News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: All Hallow's Eve Reflections and Hauntological Remarks

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

All Hallow's Eve Reflections and Hauntological Remarks

For those unfamiliar with catholic feast days, all Hallow's Eve might appear to be one of those pagan rituals that--depending on your religious inclinations--might or might not be a good thing. In theory at least, the feast day is meant to be a time when the living and the dead are supposed to interact and commune. Of course, the schlock of Halloween has turned such ideas as remembering the dead into an exercise in putting on display the various anxieties and fears that people everyday wear inside but on this day wear on the outside. ...

There's more to contemporary practices of dressing up than displaying those fears that one usually hides. There's also the idea that you dress up and display things you'd like to be. This exercise in play which affirms what your dreams are and thereby seek social affirmation of certainly has something to say for itself. That it should occur in a context that once included paying some form of homage to the dead speaks perhaps to the closeness in that possibility and potential and dreams have in our psyches with the finality and nothingness of death.

Personally, Halloween is one of those holidays that evokes ambivalent feelings in me. Since I have strong agrarian roots, I've always had a strange affinity for thinking about the dead. This goes back to the days when, as a child, I believed I saw ghosts opening my bedroom door at night. This was later strengthened when my family moved next door to a funeral home. Many dreams I remember from those days included often paradisal visions of the after-life.

Unfortunately, Halloween was also a time of immense personal tragedy. My sister died Halloweening, hit by a car as she crossed the street. That event has defined my life more than I am conscious of, for it was so traumatic that I have little memory of several weeks that followed her death.

In some ways, then, Halloween is not just a time for possibility for me but also a time for remembering the dead and trying perhaps to recover some lost time that will never again see the light of day. This is perhaps why La Dia de Los Muertos has always attracted my admiration. While I lived in new Mexico, the closeness of death was a continual, quite palpable reality. Since much of the state is still rural and very poor, the closeness of death is not hidden behind the facade created by so much iconography of despair.

So what will I do tonight? I'll be spending time watching the "reality shows" on SciFi channel's Ghost Hunters and the BBC's three-day extravaganza of ghost hunting from Scotland's most haunted sites. I've tried before to discuss my interest in these shows. In justifying my taste for these types of shows to those who deride the shows' absurdity, I'll often point to the Ghost Hunters' stated purpose of debunking ghosts and their diverse habits--whether living a shadowy tape loop that seems to play over and over and which the ghosts are not aware of being in and which the living can sometimes witness; the "holy grail" of full-bodied apparitions; or the diverse phenomena of strangely moving chairs, knocks, steps, etc.

My respect for the Most Haunted series is charitable. The use of mediums and the often hysterical (and I don't mean comic) reactions of the show's host often drives me to shout out imprecations of gullibility. The decision to use night-vision cameras wherein the pupils of the (living) protagonists glow eerily in black and white seems an obvious technical fact that works in the show's favor by turning normal human beings into strangely ghostly presences on the TV screen.

Most Haunted's three-day extravaganza is another matter, however. It's shown before a live audience in a hall that appears to seat several thousand people from floor to balcony. The show's aired to Britain and the US and several live cameras can be seen on the show's Internet site. Along the bottom of the screen, you can find comments from people in Britain and the US who "see things" and have premonitions about what the cast is expected to encounter in its hunt for the dead's spirits.

I make little apology for my interest in these shows. On a rather superficial level, there's the simple interest in the fact that people still believe in ghosts. Then there's the psychology of fear and how it works among the various cast members as they walk through the dark and deal with various noises and other phenomena. My dislike of the use of mediums revolves around the proven manipulation of human gullibility and various tricks involving casting one's voice, moving objects, faking possessions--all phenomena that have been noted among shaman-based societies. The diverse means by which these tricks can be played have been outed by such luminaries as Harry Houdini and others.

No matter Houdini and others' efforts at debunking the evocative methods used by shamans and mediums to create an environment in which our deepest fears surface, you should recall that these methods are effective. Western anthropologists and ethnographers report on their own responses as witnesses during sessions in religious ceremonies where these methods are employed. And surely Hollywood has elaborated in spectacular fashion in exploiting these methods and creating their effects.

It's interesting that in my discussions with people about Ghost Hunters in particular has shown that working class people respond positively to this show. This may reflect the fact that the protagonists in the show are working class stiffs who run a Roto-Rooter company by day. Beyond this rather obvious identification with members of their own class, however, there's still the question about why talk of an afterlife appeals in some way to working class people.

Perhaps Don Cupitt is right, and this is mere superstition that reflects the ignorance of those out of power projecting into unearthly realms events and happenings that occur beyond their control. Add to this Cupitt's notion that the supernatural itself is simply a reflection of the linguistic nature of human being, and perhaps this does provide an adequate explanation for the will to believe in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena among the working classes. if so, then Cupitt's suggestion that secularization's inevitable progress will ultimately rationalize away these traces of the agrarian and Bronze age belief systems.

Belief in the afterlife is a gnarled matter within many religions. As I have noted in a previous posting, in the Abrahamic religions, at least, the question of the survival of something related to what has been a human being has been hotly contested. Often, the beliefs associated with the life-force of a previously alive human being reflect either stories and tales brought in from previous nature-based religious systems or reflect ideas imported into these religions by way of philosophy, notably Plato and Aristotle.

It is interesting to note that the contemporary understanding of the afterlife and the soul borrows heavily from Plato. The historical reasons for this may have to do with the fact that this understanding of the soul was adopted as doctrine by the Catholic Church as part of the Counter-Reformation. Based especially on the writings of the Renaissance Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino, the very description and formulation of the nature of the soul and its fate after death clearly follows Ficino's thought.

Another strain within philosophy and theology also comes from the Renaissance. The Aristotelian theologian Pomponazzi made a scholastic argument that the immortality of the soul could not be proven. Basing himself on Aristotelian psychology, he said that there is simply no way to prove the existence of anything like a separable soul from the body and therefore whether something like that exists beyond death is unprovable. He does, however, note that the belief in such a soul and its continued existence is a matter of faith.

Soren Kierkegaard took up the Pomponazzi side of the argument. While it's obvious that Kierkegaard believed in what he calls the spirit (distinct from the bodily life-force of the soul), he agreed with Pomponazzi that its existence cannot be proven either logically or empirically. If there is any proof for the spirit's existence it is based purely on one's experience of ethical and religious dimensions of living in time.

Kierkegaard does most religious thinkers and philosophers one better, however. For Kierkegaard, the respect and love for the dead can be considered one of the higher forms of love. Since one still loves the dead--beyond all sense and rational justification--the love for the dead exhibits the radical nature of love that transcends the merely sensual an empirical. For Kierkegaard, that is, love's higher expressions--which are part of its lower forms--is the belief in something or someone that goes beyond what is simply given by facticity. Visiting the loved one's grave, tending and taking care of it, planting flower, lighting candles--all these represent a work of love that shows your own awareness of dimensions of spiritual affirmation than those limited to the realms of the sense.

According to Kierkegaard:

The work of love in recollecting one who is dead is thus a work of the most unselfish, the freest, the most faithful love. Therefore go out and practice it; recollect the one who is dead and just in this way learn to love the living unselfishly, freely, faithfully. In the relationship to one who is dead, you have the criterion by which you can test yourself. -- Kierkegaard, Works of Love, p. 358

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