Eschatology and Unfinished Business

© 2011 Edwin A. Scribner

When my wife read the abstract, she asked “What’s eschatology”? I said “discourse relating to final matters. That usually means death – death of a person or death of humankind, ie ‘the end of the world’.” If that’s wrong then please disregard the title of this paper. In some respects it is wrong if one believes in a life after death, but then they surely envisage a life very different from the one here. And envisage is all that is possible. As Edward Fitzgerald wrote (presumably rephrasing Omar Khayyam):

Strange is it not that of the thousands who
Before us passed the Door of Darkness through,
None has returned to tell us of the Road
Which, to discover, we must travel too?

Thus it is only in speculative or religious literature that the detail of life after death is seriously addressed. Thus it must be only in this literature that one can find material on the topic of this paper.

Religious works tend not to deal with spirits returning to Earth after death. Typically, and certainly for mainstream Christianity, the soul goes elsewhere and stays elsewhere and there is no further interaction with this world. Moreover the matter is considered beyond science. Thus, to begin delving into the world, real or imagined, of the dead returning in order to complete an unfinished work, or to redress a past wrongdoing, one must look to speculative fiction.

I was involved in four “festivals of speculative fiction” organised by the New South Wales Writers’ Centre in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. They were named “Magic Casements” after the line in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”. I suggested the name as it encapsulated the notion of looking through a window with the eyes of a speculative writer; such looking could conjure up images beyond the real world. This is a vision that many people hunger for and that writers of speculative fiction - science fiction, fantasy and horror – can supply.

Unfinished business, in the context of death, can mean a variety of things. It may mean an unfinished income tax return, unused food in the refrigerator or perhaps a half completed business deal. Of greater interest to posterity perhaps, are incomplete works of, eg, literature, art, music, architecture and films. In music, Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor”, Beethoven’s tenth symphony, Bruckner’s ninth symphony, Elgar’s third  symphony, Mahler’s tenth symphony, Schubert’s seventh symphony (not his eighth which, though called the “unfinished”, is in fact considered to have been conceived with only the two movements that exist), Sibelius’s eighth symphony, Tschaikovsky’s third piano concerto and Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue” were considered incomplete at the death of the composer. Some musical works have been finished by others, leading to the question of who really deserves the title of composer. “Prince Igor” was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazanov, but when the opera is performed its composition is usually attributed only to Borodin. Beethoven’s tenth symphony was in such an early stage that it’s “completion” by Barry Cooper is not considered a work of Beethoven at all though its origins are acknowledged.

To cite literary instances of “return from death”, I need go no further than “The Lord of the Rings”. Perhaps the classic quote to illustrate what this paper addresses would be the words of Gandalf when, some 15 or so days after the Company of the Ring saw him fall into the Abyss in Moria, he appeared in the forest in front of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. Having recounted the outcome of his fight with the Balrog, Gandalf hinted darkly at experiences beyond Middle-Earth that “would not tell”, following that with: “Naked I was sent back – for a brief time until my task is done …”. As well as Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings we meet the Dead Men of Dunharrow – doomed to remain in Middle Earth as spirits until the next ruler of the Reunited Kingdom should require the service of them. They supplied this service to Aragorn and then were able to go where the souls of men go. Also we meet the Ringwraiths – souls of men bound in the servitude of Sauron, but finally liberated from Middle-Earth by the destruction of the Ruling Ring, which event rendered Sauron impotent for a very long time. And we meet the Barrow Wights – imprisoned by the Witch King of Angmar (aka the Lord of the Nazgul or the chief Ringwraith) until freed by Tom Bombadil.

But perhaps the most interesting “return for a limited time” in Tolkien’s works was not in The Lord of the Rings but in The Silmarillion, and was the story of Beren and Luthien. This came from “The Lay of Leithian”, a long poem, written by Tolkien in his 20’s and comprising rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter (though the metre is fairly loose and the rhyme sometimes degenerates to assonance). Sadly it was not finished nor, to my knowledge, has anyone else attempted to finish it, but Tolkien had written the full story in prose and that was in the Silmarillion version, reconstructed by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay, and published in 1976. After many hazardous adventures, including confrontation with Morgoth Bauglir, the Prince of Evil himself, and on the brink of ultimate victory, Beren was killed. But Luthien, child of an Elf and an “Angel” (“Ainu” in Tolkien’s subcreation), died “in sympathy” and her soul (Fea) importuned Mandos, the Custodian of souls (the custody was temporary in the case of Men) to allow Beren life again. In a decision given only once in the history of Middle-Earth the couple were allowed to live in wedlock, but Luthien had to renounce her earthly immortality (as later so did Arwen) and in due course they both died natural deaths.

A disembodied soul or spirit is, when it can be detected, referred to as a ghost. Once the words spirit and ghost were equivalent, but folklore has over the years endowed ghosts with certain attributes that tend to distinguish them semantically from spirits. Some ghosts can be seen, others not, while still others can be seen or not, by their own wills or by the wills of whatever or whoever is controlling them. Typically ghosts have little power but those that do have power may inspire great fear, since defence against them may appear impossible. In the three stories I’ve chosen as examples of spirits that have returned to Earth for a limited time in order to complete a task or redress an iniquity, there is little malevolence shown, either by the ghosts to those with whom they interact, or to the ghosts. I shall now take the stories in chronological order of publication.

Carousel (first performed in 1945).

Ferenc Molnar, a Hungarian playwright and novelist, wrote a play called “Liliom” which was published in 1908 and the English translation published in 1921. The plot of Liliom was used as the basis for composer Richard Rodgers and librettist-lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II to write the musical “Carousel”, first staged in 1945. The plots of Liliom and Carousel are very similar except in the major issue of where the principal male character was sent after death. In both cases, however, he was allowed back to Earth for a short time in order to redress the consequences of his actions before he died (by his own hand).

In the first part of the story, Boy met Girl and they fell in love, though circumstances and the actions of other characters made this love affair difficult. Nevertheless they did get married and the woman bore a child (a girl) before they found themselves in such financial straits that the man was forced to consider desperate measures to get money and, with an accomplice, planned a robbery. The robbery went horribly wrong and, though the accomplice got away, the man was trapped. He avoided being taken alive by stabbing himself. I’ll now follow the fortunes of Billy Bigelow in Carousel, then briefly summarise the difference between him and his Molnar play counterpart, Liliom.

Billy arrived at Heaven’s Gate, but was barred from entering (I note in passing that “Heaven’s Gate” or “The Pearly Gates” is probably the setting for more jokes than any other place, perhaps because there is a desire to laugh at what might otherwise be feared, or perhaps simply because of a lack of any real knowledge, so the pearly gates can be made to fit any desired image). After some haggling, Billy was allowed to return to Earth for a short time, but the return was set fifteen years ahead in Earth time, so that the child of his marriage was a teenager. She was rebellious and angry, and had been snubbed by much of the community because of the exploits of her father. Billy could make himself visible or invisible to specific onlookers. He revealed himself to his daughter but hid from Julie (his widow – Liliom’s wife/widow was also named Julie). He claimed to be a friend of her father and offered her a present – a star he stole from Heaven (the “star” being a “star-shaped” shiny object a few inches across – it’s notable that stealing this star did not appear to constitute a misdemeanor) but she refused and he slapped her face. Later she revealed that the slap actually felt like a kiss.

Then he became invisible. In this state he talked to Julie and declared his love for her. He then (still invisible) attended his daughter’s graduation ceremony, at which the whole town snubbed her, allowing her to receive her graduation papers in silence where everyone else was clapped. However the dignitary who delivered the graduation address warned the graduates not to depend on parents’ success or be held back by parents’ mistakes. This well known dignitary bore a striking resemblance to one of the angels in the Heaven scene, although nothing to link the two was said. While still remaining invisible, Billy spoke to his daughter, urging her to self confidence. His words, said at just the right time, served to bolster her self-esteem, and this act redeemed Billy who was then admitted to Heaven.

>From the time of his suicide, Liliom’s fate was sundered from that of Billy. He went to what appeared to be Purgatory where he spent fifteen years (apparently time passes there while in Heaven time can be changed at will) and he failed to alter the course of his daughter’s life, so he was consigned to Hell for all eternity.

Incidentally, Richard Rodgers might have had his career as a composer cut short by the death of his former collaborator, Lorenz Hart, but Oscar Hammerstein II filled that void and, as they say, the rest is history. The end of the collaboration came, not with death but with the “vein worked out”. Their last musical, The Flower Drum Song, suffered the same fate as Gilbert and Sullivan’s last operetta, The Grand Duke, being generally acknowledged as their worst collaboration.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (first published 1987).

Douglas Adams stands tall in the field of tongue-in-cheek satirical science fiction. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman have to some extent filled the void left by his untimely death at age 48, but he has been sorely missed by his many fans. He wrote five books in the “Hitch-Hiker Trilogy” (his words), plus collaborations in a facetious dictionary ("The Meaning of Liff") and a book on environmental awareness ("Last Chance to See"), and books about Dirk Gently and his Holistic Detective Agency. Of the second, “The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul” nothing bears directly on this paper. Relevant to the topic, however, was the third book, “The Salmon of Doubt”. Adams died with it unfinished (eleven chapters were written). These were published posthumously, along with short stories, essays and interviews, under the title “The Salmon of Doubt”. The first Dirk Gently book involves both ghosts and time travel. This latter aspect makes a resumé distinctly difficult, but the importance to the topic justifies taking the challenge.

Following the time line rather than the story line, it all began several billion years ago, when a space ship crashed into Earth. On it were beings called Salaxalans, sick of their home planet and intent on finding another home, plus an automaton known as an Electric Monk. The crash was due to mistakes and poor management by the engineer, plus faults in the Electric Monk. All were killed in the crash which, however, caused new and widespread chemical reactions to start in the earth’s seas, and this eventually led to life evolving on Earth. Because of his lack of care and attention to his job, the Engineer was condemned (though by what Authority is not mentioned) to wander the Earth and observe the consequences of his folly (us J). We hear little directly from this ghost, but it is his actions that direct the course of important subsequent events.

In the early nineteenth century, the ghost discovered that there was a time machine on Earth, in the possession of one Professor Reg Chronotis of St Cedd’s College, Cambridge (that’s a little known college – don’t go looking for it!) who is unable to use it. The ghost also found that he has limited power to influence certain human minds. He managed to control the mind of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to the extent of getting him to write additional material in the poems “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, which contained instructions on fixing the space ship (when in its pre-crash state).

Into the 20th century, and the ghost managed to get Chronotis to use the time machine, to travel to a distant planet, pick up, and return with, an Electric Monk. The Monk, however, turned out to be unreliable so the ghost let it go on Earth. Then the ghost found that he could gain influence over the mind of one Michael Wenton-Weakes, who had just lost his job as editor of a magazine. The ghost got Wenton-Weakes to kill his former boss, Albert Ross, and then got him to read Coleridge’s works with a view to have Prof. Chronotis transport him back to the time before the crash, with a view to his avoiding it thus preventing the development of life on Earth.

The Electric Monk, thinking that he was carrying out his order correctly, shot and killed Gordon Way, president of Way Forward Technologies II. From this point there followed a detailed description of the thoughts and feelings of a ghost as the ghost of Gordon Way attempted to carry out various tasks aimed at bringing his affairs to some reasonable sort of conclusion. This involved delivering a message to his sister, Susan, to whom he was talking by phone just before the time of his death. While doing this, he became an immaterial (my word) witness to the murder of Albert Ross. Later he got the message of this murder to Susan then, having completed his unfinished business, disappeared or was taken to whatever destination befitted him.

Richard McDuff, an employee of Way Forward Technologies and a friend of Reg Chronotis, was dating Susan Way at this time and he realised that he was a potential suspect in the murder of Gordon Way. He attempted to remove potentially incriminating evidence from Susan’s phone answering machine. He was caught in the act by his friend Svlad Cjelli, aka Dirk Gently, of the one man detective agency that is the title of the book. He owned up to Gently and gave an account of his actions. Dirk Gently, using the “holistic” approach (“all things affect each other”), deduced that (a) a ghost and (b) a time machine must figure in the action.

Reg Chronotis admitted to having the time machine, but Michael Wenton-Weakes confronted him while still possessed by the Ghost of the Engineer. Michael convinced Reg and Richard to go back in time to before the space ship crash, with a view to fixing it. However, Richard then learned from Susan about the murder of Albert Ross, and they realised that, were the space ship not to crash, no life would have evolved on Earth. They managed to go back to Coleridge’s time and alter the words of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” so as to prevent Michael from having the correct instructions when he reached the space ship. (was one of these two the mysterious “person from Porlock”?) Note that he carried these instructions from the 20th century).

After the time travel, Dirk, Richard and Reg arrived back in the present and found some minor changes but life was generally as they had remembered it, except that (mercifully) the time machine no longer worked. Dirk Gently wrote off the Case of Saving Humankind as “no charge”.

The Sixth Sense (released 1999).

M. Night Shyamalan, writer and director (born in India, now living in the USA), made his reputation with this psycho-drama film which won a “Nebula” (award bestowed annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America) fin the category of best film script, and was nominated for six Academy Awards. While Carousel’s ghost was capable of being visible or invisible at will, and in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency the two ghosts were substantially invisible, in The Sixth Sense the main “ghost” was indistinguishable from a normal living man, except by those who had the “sixth sense”, or the ability to “see dead people”.

The principal character is child psychologist Dr Malcolm Crowe (played by Bruce Willis). In the first scene he arrived home with his wife after being publicly honoured for his work with children. However, one Vincent Grey, a former patient, was waiting for them and he shot Crowe in the stomach before turning the gun on himself. Apparently he had not been helped in past sessions with Crowe, and his anger and frustration had boiled over. This scene ended abruptly.

Many months later, Malcolm Crowe had a patient, nine year old Cole Sear, who had a condition similar to Vincent Grey’s. He was shown concentrating on this boy, presumably not wanting the failure over Vincent to be repeated. Meanwhile, due to his neglect, the relationship with his wife was coming apart. Cole eventually confided in him that he could “see dead people”. Sceptical at first, Malcolm came to believe Cole. One night, as he was listening to a tape he had made with Vincent, he heard the “pleading voices of dead people” in the background and he realised that Vincent had had this ability too. He suggested to Cole that he might find a purpose for his gift, in talking to ghosts, perhaps to aid the completion of unfinished business. At first Cole did not like the idea as ghosts scared him, but later he resolved to try.

Cole then talked to the ghost of a girl, who appeared very sick. He discovered where she lived and went to the house during the funeral. The ghost appeared and showed Cole a box that contained a videotape. The tape showed that, while the girl was bedridden with an illness, the mother was poisoning her food, and it was the poisoning that led to her death. Emboldened by the obvious value of this discovery, Cole told his mother about it. She didn’t believe him at first but Cole told her certain stories concerning her mother - stories which Cole could not possibly know unless he could talk to her mother, and his mother accepted the undeniable fact.

Malcolm’s self esteem was much enhanced and restored by his success with Cole, and he returned home where his wife was asleep on the couch. Her hand released Malcolm’s wedding ring. Malcolm was revealed as being a ghost himself, having been killed by Vincent Grey in the first scene. Clearly this “ghost” was indistinguishable from living flesh and blood to all but those with the “sixth sense”. However, thanks to Cole’s actions, Malcolm’s unfinished business was now complete. He released his wife from him so she could move on with her life, and he prepared to leave the world of the living.

These three examples of the spirits of dead people returning to complete unfinished business are a diverse trio and show that such a theme can occur in a variety of media – book, stage and screen. Just how it bears on reality, though, is likely to remain as hidden as the other irresoluble mysteries behind the event that will in due course overtake us all. 


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