Why should we consider the soul mortal?

Wanda Gág in 1916

In October 1908, 20 years before publication of her groundbreaking children’s book Millions of Cats, American artist and author Wanda Gág embarked on a 30-year diary-keeping journey. This detailed and intimate record not only encompassed her personal experiences and reflections but also featured captivating illustrations that mirrored her artistic growth, charting her transformation from a dedicated art student to an accomplished author and illustrator. In this entry, penned on Easter Sunday when Gág was 22 and honing her craft at the Minneapolis School of Art, we find her discussing religion, immortality and the nature of the soul following a discussion with her friend and fellow art student, Adolph Dehn.

The Diary Entry

April 4, Easter Sunday

Wednesday Mr. Dehn called on me. We talked about the usual subjects. Religion, of course. Mr. Dehn is so much at sea upon the question of immortality at present that we discuss it just about every time we meet.

I believe in immortality—I don’t know just what I think its nature is, neither do I care, but I can’t see how anyone with a big mind and heart can think that our souls die with us. Matter is endless, space is endless—why should we consider the soul mortal?

It makes me tired to have materialists come in with their man-made arguments and proofs, trying to refute such a big and super-human thing as immortality of the soul. If they can find the soul, hold it in their hands, make it tangible, dissect it and analyze it materially—they will have a right to apply material and scientific tests and arguments to it, and not before.

Where does space end? If it is endless, how can it be? If a thing can’t be endless unless it goes in a circle, and space goes in a circle, what after the circle? In what is the circle placed? In space again. And after this space?

Time must be endless, for even if it stopped, there would have to be something in place of it after it. It must have begun somewhere. But what before the beginning?

When I think these things and realize to a certain extent how absolutely too small we are to comprehend things like that, I am ready to believe almost anything. Those things are so big and wonderful that we should have no trouble realizing that we can never fathom their mysteries in this life. If there are such things, why shouldn’t there be a life big and wonderful’ enough to conceive them?

There was a time when I was practically a skeptic or an atheist. Mr. Dehn is in that stage now. I told him I thought that he would get over that in time. You know when you first hear the cold, bare facts which scientists assail us with, their arguments (being so material and therefore entirely within our conception) seem to brush away all possibility of anything intangible, and we doubt all but that which can be explained in our own feeble, human way. Then, great Caesar, when you get to the point where you feel that you are touching sunsets, and are part of curves in trees or stretches of landscapes or of a bird’s trill—then you realize how small and insignificant and nonconclusive are cold, man-conceived proofs. Let them prove our material existence by science, but for the love of soup, let them leave the Divine and unfathomable to the Soul.

It’s enough that we have to be material. I do not mean to condemn matter or infer that I don’t appreciate it. I am glad to be alive, to be able to feel the sunshine-laden breath of spring, and to be able to delight in purely physical demonstration of my feelings—but even these things would not be so enjoyable if they were not linked with something greater and more mystical.

Oh Tush!

I believe I could doubt anything more easily at present (and I hope always) than immortality. It’s only part of “Being is not; non-being is.”

It seems to me that the person who does not finally come to that is more beast than man. For me, I thank God that I have a soul, a Myself (call it what you like), and that I have the light to acknowledge it and have faith in it. The nature of a hereafter, or of our God, does not worry me much. I cannot conceive of either the conventional hell or a personal devil.

Right and wrong, and the causes of them, are so bewilderingly mixed in this world that I sometimes doubt whether there is such a thing in the usual sense of the word. Or perhaps I should say “good and bad.”

I don’t know which to use. Well anyway, it seems one might substitute instead of “right and wrong” or “good and bad”-“doing one’s best or not doing one’s best.”

On the other hand (said she, unchronologically) Christians as well as materialists are too material. So many of them take the Bible so literally.

What if the Bible has contradictions? Why can’t people take it for what it is, whether it be an accurate history or not? It’s a good and an uplifting piece of literature. The people who wrote it, whether they exaggerated or not, at least were big and un-philistine enough to “see the sun.” Having become capable of this, and rejoicing in their ability to see thru the veil, they did the most natural thing in the world. They tried to show it to others too. So they wrote the Bible. I suppose they wrote the Bible for the same reason that an artist paints a picture. The divine spark in them moved them to tell the world. I am getting off my subject, I’m afraid.

History is valuable, it seems to me, only inasmuch as it teaches consequent generations to understand life. It matters very little to me when things happened as long as they happened at the psychological moment, and as long as something is born of the experience or incident.

Whether in Bible Days there were miracles or not, doesn’t seem to me to be of much consequence. But there was Light and there was Good, and those things are worth recording.

Whether we descend from Adam and Eve or whether we are only an improvement on apes, doesn’t matter much to me. That’s past. I thank goodness that I am as far removed from apes as I am. If I have ape-blood in me—I don’t care. So has everybody else then. If I have upon me the mark of original sin, I am not responsible for it, and besides if I have it so has everyone else. The only thing to do is to be as sinless as possible—I mean, adding as little sin to the original sin as possible.

There is nothing better for us to do than to take ourselves as we find ourselves and make the best of ourselves. If I find myself, as I did, the daughter of an artist who has left me with broadmindedness and a conveniently strong character to resist temptation, I take myself from there and accomplish what I can. If a little slum child finds itself with a heritage of ignorance and crime (which words are almost synonymous) you cannot blame it for not getting as far as do I with my advantages.

In the same way, I have no right to pride myself upon my virtue, my chastity or my broadmindedness. I do not even deserve praise for doing my best, for that is my duty and I deserve rather to be blamed for not doing my best.

Of course, there are some people who are born with rich heritages but who, thru misfortune or some other reason, fall down. And perhaps they cannot even be blamed for not having done their best. Or perhaps they did their best but fell anyway.

I am wandering off again.

I do not know how much of the Bible I actually accept, I do not know what part of the Christian doctrine I accept. I don’t care much how much other people accept—as long as they can realize the light.

It seems to me that the trouble is that Church people as a general rule underestimate this life, while materialists, atheists etc. over-estimate it. I do not chafe under having to BE, physically, as I used to; but I take such ecstasy in actually living because the material part of our life is linked with something bigger.

You little pie face, you little pebble, you little, little dot-talking for pages of Eternity—

Last night Mr. Dehn came again and we went to the Club. Mr. Holton gave a talk on “The Meeting of Prophecy and History.” On the way out Mr. Dehn accused me, with a cryptic smile, of a delight for “tall talk” and a tendency towards affectation. I became exceedingly excited as may be imagined, denying it and trying to explain in what way he was mistaken. I have a sneaking notion that he did it only to see how I’d take it. In fact I’m almost sure of it. But not quite. So I must ask him seriously whether he really thinks that there is any danger of my doing so.

This morning I went to Church and I liked it. When I go to church of my own accord I like it. And I like to go to church with Mr. Dehn because he looks at the matter from a different point of view than a regular church-goer would.

I have just finished Arthur Pinero’s “The Benefit of the Doubt—A Comedy in Three Acts.” I fail to see where the comedy comes in. I am reading “The Blue Bird” in German.

Further Reading

Wanda Gág’s original diaries are held at Penn Libraries, who have a detailed write-up on their website. In 1940, some of Gág’s earlier entries were published in the book, Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908-1917, which can be read online at the Internet Archive; updated editions have since arrived. Her record-breaking children’s book, Millions of Cats, is easy to find.

One response to “Why should we consider the soul mortal?”

  1. Nguyen Cong Kien Avatar
    Nguyen Cong Kien

    This is why diary are so intersting. In one entry, we have existential ďebate, personal feeling, and a diss on book.

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