Sunday, September 18, 2011

Skeletons in the Closet, Darkroom Ghosts, and Getting a Grip

A few days ago, my wife asked me if I knew some of my ancestors were spiritualists. She's been putting together a family photo album, and had run across an odd picture of my Campbell forebears, a husband and wife - and (allegedly) their three-year-old daughter.

I'm pretty confident about the identity of the mother and father in that old photo. I'm also pretty sure that the ghostly image over my great-to-some-power grandmother's head is of their daughter, who died when she was three years old.

Or at least a picture of some little girl who looked enough like her to be convincing, after the photography studio did a little darkroom work.

Or: Maybe those two really had managed to conjure up a dead child.

An Unblemished Bloodline? Me?!

Once in a while you may run into folks who don't want to find out too much about their family history. Because they're afraid of what might turn up.

That never made much sense to me: but then, I've always figured that folks decide what they'll do, and that:
  • My ancestors made their decisions
    • I make mine
  • Anyone who gets me confused with someone who died decades ago is - confused
    • When it's someone who lived in the 19th century or before? Very confused
I wasn't at all surprised that some of my ancestors had gotten into Spiritualism:1 it's been very big in several periods, so the odds were pretty good that somebody would have given it a shot. Or robbed a bank, or done something else that I probably wouldn't.

Considering the sizable crowd that anyone's ancestors form, once you've gone back a few generations, I'd be surprised if someone hadn't managed to stand out in some way - good or bad.

I'm not exactly happy about the Spiritualism thing, which I'll get back to. But I'm not terribly ashamed of it, either.

Ancestors and Me

My ancestors are important to me. Without them - I'd never have been born. I'm carrying their genes, and inherited their successes and failures in raising children.

Some of their influence is fairly obvious: like my blue eyes and susceptibility to sunburn. We're just starting to understand how much our genes determine how our bodies grow - including our brains, the 'machinery' we use for thinking.

And I'm wandering off-topic again.

My point is that because of who my ancestors are, I've got a sort of 'envelope' of potential. Including these factors:
  • My height and build
    • Which pretty much guaranteed that I wouldn't be an outstanding basketball player
    • Even if I'd been born with working hips2
  • My seriously overclocked brain
    • Which let me do something with my interest in language
      • And just about everything else
    • No bragging, it's just the equipment I was issued
My guess is that the ADHD-inattentive, and major depression, that made most of my adult life so interesting have a genetic component. No complaints:3 again, it's the equipment I was issued.

Conjuring Up Ghosts and Other Bad Ideas

As far as I can tell, magic is:
  • Okay
  • A really bad idea
It depends on what you mean by "magic."

There's prestidigitation - the 'watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat' sort of thing. That's a skill requiring delicate, precise work with the fingers, and a certain amount of acting ability.

That sort of 'magic' is a sort of parlor trick. And, I think, harmless entertainment. Like just about anything else people do, it could be used for bad purposes: and that's another topic.

The sort of magic that the Catholic Church won't let me do - and I want no part of - is the Doctor Faustus sort of thing:
"All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2117)
Notwithstanding campus coffee shop philosophies, thinking that "occult powers"4 exist doesn't mean I'm superstitious.

As a practicing Catholic, I can't be superstitious: it's not allowed. In a way, superstition is religion carried to crazy extremes. But it's not 'too much of a good thing.' Sort of. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2110)

Here's a really short look at what the Catholic Church says about:
  • Superstition
    • Bad idea
    • A deviation of religious feeling
    • Assumes that outward performance magically makes things happen
      • Like just saying the words of a prayer
      (Catechism, 2111)
  • God may let us know what's going to happen
    • But it's the Almighty's decision
      (Catechism, 2115)
  • Don't do divination
    • This includes, but is not limited to
      • Asking Satan or demons for help
      • Conjuring up the dead
      • Consulting horoscopes
      • Astrology
      • Palm reading
      • Interpretation of omens and lots
      (Catechism, 2116)
  • Magic or sorcery, trying to tame occult powers, is a not allowed
    • Even if you mean well
      (Catechism, 2117)

Grieving Parents, Darkroom Ghosts, and Me

I don't know from personal experience what it's like to lose a three-year-old daughter, as the folks in that photo had.

On the other hand, my wife and I lost our youngest child just before birth - an event that almost killed my wife, too. I think I may have some idea of the sort of sadness, grief, and feelings of loss that would go with having a somewhat older child die.

The idea of communicating with my deceased daughter never occurred to me. Mostly, I think, because I knew better: By the time we lost our daughter, I'd found that bit in the Catechism about divination and related bad ideas.

Besides, I expect to meet her before too long. Human beings don't often live more than maybe a century. Unless something highly unexpected happens, somewhere in the next several decades I'll die. Then, I hope and pray, I'll be looking forward to a better life: with questions answered, people met, and praises to sing. And that's yet another topic.

Finally, about that image on the photo? I think the odds are that the photographer decided to make the grieving couple's wish come true - and superimposed a 'ghostly' image on the print we have. It'd be easy enough to do - and might have seemed an act of kindness, as well as commercially expedient.

But maybe those Campbells really did get - someone - to show up, and whatever was there made an impression on the photograph. On the whole, I'd rather think that we're looking at darkroom tricks.

That interview with the woman from Endor5 didn't end well - and that's yet again another topic.

As for "Doctor Faustus,"6 that Elizabethan-era play? Among other things, it shows that folks being uncomfortable with new information - is nothing new. And that topic will have to wait for another post, another day.

Related posts:

1 Spiritualism, capital "S," was really big in the 19th century - and the 20th, for that matter:
  • "Spiritualism"
    • The angle here is the familiar PC/women's studies thing
      • But the page gives a good-enough overview of names and events in 19th century Spiritualism
2 I've got congenital hip dysplasia: a five-dollar phrase meaning that my original-equipment hip joints weren't up to spec. Being part of a medical experiment didn't help matters, and that's another topic:
3 Between defective hips and a 'trick' central nervous system, I've had experiences and opportunities not many people get.
4 "Occult" has quite a few more-or-less similar meanings:
  • Occult (noun)
    • Supernatural forces and events and beings collectively
    • Supernatural practices and techniques
  • Occult (verb)
    • Cause an eclipse of (a celestial body) by intervention
    • Become concealed or hidden from view or have its light extinguished
    • Hide from view
  • Occult (adjective)
    • Hidden and difficult to see
    • Mysterious, mystic, mystical, occult, secret, orphic
    • Having an import not apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence; beyond ordinary understanding
    (Princeton's WordNet)
5 Some of the folks in Bible weren't the best role models. Including some of the 'good guys." 1 Samuel 28:7-19, for example. Here's an explanation for why we shouldn't do everything that Saul did:
"Human beings cannot communicate at will with the souls of the dead. God may, however, permit a departed soul to appear to the living and even to disclose things unknown to them. Saul's own prohibition of necromancy and divination (⇒ 1 Sam 28:3) was in keeping with the consistent teaching of the Old Testament. If we are to credit the reality of the apparition to Saul, it was due, not to the summons of the witch, but to God's will; the woman merely furnished the occasion."
(1 Samuel 28, footnote 1)
6 Since I don't know when I'll do a post about Dr. Faustus, here's a link to a pretty good discussion:Links to my posts about:


Brigid said...

Old what? "I'm pretty confident about the identity of the mother and father in that old."

Your Irish is showing: "me wife and I lost our youngest"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Ah, sure and it's grateful I am that ye take trouble to point these out. Thanking you I am.

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.