Saturday, September 21, 2013

Public and private ghosts

Ghosts on the beach’ by Francesco Ianett, Flickr (Creative Commons)

A while ago I was intimated by someone that you should not play with ghosts in some countries. Pop fiction teaches that there are ghosts creeping out of houses, possessing people with no warning and articulating collective fears with no remorse. A friend of mine who is a seasoned South Asian traveller pointed that Thai ghost stories have now made it to the cyberspace, acquiring personal websites and spreading stories  in as elaborate classifications as those one encounters in the world’s scariest bureaucracies. Likening ghosts to bureaucracy seems to be a surrealist pursuit but there are similarities between phantasms and bureaucrats: both fit a culture’s specificity into neat boxes for identification purposes. There is no ghost without home and no home without rooms designated to different people and social functions. But ghosts somehow manage to dominate the house and cast their shadow or their light upon everybody. Hence my likening of phantoms to bureaucracy: both are pursuers of impressions for mass consumption and they use classification and surveillance of humans and environs to achieve this effect.

So, are there ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ghosts? And why should this ghost-mania comprise the subject of a blog entry? The answer is emphatic and on the positive side: yes and it should. Note also that the answers I collected in my virtual journeys and collegial interrogations in digital networks did not put the subject to rest (or ‘tomb’ if you like this sort of thing). On the contrary, they suggested that we set aside fantastic Ringu plots (see Wikipedia and IMDB entries), and think instead of the multiple cultural backgrounds of such ‘ghostologies’ or ‘phantasmologies’ as gateways to deferred, delayed, failed or re-worked modernities. But since I mentioned a cult film, we might want to consider how new technologies interpellate anew, fashion and call into being old ghosts in new global sites, as well as who consumes these cyber and cinematic stories, how and why. Ghosts are always-already part of social group ‘hauntology’-as-ontology: they both possess collective imaginations and create collective ways of imagining the world.

All cultures have ghosts. It is a human need to think of an afterlife, where everybody gets ‘their dues’ and everybody’s soul transcends its bodily materialities. Brazilians cook the bones of their predecessors and drink the soup to be imbued with ‘good’ ancestral qualities. The Zulu cure their patients using a number of spirits, some general - such as ‘the water people’ who originally afflicted the person to ‘call’ them to their profession or ‘whistling spirits’. In Laos, but also next door in Thailand, spirits are a motor-force known as khwan but when one dies the khwan stops moving and decays. The vinyarn inhabits the same body but is the immortal personality subject to transmogrify – hence to move from a dead body to a new one (reincarnation). Only the khwan becomes involved in problems of the body and mind. Though this can be redressed by a ‘spirit doctor’ or a specific ritual only the actions of the individual can influence their path. Spirits are not to be confused with the bad ghosts that have become the subject of TV programmes and films. The same differentiation applies to Indian customs. In India spirits designate the life source, which gets our physical body moving. Ghosts are spirits that have escaped the body but have not been liberated from this world for various reasons, such as untimely death, unfulfilled desires or inability to disconnect from this world. And there are of course various vampires, including the vrykólaka or Dracula of the Balkans that colonised subjugated peoples like the ‘evil Ottoman Turks’ or the Lao (i.e. all Thai groups) phii dip, a gender-neutral nasty spirit that is nevertheless imagined as female by foreigners.

The transition however from ‘ghosts’ to ‘spirits’ parallels a folk rendition of established political divides between unwanted pasts lagging behind and dragging whole cultures down the drain of non-development, and spectacular Geistes or spirits that state machines nationalise and global capitalism markets to tourist visitors (remember the Thai website on ghosts). Celebrated by parades and national days, Volksgeistes or folk spirits can be equally domineering, turning into a form of heritage that demands ossification and repetitive display. Nevertheless even Volksgeistes mutate into public and private spirits: the public continue to glamorise national culture abroad but the private are demonised and demonic. Take for example one of my other investigations into evil female spirits. These have been the object of fascination across cultures, here asserting matriarchal hegemonies, there colluding with sexist cultural cosmologies. Such is the articulation of the hag or strìggla, the ancient woman in Arvanite and Greek folk cosmology whose soul is possessed by an evil spirit. Strìggles were believed to eat infant souls and many were rumoured to change into crows or enter the bodies of hens (see Vampire Chickens?).

In Greece the strìggla was also mobilised in literary representations of disreputable forms of heritage: a secular version of the strìggla appears in Alexander Papadiamantis’ novel I Fónissa (The Murderess, 1903), in which old Frangogiannoú is condemned to relive her past in her nightmares and victimize her own daughters’ children (whom she eventually murders).  Significantly, the anti-heroine dreams of and returns to the same places in an attempt to ‘recapture the past and obliterate time’ (Tziovas 2003: 91). Her attachment to Castro, the medieval fortress Skiathans (Northern Sporades Island) built to defend themselves from foreign invasions, becomes another allegory for tradition’s feminized introversion (Tzanelli 2011: chapter 4). Frangogiannoú kills herself on the rocks but her spirits lingers on the lives of her relatives – the ideal image of the family. Nations-families are scared of spirits that have lost their way and turned into ghosts, for they always come back to claim the family’s progeny – hence its unhampered continuation.

Next time you visit castle hills in Romania and Transylvania, swim in Thailand’s exotic seawaters, climb remote mountains in Greece, join ghost walks in UK or play voluntourist amongst the Hmong, scrutinise the stories of the tour guide against whatever local ghost itineraries you may retrieve. Ghosts-spirits are not there just to scare or entertain you but also to help you interrogate the cultural soil you tread, avoid its nasty holes and skip its dirty puddles. Tread softly and carefully, for few outsiders can distinguish between ghosts and spirits.  


Thanks to Ian Ball, Simeon S. Magliveras, Gerald Sack, Robert Cooper, Sylvia Davies, Prakash Kumar Rath, Anima Sharma for the animated discussions on ghosts and spirits. The information on ghosts that I present in this blog draws on our discussions but the views expressed should not be attributed to them.

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