All Art Converses With The Dead


A flat-lay of a 1945 copy of The Library of Health open to a black and yellow illustration of the human skeleton, with paintbrushes, black model skull, and mini pumpkins.

(Image: 1945 edition of the Library of Health.)



All art converses with the dead, whether it tells them off, rips them off, pays them homage, invites them into the heart, or any other mode of exchange. We can’t take a breath in this world without getting history in the lungs. The artist who ignores history still gets it second-hand from all those peers who take it in directly to exhale the smelly, bewarmed vapor of it back to shared atmosphere. In every lung, the ghosts. In every ghost, the tangled traces of other ghosts, parallel and prior. In ferns, who are the lungs of woods, more ghosts still, and only a minority human.

No humanity, present or onward, without the millennia-long genetic and cultural legacies that produced us.

No future without the scaffolding vision of our arts, and no art without communication.

No human communication without the infectious cross-contact of art.

No art without the craft and vision of the dead.

Jeepers creepers, if it’s like that, then what’s the dividing line between chasing history and doing necromancy? Pop-cultural necromancy revolves around sci-fi and fantasy powers like raising your dead, commanding your undead, and using superlative edge-lordliness to impress your friends and intimidate your rivals. But historically, necromancy means divining, or reading the future, by consulting the dead.

The suffix “-mancy” comes from some very old words for divination. Cartomancy is card-divination, bibliomancy is books-divination, necromancy is dead-people-divination, and so on through the one-million-billion unique forms of divination catalogued through the ages and, more recently, hilariously, on Wikipedia. Necromancy might get as intense and arcane as verboten, graveside rituals. Necromancy might get as casual as thinking of a dead person, asking a question, and listening to your thought-stream, but only if we shake its definition nigh loose as a snitch’s lips to encompass all mediumship.

Certain hardcore magician types put elbow grease and metal aesthetics into making necromancy way creepier than setting a cup of tea by an empty chair to chat with Grandma. That crowd mightn’t appreciate us besmirching their eldritch hobbies with too much of our hipster fluff. (On the other hand, plenty folks throughout history have bled and died over haunted pastimes as low-key as psychic fortune telling, entheogenic trancing, and serious dreaming.)

Many cultures world-and-time over have believed in the possibility of contacting the dead for guidance, although different cultures hold different beliefs around what the dead know and how to reach them. One pattern of ancient occult theory supposes that the dead can access knowledge and see time, including the future, in ways that embodied people on the living-waking side can’t. This strain of antique necromancy involves pestering and manipulating recently dead people (rude) to extract information from that privileged post-life perspective, and any spirit who can be placated or controlled might do by that worldview. In that sense, necromancy (divining by random dead people after death because of how they see the living) is quite distinct from the interplay between cultural trajectory and history (divining by particular dead people from back when they were still alive because of what they did).

It’d be intentionally misleading to conflate the two, but artistically interesting.

Should an always thing like art or communication ever default to an uh-oh thing like necromancy, even the very pious and nervous would be susceptible to the uh-oh subset setting. We do see that the rigors of either embracing or rejecting religion do not in themselves inoculate against the influence of history or the company of ghosts. The devout and the atheist are just as prone to magical, human behaviors like loosing wishes and barking at the dead as the irreverent, the gothic, the psychic, and the heathen. Too often piety means violently preferring your own ghosts over everyone else’s. Too often the lines between what gets classed as necromancy or prayer, as sorcery or liturgy, as Art or art, even as esoteric or mundane, have little to do with the ways our world works, and a great deal to do with politics, and the proclivities and fears of our world’s hierarchical mountaineers.

Criminalizing the likes of necromancy, divination, and folk magic never stopped them, of course. So long as there’s belief in ghosts, there’ll be demand to speak with them. And so long as people keep experiencing un(re)solved mysteries, tragedies, and miracles, they’ll keep believing in spirits. Laws can’t erase what is everywhere, but neither do ubiquity and normalization necessarily bring the comfort required to keep laws off the backs of natural occurrences like mystery, oddity, and grief. Maybe the uh-oh setting feels threatening because it is hazardous. (Note that hazardous is not always the same as false, wrong, or bad.)

Embracing the deathy bits of art and communication includes appreciation for all the beauty, tenacity, and inspiration we receive from our cultural and creative forebears. But it also requires some wariness of how fraught it can be to speak with a mouth full of ghosts. Dangerous also to casually let the spirits slide too far down either pipe. Whose works do you breathe? Whose works do you eat? Whose works encoded the cityscape architecture of your juices, bones, and meat? Which, of all these voices, did you call and choose? Which of the whole flock sculpt you unawares? Do they sculpt you to repeat them, correct them, vindicate them, heal them, feed them, entertain them, or something else?

And what, within your art, shall you do with what they’ve done to you?



 

Ghost Disclaimers: Hey, in case it isn’t obvious, I’m being playful and symbolic in my writing here, and expect to appeal most to those who also lean a bit goth-of-center. Please don’t fret yourself overmuch about ghosts! You’re no more surrounded by them now than you were before you read this. Art’s super vague, so if all art counted as sorcery & haunting we’d surely be past the point where, like, everything would be sorcery & haunting. In such a world, even the systems that install revulsion for sorcery & haunting, like science and religion, would themselves involve and revolve around sorcery & haunting. And in that event, why even worry about it?

This essay is offered not as a reliable guide to magical praxis or divination, but as a gentle-macabre and goodly spooky attempt to understand a thing about art through symbol and metaphor.

True Confession: I think this world might be a better place if more people worried as much about the definite influence of history than the possible presence of spirit. The two are far from mutually exclusive, but of the pair, history is so often the more malignant.


 

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