“In the main, ghosts are said to be forlorn and generally miserable, if not downright depressed. The jolly ghost is rare” – Dick Cavett
If there is life after death, why aren’t we overrun with disgruntled ghosts of the dearly and not-so-dearly departed? There is and historically has been an awful lot of injustice in the world. Whenever we get good back story on a ghost, they’ve postponed going into the light or been given special providence to return to this plane of existence and right some wrongs, make sure widows and orphans are taken care of, murderers brought to justice or just work out their undead psychological issues. Rough estimates are that 100 billion people have died since we came down from the trees and got all Homo sapiens on the rest of the ecosystem. That’s a lot of dead folks, and it’s probably fair to say that a sizable portion of them wouldn’t have been very happy about being dead. I mean death sucks, what with all the decomposition and various funereal treatments from mummification, to cremation, to burial, not to mention the possibility of just being left out to rot or be eaten by scavengers. Death is an unpleasant outcome on a number of levels. Even when they build you a nice tomb. It certainly makes it harder to date.
So, where are all the dead folks with an ax to grind, a chip on their shoulder, or a conscience requiring haunting? We seem, by most accounts to have a relative shortage of ghosts by these standards. Empires rise and fall and tend to piss off a lot of people in the process. Come to think of it, why don’t we have a lot of angry gods mucking about now that all their worshippers have shuffled off this mortal coil? Nothing is worse than a few millennia of adoration followed by absolute obscurity. That’s a crushing blow to one’s self-esteem. But why worry about the one-percenters? Where’s the dead neighbor whose lawnmower you never returned? That guy would have thrown plates at you when he was alive, so where’s the nasty poltergeist that’s wilting your rose bushes and sabotaging your gardening tools?
The skeptic (and they’re no fun, what with their self-satisfied explanations for everything and smug superiority) would point to this fact and declare that this is pure and simple logic that ghosts therefore do not exist. On behalf of the phantom set, let’s collectively tell them to screw themselves. They just suck the mystery and complexity out of life in service of ego. Similarly, I think any reasonable person of a moderately questioning nature (“psi-curious”?) must respond by mentioning just how much trouble ghosts seem to have caused over the years we’ve been discussing them. I mean, ghosts are generally jerks. So needy and demanding, and inconsiderate of the expense of a decent dining room set or the high price of apartment rentals or the complications of mortgages. Obviously, mortgage bankers go straight to the City of Dis. Its a good thing there aren’t more of them. For something that doesn’t exist they’ve certainly made a nuisance of themselves and contributed a lot to our literary traditions, religions, and overall sense of unease at the fact that most of us have no moral compass whatsoever. What, you’ve got one? I dislike you already. Don’t you realize its a jungle out there? Well, don’t blame me when you get eaten or sucked into your television set. You were warned.
Now, the alert reader may ask themselves why I’ve ambled down this curious intellectual path. I’m actually conducting an ad hoc experiment as to the effects of whiskey on philosophy when taken to its absurd extreme. Obviously unpublishable in your higher quality academic journals. Although, have you ever browsed one of these seminal organs of academia? I’m pretty sure at least half the authors were probably conducting a similar experiment. I can’t fault them. Replication is an important element of the scientific method. Well, when I find I don’t have a satisfactory answer to my pressing existential questions (like what diabolical misanthropist came up with orange marmalade?), it pays to turn to great thinkers of the past and see what they had to say on the subject. Admittedly this is a somewhat lazy historiographical approach, but I figure they didn’t have access to a decent cable service, thus amused themselves with philosophical considerations. Poor bastards.
Interestingly, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), whom if you grew up when I did, you probably only know for his novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, and the fact that he spent a lot of time hiding from his creditors, had a peculiar interest in what this phantasmagoric nonsense was all about. Interest in ghosts didn’t pay any better in the 18th century than it does now. Well it turns out Defoe was asking the same questions. Defoe was a pretty rough and tumble guy, spending inordinate amounts of time in prison for his political peccadilloes, but I try to distinguish between socio-political inconvenience and relevant philosophical points. Falling on the wrong side of the powers that be is remarkably easy. And I give a lot of credit to the guy who wrote Robinson Crusoe. It’s basically “Lost in Space” written in the 18th Century. You try writing a novel. That shit is hard. I don’t write a novel because everybody would die in the end (I assume everything results in death…it’s how you go that’s important). But it makes it hard to have a sequel and consequently a second paycheck. Life’s a bitch as an absurdist, then you die, usually comically.
Defoe had a few salient points to make, which he thought implied that we weren’t really seeing the souls of the recently deceased, rather some other sort of manifestation. His reasoning? Well, he suggested a twofold argument involving both those folks loitering around strumming harps in Heaven as well as those enduring eternal torment. Figuring that those blessed enough to be exalted at the Pearly Gates, interrupting their ultimate joy with strange little concerns about worldly affairs didn’t seem in keeping with the supreme awesomeness we have been led to expect from the afterlife. Secondly, it doesn’t say much for the management of Hell, if those imprisoned in everlasting misery are allowed to pop up to the world and attend to some trifle amongst the living. The mortal world is a pretty unpleasant place itself, all thing considered. Defoe figured there was enough unrighteousness afoot at any given time in man’s history that we should be awash in ghosts, and even if some special exceptions were made for spectral visitation, why do they concern themselves primarily with the little details, while war, murder, and oppression on a much grander scale seem to never be in short supply.
I will suppose that no apparitions were allowed to show themselves on earth, but on occasions of some unusual consequence, and that then they might always be expected; and there are many affirm it to be so, though I openly say I do not; but suppose it, I say; and that whenever these things have appeared, it was in especial cases, such as of manifestly injured right, oppression of widows and orphans, wrong done to persons unable to do themselves justice, depressed poverty, and many such cases which souls are said to be anxious about, even after death; I say, if it were so, the world is at this time (and, perhaps, has always been) so full of violence, injustice, fraud and oppression, that the souls of our departed friends would hardly ever be at rest. How many weeping widows, starving orphans and oppressed families have in our age suffered by the loss of the money which their fathers and other ancestors left for their subsistence and establishment in a certain city chamber or put into a certain exchequer upon the public faith! According to this notion, neither the visible nor invisible world would have been at peace: the habited visible world would have been continually haunted with ghosts, and we should never have been quiet for the disturbance of spirits and apparitions: the invisible world would have been in a continued hurry and uneasiness; spirits and unembodied souls asking leave to go back again to see their wills rightly performed, and to harass their executors for injuring their orphans; and all the ages of time would have been taken up in giving satisfaction to them in such and such cases. (Defoe, 1840, p99-98)
Yet here we are with just a smattering of ghosts, angry about this or that mundane issue, puttering around clanking chains and throwing things across the room in spectral tantrums. Defoe may not have been able to pay his bills, but he makes a good argument. I like to consider the worst-case scenario as likely to be the best-case scenario. That’s just how I roll. So, we should have lots of ghosts, but we just don’t see so many. I don’t like to think that the afterlife in anyway involves paperwork and adjudication (which would just be a cruel joke, so maybe we should consider it). Maybe it’s just not easy to be a ghost and not everybody learns the tricks of the phantom trade. Consider the possibility that we are continuously surrounded by ghosts, looking over your shoulder, criticizing your cooking among their ghostly buddies, hiding your socks, or just flitting about in basic oblivion. You know, the same way most of us live life. Perhaps we live in a haunted world, and just don’t realize it until some ghost gets uppity. And amidst the madness that is mortal life, a host of ghosts would be refreshing, as Bess Truman said, “Now about those ghosts. I’m sure they’re here and I’m not half so alarmed at meeting up with any of them as I am at having to meet the live nuts I have to see every day”.
Defoe, Daniel, 1661?-1731. The History and Reality of Apparitions. Oxford: D. A. Talboys, for Thomas Tegg, 1840.