Sunday, July 10, 2011

Things that go bump in the night

"The past is never dead,"  William Faulkner once wrote (Requiem for a Nun). "It's not even past."  This vision is at once a key to unlocking some of the long, windy sentences in which Faulkner's characters wrestle with the past, it is also an excellent metaphoric template for rereading books you were once enamored of.  As the memory of them persists,you are drawn to reliving some of them, often amazed by the things they taught you, amazed in equal measure by things you missed altogether.  In this sense you are often drawn to reflect on what you have learned over the years from the friends you cherish.

Rereading a book that had been assigned reading in your undergraduate or high school years, or rediscovering an encounter you'd made on your own, or from the recommendation of some reviewer or, better still, a friend, reminds you in subtle, under-the-surface ways how important the past is to you.  Not that you spend much time living in the past--the present seems always a better option-- but having access to the past as a reference point is of a piece with having a record of your progress in attitudes and abilities.

 You suppose it can be argued that rereading a book is a deliberate act of spending time in the past, but because you were riffing on Heraclitus to a friend you'd just rediscovered after an enormous gap, it now comes to you that not only was Heraclitus right, so were some of the deconstructionists:  You can't read the same book twice.

As Hamlet quickly discovered in the play named after him, ghosts have agendas.  There is scarcely a ghost in Western literature that does not want something.  Thus ghosts are upon us like street persons hustling us for spare change; ghosts want something done in this world, the world of now, that they couldn't get done in their lifetime.  Their agenda may,in fact, have been the contributing cause to their death.

Many of the ghosts who would enlist our mortal energy might be individuals we'd known while they lived; others may be complete strangers, sensing in us some sympathetic quality.  There is equal possibility that the ghosts are no more spectral than visitations of us at an earlier time, wanting us to be in some way quits with an event or action that was bungled in the past.

From ghosties and beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
May the present deliver us

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