The Dead Speak for Themselves

The Dead

James Joyce’s short story, which begins and ends with the snow  “general over all of Ireland,” details a haunting. The male protagonist notices his wife listening to distant music, not realizing the distance is time rather than space:

There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

Later in the evening he is shattered to learn that attitude, the mood or trance his wife was lost in, was a calling. This calling was from a lost love of his wife’s teenage years. Silently, for decades, this underestimated soul stood, throwing pebbles against this woman’s consciousness. In time, the pebbles break through as flakes of sncemetery snowow. Odd how a mood or trance incited by the weather, the setting, the time of day or the time of year, provides a window for the dead to speak. Dreams, too, offer such a setting at all times.

“I Come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” was Antony’s second most famous line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But like Perry White in the old Superman series, Antony was haunted by “Great Caesar’s Ghost.” Antony goes on to say while the good is often buried with them, “the evil men do lives after them.” Antony approaches the dead in his famous address to the Romans as a political tool. I wonder how things might have turned out differently had Antony and others remained had  in dialogue with Caesar rather than merely using his death toward a political shift? Antony buried the good and the bad; Brutus and the Senate killed the bad with the good. And the story of Julius Caesar goes on well after the namesake of the story is dead. How do we today attend to, listen to the voice of Caesar? His famous line, Veni, Vidi, Vici – “I came, I saw, I conquered” is replete with the grandiosity that made him great and got things done – yet it is also the flaw that seeded his undoing.

An old professor of mine, Ben Curtis, said that a fundamental axiom of his counseling mentor was, “If you can teach people to bury their dead, you can spend the rest of your time fishing.” As for me, I have not even had a fishing license in over 20 years. Granted, it’s a wonderful notion, but Ben and his mentor knew well what I then suspected –  ghosts will not be banished even when buried properly. Today I no longer try to teach people how to bury their dead. Instead, I am interested in the ways the Dead can teach us rather than to bury us. Maybe we cannot access Caesar; Jung did not aim his vision toward Philemon, his teacher from the imaginal realm, or any of the others from the collective unconscious who have their autonomous being and their sights on us.

Carl Jung’s Red Book, released just a few years ago, is the artistic representation of his process working with the Dead.  It is not just the missing mother or father; In his case, the Dead are ancient. This is work with Aeons of the Dead. “The dead now outnumber us,”* says Sonu Shamdasani, editor of the Red Book. While I am not certain of the statistical exactness of the proportion, I remain aware of the influence of the Dead among the living. Joyce’s short story contains the pervasive influence of Death-in-Life; the monochromatic photographic negative of Coleridge’s ‘Nightmare Life-In-Death’.

Gustave Dore, Detail, Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S. t. Coleridge
Gustave Dore, Detail, Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S. T. Coleridge

Coleridge’s Mariner has a story to tell after making it back from his underworld encounter with the Dead. This story is our story: It is also the underworld story of Ulysses (Odysseus), Orpheus, Aeneas, and Dante in our Western culture. It is the story of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It is death, dismemberment, disintegration, and resurrection. the mariner is compelled, compelled to share his story with a particular Wedding Guest. And this sharing is the result of a recurrent urge; he knows the man with whom he must tell his story. the direct relationship of this to the twelfth suggestion in AA’s steps is fairly transparent: He who arises from the underworld and lives to tell about it has a compulsion to share, as he can only preserve the gains of this experience by giving it away. It becomes an itch that demands nails.

Speaking of nails, what would Christianity be (I ask right after Easter) without the notion of resurrection? Christ died and is risen; Christ harrowed Hell; Christ died so that we would not have to.

And yet we have to.

to the living falls a task, a choice. We can bury (or we can carry). We can avoid. We can join in a number of ways, one of which is listening in. Listening in to an individual it becomes very hard to hear the whispers of the dead; that may take a Jung or a Dante. Listening to the collective voice, hearing the chant of the dead, may be more available to more of us. Perhaps that is why we study history, art, literature. And when we listen in, does something different happen than when we simply try to bury Caesar?

  • Quotation from: James Hillman & Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead. Psychology After Jung’s Red Book (New York: W. W. Norton & Company 2013
  • Detail picture from Gustave Dore’s Illustrations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Rime of the Ancient Mariner

One thought on “The Dead Speak for Themselves”

  1. The Dead

    At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
    They unburden themselves of their fears,
    their worries for us. They take out the old photographs.
    They pat the lines in our hands and tell our futures,
    which are cracked and yellow.
    Some dead find their way to our houses.
    They go up to the attics.
    They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
    for signs of their love.
    They tell each other stories.
    They make so much noise
    they wake us
    as they did when we were children and they stayed up
    drinking all night in the kitchen.

    Susan Mitchell from The Water Inside the Water

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