Metempsychosis

Metempsychosis

In Brief

In a striking departure from the Christian eschatalogy that Joyce was fed by the Catholic church, he makes Stephen, in Proteus, and Molly and Bloom, in Calypso, introduce the notion of reincarnation—"a past life," "metempsychosis," "the transmigration of souls," "reincarnation." Throughout Ulysses this conception of human immortality maintains a jocoserious presence (it surfaces most often in Molly's garbled "met him pike hoses") as one possible ultimate reality, and as a kind of metaphor or analogue for the mysterious interpenetration of individual identities.

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As he walks on Sandymount Strand Stephen imagines having been alive in the 1330s as a different "I, a changeling." Changelings, commonly encountered in Irish folklore (as in W. B. Yeats' poem The Stolen Child), are mysterious beings swapped for human children by the fairies—or, sometimes, the stolen children themselves. The belief probably arose as an explanation for birth defects, diseases, and other afflictions. It is not clear why Stephen thinks of past lives in these terms, or even that he believes he had one. He may only be imagining himself as a fairy child raised in a medieval bed as a fanciful way of indulging a historical revery. But a sense of deep racial identity informs his imagined ability to travel through time: "Their blood is in me, their lusts my waves."

Less than a page later, Stephen explicitly thinks of reincarnation, whimsically imagining that the dog he sees nosing about the beach is "Looking for something lost in a past life." Still later in Proteus, he broadens the concept of transmigration from temporal to spatial extension. Somewhere out there in the innumerable "worlds" that Giordano Bruno supposed to populate the cosmos there is a parallel universe, some unknown planet in which Stephen plays a part: "Me sits there with his augur's rod of ash, in borrowed sandals, by day beside a livid sea, unbeheld, in violet night walking beneath a reign of uncouth stars." Opposing the Christian cosmology of his time, Bruno proposed that the universe had no center and that the innumerable stars visible in the heavens were suns that might have their own life-bearing planets. He also affirmed the transmigration of the soul.

Bruno was going back to Plato, and beyond him Pythagoras. When Molly asks her husband the meaning of "met him pike hoses," which she has encountered in a novel, he evinces some awareness of this ancient history: "— Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It's Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls." The word is indeed Greek, and the belief was one feature of Orphic religion in ancient Thrace: Orpheus was said to have taught that a life of ascetic purity could liberate the soul from an otherwise endless cycle of reincarnation. The 6th century BCE philosopher Pythagoras apparently brought the doctrine into greater Greek circulation, practicing vegetarianism in the belief that abstaining from harming other sentient beings could affect the soul's reincarnation in one animal form or another. This Pythagorean aspect of the doctrine appears in Lestrygonians when Bloom thinks of vegetarians: "Only weggebobbles and fruit. Don’t eat a beefsteak. If you do the eyes of that cow will pursue you through all eternity.

Many of Plato's works in the early 4th century BCE suggest that he was strongly influenced by the Pythagorean doctrine. The myth at the end of the Republic recounts how a man named Er came back from the dead to tell how departed human souls are judged and then choose new forms of existence, many of them animal. Er also saw animals taking the forms of other animals, as happens repeatedly in Proteus and Circe. The Phaedrus and the Meno suggest that true knowledge involves anamnesis or recollection of things we have encountered in the realm of Ideas between our different incarnations, and the Phaedo, the Timaeus, and the Laws all contain thoughts about the doctrine. Some later classical writers referred disparagingly to reincarnation, but Virgil made in a central component of his eschatology in book 6 of the Aeneid, and it was explored sympathetically by Plotinus and the Neoplatonists.

Bloom's definition of metempsychosis as "the transmigration of souls" leaves Molly thoroughly unimpressed: "— O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words." In response, he silently racks his brain for what he knows: "That we live after death. Our souls. That a man's soul after he dies. Dignam's soul..." Impressively, he rouses his inner lecturer to give his wife a brief but coherent account: "— Some people believe, he said, that we go on living in another body after death, that we lived before. They call it reincarnation. That we all lived before on the earth thousands of years ago or some other planet. They say we have forgotten it. Some say they remember their past lives." Interestingly, Bloom too makes the connection to living on "some other planet."

Realizing that even this may not mean much to Molly, he tries again, with unfortunate results: "— Metempsychosis, he said, is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example." Metempsychosis should not be conflated with metamorphosis as Bloom does, but there is certainly overlap, as reincarnation erases the boundary between animal and human. Ulysses plays both with metamorphosis in this life (as when human beings are changed into countless animal forms in Circe) and with metempsychosis in the afterlife. The two conceptions share the notion that, in Bloom's words, "we go on living in another body."

In Nausicaa Bloom watches a bat flitting about near Paddy Dignam's old house and thinks, "Metempsychosis. They believed you could be changed into a tree from grief. Weeping willow. Ba. There he goes. Funny little beggar. Wonder where he lives. Belfry up there. Very likely. Hanging by his heels in the odour of sanctity." Paddy returns in Circe as a baying beagle to announce, Hamlet-like, "Bloom, I am Paddy Dignam's spirit. List, list, O list!" When one policeman, piously crossing himself, asks, "How is that possible?" and the other one says, "It is not in the penny catechism," Dignam answers, "By metempsychosis. Spooks." In these two passages, Joyce uses the recently departed Dignam to suggest that the Catholic church's Last Things (Hell, Paradise, and the Purgatory that Hamlet Sr. reports on) may not be the only realities that human beings can encounter after death.

The ancient Greeks and Romans almost certainly derived their ideas of reincarnation ultimately from Indian doctrines that reach back to the Upanishads. No doubt Joyce encountered some of these more directly in theosophical writings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One section of Cyclops hilariously employs words covered with Sanskrit-like diacritical marks to narrate Dignam's afterlife experiences. Such passages may easily be dismissed as comic hyperbole, but they plant the seeds of speculation.

Whatever Ulysses may be judged to say or not say about the afterlife, these quasi-eastern thoughts about reincarnation clearly do invite the reader to think about the mutability of human personality and the permeability of its boundaries. In Hades, as Dignam's coffin is diving down into the dark and the men handling the ropes are struggling "up and out" of the grave, Bloom thinks, "If we were all suddenly somebody else." To pursue that thought, speculations about the destination of Dignam's soul are unnecessary. Much of Circe can be read as people suddenly becoming somebody else in the here and now, and Scylla and Charybdis explores the mechanisms by which Shakespeare did so again and again in his plays.

Viewed in this way, metempsychosis is another name for self-knowledge: the ability to imagine the different forms that one's life can take. It is also a name for empathy or compassion: the ability to feel the sufferings of others as if one lived within their bodies. The word is used in this second way in Oxen of the Sun, when Bloom contemplates "the wonderfully unequal faculty of metempsychosis possessed by" the medical students, who cannot imagine the effect that their raucous laughter may be having on the unfortunate woman trying to give birth. Remembering a past life "in another body" probably has less ultimate value than being able to loosen the bonds of self imposed by inhabiting a body in this life.

JH 2017
The Changeling, 1780 chalk and watercolor painting on paper by Henry Fuseli, held in the Kunsthaus Zürich. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Modern rendering of an early 18th century woodcut image of Giordano Bruno, itself based on a drawing in Le Livre du Recteur de l'Académie de Genève (1578). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Work by unknown artist. Source: www.patheos.com.
 2009 Speed Bump cartoon by Dave Coverly. Source: www.pinterest.com.
2010 cartoon by Dave Coverly. Source: www.pinterest.com.
Cartoon by an unknown artist. Source: www.trueexorcist.com.