“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
–Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
This quote from one of Shakespeare’s most famous of plays has been debated many times over the years. And I think that this is so because it taps into something unconscious within so many of us. The character Horatio was a skeptic. He required evidence of a thing for that thing to exist. But when he saw the ghost that haunted Hamlet, apparently that of Hamlets dead father, he was frightened. It created a great feeling of unease within him.
Hamlet, himself, was uneasy. After all, his dead father’s ghost told him he was murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. What was Hamlet to make of this accusation? And what was he to make of this apparition? Was it a ghost, a demon of some kind, or some other manifestation? Of course, the story does not end well for Hamlet or his royal family, but the quote is powerful because, like all good quotes, it stands alone. It has a presence that transcends context and the literary work itself. Indeed, this one has endured centuries, if only now relegated mostly to the province of memes.
I have been thinking a lot about that quote lately. If one is being honest, to take even a minute to try and comprehend the scale and complexity of this universe is overwhelming. Certainly, it cannot be done in this unit of time we call a minute. It cannot be done in any measure of human time or with the mere five senses we are told we are limited to. But there is a space that is beyond this one that our corporeal selves inhabit. I can sense it. Many can.
But experiencing forces and realms beyond this one has never been welcomed within the lofty precincts of Western intelligentsia. And it has only been recently that some of the Western left has embraced the importance of recognizing and respecting Indigenous ways of thinking about our existence, spirituality, and our relation to each other and the earth as a living organism.
Still, to admit that one has been witness to what may be colloquially defined as the supernatural can mean a kind of social suicide in those circles. One loses credibility and intellectual capital in the world of the staunch materialists and rational thinkers. Jejune, superstitious and credulous outcasts to be placated, ignored or marginalized.
I have seen that kind of modern day shunning many times. A turning of ones’ gaze because the subject becomes too metaphysical, too spiritual or too supernatural in nature. And because these things can often border on irrationality or even madness, it is understandable why this is so. If one is too thick with the desire to experience existence beyond the confines of ones’ skin, they are delving into murky, strange and perilous waters. And that strikes terror in the hearts of those who want their universe to be complete, knowable and under control.
Delving into the transcendent cannot be tolerated in closed systems of thinking. And those who do open themselves to it are often derisively referred to as being “woo-woo.” Yet it is in this way that the strict materialist is much like the religious fundamentalist. They share a similar disdain for and fear of the unknown, as well as anyone who dares share their experiences regarding it. They abhor any questioning of the accepted dogma of the day, be it scientific or religious. Mysticism has been relegated to the outer margins of human experience. Not to be taken serious by the serious-minded. Because of this, it can be difficult to broach the topic in a serious manner these days.
It doesn’t help that we are living in an era of mass confusion. Of anti-science crusades, far-right death cults and unhinged conspiracy theories. It doesn’t help that this is exacerbated by charlatans, political hacks, snake oil salesmen and a social media ecosystem whose algorithms continually obfuscate reality itself by design. Mountains of junk food, junk science, junk spirituality and junk culture have produced a sort of miasma of distraction. We have become malnourished in meaning and the truth. But these are distractions that desperate people cling to in a world that has been purposefully denuded of its sacredness. A world we are constantly informed we are separate from. Above and superior to. Even most contemporary stories or films about ghosts are made for easy consumption. Digestible, even momentarily satisfying, but devoid of nutrition. And nearly all of them are meant to provoke fear, not expand our understanding or consciousness.
But the ghost is one of the most enduring archetypical features of the human story. And I think this because it is the very emblem of grief. When we strip the ghost of this essential cloak of grief, we render it useless. It can no longer freight the grief that we will all experience on a visceral as well as spiritual level in this life. The ghost is our grief suspended in the weightlessness of all that is unknown. From the beginning of human history, its importance has been enshrined in all that is sacred, because the ghost reminds us that what we have is temporary. It exists outside of time. It is immortal, yet it remains unsatisfied. Forever longing and forever aggrieved. It cannot move on because it carried its grief from this world into the next.
I have thought a lot about my own experiences with ghosts. Of how I’ve felt them brush past me or hover over me in the darkness. How a sense of dread comes over me like a cold draft from under the floorboards. Begging me to look at them. To see them. And I have thought a lot about grief and how we face it. Like everyone else, I have lost loved ones. I have felt that punch in my chest, like all the oxygen has been suctioned out of your body, a pain that is almost indescribable. And I have thought a lot about where we are, standing on the precipice of extinction with only insane, rapacious and indifferent leaders to rule over our collective fate. I have contemplated the implications of the thin ribbon of air, water and life that embraces this rock in space we call earth, and how it is poised to dissipate before our eyes thanks to the accumulated abuses our species has heaped on it. And what does this look like in the grand scale of geologic time? A mote of dust in an eternal succession of epochs?
And I’ve also been thinking about Hermes. That quick, virile messenger of the gods. The trickster psychopomp whose aegis we need to ferry us from this realm to the next. We know that death is a certainty for all of us, we just don’t know when it will occur with any preciseness. In this way, I’ve come to appreciate the unknowing as a gift, especially welcome now in this era of deceit, certainty, avarice and sadism. Of crumbling world powers, floods, fires, drought, mass migrations, war, famine and ecological collapse. Of knowing things are unraveling, yet not knowing when or how long we have left. And arriving, through the passage of grief, to a peace about it all.
That peace does not mean apathy about the suffering in this world. It does not mean disconnection or giving up either. It is a place of clarity, a respect of ghosts and their message, an embrace of curiosity and wonder, of compassion and action, and an acceptance that not everything can be known. That the unknown need not be something to fear. That the ending of one world often means the beginning of another. And like the stars and planets and every other thing that exists, we are a part of it all in one form or another.
Horatio is like so many of us when we are confronted by the unknown. He saw a ghost and was unsettled by that experience. I think most of us can commiserate with that kind of unease in our gut. When our worldview is turned on its head we are left with a choice. We can close our eyes and pretend that nothing has changed, as so many of us do all the time, or we can open them and adjust our vision to the new surroundings. The latter offers us a marvelous opportunity for adventure that can expand our consciousness into, as Hamlet averred, an “undiscovered country.”
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There are, indeed.