How Old Is Your Soul?

Written by Alan Cabal on . Posted in Books, Posts.

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

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.