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Edward Carpenter - Prophet of Body and Soul

(This a reflection of mine from a few years ago)

“Do I contract myself?
Very well then I contract myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”  

Imagine yourself in vast museum or art gallery in the pitch black dead of night. You have one torch which shines a narrow beam of light in front of you. You can view the objects and images all around you, but only one at a time by shining your light. Now imagine that each picture in the gallery shows an experience of your life. One picture shows your first day at school, another your first kiss, your wedding day, or when you had children, or the thousand million other individual moments that make up your life. Which picture truly represents who you are? Which experience defines you? Or, do all of the images, all of the experiences, make up who you are? Or is the true “you” the one who carries the torch and who gazes on all these experiences from some other level of existence?

This is an image that is used by Bhagavan Das (1869-1958), the Indian member of the Theosophical Society, and is quoted by Edward Carpenter in his book The Drama of Love and Death (page 272). I want to explore something here about Edward Carpenter (1844-1929). I want to explore the experiences and ideas that made up his life, and about how he might help us to approach that great question “who am I?”

Now I started investigating Edward Carpenter for the simple reason that his name is on the front of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel Bolton. There is a plaque outside the front door which states: “This Chapel and its school served as a meeting place of the Bolton followers of Walt Whitman known as the ‘Eagle Street College’ their wider circle included the writer Edward Carpenter (1844 – 1929)”

When I was minister of Bank Street Chapel we began celebrating Walt Whitman once a year, near his birthday in May, resurrecting those Bolton followers who met there more than 100 years ago. As the plaque says they were known as ‘Eagle Street College’ which was a bit tongue-in-cheek, because the ‘Eagle Street College’ was just a small terraced house in Bolton where one of the members, James William Wallace, lived with his mother. But it was in this place that a small group of men (and later women) began to meet in the 1880s to discuss literature, politics, spirituality and lots of other stuff. They met in several other places in and around Bolton including Bank Street Chapel and Rivington Unitarian Chapel. The group became more centred on the works of the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1891), which in some ways they took as a kind of a religious scripture. They wrote to Whitman, and he wrote back, and they became connected to a trans-Atlantic network of religious and political radicals, including many of the earliest influential socialists. But I was curious to find out, who was this Edward Carpenter, who was part of this radical network? Other than being a “writer” who was he? I didn’t know anything about him, but I felt like I should as his name was on the side of my Chapel. So I decided to find out.

Edward Carpenter was born in 1844 into an upper middle class family in Brighton. But even as a young boy he was rather different and very uncomfortable with the middle class respectability that Brighton represented to him. He went to Cambridge University and studied mathematics, although he was always interested in a great variety of subjects: scientific, spiritual, political, artistic. He became a fellow of the University, which in those days meant you had to be ordained into the Church of England. He rather liked the idea of a quiet life of academia in Cambridge, but it was not to be. A friend handed him a copy of Walt Whitman’s poems. Carpenter lay on the floor in his room poring over the book in wonder. The unusual free-wheeling style of Whitman at first seemed strange to Carpenter. But it was also liberating: Whitman’s poetry was wild, earthy and unashamedly celebrated the body and the beauty of both men and women. Whitman nudged Carpenter to embrace at least two inclinations that he had been wrestling with: one was a democratic vision of a society that crossed the class divides that were so strong at the time; the other was the acceptance of his own homosexuality, as something not to be ashamed of, but something to embrace and celebrate.

Whitman’s poetry seemed to have this profound effect on many people. It had a profound effect on a number of men and women in Bolton who began to meet and read the poetry and discuss all the issues it brought up. And it had a profound effect on Edward Carpenter. His growing belief in socialism led him to resign his post at Cambridge, begin writing poetry himself and to join the University Extension Programme in which lectures were given in northern towns to people of all classes. From Cambridge Carpenter suddenly found himself in Yorkshire, and there was a bit of a culture shock. He lectured, he joined socialist movements and he tried to live out his ideals in all he did. He eventually settled in a small cottage outside Sheffield where he tried to live out a rustic ideal of the simple life, a bit like the sitcom “The Good Life” growing his own food and living off the land.

Edward Carpenter was a prolific writer and perhaps is best known for his poem “Towards Democracy” which was very much in the style of Whitman, and his book “Civilisation: It’s Cause and Cure.” In that book he put forward the theory, in many ways similar to Karl Marx, that civilisation is essentially a disease rather than representing progress, and we need to be cured of it to go back to a simpler way of life, represented by communism or socialism. Perhaps this seems a bit extreme. But Carpenter knew that people were more complex than theories and he was never dogmatic in his ideas. He moved happily amongst socialist, communists, anarchists, and other progressives, but never put himself exclusively in one camp. His love of Whitman put him in touch with the Bolton Whitmanites and he visited them regularly and they visited him. They were very good friends with him, and one of them was probably his lover. We don’t know if he ever came to Bank Street Chapel, but it seems quite possible.

Now Carpenter was not a Unitarian. Nevertheless he was deeply influenced by a couple of Unitarian ministers when he was in Leeds. He knew Joseph Estlin Carpenter (no relation), who was one of the pioneers in bringing an interest in world religions into Unitarianism. He also spent time with the American William Henry Channing, who introduced him to the Transcendentalists, a group of mainly Unitarian thinkers who embraced nature and intuition. Although Carpenter never became a Unitarian, if anything he was a pagan, he was a pioneer in a lot of areas that have since influenced Unitarianism a lot. Indeed everything that has influenced the development of Unitarianism (and wider society) since the nineteenth century is personified in Carpenter: feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, paganism, world religions, animal rights, vegetarianism. He was ahead of his time in all these areas: a prophet of many progressive causes. He was no saint, though, and one of his biggest moral failures was a persistent anti-Semitism. Nevertheless one person called him a “prophet of soul and body.”

And for me that’s the most significant thing about Carpenter: in how he embraced both body and soul. We are so used to separating those two things in our culture. We divide body and soul, feminine and masculine, religion and science, paganism and Christianity, homosexual and heterosexual. And these are not just ideas: they are divisions within us. Each of us is fractured by these divisions within ourselves. Like walking through that dark art gallery we see different parts of ourselves, different experiences and we ask “who am I amongst all this diversity”? Or perhaps we see it like masks that we wear: a different mask in different situations. In church I am Minister; with my friends, I’m a friend; with my family I’m a son, a brother, a brother-in-law, a fun uncle. However old I get I’ll still be a child to my parents. Who is the “real” me? Who is the “real” you? You are different in church, than you are when you’re at home, when you’re with different groups of people, with family, with friends, with co-workers. That’s always going to be true, but sometimes we divide ourselves unnecessarily and we lose any real sense of a coherent “me.” As Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contract myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Each of us is large, each of us contains multitudes, and even contradictions. But some of these contradictions tear us apart. Think of the male Christian leader, who has taken a vow of celibacy calling same sex marriage an aberration, shameful, grotesque and likening it to slavery, who is then later found out to have made inappropriate sexual advances towards men. We should feel compassion towards someone who has so divided themselves. Who contains such harmful contradictions, fighting against each other.

If our Christianity truly flowed from the teaching of Jesus we would clearly see hypocrisy as the greatest sin. It’s the one thing that Jesus condemns most strongly. Dividing ourselves into contradictions tears our souls apart. Jesus said “if new wine is put into old wineskins, the skins are destroyed, new wine has to be put into new wineskins.” Jesus, and other spiritual teachers, promise that we can be healed of our contradictions, our inner conflicts. Indeed this is the great task of the spiritual life: to make the inner like the outer, to integrate all the parts of ourselves into one.

I am a Unitarian because this faith teaches more fully than any other that we need every part of ourselves. Your body, your sexual self, your sensual self, is not to be denied or repressed. Your mind, your thinking, doubting self, is not to be denied or repressed. Your soul, your yearning, feeling, praying self, is not to be denied or repressed. Edward Carpenter, in coming to terms with himself as a homosexual, as a political campaigner, as a philosopher, as a lover, as a gardener, as a spiritual pagan, worked really hard not to deny any part of who he was. Even though some parts of who he was were considered dangerous and shameful by his society. He didn’t always succeed, but he kept up the work.

More than anything else Carpenter sought to harmonise soul and body, the spiritual and the physical. In his early years Carpenter was influenced by the philosopher Plato who valued the spiritual over the material. He wrote to a friend, “you have two sides to your existence (everyone has I suppose in a way) – the one you live in Duke Street and digest law and perform the usual functions of life… the other you spend in an ideal world… I have just been reading Plato’s Phaedrus – that is the essence of what you dream of.” (Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, 37) But later in life he valued the sensual more, when he wrote: “The kiss of the senses is beautiful beyond all and every abstraction; the touch of the sunlight, the glory of form and color, the magic of sweet sound, the joy of human embraces, the passion of sex – all so much more perfect because they are as it were something divine made actual and realisable. In such a mood asceticism in any form seems the grossest impiety and folly, and the pursuit of the Unseen a mere abandonment of the world for its shadow.” (Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, 217)

Walt Whitman put this much better when he said in Song of Myself, “the scent of my armpits is purer than prayer.” The spiritual life is not an escape from the physical life. The spiritual life invites us to live much deeper into our physical lives. Carpenter approvingly quoted the Chinese Taoist Lau Tzu “these two things, the spiritual and the physical, though we call them by different names, in their Origins are one and the same.” (Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, 273)

One of the most significant spiritual practices we can take on is to pay closer attention to our bodies: to feel the cool air entering our lungs; to pay attention to the many sensations our bodies are experiencing. Often prayer becomes most powerful when it moves out of our minds into our bodies. Mindfulness meditation is paying attention to our bodies. Communion, eating bread and wine, is paying attention to our bodies. Do not turn away from your body, or your mind, or your soul.

As you walk through the dark gallery, looking at all those images of your life, do not deny a single one, all of the experiences make up who you are; every part of you makes up who you are. That doesn’t mean that all your actions are healthy or right, or all your experiences are good. But every fundamental part of you is important: body, mind and soul. All of it makes up “you.”

But as we go deeper into answer that question “who am I?” we discover we cannot answer it in isolation. “You” are also made up of your relationship to the rest of the Universe, or to what we might call God. This is the universal witness of all the mystics. Perhaps we’re not wandering the dark gallery alone. Perhaps there are others who also wander and shine their light on the same moments and experiences. It is only the darkness that deceives us into thinking we’re isolated. In fact we’re connected, related, interconnected to everyone else and to everything else around us. Edward Carpenter called this the “All Soul” (Drama of Love and Death 272). Emerson, similarly called it the "Oversoul".

For Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is actually the Song of All of Us. Each one of us just one part of a greater whole. Who are you? You are one part of a Soul that encompasses us all. You contain multitudes, and you are one part of a multitude of souls that makes up the greater soul. Edward Carpenter expressed it in this way, “For a time, certainly we cling to our limited and tiny self-life and consciousness and deem that all good comes from the careful guarding of the same. But again there comes a time when the bounds of personality confine and chafe beyond endurance, when an immense rage sweeps us far out into the great ocean; when to save our lives we deliberately lose them… And the hour arrives when we look down on these local days, these self-limitations, as phases - phases of some vaster state of being. … [Then] the body moves freely about the world; life ceases to be the ‘obstacle race’ …which it mostly now is; and… the soul moves freely, because truly for the redeemed soul it is possible to feel that all things and creatures are friendly, all beings are part of itself.” (Drama of Love and Death 286-7)

Let us seek every day to understand ourselves as one part of that greater All Soul.

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