< i'm hopeful about ghosts

10/29/18 (02:07)

I don’t think anyone is floored when they’re told that someone they know keeps secrets from them. We are at times disappointed in or taken aback by the secret itself, but the idea that what you see is not necessarily what you get, even with those people closest to you, is accepted, if unliked, and by this implicitly we also accept that there are avenues to connection that do not involve total honesty. Beyond that, that no such perfect avenues exist. People do not embrace this idea because, besides paling over the comforting idea that close friendships are by definition stable friendships, it also rocks our ill-fated hope that we can 'truly' know anyone (i.e., know someone on merit of truth alone). It all fogs up the process. But there's still things we just can't say to people. Or secrets that, once said, engender more secrets. Uncertainty. Lies to ourselves. Ambiguity. This new interpretation appears to replace our thoughts with bad, utilitarian qualifiers like, that one can know someone well enough for all intents and purposes, or for the time being, or for the situation at hand. No one sleeps easy.

What is less flooring, because it sits weird in the lexicon of emotional labor, scanning less immediately, is that, beyond secrets, the distance between people is tenoned by misunderstanding and projection—what someone sees and thinks about another person slips off or misaligns with what that person thinks of themselves. And this virtualization of someone one knows, the increasing schism between what they think of themselves, and what someone else projects onto their body, can distend badly, uglyly, into forms scarcely recognizable as relationships. But it is a source, also, of innate, creative power.

In the past month I’ve had to read a good thirty short stories on ghosts in East Asia, most of them about young, male scholars who, visited by a female ghost in the dead of night, as they study dutifully, are compelled (a stretch) to sex and concomitantly their doom. Death becomes bureaucracy, gender asserts itself mechanistically and forcefully. But underneath all of this is the idea of the ghost—that which was thought gone but now returns—and on top of it all is that the reader of the tale, when the protagonist peeps through a crack in the wall, is coerced to follow and become their gaze. We become them and share their fear, or hope, or anything. And so it is no great mystery that when we stop talking to someone we know, it is called ‘ghosting.’ They are still present, as are we, and this presence is predicated on retention of the ability to see that which has gone, and for it, in some ways, to return, however attenuated, however against our wishes. Through how long of chains of observers do we watch the people we don’t talk to anymore?

In a short tale from Ueda Akinari’s Ugetsu Monogatari (“The Reed-Choked House”), the focus is, however, not on the return of the ghost. A husband and wife separated by war meet finally when the husband returns; seven years have passed. He finds her, miraculously, still alive in their home, which is still intact amid rubble and overgrown fields. They share their stories through the night but, when the man wakes up, his house is rotten, roof gone, yard choked with tall grass, and the burial mound for his wife is beside him, along with a note in her hand. The ghost is gone before it had the chance to be anything.

What is strange about this story is that it is about memory itself, rather than any one repression: about how time can pass like nothing. It is also about the sustenance provided by a ghost, why we seek the dead after they die, even if the pain the man felt upon waking was the worst he’d ever felt. The two were illusory to each other, the woman dead, and the man having been gone and away for seven years that he himself could barely remember. They constructed lives for each other: futures, conversations, poetry, reasons to live. They held secrets but it is unclear about what, or for how long, or why. I do not pretend to have an answer about why it is sometimes people are in our life and sometimes they are not, but the process is less simple than it seems, and driven as much by fear as forgetfulness or longing or pain. We live in halls of mirrors whose corners glint so many people who we cannot remember, hard as we try, as they were. And this is not based around secrets. Secrets are just the little things we worry about late at night, or hope we had because they are seen as valuable. They are tally marks for the dead, to be collected. The sustenance, the comfort, or the horror, are instead those manifold paths through objects, places, and other people along which we get a picture of what was, and what might still be. Movement at the end of a hallway, maybe. A stirring. It is both happy and sad.

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