Richard Dowling.

Ignorant Essays


My most ingenious friend met me one day, and asked me whether I considered I should be richer if I had the ghost of sixpence or if I had not the ghost of sixpence.

What side do you take? I inquired, for I knew his disputatious turn.

I am ready to take either, he answered; but I give preference to the ghost.

What! I said. Give preference to the ghost!

Yes. You see, if I havent the ghost of sixpence I have nothing at all; but if I have the ghost of a sixpence


Well, I am the richer by having the ghost of a sixpence.

And do you think when you add one more delusion to those under which you already labour he and I could never agree about the difference between infinity and zero that you will be the better off?

I have not admitted a ghost is a delusion; and even if I had I am not prepared to grant that a delusion may not be a source of wealth. Look at the South Sea Bubble.

I was willing, so there and then we fell to and were at the question or rather, the questions to which it led for hours, until we finally emerged upon the crystallization of cast-iron, the possibility of a Napoleonic restoration, or some other kindred matter. How we wandered about and writhed in that talk I can no more remember than I can recall the first articulate words that fell into my life. I know we handled ghosts (it was broad day and in a public street) with a freedom and familiarity that must have been painful to spirits of refinement and reserve. I know we said much about dreams, and compared the phantoms of the open lids with the phantoms of the closed eyes, and pitted them one against another like cocks in a main, and I remember that the case of the dreamer in Boswells Johnson came up between us. The case in Boswell submitted to Johnson as an argument in favour of a mans reason being more acute in sleep than in waking, showed the phantom antagonistic able to floor the dreamer in his proper person. Johnson laughed at such a delusion, for, he pointed out, only the dreamer was besotted with sleep he would have perceived that he himself had furnished the confounding arguments to the shadowy disputant. That is very good, and seems quite conclusive as far as it goes; but is there nothing beyond what Johnson saw? Was there no ghostly prompter in the scene? No suggeritore invisible and inaudible to the dreamer, who put words and notes into the mouth of the opponent? No thinner shade than the spectral being visible in the dream? If in our waking hours we are subject to phantoms which sometimes can be seen and sometimes cannot, why not in our sleeping hours also? Are all ghosts of like grossness, or do some exist so fine as to be beyond our carnal apprehension, and within the ken only of the people of our sleep? If we ponderable mortals are haunted, who can say that our insubstantial midnight visitors may not know wraiths finer and subtler than we, may not be haunted as we are? In physical life parasites have parasites.

Why in phantom life should not ghosts have ghosts?

The firm, familiar earth our earth of this time, the earth upon which we each of us stand at this moment is thickly peopled with living tangible folk who can eat, and drink, and talk, and sing, and walk, and draw cheques, and perform a number of other useful, and hateful, and amusing actions. In the course of a day a man meets, let us say, forty people, with whom he exchanges speech. If a man is a busy dreamer, with how many people in the course of one night does he exchange speech? Ten, a hundred, a thousand? In the dreaming of one minute by the clock a man may converse with half the children of Adam since the Fall! The command of the greatest general alive would not furnish sentries and vedettes for the army of spirits that might visit one man in the interval between one beat of the pendulum of Big Ben and another!

Shortly after that talk with my friend about the ghost of the sixpence, I was walking alone through one of the narrow lanes in the tangle of ways between Holborn and Fleet Street, when my eye was caught by the staring white word Dreams on a black ground. The word is, so to speak, printed in white on the black cover of a paper-bound book, and under the word Dreams are three faces, also printed in white on a black ground. Two of the faces are those of women: one of a young woman, purporting to be beautiful, with a star close to her forehead, and the other of a witch with the long hair and disordered eyes becoming to a person of her occupation. I dare say these two women are capable not only of justification, but of the simplest explanation. For all I know to the contrary, the composition may be taken wholly, or in part, from a well-known picture, or perhaps some canon of ghostly lore would be violated if any other design appeared on the cover. About such matters I know absolutely nothing. The word Dreams and the two female faces are now much less prominent than when I saw the book first, for, Goth that I am, long ago I dipped a brush in ink and ran a thin wash over the letters and the two faces; as they were, to use artists phrases, in front of the third face, and killing it.

The third face is that of a man, a young man clean shaven and handsome, with no ghastliness or look of austerity. His arms are resting on a ledge, and extend from one side of the picture to the other. The left arm lies partly under the right, and the left hand is clenched softly and retired in half shadow. The right arm rises slightly as it crosses the picture, and the right wrist and hand ride on the left. The fore and middle fingers are apart, and point forward and a little downward, following the sleeve of the other arm. The third finger droops still more downward, and the little finger, with a ring on it, lies directly perpendicular along the cuff of the sleeve beneath. The hand is not well drawn, and yet there is some weird suggestiveness in the purposeless dispersion of the fingers.

Fortunately upon my coming across the book, the original cost of which was one shilling, I had more than the ghost of a sixpence, and for two-thirds of that sum the book became mine. It is the only art purchase I ever made on the spur of the moment; I knew nothing of the book then, and know little of it now. It says it is the cut-down edition of a much larger work, and what I have read of it is foolish. The worst of the book is that it does not afford subject for a laugh. Thomas Carlyle is reported to have said in conversation respecting one of George Eliots latest stories that it was not amusing, and it was not instructive; it was only dull dull. This book of dreams is only dull. However, there are some points in it that may be referred to, as this is an idle time.

To dream you see an angel or angels is very good, and to dream that you yourself are one is much better. The noteworthy thing in connection with this passage being that nothing is said of the complexion of the angel or angels! Black or white it is all the same. You have only to dream of them and be happy. To dream that you play upon bagpipes, signifies trouble, contention, and being overthrown at law. Doubtless from the certainty, in civilised parts, of being prosecuted by your neighbours as a public nuisance. I would give a trifle to know a man who did dream that he played upon the bagpipes. Of course, it is quite possible he might be an amiable man in other ways.

To dream you have a beard long, thick, and unhandsome is of a good signification to an orator, or an ambassador, lawyer, philosopher or any who desires to speak well or to learn arts and sciences. That ambassador gleams like a jewel among the other homely folk. I remember once seeing a newspaper contents-bill after a dreadful accident with the words Death of fifty-seven people and a peer. To dream that you have a brow of brass, copper, marble, or iron signifies irreconcilable hatred against your enemies. The man capable of such a dream I should like to see but through bars of metal made from his own sleep-zoned forehead. If any one dreams that he hath encountered a cat or killed one, he will commit a thief to prison and prosecute him to the death; for the cat signifies a common thief. Mercy on us! Does the magistrate who commits usually prosecute, and is thieving a hanging matter now? This is necromancy or nothing; prophecy, inspiration, or something out of the common indeed.

To dream one plays or sees another play on a clavicord, shows the death of relations, or funeral obsequies. I now say with feelings of the most profound gratitude that I never to my knowledge even saw a clavicord. I do not know what the beastly, ill-omened contrivance is like. The most recondite musical instrument I ever remember to have performed on is the Jews harp; and although there seems to be something weak, uncandid and treacherous in the spelling of clavicord, I presume the two are not identical. In any case I am safe, for I have never dreamed of playing even on the Jews harp. Here however is a cheerful promise from a painful experience one wants something encouraging after that terrifying clavicord. For a man to dream that his flesh is full of corns, shows that a man will grow rich proportionately to his corns. I can breathe freely once more, having got away from outlandish musical instruments and within the influence of the familiar horn.

As might be expected, it is not useful to dream about the devil. Let sleeping dogs lie. To dream of eating human flesh is also a bad way of spending the hours of darkness. It is lucky to dream you are a fool. You see, even in sleep, the virtue of candour brings reward. To dream that you lose your keys signifies anger. And very naturally too. To dream you kill your father is a bad sign. I had made up my mind not to go beyond the parricide, but I am lured on to quote this, To dream of eating mallows, signifies exemption from trouble and dispatch of business, because this herb renders the body soluble. I will not say that Nebuchadnezzar may not at one time have eaten mallows among other unusual herbs, but I never did. That however is not where the wonder creeps in. It is at the reason. If you eat mallows you will have no trouble because this herb renders the body soluble. Why is it good to render the body soluble, and what is the body soluble in? One more and I am done. To dream one plays, or sees another play, upon the virginals, signifies the death of relations, or funeral obsequies. From bagpipes, clavicords, and virginals, we hope we may be protected. And yet if these are the only instruments banned, a person having an extensive acquaintance with wind and string instruments of the orchestra may be musical in slumber without harm to himself or threat to his friends.

In the interpretation of dreams Artemidorus was the most learned man that ever lived. He gave the best part of his life to collecting matter about dreams, and this he afterwards put together in five books. He might better have spent his time in bottling shadows of the moon.

It was however for the face of the man on the cover that I bought and have kept the book. The face is that of a man between thirty and thirty-five years of age. It is regular and handsome. The forehead leans slightly forward, and the lower part of the face is therefore a little foreshortened. It is looking straight out of the picture; the shadows fall on the left of the face, on the right as it fronts you. The nose is as long and broad-backed as the nose of the Antinous. The mouth is large and firm and well-shaping with lips neither thick nor thin. The interval between the nostrils and verge of the upper lip is short. The chin is gently pointed and prominent. The outline of the jaws square. The modelling of the left cheek is defectively emphasised at the line from above the hollow of the nostrils downward and backward. The brows are straight, the left one being slightly more arched than the right. The forehead is low, broad, compact, hard, with clear lines. The lower line of the temples projects beyond the perpendicular. The hair is thick and wavy and divided at the left side, depressed rather than divided, for the parting is visible no further up the head than a splay letter V.

The eyes are wide open, and notwithstanding the obtuse angle made by the facial line in the forward pose of the head, they are looking out level with their own height upon the horizon. There is no curiosity or speculation in the eyes. There is no wonder or doubt; no fear or joy. The gaze is heavy. There is a faint smile, the faintest smile the human face is capable of displaying, about the mouth. There is no light in the eyes. The expression of the whole face is infinitely removed from sinister. In it there is kindliness with a touch of wisdom and pity. It asks no question; desires to say no word. It is the face of one who beyond all doubt knows things we do not know, things which can scarcely be shaped into words, things we are in ignorance of. It is not the face of a charlatan, a seer, or a prophet.

It is the face of a man once ardent and hopeful, to whom everything that is to be known has lately been revealed, and who has come away from the revelation with feelings of unassuageable regret and sorrow for Man. It says with terrible calmness, I have seen all, and there is nothing in it. For your own sakes let me be mute. Live you your lives. Miserere nobis!

My belief is that the extraordinary expression of that face is an accident, a happy chance, a result that the artist never foresaw. Who drew the cover I cannot tell. No initials appear on it and I have never made inquiries. Remember that in pictures and poems (I know nothing of music), what is a miracle to you, has in most cases been a miracle to the painter or poet also. Any poet can explain how he makes a poem, but no poet can explain how he makes poetry. He is simply writing a poem and the poetry glides or rushes in. When it comes he is as much astonished by it as you are. The poem may cost him infinite trouble, the poetry he gets as a free gift. He begins a poem to prepare himself for the reception of poetry or to induce its flow. His poem is only a lightning-rod to attract a fluid over which he has no control before it comes to him. There may be a poetic art, such as verse-making, but to talk about the art of poetry is to talk nonsense. It is men of genteel intellects who speak of the art of poetry. The man who wrote the Art of Poetry knew better than to credit the possible existence of any such art. He himself says the poet is born, not made.

I am very bad at dates, but I think Le Fanu wrote Green Tea before a whole community of Canadian nuns were thrown into the most horrible state of nervous misery by excessive indulgence in that drug. Of all the horrible tales that are not revolting, Green Tea is I think the most horrible. The bare statement that an estimable and pious man is haunted by the ghost of a monkey is at the first blush funny. But if you have not read the story read it, and see how little of fun is in it. The horror of the tale lies in the fact that this apparition of a monkey is the only probable ghost in fiction. I have not the book by me as I write, and I cannot recall the victims name, but he is a clergyman, and, as far as we know to the contrary, a saint. There is no reason on earth why he should be pursued by this malignant spectre. He has committed no crime, no sin even. He labours with all the sincerity of a holy man to regain his health and exorcise his foe. He is as crimeless as you or I and infinitely more faultless. He has not deserved his fate, yet he is driven in the end to cut his throat, and you excuse that crime by saying he is mad.

I do not think any additional force is gained in the course of this unique story by the importation of malignant irreverence to Christianity in the latter manifestations of the ape. I think the apparition is at its best and most terrible when it is simply an indifferent pagan, before it assumes the r?le of antichrist. This ape is at his best as a mind-destroyer when the clergyman, going down the avenue in the twilight, raised his eyes and finds the awful presence preceding him along the top of the wall. There the clergyman reaches the acme of piteous, unsupportable horror. In the pulpit with the brute, the priest is fighting against the devil. In the avenue he has not the strengthening or consoling reflection that he is defending a cause, struggling against hell. The instant motive enters into the story the situation ceases to be dramatic and becomes merely theatrical. Every converted tinker will tell you stirring stories of his wrestling with Satan, forgetting that it takes two to fight, and what a loathsome creature he himself is. But the conflict between a good man and the unnecessary apparition of this ape is pathetic, horribly pathetic, and full of the dramatic despair of the finest tragedy.

It is desirable at this point to focus some scattered words that have been set down above. The reason this apparition of the ape appears probable is because it is unnecessary. Any one can understand why Macbeth should see that awful vision at the banquet. The apparition of the murdered dead is little more than was to be expected, and can be explained in an easy fashion. You or I never committed murder, therefore we are not liable to be troubled by the ghost of Banquo. In your life or mine Nemesis is not likely to take heroic dimensions. The spectres of books, as a rule, only excite our imaginative fears, not our personal terrors. The spectres of books have and can have nothing to do with us any more than the sufferings of the Israelites in the desert. When a person of our acquaintance dies, we inquire the particulars of his disease, and then discover the predisposing causes, so that we may prove to ourselves we are not in the same category with him. We do not deny our liability to contract the disease, we deny our likelihood to supply the predisposing causes. He died of aneurysm of the aorta: Ah, we say, induced by the violent exercise he took we never take violent exercise. If not of aneurysm of the aorta, but fatty degeneration of the heart: Ah, induced by the sedentary habits of his latter years we take care to secure plenty of exercise. If a man has been careful of his health and dies, we allege that he took all the robustness out of his constitution by over-heedfulness; if he has been careless, we say he took no precautions at all; and from either of these extremes we are exempt, and therefore we shall live for ever.

Now here in this story of Green Tea is a ghost which is possible, probable, almost familiar. It is a ghost without genesis or justification. The gods have nothing to do with it. Something, an accident due partly to excessive tea-drinking, has happened to the clergymans nerves, and the ghost of this ape glides into his life and sits down and abides with him. There is no reason why the ghost should be an ape. When the victim sees the apparition first he does not know it to be an ape. He is coming home in an omnibus one night and descries two gleaming spots of fire in the dark, and from that moment the life of the poor gentleman becomes a ruin. It is a thing that may happen to you or me any day, any hour. That is why Le Fanus ghost is so horrible. You and I might drink green tea to the end of our days and suffer from nothing more than ordinary impaired digestion. But you or I may get a fall, or a sunstroke, and ever afterwards have some hideous familiar. To say there can be no such things as ghosts is a paltry blasphemy. It is a theory of the smug, comfortable kind. A ghost need not wear a white sheet and have intelligible designs on personal property. A ghost need not be the spirit of a dead person. A ghost need have no moral mission whatever.

I once met a haunted man, a man who had seen a real ghost; a ghost that had, as the ape, no ascertainable moral mission but to drive his victim mad. In this case too the victim was a clergyman. He is, I believe, alive and well now. He has shaken off the incubus and walks a free man. I was travelling at the time, and accidentally got into chat with him on the deck of a steamboat by night. We were quite alone in the darkness and far from land when he told me his extraordinary story. I do not of course intend retailing it here. I look on it as a private communication. I asked him what brought him to the mental plight in which he had found himself, and he answered briefly, Overwork. He was then convalescent, and had been assured by his physicians that with care the ghost which had been laid would appear no more. The spectre he saw threatened physical harm, and while he was haunted by it he went in constant dread of death by violence. It had nothing good or bad to do with his ordinary life or his sacred calling. It had no foundation on fact, no basis on justice. He had been for months pursued by the figure of a man threatening to take away his life. He did not believe this man had any corporeal existence. He did not know whether the creature had the power to kill him or not. The figure was there in the attitude of menace and would not be banished. He knew that no one but himself could see the murderous being. That ghost was there for him, and there for him alone.

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