Akasic records

Akasic records

In Brief

When Stephen imagines in Telemachus that his mother has been “Folded away in the memory of nature with her toys,” readers may suspect that he is indulging a passing idiosyncratic fancy. But Joyce too, at Stephen's age, was expressing belief in a universal memory, as in his 1902 lecture on James Clarence Mangan: "In those vast courses which enfold us and in that great memory which is greater and more generous than our memory, no life, no moment of exaltation is ever lost." Later chapters in the novel show that he remained interested in the theosophical notion of a cosmic memory that "enfolds" the lives of all sentient beings in a kind of universal library. Stephen ponders these "akasic records" in Aeolus, and in Oxen of the Sun the narrative glances at the similar idea of a "plasmic memory."

Read More

Theosophy, or “god-wisdom,” is a mystical philosophy that seeks to bring different faith traditions together in pursuit of one universal truth. Although most of its practitioners have been European, their doctrines draw heavily on Hindu religious beliefs, and a branch located in India remains active today. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a Russian student of the occult whose Secret Doctrine (1888) argued that everything in the universe is engaged in a process of intelligent cosmic evolution that will end with attainment of perfect spiritual awareness. The wholly independent Irish branch of the Society, still active in Dublin, was founded by George Russell ("A.E.") and others in the 1880s under a direct charter from Madame Blavatsky.

Some late 19th century theosophists wrote about universal memories called akashic or akasic 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), by the prominent English theosophist Alfred Percy Sinnett. Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses (1930, p, 216) quotes Sinnett's use of this phrase: "consciousness is in indirect relations with the all but infinite memory of Nature, which is preserved with imperishable perfection in the all-embracing medium known to occult science as the Akasa" (189). Other theosophical texts spoke of these records as "plasmic." Oxen of the Sun mentions a “plasmic memory” inhering in a “plasmic substance” that alone “can be said to be immortal,” which Gifford glosses 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 (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 (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 alludes often to theosophical beliefs in Ulysses. Sometimes the dominant note is ridicule, as in Cyclops when a Sanskrit-conversant 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.” Stephen participates in that mockery in Scylla and Charybdis, but he also 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 (1988).

JH 2011
The Long Room, the old library of Trinity College, Dublin, ca. 1885, in a photograph held in the National Library of Ireland. Source: twistedsifter.com.
Photographic portrait of Alfred Percy Sinnett, date unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.