Metempsychosis: Introduction

Here is the introduction to a series of short stories I am writing. Some of the stories are finished, most are in various stages of incompletion. The concept of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, was an after-thought. The stories range chronologically and geographically from the Pleistocene to proto-Christian Iceland to colonial India to the American wild-west. I felt the stories needed cohesion, so I came up with the lame trick of making the central characters all incarnations of the same character. Because of the habitual lack of diversity in my characterization I think the trick works.

(1)

Not so long ago an unpleasant man named Mr. Lawrence was sitting on a park bench eating his lunch. He sat square in the center where his copious heft spilled well enough to the left and to the right of him to prevent another from taking a seat. He had departed for his break fifteen minutes early, planned to return to work fifteen minutes late and had lifted from the refrigerator someone else’s sandwich — since he had no one at home to make him his own. As he dealt with a mouthful of mealy peanut-butter, dully enjoying the sunshine and the cloudshade by turns, something struck him on the chest which he promptly brushed with fat fingers to the ground. His temper was incurious, but he looked anyhow. Near his foot a few blades of grass writhed, as if suddenly aware and horrified at their state. He poked past them with the toe of his tennis shoe, and there he found on its back a fat brown beetle struggling to upright itself. The legs groped in vain. Its thickly veined, translucent wings were unfolded and buzzing harshly in the dirt. Nevertheless it did not seem to betray much frustration, but went about its business calmly as if convinced resolution was merely a matter of time. Or as if uprighting itself was really of no concern. Mr. Lawrence nudged it with his toe. The beetle turned over. It did not seem grateful. Then without haste it tested its wings. Slowly it rose into the air with widening, counter-clockwise, besotted spirals, its body like a heavy drop about drip from the leaf of its wings until, at the apogee of one of its loops, with gathered speed, it bumped into Mr. Lawrence’s left shoulder, was brushed off, and fell back into its old predicament.

“How stupid you are,” Mr. Lawrence mused aloud. “I wonder how it is you manage to live in this world for more than a day?” With that, he placed his heel upon the squirming bug and pressed until he felt the satisfying pop! Then he wiped his shoe on the grass and returned to chewing his monotonous meal.

Resting thus, his wide jaws rhythmically circling, Mr. Lawrence would have resembled (both externally and internally) a dimly ruminating cow. Except, he suddenly felt delirious. Startled, he stopped chewing. In a sort of anxiety he spat out the unswallowed mouthful, afraid he would choke, and gasped. His throat constricted and his mouth filled with saliva. A liquid fire was expanding in his forehead and in his groin and spreading with slow and unendurable progress along his spine and through his limbs. Yet all over his body the skin went goosey, as if chilled. He gripped the bench near his thighs until his knuckles blanched and sweat beaded on his brow, viscousy and sparkling like treesap.

“Is this a coronary?” he wondered. But that seemed unlikely, for he could not say he was in pain. Nor did he perceive the conspicuous presence of foreboding. Furthermore there was no sense of contraction, as one would imagine, in the chest. But instead a universal sense of expansion and dissolution of boundaries — diastole instead of systole. In fact he felt intoxicated with a sudden influx of sensations. They were rushing in to fill his growing space. Everything within eyeshot was reeling, or more precisely, breathing, as if the upward slope of the park hill before him and all its massive oaks, the fountain and sky, were all a single image projected onto the surface of a rippling pond. Individual objects ceased as such and conformed to larger patterns pulsating beneath them.

Yet the more confused his vision grew, the calmer grew his hearing. The distant traffic, the birds, a couple’s hushed conversation on the lawn, a nearby cricket, the murmuring fountain, the wind picking up and shaking the leaves in waves — he could somehow focus on one sound without ignoring the others. It was the same with smells and touch, though he was increasingly unable to distinguish one sense from another. His consciousness was fracturing, for each sensation demanded and received his total focus simultaneously. Congenitally unaware, he was now abruptly and inexorably aware of everything — and he could not bear it.

With a groan, trembling, he stood up. Surprisingly nothing felt shaky. The ground was indeed quite solid against his feet. Nevertheless he managed only a few aimless steps before collapsing, having succumbed to an urge to lay supine on the lawn. The nearby couple broke in a panic from their hand-holding and rushed to him.

“What is the matter, mister?” they questioned, the girl touching his arm. “Are you alright?”

“Fuck off!” Mr. Lawrence growled, anxious to minimize sensations. The couple departed, deeply offended.

A number of thoughts were running through his head, the larger part of which he could not identify as his own. He gave those ones no credence. Had he been poisoned? Perhaps that sandwich had been a trap, planted to punish him for his habit of stealing lunches? Was a cancer exploding within him? Had an organ ruptured? His spleen? Still he could not say he was in pain, but having always considered any deviation from the status quo as a disaster he could only think of death. In reality, he was suffering from the throes of ecstasy. “I am not dying,” he was obliged to conclude. Then, as a last resort — he barely had the imagination for it — he wondered if her were going mad. The questioned went unanswered: he had no idea what madness was. So he began listening to the other voices clamoring in his mind, which had anyhow passed the threshold of being resisted.

Mr. Lawrence closed his eyes. Everything smoothed out. The oaks and lawns of the park felt worlds away. An incandescence burned behind his lids, and, as if it were the bottom half of an hourglass, his mind began to fill up with answers to questions he had never asked. With an unexplainable and terrifying familiarity he foundered on a tide of recollections. Names, faces, foreign cities, wars, wastelands and the sea came back to him like fragments of a thousand random films sewn together. When it finally all went white — for he was on the verge of mental exhaustion — there stood before him, without any recourse to distance or space, an almost endless file of figures, like the patient multitudes who crowd the banks of the Lethe. Each figure seemed to exude its history the way a dandelion puff, when touched, gives up its spores. He knew them all. Some were men, but some were also women, and various beasts, and fish, and trees.

Then the final unasked for answer, the last grain of sand, came tumbling down as peremptorily as the last nail in a coffin, and he understood: these were all his lives, he had been every one of them, and he was now upon his last.

(2)

Above all, one must keep in mind that Mr. Lawrence did nothing to deserve this. Whether or not standing in the midst of the cosmic fun-house and seeing totally and in an instant how time’s thousand mirrors have reflected you through out the ages can be considered a blessing . . . that sort of thing can be concluded only on an individual basis. Some people might find the experience irritating. But birth and rebirth and ultimate death — these are matters far beyond the mirth and moans of men. In fact, it is a grim distortion of reality to assume that basic cosmic principles have anything to do with human needs or values. The earth no longer centers the universe because neither do we; the coursing of the sun no longer depends upon our sacrifices sating its (our) blood-lust; bodies need not be properly buried in order for souls to pass on; and if one is born a miserable dust-mite, it is not because he was previously a monster. There is no cosmic morality. Fortunately, this is just beginning to dawn on us.

Siddhartha Gautama happened to be a good man; Mr. Lawrence decidedly was not. That they both dropped, like ripe fruit, out of life and into the ecstatic embrace of oblivion had as much to do with them as a roll of the dice does with a man not even playing, but merely walking past the alley.

(3)

By what principles does the phenomenon of metempsychosis work? . . By none whatsoever, but rather through a sort of error, as a knot perpetuates itself in a fishing net or a loose thread signals the destruction of a sweater. For the nature of everything is emptiness.

Ultimately, this error results in a personality, a soul. Take, for example, the most colossal explosions of energy: volcanos, seismic shifts, stormy seas, the fiery crash of meteorites or the collision of galaxies. Despite the sound and the fury of it, both before and after, and most importantly, beneath, nothing has changed. The fundamental emptiness remains untroubled, which, by circumscribing the singularity of each event within whole chains of causality, guarantees the continuity of all. Not that that matters. (I adore trees as an eloquent illustration of this: in space-time they are slow explosions: at their very centers they are dead.) — However, this is not the case with a soul.

Concerning what is “not-soul”, let us consider for instance the case of an insect. Once, as a boy, while weeding my mother’s flower beds as punishment for some not ungrievous infraction, I found myself face to face with the most spectacularly symmetrical web of a garden spider, spread between two errant branches of a rosebush. Her legs were paired, two forwards and to backwards on each side; her swollen abdomen displayed a brilliant yellow against shiny black. She presided calmly at the center of her net. At first I considered smashing her as a sacrificial victim to my angst. But then a more wicked idea occurred to me. I hunted through the bright perennials and dull moss and had to overturn a few stones before snatching a suitably plump bug as it tried to burrow into the dirt. What kind? It doesn’t matter. With mounting joy I tossed the handful (dirt, bug, twig with dead leaf) into the web. They stuck mid-fall as if frozen in time. The hapless creature flailed, ruining the web. The following moments were a tempest of activity. The spider, without really moving, seemed to come totally alive, then began vibrating so rapidly at her perch as to smudge her own outline. With a few graceful, certain and menacing strides she was atop her prey, winding it more deeply into the web. Arching her abdomen, spinning, she began twisting the bug like a spindle into its skein until it was utterly enfolded in dewy, silvery thread. Then the spindly assassin heaved softly, filling the bug with venom.

I suddenly felt sick, remembering how a spider’s venom was supposed to liquefy the intestines. The scene was gruesome. The impeccable loomwork was in tatters. I imagined myself in the bug’s position, in horrifying constraint, smothered, poked by stiff exo-skeletal legs, pierced with fangs, nauseous with poison. And yet, no specific emotion troubled me. Neither regret, fear, shame, sympathy nor outrage. Not because I was like all rough boys painting my face with crushed lightning bugs and playing baseball with frogs, but because I didn’t sense anything grim about the ordeal. Gruesome does not imply grim. Instead, I found it saturated with innocence. Although the bug struggled from the moment I ripped its snug den into the light until the moment the spider plunged it back into darkness, there was a numb ease about its movements, as if its vigorous limbs were just wind rustled branches, as if the whole thing were no more than pantomime. Equal, therefore, to a dislodged rock tumbling and crushing a smaller rock. Inconsequential.

In other words, here was an event once again circumscribed by the void. Within the bug there was no bug to grieve, and within the spider no spider to rejoice. Just sparkling purity, and emptiness.

Now, concerning what is “soul”, the trouble happens when something stirs beneath, like a current. Emptiness folds upon itself and is immediately crystallized — and this knot of void becomes something infinitely denser than a collapsing star, something which cannot be obliterated, not even by a supernova. It is as unreal and elusive as a hypochondriac’s aches, and yet as inexorable and deadly as a blood clot in the cosmos’ veins. It wanders (the vicious gallstone) kicking up eddies wherever it goes and assimilating the cataclysms of dust.

This is the soul. In time it will populate infinity and squash the void. It is dark matter indeed.

(4)

Mr. Lawrence — as we will call him for only a short while longer, since that name will change — came into being at the moment of his initial demise. This is the universal custom.

Until that point it would have been impossible to track him through the ages, from one incarnation to another. That error, that knot of emptiness (Mr. Lawrence’s soul) did not yet exist. The upheavals of ant hills and shoals of fish, the mad luxuriance of tropical forests, huge lumbering beasts and and all organic things might leave a temporary impression, sort of like a pillowfold leaves on the soft cheek of a sleeper, but basically they all partake of an undifferentiated existence. When they lapse, finally, no residue remains. They take nothing, they leave nothing, they are nothing. Thus they are all most intimately identical. When my fearsome spider devoured her bug, she devoured herself — like the Ouroboros, the serpent that swallows its own tail.

So, for mute millenniae, there was no Mr. Lawrence. Then, one scorching Mesozoic afternoon, a beetle whose species has long since vanished was belaboredly carrying along its fat body by means of its brittle wings, buzzing mindlessly, until it smacked into the broad flank of some other long since vanished beast. Then it fell to the ground. The beast swatted, but continued to pull up huge mouthfuls of vegetation and chew, its wide jaws circling rhythmically. On its back in the grass the beetle struggled to upright itself. It did not succeed, however, and was eventually crushed beneath the beast’s complacent grazing. At that very moment, just before the light flickered out, a brief lifetime of bumping into things (animals, trees, stones), falling, and writhing in the dust, was recalled and something more like an exclamation-point that a question-mark flashed. It wasn’t so much the beetle that recalled, since it was gone, but had the beetle been human it certainly would have felt a shudder, and took a whistling intake of breath — for at that moment an indelible “Ah!” had been scratched into the softness of the void. (These are sometimes called “insights”.) Corporeally, the beetle was a gooey smear; but spiritually, nothing could stamp out its diamond intuition. And so Mr. Lawrence was born.

What followed? . . Only an unceasing succession of comic/cosmic mistakes.

In a moment of retrograde science, purely for explanatory reasons which shall excuse the imprecise analogy, I will declare that reality is in fact composed of both material and spiritual components. How they interact, or the point at which they shake hands, will never be identified nor understood. Yet spirit and matter need not have any communion at all. One misconception however can be cleared up: spirit is not light, it is inconceivably dense. If spirit passes through matter it is not as a liquid seeping through a porous membrane, but as a stone falling through the air. The blunt corner that mangles our funnybone, the stiff rosethorn that pierces our flesh, are only airy spectres in comparison to the soul. So when error strikes and a particle of spirit is created it is set loose (there being nothing capable of containing it) and wanders without resistance through the universe.

Can this particle of spirit ever take up residence in a plant or a rock? . . Yes, for there is nothing that prevents this; although there is nothing that encourages this either. A sort of rule of magnetism presides over the transmigration of souls. Since it is the dawning of awareness that creates souls, it is the capability of awareness that attracts them. Awareness as opposed to the process of “succumbing to power” which defines all other cosmic interactions. The insentient dullness of the lichen and its rock does not provide the means for spirit to flourish. And to be clear, the only thing that can actually “contain” a soul is the possibility of growth. For unlike everything else in the universe which eventually bleeds out and decays, spirit (that is, souls) can only get more powerful. For a soul to perish, as with Siddhartha Gautama or Mr. Lawrence, is an anomaly.

Therefore, not long after a massive foot compressed the beetle into a diamond of spirit, Mr. Lawrence cropped up into his first true incarnation — as a nervous, tiny mammal.

This should not be marveled at. Nervousness — an ugly word for caution — is the principle quality of a nascent soul. Something forged in the sudden notion that things could be otherwise will naturally function on that continuous logical extreme, and second guess everything that it feels compelled to do. Probably akin to a rodent, legions of these diminutive, fuzzy animals cowered in narrow places, horded seeds and nuts, dashed from shadow to shadow, snatched insects when they felt brazen enough to pounce, and occasionally, in a long process of agonized fits and starts, would rob a nest of its souring eggs.

(5)

So why focus on Mr. Lawrence? . . That his series of incarnations ended as inexplicably as it began is neither interesting nor rare. In a universe defined by its emptiness one would think its errors would be the most interesting thing, but really, they are almost too common to be considered errors — for they are, to be sure, all of us. No, there was something else about Mr. Lawrence that set him apart and warrants an extensive treatment of his case: like ice crystals within a fire or a loose wheel within a perfectly accurate clock, he was an anomaly within an error.

Every soul, every inextricable knot of spirit, proceeds along a familiar course. Allow me to illustrate by analogy. Once, in a very lonely city after I failed to find a place to sleep, I sat all night in an abandoned square on a bench beneath a linden tree. In the center of the square was an old fountain. The pump had since quit and the water sat in it like glass, but its submerged lamps still shone. Above it veered a swarm of light-besotted gnats who could not help themselves from flying into the water. By morning the swarm had dispersed, leaving behind the corpses of their dead to twist peacefully on the surface. Observing them I noticed a curious thing. The drowned insects did not float apart, one from another, but one by one were collecting into clumps. They moved about in these little black piles, gathering into themselves any lone gnat or smaller pile of gnats that happened to drift past. Until a dozen heaps formed in the midst of the pepper of bodies, propelled either by a light breeze or the strugglings of the not yet drowned. And then a half a dozen heaps. And then three heaps, and so on. Finally one massive clump of dead gnats was floating smack in the center of the broad fountain. Except for one gnat, who still twisted peacefully near the edge. — Then a street sweeper came scraping by and with a bored familiarity scooped up all the bodies with a spade and slopped them into his trash pail. The one lone night described a vortex in the disturbed water. Mr. Lawrence was like that lone gnat.

Thus proceed all souls. At the very moment of their conception they are destined to grow, to solidify, to gather into themselves more and more, guaranteeing their own perpetuity. The effect of this however, far from creating, as one would suppose, the soul of a despot or a psychopath or a power-hungry freak, instead results in the soul of a very decent human being. How? Simply because a soul’s strength lies in its ability to falsify the world around it, to see itself as something essentially different. It has been noted that one who stands at the edge of the abyss threatens to have the abyss stand within him, and this injection of nothingness will drive him insane. Therefore the decent human being, first knocking his stick against the ground, declaring it solid and real, then knocking his stick against his own head, doing the same, finally knocks his stick against every notion, law, theory, doctrine and value to issue from that head and declares them, one by one, to be more substantial and eternal then the sun dipping nightly behind the horizon or the moon who monthly dies. Circumscribed by a world of meaning and form, cities rise, and souls go on forever. And instinctively respecting this world — their solid shell — everyone treats everyone else with a most delightful decorum.

In all honesty, Mr. Lawrence was never fit to be anything but a rat. I say this with admiration. Like the one lone gnat left twisting in the fountain, he never managed to amalgamate. Most souls, as mentioned above, are held in place by an appropriate capacity for awareness — which means the ability to falsify and shape the world around it. In this way — and let me emphasize again, the universe has no use for morals — the transmigration of souls functions. But Mr. Lawrence, for whatever obscure reason — simply fortuitous rolls of the dice or errant casts of the net — managed to be drawn again and again into human lives for which he was not prepared. He had pulled off a miraculous feat, verging on the impossible, and not only failed to ever learn anything from his experiences, but never once drew a conclusion either. I mean in a moral sense, the only sense that matters for the perpetuity of souls.

Naturally, this made for some high adventure. A solid soul, a decent human being, lives best when he lives a straight line and travels the deep channels and the well marked ways, for most keenly he has learned, and learned most keenly that trouble is not worth the trouble. And so . . . nothing happens. The balance, the foresight, the patience, the discretion and circumspection and, most importantly, the restraint necessary to live a decent life, were all things Mr. Lawrence lacked. Although he did not lack nervousness, cunning and suspicion. Mr. Lawrence, after all, was not a decent human being. Instead he was forever marked by the void from which he emerged and never really left behind, and sought nothing else but to discharge his energy at all times. He managed to persist so long without expanding. He was filthy, untrustworthy, violent, greedy — and yet, like my fearsome spider, thoroughly innocent.

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~ by Peter on June 21, 2008.

11 Responses to “Metempsychosis: Introduction”

  1. I feel this story deserves to be better. Any criticism would be helpful. Thanks!

  2. I don’t have any criticism and can’t imagine it being better without being somethingelse entirely. The whole thing works like that spiders web, or an extension of that image. Totally original, awesomely intelligent and profound. The philosophy seems complete, selfcontained and unanswerable and it is woven into the story in a way which allows sense to permeate both ways, like a tonal wash over the entirety. Immaculate, I would say, immaculate.

  3. I have the supreme criticism to make. Are you listening? My critique is this: You are a lousy networker. Any small effort whatsoever on your part, would have yielded you, in near-record time an agent, a publisher and the devotion of a sea of worshipers. I’d pay dearly to have an anthology of your works gracing my bookshelf.

    Now, consider yourself chastized and go make yourself some serious money. Your work is as good as any I’ve ever read… anywhere. I’ll miss reading it on the web.

  4. Paul: exactly, I do see this story as an extension of the spider image. I am happy and impressed you discerned that. You are a great reader, an artist, as all great readers are.

    Bob: you are more correct than you know. In matters or self-promotion, which I think you are referring to, I am indeed guileless and lousy. But if by net-working you mean simply the ability to stay in contact with people and maintain minimal relationships, much less friendships — I am lousy at that too. You, Paul and Jo are the only faithful readers I have, even though I fail to be a faithful reader of yours. All I can do is thank you, your presence here means a lot to me.

  5. Well, your work is certainly your own, and you maintain control of its destiny, of course. I’ll continue to read it as long as you desire to share it with us. I just wanted you to know that I think it’s certainly of a quality that publishers and agents would recognize and probably want to exploit for profit. Even if you don’t need the money and suppose that you’re the rare writer whose ego doesn’t need the rush of seeing his name on a book jacket, just the knowledge that your words are impacting others should provide an altruistic incentive.

    Either way, just know that people who read your work tend to like it, if they have more than three functioning brain cells. I know this, because that’s all I have, even on a good day.

  6. Haha, no I definitely want the ego rush! — I just don’t want to prematurely blow my wad, so to speak, and seek publication before my prose are ripe. I have resolved to practice for another five years before I attempt any serious writing.

    Those must be three brilliant brain cells Bob: you have a great sense of humor. I would trade any day the flowers of my style for the fire of your wit!

  7. Yes, I read this the other day but got called away by a squabble (my kids) so didn’t get to comment……..I like it very much, the philosophy is fascinating, it’s very clever…..I just wonder if the prose could do with a tiny bit of editing, in places there seem to be one too many words, of course I am nitpicking, essentially it is excellent but here for instance:

    had lifted from the common refrigerator someone else’s sandwich

    do you need the common, it is understood I think. A little later you have ‘for he couldn’t rightly say he was in pain’. Again the rightly makes it a little cumbersome to me.

    I’m only doing this cos you asked, I’m not usually this rude *grin*, I’d just take out a few adverbs, adjectives here and there, your use of metaphors and similes is so fabulous that they carry much of the prose and I think you need a little less illumination of the ordinary.

    Regardless, it is always a genuine pleasure to read you, the more I’ve read here, the more I’ve realised how exceptional you are.

  8. “Rude” you definitely are not! The last thing I want is to be lulled by politeness into a false sense of worth. (Although I am not going to lie, getting praise is my greatest pleasure.) Readers are always better than the writer at discerning the false notes, and I consider having those pointed out to me as generous and a great service. I know that my prose are habitually excessive. How I wish I had an editor who was always on hand to cut my writing down to size.

    Your suggestions are perfect Jo. Thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time to read my stories.

  9. Well Peter, I found two typos. I agree with the other comments here. You have a natural talent for writing and profound thinking. You most certainly constructed yourself publishing-worthy material here.

  10. I loved it! You are a very intelligent writer and. . . pretty much what others above have said. . . I can’t think of anything new I could add. I greatly enjoyed reading this piece of work.

  11. Appreciating your work is honor. Great

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