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Ghosts/Spirits

After a long day I went to sit outside for a bit, and I watched the stars. Reflecting on the moment and on my life as it is now, a sentence came to my head: ‘I am just living my life and enjoying it.’ It was a humble thought, not a triumphant one. And then, this sentence of Derrida, which had vexed me for years ‘to learn to live, finally’ came to my head. I cite from the head now, but it is from his Specters of Marx, which I read for the first time about seven years ago. Upon my first read this book fascinated me, as it gave me so much new insights into the world we are living in right now. Published in its English version in 1994 (French 1993), the book foresightedly analyzes the post-Cold-War world, which was fresh and new back then, but of which we see the essential characteristics unroll more and more today.

All the same, the book contains long passages of which I could hardly makes sense, as Derrida always thinks along and against and through the many texts he read – of which many are unread by me. Even of Marx, whose name is in the title, I only have sketchy knowledge. For that reason, and out of the hope to understand more of the book, I proposed we would read and discuss it in depth in the postgraduate reading group I formed a few months ago. In my language (Dutch) we have a saying: ‘two know more than one’ – so seven would even know more. And they do. After three sessions (and having progressed unto page 33 of the book) I understand more than I did before. I see, among other things, how Heidegger and Marx dialogue in the thought of Derrida (Levinas always somewhere in the background) – or should I say in his writing? In the thought that springs up when reading his writing again.

We spoke also about this mysterious sentence – to learn to live, finally – we circled around it, but I still didn’t understand what these words, that reminded me rather of self-help literature (to learn to live, finally, in 7 steps – or something to that effect), were doing in a serious philosophical text. But now, looking at the stars, as the ancient philosophers must have been doing so much more than present day ones, I suddenly saw it: this sentence was Derrida’s answer and reference to Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates teaches his pupils, when he is in prison and about to undergo capital punishment for spoiling the minds of the young, that philosophy is all about learning to die. In the mind of Plato learning to die becomes focusing on the eternal (the stars), the unchanging – to overcome the pain and anxieties of this here life. So suddenly I was present at the grand U-turn Derrida makes – we can still look at the stars, but they aren’t unchanging, as little as anything in our world. After pursuing the Platonic gaze for more than two thousand years, attempting to learn to die in vain, we better try to learn to live, finally.

And that was also what I was feeling myself – after more than half a century on this earth I have learnt to see that nothing is unchanging, not even for a moment. Large as well as minute changes surround me and work in me. Just a few weeks ago I returned to a place where I had been last almost forty years ago, and although I could remember ‘me’ being there, no cell in my body is still the same as then. The fragile structures of my body have somehow translated the memory over and over again, untill it is a faint imprint of the first experience. One cannot even say the memory captures the ‘same’ experience. Or that the ‘me’ remembering is the same.

Everything is changing, but this is for Derrida not a trigger to go and look for eternity beyond this life – but, on the contrary, to take up responsibility: to see injustice in front of me, and try to invest myself to try to restore justice (a justice that has never been, in this world, but that attracts and commands us). Here is where Marx comes in – this thinker, he says, who is ‘mad enough’ to speak to a ghost. When we were discussing in our reading group I remembered Marx’ words about how philosophers ‘up till now’ have only understood the world, but that now it is also time to change it.  This incentive Derrida takes very seriously, where he sees Marx as the first thinker who turned philosophy around – from staring at the stars and wanting to escape life, to seeing even the stars as reminders that we are up to our knees in the endless open ended decision moments of this life, and that we should take up our responsibility to do something, even when we remain in the dark, finally, about the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

Do something, however, not arbitrarily – but under the gaze of the ghost that looks at us – the ghost (of Marx, of the dead, of the suffering who are not fully in this world, of those without civil rights, without papers, without birthright in the affluent societies) that horrifyingly shows us injustice every moment, and our involvement in it. Thus our uncertainty about right and wrong does not mean we can be unengaged, or that we can ever, even for a moment, be indifferent. Paradoxally, this ethical awareness, after the Marxian U-turn of philosophy, means that we are on the path to learn to live, finally. To learn to enjoy life – being part of it, not fleeing it, knowing we can do something, at every moment. Or just doing something, under the gaze of the ghost – without even knowing whether we really can.

 

I want to thank here my brilliant co-readers of Specters of Marx – you know who you are. You would obviously write a very different post about your reading experiences, were any of you to write a blog. This post just addressed one moment of looking at the stars, on one fine evening in August, by one of us, who realized her ‘me’ to be within this ever changing and changeable sphere which I might want to call life.

 

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Like last year, in a team of five, we ‘deliver’ a philosophy course for a large group of governance and management students, called ‘philosophy of management and organisation’. Its main subjects – freedom and responsibility in organizations – are reflected upon by reading texts from thinkers such as Arendt, Weber and Berlin, which offer ample opportunity for discussion. The other day we (the team) were discussing a session on Panopticism by Foucault, a chapter from his famous book Discipline and Punish – the Birth of the Prison. This book does provide a historical analysis of how the modern penitentiary system has arisen – in its earliest forms in the eighteenth century, but this seems just a pretext for proposing to search for the anonymous techniques of power that are at work in typically modern societies. While they are democratic, promote free trade, and garuantee personal liberties, below the surface there are ‘invisible’ networks of power. Networks, or systems, that streamline the energies that arise from the growing masses of people in modern societies. The explosively multiplied members of the human species are suppressed, led and dominated in modern times not like their premodern counterparts by visible and violent force, represented in the body of the king, but by ever so many subtle signposts that direct their lives.

The development of modern power systems can thus be seen to endanger politics as such, as the free public exchange of views and ideologies. Power systems proliferate on their own, so to speak, and gobble up what Arendt has called action: free dialogue to make decisions about shared life. Two main principles are at work in the modern power systems, we read in the Panopticum chapter: discipline and exclusion. In other metaphors: training and purification. What has to be prevented are uncontrollable situations that result from the pure fact that numbers of people are growing, and that they tend to live in ever closer contact in large agglomorations. Foucault points to the historical fact that the large and deadly epidemics that plagued Europe gave rise to the first attempts to purify and train societies in systematic ways, introducing the idea of quarantaine, of regulating movement, hygienic procedures, etcetera:

“Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.” (p. 198)

This sentence now struck me, and reminded me of another sentence, in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and produced the following train of thought. Specters of Marx speaks, among so many other things, about ‘clandestine’ immigration – describing the undocumented as part of the – anonymous – ‘new international’: those who, across borders, crossing borders, undermine the powers that be. In Derrida’s sentence, we can recognize the same double strategy of normalization:

“One should not rush to make of the clandestine immigrant an illegal alien or, what always risks coming down to the same thing, to domesticate him.” (p. 219)

Making illegal, excluding, ‘purifying’ society of him, or domesticating, training or disciplining him. And these ‘run the risk’ of coming down to the same, says Derrida: both becoming mechanisms to stop the fear of the stranger, who is understood to ‘contaminate’ and ‘undermine’ the modern power systems. Systems that regulate modern mass societies. What modern citizens of the earth fear in the ‘people who appear and disappear’, without stamp of approval, without passport, health insurance or work permit – those who even ‘live and die in disorder’ – is the breakdown of orderly society – where we, inhabitants of the panopticum, content prisoners of modernity so to speak, are barred in by the securities we know. Those who do not live in them, but use them, who transgress their rules by their very living, making their living from those systems while disrespecting and disregarding them – they create the chaos that modernity fears and always again tries to supress.

Foucault and Derrida are often characterized as ‘postmodern’ thinkers. This means no more or less than that they seem to have been able to look beyond the boundaries of the modernist panopticum – describing what is at work in it. They were not utopians, sketching a new vision for societies, for utopias only make sense in the modernist belief in designed societies. So what have they done in their works? They have, to my view, tried to open the eyes of ‘the Romans’ that their world is coming to an end, so that they may be prepared for something else. What kind of something else? Disorganization and disease? Rebellion and violence? Not necessarily. Perhaps something that is modest and immodest at the same time: the coming of a public space, a space of action, of politics in the true sense of the word: exchanging views and… perhaps not ideologies, but rather experiences. Next to the violence and loud language of today I see people working to repair and transform spaces meant for dialogue and connection, recreate them from the waste of crumbling power systems so to speak. An uncertain undertaking, as the future is, as always, open.

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Penguin Books, 1977 [French original, 1975]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx, The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, 1994 [French original, 1993]

Philosophy is as such a secular profession, taking the attitude of wonder and reflection towards any phenomena it takes in consideration. Sometimes this is seen to create a tension with the search for wisdom that has been present in philosophical tradition over the ages – a tension which can bring thinkers to take religious, agnostic as well as atheist approaches. Whatever one’s specific approach or subject matter, however, the critical instruments provided by philosophical reflection, allows us to gain fresh insights. Also in matters of bible studies, religious studies and theology.

Two weeks, ago, on the 16th of November, I was one of four speakers who were invited to comment on two newly published books on religion in the Netherlands. Religion in the white, Christian section of society, that is – which sociologically gives a distorted image, of course – because while the traditional white protestant and catholic churches are in constant decline, black migrant churches, as well as mosques and islamic communities are thriving.

The traditional churches, however, see so much decline, the authors of both books think, because European christianity has emptied itself from most spiritual practices and experiences – having adapted itself to the stifling influence of the Enlightenment and its consequences. For theology these were either a focus on ‘belief’ as confessing something to be true, or on unearthing the historical basis of the bible from a secular perspective. In my contribution to the book presentation, I suggested, in line with an article I published in 2015 (see below for reference), to circumvent the Enlightenment, and baby-jesus-2reread the gospels as shamanist literature.

Such an approach tunes in with what post-Enlightenment Christians search for, often in non-European religious traditions, to wit: a reevaluation of intuitive knowing, of ritual practice, and religious trust or faith. My own path, which I now call shamanistic, has been inspired by experiences in my childhood that have led me to search to express  these three elements in words, in philosophy. One of the most important philosophers who provides a basis for stretching philosophical discourse to that intent is William James (1842-1910), most well known as the founder of the psychology of religion, with his work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He describes there how we live in a tangible, empirical world on the one hand, but experience (sometimes) that this is surrounded and influenced by a wider, spiritual reality.

Building philosophically on the work of James, and having studied anthropologists’ works on shamanism and on the shamanistic Jesus, I came to reread the gospels in a kind of direct manner, detouring the critical reflections that sprang from the heritage of Enlightenment rationalism. Although the term ‘shamanistic’ stems from Siberian language and originally refers to mediators between the everyday and the spiritual world in that region, the term has been globalized in our day, and is used as well for new spiritual movements that open up traditional knowledge for individuals in modern societies, as for spiritual practices of peoples that are still in touch with traditional ways of living accross the globe.

With respect to the gospels, several researchers have attempted to reread them in a shamanist framework. For instance the South African anthropologist of religion Pieter Craffert, who shows in his book The Life of A Galilean Shaman (2008) that shamanistic practices were alive and well in the society in which Jesus lived. Or theologian Marcus J. Borg, who in his Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time (1994), using a Jamesian language, describes Jesus as ‘a spirit person’ – someone for whom the ‘screens of consciousness’ that keep the everyday and the spiritual domain apart, are unusually permeable. And there is the theologian who practices trance journeys himself John J. Pilch, who in his book Flights of the Soul (2011), on spiritual experiences in the bible, describes the testing of Jesus by Satan, as fitting the traditional route of a shaman to be: ‘Jesus demonstrates that he has acquired the necessary ritual skills to deal with and control the spirit world.’ (Pilch 2011, p. 116)

In my article “The ‘Shamanic’ Travels Of Jesus and Muhammad: Cross-cultural and Transcultural Understandings of Religious Experience”, published in 2015 in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, I discuss this and other literature and go into some of the shamanistic events in the gospels. To just give some examples, we can read in Luke 4:1-14 that Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the desert, filled with the Holy Spirit. After passing the test, that proves which of the two spirits, the holy one or the evil one, is strongest, he returns into society with the force of the Spirit. When he subsequently starts to tour the country, and console and heal people in spiritual and physical need, he shows shamanistic qualities all the time. He passes through an angry mob that cannot touch him (protected by the power of the Spirit) in Luke 4: 29-30, and has power over demons according to Luke 4: 33-36. Also in Matthew and Mark do we find a wealth of shamanistic stories, such as Jesus’ expulsion of demons from some possessed persons in Matthew 8:28-34, his healing of a possessed man in Matthew 9:32-34, a possessed girl in Mark 7:24-30, and a deaf and mute man in Mark 7:31-37). This last story, moreover, presents a description of specifically shamanist practices by Jesus, who puts his fingers in the ears of the man, and touches his tongue with his own spittle. Even today we can find practicing shamans to breathe or spit over a patient – as an exhalation or a secretion of saliva are understood to serve as a vehicle for the healing spirit that is called to assistance by the shaman.

In the seventeenth century theologians in Europe turned against the belief in spirits as well as spiritual practices, like the Dutch pastor Balthasar Bekker, who proposed to read the bible in a rational manner in his work De betoverde weereld. Although his motive, to get people to take more responsibility for their own moral agency, instead of blaming their evil actions on possession, was in line with the teachings of Jesus too, who stress that those cured should turn their lives around toward the good and away from evil – the effect of centuries of rationalist theological works has been that European christianity has lost its appeal for many people, as they don’t find much spiritual appeal or healing there. So in my talk at the book presentation I proposed that, next to the inspiration the ex, or post-christians get from non-European religions, they might as well try to read ‘around’ the Enlightenment, and try to let the gospel stories about the shamanistic Jesus inspire them. This Jesus makes trance journeys, associates with spirits, heals people from his shamanistic inspiration, and shows them ways to more free, loving and just ways to live.

The photo is from the nativity scene my dear parents made, before I was born.

This post is a reworked version of my speech at the book presentation in Dutch, which can be found here.

 

“What kind of relationships they may desire to have with us? And how can we, collectively, find new ways of co-existing?” These were among the questions in the Call for Papers of a short conference I attended last week, on Animal Agency: Language, Politics and Culture. It was the most interdisciplinary conference I ever attended – with speakers from Art History, Cultural Geography, Philosophy, Linguistics, and more fields. It was organized by Eva Meijer, who, during her PhD research on Political Animal Voices is very active to organize exchange among those working in some way or other with questions around our relations with animals. I learned a lot. About the history of certain cows in Urugay, who were brought early on by the Spanish, turned wild and reached 48 million and then were killed off for industry and trade when the country became more populated. It was the research by anthropologist Maria Fernanda de Torres Alvarez, currently working in Montpellier, which taught me that. Another researcher, Mihnea Tanasescu, working in Brussels, enlightened us about the Nazi history of the rewilded Aurochs that is prominent in a Dutch rewilding project, the Oostvaardersplassen. And there was more, on animal language, on painting elephants, on animals in poetry…

I had undertaken the experiment, for my presentation, to try to not talk about animals, but to let an non-human animal have the word. But how to do that?  I chose to use the method that is common to writers of novels, when they embody a person from another sex, age, or culture. It is comparable in a sense (although the setting is different) to the method used by traditional shamans, who enter a trance state to communicate with (a.o.) the spirits of animals. The animal invited to ‘speak’ uses my knowledge and language (that is why he sounds as a philosopher), but I have tried to suppress my point of view of the world, to let his shine through. The first one to come forward was an old crocodile. Just a few quotations:

“As the spirit of crocodile, I call myself ‘grandfather’, because you think that my genetic structures were earlier than yours, and we left some of ours, through the course of species-transformations, behind in your body and mind. So if I call myself grandfather, you can 1) understand our relationship, as you understand it biologically and 2) it will bring you (I hope) to have respect for me – as you should towards your human grandfather, even if he has no teeth anymore and spends his days in a boring home for elderly people.”

(when asked why he eats us)

“I am sorry, but how can you ask that – without being aware, the moment that you speak, of what you have done to us? You have not only eaten us, and continue to do so to this day. Look it up, please, on your internet – you can even buy, for instance in the UK (imported from South Africa), crocodile burgers – 2 for 3.99 pounds. So you eat us. But more, you have made shoes and bags from our beautiful skin. You have used our body for medicine. Considering me to be your grandfather – those are rather cannibalistic acts, aren’t they? And you have done more – you have discriminated against us, called us names. You have called us primitive and cruel. You speak about our heritage as ‘crocodile brain’ – and that is not meant as an honorable adjective, as I understand it!”

(telling something about himself and about us)

“I am the master of fearlessness. I lie still, sure of myself, that I will have to die, and having accepted that as long ago as I can remember. […] I lie and wait, still, very still, to be able to come into action in a split-second – with all the forces I master in my body, to catch what was coming toward me from eternity. I have a hard time believing you are the superior race, running around and mastering nothing, not even your own forces, not even your own body, or your mind. But what can I say. I didn’t see you coming, so I coudn’t catch you and kill you before it was too late. You came to destroy our habitat and kill without remorse. But now you have somehow grown strong in your foolishness, and I don’t know what to do about it…”

I slightly reworked these passages from my paper, and they will be reworked more as I hope to publish them somewhere else in the future.

After the conference I learned even more, as several contributors were so kind to send me materials connecting to my paper presentation. Certain of those will certainly be read more intensively by me in the future – the works of Australian environmentalist philosopher Val Plumwood, who lived through an attack by a crocodile, and we are lucky to be able to read what she learned from that. Not to hate crocodiles, that’s for sure, but to view our own species differently – “as part of the food chain – eaten as well as eater.” More about that another time perhaps.

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Whe had a conversation on pluralist ontologies and environmentalist thinking – the occasion was a brainstorm, for which I had invited my guest – on a potential subject for her PhD project. After I had made clear to be an ontological pluralist (inasmuch as I would like to be attached to any ‘ism’) and told about the roman catholic roots of my thinking, she pressed me to disclose in a more personal manner my position – where do I stand, where do my philosophical positions come from? Leaving precise use of concepts behind in the relaxed atmosphere of coffee and a chatlike discussion between friends, I let myself say: I am an animist. Adding, playing with the words: and an animalist. That conversation with coffee ended shortly after those words were spoken, due to the normal busy schedule of tasks – my thoughts lingered on the strange connection I had created without thinking too much of it.

Animist – a word from the early tradition of cultural anthropology, as far as I know – indicates someone who treats the whole of visible reality as being inhabited by spirit in the meaning of soul (animus). In traditional contradiction to the ‘enlightened’ person who ‘knows’ that only mankind has spirit or soul, more precisely understood as (narrowed down to) a thinking mind – and that ‘nature’, the non-human – the beasts, the plants, the waters, the skies, the atoms, the currents… are unconscious in the sense that they cannot really think, like mankind does. I did not use the non-gender-neutral word by accident, as the battle of women, and non-white men for that matter, to be counted as members of ‘humankind’ has been long and still is not won. Perhaps not by accident too. ‘Female intuition’, ‘natural spiritual propensity’ are expressions that one can still hear, indicating a fear, perhaps, of those who see themselves as non-female and modern, that a lot of those considered human in a biological sense, might not be able to shed their inherent animism fully.

‘Mankind’, or the enlightened human being, is ‘alone in the universe’, as a famous physicist once dramatically said. The animist, though, is not alone. (S)he feels herself to be part of a whispering, bending, whistling, barking universe – which is not always in all aspects understandable, but so (s)he isn’t her/himself. In this universe a universal language is needed, that is always headed for translation. In its universality it is never defined or final – but demands the work of the bricoleur, trying what will fit or work in this specific work of translation. The bark or the whistle, the dream or the word – they all have to be translated, mediated, to enter in the interchange of animate voices.

Animal is the one who phenomenally shows to have a soul, by being drawn to things, or pushed away by them. The animal is not like the rock who stays where it is, no matter what, or the water, which indifferentially seeks the easiest route. Not even like the plant, which shows some kind of sensitive reaction, but which never moans for pain, or jumps for joy. The animal is the most expressive creature of them all. It cannot resist to react visibly or audibly to what it meets. Even not when keeping things in with grand mastery. So what is an animalist? It is someone who feels that the human being is not only not alone for being part of the world of ongoing translation between all creatures, but still less alone for belonging to a large family of expressive creatures. Making sounds or movements to collect its young ones, or to scare enemies away.

An animalist does not see humans as ‘just animals’ – like the ‘enlightened’ person might do who in the end is coerced by his own unrelenting scientific attitude to see all signs of humanity as ‘just effects of processes in the brain’. On the contrary – (s)he knows all animals to have a wide variety of sources of knowledge, not just the technological-scientific one. (S)he doesn’t shrink the human to fit the image of a non-understood poor animal, (s)he rather acknowledges the great wisdom and power of our fellow-animals, of whom humans can (and most possibly should) learn. Those who watch the animals who live with them know this. For instance that animals not only know when someone is going to die, but also might hold their kind of vigil next to that person. That a cat or a dog knows where you are hurting, and will try to treat your pain or wound when you let them. They know when you come home. Most of them know better than us how to die. How to enjoy sun, or rain, or snow. How to wait. They are not stupid. Nor is this just ‘nice’ behaviour of ‘innocent’ creatures. Humans can learn those things too, if they will try. It is no easy thing, though. It is in complete contradiction with the normal technological world they live in, and entering the contradiction might hurt rather badly.

The animalist is by definition an animist, in my view – for I have never met an (non-human) animal who didn’t treat the whole of visible reality as being inhabited by spirit/soul. No fools among animals.

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The photos aim to give credit to the sheep, who, among the animals I met in my life, stood out for their patience to let me be with them and learn from them when I was a young child. The picture witnessing those times is not in my album, but if possible I will add it later.

IMG_2059Last week a facebook friend sent me a greeting through chat, and I didn’t answer. Since I never want my friends to feel that I don’t notice their messages, I was looking for an excuse to give when I would feel like answering again. There was no deep or serious reason for my silence, I was just preoccupied. I started pondering that word – for the English language is native neither to me, nor to that friend. Unhinging the prefix from ‘occupied’ I wondered why I would not just say that: I was occupied, I was busy. But that would not have been true, literally. I would have had time for a message. It was just that I did not want to be engaged in conversation for some days. My mind just asked for some un-occupiedness – not being busy communicating, but having its capacity for itself.

Then I wondered, as I did more often, whether ‘for itself’ really can be said – meaningfully? In that mood that one doesn’t feel for communication, is one not, actually occupied in that other sense? Busy like a telephone line can be busy? Posessed even by something? The mood I am talking about is the one that often leads to creativity – it seems you are doing nothing, thinking nothing, not communicating – and after some time, seemingly from nowhere, new ideas pop up. A philosopher friend who died nine years ago, and who loved to play with words, called this the ‘incubation period’. Comparing an outburst of creativity to the breakthrough of illness. Silence before a storm, so to say. The bored, empty days one needs to let something unexpected present itself.

What happens when one is preoccupied in this sense? Creative people used to claim that they were inspired by their ‘muse’, a goddess supposed to breath creative insights into a person. Later, when such spiritual powers were not so much in fashion anymore, the muse was often the name for the adored mistress of an artist. But also then, the reference was to the spiritual side of a sexual relationship: the being in love, the passion. In all cases the mind, or whatever other seat of ‘me’, is not with itself, it is occupied by something which draws it away from the everyday. The everyday, the laundry, the dishes, the car, the garden can take care of itself. The facefookfriends, even real life friends too. When you are preoccupied you are in a sense ‘out of your mind’.

My beloved, referring to knowledge he got in his West African upbringing, explained me once that especially creative people are ‘followed’ by the spirits. My answer, a question, was: ‘ah, that is because  with them the spirits can have more fun?’ He continued that the spirits help the creative mind, they are actually part of that creativity. The flip side of this being that they can also stir things up too much, and get someone into trouble. That would be the reason that we see so much creative people struggle with drugs, depression, paranoia, and things like that. Those troubles are just the spirits gone out of control.

So how is it? It is true that when I write, or paint, I am not consciously constructing what I make. There is what we nowadays call ‘the flow’. A form of rapture that makes me wonder about some of the sentences I wrote when reading them back. And again. What ‘I’ do is make preparations. Cleaning the room, laying the books or brushes ready. Making sure that I will not be distracted by communication or chores that have nothing to do with the creative task. And then there is that boredom, that emptying, perhaps, to make it possible that ‘the creative spirit’ will come over me and do its work. It has to be treated with kindness, but also with discipline. Yes, it should not be fed with an excess of pride or excitement – that will summon up it’s dark side: loneliness, depression, dissatisfaction that can come and haunt.

The spirit of creativity thrives best on a simple diet, and appears when there is some good old boredom around – the pre-creative silence, that precedes this spirit occupying the creative human being. Could that be the deeper meaning of us saying of the human being in this preparatory phase that he or she is pre-occupied? I do not claim to know how it works, so I value different descriptions of what happens. And to any of my friends I would like to say: when I am ‘not available’ it could be just me being preoccupied.

IMG_2221[1]Demons. Not a common subject for a philosopher. Derrida wrote of ghosts, but that is not exactly the same. Ghosts haunt, and it is a matter of moral and psychic health to deal with them. If we do not deal with them, if we ignore them or try to conjure them by declaring they don’t exist, we might lose something, we might bring ourselves into danger, but that is not immediately certain. It is a matter of dispute or doubt. Not so with demons. They do more than haunt – they harass, and sometimes very violently. They represent spirits of a still more active and agressive kind. So why are they no subject in philosophy? Is it because they are so intimately connected to ancient (not modern!) theological discourse? A discourse that is commonly viewed to have meaning solely as a part of our cultural history.They are no longer considered a topic of belief, neither from a scientific, nor from a religious viewpoint. When they appear, it is only in the experience of some individual who suffers from them, and an individual who feels he or she should use this ancient name to address what or who harasses.

Having enjoyed, some weeks ago, Felicitas Goodman’s book on spirits, I thought I might try this other title of her, an older book, on the Anneliese Michel case. Even I, who has written several articles and a book on ghosts, felt some hesitation toward the subject – that of a young woman who suffered from demonic possession, and who after a long and difficult search for a cure, through medicine and through exorcism, died, exhausted, it seemed, at the age of twenty-four. I must have heard from the case, perhaps even when it happened, in 1976, as it resulted in juridical procedure against the Roman-catholic priests who conducted the exorcism, and against the parents. All four were convicted of having caused her death by neglect of her physical well-being. More, it resulted in a difficult process of reflection in the Roman-catholic church on the centuries old ritual of exorcism, and a formal change in its approach toward it. My hesitation might have stemmed from that time, when ‘everyone’ shared the view that exorcism was outdated, and that to believe in demons was superstitious (although large crowds went to see the movie The Exorcist) – while I myself would have never wanted to declare someone’s genuine experience away like that. For that I respected experience too much.

I enjoyed this book by Goodman, as I did the other one. She has written down her research in the case almost in the style of a detective novel, and with much respect for the people, dead and alive, who played their role in the drama. As a philosopher, I was curious what her book might contribute to extending reflective discourse to include such phenomena as possession by evil spirits. There are some positive and some negative points to be made in this respect. Positive is her stance that all experience is natural, and connected to observable and potentially understandable phenomena. We do not need mystery, nor talk about the ‘supernatural’ to speak about demons. In her 1981 book, she precedes a development that has gained much in attention as well as in technical possibilities of observation – that of researching the brain processes that go along with these experiences. Although in her book much is still hypothetical in this respect, there is a good chance that the newest measuring techniques could corroborate her view that negative religious experiences, as well as positive ones, are related to certain brain processes. Processes that, in the case of demonic possession, have gone out of control.

Very positive is also how she connects the brain hypothesis with her knowledge of cultural anthropology. Ancient rituals, she argues, comprise not only potent instruments to induce positive possession experiences, used to heal afflictions, but also those that can halt and transform situations of negative possession. They do so by altering the brain processes through means of repetitive sounds and movements (drumming, praying, dancing), by addressing the afflicted psyche in it’s possessed aspect (speaking to the demons, finding out their names, summoning them to leave). Although the rituals may vary widely as to their belief system and practices, they share common features that do real work on the afflicted brain. According to Goodman. Finally she preceded another development, that of a growing hesitancy to think that all psychic afflictions can simply be cured by medication. Revolutionary is her attempt to even describe the effects of medication that messes with the brain in the terminology of possession – where she puts forward the hypothesis that the demons that harass Anneliese in the final stage of her life, the ones who are silent, are the individualized forms of the effects of her medication.

While I find Goodman’s approach interesting for bridging modern and ancient approaches, promising the possibility to combine brain research and cultural anthropological observations – I see some serious lacunae in her approach too. She makes only short references to the psychological aspects in Anneliese’s affliction, like the possible influence of the early death of an older sibling. She doesn’t analyse the possibility that the grief of the parents might have summoned up, in their southern German catholic life world, experiences of evil forces, of a curse, or of something that should be atoned for – that were taken upon herself by the second oldest daughter, Anneliese. Neither does she probe into that political-historical aspect of the case (even while Adolf Hitler is one of the demons said to harass Anneliese) – that of the collective need for atonement among young Germans of the post-war generations. The same need that made some turn to protest and even violence, like the members and sympathethizers of the Rote Armee Fraktion.

When demons appear in some individual’s life, this should not just be a problem for that person, or his close relatives. As it is likely that there is some social and political wrong, searching it’s expression and demanding a ritualistic handling by appearing in an extreme fashion in a highly sensitive individual, like Anneliese apparently was. In this individual the horrors of (recent) history ask for attention – in order for society to go through a process of reconciliation and healing. But when one leaves the social and political aspect out of the analysis, one leaves the individual alone in her suffering, as was the case, I think, with Anneliese, who in the end bore with her suffering by interpreting herself as having to sacrifice her happiness and even her life to save others. This of course was a mental way out for her, as it is for some others (nowadays there are those who make pilgrimage to her grave just because of this supposed sacrifice she made). To my view there are more promising ways to deal with the horrors of war and genocide – ways that look the psychological and political aspects in the eye. They are more difficult to imply, as they ask for collective involvement of the wider society. But they might expell the demons that brought normal human beings to kill, torture, or look the other way, in a more lasting way.

 

The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas Goodman, Resource Publications, Eugene, 1981, inspired two movies, Requiem, from 2007 (in German) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2006)