- At first he failed to understand his predicament. To become a ghost upon dying was one thing, but to become a ghost centuries before you were born was something else entirely: a fate for which his imagination had simply not prepared him.
- — Kevin Brockmeier, “The Ghost Variations”
In his 2006 novel “The Brief History of the Dead,” Little Rock’s Kevin Brockmeier writes about The City, a place where the dead go and where they carry on their afterlives, which, as it turns out, are not so different from the lives they led before.
In The City, the dead have jobs. They go for long walks. They stand beneath poplar trees and tell stories of their dying. Some of the new arrivals follow the news back on earth via a newspaper that reports on the activities of the living. Eventually, most of them lose interest.
And after a while, people disappear from The City. The working theory is that they remain in The City until the last person on earth who remembers them enters The City. Where they go after that is a mystery, which is something apparently even ghosts require.
Brockmeier quotes a passage from James Loewen’s critical study of American high school textbooks, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” that describes the belief of some African tribes that people can be divided into three categories — those living on earth; the “sasha,” those not “wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living”; and the “zamani,” the dead who, while they might be recalled by name and remembered by history, no longer survive in the memories of the living.
The sasha is similar to the Buddhist concept of the bardo, a liminal state between death and rebirth. But the bardo is where spirits dwell before being returned to earth, while the inhabitants of the sasha — and The City — move on to some unknowable hereafter, great or otherwise.
I thought about “The Brief History of the Dead” when I watched the finale of the NBC series “The Good Place” on Netflix. Spoiler alert: The series, which spanned four seasons, is a sitcom about four flawed dead people who’d been sent to a hell disguised as heaven, and who had — by dint of earnest effort and searching — been able to eventually find their way to the actual heaven.
Where, after eons of experiencing and contentment they all eventually chose to move on — to walk through a portal that presumably annihilates their consciousness. Eventually they all entered the zamani.
Some people were upset by the finale of “The Good Place” because they thought it validated the idea of suicide — that it suggested that eventually all anyone should want is the absence of pain and desire. But I don’t know about that. The characters in “The Good Place” were long dead. They were — from the perspective of those who privilege the experience of the living over the transitional experience of the sasha/bardo and the unknowable state of the zamani — just ghosts.
And what a ghost wants, our teachers have taught us, is to be released from being a ghost. To move on from the world. Why should the next world be so different?
Brockmeier’s new book “The Ghost Variations” (Pantheon, $26.95) is described as 100 very short ghost stories. Some are heartbreaking, some are very funny, and some are elliptically beautiful prose poems about refugees from the sasha that feel ancient and absurd.
But his ghosts are not cute Caspers or chain-rattling clichés. Some of them might be closer to Casey Affleck’s sheet-covered wanderer in David Lowery’s affecting 2017 film “A Ghost Story,” which plays with time and longing in ways parallel to some of Brockmeier’s stories.
Brockmeier’s ghosts rain like fat drops on windshields, attach themselves to doorways and moments, and experience time forward and backward. Some don’t know they are ghosts; some are trying very hard not to “go to Toledo” — not to become ghosts. Others take it philosophically or eventually morph into the places they haunt.
One way to look at “The Ghost Variations” is as a series of intricate, contrapuntal meditations on the implications of perceiving while remaining (mostly) unperceived. I couldn’t help but take the title as an allusion to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” and more specifically to the 1955 recording that made Glenn Gould an international star. There is a delicacy and control here — a clarity of articulation — that reminds me of Gould’s playing.
In the liner notes of the album, Gould describes the pieces as “music which observes neither end nor beginning, music with neither real climax nor real resolution, music which, like Baudelaire’s lovers, ‘rests lightly on the wings of the unchecked wind.’ It has, then, unity through intuitive perception, unity born of craft and scrutiny, mellowed by mastery achieved, and revealed to us here, as so rarely in art, in the vision of subconscious design exulting upon a pinnacle of potency.”
That could stand as a capsule review of any of Brockmeier’s books, and especially fits this one.
I have never seen a ghost, but I have seen dead people.
I have been in the houses of the murdered, in a jail cell where a young man was hanging by his neck. I saw what can happen when you make your camp on a rural general aviation landing strip. Mystery quickly absents a corpse, leaving us with a slump of meat.
Dead people used to be more common in previous centuries, before the days of hospitals and hospices. We used to die in homes, with family and neighbors in adjacent rooms. More of us used to die in public.
Maybe then the fear of death was somewhat eased; maybe then we saw something of ourselves in the casket.
But most of us have always had this fear of moving on.
“Timor mortis conturbat me,” all the old texts say, a Latin phase that translates as “the fear of death disturbs me.” You run across it a lot in late medieval Scottish and English poetry (which is probably as easy to avoid as dead people), and is taken from a Catholic prayer traditionally read on All Souls Day to help out those languishing in purgatory.
The idea is that prayers are accretive and we might petition on their behalf, like do-gooders testifying at a parole hearing.
There’s something human in sensing in our bones the indestructibility of the human soul, though not all Christians believe everyone gets an afterlife. The late theologian Edward Fudge came around to believing in “annihilationism,” which holds that the very worst people, like Hitler and those who recline their seats in airplanes, aren’t really subjected to eternal torture with demons sticking them with pitchforks and flames licking their bodies, but are simply divorced from God’s love by nonexistence.
It’s nice to think about a God who would do that, who only pretends to vengeance and intends to take most of his children home someday. But just because you feel something in your gut doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about; certainty is a dangerous thing. Cult members are certain. Shout-show TV hosts are certain. The most unpleasant dinner party guests are certain. (There is perhaps a circle in hell reserved for the certain.)
I don’t doubt that people see ghosts. In Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” the remorseless arch-villain Arkady Ivanovitch Svidrigaïlov (a soul surely beyond redemption, whether he’s cast into hell or nonbeing) appears in Raskolnikov’s room as he awakens from a nightmare. Svidrigaïlov, who Raskolnikov believes might be an apparition or a continuation of his nightmare, proceeds to tell him he has seen the ghost of his deceased wife.
When a skeptical Raskolnikov asks the old criminal if he has seen ghosts before, the criminal admits that once, after the suicide of his serf, he forgot himself and called out the man’s name, asking him to bring him his pipe.
“He came in and went to the cupboard where my pipes were,” Svidrigaïlov says. “I sat still and thought, ‘he is doing it out of revenge,’ because we had a violent quarrel just before his death.”
Raskolnikov rejects this notion, and suggests Svidrigaïlov see a doctor. Svidrigaïlov is insulted, and says that although he knows he is afflicted, he is “five times stronger” than Raskolnikov, who suffers tremendously from guilt (he is, after all, literature’s most famous ax-murderer). Svidrigaïlov doesn’t care whether Raskolnikov believes in the existence of ghosts, he just wants him to acknowledge that ghosts are seen on the regular.
There is no real evidence of ghosts, but people see them. Maybe they are like our dreams. Maybe ghosts are manufactured by our brains and hearts, by flickering neurons sparked by the discomfiting knowledge of an inevitability to which we can’t quite reconcile ourselves. Maybe ghost stories are necessary stories, one of the ways we rock ourselves to sleep.
That human beings are the only species aware of their own mortality is widely assumed and often stated, but monkeys grieve, elephants mourn, and ravens and rooks hold funerals. Maybe we are just the only species that requires the solace of an afterlife.
Before Plato and his “Phadeo” the afterlife was, in most cultures, hazy and dim, a diminished and inescapable condition. Plato thought of death as a kind of liberation, where our immaterial essence is freed from the prison of the body.
And, after some interval of free-floating in the spirit world — a bardo-like realm inhabited by gods, angels and demons as well as separated human souls — that immaterial essence might be re-imprisoned in another body loosed back into the world.
Plato believed the soul’s progress depended on its attachment to the physical world. Ideally, the spirit would embrace the invisible, renouncing all claims on and essentially forgetting its mortal existence.
“A soul in this state makes its way to the invisible, which like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy, having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires, and the other human ills and, as is said of the initiates, truly spend the rest of time with the gods,” Plato writes.
But what of those who are not so pure?
“If the soul is polluted and impure when it leaves the body,” he writes, “having always been associated with it and served it, bewitched by physical desires and pleasures to the point at which nothing seems to exist for it but the physical, which one can touch and see or eat and drink or make use of for sexual enjoyment … We must believe, my friend, that this bodily element is heavy, ponderous, earthly, and visible … It wanders, we are told, around graves and monuments, where shadowy phantoms, images that such souls produce, have been seen, souls that have not been freed and purified but share in the visible, and are therefore seen.”
Plato believed in ghosts. Shakespeare may not have, but he certainly employed them.
In “Richard III,” the earliest of his plays to feature ghosts, the titular king is visited by the spirits of his victims, one after another, as he sleeps in his tent before the Battle of Bosworth. They remind him of how he wronged each of them, and they predict Richard’s imminent death in combat. “Despair and die,” they tell him, while assuring the Earl of Richmond, commander of the opposition, that he will “live and flourish.”
It’s interesting that Shakespeare allows the audience to perceive this all as Richard’s dream — he’s not arguing for the existence of ghosts, only pointing out, like Svidrigaïlov, that they are in fact seen. When he wakes, he announces, “I did but dream./O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!”
But then we go to Richmond’s camp, where he acknowledges that he too dreamt of these spirits, “souls whose bodies Richard murder’d” who “came to my tent and cried on victory.”
Shakespeare is, as we might expect, terrifically canny about how he employs ghosts; often they are visible to a single person in mental distress (such as Banquo’s ghost, visible to only the title character in “Macbeth”).
“Hamlet” begins with Horatio doubting Barnardo and Marcellus’ claim to have seen a ghost on two previous nights. But Horatio will later see this ghost for himself, as will the title character. While the ghost claims to be Hamlet’s father (also named Hamlet), on furlough from purgatory, the character has been alternately interpreted as a malevolent demon (or an actor hired by Claudius) trying to drive Prince Hamlet mad.
Maybe the best modern film of “Hamlet” is Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged four-hour version from 1996 in which Brian Blessed plays the character as both man and specter.
We can believe or not — what’s important is that we understand Hamlet and Richard are tortured by their visions. And not even Hamlet is convinced the spirit is “real.”
“The spirit that I have seen,” he says, “May be a dev’l, and the dev’l hath power/To assume a pleasing shape.”
Maybe not a ghost. Maybe a demon — a device of the devil — sent to trick the good Christians who most assuredly did not believe in ghosts.
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Ghosts don’t exist, but people see them. And human hearts are haunted. If not by those exiled from The City or the love of God, by the words and images of artists like Bach and Shakespeare and Brockmeier.
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