Ghosts

IN Ibsen’s drama, Ghosts, Mrs. Alving exclaims, “Ghosts! When I heard Regina and Oswald in there, I seemed to see ghosts before me. I almost think we’re all of us ghosts, Pastor Manders. It’s not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that ‘walks ’ in us. It’s all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us just the same, and we can’t get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light!”

It is with ghosts as with men: some are good and some are bad, — and the good die young. Modern pragmatism, with its steely and philistine science, has invaded shadow-land and massacred the innocents, the gentle and harmless credulities of childhood and ignorance; but the fiercer kind, the old man-eaters, still keep their caves and issue forth to raven among souls. The kindly fee-faw-fums of childhood, how many delicious shivers we owe them ; the Things that stood behind floors, that trooped into the church when the congregation went out, that lurked in closet corners and under the bed, that rustled and swished and creaked and tapped in the dim chamber when we lay awake at night! They have all gone — with Santa Claus. And we miss them, for fear is a condiment, like Cayenne pepper; a little is an excellent relish. The zest of war is its dash of fear, and men flee clubdom to hunt mountain lions, and sail the uncertain sea for that tingle of the nerves the solid earth cannot give; and those who hardly rise to these perils may read of them in The Three Musket-eers and Treasure Island. When we see how barren of the charm of awe is modern life, from the nursery, where they read science-primers, to religion, where they have banished the interesting devil, we almost envy the Spiritualists, those gourmets in palatable creeps.

And now for the deadlier revenants, those “dead ideas and lifeless beliefs” that yet walk, and chill and paralyze this garish world.

It is a curious and startling fact, that we are governed, not so much by real convictions, as by the ghost of dead convictions.

This is true in the great issues of our worship, our art, and our work; and descends also to the capillary details of our talk, our manners, and our dress. The enthusiastic soul of youth enters upon a world ruled by dead powers. It is the dead who live, and the living go about to do their will. Education, culture, and religion, for the most part are engaged in riveting the chains of ghosts upon us. Only here and there do a few perceive that true education, genuine culture, and the religion of Jesus should rescue us from this dumb dominion and give us life.

Let us begin with so trivial a thing as dress, in tracing the marks of ghost-fingers; and, avoiding the “ bromidic ” criticism of woman’s clothing, let us consider man’s attire, commonly supposed to be so rational. Why does the being we call a “ gentleman ” wear around his neck a band of spotless whiteness and unbearable stiffness, at his wrists similar instruments of torture, and before his chest a rigidly starched linen plate ? No one outside of a madhouse would call these articles of apparel agreeable. There is for the custom no reason at all drawn from comfort, hygiene, or usefulness. There is, however, the ghost of a dead reason. Once upon a time a “gentleman” was presumed to do no work, and he dressed to show it, by putting on these visible signs that he never soiled his hands, sweated his neck, or bent his noble back. It matters not that we no longer believe in this definition of a gentleman : we did believe it once; its ghost rules on. No man is bold enough to appear in society without this impossible harness. Only a professional humorist, like Mark Twain, or some one who wishes to pose as a mild lunatic, dares rebel. Addison said that the man who would clothe himself according to common sense would find himself in jail within a week.

Once gentlemen wore sword-belts and gauntlets: these have disappeared; but their ghosts still guide all tailors, and two useless buttons are invariably sewn upon each cuff, and two others at the back of the frock-coats, of all afternoon males.

Somewhere about 1753 a hatter named John Hetherington, of London, made and wore the first tall hat, now known as the silk, full-dress, plug, or stove-pipe hat. A horse saw him and ran away. The owner of the horse sued Hetherington, but lost his case, the judge doubtless holding that an Englishman has an unalienable right to dress as ugly as he can. One time there was a king who had a deformed knee; he abandoned the small-clothes which revealed the weakness of the royal leg, and took to long trousers. Hetherington and the king have long since gone to their reward, but their ghosts still ride civilized man, one at one end, and one at the other, from Paris to Tokio; and Lord-a-mercy! we dare n’t even laugh at the spectacle!

Let us now enter the schoolroom, and note the print of the dead hand on the youthful mind. The two studies which are emphasized as essential in most colleges are Latin and geometry. It is amusing to see the “reasons” gravely put forth by college professors for retaining these subjects in the curriculum. They feel some tremendous pressure, and, never dreaming that it is the strong gray hands of a ghost, they exercise their wits to the utmost to make their ghost propulsion seem the force of reason. As a matter of fact, there was at one time an excellent reason. Not so very far in the past, Latin and Greek were the only languages having a grammar or a literature. Hence to know Latin was naturally the mark of a scholar. It is needless to say that such a day is long past. There is a better body of English, French, and German literature now than the Latins ever had, and these languages have also their laws of accidence and canons of style. Any youth will be profited vastly more by studying Goethe, Molière, and Shakespeare, than by grubbing fossils from the quarries of Horace and Cæsar. But the difficulty with this argument is that it is simply real and alive; anil what chance does a poor living thing have in combating a venerable ghost? You cannot fight a ghost, your sword goes right through him. He does not argue, he just is—and there you are! Consequently we may expect yet many a year to send boys to study mummies as a training for dealing with men.

The case lies much the same with mathematics. We have hut to go back twm or three generations to find an era where the oidy exact science was mathematics. Our forefathers of the time of Cotton Mather did not study physics, geology, botany, zoölogy, and astronomy, because there were no such things; at least, none sufficiently definite to teach children. At that time a knowledge of mathematics, as of Latin, indicated the learned person. It is that old dead reason whose ghost still throttles the academic mind. It compels, and will compel, the suffering Wellesley girl to master her trigonometry as a part of her education. She might as well wrestle with chess problems or word-squares. But how shall plain sense grapple with a viewless monster of a dead reason that hath not body or parts ? Dead languages and mathematics linger as the vermiform appendix of our educational system.

When you approach politics you still hear the trailing garments of dead reasons. Why are the states so curiously shaped, with no possible relation to the character of the population, or to political or commercial utility ? Why does Rhode Island have as many senators as New York or Texas ? Why is one county in Illinois formed like a shoestring and another like a piece of pie ? There are no reasons, but there are perfectly effective ghosts of dead reasons.

Turn to the business world which we assume to be so practical, and take but a single instance out of many where the dead past persists in trammeling the future. Why are all railroads built on the standard gauge of four feet, eight and onehalf inches ? The makers of the first locomotives, according to Mr. H. G. Wells, thought only of putting their machines upon the tramways already in existence. “ And from that followed a very interesting and curious result. These tram-lines naturally had exactly the width prescribed by the strength of one horse. By mere inertia, the horse-cart gauge, nemine contradicente, established itself in the world, and everywhere the train is dwarfed to a scale that limits alike its comfort, power, and speed. Because there is so much capital engaged, and because of the dead power of custom, it is doubtful if there will ever be any change in this gauge. Before every engine, as it were, trots the ghost of a superseded horse, refuses to trot faster than fifty miles an hour, the limit of average speed with safety, and shies and threatens catastrophe at every curve. Still, it might be worse. If the biggest horses had been Shetland ponies, our railway carriages now would be wide enough to hold only two persons side by side, and would have a maximum speed of twenty miles an hour. There is hardly a reason, aside from this antiquated horse, why the railway coach should not be nine or ten feet wide, that is, the width of the smallest room in which people can live in comfort, and furnished with all the equipment of comfortable chambers.”

Perhaps our eyes have now become accustomed enough to the dark to enable us to see another and more terrible spectre, a certain grim and venerable shade, monarch of centuries, king of kings, to whom every year or so living men make a great feast of human flesh, who wrings tribute from the poor, and receives the homage of the proud; a huge polyp ghost, fat to bursting on blood and tears, stupid, serene, unshakable, with many long, pale arms full of suckers, winding about the throne, picking first-born morsels from the home, sucking treasuries, gobbling up peasants as a tapir swallows pismires, poisoning legislators till they go mad and vote him ships and men and money, secreting an inky stuff called patriotism that covers a nation of souls for him to eat at leisure; a merry ghost, as hell and destruction are merry, to the music of trumpet and drum; a handsome ghost, as harlots are handsome, with plume and color and glitter; a noble, kingly, majestic, most damnable ghost, the sum and plexus of all villainies — the ghost of Cæsar ! We swear lightly by him sometimes, as we profane the name of Deity or uplift to common speech the name of the Sunken One, and say, “ Great Cæsar’s ghost! ” Let us explicate this oath.

The traveler visiting Rome is wont to meditate upon its departed glory. Whereat the powers of the air laugh, for Rome never dominated the world in life as she has in death; Rome died merely in order to get a better clutch on humanity’s throat. The bronze and marble piled up by Hadrian to make his villa by Tivoli are swept away by the besom of time; the fragile syringa he brought from the East and planted there alone remains faithful to his memory. The Forum shows but a few gnawed bones of those buildings that once were the splendor of the whole earth; and before the huge and hollow-eyed Coliseum one might stand and apostrophize in the words a Frenchman wrote upon the shoulder-blade of a skeleton: —

Squelette, qu’as tu fait de l’âme?
Flambeau, qu’as tu fait de ta flamme ?
Cage déserte, qii’as tu fait
De ton bel oiseau qui chantait ?
Volcan, qu’as tu fait de ta lave ?
Qu’as tu fait de ton maître, esclave ?

But, alas! history shows us all too clearly what the skeleton of Rome did with its soul, and in what new channels runs the lava that filled this now cold crater. Hardly was life extinct in the visible empire when the soul moved like a hermit crab into the mediæval Church; for barbarians it hunted heretics, for the lost legions it substituted monks; for pillage, waste, and war-lust it found an admirable recompense in the Inquisition. The ghost of Cæsar infused itself into the idea of Temporal Dominion.

Even more tenacious has been the hold of Cæsar’s ghost in politics. There are two forms under which the idea of world-government presents itself: one, the dead notion of empire, the thing for which Cæsar stood, the very name of the man still clinging on in the words Czar and Kaiser, and the name of his idea remaining in the word Emperor; the other, the living idea of Federation. When we have come to understand the nature of ghost-rule we wonder no longer at some political phenomena otherwise absolutely incomprehensible. Why, for instance, does each nation now strive for the chimera of military preparedness ? Germany, England, and Japan levy an intolerable tax of money and blood to maintain their armies; the nations are in perpetual travail to bring forth battleship after battleship. A certain element in the United States urges billion-dollar fleets. If you go to the bottom of the reason of all this, you find no reason at all, or a silly one. For it is manifestly impossible for any one nation to conquer all the others. You ask yourself why one international fleet and army could not be supported, to be at the command of one international court, thus to settle all disputes and enforce all decisions. The answer plainly is that this question is mere living, mortal common sense, and hence a puny thing to put against the age-old, dead ghost-principle of empire. So the world runs down its darkened grooves; kings, kaisers, emperors, and czars strut about surrounded by gay cock-feather generals, and Tommy Atkins sells his birthright for a red coat ; yellow journals strive to fan a San Francisco school house quarrel into a conflagration of war; and the old polyp in his shadow-cave, having slept off his late gorge in Manchuria and the Transvaal, is licking his tentacles and feeling about for fresh food. When Campbell-Bannerman some time ago suggested a reduction of the armaments of the world, his words were received with good-natured gibes by the press of Europe; then great Cæsar’s ghost stirred and said, “I thought I heard the cock crow. But it was surely a midnight fowl. The dawn is yet far off.”

Those ghosts die hard, yet they too die. The Divine Right of Kings, in its dying spasms of 1793 and 1848, mangled many an innocent onlooker. The Divine Right of Property will doubtless the with not less deadly struggles; trusts and labor unions gird themselves already for the killing. It is a blind wrestling, neither party being aware that its real enemy is not the other, but the cruel arms of the dead past which seek to strangle both.

We enter, then, upon a hag-ridden world. Upon the pale brow of the schoolboy sit the ravens of Latin and Geometry, and when we would drive them away they flap their wings and croak, “ Nevermore! ” Ghosts make our clothes; the words we speak are not signs of our thought, but signs of dead men’s thought. The most cultured person is the deadest in manner. We go to church, not to pray, but to repeat dead men’s prayers. Artists, musicians, writers, fight their way through swarms of extinct ideas. Long gray arms reach out of the past and enfold the minister in the pulpit, and waving, hypnotize the occupants of the pews.

Viewless but potent monsters brood above the senate, and threaten any live being who may occupy the White House. Ghosts, ghosts, ghosts, thick as leaves, fall from the past to cover us, to smother us in their rotting mould.

Whoever cares for life must struggle. Strait is the gate to life, and narrow is the way, and few there be that find it. Obey, yield to the ghosts, and you get, not life, but a substitute for life. All around us are the dead, a numberless, walking host, whose laughter plays like foam upon its sea-murmur of sorrow.

Meantime there are souls who demand life at any price. Better scorn and isolation and to live my own life, than banquets and a pedestal and a soul sold to the Gray Ones. Better Gethsemane and the stigmata, with a flood of white life that surges up to submerge a cross, than the plaudits of dry, dead throats, incense from burnt enthusiasms, and at last a heartful of crushed convictions sunk under a mausoleum. These pilgrims emigrate, not from Southampton to Plymouth, but from the old world of inertia and its ghost-kings to the new world of individualism and soul-freedom. They sing a Marseillaise strange to the dream-wrapped world. They are drawn to the Nazarene by a weird new tie. They remember that the thing that slew Him was not badness but the organized power of Pharisaism, the ghost of a dead goodness. They note that He called his sheep “ by name,” one by one, and not in flocks; that He made no organization, but appealed to the unit; that his programme was no sort of scheme, absolutist or socialistic, but was like a lump of leaven hid in the meal; that He bade men let the dead bury their dead, and spoke insistently of life, life, life.