A Speculative Spectrality
In a world with much jostling and grinding daily, one can easily overlook the older anxiety that concerned itself with ‘bumps in the night’. Of late, however, several nocturnal images have appeared that attempt to suggest that these our latter days are not fully free of our ancestors’ imaginations as well as, perhaps, their fears. Though the images reproduced here presumably could have been faked – and we also presume most persons would simply presume that they have been so – the question that remains is why such imagery? This is not a question about why would someone fake an intriguing image, but specifically, why this kind of image, one that purports to represent either ethereal beings or creatures ‘unknown to science’, to use an antiquely appropriate period phrase.
The first image, which one would think was a vintage doll of some kind – though the deer seems transfixed by its presence; perhaps the doll was sprayed with an attractive scent – represents a ‘ghost’ or spirit. The use of a child is meant to promote a willing sympathy, a female child a sense of vulnerability or yet incompetence. If such a child were really lost in the woods most persons would attempt an immediate rescue. But how do you rescue a ghost? And from what? Having suffered the most grievous crisis known to mortal being, what more could have befallen her? And from such questions, however rhetorical, comes the more pressing question: what is to happen to us? What, in other words, is the meaning of my death?
It is to this existential anxiety that such images seek address. Not in any abstract manner, since the doll or whatever it may be represents a singular vision and, along with the other creature, an alternative to known beings. I am neither a child nor female, and I am from our own time, when girls are not normally dressed in such vestments. If the first image is anything, it is personal. Even if it is a material fraud, we are forced to identify with its spiritual implications. We know there have been those who have passed before us. Into what? Where? Or if nowhere, what is the zero character of nothingness? We know we too will pass before our youth, other things being equal, and thus we also have already seen, in life, our own autobiographical youth pass before us. I doubt I’ll end up lost in the woods, ethereally incarnated in some regressed form. Indeed, those were the halcyon days of my childhood, wandering in the woods, unmolested by anyone or anything, long before deer cams were invented. Given that, if each of us tends towards their own paradise, an eternity on the beaches and in the forests of my homeland awaits me.
Seeking attention in life, creating a sensation, committing a prank just for the sake of it, are some humanly material activities that the advent of digital communications have augmented. In the day of the proposed child in the image, a campfire story would be the result of a chance encounter with the unexplained or yet-to-be more lucidly understood. These are minor expressions of the basic will to life that mortal being accrues over that very life course.
But what if what animates this questioning consciousness also has its own evolution? What if the existence of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ were not at all perennial but rather a ‘secular trend’? This phrase, a term from evolutionary biology, refers to factors which influence the adaptation of regional populations, such as sickle cell anemia. Here, let us propose a species-wide secularity, one that separated us from our more indirect hominid ancestry. We know, for instance, that memorial rites date from the earliest period of anatomically modern human’s existence, some three hundred millennia ago, first discovered, I think, in Anatolia. Durkheim suggests that the work of mourning is the origin of all human memory. In recalling those now passed to themselves, early humans, our most ancient direct ancestors, had made the connection between existence and its trademark conscious and acting life. What they did not do was to extend that logic to non-existence. Instead, ‘inexistence’ was imagined as being the other state into which being could enter pending the completion of materiality. We do not know any details of the thinking of these first fully human beings. It is something we can never know, and in that, this absence of the origin of thought mirrors the absence of thought’s ends. Just as we cannot experience our own deaths, yet we must experience the abstraction of death through the lives of others who confront it before we ourselves must. Both the beginning and the end are obscure to us. We do not choose to be born and, in any general sense, we also do not choose to die.
If the spirit exists – this is a different, though obviously related, question to that of whether or not ‘spirits’, like the ones purported to be in the images in question, exist – its existence is something that should mirror our understanding of how we ourselves exist, since our spirit is said to be the very essence of our being. Humans are an evolved creature, like all others of which we know. Each part of our complicated and holistically interacting systems has evolved, in current understanding, ‘directly’ for something over seven millions of years. We, perhaps with some vanity, attribute to humanity a soaring spiritude, something that is complex and evolved, however mature it has become or may yet become. Such an ‘organ’, such an aspect of being which partakes of evolutionary Being, could very well have a lengthy pedigree, which might also include other states. Yet if one’s own spirit develops as does one’s own body, then we truly cringe at the possibility – not necessarily ever captured by technology – that a child’s soul, cut out of its living mass before its time, wanders alone and lonely across the exsanguinated expanse of an anonymous world.
Such imagery that sources itself in our existential questions has a unique, even uncanny power. It is this that we react to, if such haunting or poignant pseudo-portraits give us the spine-tingling moment of sudden self-recognition. If it were the case – and we must remind ourselves that there is no empirical evidence either way regarding such mysteries – that not only the spirit exists but also develops and continues, then we too as living spirits must seek to undertake our own ends. By this I mean that we not only should be prepared to risk our current comprehension of the cosmos in order to widen our conscious aperture, but we should also begin to critically entertain the ancient idea that though there can be nothing larger than life whilst life exists, that there may be more to life than our extant life is willing to admit to itself.
Without dwelling on the phantasmagorical, the most searching interrogative that such imagery confronts us with is the ethical question of the character of our existence as it is known. How do we live and why do we do so in this way? What is the meaning of my existence, and why do I generally avoid asking such a question? The proposal that we may be more than we can know can be taken quite literally, and without resort to other states or ideas of an afterlife. We each of us is indeed more than we merely have been. The pressing and rather material question concerning whether or not we can be that being, the being of the future and not of the past, is quite simply the most important question of our shared existence.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.