Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"The gruesomely conscious realm of ghostly fear and cold terror," or, The Haunted Commonplace Book!

{Resting, London. Photo by rocketlass.}

From a gravestone in Norfolk churchyard, collected in Everybody's Book of Epitaphs, W. H. Howe, editor
Underneath this sod lies John Round
Who was lost in the sea and never was found.

From Jean-Claude Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society (1994, 1998 translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan):
Historians and ethnologists commonly speak of a "belief in ghosts." But what does this really mean, and how can the historian ascertain past beliefs? One of the recent advances in the "anthropology of beliefs" is to question the ill-considered uses of the notion of "belief." We must be careful not to reify belief, to turn it into something established once and for all, something that individuals and societies need only express and pass on to each other. It is appropriate to substitute a more active notion for the term "belief": the verb "to believe." In this way a belief is a never-completed activity, one that is precarious, always questioned, and inseparable from recurrences of doubt.

That seems in keeping with Shirley Jackson's argument, in the lecture I quoted from yesterday, that even those of us who claim not to believe in ghosts are a quick glimpse in the wrong direction away from changing our minds. We don't believe, but . . .

From the entry for "ghost" in David Pickering's Cassell's Dictionary of Superstitions (1995):
Measures that may be taken against encountering ghosts include, according to Scottish tradition, wearing a cross of Rowan wood fastened with red thread and concealed in the lining of one's coat.

From "Mujina" by Lafcadio Hearn, collected in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904):
Then that O-juchu turned round, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand, ;--and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth,--and he screamed and ran away.

From "The Banshee," in Jorge Luis Borges's The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967, 2005 translation by Andrew Hurley):
No one seems ever to have seen one. They are less a shape than a wailing that lends horror to the nights of Ireland and (according to Sir Walter Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft) the mountain regions of Scotland. Heard outside one's window, they herald the death of some member of the family.

{Weeping girl in Cemetiere Mont-Royal, Montreal. Photo by rocketlass.}

Most of us skeptics these days ground our rejection of the concept of ghosts not so much on our not having seen one but on basic rationality. The efforts of William James and his colleagues to find proof of spirit manifestations were, after all, a bust, and no verifiable evidence has emerged since. Rationality, therefore, demands that we at the very least put ghosts in the category of unlikely. And yet, the sun still goes down, and the autumn nights still carry their unsettling chill . . .

From Jean-Claude Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages (1994, 1998 translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan):
A persistent yet somewhat ambiguous and contradictory refusal to admit the possibility that the dead might return in dreams or perhaps in conscious visions characterized the ecclesiastical culture of the early Middle Ages. . . . In a religious way of thinking long fragmented by a fundamental dualism--the antagonism between the devil and the saints, between the phantasmagorias of the former and the controlled apparitions of the latter--there was very little room for ghosts or for the oneiric and ambivalent revelations of ordinary dead people.

From D. J. Enright's introduction to the "Loving Revenants" chapter of The Oxford Book of the Supernatural (1994):
That these visitors rarely convey a message of much overt significance has found its reasons. What motivates them rather than the delivery of urgent intelligence is the natural desire to glimpse their children, their loved ones, to revisit places where they lived or worked (a pantry, a library, an altar), returning, in the words of Hardy's poem, to where the living person "found life largest, best." Such appearances are more for the sake of the revenant, then.

{Gravestone of an aviator, San Michele Island, Venice. Photo by rocketlass.}

Of course, unlike most of human history--or for example, thinking back to yesterday's post, the years following World War I--now we are able to pass through our days with little thought of death. It's something that happens elsewhere, to other people. Such a denial makes every aspect of modern life easier, from conspicuous consumption to support for distant wars. Death no longer visibly stalks us, and though we know that means he'll ultimately sneak up and pounce us instead, we have become very good at denying that inevitability.

From Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1921, 1996 translation by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzch):
No other age has so forcefully and continuously impressed the idea of death on the whole population as did the fifteenth century, in which the call of the memento mori echoes throughout the whole of life. Denis the Carthusian, in the book he wrote for the guidance of the nobleman, makes the exhortation that "when he goes to bed, he should imagine not that he is putting himself to bed, but that others are laying him in his grave." . . . . In the fourteenth century, the strange word "macabre" appeared, or, as it was originally spelled, "Macabré." "Je fis Macabré la dance," ("I made the Dance Macabre") says the poet Jean Le Fevr in 1376. It is a personal name and this might be the much disputed eytmology of the word. It is only much later that the adjective is abstraced from "le danse macabre" that has acquired for us such a crisp and particular nuance of meaning that with it we can label the entire late medieval vision of death. The motif of death in the form of the "macabre" is primarily found in our times in village cemeteries where one can still sense its echo in verses and figures. By the end of hte Middle Ages, this notion had become an important cultural conception. There entered into the realm surrounding the idea of death a new, grippingly fantastic element, a shiver that arose from the gruesomely conscious realm of ghostly fear and cold terror.

Ah, but us ghost story fans at least have October as our memento mori, our occasion for focusing our attentions on the fate we'll all share--and, while eschewing the comforts of religion, thinking on the possibility that it might not be the end after all.

{St. Boniface Cemetery, Chicago. Photo by rocketlass.}

From "The Girl I Left Behind Me" by Muriel Spark, collected in The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark (1994):
I opened the door and my sadness left me at once. With a great joy I recognized what it was I had left behind me, my body lying strangled on the floor. I ran toward my body and embraced it like a lover.

From Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842):
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

From Stephen King's Salem's Lot (1975):
It became unspeakable.

No comments:

Post a Comment