How Old Is Your Soul?
Come Here Often? I used to be very concerned with the disposition of my soul. I got on a reincarnationist kick at an early age simply because it seemed to make more sense than any of the other religious scenarios. The notion of any kind of eternal penalty or reward for the deeds and misdeeds perpetrated in the span of our mere three score and 10 seems inherently draconian and absurd and flies in the face of everything I know about entropy. The dominance of entropy was the first lesson I learned in life. Now, at 45, having lost my religion, I find the idea of reincarnation very appealing, but I just can't yield to the idea in the absence of any apparent mechanism. Nonlocal causality is a very difficult concept for me to grasp. Like most people, I carry around an essentially Newtonian worldview, slightly complicated in my case by my fascination with anomalies as documented by Charles Fort and John Keel and, of course, all the acid. Often it feels as if I've led several lives in this one lucky body. It took me a couple of years to shake off the stench of desperation that enveloped me when my wife of 17 years dumped me back in '97, but I've managed to get back into my essential Wayne's World groove and I've started hanging out with interesting women. My marriage feels like a past life, like something that happened to somebody else. My ex-wife and I are still good friends, but I'm having a wild time being single again. It enhances my core motivation of adolescent whimsy and allows me to free up my inner raccoon to pursue any bright shining thing that rolls by. My current bright shining thing is a 21-year-old photographer with aspirations toward being an MD and the most laid-back case of low self-esteem I've ever encountered. She's a very weird woman. Most twentysomethings these days are psychopaths obsessed with faux rock 'n' roll, celebrity and making a million bucks before they turn 30. My generation betrayed everything it claimed to hold sacred by cashing in and selling out to the "work within the system" bullshit, and it's perfectly understandable that fakery has become somehow sacrosanct as this most gruesome of centuries draws to a close. It is as fitting as Gianni Versace getting the payoff for ripping off the dressed-in-black look of the nihilistic dirt-poor art fags of the 70s by winding up with a cap in his brainpan courtesy of a demented celebrity-obsessed hustler. Now that's karma. This woman is so totally above and outside of all things trendy, she reminds me of the starlets of the 40s and 50s, back when celebrity really meant something and Tallulah Bankhead made my little boy heart jump and twirl. She triggers odd memories. Her hair smells like summer at the Jersey shore, walking down the beach at night in Ocean City alone and happy, the waves breaking gently and the wet sand firm under my feet as the lights glow on the boardwalk. I can trace the distinct sequence of lives I have led, and the string of causality (which could just as easily be called "karma") that led me to my current privileged position. I was the shy kid lost in his books, then the journeyman child actor learning to interact, albeit perversely, with the world. I got to be the fag that got bashed in high school, and then ran away to be the street punk, peddling sex and drugs and hitchhiking everywhere. There was the life in San Francisco in the 70s, the fecund jungle of random paraphilia and the Rocky Horror life that we all thought would go on forever and ever, until Reagan and the Plague came and shut down the party. Then I got all bitter and crazy and became a repo man, and then I quit that and ran away with the circus. I was a stockbroker for a while. Now I pretty much do what I want. I can't even begin to describe what I do for a living?it changes every week. At least it's mostly legal these days. It's about consequences, this recall thing. This woman and I spend long weekends in bed, watching the old black-and-white movies that inspired the derivative computerized fakery we now find ourselves engulfed in. We were watching the original 1963 Robert Wise version of The Haunting, the most frightening movie ever made. You can see the great tide of 60s weirdness trickling in via Claire Bloom's Mary Quant wardrobe. I sleep with my hands under the pillow because of that movie, to this very day. Tallulah in Lifeboat is the archetypal postfeminist woman, self-reliant, capable of handing any man in the place his ass on a silver platter if the idiot thinks he can patronize or condescend to her. There is no contemporary equivalent to Tallulah Bankhead, unless you count writers: Camille Paglia. How could I possibly have room for a life before this one, or one after death? The fullness of memory is so much with only what we have before us, it is impossible for me to conceive of having more. Try to remember your most perfect day. Mine was simply a long walk alone in the snow on a bright winter day in 1961. Nothing more or less than that: bright sun in a clear blue sky and an endless expanse of snow leading to the Delaware River. Tom Shroder has written a fantastic and unnerving documentation of his investigation of the work of psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson, who has devoted decades to the study of thousands of children who seem to remember details of previous lives. Old Souls is a fascinating account of Shroder's travels with Stevenson through Lebanon, India and Virginia, in search of verification of the continuity of human consciousness beyond death. Stevenson is scrupulous and rigorous in his examination of these cases. He's not some twit chasing rainbows. My favorite quote from him in this book is, "I don't think there is any proof in science outside of mathematics." That's what I'd call a realistic attitude. He's very careful to screen out cases that carry the slightest hint of corruption of the data. If there is even the remotest possibility of the child having been coached by the parents or others, Stevenson dumps the case. All of his cases involve memories of lives immediately preceding the present one. Shroder brings his own very healthy skepticism to what amounts to a rollicking travelogue as he accompanies Stevenson through a perilous series of ventures into the Road Warrior landscape of Lebanon and the open sewer that is India. I'd as soon eat a dog turd as visit India. Everyone I've ever known who went there wound up with dysentery, and Shroder's description of the place only reinforces my aversion to it. My fellow Americans are too primitive for my tastes: I hate Port-A-Johns and gas station restrooms. I certainly do not want to spend time among people who shit on the ground, that's just awful. It's interesting that Stevenson is an old acid head and that he applies such rigorous scientific standards to his pursuit of evidence of reincarnation. It is extremely interesting that his most solid cases bear no evidence of any kind of "karma" or cosmic justice or what have you being meted out. The most credible examples he's found give no evidence of any moral or ethical component to whatever the mechanism might be. People just move from body to body, like wardrobe choices. It seems more prevalent in cultures that believe in reincarnation, and there seem to be a preponderance of cases in which the previous life ended violently. Sometimes there are birthmarks corresponding to fatal wounds received in the previous existence. It's all very weird, and not at all what one would expect based on the reams of blissninny literature churned out on the subject since Blavatsky triggered the Western fixation on degraded interpretations of the dharma. None of these cases involves any of the bogus "past-life regression" hypnosis nonsense. Hypnotic regression is bunk. Stevenson's cases are all based on vivid, fully awake and aware memories. Shroder confronts the obvious arguments against reincarnation, and deals evenly with some of the not-so-obvious objections. In a conversation with child psychiatrist Jim Tucker, who has spent a great deal of time working with Stevenson, he examines the problem of Alzheimer's in relation to the phenomenon. Tucker asked me if I had read the skeptical criticisms of Stevenson's research. I told him that I had, and was unimpressed by most of them. "Of all the arguments," I said, "the one that still seems to me to carry the most weight is the fact that Alzheimer's patients lose every aspect of their personality?their memories, their abilities, their temperaments. And it all disintegrates in direct correspondence to the physical deterioration of their brains. The question is, if partial destruction of the brain destroys all the aspects of a person that might be reincarnated, how can we imagine that anything can survive total destruction of the brain?" "There's a standard response," Tucker replied. "And I think it's a good one: it's like a radio. If you smash the radio, it's not going to be playing any music. But that doesn't mean the radio waves have disappeared. It just means there's nothing to receive them. "The skeptics would respond, 'Where does the radio signal come from?' You might as well ask, 'What happens inside a black hole? What came before the Big Bang?'" Old Souls is a very sober examination of one meticulously honest and ethical man's investigation of a difficult puzzle. The interviews with the children and their apparent recall of salient details of lives so mundane that wish-fulfillment cannot possibly be a motive make for genuinely unsettling reading. The risks that Ian Stevenson takes to get to the data are extraordinary. He's an admirable guy, even more so when you consider that he could be sitting on his ass writing Wellbutrin prescriptions for rich dope fiends and counting his loot in Vermont instead of gallivanting around Bumfuck, Lebanon, looking for evidence of metempsychosis among the ruins of war. Tom Shroder has done a wonderful job of presenting this work in a lucid, evenhanded way. Myself, I'm not so sure I could bear the idea of being reincarnated. I miss the 50s, truth be told. As Yogi Berra said, "The future ain't what it used to be." But as long as there are bright, shining women with low self-esteem and high aspirations, I guess I'll be game for another go around the wheel. Next time, I want to be a whole tribe of gremlins.
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