Some years back I met a woman whose face reminded me of a model’s in a well-known painting by Gauguin. And, on hearing I practised astrology, she named a well-known astrologer who’d told her she’d been Gauguin in a former life; he said he’d never seen a chart so like the artist’s. She seemed to accept this notion uncritically. But after I’d computed both sets of data, the slight resemblance led me to guess that her face, not her chart, had inspired him to free-associate.
Another woman I knew with a weakness for psychic readings believed that she’d been Genghis Khan. The proof for this inner-urban aesthete was her penchant for fur cuffs and collars. Which reminds me of someone more intellectual – an author, historian and editor – who told me he’d been Genghis Khan’s grandson. (Kublai, I presume… Would these two have enjoyed a family reunion if I’d introduced them?)
Few believers have told me of lifetimes lived as slaves, peasants or vagrants (do humbler incarnations leave less of an imprint for psychics to register?) – but most lives in any era tend to be unexceptional.
The concept of reincarnation has no place in the affluent West (one might even call it taboo). But our culture takes debt, and the inequities it engenders, for granted; the endless deferment of payment to some future date – preferably beyond the span of the only life we think we have, as demonstrated by our MO of Buy now, pay later: we drill for oil, frack for gas, burn dirty coal, raze old-growth forests, amass ever more toxic landfill, poison our skies and river systems, hunt ‘game’ to the brink (or beyond) of extinction, without first thinking through the implications for future generations, let alone for the entire ungraspably complex planetary web of life. And we scoff at the notion of reincarnation because it’s unscientific. As if science is somehow free of unconscious biases and not just a newish religion (hence some of its champions’ ongoing clashes with upholders of older religions).
Reincarnation is just not a useful concept in a capitalist/consumer society. Consider how many truly dumb concepts the media feeds us constantly – in the name of short-term corporate profit. And most people suck them up. Take antibiotics. Even in cases where a natural cure could do the job, most people are programmed to take the Big Pharma option. And by fighting the apparent intruder instead of boosting immunity, our species helps viruses to evolve. (Perhaps a pandemic or two can help out with our population problem, seeing as we haven’t yet admitted that we’re powerless over our animal need to breed – that our planet has become unmanageable.)
Our culture is geared to quick delivery, instant gratification. We’ve lost the ability or willingness to wait. That’s why we eat animals speed-raised on hormones and zap meals with microwaves. If you thought there was any risk at all that you’d be reborn as a cow or a pig, would you campaign for (or even just take more interest in) animal lib? And like the food we eat, we want our food for thought delivered fast too (see Google…).
Ironically, so-called realism rules even in the world of serious fiction, realism being, in practice, synonymous with materialism. If you want to read (or write) plots about past lives you can forget the literary lists; genre’s where it’s at (speculative, fantasy, romance), except for satire. In How the Dead Live (2000), resourceful Brit author Will Self (as famous for his addiction history as for his wordsmithery) tackles the theme of where we go between lives – assuming that the bardo (Tibetan for ‘intermediate state’) exists; our language has no word that refers to it. How better to censor a concept? And when a spokesperson won’t be deterred, there’s mockery. Mainstream reviews of Self’s exuberant satire on mortality accuse him of cynicism, nihilism, lack of discipline, and excesses in language, yet skip due analysis of the ideas that animate it. When interviewed, Self has described How the Dead Live as ‘an unashamedly and openly Buddhist allegory’, ‘very closely modelled on the Tibetan Book of the Dead’. What one confused reviewer condemns as ‘look-at-me-mum metaphors’ serve to draw attention to the crassness of the consumerist West more than to Self. (Isn’t a cynic someone who believes that’s all there is – not unlike some of Self’s sneering critics?) Like all true satirists, Self’s a moralist; in the end, his grumpy old woman narrator gets the rebirth she deserves.
Westerners – a tag fast becoming redundant in our globalised culture – want rebirth, alright, but on their terms; hence the popularity of online virtual worlds (see, e.g., Second Life). They’re a kind of psychosocial equivalent of the zipless fuck (that ’70s term for a one-night stand coined by author Erica Jong): you get a brand new identity and milieu with no obvious consequences (a substitute for dreams that dissolve even as the average person ‘wakes up’). If it seems like a category mistake to refer to the politics of reincarnation (the cover-up of reports of near-death experiences is framed as a political issue in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, a subtly subversive film that went over the heads of some PC critics), consider what humans might do differently if they had proof of life beyond death. Rapid, unchecked growth/consumerism = short-term gratification, and our media sells the lie that no better deal is available.
In the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Advice on Dying, 2002):
If you analyze this life force that keeps the body from rotting, you will see that it is the mind. The fact that flesh is conjoined with consciousness keeps it from decomposing. The continuum of this mind is what proceeds to the next lifetime (p. 130).
This style of analysis isn’t fashionable in our culture. Either consciousness ends with brain death or, after a patriarchal-style reckoning, departs to spend eternity in heaven or hell (scientism or Christian myth: opposing ends of the same blunt stick). And so the suppressed idea that consciousness could be extended (or recycled) on Earth has erupted into pop culture through the lore of overtly carnal immortals. What sets vampires apart from humans is less their feeding and sleeping habits than the agelessness many Westerners would sell their souls to emulate but entailing, beyond the enchanting surface, accumulated memories. In a world where humans increasingly have the attention spans they project onto goldfish, long-term memory = what our culture has disowned. As the Dalai Lama says: ‘The absence of former and future lives has never been directly perceived, whereas there are attested cases of clear memory of former lives (ibid.).’ How many of us can clearly recall just what we were doing this time last week, or, for that matter, details of one or more of last night’s dreams? And the more we defer to experts and specialists – ‘Science’ – for a reality check, the less we’ll dare to trust our subtler perceptions.
Well put as usual. I agree that life is ungraspably complex — both at the planetary web and lying alone in bed levels. The arrogant leap we make from understanding how a stick might move a rock to assuming we can squeeze the secrets of the cosmos into our tiny little brains never fails to amaze me. If we don’t immolate ourselves first I suspect we’ll some day come to recognize that one of the most powerful religions in mankind’s evolution was started by the likes of Newton and Galileo with mathematics as their holy catechism. What I believe science fails to understand is that if human satisfaction is the universe we care about measurements must be made in smiles and tears rather than meters and grams. — Michael J. Alan