News: don’t forget to listen to my interview with Penelope Lively this coming Tuesday (November 3rd) on the subject of ‘Home’.
THE KNOWLEDGE OF GHOSTS
(31st October 2015)
I had to do a rather barbarous thing and cut the quotation I used in this week’s Mail advice column, for reasons of space. Here is the whole thing – with the lines I used in italics.
On Hallowe’en the old ghosts come
About us, and they speak to some;
To others they are dumb.
They haunt the hearts that loved them best;
In some they are by grief possessed,
In other hearts they rest.
They have a knowledge they would tell;
To some of us it is a knell,
To some, a miracle.
They come unseen and go unseen;
And some will never know they’ve been,
And some will know all that they mean.
Eleanor Farjeon (English author 1881-1965)
I’ve always been fascinated by the Mexican festival The Day of the Dead, which is obviously linked to our Hallowe’en, or (as I prefer to call it) All Souls Day. I hate all the tacky, orange and black, ghoulish Hallowe’en merchandise in the shops these days, and prefer to meditate on the beloved dead, rather than on frightening ghosts. How wonderful that Mexican tradition lays a place for the departed at the dinner table, and that family members visit the graveyard to eat, drink and be merry, because one day (Lord knows) we’ll all be there.
This beautiful little poem is about the relationship between the living and the dead. Some people are terrified of death – and therefore of the dead. But others (like me) feel we can happily co-exist with the spirits of those who were once flesh and blood, but now achieve calm permanence within the memory of love. And I suppose I think that love is what the dear departed ‘know’ – although in ways I can’t begin to understand. The spirit cannot die – and the essence of spirit is love.
On the other hand, to those who are afraid of the dead, that very essence might be seen as something more malevolent. Or nothing at all, of course. – although to me that is a failure of imagination. The poem suggests there are no answers, but that surely that those who have faith will learn the lessons of life and death from those who have experienced both. I feel close to this – when sometimes I talk to my grandmother, and sometimes to my stillborn son…..
There’s a beautiful passage along these lines in the memoir ‘A Lie About My Father’ by that fine Scottish writer, John Burnside: ‘I remember why, in my part of the world, the living spend this day [Hallowe’en] building fires, so they can light them all at once, all over the darkening land, as night approaches. It’s not, as mere superstition says, that they are trying to frighten off evil spirits. No: the purpose of these fires is to light the way, and to offer a little warmth to ghosts who are so like us that we are all interchangeable: living and dead; guest and host; householder and spectre; my father, myself. One day we may all be ghosts and the ghosts we entertain will live and breathe again…’
If the ghosts remind us of the absolute urgency of living life to the full, then they serve a noble purpose, and should be welcomed on their special day.