Possession: Editor's Note

Learned Men give it as a most certain sign of Possession, when the afflicted Party can see and hear that which no one else can discern any thing of, and when they can discover secret things, past or future.

–Cotton Mather, Wonders of the Invisible World

All that, we call “to have loa.”

–Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen 

Copp’s Hill Burying Ground is all that’s left of Copp’s Hill. When the rest was cut and carted off, the yard was left standing: a tall extrusion of coffins and soil held together by a stone wall. It is Boston’s second oldest cemetery, a place where the headstones lean at wild angles as though into centuries of accumulated wind. The time to visit is winter, when snow and sky blur in white darkness and erase the horizon. Begin at North Station, follow traffic down Causeway, then, one block before the ocean, turn up steep, narrow, crooked Hull Road. Climb the hill into what was called New Guinea, where the Africans of colonial Boston, slave and free, once lived and listened for spirits from home. The Puritans feared them—feared their medicine, which understood inoculation, feared their worship, which cloaked much older faiths, and feared their long, loud funerals, which wound for hours through the city streets. These funerals so unsettled Boston’s selectmen that, in order to contain them, they outlawed their winding processions and “heathenish” ringing of bells. Thinking of these people, walking in the wake of their wakes, hug the left sidewalk. Continue, until you reach the corner of the cemetery wall. The entrance is farther along, but stop here, halfway up the incline. Press your ear against the frosted stone; you are level with the tombs.

 

Some distance behind this wall, the bones of the Reverend Doctor Cotton Mather lie buried. The shrill mouthpiece of an absolute god, Mather was Harvard’s first public intellectual. I like to imagine I can still hear him, chatty like the corpses in Dostoevsky’s “Bobok.” Still preaching—reading, perhaps from his pamphlet The Negro Christianized, to Phillis Wheatley, America’s first black woman poet and Mather’s eternal neighbor. Or perhaps he is reading from the Wonders of the Invisible World, his defense of “spectral evidence” in the prosecution of Salem witchcraft. Like his god, Mather lived in jealous, violent fear of those who listened to voices other than his own. Yet they surrounded him in life, just as he now lies buried among them: people whose untranslatable gods and worlds, now forgotten, murmured under his eaves. They were Indians, Africans, and those among his own people possessed by their dances and spells. Cotton Mather was afraid of them. He flinched from their shadows—fearing, as he wrote, cruel “Buffetings from Evil Sprits.” He was convinced his neighbors did “The Work of Darkness”; that their daughters perverted “the Plastic Spirit of the World”; that his African slaves had “magical conversations with Devils.” Conversations from which he, Cotton Mather, was excluded. Voices, that he, Cotton Mather, could not hear.

 

This issue of The Harvard Advocate was inspired by these voices and those who heard them—by the possessor, the possessed, and the relationship that binds them. It was inspired by the idea that artistic creation is always a form of ventriloquism, a vast dialogue with other voices. These voices, which Bakhtin called polyphony and the Haitian vodouisant calls the loa, are the true wonders of the invisible world. Possession celebrates them, and invites your ear. We hope that with every turn of the page, the good Reverend will do a corresponding roll in his grave.