10 September 2007

Mind-body dualism

I love this snarky little passage from the story Ghosts: The Straight Dope about mind-body dualism.

The story is set in the world of the Unknown Armies dice-and-bad-acting game ... which I highly recommend, if you're into that sort of thing. If you want to read the whole story—which I warn you, is vulgar, disconcerting, and entertaining—you can find it as an RTF or I have it as HTML.


Ghosts: The Straight Dope

From the Poison Pen of Dirk Allen

©1999 Greg Stolze

I'm sitting back in my Texas poker shack, inhaling the pungent stink of black powder and thinking about ghosts. I tend to think about ghosts whenever I shoot at a man, that is, whenever my ex-wife gets it in her pretty little head to send a skip chaser after me. I thought I saw this clown following me around New York, so I decided to hop out to Texas. I love Texas. The gun laws are liberal, the girls are hearty and kind, the air is clear and so is my field of fire in every direction. I popped off a couple rounds at the slimy bastard when he was still 100 yards away. At least I think it was him: might have been the postman. If the local sheriff asks, I'll just tell him I thought it was an armadillo. Those trundling little beasts carry leprosy you know.

But you probably don't care about my marital woes and firearm fetishism, any more than you care about my thing for heavyset black girls. (Now there's a taste the wise man indulges but discretely in Texas—in fact, I was hoping to scratch that itch in New York, but Stella had moved, no forwarding address, leaving me to bay in the street like Stanley Kowalski. Stella, if you're reading this—hell, if you can read this—look me up Seattle, baby.) You don't care about my liquor spurred delusions, my sexual hangups, my need to rub ice cubes on my nipples before I can write—you don't care, and if you do care, you shouldn't. Get a job or a girlfriend for Christ's sake!

No, what you care about are the ghosts.

Okay. I'll tell you about ghosts. But first I'll tell you about Plato.

Now, what I'm about to say is going to piss off all my college English professors: Plato was wrong. You hear me, Dr. Eaton? Plato dropped the ball! Plato screwed the pooch! PLATO WAS WRONG!

Oh, that felt good. It also happens to be true, but what good is truth if you can't rub it in the noses of former authority figures?

Anyhow, Plato thought that the body and soul were separate, and okay, he was right about that. But he thought the body was nasty, icky, base and vile, while the soul was good, clean, pure and decent. This idea, put forth in the Phædo, asserted that it was your gross, dirty-tampon extruding body that made you want to do bad things like drink cheap liquor, pimp-slap your ex-wife for mouthing off, masturbate, fornicate, nurse your hate, procrastinate and stay out late. Your spirit, on the other hand, led you towards higher, purer, better, more spiritual things—near as I can tell, he was mainly talking about geometry there.

“Spirit good, body bad” was a popular doctrine among people who wanted you to keep your dirty fingers off yourself and other people, so it's no big surprise that Saint Augustine was a big, big fan. (Having gotten his ya-yas out early, I guess he figured it would be a good trick to blame his body for all the kinky things he'd done with it.)

Flash forward a couple hundred decades. Now in This Modern Age, we know that there's a chemical basis for a lot of our emotions and urges and drives. The brain chemical that makes you feel all hot and bothered when you're threatened? That's a bitch's brew of adrenaline and epinephrine, friend. The chemical that makes you feel relaxed, benevolent, and kindly towards your fellow man? That one's named “scotch.”

The “spirit good, four legs bad” shtick is still around, having been thoroughly ingrained in Catholicism and philosophy and art and a bunch of other stuff that most people never think about seriously, but that still control your thoughts whether you know it or not. Problem is, it's not true. It's not your spirit that makes you feel all gooshy and sweet around babies. You're biologically wired to feel sticky affection for anything that has a big head, big eyes and a small body. That's why E.T. and those damn Cabbage Patch dolls are so popular. It's your body that makes you empathize with other human beings.

Your mind, on the other hand, makes rationales. Sure, rage starts in the body, getting hopped up on chemicals with long names when some asshole cuts you off in traffic. But it's the mind that creates revenge fantasies, that puts a structure to the anger, that finds ways to make it seem okay, or even a good thing for you to hate people. It's your body that gets you mad at the bad driver, but it's your mind that says “Ain't it just like a prick in a BMW to cut me off. All bad drivers should be horsewhipped: it's for the good of society. In fact, let's just flog everyone who drives a German car...”

Not convinced? Okay, then name me an animal species, other than yours and mine, that indulges in intramural murder. Armadillos may be stinky little runts, but they don't kill each other. Lions fight for dominance, but they let the loser slink away in shame, like a one term president. Some smartass is probably going to bring up sharks in a feeding frenzy, but frankly I think that once there's blood in the water it's probably hard to tell if you're biting a chum or your chum. I'm chalking that one up to accident, poor visual conditions, over-evolved aggressive instincts, and having a brain the size of a young boy's fist.

So the spirit ain't so pure. The body provides the spark, but it's the brain that provides the fuel, the mind that nurses the flame, and the spirit that keeps it burning. Every enduring idea, from the vodka tonic to National Socialism, started out with an emotion but went the distance carried by the soul.

Which brings us to the ghosts.

Ghosts are just souls without bodies, right? According to our beard-stroking savant Plato, they should be pure, kindly creatures of goodwill and polygon contemplation. “Have no fear, my son, because heaven is nice. Did you know that the square of a right triangle's hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two remaining sides? Blessings of peace be unto you and your family.”

Let's compare that with what ghost sightings are really like. I've studied over a hundred, usually on the scene, and not once did I see any interest in obtuse and acute angles. I saw blood run down walls, I saw a fifty-year-old grandma puking out ectoplasm, I saw a possessed man set himself on fire, giggling all the while, but no peace, no love, no opposite interior angles.

What happens to a mind, cut off from a body? I asked that question to my long time reprobate buddy, Doctor Ugly Mouth. (He's not really a doctor, but the rest of the name is completely accurate.) I met Dr. Ug at some point, I'm sure, but for the life of me I can't recall when. I woke up from a New Orleans Mardi Gras bender in a hotel. I was on one side of the bed, Dr. Ug was on the other and there was a fifty-two-year-old Filipino prostitute wedged between us. I guess we'd gotten pretty familiar.

I lost track of kind, toothless Maria after she made me a nigh-mystical hangover cure, but Dr. Ugly Mouth and I have stayed in touch. The next time I met him was when I was in town covering a possession case. I called Dr. Ug in to consult.

“Ghosts,” he said sententiously “Are nothin' but a pack of lyin' bitches. Remember that, Admiral.” (I guess at some point I told him to call me “Admiral.”) “They like pitchers in jail you know: they promise you shit, they try to get you to pick up the soap, an' the minute you do they're inside your body and there ain't nothin' much to do about it. If you an ignorant dope, anyway. A man with knowledge, now that's a different story.”

“What would you do with a spirit?”

“Me? I'd drink it!”

“Not with spirits, you mush mouthed antediluvian saucepot! A spirit, a ghost!”

“I heard you right first time, you trash talkin' catcher honky! I'd drink it right down! You take me to this ghost and I'll drink it `fore your very eyes!”

He said that to demonstrate this spell he'd need half a bottle of Crown Royal, but I'm wise to that old voodoo trick: I told him his ghost would get Boone's Farm, the same fortified hobo wine we were drinking.

We got to the haunting site around nightfall, since there was no reason to think the ghost wouldn't have a sense of melodrama. Like so many of these things, this was centered around a young boy, maybe eight or nine. When we got there, his mom and dad had him tied in a chair and he was swearing up a streak that would make a hung over marine blush with pride.

My first question was why the kid had on boxing gloves. His mother grimaced and pulled up her shirt. There were bright red scratches all over her stomach. “He did this trying to get at me,” she said. When I asked what she meant by “get at” her, it came out that this ghost-wracked little boy had attempted to rape his own mother.

I walked over and looked him in the eye. “Who's in there? Oedipus, is that you?”

The reply was a demand for some whores and sluts he could bang, though not so politely worded. Dr. Ugly Mouth just laughed. “We got us one hard up ghost, Admiral. You gimme that bottle and watch the juju man work it.”

He took a speculative swig, rinsing it around the blackened wrecks that he used for teeth. Then he seized the boy's nose in his left hand and kissed the child full on the mouth.

Now, Boone's Strawberry Hill isn't to everyone's taste, especially when it just came from a mouth that could serve as Club Med for halitosis germs. The kid reacted like you'd expect: he struggled against his bonds and tried to scream, but the good doctor had shifted his left hand around to clamp the kid's jaw shut. With his right hand he wedged the bottle between the boy's lips, wrenching the child's tiny head forward. When he let go of the jaw, the kid naturally opened it to spit out the noxious wine that was even then starting to come out his nose.

Myself, I haven't been able to drink Strawberry Hill since. Don't even like to hear the song.

The kid's dad and mom looked about ready to give Dr. Ugly a two-fisted talking-to as he stood up and brandished the bottle triumphantly. “Look, there the little bodysnatcher now!” Just then, the kid said “Mama?” in a voice completely different from the swearing grunts that had greeted us.

Inside the bottle, I could see... something. Not anything in particular. But a suggestion of features, a form... a person. Like when you see a shape in the clouds, or think the leaves on a tree look like a face, or the wood grain of a table looks like a woman's figure... It was there. Dr. Ugly Mouth shook the bottle, and then it looked scared.

“Grave dusty bastard bit my lip,” he said, and from the blood I saw he was right. He squinted into the bottle. “You goin' down, sucker. Down the hatch, that is.”

“Wait!” I said. “Let me talk to it first.”

He shrugged.

I put my ear close to the mouth of the bottle, and inside I could hear a faint, whispering voice.

“Please, don't let him do it. I won't come back again, I promise. I just wanted to feel something again, you can understand that right?”

The voice gave me the shivers, even on a hot Louisiana night. No matter how cruel, or misguided, or evil someone becomes, there's still something in each of us that recognizes the human in the other. We can ignore it or deny it or sedate it, but it's never really gone. But listening to the voice from the bottle, I didn't feel it at all. This wasn't a human being: it was the residue of an obsessed mind.

“What's so bad about the afterlife, buddy? Why'd you have to come back and bother this kid?”

“It's worse than hell,” it hissed. “Do you know what it's like to be alone with yourself, and no feeling at all? No way to tell if time is even passing, nothing but your own thoughts, and pretty soon nothing to think about? But you can't get away from you, you can't sleep, you can't feel, all you can do is think and there's nothing to think about. And that's not the worst of it. When company comes, it makes you wish you were alone again...”

“Company? What, other ghosts?”

“I should be so lucky. Please, just drop the bottle, let me go...”

“What happens when you die?”

“I can't tell you.”

“Pity. Doctor, your drink is ready...”

“No, I can't! The hurting ones will come! Don't give me to him, I still want to be!”

“Be what?”

“Be anything! If you let him drink me, I'll be nothing!”

Dr. Ugly Mouth cleared his throat. “Admiral, I'm starting to get me a powerful thirst.” I waved him back.

“Why'd you try to rape that boy's mother? That's not the kind of thing that makes me feel merciful.”

“Jesus, I couldn't help it! I've been dead. Imagine getting nothing for so long you can't remember anything, and then suddenly, it's like you can have everything. I went a little crazy, I'm sorry, it won't happen again! Just let me go, I've learned my lesson!”

I heard the boy crying behind me, saying that the ghost had put horrible things in its head and now they'd never leave. I handed the bottle to Dr. Ugly Mouth.

“Bottoms up,” he said with relish. I thought I could hear a tiny, hollow scream as the wine slid down his throat.

Next time I saw the doctor, he said that the ghost must have been a carpenter, because now he could fix things like he never could before. He also said he'd fixed the boy a trick to keep ghosts off him. “Boy's got more spirit sense than common sense,” he said. “He might make a juju man when he's grown some. If he gets his balls back: that runty-ass ghost scared him good.”

“Nice of you to protect him,” I said. He shrugged.

“Could have used me some ghost bait. You know—the boy catch `em, I drain `em and eat `em. Offered his folks some good things in trade, but they didn't want none of it. So we bargained for the trick.”

“They didn't look like they had much money.”

“Heh. Boy's mama was nice lookin', eh? We worked something out. Trick for a trick, like.”

I've spoken to a couple other ghosts since then. Same thing: bundles of sick drives, scared to exist, scared to stop existing. Most of all, scared of something on the Other Side. One talked about punishing angels, another said they were “the cruel ones” and a third just called them “the outsiders.”

Every time, I felt the same way, and I feel it now just thinking about it. It always makes me want to feel the good things about having a body. I want a hot shower on a cold winter's day, or a cold beer on a hot summer day. I want Johnny Lee's daughter, who can't weigh more than eighty pounds soaking wet, to walk on my back the way no one else ever has. I want to smell honeysuckle and desert sage, I want to see the stars and crack my knuckles and have a hot mouthful of bacon and eggs.

I want to live.

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