The careers of ghosts

One of Ambrose Bierce’s most famous stories is “The Moonlit Road.”  Three narrators describe the same killing.  The third narrator is the victim, speaking through a medium.  Two of the victim’s remarks suggests that Bierce had worked out some sort of a theory about what it’s like to be a ghost:

Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are unrelated. We know this well, we who have passed into the Realm of Terror, who skulk in eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives, invisible even to ourselves, and one another, yet hiding forlorn in lonely places; yearning for speech with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as fearful of them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is removed, the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the spell — we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave tenderness and sympathy.

A bit later, she elaborates on this:

You think that we are of another world.  No, we have knowledge of no world but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight, no warmth, no music, no laughter, no song of birds, nor any companionship.  O God!  what a thing it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey to apprehension and despair.

A very similar theory seems to inform the lyrics of Lila Burns’ “Young Hearts, Young Minds.”  A contender for “Ukulele Video of the Year” honors at Al Wood’s incomparable Ukulele Hunt,  the song enlists our sympathies for those who are powerless to do anything but “float around town/ just sing out loud goin oo oo oo-oo oo-oo.”  Whether Lila Burns has read Ambrose Bierce or developed her conception of the afterlife independently I don’t know.

While I’m at it, I should mention John Zmirak’s recent Halloween essay.  Who likes Halloween?  Radical traditionalist Catholics, that’s who likes Halloween.  Zmirak expresses a measure of sympathy for anti-Halloween Protestants:

Some homeschooling friends of mine confessed to me that they felt torn over whether or not to let their son dress up and go trick-or-treating; their Protestant friends kept telling them that this holiday was pagan or even Satanic. And given their theology, you can see their point: The souls of the dead are either in Heaven — in which case they’re not walking the earth and need not be appeased, represented, mocked, or even commemorated, depending on which reading you give to the way we Catholics appropriated old pagan customs that marked this time of year– or else they’re in Hell, and not worth remembering.

Only if you believe in Purgatory, Zmirak argues, can you fit earth-haunting ghosts into the world of Christian imagination.  Zmirak gladly claims the Addams family as rad-trad Catholics.  “Indeed, I think I may have spotted several Addamses at the indult parish in New York City…”  He urges devout parents not to dress their little trick-or-treaters as saints, but to give them costumes that display the eerie and frightening parts of life that Halloween is meant to confront.  He does draw the line somewhere, though:

Now, I’m very much in agreement that two-year-old children should not be dressed as Satan. For one thing, it’s a little bit too realistic. Indeed, the fallenness of children, which Augustine bemoaned in his Confessions, is so evident to everyone that garbing the little tykes in the robes of absolute evil seems to overstress the point. Nor do we wish to trivialize the serious, deadly purpose of our infernal enemy — dragging each of us screaming to Hell. If you’re feeling puckish, it’s in much better taste to dress up your kids as Osama bin Laden, Annibale Bugnini, or some other of the Evil One’s lesser minions. If you must dress your boys as saints, choose military martyrs, canonized crusaders, or patriarchs from the Old Testament. One suggestion I made as editor of the Feasts and Seasons section of Faith & Family magazine was this: Dress up your daughters as early Roman martyrs, like Agnes and Agatha, and your sons as the Roman soldiers, gladiators, and lions that sent them to heaven. Stock up on lots of fake blood for the girls’ machine-washable tunics, and let the games begin! (Alas, this idea never saw print.)

Bierce grew up in Ohio in the 1840s and 1850s; his family and neighbors were staunch Calvinists.  One of his sisters was so committed to that faith that she went to Africa as a missionary.  She was never heard from again; many Ohioans thought that she had been eaten by cannibals.  Perhaps she was an inspiration for the cartoons magazines used to run showing pith-helmeted figures in great pots of boiling water.  Bierce himself was alienated from religion; at times he made a show of atheism, at other times he cultivated a reputation for the Satanic.  The God in whom Bierce did not believe was the God of Calvin.  When he turned his imagination to the supernatural, Calvinism would have been his starting point.  Perhaps the isolated, helpless, misunderstood ghosts of Ambrose Bierce and Lila Burns represent a stage in the decay of Calvinist theology, even as the Addams family and other products Zmirak endorses represent the current stage of rad-trad Catholicism.

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