THE continuity of our lives is not so great as we are apt to suppose. We have in youth a vivid sense of our continuous individuality, and we take it for granted that it will always be so with us. Thus we hear with some incredulity the anecdotes of eminent men who have completely lost the recollection of certain things done, said, or written in early life, and, what is more, all interest in them, or desire to remember them. That Lowell can have forgotten, as the itemizer says, that he was once a contributor to the Dial seems incredible to a college Junior of my acquaintance He has never forgotten anything he has written! In like manner, to have a bosom friend at fourteen, and come to care next to nothing about him at forty, appears to the boy a shocking piece of treason. Little he knows how many breaks are likely to occur in the succession of his life-phases ; and bow many times the winged creature will lightly slip his feet out of the chrysalis shell, carrying only some invisible thread of half-memory over from one epoch into the other.
No doubt there are lives that do go on with comparatively unbroken coherence, — tranquil, rustic, or village lives, whose sun always rises over the same horizon, and whose radii of interests, from year to year, go out to the same unchanged circumference. Here the constantly overlapping continuity of the neighborhood existence helps to keep the man’s own thread of personality unbroken. But when we once cut loose from geography, make friends and break with friends, become the very opposite of “ Bourbons ” in that we are always " learning ” and always “ forgetting,” then how far backward over our days can the uninterrupted “ I ” be fairly said to extend ? When
Whose life in low estate began
And on a simple village green,”
at last " breaks his birth’s invidious bar,” and passes on to new desires, new opinions, at last a whole background of new memories, even, can it any longer be said to have been really he who
With one that was his earliest mate,
Who ploughs with pain his native lea,
And reaps the labor of his hands,
Or in the furrow musing stands:
' Does my old friend remember me ’ ” ?
In the early summer morning I see what appears to be a long silver line bending and glancing in the air between the fir and the apple-tree. But when I look closely, it proves to be a succession of infinitesimal globules of gray dew, strung on an invisible spider-line. Is our personality such a succession of separately sphered moments, or hours ? And what is the continuous line on which they are threaded ? With one, it may be some persistent purpose, — an ambition or a passion ; with another, the abnegation of an ambition or a passion, or some inveterate trouble that is the last to look in on him at night and the first in the morning, and by means of which he has no difficulty in self-recognition.
It is perhaps a mere fancy that mirrors have something to do with the distinct and ever-present sense of our own identity. If a man had never looked at himself in a glass, and so had no clear mental image of how he looked yesterday, and the day before, and a year ago. would he, for example, feel so intensely as now this irrational need of being consistent with his own past ? It is not merely that we “ cannot escape from our grandfathers ;” but we cannot escape, either, from our own last year. Was the primitive man, unsophisticated by French plate mirrors, freer for new growths ? Or did even Adam contemplate his aboriginal countenance in some smooth inlet of the river Pison, and so acquire an obstinate sense of responsibility for his earliest Adamite impressions ?
And (while we are speculating a little freely) shall we go to the length of saying that possibly the mere accident of clothing counts for something in the case ? It may then be safest that a man renew his garments only piecemeal; or, if he assume a complete new suit at a time, let him retire often into the linking familiarity of the second-best. With no mirror-image and no reminder from wonted clothes, would not a man sometimes need the evidence of “ the little dog at home, and he knows me,” to be sure that " I be I as I think I be ”? It may well be doubted whether all of us have positive individuality enough to hold the steady recognition of even our nearest relatives, without the visible tag of some familiar cut or color of garment, or, at least, of that innermost garb or mask which is the bodily face and form itself.
How much, moreover, has the mere circumstance of our always carrying the same name to do with our sense of continuity ? As I look over my old letters, here is the too familiar address on all the faded envelopes; these certainly, you would say, were addressed to very me. But when I open one to read, it seems to me it can hardly have been “ I ” who wrote the juvenilities to which these things are in response. It was another being to whom they came fresh from the mail, —
another being who read them with the eagerness and responsive thoughts that I do now certainly seem to remember — by some strange witchcraft or self-substitution, like that of Sigurd and Gunnar upon the Flaming Heath — almost as if they had been my veritable own. He bore my name, drew checks with my signature, even went so far as to pay my bills, — that person in the past. But in any other sense I am hardly prepared to own him as my actual and continual self. I rather look upon him as the chick upon the egg-shell, the moth upon the cracked cocoon, the man at the microscope upon the film of protoplasm, with the musing consciousness, “ Such as thou art, once was I.”
Since we actually go through these metamorphoses in life, it would be a significant and appropriate act, if only it were permitted us, to shed our names from time to time. The other day, when I suddenly awaked once for all from an old nightmare of illusion, why might I not then and there have moulted to the extent of my name ? Or that hour when I flung aside a particular opinion which had long ridden my mind’s shoulders, like an Old Man of the Sea, why should there not have gone with it the designation of the being whose life had been thus spoiled, letting the new man start with a new heraldic device? Something of this sort, it is true, does happen when a person throws off his early nickname, and assumes the toga virilis of the full combination of baptismal titles through which his parents have made him imposing or ridiculous to the ear ; and at last, it may be, adds the initials of dignity by which his college or his church has ministered to his vanity. “ Dicky ” becomes “ Dick,” and then full “ Richard,” and then “ the Reverend Doctor,” or “ the Bishop,” or “ the ex-Vice-President.” These developments are but the outward and audible symbols of mysterious inner transformations. The exVice-President, bald now, glazed (if that be a proper term for the taking on of spectacles) and wise, would no more wish to be held responsible for the views he expressed in youth than he would chirp and twitter again at the charms of the “ girl he left behind ” him, or answer to the maternal or sororal call of “ Dicky.”
More than this it would perhaps not be safe to permit to us in the way of escape from our proper labels. It is necessary that society should hold us to a strict accountability for our successive selves, and the name is the rope by which these are held together. The world must keep track of us, like a great police. Nature, besides, has us all down in her rogue’s gallery ; for our face is photographed in a thousand watchful eyes, as well as our name in so many ears.
Something of our restlessness in flitting from place to place may be accounted for by this instinctive craving to let the new and different man that we feel is in us, or might be in us, begin life all over again in a different place. At last we shall be permitted to do it, but not prematurely. We dodge to Dresden or Geneva, but we are there at the station to receive ourselves. Cœlum, non animum, we find that we have changed. The old lives have managed to creep stealthily in our shadow, and soon they accost us at every street corner with ironical congratulations at our escape from them, in the new city as in the old.
Are there not lapses or gaps in the continuity of our conscious existence, of which we may ourselves, by a little close attention, become aware ? To begin with, there is the gap of nightly sleep, when the chain of consciousness, if it does not actually break off, at least sags under water and is lost to the eye for a space, to emerge glimmering with vague dreams into the sunshine of the waking hour. If the figure appears strained, it is because I am thinking of the early spring mornings in boyhood, when we used to go to the Little River to take up the gill-net for shad. A mist hung on the smoothly running water; there was an “ Oriental fragrancy ” of spearmint from the moist bank; the rattle of the oar in the rowlock sounded preternaturally loud, echoing under the covered bridge at that perfectly silent hour. When we boys begin to lift the strained top line of the net, pulling the skiff along by means of it, it is a moment of delicious excitement. What is that dim spot of glimmering gold, far down in the dark water ? It grows, as we eagerly haul on the line, and the little waves plashed out by the boat make it waver and break, till it seems some huge and splendid prize, like the mysterious casket in the net of the Arabian fisherman. So memory, pulling in the line of submerged consciousness after profound sleep, catches sight of vague gleams of wonderful experiences.
But frequently, even in waking hours, I have seemed to detect lapses of conscious continuity. I look up, for example, from writing, and my eye turns to the window, and sight and attention seem to exhale, as it were, or evaporate into open space; thought ceases; for five seconds I am not a mind, I am a vegetable. Or in walking over some beaten track up and down in my garden, I have sometimes found myself at the other end of my beat, without having noticed anything, or thought of anything in particular, on the way. It has several times happened to me, in using my “ home-exerciser ” and giving to each pulley movement my accustomed forty counts, that I find myself at twenty-five or thirty, when I seemed only to have just counted twelve or fifteen. Now did I simply skip the intervening numbers, or did the unconscious brain cells go on automatically counting across a gap of that extent in my conscious existence ? Suppose I had “ died,” as we call it, during that interval: what would have gone on into immortality, the consciousness or the gap ?
But in truth this whole matter of the individual identity — the I-ness of the I — is thick with difficult questions. Here is my old apple-tree, for instance : is it a tree, or a thousand trees using one common bole? Every bud on it is in reality a separate, individual being ; as we may easily prove by setting it off by itself in some chink of another tree, where the sap of life shall come to it duly. Or in the case of a bunch of polyps, or of vorticels, on one stalk, how much of the coöperative life is entitled to say “ I,” and where does the we-ness of the we begin ? If we are to count the whole tree, with its multitude of separate or separable lives, as only a single individual, how would it be with us if the human offspring were never wholly separated from the life-sustaining parent ? Or would it strain our sense of identity at all, if the entire change of the substance of the body, popularly supposed to take place every seven years, should no longer occur gradually, cell by cell, but by a sudden cataclysm, some fine morning? As the old bone and tissue left him, and the new were clapped on in their place, would not the man have to jump to tie on the thread of new memory at the vanishing end of the old, lest he lose himself before he had time to find himself?
There is an old story they tell in the country that always seemed to me to have occult and esoteric meanings ; as it were a kind of myth that had been builded better than was known, or else a survival from the folk-lore of some lost race of speculative mound-builders. The tale is of an old farmer who was driving a yoke of oxen in an empty cart, and who yielded gradually to the sweet influences of a jug by his side, and fell fast asleep. The leisurely oxen having presently sauntered into the grass by the roadside, some humorous passerby found them feeding there and turned them loose, leaving the peaceful sleeper snoring in the sun. By and by he awakened, sat up, rubbed his eyes, and slowly soliloquized : “ Am I, or am I not I ? If I am I, I have lost a good yoke of oxen. If I am not I, I have found a good cart!”