Should the Dead Know Their Place?
What are the dead up to? Are they just nonexistent? Many philosophers believe that and most would rather be annihilated than wrong.
Are they sleeping? After the great bloodbath of the American Civil War, in a poem called “The Blue and the Gray,” Francis Miles Finch wrote:
By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead …
One time, I began a class on Applied Ethics quoting these lines. We were going to discuss an essay titled “The Case of Ellen West.” It’s a case study in Existential Analysis by Ludwig Binswanger, who was reporting on his own purportedly successful treatment of a patient. His treatment had ended with her suicide, which Binswanger, her therapist, deemed a cure, in the sense that he had led her to a decision that showed praiseworthy authenticity!
So help me. I am not kidding. With the class, we went through each reported phase of his “treatment.” Under a different interpretation of her trouble, she could be seen as a woman who kept trying to free herself from confining stereotypes and whose therapist – instead of helping to find alternatives — kept reinforcing her sense of entrapment. Till finally she felt that there was no other way out.
When I began the hour with the line that said, “Asleep are the ranks of the dead,” I meant this ironically. I was really suggesting that Ellen West should not be kept safely tucked away among the sleepers. Because there was a terrible wrong to be righted, I wanted to say that she was still here among us. The case of Ellen West was not closed. This woman needed someone to speak for her!
It was night by the time the class ended. Our classroom was in an empty upper story of the building. We were shouldering bags and preparing to leave when one of the long, arched, many-paned windows blew open suddenly. Without thinking, I looked sharply toward the window, wondering automatically,
Is it Ellen?
As if he sensed the meaning of my look, one of the jocks walked – heavy step by skeptical step – toward the window and shut it firmly. As he turned to walk away, the window blew open again. Outside, it had not been particularly windy. The student looked over his shoulder briefly but did not attempt to shut the window a second time. So Ellen had got the last word – at last.
Recently, on C-span, I watched an author named Stephen F. Knott give a talk about his book, Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth. It’s a vindication of Hamilton, whose reputation never recovered from the defamatory fictions spread by Thomas Jefferson, his rival among the Founding Fathers of our republic. The musical, “Hamilton,” may have been influenced by Knott’s book, though Knott said it did not go far enough. There is also a Hamilton Awareness Society, formed in the belief that it is never too late to
to the ruinous power of rumor.
All this – about our duties to the dead – brings me to my present problem. Most communications from the afterlife are pretty humdrum, of no interest except to immediate family. “Don’t feel bad that we never got to say goodbye.” “Glad you fixed the leak in the kitchen.”
You never read that a good philosopher died and is sending his latest philosophical views from the afterlife. The ones you hear about say things like, “Don’t be mean” and “God is love,” which you don’t have to study philosophy for thirty-five years to know.
So, when I happened to see a book title advertised, The After Death Journal of an American Philosopher: the World View of William James, I thought, oh well, let’s send for it and see.
The book arrived and, so help me, that’s William James! He was one of the best writers in the field of philosophy – ever. Lord [Bertrand] Russell is celebrated as a stylist, but his prose is rotund and purple compared to the lean, sinewy, American sounds of William James.
His brother was Henry James, the great novelist, so the family had talent to burn. The woman who claims to be transcribing the thoughts of William James is named Jane Roberts and she contributes her own Introduction and Epilogue. It’s plain that her prose has nothing like the fluency, philosophical continuity with his published work, and wide-angled view of his era and ours, which are displayed by her William James.
Here is James on the sheer awkwardness of his reappearance in print:
- In so intruding upon your world and adopting such an unacademic method of expression, I am therefore dismissing as beneath my notice some very important psychological conventions. “Children should be seen and not heard.” The dead, it seems, are expected to remain unseen and unheard, polite enough not to intrude in the conversations of the living—who will only pretend not to hear, or at best try to find another “more logical” explanation. In this regard, I can be accused of having poor spiritual manners.
For my part, I long to cite this new-and-yet-recognizable James, whose opinions often seem to resemble views I’ve arrived at via trial and error, which he voices from what he terms his “seat in the balcony.”
But how would I do it? With a footnote that credits “James”? Without a book title, publisher, date of publication or city? Just “William James: You’ll Never Guess from Where”?
James exhibits clarity about the “poor spiritual manners” of his showing up at all. I wish I could be as clear about the “poor scholarly manners” of my citing him!