One kind favor I ask of you...
Begin part 2 of 4
But before he could determine the question, though not the faintest motion of the air in this infinite waste of wasteless light was manifest, the door that he had left ajar behind him had, unperceived by Mr. Asprey, already begun to stir upon its hinges. There sounded a tiny click in the supreme silence. He turned his head. Too late, again! — the door was shut. And since between heaven and earth there followed not the remotest hint of an approaching kloop-kloop of hoof or muffled clatter of wheel, it looked as if he must be intended to walk. So he set out.
— Walter de la Mare, The House 1
A weight lifted: having submitted the first batch of words and seen them published, I can sally forth a little lighter in the saddle. And so much already half-thought, half-written sits waiting to be drawn from for these subsequent portions! Comfort in the first step taken, however haphazard.
Should I eschew metaphor, focus on discreet examples, avoid straying from the source, the text? Or else the opposite, get strange, meander.
Or do as I’ve done: hedge, try to do both, never really investing in either; trail off when convenient, change the subject when it becomes obvious an element is at loggerheads with the broader project. As if I can help it; onward.
13. Sweep my grave when I’m gone
Then first to the pilgrim’s gaze the steeps revealed their nakedness; — and a trembling seized him, — and a ghastly fear. For there was not any ground, — neither beneath him nor about him nor above him, — but a heaping only, monstrous and measureless, of skulls and fragments of skulls and dust of bone, — with a shimmer of shed teeth strown through the drift of it, like the shimmer of scrags of shell in the wrack of a tide. […]
“I cannot,” cried the pilgrim, trembling and clinging; “I dare not look beneath! Before me and about me there is nothing but skulls of men.”
“And yet, my son,” said the Bodhisattva, laughing softly, — “and yet you do not know of what this mountain is made.”
The other, shuddering, repeated: — “I fear! — unutterably I fear!…there is nothing but skulls of men!”
“A mountain of skulls it is,” responded the Bodhisattva. “But know, my son, that all of them ARE YOUR OWN! Each has at some time been the nest of your dreams and delusions and desires. Not even one of them is the skull of any other being. All, — all without exception, —have been yours, in the billions of your former lives.”
— Lafcadio Hearn, A Fragment
The sense that behind and before me are skulls of individuals terribly similar to myself. So much so that me having been, breathed, loved, lived, is ‘neither here-nor-there’. This is a nightmare which perhaps strikes especially hard those (self-?)charged with being among those that both consume and make. Are we trapped in a loop, endlessly repeating the same gestures? Or, at least equally terrifyingly, are we truly bringing the new into the world only to have it scuttled along with everything else in time’s relentlessness?
A practical joke by prank phone caller Longmont Potion Castle goes awry: having posted online a Super Nintendo at a low price he calls a thirteen-year-old named Tim who paged him. He is too late: Tim has already purchased a game system, yet the prankster persists (very much in keeping with his style), offering it for five dollars and fifty-nine cents should Tim manage to scrounge up the money (from his lunch money, trading his CDs or toys for the machine etc…) and make across town. Eventually, Tim is coerced into talking about his life and his general dissatisfaction:
[…] LPC: Do you like anything about school?
LPC: Do you like your parents?
Tim: Sort of.
LPC: What is about your parents you like and what is it
about your school you don’t like?
Tim: Many things.
LPC: What do you plan to be when you grow up?
Tim: I plan to be dead when I grow up.
LPC: How long from… how long… how long, until the final
day… or have you planned that far?
Tim: I haven’t planned that far… probably around 18, 21
LPC: When I was 14, I did not think I’d live past 20… and here I am, 75.
Tim: You are not 75 years old.
LPC: I don’t see why such a bright young man would want to end his life so soon…
Tim: I do.
LPC: Why is that?
Tim: Because nobody’ll miss me. […]3
Nobody will miss me us either, Tim. Not for long anyway. The world will barrel forth bearing neither our mark nor the noticeable void of our absence. These are childish concerns, or else, lifetime ones which at best goad one into making a difference and at worst undermine motivations, ambitions.
The title of an oft-covered folk blues tune “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” sung beautifully by Blind Lemon Jefferson among others, speaks to this desire — let something remain once I am gone, don’t forget me. Having died of an uncertain cause in Chicago, Jefferson’s remains found themselves nearly just that — forgotten, taken back to Texas and interred in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery.
By 1996, the cemetery and marker were in poor condition and a new granite headstone was erected in 1997. In 2007, the cemetery’s name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery, and his gravesite is kept clean by a cemetery committee in Wortham, Texas. 4
Yet the actual location of his burial will forever remain lost. And despite the late coming pride in the man, the new headstone, engraved with the lyrics
Lord, it’s one kind favor I ask of you
See that my grave is kept clean
cannot help but point by exclusion to the countless other black people buried thereabouts, forgotten, lost to neglect, unmissed. This weird intervention of abstract human desire and the ambiguity between personal narrative and song lyric briefly escapes into the specific, physical world only to leave us with an unforgivable void. “[…] The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.” 5
There’s no such thing as a ghost, not really anyway. Yet it is insufficient to classify ghosts or the supernatural as real or unreal. On the one hand, no, there is no afterlife, no strange way port between some specific beyond and the world of the living which, should one find one’s self there, leaves a crack open through which contact can be made with those still breathing. Once one is no longer alive in the material world there is no method (however clumsy) of interacting with matter — turning on an unplugged TV, shaking a chair, making the air hot or cold in a specific spot in a house etc. Death brings the you that does things to an end, full stop.
Okay, but how should we balance truth against an obstinate idea? Given there is no afterlife, there is no such thing as a ghost. Sure, yet the afterlife resists so quick an internment — there is most certainly such a thing as a ghost, if only in the form of a persistent concept, an ancient meme of sorts, resistant to the slings and arrows of either science or logic. Ghosts as an idea are very much real — few if any cultures lack some form of spirits or ghost. Technological and social advances may have quelled some of the more extreme reactions to the supernatural (witch trials, etc.) but ghosts and their ilk remain a constant presence. An overused line seems relevantly paraphrased here: were ghosts not real it would be necessary to invent them.
When thinking about this subject it is the persistence of the concept across time which draws me to working in this way, digging through my memories of media and reading new-to-me works in an attempt to draft something which may serve as a basis for further investigation. 6 Which in a roundabout way brought me to Casper.
The first appearance of Casper, in The Friendly Ghost (1945), adapted by Bill Turner and Otto Messmer from an original story by Joseph Oriolo and Seymour Reit and directed by Isadore Sparber, begins with a narrator describing how
There are some people who believe in ghosts, and there are some people who don’t. If you are the ‘believe in ghosts’ kind, then, this story is about one. If you are the ‘don’t believe in ghosts’ kind… well, this story is about one anyway. 7
I’m of the latter kind; these texts are about them anyway.
In the world of these cartoons, being a ghost is an occupation/identity, distinct from whatever preceded being a spirit. But while Casper’s fellow ghosts enjoy the art of scaring the living, Casper is different, he “would rather stay home and not frighten people” — he’d rather make friends.
The three original shorts share roughly equivalent narratives. In each, the ghosts awaken (by moonlight, after midnight, etc.) to go scare the populous and Casper ignores a fellow ghost imploring him to join the general frightening. The ghosts spread out to terrify and Casper wanders off to try to meet people, and to forget that he’s a ghost.
He runs into a number of animals in each cartoon in his attempt to make friends – a rooster, a mole, a cat and the mouse it is chasing, a cow, a skunk, a turtle, a pelican (and the fish in his mouth), a flock of nesting ducks. He scares them all; Casper: “It’s no use, I’m just a scary old ghost.” He is so dejected that in the first cartoon Casper puts himself on a train track to commit suicide (to no avail — the train rolls right through him). 8
In each, he meets someone not afraid of him, a young boy and girl, named Bonny and Johnny, a fox, and a duck and they become quick friends. Someone threatens the new friend(s), but upon seeing Casper they are scared away. In The Friendly Ghost (1945), unafraid Bonny and Johnny bring Casper to a very alarmed mother who does her best to shoo away the ghost. As he is leaving, dejected, a banker comes asking for payment of the mortgage and threatening foreclosure. Casper frightens him to the point he rescinds all claim on the property. 9 In the second and third shorts, the threats are hunters and their dogs (fox and duck hunters respectively).
It is not enough to wish to not be alone — some other must accept one’s invitation to friendship; that anyone will do so is not a given. The third short, A Haunting We Will Go (1949), begins with Casper in a school for ghosts, the chalkboard covered with clever slogans such as, “Boo unto other as you would have other boo unto you,” “Fright makes right,’ and “I will Spook when spoken to.” Not going with his classmates to scare the populace, Casper unsuccessfully engages a bevvy of animals, remarking finally “I might as well be dead, nobody wants me for a friend.” 10
Casper suffers from an excess of kindness and a desire to be around people — symptoms quite different from those typical of a ghost. I’m reminded of the Osamu Tezuka manga and anime character Unico. 11 A small, terribly cute unicorn, Unico is banished by the gods for bringing too much happiness — happiness which rivals the gods’ own ability to shape the whims of mankind. The West Wind, charged with getting rid of Unico, shows pity and does her best to hide the creature. Unico wanders the forest, approaching animals and trying to befriend them (“Hi! I’m Unico! Will you be my friend?”) Eventually those around Unico learn various lessons about kindness and its lack, but the intensity of his power is not without victims. In the second feature film, Unico in the Island of Magic (Murano, 1983) there is an evil magician, Lord Kuruku, who has taken it upon himself to rid the world of people, turning them into “living puppets,” golem-like stone figures which then walk to Kuruku’s castle to become its bricks — a castle made of people. Kuruku was once a marionette which eventually broke and was thrown away. One way or another, Unico ends up facing off with him and it is Unico’s boundless ability to love which wins the day — after a lengthy battle, Unico declares his fondness for Kuruku, his wish to be friends, his understanding… Kuruku is defeated; it was his hatred of mankind that was keeping him alive. The violence of unfettered love upon someone more complicated — one can only wonder what fate Casper’s banker would have met had Casper been given the time to properly attempt to make his acquaintance.
…the subject described reaches up — pinned to sterile table, fluids replaced with a preservative colored as to imitate blood all sanguine and true — and takes the scalpel and makes an incision through which the describer’s insides come wrenching outward all warm and indistinct.
There is something. Sitting betwixt pinky and the finger next to it. Underneath the skin.
A band of under-twenties is playing something mistakable for heartfelt jazz at the bar. Usually confining themselves to mellow standards and covers of pop tunes (that easy pleasure of the moment of recognition — it’s The Cure, it’s “Superstition”), for this song they’ve drifted into some more challenging Miles Davis territory, are getting kinda free with it. Afraid of offending anyone my headphones are off, at least until they finish this set. My beer is cold, it’s a reasonable facsimile of an Indian summer evening. Everything seems a version, pastiche.
And there is this thing beneath my skin. I looked it up: excoriation (or dermatillomania and several less official-sounding terms) — the repeated urge to pick at one’s own skin to the point that damage is caused. I’ve most certainly this, relatively under control but here, with this thing, too hot, over-jazzed…
A cursory search nets nothing: I couldn’t find a word for the pleasure felt when fluid is pressed out of one’s body. An abscess, acne, a spider bite… all give a certain pleasure.
It is not unlike a small ball bearing, right there at the knuckle. Loose, affixed neither to the skin or whatever lies beneath at that juncture. A human pearl.
18.Eid ma clack shaw
One of the first tracks shared from the 2009 album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle by Bill Callahan was the curiously titled “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”. In it, two dreams escape the night’s reverie, shaking free of the line between fact and fiction, present and past, present and wished-for present.
Working through death’s pain
Last night I swear I felt your touch, gentle and warm
The hair stood on my arms — how, how, how?
Show me the way, show me the way
Show me the way to shake a memory
Show me the way, show me the way
Show me the way to shake a memory
I flipped my forelock, I twitched my withers, I reared and bucked
I could not put my rider aground
All these fine memories are fucking me down
I dreamed it was a dream that you were gone
I woke up feeling so ripped by reality
Love is the king of the beasts
And when it gets hungry it must kill to eat
Love is the king of the beasts
A lion walking down city streets
I fell back asleep some time later on
And I dreamed the perfect song
It held all the answers, like hands laid on
I woke halfway and scribbled it down
And in the morning, what I wrote, I read
It was hard to read at first but here’s what it said:
“Eid ma clack shaw zupoven del ba
Mertepy ven seinur cofally ragdah”
“Eid ma clack shaw zupoven del ba
Mertepy ven seinur cofally ragdah”
Show me the way, show me the way
Show me the way to shake a memory […]
The first verse involves a lost love. Whether via death or as a result of infidelity by either of the couple, estrangement is real, painful. His hair stands on end — horripilation — this and other expressions mark our body as a result of stimuli regardless of conscious efforts to ignore, look past, forget. 12 Once awake, the present is hard to accept in view of the fictive alternative. Callahan gives a metaphor in which he is a horse and this subconscious will/construction is a rider he is unable to toss. Love is something which surpasses human agency. When invoked (accidentally or otherwise) its whims defy control, defy the finality provided by death.
Death seems like a prank perpetrated by the world. Humans, so intent on imbuing themselves with devotions grand and mundane, can be met without warning by a demise which lays waste to any such purpose. Death invokes a purposelessness — yet this is surmountable, as it is almost inevitable that those left behind will regain the resolve to carry on.
In the second verse, a dream provides an eureka moment — the perfect song, which the narrator quickly jots down upon awakening. But once again the dream world has played something of a prank: reading back his half-awake scribblings, he realises it is essentially gibberish. Maria Fusco, discussing the art object in terms of a riddle, notes: “Criticism can cajole objects to speak, but we must be prepared to accept that these very same objects may only be able to answer us in riddles.” 13 Likewise, inspiration may very well provide enigma.
The process of making this text is not dissimilar: I read, watch, taking bits and pieces and cutting them into various documents with various notes, half ideas or reasonings peppered throughout. But this past me has played a joke — upon opening the documents in a folder set aside for this project, some of them defy any logic. I have no idea what I meant, why I copied a specific quote, what I meant by my interjections, etc. These documents get reopened now and then to see if these communiqués might not be deciphered; some texts find their way into the final work while others lay discarded, written by the sphinx-me of the past.
And there are times when the words come pouring out regardless of my access to a device or materials to record them. I stand in the shower or on a crowded train and suffer ideas one after the other, tripping over each other to foreground themselves.
Where do I sneak in that bit of Lil’ Wayne’s verse on Solange’s “Mad”:
Are you mad ’cause the judge ain’t give me more time?
And when I attempted suicide, I didn’t die
I remember how mad I was on that day
Man, you gotta let it go before it get up in the way
Let it go, let it go
Or the fragment “Look up ‘restorative justice’.”
There are bits that, however disjointed, feel strangely necessary to say long enough that I’ll insert them, pretending they’ve enough weight to remain earthbound (as opposed to disappearing, floating away). The following splits the difference between useless and completely unavoidable:
If there were ghosts I’d wish them access to who I am.
So many lies buttress the day-to-day. Oversights, purposeful omissions, misrepresentations — we mistell, mar otherwise sincere and true relationships with our self-design.
Were I to be damned let me be so by truth.
As if my bones’ve fused; why else do my missives to muscles fail to stir limbs? I can look down across my blanketed form at my body, laid haphazardly before me. Why won’t it stir, not a twitch, my breath (assuming still pulsing) not enough to press the covers noticeably upward. Even my eyelids resist — I’d love to close my eyes tight and scream inwardly “WAKE UP” or, alternatively, “GO BACK TO SLEEP,” but alas they refuse. Only changes the bit of dawn light easing from tone to tone across it all, the temperature gradually rising…
That thing: like a word read but never said: exeunt.
- De La Mare, Walter. Best stories of Walter De La Mare. London: Faber & Faber, 1983.
- Hearn, Lafcadio. In ghostly Japan. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1899.
- The call continues; eventually the kid’s father joins the call. The collapse of someone being entirely ridiculous and false with something so terribly real is hard to believe her. Give a listen. Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJ7txuDfSHA Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9W9CWFtTflc
- From the wiki on Blind Lemon Jefferson. There are a large number of blind blues musicians including Sonny Terry, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Mammie Forehand, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie Forehand, Blind Blake, Blind Rosevelt Graves etc. The concurrence of so many blind individuals in an artistic field is hard to explain; the simplest answer would be a virtuosic performance is all the more noteworthy from someone with a disability however distanced from the skill presented the disability is. This seems unsatisfactory, as does any idea that blindness makes the blues more acute. We're left with the enigmatic, coincidence. The wiki on blind musicians is worth perusing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_musicians
- Kafka, Franz. The basic Kafka. New York: Pocket Books, 1979. An edition published when I was one and my father eighteen. Though he’d eventually lose himself to a combination of religion and politics, my dad had some good books, typical of a kind of fledgling thinking man of the late seventies — a vintage book of Poe’s poems, a collection of pulp copies of Herman Hesse’s books and this Kafka pocketbook (blue with thin green, red and gold stripes on the right side of the cover). In my preteens I’d sneak them away to read; the ideas in these slip into any attempts to think hard about things to this day and I suspect always will.
- It is easy to imagine this or any number of false starts I've made eventually making up something of an introduction. Addicted to a hedge between deeply considered (by deeply I mean over the course of many half-awake mornings, showers, train rides) sequences of ideas and other portions improvised while sitting staring at the page, it's hard to say where this will begin and/or end.
- Credited as I. Sparber a.k.a. Isadore “Izzy” Sparber, who produced nearly 400 cartoons after a long period of going uncredited for his work.
- This second-level wish for death is a novelty I'll try to explore later. Primarily a humorous device, it also serves to highlight the fecklessness of the undead and the anguish this causes, along with the imposition upon ghosts of living-human feelings — a kind of zoe/ero-anthropomorphism.
- The mom seeing this is thankful, and lets him be part of the family. Bonny, Johnny and Casper head off to school together in typical school clothes; it is hard to imagine his attendance going well. That the filmmakers choose to place bankers in the same category re: humans that hunters are re: hunted animals is telling.
- On par with Casper’s oddly sad and funny attempted suicide, this desire for death by the dead is primarily an ironic device on the part of the writer simultaneously using and mocking our imposition on others, whether they are inanimate objects, animals, or the dead, of our zoe/ero-anthropocentrism. An envisioning of the death-wish as a wish for specifically a death in an atheist universe of death-finalism.
- The Unico cartoons are obscure, yet at one time they leaked into the world via a home video release (when all kinds of material was being scrounged up to fill the video store aisles) and a presence on the nascent Disney Channel. They are terribly good — as are all the Sanrio-backed cartoons of the eighties. I recommend the dark "there's no going home" narrative Ringing Bell (Hata, 1978) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boNEUjQbGvg
- Horripilation — I’ve failed to find a word for a very particular linguistic experience: a word’s roots lead to its spelling but also seem to hint at its eventual meaning. Horripilation accidentally/incidentally implied horrification, the process of being horrified, but in actuality has nothing of the sort underlying it.
- Fusco, Maria. "Say who I am: Or a Broad Public Wink." Circa Art Magazine, October 8, 2010.