Matter and Material Causation
Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières, an important French poet and philosopher, appears to have been very interested in revealing the natural causes behind what seems to be supernatural or spiritual. At the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, John J. Conley explains that Deshoulières
employed verse to argue that natural causes can adequately explain such apparently spiritual phenomena as thought, volition, and love. In metaphysics, Deshoulières argues that the real is comprised of variations of matter and that material causation adequately explains observed changes in the real.
Deshoulières held that instinctual behavior explains human behavior much more than many of us like to admit, and that “[m]aterial organs, and not the occult powers of a spiritual soul, produce such human phenomena as thought and choice.” In other words, we humans are less ghosts in machines and more, well, simply machines.
An Anecdote Arises in the 1800s
This begins to explain a popular anecdote about Deshoulières that spread during the first half of the 1800s. This is an era when much was written about ghostly encounters being attributable to mistakes or delusions, not to spirits of the departed returned to the physical realm. One can see this lesson dramatized in fictional form in Washington Irving’s 1820 tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in which the superstitious Icabod Crane is scared out of town presumably by Brom Bones masquerading as the Headless Horseman. The Deshoulières anecdote presents the flip side of Icabod’s story: the poet visits a castle, bravely insisting on spending the night in its room reputed to be haunted. There, she calmly discovers a perfectly natural reason — matter and material causation — underlying the haunting. It turns out the “phantom” was only an inquisitive dog. The tale’s status as fiction is barely debatable due to the silly, canine explanation for the events that utterly horrify the gullible lord and lady of the castle. The narrative serves as a parable rather than as history.
The earliest version of this tale that I’ve managed to unearth, titled simply “Madame Deshoulieres, the French Poetess,” appeared in the December 6, 1817, issue of The Literary Gazette. There, Deshoulières’ ghost hunting adventure is introduced as an example of “intrepidity and coolness which would have done honour to a hero.” The title was changed to “The Ghost Discovered” when retold in an 1818 issue of The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c. and changed again to “Seizing a Ghost” when it became part of The Percy Anecdotes, compiled by Joseph Clinton Robertson and Thomas Byerley (as Shoto and Reuben Percy) and published in 1820.
The Anecdote Lingers
I’ve located a few re-tellings of the adventure in later publications, too. In 1853, the story became part of a longer article on Deshoulières in Sarah Josepha Hale’s Noble Deeds of Women. As late as 1867, the fable of courage surfaced in a weekly journal titled Our Boys and Girls, where it became a key part of May Mannering’s “A Ghost Story.”
Much like “The Barber’s Ghost,” another instructive ghost hunter tale about a skeptic who debunks an alleged haunting, the anecdote about Deshoulières had lasting appeal with readers in the early 1800s. As suggested above, I don’t know for sure if her visit to a castle and debunking of its ghost ever actually happened. Even if it had, print re-tellings of the narrative transformed Deshoulières into a kind of ghost-hunting folk hero.