Reincarnation is a fascinating variation on the belief in an afterlife. We have no credible evidence for either, but reincarnation makes a certain amount of sense. Immortality – the dream of so many – I personally fear I would find deathly boring. But if, especially if I were conscious of it, I had lived multiple lives already and could look forward to many more, I would consider such a condition not only confirmation that death has no sting (Jesus’ “Resurrection” confirms nothing, except the credulity of generations of believers), but a much more interesting way of spending eternity than sunbathing and playing beach-ball in a celestial Club Med with my seventy-two virgins (did you know that the word “virgins” is a mistranslation of “raisins” ?).
“Patton” was not just, according to me, one of the greatest movies ever made, but the story of an unusually erudite soldier who in real life was an exceptional military leader of men, although recognized as half mad and, in the words of General Pershing, “so bold that he was dangerous”. Reincarnation was for George S. Patton (played superbly by George C. Scott) a defining reality in his own life. The famous dialogue of the film is a gem :
(Three men – including two generals – are traveling down a North African road in a jeep) :
Patton : “Hold it ! Turn right here !”
Driver : “But sir, the battlefield is straight ahead.”
Patton : “Please don’t argue with me, Sergeant. I can smell a battlefield.”
General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) : “He was out here yesterday, George.”
Patton (points with his riding crop) : “It’s over there; turn right, damn it !”
Patton : “It was here. The battlefield was here. The Carthaginians defending the city were proud and brave but they couldn’t hold. They were massacred. Arab women stripped them of their tunics and their swords and lances. The soldiers lay naked in the sun. 2000 years ago. And I was here.”
Patton : “You don’t believe me, do you Brad ? You know what the poet said :
“Through the travail of ages,
Midst the pomp and toils of war,
Have I fought and strove and perished,
Countless times among the stars,
As if through a glass darkly,
The age-old strife I see,
When I fought in many guises and many names,
But always me.”
Patton : Do you know who the poet was ?
Bradley : No.
Patton : Me ! (It’s been edited, but Patton actually did write it !)
At a cocktail party with British generals, Patton expounded on military history. One expressed his admiration :
Sir Harold : “You know, George, you’d have made a great Marshal for Napoleon, if you had lived in the 18th century.”
Patton : “But I did, Sir Harold. I did !”
Many people buy reincarnation. Impossible – like the existence of God – to prove or disprove. Take it or leave it. Makes for interesting cocktail talk, if you can stand it. No way you can contradict the speaker, revelling as the center of attention until everyone feels they need to get more fuel from the bar – and forget to come back.
But it’s fun to imagine what we might have been, and might be destined to become. I am convinced I was a Borgia Pope and later, having repented my sins, Chateaubriand. My present incarnation sometimes seems like not one but several lives, as you can read here and in my “From Illusions to Illumination. The Itinerary of a Franciscan Priest from Catholicism to Atheism”. It is particularly intriguing to wonder what will become of me when I croak in a year or three. Apparently in reincarnation we have no choice, but if I did I think I’d like to try my hand at something entirely different. How about a scientist who comes up with the answer to cancer ? Or a musician who makes Mozart look like an amateur ? Or . . . a woman who champions L.G.B.T., until she discovers that she really is a man, who goes on to tell his/her story and wins the Booker Prize ?
It is rather a pity that these are all pipe-dreams. The reality is I have already had the privilege of living multiple lives, of being able to tell people about them and why I will be happy to die without hope or fear of reincarnation or any other form of “afterlife”.