Ghosts and Their Makers

Where “East and West Meet” in the

Writings of Henrik Ibsen and
Lafcadio Hearn


Two Mystics Who Saw the World with Half-Closed Eyes

By Benjamin de Casseres

GHOSTS are subject to the same laws as thought and matter. They evolve, in the human brain, from the simple to the complex, from a homogenous film that stands in a doorway or vanishes in moonlight to a heterogenous and much involved “stream of tendency.”

The ghost is a root-thought in the human mind. It will not down. We may transform it from the mere goblin at the gate to a “theory of heredity” or to a law of transmigration and reincarnation: nevertheless, it is still a ghost—an intangible, deceptive, ever-present force.

Shakespeare’s Banquo was a ghost: so was Oswald Alving. The great world-poet wrote in an imaginative age, an age that had not yet guessed that the belief in ghosts was the mind’s crude formulation of the great truth—the immemorial secret of the East—that no force can possibly perish; that death is only a vanishing, not an annihilation; that everything which has been must recur again and again.

Ibsen transferred his ghost from the realm of the imagination to the brain cells and blood corpuscles. We are all ghosts—that is, transitory agglomerations of matter, highly organized forces that walk the earth for a little while and then go back to the great ladle of the Button Molder.

Ghosts are forces. The difference between the imaginative and scientific views of ghosts is merely a difference of locale. In the greatest ghost-story in the world—Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw”—we have for the first time a story that gives us the exoteric and esoteric theory of ghosts.

Lafcadio Hearn and Ibsen! The Hindu and the Viking. The hermit with his hut set amid the cherry blossoms and the great hermit of the North with his Ice-Church set amid the eternal snows that drift from the boreal peaks. At first glance there seem to be no points of contact between these two men. But it may be laid down as axiomatic that minds of the first order are affinite. They see the same truths from different angles. The two or three things they know hold the essence of all wisdom. Differences in mental and moral constitutions between men who are on the same mental plane are merely differences of detail—veils, earth-begotten errors of sight of the Inner Vision. The common fundamental facts. Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Ibsen put in dramatic form what Pascal, Amiel and Lafcadio Hearn put in the form of confession and essay—the terror and the glory of man’s adventure in the infinite web of force and matter.

Hearn and Ibsen both saw the world with the eyes of the mystic—the closed eye that stares inward, downward and upward. To both these seers the universe was phantasmal, ghost-ridden; round about were evil spirits of air and water, demonaic influences, the earth bubbles of Shakespeare. All of Ibsen’s characters are touched with nightmare—ghastly, ironic effigies of human beings. All of Lafcadio Hearn’s dreams were fashioned by the thought: How may I escape the illusion called living? How can I be delivered from the Cosmic Goblin? How many aeons will it take me to unweave my ego?

The endless reincarnation of egos which Hearn believed in—great seer that he was!—was called by Ibsen “spirits that walk again”; and Ibsen’s greatest play—“Ghosts”—was written to prove that the dead cannot die, that they live as ghosts in their posterity.

If one thing may be predicated absolutely, it is the existence of immaterial beings. They haunt us by the million; they batten on us, they bludgeon us, they wheedle us, they run us down, they trip us up, they apotheosize us, they anathematize us. We are they. The vulgar, the unimaginative, the literal, must have ghosts and goblins and external manifestations. They can only conceive of the immaterial in forms drawn from the material world; it must be a man or a woman; have a head, hands, feet and body.

[continued on p. 20]

They cannot grasp the thought that the dead may live as “tendency,” that atmosphere is a living thing, that the habitat of Destiny is the cells, that cells are alive, possess knowledge, are peepers, eavesdroppers—and never take hush-money. By no flight of the imagination can we conceive of the material. Matter is part of the illusion of the senses. We are dupes of touch. There are none so blind as those who see.

Hearn believes we were all made up of an infinite number of ghosts. Each atom in us, by virtue of the law of the indestructibility of matter, is a tiny haunted house. And these old vestiges of selves, scenting from their cells the old joyous earth-life, shriek through the living clay for birth. We call these ghosts obscure instincts and emotions, “the angel and beast that survive in us.”

And that is Ibsen’s core-thought. Everywhere the ghosts of an immemorial and blood-clotted past rise up in sheeted droves to throttle the living. Every aspiration wakes a demon in us. They are the furies and harpies of the old Greek drama, and we who seek emancipation are the fleeing Oresteses.

Bishop Nichols, in “The Pretenders,” one of Ibsen’s earliest dramas, dreams on his deathbed of creating a ghost of himself—a perpetual-motion machine—that shall work his vengeful will throughout eternity. Ibsen touched a truth that only the East has affirmed—the East and Schopenhauer and Hearn—that all desire is the voice and urge of an ancestral self, an old ghost seeking incarnation in deed.

The dead rule. That is the thesis of Ibsen. That is the passionately persistent affirmation of Lafcadio Hearn.

Behold the White Horses of Rosmersholm! They gallop past as sinister shadows, heralds of the triumph of the self-slain wife. She reaches a long hand from the grave, and Rebecca West and Rosmersholm are summoned. It is their own will that prompts them to the double suicide, you will say. No. It was the will of a ghost.

Hearn’s sublime paradox that we are the dead, and that only the dead live, was drawn from the deepest perception of the inner eye. It is a thought beyond thought. For man is not what he is, but what he was.

The title of Ibsen’s last play—“When We Dead Awaken”—might have been the title of an essay by Lafcadio Hearn. It would have appealed, too, to that marvelous phantom that stayed with us for so little a while—Percy Bysshe Shelley. He, too, had watched this solid-seeming world thaw and resolve itself into a ghost.

All personality is recombination, and we are but froth on the phantom waves of Time. Nature is eternal recollection. She is a wraith with endless shadows—a speck of dust in the crucible of an unknown God. That was Hearn’s message to his race.

So in Ibsen’s view. Character is only a retort. The soul of man he conceived as a Black Hole of Calcutta wherein a multitude of half-dead beings struggled for breath and light.

What was it that called to Brand up there on the glittering ice-plains of spiritual isolation? The ghosts of Agnes and his child. What spirit was it that sent the giant snow-avalanche a-toppling over his frost-bitten soul? The ghost of a common—a very common, Nietzsche would say—humanity; the ghost Nemesis that pursues those who break the leash of custom and make blind dashes toward the unattainable.

What flung Master Solness from the wreath-crowned steeple? Ghostly hands stretched out of the soil of the past.

Why did Peer Gynt have to go roundabout all his life? Because at the crossroads of every path that he took there squatted a ghost, a shadow, the unnamable Thing that companioned Hearn and Maupassant.

Hedda Gabler, Irene, Rubreck, and Little Eyolf were swallowed up by the extension less goblin Past. The social Horla sought to blot out Herr Stockmann and Mrs. Alving.

As Mr. Huneker says, Ibsen set his Hell on the heights. And his heights were ghost-walks.

Do ghosts exist? Only goggled science asks that question. Poets and seers smile at it. Their guesses are nearer the truth than the affirmations of science.


Source: The New York Times, Summer Book Number, June 12, 1910, pp. 2, 20



Reprinted in The Galaxy, July 1910, Vol. III No. 10, pp. 11-12. Other than using all-caps and bolding for emphasis, the text is the same.