy that which is valuable.