Thursday, December 08, 2005

paracelsus or a three-toed sloth?

At times I almost dream
I too have spent a life the sages' way,
And tread once more familiar paths. Perchance
I perished in an arrogant self-reliance
Ages ago; and in that act a prayer
For one more chance went up so earnest, so
Instinct with better light let in by death,
That life was blotted out -- not so completely
But scattered wrecks enough of it remain,
Dim memories, as now, when once more seems
The goal in sight again.

-"Paracelsus," Robert Browning


during my freshman year of high school my english teacher was really into poetry and for one of our first assignments he made us read elizabeth barrett browning's "sonnets from the portuguese." while it seemed a daunting reading task for a 14-year-old who had yet to experience many of the emotions being expressed within the passages, i quickly took to the sonnets as well as the rest of the collection of poems within browning's book. the book i had bought i found at a used bookstore, and it also included other poems of both elizabeth and her husband robert browning. since then, i have had an affinity for this collection with its old binding and yellowed pages, and even after we had finished studying the sonnets in class i continued to read from the book every night before bed, trying to decipher the meanings of the poems (yes, i really am that big of a dork.).

one of robert's poems that i took a liking to is called "paracelsus" (1835) and is a long dramatic poem that i mostly did not understand at the time and still probably do not grasp entirely. it is written by browning to be a narrative from the famous 16th century chemist paracelsus, and focuses more on the mysticism surrounding his study of the natural world and his search for "sacred knowledge" than on strict facts of science. in paracelsus' day, science and alchemy were its own forms of magic that most people only understood as mystical practices anyway. the passage from "paracelsus" that i have quoted at the beginning of this entry deals with the idea of reincarnation or rebirth, and was the catalyst for my thoughts today.

back during the same time freshman year, an episode of the x-files aired called "the field where i died." (i know you're "surprised" that this has come around to me talking about my favorite show of all time, but try to stick with me here anyway.) this episode deals with the idea of past lives and reincarnation as a possible explanation for dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities) and the strong bonds people can feel with others whom they've barely just met: "souls come back together; different but always together, again and again to learn...evil returns as evil, but love, souls mate eternal" (mulder). while i knew that this was the hollywood romanticized version of some aspects of eastern religious beliefs, i couldn't help but be taken by it. something about the whole idea really captured my attention and made me think about rebirth and being able to hold on to things you had learned in another time, so as to hopefully not repeat the same mistakes.

in both the beginning and the end of the episode, there is a voiceover of mulder reciting what sounds like part of a poem. immediately following the episode, there was rumor that it had actually been written by david duchovny himself (not entirely a stretch for someone with a degree from princeton in english literature). however, to me it seemed familiar, and as i have never been one to just let something like that be, i did a search for the passage on the internet. i discovered that the poem was not only not written by duchovny, but that it was, in fact, the aforementioned passage from browning's "paracelsus" that i had so recently been reading.

well, since i was obsessed with all things x-files related, you can imagine that i was more than a little excited with this coincidence, and it fueled my interest in the episode's ideas even more. i think i can even remember writing something about it down in my diary, which is a pretty big deal since i wrote in there probably once a year, at most.

of course, high school happens, and with my busy schedule i didn't exactly stick with the pursuit of these ideas, nor would i have ever brought it up in conversation with my family or friends (i was enough of a dork already, philosophizing about reincarnation at the lunch table probably wouldn't have helped). however, i still continued to read the poetry of both brownings, and the book was even among one of the only ones i packed with me to bring to college my freshman year and every year after. even today, in the closet-sized bedroom of my apartment that can only fit the smallest bookshelf imaginable, in between the new media monopoly and mcluhan sits the old, navy-blue, clothbound book of "best known poems."

it has been a while since i thumbed through the book, but i never really forgot browning or the idea of reincarnation that sparked my interest; i just never actively researched the true nature of those beliefs. that is, until about two months ago when i began to study the ideas of buddhism in order to find another way to be spiritual besides the, so far, personally unfulfilling christianity of my upbringing. although, surprising, even once I started my research and came upon the buddhist beliefs about rebirth, i failed to remember and connect the ideas to my prior experience with both browning's poem and the x-files episode (yes, i forgot an x-files episode. i know, it's craziness.).

so today I came home from basically my last college course ever (!!!), sat down to watch tv and happened upon a rerun of that same thought-provoking episode. like before, i was fascinated with the ideas presented and recognized its, once again, timely appearance into my life. i know that to most of you it seems like i am reading far too much into these coincidences and that i am seeing what i want to see. but i have come to realize, maybe through my own life experiences and a little through my recent studies on buddhism, that more things in our life are connected than we realize and give credit to. if priests and nuns can get "callings" to study the word of god, can i not also see signs to point me towards the study of my own spiritual path?

maybe not. i don't know. maybe it doesn't have as much to do with the signs actually being there as me thinking that they might be. and maybe rebirth is a bunch of crap, but i don't see how faith in it is that much different than believing there is a beautiful place beyond life on earth. i also do not believe that i will possibly come back as a three-toed sloth in my next life (an idea buddhism does not teach either). i think that i just like something about the idea that parts of the energy and significant experiences that make us ourselves are not lost when we die, but come back to keep improving and learning until we are able to reach a state of perfect knowledge. in the end, to me, the implications of such a belief are the same as what i would consider to be the best message of christianity - lead a noble, balanced, moral life and you will be rewarded.

confucius say: amen.


At times I almost dream
I too have spent a life the sages' way,
And tread once more familiar paths. Perchance
I perished in an arrogant self-reliance
Ages ago; and in that act a prayer
For one more chance went up so earnest, so
Instinct with better light let in by death,
That life was blotted out -- not so completely
But scattered wrecks enough of it remain,
Dim memories, as now, when once more seems
The goal in sight again.

1 comment:

MOM said...

my sweet Allie,
I am so proud of the depth of your soul. you amaze me each time I read your thoughts and ideas. you will someday find a place for yourself that will do honour to the creative and intellectual entity that is you.
hard for me to call you my baby now. you are mature in so many ways. i hope you never lose your sweet,young passion for learning.
your proud loving MOM