What Evidence Would You Have?

Portrait of Russian poet Konstantin Batyushkov, 1815, by Nikolai Utkin.

Do you believe in ghosts, shades, spirits? Do you think you have a soul that will survive the death of your body; or is your body all there is? What evidence would you have?

This morning, as every morning, in the gray light of early dawn, while still in bed, I recited the following: “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.” [Siddur Tehillat Hashem].

Notice the words “restored my soul within me.” Clearly, they allude to a distinction between my soul and me. Apart from Holy Writ, from where might such an idea come, that is, that I have a soul in addition to my body? I can see my body, touch it, move it. Others can see it. But what about my soul?

In his book, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition, Hillel Halkin suggests an interesting possibility.

Perhaps human beings were first convinced of the incorporeal existence of a soul by their dream lives at night. In dreams, we go places, see things, and have strange experiences while physically remaining where we are; to the mind of prescientific man, only a part of ourselves that was free to leave our sleeping bodies and return to them could account for this.

Hillel Halkin. After One-Hundred-and-Twenty

Now, suppose I have a soul: what about others like me, other humans? Do they have souls? At lunch today, my wife told me a dream she had last night. We live in Israel, but in her dream, she was in Mississippi. At some point, I showed up. We waited for a train. Well, I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to Mississippi last night; I don’t think she did either—at least her body didn’t. And neither she nor I remember ever waiting for a train in Mississippi. Our bodies certainly spent the night in Israel.

In the seventh poem of Book IV of his collected poetry, the Latin author Propertius, who lived during the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus, writes:

Ghosts exist then: death doesn’t end it all;
the pallid shade eludes the guttering pyre.

Sextus Propertius. Poems. Ed./trans. by Patrick Worsnip.

There’s a bit of a leap here. We’ve gone from “I have a soul,” to “others have souls,” to “souls survive the death of their bodies,” or, more poetically, elude the “guttering pyre.” It’s somewhat easy for us to make this leap concerning souls, though. After all, they can travel great distances overnight, sometimes they fly, and sometimes in our dreams, we see people who we know have died. I have seen my father, for instance, who died in 1976, in a number of dreams. He and I talk, argue, hug each other.

In his poem, “The Shade of My Friend,” the great Russian Romantic poet Konstantin Batyushkov (1787-1855) tells about something he saw at night on the ocean traveling from England back home to Russia. By the way, he uses the Propertius quotation given above as an epigraph to the poem. Here is an extract from “The Shade of My Friend,” translated by Peter France.

And suddenly…was I asleep?…I saw the friend
Who perished in the fateful fight
And by the Pleisse’s waters met his noble end.
But the sight brought no fear; his brow
Preserved no trace of his deep wounds,
And like an April morning shone with joy,
Bringing the light of heaven to my mind.
“My dear friend, is it you, comrade of my best days?
Can it be you?—I cried—ever beloved warrior!
Did I not weep at your untimely burial,
Lit by the fearful glare of martial flames,
Did I not with true friends inscribe
Your valor with the sword’s edge on the wood,
Accompanying your soul to its celestial home
With groans and prayers and tears?
Shade of the unforgotten, dear friend, speak!
Or was the past all only a mirage, a dream,
All, the pale corpse, the grave, the solemn rite
Performed by friendship to your memory?
O, say one word to me! Let that familiar sound
Once more caress my eager ear,
And let me, o my unforgotten friend,
Press your hand lovingly in mine!…”
And I flew to him…But the ethereal shade
Vanished in the blue depths of cloudless sky
Like smoke, a meteor or a nightmare vision,
And sleep fell from my eyes.

Konstantin Batyushkov. Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry. Columbia University Press.

My all-time favorite story of an encounter between a person and a ghost is entirely fictional, as far as I know—the visit to Ebenezer Scrooge by the ghost of his partner, Jacob Marley, who’s been dead for seven years. The story is told in the classic, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. At first, Scrooge is a skeptic. His idea concerning the nature of dreams is not mystical, to say the least.

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol

It’s not long, however, until Scrooge becomes a believer.

The book has been made into a movie several times. I love the version starring Alastair Sim, but I especially enjoy the visitation of Marley portrayed in the 1984 film starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge and Frank Finlay as Marley’s Ghost.

May all your dreams, or fragments of underdone potatoes, be pleasant ones.

All the best!

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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