‘What is a ghost?’ Stephen Dedalus asks in Ulysses, and promptly answers his own question. ‘One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.’ Not a figure who is entirely unreal, just one who has become a little faint, lacking in physical immediacy. Perhaps someone who lives in the memory only, not an inconsiderable form of life after all. Or in possibility, a spirit from the future.
When they are not insisting on the absolute non-existence of ghosts, reasonable people are apt to make rather nervous jokes about them. Asked if he believed in ‘ghosts and apparitions’, Coleridge said no. But that wasn’t all he said. The complete sentence was: ‘No, madam! I have seen far too many myself.’ Quoting this passage, Susan Wolfson goes on to remind us that Freud comments on a neat variant of the same gag: ‘Not only did he disbelieve in ghosts; he was not even frightened of them.’ As Dr Johnson said on the subject of the possibility of a post-mortem appearance among the living (he too is quoted in this remarkable book), ‘All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.’ And not just belief. History has a role as well. The superstition, if it is one, had been around for five thousand years, Johnson said; when Byron quoted Johnson in Don Juan, he upped this to six thousand, concluding that ‘Whatever bar the reason rears/’Gainst such belief, there’s something stronger still/In its behalf, let those deny who will.’ The point perhaps concerns not so much the questioned reality of ghosts, or their undoubted persistence in the imagination, as the trouble they cause for reason. It is because they don’t exist in several important senses that they do exist in others. The distinction between the living and the dead matters; we can’t do without it. And yet there are so many ways of crossing the gap that the mythological migrations, the metaphors that are more than metaphors, are not likely to go away.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor