September 1, 2010KR BlogKR

Herman Melville, Reincarnated

Reincarnation, in my mind, resides in the realms of Eastern theology and poetic conceit, but according to a recent New York Times article, “remembrances of lives past” are gaining traction in psychology and mainstream American culture. Various interviewees testified to strikingly fanciful past lives as cavemen, Tibetan monks, conscientious Germans. Notably, Julia Roberts believes she was a “peasant revolutionary” in a past life.

I do not claim that I am Herman Melville incarnate (a tantalizing possibility!). In lieu of a better segue, though, my recent stay at the Melville House B&B of New Bedford, MA got me thinking about past lives inhabiting the same spaces as us. Melville himself frequently visited the house, which was owned by his sister Katharine and her husband, poet John Hoadley. When I’m in the house that Melville stayed in, we are distanced only by the abstraction known as time. I must disclose that Melville’s probably my favorite author so you’ll think it (less) strange that I have visited the Melville House, Seaman’s Bethel, and Arrowhead. (Also, in one of my editions of Moby-Dick I’ve drawn a heart next to Melville’s name on the title page, so, okay, it’s a little strange).


At each of these visits, I felt both extraordinarily and un-extraordinarily in touch with the past life of Melville. Sure, it’s exciting to sit where he sat, look out that window at the big, white, whale-ish mountain he stared at while writing Moby-Dick, but there’s no pretense of individual connection. I am merely another in a line of voyeuristic, literary-minded tourists. Maybe the exceptional part of the whole thing is the realization that I’m actually always surrounded by the phantoms of past lives, former occupants of the same places I laugh, eat, play cards in.

This awareness of past life is by no means a novel idea. Many of my favorite Modernist writers worked to undefine time’s relentless continuum and redefine our notions of life and death. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s Septimus Smith, at once a voice of reason and lunacy, sees dead people a la Sixth Sense. The membrane separating the living from the dead is worn thin in him: “There was his hand; there the dead. White things were assembling behind the railings opposite. But he dared not look. Evans was behind the railings!” This tangle relates less, I think, to reincarnation than to something like Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious. In my amateur understanding, I think of it as a general awareness of human experience extending beyond our individual beings, a sort of psychic Primordial Soup. (Side note on Jung: I desperately want to get my hands on the Red Book, a manuscript full of calligraphy and peculiar illuminations, that just went public last year!)

In Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom mispronounces metempsychosis as “met him pike hoses.” In some cases, this is what the eagerness to believe in reincarnation strikes me as: a mispronunciation of the Collective Unconscious, or something like it. The wealth of history inhabiting the places we like to claim as exclusively ours– mistaken for immortality.