In this blog post I will present a research project I am currently engaged in and reflect on some of my preliminary findings. The project is part of a larger cross-disciplinary project, “Radical Uncertainty and the Search for a Good (Old) Life”, in which artists, philosophers and anthropologists explore how people who are aging under challenging and uncertain life conditions strive to achieve good lives. My own anthropological part of the project takes me to Kyrgyzstan and focuses on Kyrgyz people who grow old in the absence of their close families. One of the themes that has appeared as central is the role of the ancestor spirits in the lives of the elderly.
A bed for Gulbara’s husband
Gulbara points in the direction of the kitchen. She explains that she recently put up a bed there, as this is the place her husband usually lies down to take a rest when he visits her. Previously, he used to lie down on the floor, but she wanted to make things a bit nicer for him.
Gulbara’s husband, as it showed up, had died many years ago, as had most of the other people she had cared about during her life. But Gulbara was not alone. The spirits of those who had died would often dwell in her house. They would come to her in her dreams, giving her omens, as ancestor spirits sometimes do, but more often they would just come and be there. Take a nap and leave again. When she was ill, they would encourage her to persevere: “eat well”, “rest well”, they would say. They would drink tea and ask how she was doing. “I live with them,” she said and shrugged her shoulders as if there was not much to say.
Elderliness in the absence of the young
For the last year or so I have engaged in a research project that focuses on elderly Kyrgyz people who grow old in the absence of their close family. Family members may be absent because they have migrated, because they have passed away, or because the elderly have lost contact with them.
In Kyrgyzstan, a good life as an elder has traditionally and normatively been defined in relation to the extended family as well as the wider local community. As Judith Beyer has convincingly pointed out, being an ‘elder’ requires more than just being of a certain age: As they grow older, people gradually learn to comply with and perform ‘elderliness’ in expected ways, most notably through the performance of high moral integrity and authority: e.g. mediation of conflicts, passing on advise and blessings to family and members of the larger community, passing on knowledge of Islam, and taking decisions in regard to family property (cf. Beyer 2010 and 2013). In my project I explore how the elderly – bereft of the intersubjective relations in which it is traditionally experienced, performed and acknowledged – live and experience elderliness and its moral virtues.
Notions of virtue imply some notions of selfhood as the seat of ethical character and the agentive locus of ethical action (cf. Dyring et al 2018: 11). As Sara Ruddick pointed out in one of her important contributions to feminist philosophy, virtues are commonly represented as characteristics of individuals (whether as states, dispositions, capacities, or traits of character), but are created between people and inseparable from relationships (Ruddick 1999: 51-53): A person – in this case an elderly person – is able to perform high moral integrity and authority, only if she can create the occasions, with others, for doing so; if there are others who willingly listen to her moral advises and gratefully receive her blessings – and who care for her to compensate for what may be her physical frailty.
Gulbara managed by herself. She pointed out that doing her house chores kept her fit. Other elderly people she knew had children and grandchildren who helped them cook, eat, wash and go to the bathroom, and that made them weak. Nevertheless, her body had started failing her. She did not hear well, and she was nearly blind: She laughingly pointed out that none of her husbands (she had been married twice) ever laid a hand on her, but now the walls would beat her when she moved around her little house.
The absence of close family members, then, often means the absence – and the haunting presence – of particular versions of oneself: the person one could have been if they had been there to support it. The person without the bruises that come from bumping into the walls. The person other people would listen to with interest.
The care of the ancestor spirits
What I have found is that the spirits of the past often settle in the homes of the elderly, being uncanny hinges to lives they could have lived and persons they could have been, had their families not been absent. And thus, one of the themes I am currently exploring – and which brings the project in touch with what has been my long-term interest in the intersections of heaven and earth, the ordinary and the transcendent, in Central Asia – is the role of arbak, ancestor spirits, in the lives of the elderly.
Among the Kyrgyz, the arbak, ancestor spirits, remain involved in the world of the living, following the lives of their living relatives and often seek to interfere with them (Dubuisson 2017; Louw 2010). There are certain elements that serve as meeting points between the living and the dead. Dreams for example. Candles. Or certain smells. Words read from the Qur’an. But basically, what ancestor spirits demand is to be remembered and cared for. To be included in the worlds of the living.
Care, in the broadest sense of the term, may be seen as the creation or confirmation of the presence of something or someone in a world. Gulbara’s care for the ancestor spirits gave them a presence and a place in her world – and vice-versa: the ancestor spirits and their care for Gulbara gave her a presence in their world. But what kind of world it was, she was not sure of.
Gulbara was prepared to leave this world, feeling more and more unhinged from the lives of the living. All those she had cared about and cared for during her long live had passed away: Her father never returned from World War Two; her mother had died at the age of 37, and her seven younger brothers as well as their spouses had all passed away as well, as had her husband. The only child she ever gave birth to died as an infant. Gulbara had lived alone for 15 years or more. She did not remember it exactly. “When I die I wish they could bury me, but none of them are alive”, she said, and kept returning to the topic when my field assistant and I visited her for the first time in August 2018. Death was approaching, she felt. She believed that the coming winter might be her last. She hoped that her brothers’ children would bury her after her death, without conflicts and disagreements – therefore she had already distributed her belongings among them. But she also feared that nobody would take care of her funeral, as the younger generation did not seem to care much about her: “They don’t come here to drink tea; they never invite me. I don’t know why they never visit me. They do not ask how I am doing.”
The spectral presences in Gulbara’s life added to a sense of being unhinged from the living but also, at the same time, lend a sense of ordinariness to the present that made her hold on to it, patching up a world that was livable. If Gulbara’s care for the ancestor spirits gave them a presence in this world, their care for her, in turn, presented forth a more virtuous version of herself than she was able to live in the company of the living: welcoming visitors to her home and being asked about how she was doing. Being generous and receiving care, as elderly are supposed to. Simple and everyday acts of care and concern that were both ordinary and essential to her sense of self; that is, the self she wanted to be but was unable to live among the living.
Ancestor spirits indeed often serve as hinges to selves that may be invisible to, or forgotten by, others – or selves one wishes to become in the future (cf. also Louw 2010). But their ways are not always that clear, and although they, to Gulbara, seemed to represent ordinary ways of human conduct she felt had been lost among the living, they also brought her questions. She recalled that she recently had a dream in which she saw her father. He came with two other men. They were on horseback, and they took her and rode up a hill. There they left her and went away.
When arbak take a person with them in a dream it is usually taken as a sign that the person will soon join them. Gulbara did not understand why her father left her and did not take her with him. She was prepared to leave this world, but the spirits encouraged her to persevere, and she did not understand why.
But if the ancestor spirits were uncanny, the ways of the living were even stranger: At first, Gulbara had been angry with her relatives for their neglect of her. But she had gradually realized that they just did like everyone did these days. She did not understand why, and she did not bother to learn why: her time in this world had come to an end anyway.
Focusing on ghosts allows us to gaze into that which has been forgotten, repressed or ignored, in a self, in others, or in a society. Lives that could have been lived; worlds that could have been made (Gordon 2008), or potentials not yet realized. Ghosts may haunt people against their will, creating uncanny atmospheres in places they thought they knew – but they may equally well be what creates a sense of home in a world one feels unhinged with.
Beyer, Judith (2010) “Authority as Accomplishment: Intergenerational Dynamics in Talas, Northern Kyrgyzstan”, in A. Sengupta and S. Chatterjee (eds): Eurasian Perspectives. In Search of Alternatives. New Delhi: Shipra
Beyer, Judith (2013) “Ordering ideals: accomplishing well-being in a Kyrgyz cooperative of elders”, in Central Asian Survey 32:4, 432-447
Dubuisson, Eva Marie (2017) Living Language in Kazakhstan. The Dialogic Emergence of an Ancestral Worldview. University of Pittsburgh Press
Dyring, Rasmus, Cheryl Mattingly and Maria Louw (2018) “The Question of ‘Moral Engines’: Introducing a Philosophical Anthropological Dialogue”, in Cheryl Mattingly, Rasmus Dyring, Maria Louw and Thomas Schwarz Wentzer: Moral Engines. Exploring the Ethical Drives in Human Life. Berghahn
Gordon, Avery F. (2008 ) Ghostly Matters. Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press
Louw, Maria (2010) “Dreaming up futures. Dream omens and magic in Bishkek”, in History and Anthropology vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 277-292
Ruddick, Sara (1999) ”Virtues and Age”, in Margaret Urban Walker: Mother Time. Women, Aging, and Ethics. Rowman & Littlefield
 https://projects.au.dk/thegoodoldlife/ Fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan is conducted in cooperation with Babushka Adoption. The broader project runs from 2017 – 2020, and here I draw on recent shorter fieldtrips (in 2018 and 2019) as well as my own previous longer-term research periods from 2007 onwards.
 Gulbara is a pseudonym.