The Living, the Dead, and the Living Dead
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” —T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland
October at Piety Hill in rural northern Michigan is a glorious thing. As the harvest comes to a close, nature’s grand finale before a long Midwestern winter advances takes the form of trees tongued with fire. It’s a sight so striking, “leaf peepers” will drive for miles to experience the ache; a longing that suggests there must be something beyond the land of the living if even death can descend with beauty, leaf by golden leaf.
Toward the end of this season of abundance, when the trees are nearly bare and the fields return to sleep, we celebrate Halloween—a day devoted to the dead; a night when the veil between this world and the next grows especially thin. In many ways All Hallows Eve has become yet another secularized, consumerist holiday—severed from its Catholic roots as a solemn day in honor of the saints and even from the earlier Celtic festival of Samhain, where the dead mingled with the living as newly departed souls traveled to the otherworld. Yet All Hallows Eve can still serve as a reminder that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It is thus no surprise that Halloween was a favorite holiday of Russell Kirk, one of the last great masters of the Gothic novel and the dying art of the spooky story. In his essay, A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale, Kirk claims:
The supernatural in fiction has seemed ridiculous to most, nearly all this century. Yet as the rising generation regains the awareness that ‘nature’ is something more than mere fleshly sensation, and that something may lie above human nature, and something below it—why, the divine and diabolical rise up again in serious literature.
Kirk’s prediction that the rising generation might “regain the awareness that ‘nature’ is something more than mere fleshly sensation” rings true, as some of the most successful books in recent years—especially in genres aimed at teens and young adults—feature the dead and the undead; zombies, vampires, werewolves, and anything else that goes bump in the night. Whether these works uplift humanity or degrade it is another matter, especially if by “serious literature” Kirk meant writing that inspires the moral imagination. Yet the recent fascination with the supernatural in fiction does point to a deeply rooted intuition in human beings, despite reductionist attempts to degrade the person to particles or mere evolutionary impulses. There is more to being human than the material, and what lies “above human nature” and what lies “below it” compete for our allegiance.
In his essay “On Fairy Tales and the Moral Imagination,” theologian Vigen Guroian defines the “moral imagination” as “the distinctively human power to conceive of men and women as moral beings, that is, as persons, not as things or animals whose value to us is their usefulness.” Kirk’s supernatural yarns have as their heroes and heroines such men and women—individuals who realize that their actions on earth matter and will echo in eternity; they are not, as Kirk often said, quoting Coleridge, “flies of a summer.” Kirk’s characters informed by the timeless virtues are often contrasted with “hollow men,” villains of the modern wasteland; men whose obsession with utility, progress, and the perpetual heresy—the reoccurring utopian dream that humans are capable of achieving societal perfection without the transformation of individual hearts—tend to result in disastrous ends.
In Lord of the Hollow Dark, Kirk introduces characters who take their names from the works of T. S. Eliot and find themselves in the decaying house of Balgrummo Lodging in Edinburgh—an atmospheric setting reminiscent of a classic murder mystery. At the end of the novel one of these characters comments: “That old house is a microcosm of the world . . . bones at the bottom, visions at the top.” Kirk’s twelve strangers have gathered for such a vision, but it is one that requires them to descend to the bottom both literally and figuratively. Their common purpose is to join their occult leader, Mr. Apollinax, in a purgatorial labyrinth of tunnels beneath the ancient house. There they will participate in a ceremony of necromancy that mocks the Ash Wednesday rite, the crucifixion, and the resurrection; a reversal of Christian doctrines and rituals that Apollinax’s followers believe will bring liberation and universal happiness “through the removal of repression and inhibition.” Apollinax’s Gnostic goal is to lead his sheep to a Timeless Moment that is far from what Eliot had in mind—an instance in which they escape the confines of time and are launched into eternal ecstasy as the spirit is freed from the flesh.
Here we see an example of what Kirk called the “diabolical imagination,” which tends to arise when humans grow dissatisfied with metaphysical materialism but have nothing to stand in its place. Instead of humility and faith in a divine power not of man’s making, self-seeking fulfillment in the name of “liberation” rises up to fill the void. As one of the most important characters in the story, a cunning Archvicar, tells the young woman who is to become the central victim of the occultist nightmare: “One of the marks of a decadent age is superstition, Marina . . . When an orthodoxy decays, the old dark gods, the savage gods, win back their burnt offerings.”
In the end, “Remember, O creature, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” is an affirmation Apollinax and his followers ridicule rather than heed. As a result, instead of escaping time they enter into their own peculiar hells of the ego, where there is no Other—only the god of self. In several places Kirk quotes the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz—“Your soul deserves the place to which it came/If having entered Hell, you feel no flame”—suggesting that the living damned have much in common with the living dead, as both see their fear and their fate in a “handful of dust.” They do not know they are damned, and in their self-absorbed indifference do not even realize they walk not among the living, but in the shadows of a shallow existence that is not fully human.
In order to escape this purgatorial labyrinth, Kirk’s small band of resistors to Apollinax’s false promises must be reborn. They awake to an awareness of the evils that pursue them on this pilgrim’s way, and quickly learn that the major difference between the damned and saved is that “everyone except the damned gets up and stumbles on.” Yet they do not walk through this valley of death alone. Through the character of Coriolan, Kirk explores the concept of Guardians—angel-like beings who can only be sent, not summoned, as signs of hope to guide the faithful. Here Kirk’s belief in a communion of saints who communicate beyond the language of the living shines through. Like Tolkien’s fellowship of the ring, the pilgrims who survive the darkness of Balgrummo Lodging do so not as self-made individuals, but as a body, and a mystical body at that; aided by forces the Archvicar insists are evidence of design, not mere coincidence. In its conclusion, Lord of the Hollow Dark reminds the reader that only through time is time conquered. As with the Guardians, timeless moments cannot be summoned, they can only be sent as flashes that illuminate the soul and reassure us we are made for eternity. Kirk admonishes us to keep watch; the journey is not over yet, nor is the battle.
Defying nature, the necromancer conjures up what ought not to rise again this side of Judgment Day. But these dark powers do not rule the universe: they are in rebellion against the natural order; and by bell, book, and candle, literally or symbolically, we can push them under.
As a Catholic with a “Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure,” Kirk saw how occasions such as All Hallows Eve might serve as opportunities to take back the moral imagination from the diabolical. It is an occasion to remember saints who continue speaking through a legacy of lives that sought to push under the dark powers of their times. And so this year, when your children take to streets of fallen leaves in an evening of trickery and treats, remind them that they too can reflect the light that shines in the darkness, which “the darkness has not overcome.”
Ashlee Cowles is a 2012 Wilbur Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan.
Posted: October 31, 2012
Another Epitaph on American Exceptionalism
Andrew J. Bacevich