Or the idea that we are surrounded by entities, phenomena, that we cannot see, cannot smell, cannot touch, cannot even be imagined because they’re being is so far removed from anything we have experienced. Phenomena that may come to us in dreams, stand by our bed as shadows, float through our minds as premonitions and intuitions. There may be places that have a certain ineffable aura, an energy that cannot be defined, but that finds its way into music, such as the voices and rhythms that have come out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Or ghosts. Who hasn’t at the very least momentarily wondered if ghosts are real? One of the greatest plays in the English language is propelled by a ghost. When Hamlet stands at the parapet of Elsinore castle and follows his father’s ghost, an entire spectrum of thought occurs, an endless ramification of alternative actions, strategies, and consequences emerges. What does actually happen is really only the shadow of a thousand other unrealized possibilities. Possibilities in which Ophelia lives and Hamlet triumphs. So that what makes this play tragic is nothing at all predestined but the result of impulses and hesitations, a combination of arguments pursued and aborted, a jumble of trajectories as random as the balls clicking together on a pool table.
In all my sixty-six years on the planet I have not encountered a single ghost. This is extremely disappointing. Because the encounter with a ghost would provide evidence of an afterlife, evidence that one’s identity may persist in some form outside the body after the body has perished. Evidence that we possess a soul, an essence that endures. Most ghost stories declare a situation in which the soul of a dead person has assumed a ghostly presence because of an obsession, an unresolved trauma. The ghost, as in Hamlet, craves justice. The ghost wants the living to find its murderer and have revenge. Or vindication, acquittal, conciliation. These are qualities of an existence on earth, and are fundamentally social. Would such things exist in eternity? Are there beings, such as the plays and movies of the western world suggest, that go straight to paradise? And if the soul is eternal, why does no one seem to remember a before-life? Did we once inhabit a paradise and somehow fall into mortal development in the womb of a woman in order to spend X number of years as a human being? For what reason?
And what of the ghost itself? How do they speak if they have no larynx, no vocal cords, no throat or neck with the attendant and necessary membranes for making sound, or lungs for pushing those sounds into the world with air, or lips and a tongue and a palate for shaping those sounds into words? Do ghosts speak by some form of telepathy? Not having met a ghost, my only means of assumption is based on stories and plays and movies. The expression of ghosts in fiction.
There are numerous people who make claim to proving the existence of ghosts, but they’re means, however compelling, lack the empirical rigors of actual science, and cannot be believed.
I do believe, however, that in many ways we become ghosts to ourselves. We haunt ourselves. Old memories assume an obsessional proportion that can’t be resolved or shaken from us. They cling. And the older we become, the more ghosts we seem to accumulate. It is as if our being became a haunted house in which each room held a certain ghost. These are not simple memories but unresolved energies that crave resolution, frustrations that were frustrations when we experienced them, and continue as frustrations in an inaccessible past.
Ghosts aside, there are other dimensions. And where there are other dimensions, there might also be other beings.
In 2007, physicists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison devised a method by which the violent birth of the universe thirteen billion years ago could be detected in the form of tiny, vibrating strings of energy. These elusive entities are critical to developing a sound unified field theory. A “Theory of Everything” in other words.
The mathematics of string theory indicate that the world we know is incomplete. Not a big surprise. Anyone who has taken peyote, psilocybin, or studied physics has had firsthand knowledge of this. String theory determines the existence of six extra spatial dimensions curled in tiny geometric shapes at every single site in the universe. We call these entities strings so that they’ll have an image, but in reality they have no image. They’re infinitesimal knots of energy that have specific properties, but not the properties associated with a three dimensional universe, such as color, mass, and size. They exist purely as mathematical entities. What is weirder, is that these entities cannot exist unless they’re moving in a ten-dimensional universe. It is the exact geometry of the entities that determines what kind of particles will exist in a given universe, and the kind of properties it will have.
So: there are more things on heaven and earth than were dreamed of in Horatio’s philosophy, whatever Horatio’s philosophy happened to be.
So much for the unseen, for the invisible, for worlds and dimensions that we cannot apprehend through our normal five senses. But what if things that we do see that have no real existence? The borders of countries and states, for instance. In reality, there is no Colorado or Wisconsin or Iowa or France. No England. No Mongolia. No Cambodia. What was most recently Yugoslavia is now eight different countries: Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro. What divides these countries is determined more essentially by language and culture than an imaginary line on a map. Lines on maps do not exist; yet I cannot remove them from my mind. I cannot imagine a North America or Central America or South America without a Brazil or a Panama or a Mexico or a California or a Wyoming.
Which leads one to wonder: how many other assumptions are rambling and rumbling around in my brain that have no reality? I think of myself primarily as a poet. That has been the most general and acute sense of identity that I’ve had since about age eighteen; forty-eight years. Is it a profession? No. Not at all. It’s a divine calling. Poetry is more akin with shamanistic or religious pursuits rather than a standard career because one, there is virtually no money in it, and two, one does not carry the burden of responsibility in the same way that a defense attorney, commercial airline pilot or surgeon does. It is, in fact, a flagrantly self-indulgent, selfish pursuit, in which the poverty of the practitioner sometimes becomes somebody else’s burden. A parent, a soon-to-be estranged wife, a kind and saintly sibling. Most poets find a means to making a living in the academic sphere, but teaching, like working in a bookstore, is a form of midwifery. The ongoing struggle to find time and place to do one’s writing, is more apt to cause disputes among friends and family than harmony. Wives, husbands, friends and children all go neglected for the siren-song of the muse. It’s a strange identity to inhabit, particularly in the social arena.
The point of this is that we are born with identities, we create them. The phenomenon of identity is an interrelation between our internal emotional world and the external world of facts and vines and helmets and reindeer. And, however real it may seem to us, it isn’t. Identity is an ephemeral, protean circumstance of mood and serendipity, geography and language, costume and time. Morality, ethics, rectitude, mannerisms and beliefs are all very real on some level, but have no basis in actuality, in the empirical world of quantifiable events. Can there be any wonder, then, that there is a propensity to believe in ghosts? To believe that certain places are inhabited by spirits? That there are entities that endure when our body has succumbed to one or more of the thousand shocks the flesh is heir to?