In those somber times dwelling deep in the dampened caves, Life was not cheap for Humankind. For our early ancestors on Planet Earth, their life expectancy was cruelly too short, close to thirty years plus. And the traumatic aftermath of childbirth made death after delivery quite common. We can picture a distraught man weeping over the body of a companion that had passed away.
In his book The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud remarked the powerful grip that “the ghostly” has in our human imagination, despite all the amazing technological feats. “To many people, the acme of the uncanny is represented by anything having to do with death, bodies, spirits, revenants, and ghosts…in hardly any sphere has our thinking and feeling changed so little since primitive times or the old been so well preserved, under a thin veneer, as in our relation to death.” In his book On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia, he speculated that we, humans, started to imagine if there might be an afterlife—and how it might look like—when we confronted the brutal reality of death of our loved ones. “The constant memory of the dead person became the foundation of the hypothesis of other forms of life, and first gave him the idea of continuing after apparent death.” Freud saw it as our mind’s projections.
James Joyce, who has a reputation of having been a man firmly anchored in the everyday reality of his environment, was in fact profoundly superstitious and wary of the spectral presences in his entourage, as we have already discussed in an article. In Ulysses, Bloom, its central character, said: “Something in all those superstitions because when you go our never know what dangers.” Even though he lived with his family for many years in Europe, Joyce carried inside him “the old haunts” of Dublin, his beloved city of birth. He confessed that “every day in every way I am walking along the streets of Dublin and along the strand. And ‘hearing voices’…”
The ghosts in early 20th century Ireland were not the highly structured creatures of the gothic literature, which can be easily dismissed as a product of literary fiction (and therefore unable to haunt and scare us) The Irish specters were rather familiar figures in a largely rural society that had not been touched by the Reformation. In Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Modernism and Memory, Luke Gibbons said: “The cultural milieu of Joyce’s Ireland had similarly to undergo the full rigors of disenchantment but was no less integrated into modernity for all that. It is not so much that the ghost was general all over Ireland but that belief itself was kept at bay.”
For James Joyce, ghosts were a “work in progress” for his fellow Irish imaginations, which were under the yoke of British colonial rule at the time. The coexistence of strong Catholic dogma and the persistence of rural superstition was widespread. Describing Mrs. Kerman, one of his characters in Dubliners, he wrote: “Her beliefs were not extravagant. She believed steadily in the sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions and approved of the sacraments. Her faith was bounded by her kitchen, but, if she was put to it, she could also believe also in the banshee and the Holy Ghost.” In traditional Irish folklore, the banshee is a female spirit who heralds the death of a family member by wailing, shrieking, or keening.
When Joyce’s characters are walking through the streets of Dublin, there is a florid description of the physical features found along their paths; however, there is at the same time a surreptitious suggestion of some “presences” or “absences” that tailgate them. In “his Dublin”, the streets were still illuminated with gaslight appliances, electricity still being a novelty reserved for the inside spaces. In fact the English word “gas” derives from the Dutch word for “ghost”—geest. In Joyce’s The Dead, the ghost of Michael Furey appears to Gabriel and Greta Conroy in a hotel room that was only illuminated by the “ghostly light” coming from the gaslight on the streets.
The apparition of ghosts might naturally represent a “refusal to let go” of sorely missed presences in our lives, but they might also constitute a “stepping stone” to pause for a moment while we try to find a way forward out of inertia, a desperate attempt to clinch to Life and a better future. It might be a most valuable psychological defense mechanism.
Joseph Brodsky said: “There is always something left over from the past, and that is the future.”
Note. The featured image is a picture of The Famine Memorial by the Liffey in Dublin. Attribution: ceridwen/ Famine Memorial by the Liffey CC BY-SA 2.0
Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.
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Don’t leave me alone.