August 20, 2021

This week’s newsletter is about ghosts, and, yes, it no doubt should have come out last week, on Friday the 13th.  But it was a matter of timing:  at that point, the synchronicity that provoked it had not yet occurred.  “Synchronicity” is depth psychologist C.G.  Jung’s term for a “significant coincidence,” when two things that can’t possibly be causally connected nevertheless occur in close proximity in a way that strikes us as somehow meaningful.  We all have this happen, usually in ways that are minor and banal, as when we think of someone out of the blue, only to find they have emailed us for the first time in years.  My synchronicity was that I had just written a song (yes, I do that) called “The Ghosts Behind the Eyes,” whose theme is summed up by the title:  the real ghosts are not out there and supernatural but inside our heads.  The next day, I received my subscription copy of No Depression: The Quarterly Journal of Roots Music, which I highly recommend as a way of keeping up with new folk music as well as learning more about traditional folk. Each issue of the journal has a theme, and the theme of the Fall 2021 issue, to my great surprise, is “ghosts.”  

Not only that, but the opening page excerpts the following statement from one of the articles: “I really do think the best songs are ghost-like.  A good song exists on paper, on a recording, on a stage, in our head, in soundwaves in the air.”  In the article, the interviewee, Mark Lindquist, goes on to describe “ghostlike” as meaning “Something familiar, but mysterious at the same time.  The best songwriters and the best recording spaces work in those shadows.”  The phrase “familiar, but mysterious” is exactly what Freud meant in a famous essay called “The Uncanny.”  In German, the word translated as “uncanny” is unheimlich, the un-homelike, the feeling that something has invaded and haunted the safe and familiar refuge of home.  My theme is this feeling of the “spooky” and what it implies about our sense of reality.

To rational empiricists, it implies only that a lot of human beings are superstitious, which means that they grant reality to things that are just in their heads.  Since Descartes in the seventeenth century, the starting point of modern philosophy has been the subject-object distinction:  a subject or consciousness looks out upon an objective world external to itself.  The “real world” is the objective world “out there.” To use philosophical lingo, it manifests itself as “presence,” which means that it won’t go away.  It is stubbornly what the poet Wallace Stevens calls “things as they are.”  All the stuff inside our heads, the fleeting thoughts, intuitions, sensory impressions, moods, memories, and so on—all that is intangible, indemonstrable, a kind of absence:  if not illusory, it is at least the source of many illusions.  All those manifestations are ghosts according to the commonsense definition that says, “There are no ghosts, only gullible people who grant reality to figments.”

The problem is, this divide is not borne out by experience.  It does not even work in the natural sciences, where quantum mechanics has been forced to grant at least some role to the observer in creating reality, not just observing and measuring it.  But it is in the human sciences where the objectivist position really breaks down.  The “ghost” issue of No Depression contains an article on “The Real Omie Wise,” by Mark Kemp, detailing the attempts to track down the historical reality behind a murder ballad, “Omie Wise,” made famous by Doc Watson.  But it turns out that Omie or Naomie Wise is a ghost:  her factual reality cannot be established even though she won’t go away.   The historical basis of the ballad’s narrative rests on the fact that a man named John Lewis was tried in 1811 for the murder of Naomie Wise by drowning her in the Deep River near Asheville, North Carolina, where Doc Watson grew up.  Doc learned the song from his mother and grandmother, but versions of it have proliferated so widely that folklorist Ralph Rinzler dryly refers to it as “North Carolina’s principal contribution to American folk song.”  In the process, Omie Wise turns into a ghost—not a “historical fact” but an apparition.  We know nothing about the “real” Omie Wise, but she continues to haunt us. 

Was she even really murdered?  John Lewis was acquitted for lack of evidence, although some feel that was because he was powerful and had connections.  Doc Watson’s own revisionism changes this “fact”:  by omitting verses, he leaves Lewis in prison at the end.  In most versions, Omie is assimilated to the conventions of the “murder ballad” subgenre, in which an innocent young victim is disposed of by a powerful man who has tired of her.  How far have these conventions transformed the historical truth?  There is a contrary rumor that Omie was a promiscuous woman who tried to extort her lover.  In the end, we have no historical Omie Wise.  What we have is the song.  No more and no less is true of the “historical reality” of the Trojan War behind Homer’s epics.  And no more or less is true of the “historical Jesus,” for whom no evidence exists outside the Gospels, whose “facts” are contradictory.   Does this leave us with some disillusioned skeptical relativism?  No, it simply locates the “truth” in the reality that is before us, rather than in some supposed reality behind it.  The real Omie Wise is the one in her song.  We would learn more by inquiring why her ghost refuses to be exorcized, why her story compels us, rather than excavating to reach some supposed factual reality underneath it.  According to Northrop Frye’s The Great Code, the same is true of the Bible. 

Artists themselves become ghosts.  The No Depression issue also has an article “in search of,” as they say, the great Delta blues guitarist and singer Robert Johnson.  There is a whole industry devoted to laying the ghost of Robert Johnson—countless books and articles, and a fine documentary video by John Hammond, Jr., himself an important blues artist.  As Omie Wise’s biography has been assimilated by the conventions of the murder ballad, Robert Johnson’s biography has been assimilated to the myth of the damned genius, a line of descent going back at least as far as the Faust legend.  He is a member of the “27 club,” dying at that age under mysterious circumstances, probably poisoned by a jealous husband—although note the “probably.”  Ghosts are sometimes supposed to be damned souls, and the legend attached to Johnson is that he met the Devil at the crossroads at evening and sold his soul in exchange for becoming one of the greatest acoustic guitarists in history.  Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues” does not quite say that, but it doesn’t quite contradict it either.  And Johnson did love to strike the pose in songs like “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Me and the Devil.”  But again, the legend and the songs are what we’ve got.   Biographical research is valuable, but it doesn’t give us the “truth.”  Once again, the truth is in the songs, in what we have rather than what eludes us. 

We have pursued those identities we are calling ghosts from “real life” into their final resting place in a song.  But, as Mark Lindquist asks, where is the song?  Is the song the words and music on a page; is it the performance; is it the recording; is it what we hear in our heads; is it the soundwaves in the air?  The song is a kind of ghost, present everywhere, and yet somehow nowhere.  Meaning itself is ghostly:  the philosopher Jacques Derrida said that in language every signifier is inhabited by a trace of other signifiers haunting it from within.  These excluded other meanings are analogous to the unconscious in Freud:  contents that have been repressed for the sake of coherence or social acceptability but which are always lurking in the shadows.  We try to make language mean one thing, but it never does. 

Who cares about issues like these?  Isn’t this just a kind of academic game, a flirting with radical skepticism about knowing anything?   Well, it can certainly be turned into an academic game, but I think the feeling that reality is ghostlike and ambiguous, not solid and commonsense at all, resonates with many people.  This is, after all, the theme of the most popular play in the world, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose endlessly multiplying ambiguities revolve around the figure of a ghost.  Nor are those ambiguities resolved by the play’s end, a fact which led T.S. Eliot to proclaim it a failure.  But perhaps unresolved ambiguity is the point.  It is certainly the point in the works of Kafka and Thomas Pynchon, in TV shows like The Prisoner and X-Files, in science fiction and fantasy novels like Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik, and Gene Wolfe’s Peace.  The latter is an entire novel narrated by a ghost who does not realize he is dead. 

Eliot said that Hamlet fails to provide what he called objective correlatives:  concrete images that act as vehicles of the play’s emotions.  But objectivity does not guarantee some kind of no-nonsense solid reality, because objects themselves can be haunted.   Toys come alive, like Calvin’s tiger Hobbes, like dolls from Barbie to Chucky.  Whole buildings are alive: haunted houses, the haunted resort in Stephen King’s The Shining.  The sense of ghostly habitation is often strongest when the buildings are ruins.  We sense the lives that used to live in that location, still somehow present.  Many years ago I spent a couple of hours exploring a ruined mansion across from Kleinhans music hall in Buffalo, long since modernized into office space.  I was more wary of falling through the floor than of encountering the shades of long-dead Buffalonians, but the shades were there, in the corner of my mind’s eye.  The older I get, the more I am haunted by the ghosts of buildings that no longer exist, even as ruins.  I walk the campus of Baldwin Wallace University, with which I have been associated for over half a century, and “see” buildings that are no longer there, including the one on the roof of which I met my first wife, Bonney.  And how many people are left in my hometown of Canton, Ohio who, like me, are haunted by the ghost of Meyers Lake Amusement Park, an important place of my childhood, replaced decades ago by condominiums, leaving not a wrack behind?  Mark Lindquist’s remark about the ghostly quality of songs occurs in an article about some people who live in an entire ghost town, abandoned when the mines gave out, who have made a recording studio out of the deserted church. 

The dissolving of reality into ghostliness is one metaphor for that aspect of the imagination that in The Productions of Time I call decreation.  It is a frightening aspect, often associated with the ultimate passing into absence which is death.   But decreation is in a yin-yang type of relationship with the other aspect of the imagination, recreation.   In the opening of his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud describes the game a mother plays with her very young child, a variant of what we would call peekaboo.  She hides a spindle out of the child’s sight, pretending that it is gone, then suddenly produces it again to the child’s delight.  The child is in fact being conditioned to cope with separation anxiety:  mommy will go, but mommy will come back.  Separation anxiety is an early form of the fear of death, and the rhythm of the peekaboo game is that of the dying god religions described in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, in which the god died on the first day, was absent in death the second day, and returned joyously on the third.  The dying god fertility religions were spiritualized into the Mystery religions, which were universalized into Christianity. 

The ultimate question is, what remains when the imagination has decreated the seemingly solid reality of this phenomenal world?  Mere absence, death, nothingness?  Is that the end—or the last illusion to be decreated?  Throughout mythology, religion, and literature there have been intimations of a mode of being beyond subject-object reality, in which the limits of time and space are not final—a potential explanation for at least some cases of synchronicity. Such a world would be one of what Alfred North Whitehead, in a passage that greatly influenced Northrop Frye, called interpenetration, in which everything was haunted by the ghosts of everything else, a world of all in one and one in all, incomprehensible to the reason but meaningful to those who speak the language of metaphor, which is the language of the heart, whose word for interpenetration is simply “love.”