While I was in Dublin I visited the famous gaol, Kilmainham. It’s a pretty interesting place and also kind of spooky. Maybe it comes from watching too much Most Haunted but I always think about spirits in those sorts of old buildings.
I sometimes wonder about the theory that certain places act as a sort of psychic depository of past emotions…for example, Auchwitz as a site of pain & suffering. Many people who have visited agree that it is a sad place (sad, here, a pitifully inadequate adjective) – but is that due to their knowledge, the preservation of the buildings, imagination plus history? Is it measurable, does it contain echoes of the actual grief that was enacted there? Or does it act as a site of projected grief, the place pregnant with the collective mediatations of the contemporary visitors?
In my life, I’ve had two powerful experiences of places which caused in me an extreme reaction. One was in Wales, which is rather a long story. The other was in the Conciergerie, in Paris.
I was 12: on a school trip. I can’t remember too much about the place, but what does remain with me is a memory of the rising panic and claustrophobia I experienced there. I remember they were showing some video re-enactments, and there was the usual tour and informative stuff, so maybe it acted violently upon my imagination: but I also remember the clear sense of having been in that place before; a struggle against a physical nausea; a sort of disorientated jumbling of my conscious thoughts; an absolute necessary impetus to get out of that place immediately. I’ve never been back.
All sorts of theories exist to explain this sort of feeling. One is that of reincarnation, which, whilst I haven’t ruled it out, sounds a bit too neat to me. Too tidy, perhaps, to be true (because it offers such a pat answer for so much of life’s happenings – it makes too much sense, if you like. Call me perverse and stubborn.)
Another theory is that of a sort of haunting – that places may be haunted, not just with actual ghosts but with the pain and suffering of the people that have lived there. This is a very poetic hypothesis, and part of me agrees that it does feel like it could be true in certain buildings etc. Some places just have a good or bad vibe to them. But I read somewhere once that there can hardly be ten metres in any historic city, any city which has existed on the same site for millennia, which hasn’t been witness to a murder. So why aren’t there more of these spooky sites? Perhaps the other emotions that have been felt – the other acts of kindness or mercy, say – that have been enacted on the same spot as murders, separated by years and bodies, have somehow cancelled out any definite negative energy. Whereas somewhere like the Conciergerie, or like Auschwitz, remains as a preserved place of human misery and spiritual abjection. Hmm.
I didn’t feel anything of the sort at Kilmainham. I must confess, it did cross my mind whether I would. If I had felt like that in the relatively unconfined halls of the Conciergerie…! And I don’t even know much about French history! I wondered what my imagination would make of this place, the emblem of so much suffering for the Irish people. Well – I felt interested, intrigued. I felt the romance and the terror, imagined the terrible privation and hunger. But no physical reaction or identification. So much for the genetic memory theory! My ancestors were far more likely to have been banged up in Kilmainham for stealing turnips than incarcerated in the Conciergerie for being nobility…