(Written by a Stanford student–LN.)
“The Canterville Ghost” is subtitled “A Hylo-Idealistic Romance.” Hylo-idealism is the philosophical position that reality exists by virtue of our belief in it–an intriguing concept for a ghost story. Once I looked up the definition, I was tempted to ascribe hylo-idealism to the English aristocracy and a different position to the Americans, but that isn’t really accurate. Wilde never makes anything so simple. Because there is never any doubt in the Otises’ minds that the ghost exists–he is part of the objective reality of their everyday lives, they believe wholeheartedly in him. Indeed, upon his first appearance, “all doubts about the objective existence of phantasmata were removed for ever” (187). They believe in the ghost but none of them are driven to death or madness. Why are the Otises so unbothered? There is a simple answer, which is that according to hylo-idealism, the Cantervilles all must have believed the ghost could hurt them, thereby allowing him to do so, whereas the devilish Otis twins believed that the ghost exists as their own personal toy to torment, eventually convincing the ghost to believe the same until he became little more than their plaything. However, Wilde had just returned from America, and there is something amusingly pragmatic about the Otises that makes me believe that he may have intended a more complicated philosophical comment.
Pragmatism a philosophical school which began in America near the end of the nineteenth century and gained a great deal of traction in Boston and Chicago. Unlike hylo-idealism, we’ve probably all heard of pragmatism, or have been told to be more pragmatic. But pragmatism as a philosophy is not synonymous with practicality–it is rather a total suspension of irrelevant (and irresolvable) quibbling over details and asking instead “What difference–what concrete, livable, non-abstract difference–does it make if my theory is true and its opposite is false?” If it doesn’t make a difference (and let’s be honest, when we get into the more abstract and esoteric debates, it usually doesn’t)–it doesn’t matter and the argument is an illusion, a verbal issue but not a genuine one. Philosophical theories are all just tools and should be judged by the functionality of their conclusions–which, because we’ve done away with extraneous esoteric unknowable debates, are also always concrete consequences, not simply proofs. And that is how the Otises act. Not necessarily the children, who are thoughtless little holy terrors who probably don’t understand the forces which they are disrespecting (which, upon further reflection, may also be a remark about America), but the parents. Rather than wondering what it means for religion, physics, or metaphysics that their manor is undeniably, absolutely haunted, Minister Otis wonders if it would be impolitic to remove the ghost’s chains so that he may sleep better. How marvelously pragmatic! They’re stuck with a ghost–whatever that means–and he’s noisy. What tools are at his disposal to solve his problem? We might think the ghost is the problem, but his existence is not as immediately troubling as the rattling chains, so the Rising Sun Lubricant is more helpful–more pragmatic–than fear.
But there is a ghost! A sentient higher-natural being possessing intimate awareness of the grand mysteries of life and death. And all the Otises–except Virginia–are too pragmatic to seek them out. Actually, their sheer pragmatic refusal to be bothered by him, but only the immediate problems he causes, drives him away. How much knowledge, how much wisdom, they miss in their attempt to solve only the concretely solvable. Virginia, though, with her strain of “mediaevalism” gets at something deeper (202). I’m not sure what she might symbolize, but she is crippled by neither hylo-idealism or pragmatism and by engaging in some other mode of inquiry and existence manages learn the meaning of life without being driven mad. –LN