“Reason is a supple nymph, and slippery as a fish by nature. She had as leave give her kiss to an absurdity any day, as to syllogistic truth. The absurdity may turn out truer” – D. H. Lawrence
Every once in a while, some noted public intellectual (in the Hayek sense of a big-brained Brad who’s oeuvre is to find solutions to our petty human problems based on intelligence rather than wisdom) exasperatedly explains that given the lack of irrefutable evidence presented by aficionados of strange phenomena, we can conclude that Forteana is the realm of absurdity, insanity, and magical thinking and perhaps we should devote our attention to something more productive like plastics or politics, equating the work of the anomalist with the myth of Sisyphus, the Greek King of Ephyra, who got all up in Zeus’ business when the god was trying to hook up with the nymph Aegina, tricked Thanatos (Death) into chaining himself up thereby suspending death and annoying the bloodthirsty war god Ares, and was subsequently condemned to roll an immense boulder up a hill in Tartarus, only to watch it roll back down, repeating this action for eternity. Mythologically-speaking, Hell hath no fury like a “cock-blocked” Greek god. Thus a Sisyphean task has come down to us as any set of actions that are both laborious and futile (like arguing with your wife), which is a fair characterization of the more extreme skeptical attitudes towards investigators of the strange. Such a caricature neglects the fact that the embrace of the absurd is not in and of itself an absurdity, and has been wrestled with by philosophers from Heidegger to Jaspers to Shestov to Kierkegaard to Husserl, and which led Albert Camus to suggest that it was the central question of philosophy.
Science requires the sneaking suspicion that life is a meaningless mechanism that we can comprehend in its totality. Marriage with belief is merely an affectation to make it more palatable. We build our lives on the hope for tomorrow, but tomorrow just brings us one day closer to death. Therefore, we have to live our lives as if death was not a certainty. I tried explaining this to my boss when he asked me how I was doing. Didn’t go over well as an excuse for missing a deadline. Thought I’d give it a shot. In short, our highly-prized rationality and reason leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the search for meaning, unity, and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal truths or values is futile. Or rather, that would seem to be where it leads, except that the absurdist philosophers, rather than advocating suicide as a reasonable response to the absurdity of the universe, instead suggested that our only recourse was revolt. Anomalistics is just such a revolt – an acknowledgement of the absurd, a direct confrontation with apparent meaninglessness, an attempt at resolution of the confrontation between reason and the absurd, in which we strangely find the ability to be free, hidden in the spaces within which create our meanings. Our notion of the absurd arises from the collision of an unreasonable universe with our insatiable appetite for unifying explanations. Its why we get up in the morning, or as Vaclav Havel said, “The deeper the experience of an absence of meaning – in other words, of absurdity – the more energetically meaning is sought”.
This somewhat unexpectedly leads us to consider the plight of Benjie Gear, the unfortunate spirit of Dartmoor, England’s Cranmere Pool. “Cranmere Pool is believed to be a place of punishment for unhappy spirits, who are frequently to be heard wailing in the morasses which surround it” (Hope, 2000, p63), a location ventured to be “the dreariest, most untamable spot in England (Cresswell, 1890, p46). And what better site to identify as the site of Sisyphean task. Benjamin Gayer was the 17th Century scion of an upstanding Dartmoor family, from which many a mayor of Okehampton derived, involved deeply in politics and charitable affairs for the surrounding area, manifest in notes that indicate his efforts to collect funds intended for use in ransoming those taken captive in Turkey, part of a larger campaign of Anglo-Barbary piracy that pitted Protestants and Turks against the Catholic Church. Records of the time indicate money was, “Collected by Mr. John Hussey, and Benjamin Gayer for and towards the relief of poor protestants taken in Turkey, the charity of the inhabitants of this town and parish, and there was gathered ten pounds and odd money” (Bridges, 1889, p101). This seems like a perfectly reasonable pursuit for a notable man in the Dartmoor community, except that Benjamin Gayer reputedly absconded with the charitable donations and applied them towards his further aggrandizement. Now, skimming the odd ten pounds here or there wouldn’t have necessarily raised an eyebrow in 17th Century England, but hey, that’s why we invented sin – to assure ourselves that somewhere along the way there is just eternal retribution for the immoral actions of those that we can’t really do much about in life. This is a good basis for most ghost stories. Given that Benjamin Gayer was an “almoner of the money collected from the charitable of his time for the ransom of captives in Mohammedan lands, and that he may have appropriated such alms to his own use; hence his unsettled condition in the spirit world (Ingram, 1886, p526-527), he seems like an excellent candidate for some particularly ironic divine retribution. His ill-gotten gains were thus immortalized.
“Mr. B. Gayer, with the philanthropy of a good burgess, as shown in his collections for the relief of poor Protestant prisoners in Turkey, would have been, but for these researches, a dead letter in the book of his little history: but tradition has preserved an ugly report of his own unquiet and imprisoned spirit. What child, or eke man or woman of our town, but has, sometime or other, been terrified or amused at the story of Gayer the revenant” (Spry, 1884, p190).
When they can’t convict you in life, they get you after you’re dead, and once Benjamin Gayer shuffled off this mortal coil, his sentence was rather harsh.
The spirit of Benjamin Gear, formerly mayor of Okehampton, was condemned to bail out Cranmere Pool with a sieve. He was artful, and one day ﬁnding a dead sheep he skinned it and put the skin over the sieve and performed his task (Harris, 1907, p113).
While Sisyphus calmly accepted his fate and dutifully rolled his boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down again for all eternity, Benjie Gear was not hip to this absurdity and figured there had to be a loophole. Unfortunately, his solution had rather dire import for the folks of Okehampton.
Cranmere was once haunted by a misshapen dwarf, the spirit of one who in his “days of nature” had been Okehampton’s Mayor. The tradition tells us that one Benjamin Gayer, who in the seventeenth century filled the civic chair, was condemned after death to labour at the impossible task of baling the water of the mere with an oat sieve. By its margin the unquiet spirit laboured year after year, wearing the form of an ugly dwarf. But every dog has his day, and even Binjie, as he was called, was able to free himself, and to be revenged. Finding a sheepskin on the Moor he covered his sieve with it, and rapidly emptied the pool of its waters. The Ockment rose, and rushed in a mighty flood down the valley, sweeping everything before it, and reaching the town of Okehampton, submerged it, and drowned all the inhabitants (Crossing, 1905, p205).
While I can’t find a solid record of all the townspeople of Okehampton being summarily drowned in a flood, there is a strong tradition of the predations of Benjie Gear, and the nuisances which his revenant was the author of.
Thus, a ghost known as ‘Benjie Gear’ long troubled the good people of Okehampton to such an extent that, ‘at last,’ writes Mr. James Spry, in ‘The Western Antiquary,’ ‘the aid of the archdeacon was called in, and the clergy were assembled in order that the troubled spirit might be laid and cease to trouble them. There were twenty-three of the clergy who invoked him in various classic languages, but the insubordinate spirit refused to listen to their request. At length, one more learned than the rest addressed him in Arabic, to which he was forced to succumb, saying, “Now thou art come, I must be gone!” He was then compelled to take the form of a colt; a new bridle and bit, which had never been used, were produced, with a rider, to whom the Sacrament was administered. The man was directed to ride the colt to Cranmere Pool, on Dartmoor, the following instructions being given him. He was to prevent the colt from turning its head towards the town until they were out of the park, and then make straight for the pool, and when he got to the slope, to slip from the colt’s back, pull the bridle off, and let him go. All this was dexterously performed, and the impetus thus gained by the animal with the intention of throwing the rider over its head into the Fool, accomplished its own fate (Dyer, 1893, p195-196).
We like tragedy. We like just desserts. But deep down we can appreciate a guy who has figured out how to game the system. The former home of Benjamin Gear still stands in Okehampton, and many a poem commemorates him, exhorting us to a save a prayer for his soul’s peace.
On the high gable end of an ancient house in Okehampton may be seen two gigantic iron letters, the initials of Benjamin Gayer, a former inhabitant. The house may readily be discovered, as it abuts on an irregular triangle formed by the houses behind the chantry. These initials, in italic capitals, are alluded to, in a local metrical version of the legend they commemorate, thus:—
Behind the chantry mote be red,
The initial scroll of the burgher dead.
Stout of heart they esteem the wight
Who reads these letters at dead of night;
Though the moon be glinted back the while
From the ariel light of the chantry aisle:
Never pass but breathe a prayer
For the soul’s best peace on Master Gayer,
Where life’s troubled waters rest, in the haven of the blest.
Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from Benjie Gear and apply it to our anomalistic philosophies. A Sisyphean task, like life, with its inevitable rolling of rocks uphill only to have them roll back over you and start again, is not an object lesson in the futility of our pursuits. Extracting meaning from the elusive and absurd, raging against the bounds of rationality, and cheating the universe out of its meaningless are what we are all about. As Camus observed, “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. A Book of Devon. 4th. ed. London: Methuen, 1920.
Bridges, William B. Some Account of the Barony And Town of Okehampton: Its Antiquities And Institutions. A new edition, Tiverton: W. Masland, 1889.
Cresswell, Beatrix F. Dartmoor With Its Surroundings. London: Homeland Association, 1890.
Crossing, William, 1847-1928. Gems In a Granite Setting: Beauties of the Lone Land of Dartmoor. 3d ed. Plymouth: Western morning news, 1905.
Dyer, T. F. Thiselton 1848-. The Ghost World. London: Ward & Downey, 1893.
Harris, J. Henry. My Devonshire Book; “In the Land of Junket And Cream,”. Plymouth: Western Morning News, 1907.
Hope, Robert Charles, 1855-1926. The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England: Including Rivers, Lakes, Fountains, And Springs, Copiously Illustrated by Curious Original Woodcuts. Felinfach: Llanerch, 2000.
Ingram, John Henry, 1842-1916. The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain. 3d ed. London: W.H. Allen & Co., 1886.
Spry, James. “Benjamin Gayer: An Okehampton Legend”. Wright, W. H. K. ed. 1844-1915. The Western Antiquary: Or, Devon and Cornwall Notebook v3 (January). Plymouth, Eng.: Latimer & Son, 1884.