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The Ghosts Are Laughing

The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel, 1493
Art Resource
The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut from the Liber Chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel, 1493

Has the convergence of Halloween and a presidential election ever seemed so apt? Is there anything more frightening than seeing Trump’s orange mop tousled by Jimmy Fallon? Has the ridiculous ever been so closely aligned with the horrific?

Some two hundred years ago, Coleridge had already zoomed in on the linkage. “The terrible, however paradoxical it may appear, will be found to touch on the verge of the ludicrous,” he remarked in his lectures on Shakespeare. “Both arise from the perception of something out of the common nature of things, something out of place.” Coleridge’s prime example was the appearance of the ghost in Hamlet:

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

Poe was surely thinking of Coleridge when he appended (under an alias) an introductory note to “The Raven,” the greatest of all Halloween poems, and singled out for praise “the curious introduction of some ludicrous touches amidst the serious and impressive.” Poe explicitly introduced humor into the “grave and stern” theme of the possibly undead lover Lenore, amid a riot of internal (and patently ludicrous) rhyming:

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
                                                         Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

The proximity of horror and humor, as Scott Bruce makes clear in his new anthology, The Penguin Book of the Undead, long predates Shakespeare; selections from Hamlet are merely his most recent examples of “fifteen hundred years of supernatural encounters.” “In most cases,” Bruce notes reassuringly, “the souls of the recently deceased made the journey to their subterranean realm (Hades) without any trouble, but certain kinds of death agitated the soul, causing it to linger on the threshold of the world of the living as a ghost.” Foremost among such unquiet dead were suicides, or those killed and left unburied on the battlefield or in shipwrecks.

The earliest instance of a ghost in European literature, according to Bruce, is Elpenor. If you don’t remember Elpenor, you’re hardly alone. His own shipmates couldn’t remember him either. The youngest member of Odysseus’s crew, he was (in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation) “no mainstay in a fight nor very clever.” One of the victors at Troy, he is not even mentioned in the Iliad, one of the countless ordinary warriors caught up in the mayhem engineered by their bombastic, self-pitying generals. Elpenor means “hope.” This is one of several jokes Homer makes at his expense.

When, shamed by his men, Odysseus tells the seductive sorceress Circe (or Kirke) that it’s time to leave her enchanted island, she gives him bad news: “Home you may not go/unless you take a strange way round and come/to the cold homes of Death and pale Persephone” to hear the wisdom and advice of Tiresias. The next morning, he rouses his crew and all set sail for the land of the dead. All, that is, except Elpenor.

And this one, having climbed on Kirke’s roof
to taste the cool night, fell asleep with wine.
Waked by our morning voices, and the tramp
of men below, he started up, but missed
his footing on the long steep backward ladder
and fell that height headlong. The blow smashed
the nape cord, and his ghost fled to the dark.

The scene is doubly heartbreaking: first, because Elpenor is the kind of kid who’d go up on the roof to see the stars, rather than join in the macho misbehavior of the rest of the riotous crew; and second, because no one notices his absence.

It is only when Odysseus reaches the land of the dead and pours the blood of sacrificed sheep into a ditch—the prescribed rite of necromancy, or summoning the dead—that he learns the fate of his overlooked comrade. “One shade came first—Elpenor, of our company,/Who lay unburied still on the wide earth.” Odysseus can’t resist another joke:

                                                “How is this, Elpenor,
how could you journey to the western gloom
swifter afoot than I in the black lugger?”

It was, evidently, the absurdity of Elpenor’s death, the way it combined the tragic and the ludicrous, that explained in part his curious appeal to later writers. When Virgil, in his own epic, named his Elpenor counterpart Palinurus—his name meaning, according to one of Martial’s epigrams, “the incontinent one,” or “he who urinates again”—he was playing with the same paradox. Cyril Connolly adopted Palinurus, Aeneas’s hapless ship-pilot who apparently falls asleep on the job and drowns, for his penname in his own elegy for World War I, The Unquiet Grave. Undone in his quest for literary greatness by what he called the “enemies of promise” (like journalism), Connolly saw himself as a similar figure of ridicule: “Palinurus clearly stands for a certain will-to-failure or repugnance-to-success, a desire to give up at the last moment, an urge toward loneliness, isolation, and obscurity.”  

Also among Elpenor’s descendants is the ironically named Eutychus, “good fortune.” In the twentieth chapter of Acts, Eutychus falls asleep on a window sill while listening to a midnight sermon by St. Paul, and falls three floors where he is “taken up dead,” only to be revived (and presumably embarrassed) by Paul, who “went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him.” There is some debate among scholars about whether Eutychus actually died and was miraculously resurrected from the dead, or had merely appeared to be dead.

Europe, with its dark and violent past, would seem to be a rich breeding ground for ghosts like these hapless young men. “Always the past enshrouds the present with its dark crimes and tumultuous passions,” the literary critic Leo Braudy notes in his new bookHaunted. Part of the mythology of America, Braudy notes in a discussion of Hawthorne, is that ours is “a country without a mysterious past and therefore one without passion and romance.”  

And yet, our literature and popular culture are saturated with the Gothic, never more so than today, with our walking dead, our vampire cult, our creepy clowns, our atavistic politics. Have our past “foul crimes”—our original national sin of slavery, our still insufficiently recognized genocide of the American Indians, our outsized appetite for misogyny, xenophobia, and guns—caught up with us? “We are now sixty years or so into a horror phase that started in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” according to Braudy.

So familiar have the aesthetic conventions of horror become that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish “real” Halloween movies from parodies. Something similar has occurred in our political life. Alec Baldwin has often seemed a more convincing—a more terrifyingly ludicrous—Donald Trump than the real thing, a phenomenon not lost on Trump, who, most conspicuously in the third debate, appears to have borrowed mannerisms from Baldwin. One of our candidates for president has cut his teeth in so-called “reality television,” in which what is real is never quite what it seems.

Under such shaky circumstances, we are likely to feel, more than ever, Coleridge’s unsettling “perception of something out of the common nature of things, something out of place.” Will there ever be a return to normalcy, as the corrupt President Harding famously promised? Was Gerald Ford perhaps a bit over-optimistic in his inaugural address, when he tried to bury the ghost of Richard Nixon forever? Will we ever awaken from our long national nightmare? Or will we wake up only to follow the tragically ludicrous fate of Elpenor?

Waked by our morning voices, and the tramp
of men below, he started up, but missed
his footing on the long steep backward ladder…