One thing I wanted to touch on from last week’s reading that didn’t get covered in our weekly recap was the following snippet of Christmastime “philosophizing” between Nikolai, Natasha, and Sonya.
“You know,” said Natasha in a whisper, moving closer to Nikolai and Sonya, when Dimmler had finished and still sat there, lightly thrumming the strings, clearly undecided whether to stop or begin something new, “I think that when you remember, remember, remember everything like that, you could go on until you remember what was there before you were in the world.”
“That’s metempsychosis,” said Sonya, who had always been a good student and remembered everything. “The Egyptians believed that our souls were in animals and will go back into animals.” [p. 521, P&V]
Now, for Joyce fans like myself, the word “metempsychosis” acts like a dog whistle. The concept figured prominently in his novel Ulysses, with the character Molly Bloom memorably tripping over its pronunciation (“met-him-pike-hoses”) in her introductory chapter. Metempsychosis is a synonym for the concept of reincarnation, and literally translates from its Greek roots (wink, wink, wink) to “a transmigration of the soul.” All the winking because Joyce’s novel is itself styled as the reincarnated soul of Homer’s epic The Odyssey.
Aside from being a great topic to discuss while you’re on drugs, I find metempsychosis compelling as a metaphor for fiction. Both author and reader are necessarily encouraged to temporarily inhabit the mind, if not the spirit, of a host of characters over the course of a novel. This hopping between bodies is plenty entertaining, but studies have shown that fiction actively develops empathy in its readers. I hope I don’t need to make an independent case for the benefits of empathy.
Even more interesting, when I came across this theosophic buzz word in our seemingly arbitrary reading schedule this past weekend, it just happened to be June 16th, known in particularly nerdy circles as Bloomsday, the anniversary of the day upon which Ulysses is set. According to Joyce’s close friend and translator Stuart Gilbert, Joyce picked up the concept of metempsychosis from a writer by the name of H.P. Blavatsky, a Russian contemporary of Tolstoy’s and writer of extensive theosophical works. The only rational explanation for such a powerful confluence of seemingly random cosmic flotsam is, of course, that there is a divine and universal connection between all matter and spirits, and I am almost certainly Leo Tolstoy reincarnated.