Andrew Lang on Ghosts 1897
See also The Mystery, Interpretation & Psychology of Dreams - 60 Books on Cdrom and The Paranormal and Supernatural - 400 Books on DVDrom
Andrew Lang (31 March 1844 – 20 July 1912) was a Scots poet, novelist, literary critic, and contributor to the field of anthropology. He is best known as a collector of folk and fairy tales
IT has been known for some time that Mr. Lang had added ghosts to his hobbies. Readers of Longman's Magazine have watched his thoughts turning in that direction to the partial exclusion of the '45, Joan of Arc, and Mr. Howells; members of the Psychical Research Society have been aware that at least one clear, humorous intellect is working among them; and there have been letters in the Times on haunted houses over Mr. Lang's signature. In the volume before us, The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, Mr. Lang offers a large collection of ghost stories, old and new, and his present opinions on “appearances.” As far as we can gather Mr. Lang's attitude from these pages—which have much of the vagueness of expression that goes with memoirs on the supernatural—he disbelieves in traditional ghosts, the ghosts that do things—but wishes it were otherwise. Like all persons of poetical or romantic temperament, he would prefer to believe in them. They would make life so much more interesting and exciting.
Mr. Lang, in fact, has reached the position of the saner members of the S.P.R. He subscribes to the modern theory of ghosts. In his own words:
“A ghost, if seen, is undeniably so far a ‘hallucination’ that it gives the impression of the presence of a real person—in flesh, blood, and usually clothes. No such person in flesh, blood, and clothes is actually there. So far, at least, every ghost is a hallucination, “that, in the language of Captain Cuttle, ‘you may lay to,” without offending science, religion, or common sense. And that, in brief, is the modern doctrine of ghosts.”
Yet there is a ghost in this book which was seen by several distinct persons whose narratives tally. To explain such a phenomenon Mr. Lang offers an ingenious theory of dreams; which is practically his only contribution to the solution of the problem. For the rest he records and passes on, obviously enjoying the rôle of narrator considerably more than that of philosopher.
“Sleeping is as natural as waking, dreams are nearly as frequent as every-day sensations, thoughts, and emotions. But dreams, being familiar, are credible; it is admitted that people do dream; we reach the less credible as we advance to the less familiar. For, if we think for a moment, the alleged events of ghostdom— apparitions of all sorts—are precisely identical with the every-night phenomena of dreaming, except for the avowed element of sleep in dreams.
“In dreams, time and space are annihilated, and two severed lovers may be made happy. In dreams, amidst a grotesque confusion of things remembered and things forgot, we see the events of the past (I have been at Culloden fight and at the siege of Troy) we are present in places remote; we behold the absent; we converse with the dead; and we may even (let us say by chance coincidence) forecast the future. . . . Now, the ghostly is nothing but the experience, when men are awake, or apparently awake, of the every-night phenomena of dreaming. The vision of the absent seen by a waking, or apparently waking, man is called 'a wraith'; the waking, or apparently waking, vision of the dead is called 'a ghost.' Yet, as St. Augustine says, the absent man, or the dead man, may know no more of the vision, and may have no more to do with causing it, than have the absent or the dead whom we are perfectly accustomed to see in our dreams. Moreover, the comparatively rare cases in which two or more waking people are alleged to have seen the same “ghost,' simultaneously or in succession, have their parallel in sleep, where two or more persons simultaneously dream the same dream.”
When we see ghosts, then we are in a waking dream. But the same story to which we have already alluded would of itself deter us from accepting so uninteresting a theory. “Appearances” are against it. The story of The Lady in Black tells of an apparition which appeared constantly to several persons in a house. It had the form of a weeping widow. Strings were stretched across the stairs and it passed through them; the camera was even directed on it, although no result followed; its footsteps were distinctly audible. Six separate signed accounts of this ghost are among the papers of the S.P.R. Were all these six persons enjoying a waking dream? It is impossible to believe so. One, at least, of them, the lady who attempted to take the ghost's photograph, was too wide awake. Either the witnesses have lied, or ghosts are more than hallucinations seen in waking dreams.
Mr. Lang's dream theory will, however, account partially for his own story, quite the best of the modern instances, of Mrs. Claughton (p. 175). This lady recently saw a ghost, and afterwards other ghosts, friends of the first one, who bade her visit a distant village, examine the parish register, compare certain names and dates, and convey the results to a person unknown to her. A dream followed, in which she was given further instructions. She did all that she was bidden to do, and found everything to correspond in fact to the supernatural forecast. Only by charging this lady with conscious and very intricate and unprofitable fraud can these mystifications be explained away. If Mrs. Claughton is honest, the possibility of intercourse between dead and living is proved.
Yet why do we continue to doubt? Partly because man is liable to err, and chiefly because nothing of the kind ever happens to ourselves. Mr. Lang's own visual experience includes nothing more remarkable than a self-opening door. In the matter of ghost-seeing, only our own eyes are evidence, and they are not always to be trusted. The sum of the matter is that to the end of time some will believe and some will not. After all, it matters very little: one may as well believe as not, or one may as well not believe as believe—until one's own supernatural visitor arrives. Unfortunately the experience of the S.P.R. and Mr. Lang proves that to none but the uninterested or unscientific do ghosts appear. To become a member of the S.P.R. is, to ensure immunity from spooks for life.
But whatever we may say as to their actuality, there is no doubt that ghosts make good stories. This book is packed with excellent yarns. As a précis writer Mr. Lang has no superior. He can be terse, and yet find room, without irrelevance, for personal charm. Here is a compressed story, which he offers in illustration of his waking-dream argument:
“In 1867, Miss G., aged eighteen, died suddenly of cholera in St. Louis. In 1876, a brother, F. G., who was much attached to her, had done a good day’s business in St. Joseph. He was sending in his orders to his employers (he is a commercial traveller), and was smoking a cigar, when he became conscious that someone was sitting on his left with one arm on the table. It was his dead sister. He sprang up to embrace her (for even on meeting a stranger whom we take for a dead friend, we never realise the impossibility in the half moment of surprise), but she was gone. Mr. G., stood there, the ink wet on his pen, the cigar lighted in his hand, the name of his sister on his lips. He had noted her expression, features, dress, the kindness of her eyes, the glow of the complexion, and, what he had never seen before, a bright red scratch on the right side of her face.
Mr. G. took the next train home to St. Louis and told the story to his parents. His father was inclined to ridicule him, but his mother nearly fainted. When she could control herself, she said that, unknown to anyone, she had accidentally scratched the face of the dead, apparently with the pin of her brooch, while arranging something about the corpse. She had obliterated the scratch with powder, and had kept the fact to herself.”
Mr. Lang, we take it, believes this story. To express differently what we suppose his attitude to be, he would not for an instant deny that supernatural messages are conveyed to us, but he believes all appearances to be subjective. Put concisely: ghosts exist for ourselves, not for other people. Mr. Lang completes his collection by retelling many of the old stories, and extracting others from books. Perhaps the best of them is “The Tyrone Ghost,” a tale that has many variants. “Ticonderoga” in the present version has this curious postscript:
“On the very day that these events were happening in far-away America, two ladies, Miss Campbell, of Ederein, and her sister—were walking from Kilmalien to Inveraray, and had reached the then new bridge over the Aray. One of them happened to look up at the sky. She gave a call to her sister to look also. There both of them saw in the sky what looked like a siege going on. They saw the different regiments with their colours, and recognised many of their friends among the Highlanders. She saw Inveraray and his son fall, and other men whom they knew. When they reached Inveraray they told all their friends of the vision they had just seen. They also took down the names of those tbey had seen fall, and the time and date of the occurrence.
The well-known Danish physician, Sir William Hart, was, together with an Englishman, and a servant, walking round the Castle of Inveraray. These men saw the same phenomena, and confirmed the statements made by the two ladies. Weeks after, the Gazette corroborated their statements in its account of the attempt made on Ticonderoga. Every detail was correct in the vision, down to the actual number of the killed and wounded.
But there was sorrow throughout Argyle long before the Gazette appeared."
This is "steep"; yet why not believe it?
Interesting though, it be, this volume is, in our opinion, over-entitled. It would more fittingly be called "A Book of Dreams and Ghosts." "The Book" implies too much. "The Book of Dreams and Ghosts" should be whole-hearted. Its author should believe with his soul, and endeavour to persuado us too. He should set out to make our flesh creep, to curdle our blood. His pages should so hold us that, as we read, a mouse in the wainscot would raise our hair, a creaking door accelerate our pulse, a knock bring us to the verge of syncope. "The Book of Dreams and Ghosts" should be overwhelmingly grim and terrifying. Mr. Lang is not the man to write it. Mr. Lang has a sceptical mind, a light hand, and divided interests. He sees humour in things. In the book before us he does little more than play the judge; we who read are the jury to whom Mr. Lang states the case for the prisoner, the ghost. He gives pros and cons and leaves the matter in our hands. No one can do this more fascinatingly than Mr. Lang, but the method is not ideal for "The Book of Dreams and Ghosts." For "A Book of Dreams and Ghosts" it is admirable.
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