The Un-Heimlich Maneuver

Women and Ghosts

by Alison Lurie
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 179 pp., $21.00

The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.

—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Why do we find ghost stories more pleasurable than frightening? Perhaps because they lull us into a state of coziness by turning our worst fears into the stuff of entertainment. In the ghost story the terrors of childhood and of mankind’s primitive past are transformed into a kind of joke—a jest, or gest. As in all jokes, however, there is in this process an element of the scandalous. In his essay “The ‘Uncanny,”‘* Freud cites Schelling’s definition of the word: “‘Unheimlich’ is the name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden but has come to light,” and goes on to say, revealing as he so often does his debt to Nietzsche:

All supposedly educated people have ceased to believe officially that the dead can become visible as spirits, and have made any such appearances dependent on improbable and remote conditions; their emotional attitude towards their dead, moreover, once a highly ambiguous and ambivalent one, has been toned down in the higher strata of the mind into an unambiguous feeling of piety.

Freud adduces this operation as an example of psychological “surmounting,” as distinct from repression, of primitive belief. The distinction, however, does not imply a greater degree of success.

Let us take the uncanny associated with the omnipotence of thoughts, with the prompt fulfilment of wishes, with secret injurious powers and with the return of the dead. The condition under which the uncanniness arises here is unmistakable. We, or our primitive forefathers, once believed that these possibilities were realities, and were convinced that they actually happened. Nowadays we no longer believe in them, we have surmounted these modes of thought: but we do not feel quite sure of our new beliefs, and the old ones still exist within us ready to seize upon any confirmation.

Is it true, then, that everybody believes in ghosts, as Brad Leithauser insists in his introduction to The Norton Book of Ghost Stories? “I can’t believe,” he writes, “any of us, if we dig deep enough in our psyches, is utterly free of a suspicion that the dead continually attend the living.” It depends, of course, on what is meant by “the dead”; that is, do we believe that life does not end, and that death is merely another stage of our existence, and that therefore those who have “gone before” are all about us invisibly, or do we believe that the living disappear at death and only continue to enjoy a flickering existence in the work of their hands and minds and genes that they leave behind them, as well as in the memories, steadily fading, retained of them by their families, friends, and enemies? If the former is our belief, then we will think it perfectly possible for ghosts to exist, independent of us, out there; if the latter, we will know that the spirit world…

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