Reincarnation Literature


The focus of this essay is a genre of fiction called Reincarnation Literature, which isn’t a genre at all. I say it isn’t a genre because it isn’t in any obvious way: there are no sections in bookstores that specialise in reincarnation novels, no collections of essays dissecting its history as a literary form, nor established conventions about reincarnation stories the way there are for vampires, courtroom thrillers, magical realism, or bonnet rippers, a.k.a. Amish romance, to name a few examples. The work of assembling the genre is something I return to periodically: I have used it as a framework to write about certain artists’ work, as well as a thematic for a seminar I sometimes teach, and this particular text began its life as a short lecture before metamorphosing into the essay you now read. Fittingly, the reincarnation essay has taken on several forms.


I consider reincarnation to be a question of sequential embodiment. This can involve a succession of lives, birth after death, or simply entail moving through various bodies, in the more literal sense of reincarnation as repeated enfleshment. There is no specific metaphysical or religious framework for this; some of the novels I read unfold within a Buddhist cosmos, while others are sci-fi narratives of transplanted consciousness, while in others there is no specific cause or mechanism by which a character sheds one body and gains another. By having no singular lines of influence, it is a genre without a canon, a dispersed family of texts and films that have no necessary relation or influence on each other. Rather than studying the conventions from a constituted genre, I want to assemble the genre from a set of motifs extrapolated from a few key texts. Perhaps by giving it a name, I might give it a body as well.


I will discuss three novels that were important texts in helping me think about the boundaries of this invented genre, and the specific questions that each one raised for me. The first text that prompted me to think about the narrative potential of reincarnation is the classical Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, a work so complex that it has its own field of study called 红学, or “Red-ology” as it is sometimes translated. The novel was written in the mid 18th century by Cáo Xuěqín, and later edited and expanded by others to its current 120 chapter form by the end of the century. For my purpose here I will reflect only on the book’s use of reincarnation within the first introductory chapter to open up a metanarrative space.


The Dream of the Red Chamber actually has five titles: The Story of the Stone, A Mirror for the Romantic, The Tale of Brother Love, and The Twelve Beauties of Jinling, all mentioned in the first chapter of the book. These titles refer to narrative layers within the book, and each involves a specific act of reading or mis-reading. Beginning at the innermost layer, the Twelve Beauties of Jinling describes a kind of register that the main character Baoyu encounters when his body is asleep, but his mind and spirit wander in a dream into the realm of fairies. The register contains a series of poems and illustrations that foretell the fates of the Dream’s main female characters. Set early within the novel, this episode reveals in figurative language the rest of the story’s unfolding, but Baoyu nonetheless remains ignorant of its meaning, or perhaps simply dismisses or forgets the dream upon waking, as we all do nearly every morning. The novel as a whole as it unfolds over the remaining dozens of chapters is therefore already contained within this very early passage, with The Twelve Beauties of Jinling as its metafictional image. 


Moving backwards in the novel towards the opening chapters, Cao Xueqin begins his narrative with a story of reincarnation: a flower and a stone fall in love, somewhere in the place beyond the living world, and wish to be reincarnated as humans. Buddhist saints, finding some ironic entertainment in the figure of these two, usher them into the world as the novel’s main male and female protagonists, including Baoyu, who is the reborn stone. The prologue then skips forward many years, until after the events described in the rest of the novel, when we re-encounter the stone, now carved with the long tale of its time in the world of the living, another double of the Dream itself and the source of its second title, The Story of the Stone. Cao does not, however, suggest that we are reading the engraving of the stone directly; rather, a monk named Brother Vanity comes upon this stone and reads its engraving, and debates with the stone whether its story is of any literary value. Finally understanding the profound meaning of the Story of the Stone, the monk undergoes a dramatic transformation:


[Brother Vanity], starting off in the Void (which is Truth) came to the contemplation of Form (which is Illusion); and from Form engendered Passion; and by communicating Passion, entered again into Form; and from Form awoke to the Void (which is Truth). He therefore changed his name from [Vanity] to Brother [Love], or the Passionate Monk, (because he had approached Truth by way of Passion), and changed the title of the book from The Story of the Stone to The Tale of Brother [Love].


Brother Vanity, now rechristened Brother Love, then proceeds to transcribe the Story of the Stone, and gives it its next title, A Mirror for the Romantic. But who is the romantic? It is tempting to say that the author himself is the romantic in the mirror: Cao Xueqin wrote that, ‘having made an utter failure’ of his life, he turned to contemplate what he had taken for granted, all the regrets and aborted things, when writing the Dream. The romantic, however, could equally be Brother Love, or any reader of the Dream. Brother Love is a stand-in, and his return to the Void through disillusionment with Form and Passion, are a model for the epiphany the author wishes for his readers upon reading the Dream. The book is constantly telling us to read it as if its ‘land of illusion’ might help us wake up from our own kind of waking dream, if only we would let it. This, for me, is the real meaning of The Tale of Brother Love; it is the story of the reader.


Reincarnation is not strictly necessary for this nesting doll of Mise-en-Abymes; certainly other Chinese classics such as Journey to the West take place within a Buddhist cosmos, but do not have similar self-reflexive elements. Nonetheless, the setting of most of this first chapter within the bardo, the space between lives where saints and stones and souls communicate, allows the text to reflect on itself in a space that is both within and outside the narrative. The prologue can be confusing for readers accustomed to linear time; it takes place both before and after the main action of the novel, and presents in quick succession various embodiments of the book itself, including the stone, which seems to shift dramatically in size from something small and pendant-like, to something large enough to carve 120 chapters upon. The stone, as both a sentient object yearning to know love and as a literal text with its story carved onto its surface, can comment on its time as a human in the world below; it can even reflect on its own engraving, as it also has the power of speech. Through this highly complex introductory chapter, the author of The Dream has placed us in these various nesting roles, as different readers of his text; and each reader, at one level of the story, becomes the “text” of the reader in the level above. The trope of reincarnation is the vehicle for this metanarrative telescoping, that places the reader both inside and outside the text, because it is the text itself which undergoes these multiple embodiments.


I want to turn now to a second novel, namely Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, published in 1928. Having been written in a world quite distant from that of the Dream, the two nonetheless share some unexpected concerns. Certainly the question of genre arises in both; in the case of Orlando, the narrator is constantly testing the conventions of biography, with its time-bound and singularly embodied subject, against what they must report of Orlando’s life, its many turns and centuries-long duration. Beginning life during the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, Orlando is a young nobleman who, no longer taking to the battlefield like his ancestors, turns to writing poetry. He falls in love with a Russian princess, who breaks his heart; he becomes the ambassador to the Ottoman Sultanate, where Orlando undergoes a dramatic change, complete with theatrical scenography. Allegorical figures convene; they incant; and are chased away by blaring (also allegorical) trumpets. He, she, never exactly dies, but undergoes a death-like stasis, a separation of body and consciousness that opens up a space for a transformation: “He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess – he was a woman.” 


Orlando unties two knots simultaneously: that between gender and the self, and the subject and her historical moment. Orlando’s identity is constantly renegotiated as historical eras progress, both as a woman and as a writer; we are never really given to understand whether Orlando is necessarily a good poet, but what makes for good literature is also never quite stable in the novel, as Orlando proceeds to live another three hundred years, from the era of Shakespeare through Romanticism and into the Bloomsbury era of Woolf’s present. In terms of gender, Orlando becomes a woman but continues to live between various gendered performances. She is never quite fixed to something like gender or genre, but observes their borders as they shift over time. Through her transformations and endurance, Orlando asks what of us carries over as we travel between selves, what remains regardless of our particular bodies in our historical moment. And of course the inverse – how much of ourselves is an ad hoc assembly for one organism’s lifespan? In other words, what changes and what is constant in the weaving of difference and repetition?


Woolf considered Orlando a light work. Certainly many of the themes we can identify in Orlando are developed in later works; one read Orlando as a speculative beginning for Woolf’s thoughts about androgyny, a theme elaborated more fully in Woolf’s next work, A Room of One’s Own, published a year later. But what I appreciate about Orlando is precisely how unjustified everything is, how unexplained and arbitrary, how undeveloped; things just happen, allegorical figures descend, and the subject’s persistence through time is irrevocably ruptured. There is nothing like the singular drive of a traditional plot, because there is no single desire that is essential to Woolf’s protagonist. If anything, Orlando suggests that what we think of as essential might in fact be perfectly circumstantial, the product of a time and a place, and if we only walked into another room, whether of one’s own or another’s, it might all be different. 

Of course it’s not all pure accident. I think it is also significant that Orlando was partly inspired by the remarkable life and flouting of the conventions of gendered behaviour by her friend and briefly lover, the incomparable Vita Sackville-West. However, to interpret the novel as mainly a coded biography, no matter how extraordinary the inspiring figure, misses the very multiplicity at its heart. Perhaps it is not the events in the life of Sackville-West, but the event of Sackville-West in the life of Woolf, two figures in a unit of relation, that allowed her to untie the knot that binds the subject to time and gender and allow it to drift. The most profound relationships entail “a gentle deterritorialization”, a shift within that gets tangled up with a concurrent becoming in another. Reincarnation literature often provokes me to wonder how one might find fragments of the self reflected in others, and how one might discover others within one’s self. 

To ponder who we might have been in a different era, or in another life, is another way to recognize the multiple identities and temporalities that are at play in any given being. Or, as Woolf wrote in Orlando, “For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not – Heaven help us – all having lodgment in one time or another in the human spirit?” The novel is an odd fit in the reincarnation genre, insofar as the titular character does not per se die and subsequently re-spawn, but even more so for the genre of biography. The narrator of Orlando continuously refers to themself as “the biographer” in the third person, and often with a sense of frustration when describing their task:

The biographer is now faced with a difficulty which it is better perhaps to confess than to gloss over. Up to this point in telling the story of Orlando's life, documents, both private and historical, have made it possible to fulfil the first duty of a biographer, which is to plod, without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth; unenticed by flowers; regardless of shade; on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave and write finis on the tombstone above our heads.

The biographer’s problem, of course, is that Orlando has no tombstone; she endures centuries, and the life described takes on no definitive shape, as liquid pouring from an open tap will have no definitive volume. The acknowledgement that life has no absolute beginning nor end is characteristic of reincarnation literature, and what sets it apart from the narrative conventions of realist fiction. If a character never dies, if they take on multiple motives and identities, exist in multiple times, then the plot arc will never neatly rise towards some summa of their life; instead it may take many paths, find itself in circumstances unexplainable by the events that preceded it or irredeemable by what may follow, and in general be unaccountable to the demand that a self contain only one: one desire, one body, one identity, or one time.

The last novel I want to discuss in terms of reincarnation is Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed (1980). The novel begins in the year 1690, when two immortal characters, Doro and Anyanwu, meet for the first time. The novel traces their relationship from this first meeting in Africa and ends in the United States in the year 1840, on the precipice of the American Civil War, but other novels in the same series take the story into 1970s California and far into the future. Doro persists through the centuries by “jumping” into other people’s bodies, possessing them entirely until he moves into someone else’s body; but once he leaves a body, it dies immediately. He seemingly cannot die; if his current body is killed, he immediately jumps into the nearest body; and he can easily kill simply by taking over the body of whomever he encounters, leaving them lifeless when he departs. When he encounters Anyanwu, he finds a being who is in many ways his counterpoint; she can regenerate bodily tissues, and even change her own physiology at will, meaning she does not age, and can regenerate her body to heal from most physical injuries.

Butler stated in an interview that Anyanwu and Doro are “different versions of what immortality could be. Doro is immortal and destructive. Anyanwu is immortal and creative.” Doro’s immortality is of an essence that can never be destroyed; but it is parasitic, it can only force itself onto what is already there, a biological material that he cultivates as a living resource to draw from. He cannot be killed and must kill. Anyanwu on the other hand can actually generate and transform living material, within her own body, and within others. This means she can also transform her body in complex ways, becoming other people or other species. When Anyanwu is on a ship sailing from Africa to the European colonies in the Americas, she transforms into a dolphin and swims with a pod alongside the ship. She starts to see through a dolphin’s senses, to experience its umwelt, as an ethologist might put it. She even gains a kind of knowledge contained within the body, of how to move, swim, and communicate. She flirts with a male dolphin, swimming around him in a dance-like movement, and he rubs up against her body. “Dolphin skin, she discovered, was pleasantly sensitive.”

This distinction between these two forms of immortality pose an interesting question for the genre of reincarnation literature. Are both Doro and Anyanwu examples reincarnation, of sequential embodiments? At first glance, it seems that Doro is the better fit, in so far as he literally jumps from one body to the next, in an endless string for thousands of years. He certainly fits my definition of reincarnation, in the literal sense of multiple embodiments in sequence; but I wonder.

I started thinking about reincarnation literature while I was reading an essay by the theorist Sandy Stone called “The Vampire’s Gaze.” In Stone’s essay the central feature of the vampire is their stony coldness towards humanity, a perhaps necessary alienation from their former experience as a human mortal, and from, of course, their food supply. For Stone, vampires, in their utter detachment, recognize the contingency of a particular culture’s notions of identity, embodiment, and the self specifically because vampires do not age and die – they are untied from historical place, living on a time scale far beyond the human. Stone concludes that the vampire is like an anthropologist, taking distance from whatever episteme is currently en vogue, as they move through the centuries. Vampires are acutely aware of the constructedness of identities, cultural and social values, and metaphysical beliefs.

While similar in many ways to the themes of reincarnation I have been discussing, I think the vampire’s distance, their easy transcendence of mortal cares and knowing indifference, is what distinguishes them from the narratives of reincarnation I have been thinking about. Instead, reincarnation literature suggests that we are not immortal, but repeatedly mortal. Although a character might become aware of all the selves it may have been or could possibly be, that does not give them any easy way out for this life; they are still positioned in this body, in this time, in these circumstances. If reincarnation literature dramatises the struggle to escape this fixity of identity, it does so not by transcending the self, but by living through it.

Doro, to me, seems more like the vampire than the reincarnated soul. For him, bodies are a kind of necessary platform; but despite his various embodiments, his fundamental perspective never really changes. His form of immortality is constantly appropriating the natural generative power of the world around him. That is why Doro’s grand project in Wild Seed is eugenicist: he wishes to cultivate (as in farming or livestock) the human vessels he will consume. Anyanwu, on the other hand, is immortal because her body is inherently generative. When she changes into another body or species, she isn’t syphoning them, but taking on the capacities of that new form, shifting her perspective. Instead of a human sitting within a dolphin shell, she takes on the dolphin’s perspective, its sensory array and affective capacities. She feels pleasure the way a dolphin would. If the vampire seems to float above human experience, then the reincarnated soul is a diver, and its plunge is all-in and skin-to-skin.

I hope this illuminates why I have been, in a completely unsystematic and largely personal way, cataloguing examples of what I call reincarnation literature. The result will be a genre that cuts across many other genres, as it has today, from science fiction to experimental novels to canonical classics. I’m not sure it’s better, or more revealing, to analyse Woolf’s Orlando as an example of reincarnation, for example, rather than as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature”, as Nigel Nicolson, the son of Vita Sackville-West, described it. And I couldn’t tell you what it does to put these very different texts next to each other; but I feel it is appropriate for a genre in which very disparate lives are connected together by only the thinnest metaphysical thread, that the examples of reincarnation literature form a motley crew. It has, at least, allowed me to think through some of the aporias of contemporary life; it can hold certain contradictions in a thinkable equilibrium, a tension where neither freedom nor necessity, the impulse to escape identity nor the responsibilities of it, are able to subsume the other. 

The last point I want to make about reincarnation literature is one that has weighed on my mind recently. It is, somehow, a question about what we can know, and what we can do. Protagonists, characters, people all act within the circumstances they find themselves in, broadly speaking: the time and circumstances of the present. Our lack of choice in this, our tenuous relation to what preceded our birth and complete rupture with what persists after death, is what Martin Heidegger described as “thrownness” (Geworfenheit). Against this seemingly inflexible ontological condition, reincarnation literature suggests that some form of connection, however inaccessible, might exist across this boundedness. This seems to me to be a primarily epistemological consolation; no matter how much a protagonist may recall of their centuries-long existence, the capacity to act is not necessarily increased. The world will still be structured in whatever arbitrary and violent shape it has in the living present. Reincarnation literature does not suggest any particular solution for this condition, but rather gives form to it as an aporia: that knowledge, even if it is only a fragile intuition, exceeds the limits of our ability to act. Put in a slightly different way, it acknowledges powerlessness, but without rendering it into an absolute state, as in Wild Seed, where Anyanwu’s captivity is constantly negotiated with the all-powerful Doro. I would wager that this opening onto knowing might even expand the possible meaning of what one does, if not the immediate conditions to act. It makes it possible to think in the span of generations, and suggests that what we do, however futile, is still knowable, even if only to some future self. Reincarnation cannot spare us defeat; but we were before, and will be again.