The Ontology of Ghosts
In the courtyard a shadowy giant elm
Spreads ancient boughs, her ancient arms where dreams,
False dreams, the old tale goes, beneath each leaf
Cling and are numberless.
–Virgil, The Aenied, Book VI
I’m always amazed, looking back, at how fucking clear things had seemed at this or that juncture of my philosophical life—how lucid. The two early conversions, stumbling into nihilism as a teenager, then climbing into Heidegger in my early twenties, seem the most ‘religious’ in retrospect. I think this is why I never failed to piss people off even back then. You have this self-promoting skin you wear when you communicate, this tactical gloss that compels you to impress. This is what non-intellectuals hear when you speak, tactics and self-promotion. This is why it’s so easy to tar intellectualism in the communal eye: insecurity and insincerity are of its essence. All value judgements are transitive in human psychology: Laugh up your sleeve at what I say, and you are laughing at me. I was an insecure, hypercritical, know-it-all. You add the interpersonal trespasses of religion—intolerance, intensity, and aggressiveness—and I think it’s safe to assume I came across as an obnoxious prick.
But if I was evangelical, it was that I could feel those transformations. Each position possessed its own, distinct metacognitive attitude toward experience, a form of that I attributed to this, whatever it might be. With my adolescent nihilism, I remember obsessively pondering the way my thoughts bubbled up out of oblivion—and being stupefied. I was some kind of inexplicable kink in the real. I was so convinced I was an illusion that I would ache for being alone, grip furniture for fear of flying.
But with Heidegger, it was like stepping into a more resonant clime, into a world rebarred with meaning, with projects and cares and rules and hopes. A world of towardness, where what you are now is a manifold of happenings, a gazing into an illuminated screen, a sitting in a world bound to you via your projects, a grasping of these very words. The intentional things, the phenomena of lived life, these were the foundation, I believed, the sine qua non of empirical inquiry. Before we can ask the question of freedom and meaning we need to ask the question of what comes first.
What could be more real than lived life?
It took a long time for me to realize just how esoteric, just how parochial, my definition of ‘lived life’ was. No matter how high you scratch your charcoal cloud, the cave wall always has the final say. It’s the doctors that keep you alive; philosophers just help you fall to sleep. Everywhere I looked across Continental philosophy, I saw all these crazy-ass interpretations, variants spanning variants, revivals and exhaustions, all trying to get the handle on the intentional ontology of a ‘lived life’ that took years of specialized training to appreciate. This is how I began asking the question of the cognitive difference. And this is how I found myself back at the beginning, my inaugural, adolescent departure from the naive.
The difference being, I am no longer stupefied.
I have a new religion, one that straightens out all the kinks, and so dispels rather than saves the soul. I am no exception. I have been chosen by nobody for nothing. I am continuous with the x-dimensional totality that we call nature—continuous in every respect. I watch images from Hubble, the most distant galactic swirls, and I tell myself, I am this, and I feel grand and empty. I am the environment that chokes, the climate that reels. I am the body that the doctor attends…
And you are too.
Thus the most trivial prophecy, the prediction that you will waver, crumble, that the florescent light will wobble to the sound of loved ones weeping… breathing. That someone, maybe, will clutch your hand.
Such hubris, when you think about it, to assume that lived life lay at your intellectual fingertips—the thing most easily grasped! For someone who has spent their life reading philosophy this stands tall among the greater insults: the knowledge that we have been duped all along, that all those profundities, that resonant world I found such joy and rancour pondering, were little more than the artifact of machines taking their shadows for reflections, the cave wall for a looking glass.
I am the residue of survival—living life. I am an astronomically complicated system, a multifarious component of superordinate systems that cannot cognize itself as such for being such. I am a serial gloss, a transmission from nowhere into nowhere, a pattern plucked from subpersonal pandemonium and broadcast to the neural horde. I am a message that I cannot conceive. As. Are. You.
I can show you pictures of dead people to prove it. Lives lived out.
The first-person is a selective precis of this totality, one that poses as the totality. And this is the trick, the way to unravel the kink and see how it is that Heidegger could confuse his semantic vision with seeing. The oblivion behind my thoughts is the oblivion of neglect. Because oblivion has no time, I have no time, and so watch amazed as my shining hands turn to leather. I breathe deep and think, Now. Because oblivion constrains nothing, I follow rules of my own will, pursue goals of my own desire. I stretch forth my hand and remake what lies before me. Because oblivion distinguishes nothing, I am one. I raise my voice and declare, Me. Because oblivion reveals nothing, I stand opposite the world, always only aimed, never connected. I squint and I squint and I ask, How do I know?
I am bottomless because my foundation was never mine to see. I am a perspective, an agent, a person, just another dude-with-a-bad-attitude—I am all these things because of the way I am not any of these things. I am not what I am because of what I am—again, the same as you.
Ghosts can be defined as a fragment cognized as a whole. In some cultures ghosts have no backs, no faces, no feet. In most all cultures they have no substance, no consistency, temporal or otherwise. The dimensions of lived life have been stripped from them; they are shades, animate shadows. As Virgil says of Aeneas attempting to embrace his father, Anchises, in the Underworld:
Then thrice around his neck his arms he threw;
And thrice the flitting shadow slipp’d away,
Like winds, or empty dreams that fly the day.
Ghosts are the incorporeal remainder, the something shorn of substance and consistency. This is the lived life of Heidegger, an empty dream that flew the day. Insofar as Dasein lacks meat, Dasein dwells with the dead, another shade in the underworld, another passing fancy. We are not ghosts. If lived life lies in the meat, then the truth of lived life lies in the meat. The truth of what we are runs orthogonal to the being that we all swear that we must be. Consciousness is an anosognosiac broker, and we are the serial sum of deals struck between parties utterly unknown. Who are the orthogonal parties? What are the deals? These are the questions that aim us at our most essential selves, at what we are in fact. These are the answers being pursued by industry.
And yet we insist on the reality of ghosts, so profound is the glamour spun by neglect. There are no orthogonal parties, we cry, and therefore no orthogonal deals. There is no orthogonal regime. Oblivion hides only oblivion. What bubbles up from oblivion, begins with me and ends with me. Thus the enduring attempt to make sense of things sideways, to rummage through the ruin of heaven and erect parallel regimes, ones too impersonal to reek of superstition. We use ghosts of reference to bind our inklings to the world, ghosts of inference to bind our inklings to one another, ghosts of quality to give ethereal substance to experience. Ghosts and more ghosts, all to save the mad, inescapable intuition that our intuitions must be real somehow. We raise them as architecture, and demur whenever anyone poses the mundane question of building material.
‘Thought’… No word short of ‘God’ has shut down more thinking.
Content is a wraith. Freedom is a vapour. Experience is a dream. The analogy is no coincidence.
The ontology of meaning is the ontology of ghosts.