Yesterday it was announced that Victoria Wood, one of my favourite comedians, had passed away. I would like to pay her a little tribute by sharing the actually really quite scholarly thoughts provoked by listening to one of her songs, Reincarnation.
I’d like to keep coming back
And trying a different track.
I’d like to go round and round,
Cos I never feel I’ve got this right.
I want to be Mrs Pugh
And live in an Avenue.
I want to have bing-bong chimes
And a bathroom with a champagne suite.
In my candlewick dressing gown
I want to put Harpic down.
If my ironing smells quite fresh,
Then my happiness will be complete.
So of course this type of reincarnation, where a person keeps working her way around different lives in the here and now, is not quite the same as the Indian idea. However, it highlights some rather important points about the latter doctrine (or set of doctrines).
First, the “here and now” of the narrative present is not, of course, actually the present, but rather evokes a very particular era, albeit one that is only a few decades ago. Part of the charm of the song for me is its ability to recall little details that I associate with my past, such as the trend for toasters with ears of wheat illustrated on them, or for lining the window sills with mini cacti. Through the song we are transported back to 1980s Britain, in a not too dissimilar way to how the frame stories of jātakas and avadānas transport us to the time and place of the Buddha. The key difference, of course, is that the time and place of the Buddha was out of reach of people’s memories by the time most of the stories were compiled. Nonetheless the idea that stories of multiple lives have to be anchored in a “present” remains.
Second, it is much easier to imagine being reincarnated into the familiar landscape of what we already know. Although Victoria Wood’s version makes no attempt to suggest the progress of time, Indian ideas of rebirth require past lives to be in the past, and future lives to be in the future. Nonetheless, for many of the stories told of past and future lives, the experience is depicted much the same as in the narrative present. Occasionally we get longer or shorter lifespans, or the presence of wish-fulfilling trees, archetypal kings or noted teachers of the past, but generally the landscape – social and natural – is familiar.
Third, and related, this tendency to imagine one’s past and future lives within the same framework as one’s present experience leads to a particular quirk of the jātaka genre that I have written on before. In all of the Buddha’s past life stories (with a few noteable exceptions that may or may not count as jātakas) he is male. Animal, god, human or nāga, he is always a he. When the jātaka genre began to be associated with the path to buddhahood, it fed into discussions about whether or not a woman could become a buddha. However, as I have argued in past publications, it seems likely that the constant maleness of the Buddha in his past lives resulted from nothing more than a lack of imagination.
And how does this relate to Victoria Wood? Well, my first exposure to the song was through a recording that my mum owned. Much later, I wanted to hear it again and so tracked it down on YouTube. But there was a crucial difference – an extra verse, about rebirth as a man.
I want to be Martin Jones,
A salesman for mobile phones.
I want to shake hands a lot,
Sit in wine bars while I make my sales.
I want to drink warm Rosé,
Keep saying, No way José
And live in a Docklands flat
With a mortgage that’s the size of Wales.
This really caught me by surprise and completely changed the nature of the song for me. Now, I don’t know which version came first, nor whether this was a case of addition or exclusion, but I do think it’s interesting that the “official” recorded version speaks only of rebirth as a woman. After all, it is just a little bit too weird (for most of us) to imagine changing sex between lifetimes.
And stepping back further, one crucial difference strikes us between Victoria Wood’s version and the Indian understandings of rebirth, namely that for Wood it was a good thing to be reborn, and rather a cop-out to be told that we each only get one life. Of course, in her scheme it is rather attractive, not to mention safe and predictable and familiar, quite a far cry from tales of rebirth as animals or in hells, or challenging human circumstances.
I want to be Eileen Gumm,
Who calls herself ‘just a mum’.
I want to have three big lads
And a husband that I’ve driven nuts.
I’ll struggle and sacrifice
To make sure they have things nice.
I’ll give them such good advice.
They’ll absolutely hate my guts.
I’ll make a bag for them to take their pumps in.
I’ll make pyjamas they can have their mumps in.
My mashed potato will have big grey lumps in.
I’ll control each family member.
I’ll make them gather round the Christmas table
And eat until to move they are unable.
They’ll wish that Joseph never found that stable.
I’ll put my sprouts on in November.
RIP Victoria Wood. You will be much missed.