Breath and Shadow

Breath and Shadow July 24, 2015


(Read Part One here: Ills That Need the Knife)


When on Euphrates’ swollen plain
First brother struck down brother in his blood
He cried for us to purge the stain
And from the brooding breast of dusky cloud
As trembling shook the towering pine
We scoured the wine-dark liquid from his hands.
‘Tis always so, for men believe
Through water’s power their guilt may be absolved
But every drop we bear conceives
A bloody record writ in scrolls of silt
Each guilt preserved in stony bed
Which at the final judgement shall be read.

(The rain spatters the windshield. Juvenal tries to drive it back but the right wiper flaps like a broken wing and the left one leaves long trailing streaks. Through the veil of water, it’s hard to see. The pounding on the roof could drive you mad.)

GERMANICUS. Juvenal? Earth to Juvenal. Come in.

JUVENAL. I’m here. I’m listening. I just didn’t hear what you said ’cause I’m trying to drive.

GERMANICUS. I was summarizing what I think is your position in rational terms. You seem to be saying that capital punishment is unacceptable because the state will inevitably abuse it. However, the murdered have a right to be avenged. Therefore the best system is to have vigilantes do the killing, and then have the state incarcerate the vigilantes for doing the right thing?

JUVENAL. Something like that. Ideally vengeance would become socially laudable but legally punishable, ’cause then a lot more people would be willing to take it on.

GERMANICUS. So basically you want to turn the legal system into a farce.

JUVENAL. Only if you assume that the purpose of the legal system is to punish wrong-doing. I’m taking the broader view that its purpose is to uphold justice. In my system, the avenger knows that in choosing to perpetrate vengeance he is also choosing to give up the rest of his life. He accepts that justice demands the sacrifice of the innocent. But he also acknowledges that no one can rightly choose to sacrifice an innocent man…unless that man is oneself. So the avenger offers himself up as a holocaust. The legal system doesn’t punish him, it simply presides over the offering.

CATULLUS. Does your avenger have any coherent motive? I mean, apart from vague intimations that he’s haunted by the Furies or guided by Apollo?

JUVENAL. Sure. Justice. The avenger believes in justice. He serves her and worships her for her own sake. I’m seeing this as kind of a vocation. Definitely not for everyone.

CATULLUS. I see. So only murders that happen to have been witnessed by this self-immolating priesthood of Nemesis can be justifiably avenged?

JUVENAL. The way I figure it is that in the afterlife murdered people wander around wringing their hands and frightening travellers on the road. They linger in hotels and clocktowers, and they wait. What are they waiting for? Justice. But not all of them. Some victims just seem to take it. Like you’re not gonna find Seneca moaning in the bath whenever there’s a full moon. Probably he figured “I’m off to stoic paradise, but Nero? He gonna be lookin over his shoulder for the rest of his life. Sucka!” Or probably sometimes a ghost figures it was a fair cop, they had it coming. Obviously there’s no point avenging those deaths. But I’m talking about cases where the murdered one lingers. Where he can’t get over it. Where it’s not just a matter of abstract principle, but of concrete compassion for a suffering soul. In those cases, my system would create opportunities for redress.

CATULLUS. So you’re envisioning kind of a mash-up between Ghostbusters and Unforgiven?

JUVENAL. Can you address my argument rather than just being snarky?

CATULLUS. Certainly. Suppose that ghosts aren’t really motivated in the way that you suggest. Suppose the ghosts of the innocent almost invariably move on, and that the ghosts that linger are the ones who can’t forgive because they’re consumed by wrath and guilt.

JUVENAL. Okay, so when Orestes is goaded on by the memory of Agemmemnon —

CATULLUS. A perfect example. Agemmemnon slaughters Iphigenia so that he can go off and burn down the neighbours. For ten years he’s off slaying Trojans and screwing Cassandra on the side, but he expects Clytemnestra to keep the home-fires burning and her legs closed ’til he gets home. A real piece of work.

GERMANICUS. Uh…guys…can I point out that this argument makes no sense unless ghosts actually exist?

CATULLUS. What do you mean, ‘unless ghosts actually exist’? Everyone knows they do.

GERMANICUS. That is patently untrue.

CATULLUS. On the contrary, it is a proven fact. Someone, I can’t recall who, did a study where people were put in a room with a simple game and were requested to self- report their success. Half of the people were told incidentally that a piece of furniture in the room belonged to a local ghost, and half were not. Those who were told the story did not cheat, those who were not told the story did. The point being that everyone believes in ghosts even those who are too stupid to realize it.

JUVENAL. It’s one thing to fear, it’s another to believe. I, for example, am scared shitless of god, but I don’t believe in him for a second.

CATULLUS. Well, they say “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” There may be hope for you yet.

JUVENAL. Don’t bet on it. Anyway, if Germanicus will permit me to articulate his position more intelligently and persuasively than he is capable of putting it himself: While it is clear that the experience of ghosts is widespread and common, they might be a purely psychological phenomenon. A projection that combines both the desire for confirmation that there is life after death, but/and/also our subconscious fear that there might be life after death.

CATULLUS. Psychological disorders are remarkably culture-bound, whereas ghosts are reported everywhere and everywhen.

GERMANICUS. Yeah, but the fear of death is pretty transcultural. So is the desire to be able to go on talking to the dead. Plus, different cultures have really distinct ways of imagining that their dead are still alive and of communicating with them. Rome had death masks. Egypt had mummies. Catholics keep relics of the saints.

CATULLUS. There’s a massive difference between the commemoration of the dead and ghosts. Ghosts aren’t physical. They’re felt, or perceived, or talked to entirely on a spiritual plane. People don’t make ghosts as a way of easing their grief. They perceive ghosts, and more often than not they’re frightened by them.

JUVENAL. You’ve seen one, I take it?

CATULLUS. Of course. And you, naturally.

GERMANICUS. Hey! This isn’t fair. You’re excluding me from the argument by appealing to occult knowledge that I can neither verify nor disprove.

CATULLUS. It’s a perfectly fair way of arguing. If I say “Giraffes have purple tongues,” and you say “No they don’t!” I have every right to bring up the fact that I happen to have seen a real giraffe, in the flesh, gnoshing leaves and licking its lips.

GERMANICUS. That’s a bad analogy. Everybody agrees that giraffes exist, so if you have first hand experience there’s no reason to doubt your evidence.

CATULLUS. Everyone agrees that ghosts exist except a skeptical minority. Non-belief in ghosts is just as dogmatic and arbitrary as geocentrism. It only appears otherwise because it’s a dogmatic position that happens to be in vogue.

GERMANICUS. Nobody is denying that people experience something that they believe to be “ghosts.” The difference is that the heliocentric universe could be confirmed by observable experiment, whereas the nature of ghostly phenomena is completely speculative.

JUVENAL. Alright. I’ll give you an experiment. (Juvenal wheels the car on to a side-road. The wheels churn up gravel. After about a hundred metres he abruptly brakes.) I believe that I can conjure up a ghost. I believe that it will be sufficient to convince you that they’re real. So come on, awhata’ya say?

[End of Part II]

Excerpted from Eros & Thanatos

Photo credit: Michele Amato

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