‘Looking down time’s telescope at myself’: reincarnation and global futures in David Mitchell’s fictional worlds
This paper investigates the use of reincarnation across the oeuvre of British author David Mitchell (b.1969), exploring its deployment in his work’s structures, narratives and characterisation to understand the cycles of impermanence and regeneration that underpin his fascination with global temporality. Mitchell’s writing forms an interconnected ‘über novel’ populated with shared characters, connecting the author’s short stories, libretti and novels into a continuous terrain. Ideas of cyclicality are visible across these works, for example, in Ghostwritten’s (1999) circular structure, Cloud Atlas’ (2004) reincarnated souls, and the regenerative approach to human tragedy in Mitchell’s writing for opera, becoming most prominent in The Bone Clocks (2014). In this novel, the chakra-wielding Horologists are reincarnated over many centuries in a war against the carnivorous Anchorites, who drink souls to halt time’s effects on their bodies. Undercutting the novel’s mythologies, the realism of the dystopic near-future at the tale’s end foregrounds an ethical engagement with the harmful trajectories of Western consumerism. If the novel is seen within the context of his wider writing, a pattern emerges that reveals a metamodern oscillation between the finality of the dystopic and the possibility of ecological redemption.
Drawing on these textual reworkings of the Buddhist philosophy of samsara, or the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, this paper investigates the links between the author’s interest in Buddhism and its secular manifestation in the treatment of time in his speculative fictions. These works use the trope of reincarnation as part of an ethical approach to the Anthropocene, exploring the concept of 'reincarnation time' as a temporal model that warns of the dangers of seeing the past as separate from the future, and suggesting that an understanding of generational interdependence and causality are urgently needed in order to challenge the linear ‘end of history’ narrative of global capitalism.
Rose Harris-Birtill is a Doctoral Researcher in English at the University of St Andrews in the UK, working on the thesis ‘Mitchell’s Mandalas: Mapping David Mitchell’s Textual Universe’. This research looks at David Mitchell’s novels, short fictions, essays and libretti using a groundbreaking new critical framework based on the mandala, an ancient symbol of the universe and Hindu and Buddhist meditation aid, in order to examine the influence of Buddhist philosophies in the author’s writing, and broadening to investigate a wider resurgence of post-secular belief narratives in contemporary literature.