Sunday, February 6, 2011


February 6, 2011:

I was channel surfing the other night and ran across a show about the soul, and scientific interest in studying it, that turned out to be mostly about a twelve-year-old American boy who remembered, at the age of two, or maybe three, being shot down in a plane over an Okinawan bay near the end of World War II and being trapped, and dying, in his cockpit. The University of Virginia has a center that rounds up accounts like this from all over the world and has thousands of them; it was founded by a psychologist whose name was Ian Stevenson, who persisted, in the face of large scale scorn and indifference among his peers, to pursue this during his entire career. That particular example came from this center; most of Stevenson's examples, however, were from the Middle and Far East, where reincarnation is an accepted idea. What usually happens in such cases is that those who remember their past lives forget them by the age of five, a fact that most people would consider made them unreliable witnesses, although the memories can be extraordinarily specific, as this boy's was. But five is the cut-off point. After that it all fades away.

I've always been curious about the idea of reincarnation. I know that if I had grown up recalling my life as a participant in the Russian revolution, as my psychic friend Leor once told me I had been, I would be likely to believe in the idea; no, more, I would be certain of it. But what then? Would it explain anything about my current life? And if we live out life after life but have no memories of any of them, and only rare exceptions have any such memory, how can it help me now? I mean me, Anthony Brandt, son of Axel Hjalmar Brandt and Grace Scott, brother of the late Charles Henry Brandt, father of Kate and Evan, husband of Lorraine Dusky. Me in all my particularity, shaped by my upbringing, my genes, my height, my bodily gifts and woes, my education, my reading, my loves and losses. What of the Russian who was supposedly reborn in me? I can find no trace of him unless perhaps it's a fondness for vodka (although when I was younger I only drank Scotch). I don't know a word of Russian except nyet, which everybody knows. The Buddhists say there is no self and my daughter tells me that when they are asked what it is that reincarnates, they laugh and say, "bad habits." The self, however, the me, dies, evaporates, is as if it had never been. Thus their effort in this life to detach themselves from it.

I am what I suppose you could call not-quite-a-Buddhist. I grew up in the Methodist Church but it didn't take. My parents never went to church except on Easter and didn't, I think, believe a word of it and my mother used to say that hell was not a place you went to after you died, it was life on earth. So much for Christianity. I was taken recently, reading about Dante, by something St. Augustine had written, that souls do not suffer in the fires of hell (it may have been purgatory, although I think purgatory was invented well after Augustine's time) because they're hot--souls do not feel physical pain--but because they are trapped in fire, they take the shape of fire, are fire, and can never be free of it. It's a wonderful image, very seductive, but it won't do. It's that "never," and its implications. "Never" renders it meaningless to human consciousness; "never" blots everything out.

Anyway the point I'm getting to is that if something survives, a soul, say, well, that soul is quite clearly not me. Not the person, or personality, that so preoccupies my time now, in my 70s, staring at mortality and wondering what language the dead speak. Am I fond of myself? Do I like myself? Is the "who" that "I" am worth preserving? I do like myself, but I don't think it matters a hoot whether the me that is me survives. All that will survive of me, my wise daughter reminds me, is my words, maybe a million of them by now, preserved in the dozens of magazines I've written for and the few books. Keep writing this blog, Dad, she tells me.

But I will be sorry to leave this world. "Death is the mother of beauty," writes Wallace Stevens in "Sunday Morning," a poem that is rich with the love of the world; and when I look at the birds, the trees, the harbor, and in the spring the tiny insects that hover over the flowers of our Arctic thyme, I realize how attached to it I still am. The hawk that preens its wings on the back of one of the benches on our deck is a handsome fellow indeed. When my brother was told he had a year to live he slowly backed off from things, from people; but my old friend Carter Jones, who died in a plane crash and told me a week before that he no longer dreamed about the future, that his nighttime dreams were dark, abyssal, well, Carter was somebody who savored the ice cream he would eat like no other man I've ever known. He tasted it like nobody else. He lived richly. Maybe that's not me who loves the birds and the wild storms and the ocean, but the soul currently occupying this me. I don't know. I try to maintain a Socratic ignorance. And now Lorraine wants to go out to Sunday brunch, and I have to finish this post. "Is there no change of death in paradise? / Does ripe fruit never fall?" The words are from "Sunday Morning," and they ask an immortal question. Are we forever, or just for now? We don't know. We mustn't know, because death is the mother of beauty.