Louis Armstrong famously said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know”. It was, in short, a question of faith: you just knew it when you felt it.

The same is true, in a not-so-different way, of God and the soul. The Bible describes the nagging of faith as the “still, small voice” that spoke to Elijah. But, while the vast majority of the world continues to believe in a god, the overwhelming opinion of the smart set in the modern West is that it’s all just “fairy tales”.

Even so, much of the non-God-believing West is yet unable to shake off the idea of the soul.

This is why a corpse is unnerving. The physical form is there, largely unchanged. But the animating presence has gone, the light switched off. The face is a mask, whether chalklike or heavily made-up, ghastly, quite different from the prosaic outer form of the person who recently was.

Fewer of us in modern times are likely to have watched someone die. But for those who have, the experience is stark and unforgettable. There is no doubting when someone has died indeed, even if the difference cannot be explained. You just know it when you see it.

The eerie horror that leaves the observer grave, shaken and mute — that simply cannot be comprehended — is that this person, lying here as a ghostly physical residue, is gone forever. No breath remains to flutter the veil. The body, cold to the transgressive touch, commands deathly silence, awakening consciousness of the vacancy of life, its little consequence when seen in the context of the infinite, eternal nothing.

Rationally, we may refuse to believe in an afterlife. But asserting something is not the same as “knowing” it.

It is difficult to believe that the concentration of spectral force that, but an hour earlier, animated the human entity that is now a cadaver simply disappears into nothing. It is said that death is final. But those are mere words.

For the preceding 3000 years in our culture, it was assumed that a soul inhabited the living person. According to most beliefs, it arrived at birth and departed at death. With their last breath, the person expired. The spirit that was breathed out for the last time was the “immortal soul”.

The feeling of soul is sometimes so strong that it seems to inhabit places and not just people.

Experience points in two opposite directions here. It is common to revisit a place in which fateful personal events had taken place — tragedy, romance, sporting triumph or even the house in which one grew up — to find it resistant to nostalgic memory, cold and empty, indifferent to the past[…]

Yet the opposite is equally true. There are places haunted by ghosts from the past — personally, I find it hard to imagine this is not the case with Dachau. There are spaces that resonate with sacred atmosphere — Delphi comes to my mind, as does the inside of Bourges cathedral, the Alhambra in Granada, and some ancient Australian Aboriginal ceremonial grounds.

To stand on the site of the worst mass murder in Australia, the ruins of the Broad Arrow cafe at Port Arthur in Tasmania, one feels an unshakeable sense of “presence”. Perhaps that is just the knowledge of what occurred there – yet who has not experienced entering a room, or a house, and feeling an inexplicable sense of either ill- or well-being?

It is a sign of the stubborn persistence of an irrational (in the sense of not being based on deductive logic) belief in the soul that some of the most popular entertainment of modern times explicitly embraces the notion.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is the singular book and film phenomenon of recent times. The seven-volume Harry Potter series posits a similar understanding of the immortal soul, by casting sinister black, wraithlike creatures called Dementors, which chill the atmosphere whenever they are present, making anyone in their vicinity gloomy — they represent psychic contagion writ large. When Dementors attack, they attempt to kiss the victim, to suck out the soul through the mouth.

More importantly, the crux of the battle between hero and villain is a literal battle for the soul. Voldemort’s great weakness is that he has used dark magic to split his soul again and again, vesting it in various objects, called horcruxes. As each horcrux is destroyed, Voldemort is left more and more vulnerable, until he is utterly destroyed.

In a similar fashion, Sauron, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, pours the “the best part of the strength that was native to him” – his soul, in other words – into the Ring. When the Ring is destroyed, Sauron is utterly reduced to “a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape”.

The conflation of jazz and the human soul is explored in Pixar’s 2020 Soul. Although COVID robbed the film of the possibility of being a box-office hit, it has achieved the rare distinction of enjoying an exceptionally high rating by both critics (95%) and audiences (88%) on Rotten Tomatoes.

Romain Rolland wrote of an “oceanic feeling” he was never without, of something limitless, unbounded, a sensation of eternity. He suggested that this feeling is the universal source of religious energy, whatever the religion and whatever the particular forms of belief and worship. We are in territory in which there are no proofs.

The Australian

As I have written before, science and religion each satisfy a different realm of human experience. In that sense, one does not “disprove” the other.

Similarly, we may not be able to explain the sense of soul, but, as Louis Armstrong said, when you know it, you just know.

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Can the Soul Survive Modernity?

Lushington D. Brady

Punk rock philosopher. Liberalist contrarian. Grumpy old bastard. I grew up in a generational-Labor-voting family. I kept the faith long after the political left had abandoned it. In last decade or...