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15 February 2015

There Are Ghosts in This Room

Brown Lady ghost on stairs

We don’t talk about ghosts because we see ghosts. It’s the other way around: we see ghosts because we talk about ghosts. We—I mean human beings—have always told ghost stories, passing them down the generations in various forms—in folklore, myth, and religion, and in art and entertainment. The ghost is a living symbol of the perennial human sense of transcendence, the feeling that there is something in our world and in us that is beyond the merely contingent and temporary, which expresses itself in the cultural sacredness of life, which also of course means the sacredness of the dead.

They surround us, these stories and motifs, inflecting and conditioning the way we see the world. The culturally transmitted figure of the ghost is always available for us to use in our stories, films, plays, and jokes—even those personal ghost stories that some swear are true, where the ghost motif becomes a peg to hang our experiences upon. But if we are not aware of this, if we strip ghost stories of their historical, human context and their spiritual significance, then we reject the true importance of ghosts in favour of a shallow literalism. The fixation on “real” ghosts, whether in written non-fictional narratives, books about the “paranormal”, or in personal anecdote, is a titillation substituted for meaningful stories about real human beings who lived, loved, suffered and went mad, leaving the traces of meaning behind for us to interpret. This titillation, the temptation of the ghost motif taken literally, is an insult to intelligence and memory, and a desecration of place. It spurns the complexities, ambiguities and uncertainties of real personal histories, turning away from others in favour of a story about oneself. I don’t want to know about your “ghost”; I want to know—and you should want to know—about the real lives that were lived in this place.

Just then I used the phrase “true importance”. It looks like lazy rhetoric, put there just to hammer home the unstated proposition that I am in the right, and you, if you disagree, are wrong. But I chose it carefully.

I’m lying on a small four-poster bed in a room that has been lovingly and quirkily furnished and decorated. Through the glass of the door to the balcony I can see red and yellow leaves against a hazeless blue sky. There are ghosts in this room and in this house (a water mill in the South of France). Looking up I can see “2001” painted by hand in the corner of the white ceiling in the same golden yellow of the walls. I know that the owners had bought this house and moved here from Scotland just a year or two before that date. They loved each other and they loved the house, and it shows. Every room is a project, the creation of a special kind of atmosphere in which everything down to the curtain hooks has been chosen carefully, but not with the aim of recreating a traditional decorative scheme, and not with the aim of dressing up rooms merely for show. What they did was make rooms that delight the senses, which are alive, and which are comfortable but not suffocating.

They did it for themselves, their children, and their friends. Their photographs and books remain here, and with the house itself they haunt me and anyone who is sensitive to such things with a sense of joyful adventure and hope.

The married couple grew apart and the woman was struck down by depression and alcoholism. She alienated friends and family with spectacular feats of nastiness, and finally died falling down the stairs.

Tragedy is a form of drama in which the protagonist heads inexorably towards disaster, a trajectory that is guaranteed by something essential, perhaps some personal flaw. The final disaster is no accident, but is partly or fully predetermined. Looking at the “2001” on the ceiling the overwhelming feeling is of tragedy. Not because the disaster was inevitable, back when they made that mark (as if signing a work of art); but because it’s inevitable now: there is now nothing anyone can do to put those lives, as they planned them, on the right track once again. But one true and important thing we can do—this “true importance” I was talking about—is remember, and tell stories. These are the true ghost stories, the stories that do justice to lost lives.

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