Do ghosts really exist?

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.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

Superstitious artists – James Joyce

Extremely anxious about the reception Ulysses—his epic novel—would receive, James Joyce chose his birthday as its official release date: February 2, 1922. That day two copies arrived by train to Paris: one for him and another one for Silvia Beach. She was the owner of Shakespeare and Company, a Rive Gauche bookseller that promoted and published his work. It turned out to be a lucky choice.

The inhabitants of Ireland have been gathering around the campfires for generations to share tales, music, and dancing, which has established their folklore as one of the richest and at the same time loosely defined set of inherited cultural norms and ideas. In those circumstances, the figure of the banshee emerged as a powerful, feared icon. Translated as the “fair lady” or the “lady from the mound”—refers to the countless mounds that dot the Irish countryside, which are called side—she is a wandering female spirit that heralds the death of a loved one by wailing, shrieking, or keening. The latter is a traditional form of exuberant lamenting for the dead individual that derives from the Irish and Scottish Gaelic term caoineadh, i.e. to cry.

When James Joyce’s mother passed away in 1903, he spent the night in a vigil with his sister Margaret to await her appearance as a ghost; she claimed that she did see her, but he did not. That experience inspired the passage of Ulysses where the revenant of Stephen Dedalus’ s mother came. “In a dream, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood.” In spite of his skepticism, Joyce’s work bear the indelible mark of superstition.

In his book titled Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Modernism and Memory , Luke Gibbons said: “WB Yeats is often viewed as being away with the fairies of the Celtic twilight, whereas James Joyce is considered a man of this world, grounded in the prose of everyday life, Joyce, however, was not stranger to ghosts, or to the grief that takes leave of the senses.” In fact only in the beginning of the 20th century did electricity appear in Ireland, helping to fend off some of the disturbing apparitions that had been troubling its inhabitants.

One of the most diffused misconceptions regarding individuals that are “superstitious” is that they are keen to exteriorize their core beliefs out of their inner self, at all times. On the contrary. Those of us that have inherited that trait in our genetic material and cultural upbringing, are reluctant to talk about it with strangers. However, it infallibly does come across, not in what we say, but in what we do. When we sit down to create some work of art, that “endowment” starts to spill onto the piece of paper, or clay, or marble, or musical instrument we hold. We do not have any control over it. Never.

In Joyce’s writings, the troubling haunting of ghosts happen in critical junctions of the characters and it might be a signal of their mental breakdown. He wrote with precise focus about countless Dublin characters and physical places but his prose is imbued with the present and absent ethereal entities that had circulated in those same streets before. In Ulysses there are many references to ghostly figures. Luke Gibbon said: “Stephen is haunted by the ‘ghoul’ of his dead mother, whom he had forsaken on her deathbed due to his refusal to kneel down and pray. Bloom is haunted by the spirit of his infant son who died 11 days after his birth and who appears at the end of the Circe chapter in what could be a projection of a different kind: a magic lantern image.”

No matter how far we travel form our origins or how many years have elapsed since our departure from the source of that imprimatur, we feel its strong pull almost daily. James Joyce did feel the pull of the magical city of Dublin, even in his extended European stay. Once Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington asked him why he did not go back to his hometown. Joyce replied: “Have I ever left it?” The city of Dublin was deeply burrowed in his spirit.

Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.