Monday, February 20, 2006

Saul Bellow on Premortality

Premortality is one of the aspects of Mormon theology that most appeals to my imagination, and whenever I encounter a writer who touches on premortality ideas, that writer shoots way up high in my estimation.

I'm just finishing up "Humboldt's Gift" by Saul Bellow, and it's shot through with meditations on premortality, such as the following:

"People who have been on earth for only ten years or so are suddenly beginning to compose fugues and prove subtle theorems in mathematics. It may be that we may bring a great many powers here with us, Miss Volsted. The chronicles say that before Napoleon was born his mother enjoyed visiting battlefields. But isn't it possible that the little hoodlum, years before his birth, was already looking for a carnage-loving mother? So with the Bach family and the Mozart family and the Bernoulli family. Such family groups may have attracted musical or mathematical souls."

And here's another passage I quite liked:

"Renata's little boy and I walked, holding hands. He was a remarkably composed and handsome little boy. When we wandered in the Retiro together and all the lawns were a dark and chill Atlantic green, this little Roger could very nearly convince me that up to a point the soul was the artist of its own body and I thought I could feel him at work within himself. Now and then you almost sense that you are with a person who was conceived by some wonderful means before he was physically conceived. In early childhood this invisible work of the conceiving spirit may still be going on. Pretty soon little Roger's master-building would stop and this extraordinary creature would begin to behave in the most ordinary or dull manner or perniciously, like his mother and grandma. Humboldt was forever talking about something he called "the home-world," Wordsworthian, Platonic, before the shades of the prison house fell."

Regarding the line "the soul was the artist of its own body," I've long wondered if we took an active hand in deciding how our mortal bodies would look. I suspect our own spirit got to choose a few DNA keys to plink while the fetus was growing. I wonder if we each had a certain number of attribute points to apply as we wished; some people put most of their points into their looks, others into intellect, etc. (sort of reminds me of the character attribute points in Dungeons & Dragons). Another thing I've wondered is if we knew we would have to go through a certain number of trials in life, and we were given the opportunity to choose some of those trials in advance. Thus, some of our trials almost seem to have a certain familiarity and inevitability, and when we weather them well, it may be because of specific premortal preparation for them.

Anyway, this stuff is all quite thrilling to me from a Mormon point of view. It's a great novel, by the way, fairly dense but also quite funny and engaging.

1 comment:

Brad Mortensen said...

Chris, I like your description of the book. I agree, that his comments on the pre-mortality are fascinating. You may be interested in the writings of James Hillman. He's a psychiatrist, most often identified as Jungian, or post-Jungian. In particular, his book, "The Soul's Code" deals with his perception of our existance prior to birth. His writing is also quite dense, but satisfying. BTW, I always enjoy reading your blog entries. Thanks for being honest.