“I only met you this morning, but to me you’re already permeated by all sorts of phantom figures”, so Derrida in ‘The Science of Ghosts’.
We encounter each other daily, social species who we are. Small talk, deep talk, virtual talk, body talk, no talk. Our interactions range from split second glances to long conversations to shared lifetimes. Our cognitive, emotional and somatic worlds, the worlds who we are, come together as we do. All that has, is and may transpire between us is alive in our encounter. Our coming together generates a mood, an atmosphere; it surrounds us, holds us, moves us. We experience it as modes of being, ways of feeling alive in our bodies. Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) beautifully describes one such state, the state of experiencing vertigo: “What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”
Kundera invokes our poetic memory as both a process and a place, “which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful”. Every encounter leaves behind a trace; something lingers. Ethereal, mostly in our unconscious; our many ghosts. Imagine returning to a childhood home, walking through the long-abandoned house and giving yourself to nostalgia; what emerges? What is felt?
“All houses wherein we have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.
We meet them at the doorway, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.
The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapors dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.”
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Haunted Houses
We may be surprised by what long-lost feelings are stirred up as we return and reminisce; Proust certainly was when he ate the plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’ dipped in tea only to discover the long forgotten world of his childhood; “Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?” he asked. We may similarly be surprised to discover parts of ourselves that we never knew existed, be that courage, spite, the ability to love, an unexplainable desire for blue cheese. We are endlessly complex and when we show up, to ourselves, to each other, what shows up is always more and less than what we perceive and can imagine. Lucille Clifton asks in ‘sorrows’, “but who can distinguish one human voice amid such choruses of desire”
In a conversation with Alain Badiou, Michel Foucault once reflected that,
“in discovering the unconscious, psychology discovered that the body itself forms part of our unconscious, that the collective to which we belong, the social group, the culture in which we have lived form part of our unconscious. It discovered that our parents, mother and father are nothing more than figures inside our unconscious… We know well and the interpretations that Dr Lacan makes of Freud are unquestionable, that the Freudian unconscious has the structure of a language. But this does not mean to say that the unconscious is an empty or virtual language. The unconscious is a word, not a language. It isn’t a system that allows us to speak, it is what is effectively written, words that were deposited in our existence, in our psyche that was literally discovered when the mysterious operation that is psychoanalysis was practiced. We discover a written text. That is to say, we discover in the first place that there are signs deposited. Secondly that these signs want to say something, they are not absurd signs. And thirdly we discover what they want to say.”
And what do they wish to say, these signs? The path to discovery and self-knowledge may be a long one; moments of ‘Eureka’ take inner work, particularly if what entered and was processed by our poetic memory was unpleasant and self-fragmenting. Derrida speaks about two processes of mourning; in ‘normal’ mourning, according to Freud, one “‘internalizes the dead’, one takes the dead into oneself, one assimilates them, one accepts the dead. In a mourning that does not develop naturally however, in mourning that goes wrong, there is no true internalisation; there is ‘incorporation’, whereby the dead are taken into us but don’t become part of us. They just occupy a particular place in our bodies. They can speak for themselves. They can haunt our body and ventriloquize our speech. So, the ghost is enclosed in a crypt, which is our body. We become a sort of graveyard for ghosts. A ghost can not only be our unconscious, but more precisely, someone else’s unconscious. The other’s unconscious speaks in our place; it plays tricks on us. It can be terrifying. But that’s when things start to happen.”
Sherman Alexie speaks to this when he addresses a legacy of genocide: “When people consider the meaning of genocide, they might only think of corpses being pushed into mass graves. But a person can be genocided — can have every connection to his past severed — and live to be an old man whose ribcage is a haunted house built around his heart. I know this because once I sat in a room and listened to dozens of Indian men trying to speak louder than their howling, howling, howling, howling ghosts.”
Richard Lloyd Parry, exploring the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, also finds that “Thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife.” He asks: “How could they all be cared for? Who was to honour the compact between the living and the dead? In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?”
Parry recounts the interaction between Reverend Kaneda, chief priest at a Zen temple in the inland town of Kurihara, and one of the spirits that haunted Rumiko Takahashi, a survivor of the disaster.
“The voice asked: ‘Am I alive or not?’ ‘No,’ Kaneda said. ‘You are dead.’ ‘And how many people died?’ the voice asked. ‘Twenty thousand people died.’ ‘Twenty thousand? So many?’ Later, Kaneda asked him where he was. ‘I’m at the bottom of the sea. It is very cold.’ ‘Come up from the sea to the world of light,’ Kaneda said. ‘But the light is so small,’ the man replied. ‘There are bodies all around me, and I can’t reach it. And who are you anyway? Who are you to lead me to the world of light?’”
An exorcism of ghosts may be nothing more than welcoming them to the light, to the surface, into our embrace and listening them into speech; that which lingers in our unconscious, that which moves us, often in inexplicable ways, how do we beckon it forth? If ‘the light is so small and there are bodies of other ghosts all around’; and what do we do when ghosts refuse our summons: ‘and who are you anyway? Who are you to lead me to the world of light’? they resist.
And what if finally, after struggle and years of inner work, ghosts emerge, are understood, integrated and given voice and if then, nobody listens, remains ambivalent or engages to silence? Jill Stauffer finds words for this experience: Ethical Loneliness.
“Ethical loneliness is the experience of being abandoned by humanity compounded by the experience of not being heard when you testify to what happened.”
Danielle Boissoneau, reflecting on Canada’s 150th birthday and years of genocide, colonialism and trauma, invokes Nanaboozhoo, an “Anishnaabe protagonist of legendary proportions” and their struggle with Windigo. Windigo, “monstrously tall and hideously lanky, hunched over from the weight of the rotten flesh hanging from the shadows of his bones… haunts Anishnaabek, feeding on fear, disconnection, and the lifeblood of the people.” Nanaboozhoo, she writes “defeated Windigo once, but only with the help of his fellow relations”; speaking to all Canadians, she writes,
“Nanaboozhoo lives in the small places inside all of us. We can all be champions of the people by living courageously, by exposing Canada’s intrepid Windigo design, by confronting Windigo and interrupting its narrative with our laughter, our love, our actions, and our nationhood.”
Exorcism of ghosts, be they Windigo in nature, haunting an entire population, or more benign forms of unexplored desires, affects or emotions that we struggle with individually, appears to require relationship. We are ‘Worldless’ without the other, writes Judith Butler. “For Buber,” she writes, “the I only knows its world because there is a you who has consciousness of that world. The world is given to me because you are also there as one to whom it is given. The world is never given to me alone but always in your company. Without you, the world does not give itself. We are worldless without one another”.
Relationship does not come easy, not always. Butler believes that what we may share with each other is a reality of precarity; an experience of existential vulnerability to the plays of chance and uncertainty. While this may inspire ethical relating, it may also entrench groups behind boundaries raised to protect and guard whatever piece of material or spiritual reality we feel somewhat in control over. Arnold and Amy Mindell have encountered entrenchment and ‘sat in the fire’ of conflict, engaging in what they refer to as Processwork.
They explain that the “primary goal of process oriented psychology is to follow and learn from what ancient Chinese philosophers called the Tao, by following the visible and subtle signals coming from people and events. This means respecting individuals, groups, and the environment, exploring reality and also the dream and essence levels of events, which often bring surprising solutions and resolutions to even apparently intractable situations.”
Amy writes that “Only when all aspects of an experience are unfolded with awareness does the wisdom embedded in the experience reveal itself most fully” to which Arnold adds, “Every time you ignore sentient, that is, generally unrecognized dreamlike perceptions, something inside you goes into a mild form of shock because you have overlooked the spirit of life, your greatest potential power.”
Their approach to community awareness work relies on an understanding that any given topic has at least three levels of consciousness associated with it: everyday reality, or consensus reality, Dreamland, and Essence or Common Ground.
Dreamland, “is the world of body signals and of ghosts and roles that people rarely see as themselves, but project outside into the world” they write in ‘The Deep Democracy of Open Forums’. We return to ghosts.
Sherry Marshall explains: “We say there is a ‘ghost role’ when something isn’t acknowledged or named. The ‘ghosts’ are the unrepresented figures, which are not being adequately spoken about. Process Oriented Therapy aims to bring these ‘ghosts’ into conscious awareness and dialogue.”
To bring a ghost role into conscious awareness is, for Arnold Mindell, to frame and name them, in order for them to be engaged in dialogue. Such roles may include ‘the heroine’, ‘the abuser’, ‘the parent who abandoned you’, ‘the first love’, ‘the mother’, ‘war’, ‘the oppressor’, ‘the savoir’, ‘the victim’.
As is wonderfully explored in ‘A General Theory of Love’, “Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” In other words, our early childhood experiences, much more so than our experiences later as adults, leave a mark, shape and continue to impact how we relate to ourselves and each other. Our experiences create attachments; we attach to particular ideas about life, about who we are, how the world works, what it means to be in relationship, how to relate to our emotions and inner life and so on. Nietzsche called it ‘Nachträglichkeit’, that which carries over/forward from the past into present moments and future projections, that which lingers, is sediment within us, to which Judith Butler challenges, “For the question of whether or not a position is right, coherent, or interesting, is… less informative than why it is we come to occupy and defend the territory we do, what it promises us, from what it promises to protect us. ”
In that our experiences are ours, our ghosts too, are personal.
“The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear”
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Haunted Houses
In that we are inextricably entangled with each other, our experiences are shared, and so our ghosts too, are shared. “A favorite image of the Haida people comes to mind: In some ways, we humans are like separate trees, standing proudly above the ground while our roots entangle indistinguishably beneath the ground” (Arnold Mindell, Deep Democracy).
Stated differently, “in a relationship, one mind revises the other; one heart changes its partner. This astounding legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love, as our Attractors [coteries of ingrained information patterns] activate certain limbic pathways, and the brain’s inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them” (A General Theory of Love).
Any everyday encounter, we may conclude, is much more complex than it appears and we can possibly imagine; what else when two worlds collide? We all act out and embody ‘ghost roles’ and live with ghosts that are at various stages of emergence from our unconscious to the ‘light’; we all have different relationships to our ghosts and some of our ghosts are rebellious and angry.
And yet, despite that it may be terrifying to exist as precarious beings, vulnerable to each other, only partly known to oneself, perhaps obscure to the world, whom else do we have but each other? Where and to whom else can we turn? It appears that, social beings who we are, with deep seated entangled desires for both autonomy and belonging, we have but one choice: sit in the fire; engage; listen, learn, work, love. “Vive les fantômes!”
In other words, “Learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. To live otherwise, and better. No, not better, but more justly” (Derrida)