Akasic records

In Brief

When, in the first chapter of the novel, Stephen thinks of his mother being “Folded away in the memory of nature with her toys,” he may be suspected of indulging an ididosyncratic fancy. But later chapters make clear Joyce's interest in the theosophical notion of a cosmic memory encompassing the memories compiled by all sentient beings in a kind of universal library of the soul's experiences. Stephen ponders these "akasic records" in Aeolus, and in Oxen of the Sun the narrative glances at the similar idea of a "plasmic memory."

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Theosophy, or “god-wisdom,” was a mystical philosophy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that sought to bring different religious traditions together in pursuit of one universal truth. Although its practitioners were European, they drew heavily on Hindu religious traditions. Some Theosophists wrote about universal memories called “akashic records.” Akasha is a Sanskrit word referring to the first material element created from the astral world, before air, fire, water, and earth. It means something like space or sky, and is regarded as the basis or substratum of physical existence. Theosophists combined this term with the Hindu idea that one could perfectly recall the events of past lives. The Akashic records were thus conceived as a kind of mystical encyclopedia or library, containing everything ever experienced in the history of the cosmos. They were stored on the non-physical, astral plane of existence that one entered after death, and could also be accessed in certain states (deep meditation, astral projection, hypnosis) while alive. In Aeolus, Stephen thinks of "Akasic records of all that ever anywhere wherever was."

The phrase he uses in Telemachus, "the memory of nature," appears to come from The Growth of the Soul (1896), a work written by the prominent Theosophist Alfred Percy Sinnett. Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses (1930), cited in Thornton, quotes from a passage of Sinnett's which uses the same words.

Still other Theosophical texts spoke of these records as "plasmic." In Oxen of the Sun, we hear of a “plasmic memory” inhering in a “plasmic substance” that alone “can be said to be immortal.” Gifford glosses it thus: “In Theosophy, the total memory of the soul’s metempsychosis, its journey through successive incarnations from lower forms through a succession of human forms toward the superhuman.” Philip P. Herring's Joyce's Ulysses Notebooks in the British Museum (University of Virginia Press, 1972) records the fact that Joyce mentioned the phrase "plasmic memory" in the notes on embryological development that he compiled while planning Oxen and listening to Lucia inside Nora's womb (171). In King Vidor, American (University of California Press, 1988), Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon describe a lost silent film in which the director cast his wife Florence in "a dual role as an American and an Indian who, somehow, share the same soul. When the American sleeps, her soul shuttles off to India, but she experiences her other life in the forms of dreams, or through some sort of 'plasmic memory,' to use the term of the Theosophists, who had done much to popularize Eastern notions of metempsychosis in America" (38).

Joyce frequently alludes to Theosophical beliefs in Ulysses, usually to ridicule them. In Cyclops, a Sanskrit-inflected Paddy Dignam reports back to the living on the things he has discovered on the spiritual plane beyond death. Instead of universal knowledge, he is pleased to have discovered all the amenities of modern urban life, among them “tālāfānā, ālāvātār, hātākāldā, wātāklāsāt.” But although Stephen participates in that mockery, he seems willing to entertain Theosophical ideas in passages like the one in which he imagines his mother folded away in the memory of nature. Her life has become "Phantasmal mirth, folded away: muskperfumed" not only in the sense that its artifacts remain "powdered with musk" in a drawer, but also because her memories have been folded away in the vast library of human experience. Somewhere beyond, she is still playing with her featherfans and tasseled dancecards.

Theosophy was not the first movement in Western religion and philosophy to imagine a universal mind that human beings could access in extraordinary states. When Dante begins to enter the mind of God, for instance, he describes the vision as similar to seeing the opened pages of a book in which are recorded all the “substances and accidents” that have ever been “scattered through the universe.” In Nestor, Stephen thinks of the Muslim Averroes and the Jewish Moses Maimonides, "dark men in mien and movement, flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend." In that episode, he also thinks of Averroes' inspiration, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, as having theorized something like a universal soul: "Tranquil brightness. The soul is in a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms. Tranquility sudden, vast, candescent: form of forms." Still another western philosopher who theorized a kind of world soul, Giordano Bruno, was important to Joyce. His influence on the organization of Ulysses (as well as those of Aristotle and Dante) is discussed by Theoharis Constantine Theoharis in Joyce's Ulysses: An Anatomy of the Soul (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

JH 2011
The Long Room, the old library of Trinity College, Dublin. Source: iamindemand.blogspot.com.
Alfred Percy Sinnett. Source: Wikimedia Commons.