A Short History of Ectoplasm
by Nadia de Vries
But what if the ghost is empty
because it’s making a space for you?
—Bhanu Kapil, “Vertigo”
How do you create a comfortable space for someone else?
You test the water with your elbow. You taste the milk before serving it. Is the temperature all right? Tenderness is throwing your body in the ring for someone else, is showing compassion, is taking care of each other. You don’t need to utter a single word.
How do you communicate without uttering a single word?
Ask the Byrne sisters. When they were in their early twenties, their mother died of a terrible illness. After their mother’s death, the sisters moved into a small apartment in Stockholm, where they voiced their grief through a tape recorder. They spoke to the tape recorder in languages that do not exist. They sang songs and cried. The sisters’ sounds weren’t always beautiful. Still, they saved every croak and squeak on a collection of cassette tapes, which they decorated with stickers and glitter glue. A library of mourning sounds. Maybe their mother could hear them.
In that small apartment, Nadine and Tanya Byrne became the Ectoplasm Girls. The cassette tapes resulted in an LP, New Feeling Come, released by iDEAL Recordings in 2016. On the label’s website, the Ectoplasm Girls’ music is described as “a wordless grimoire.” When I was in Stockholm last fall, I saw the sisters’ cassette tapes in the Swedish Museum of Performing Arts. They were stacked on top of each other in a glass box, next to a platinum record of Britney Spears’ … Baby One More Time (over 40,000 units sold in Sweden) and a booklet of handwritten Ane Brun lyrics. One of the tapes was covered with cuttings from a playing card (nine of hearts) and another one, with metallic tape. The Walkman that lay next to the tapes had two red tulips on it, as well as a sticker of a dog. I didn’t know it was possible for a Walkman – such a square and electronic object – to look so tender. Ectoplasm: a material that lends a physical substance to ghosts. The Byrne sisters made their grief material by giving it a physical substance, the analogue medium of tape.
How do you communicate with the dead?
Ectoplasm, according to physiologist Charles Richet, is a spiritual substance that points to a supernatural presence. The existence of ectoplasm has never been scientifically proven, let alone the existence of supernatural presences themselves, but Richet won the 1913 Nobel Prize for Medicine in honor of his research into anaphylaxis (think of peanuts, bee stings). It would be unjust, therefore, to call Richet a quack. Perhaps there is an element of truth to his ectoplasm theory, after all?
The word “ectoplasm” is derived from the Greek word ektos, which means “outside.” Richet claimed that ectoplasm was secreted by supernatural projections. After a séance, the substance would ooze from the orifices (eyes, ears, nostrils) of the psychic in question. In cell biology, the word “ectoplasm” has a far less esoteric connotation: it is used to describe the outer layer of a cell. The term “endoplasm,” on the other hand, is used to describe the inner layer of a cell. Spiritual tools to contact the dead include: Ouija boards, black mirrors, antenna radios, analogue radios, and tape recorders covered with stickers and glitter glue.
How do you throw your body in the ring for someone else?
In the nineteenth century, Dutch midwives were often assisted by dry-nurses: women who helped to watch over newborn babies. The ideal dry-nurse was a somewhat older woman with a soft, round body, making her a comfortable bed for an infant. The dry-nurse would wrap the infant in a blanket and hold it tightly against her. The dry-nurse and the infant would sleep together in front of the fireplace, and neither of them would ever get cold. In a nursing book that I found online, dry-nurses are ascribed with all manner of unpleasant characteristics, such as “coarseness,” “lack of skill,” and “vulnerability to superstition.” Perhaps these Dutch dry-nurses would have been interested in Richet’s theories on the supernatural.
The term “ectomorph” is used to describe someone who is naturally skinny. The term “endomorph” is used to describe someone who is naturally prone to gaining weight. When I was a teenage girl I would often skip meals, and my mother said I looked as pale as a ghost. I wouldn’t have made a good dry-nurse. Fabienne, the French girl in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction: “It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.”
In her 2006 book Lost Bodies, literary scholar Laura E. Tanner argues that, if we want to communicate with each other through verbal language systems, we have to leave our bodes behind. Tanner writes her argument from a medical perspective, and from a palliative care perspective in particular. From this position, she warns against the urge to convey every human experience into words. Some sentiments (care, love, empathy) cannot be conveyed by the body alone. Besides: how can you ask a sick or dying person to leave their body behind? In order to achieve what Tanner calls “sympathetic seeing,” we have to take the body of the other into consideration by using our own body as a gauging point. Would I like to be looked at that way, to be touched there? To regard the world through our own definition of comfort, Tanner writes, is the most sincere way of providing care.
If you want to tell someone you love them without using words, you have to look them straight in the eye and blink very, very slowly. We use the same language system when we talk to our pets.
How can you ask a sick or dying person to leave their body behind?
Like their music, the cover of the Ectoplasm Girls’ album is a tribute to their mother. It depicts her hands, in full color and without jewelry. They look young. They give the album cover a confrontational appearance, or rather, the story behind them does. It feels both surreal and unfair that the person the hands belong to no longer exists in the material world. In the postscript to Lost Bodies, Tanner writes about the catalyst for her study (her father’s death) and how language systems failed her in her quest for comfort. She writes how she and her sister received dozens of well-intended postcards, each bearing the same message: “we are sorry for your loss.” For Tanner, the hollow repetition of this phrase felt like a machine that alienated her from her surroundings, and that stifled her in her mourning process. She would’ve preferred a more embodied form of empathy, no dutifully written postcards but “a material landscape of loss:” the caring acts of others that emphasize, rather than diminish, the absence of the lost. No postcards, but an invitation to grieve. A shoulder to lean against. A soft belly.
In addition to the Byrne sisters’ voices, the New Feeling Come LP features the following instruments: a synthesizer, a steel cutter, a lactation pump.
How do you create a comfortable space for a ghost?
You learn to speak its language. You find the right medium. You press “record.”
This essay is translated from Dutch. The original, Een korte geschiedenis van ectoplasma, was published by De Internet Gids in 2018. The author wishes to thank the editors of the original publication.
About the Author:
Nadia de Vries is the author of Dark Hour (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018). She lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Her memoir about invisible illness, Kleinzeer, will be published by the Dutch press Uitgeverij Pluim in August 2019. Find her at nadiadevries.com