Perhaps Someday It Will Send Us a Postcard from Idaho
Dear Word Detective: I am trying to find the origins and history of usage of the phrase “ghost in the machine.” Some say that it’s a watered down variation or corruption of “deus ex machina.” I’ve been paging through books trying to recall where I saw that the term was coined by Nabokov in literary criticism to describe poorly drawn or not believable characters. Can you help me out? — Mark Laskowski.
Speaking of ghosts in machines, your question reminds me of a true story about the last car I owned. Say, this column sounds more like a vaudeville routine every week, doesn’t it? Anyway, it was a 1982 Toyota Corolla, a beautiful little car, which ran like a charm except when it decided, for no apparent reason, not to run at all. On such occasions, my wife would insist that I return to the house and wait as she sat in the car for a few minutes, talking to it softly. The car would then start without further trouble. I later found out that she was promising the car a long drive in the country, even though we were usually just going to the grocery store. The car was, evidently, a surprisingly slow learner, and this simple ruse always worked. Then one day the car simply up and disappeared. The police said it was stolen, but I strongly suspect that it had just gotten fed up with our cheap tricks and run away from home.
But I digress. It is possible that Nabokov used the term “the ghost in the machine” in his critical essays, but he didn’t invent it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, credit for that goes to philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who coined the term in his 1949 “Concept of Mind.” Ryle used the term to denote the view (with which he disagreed) of the human mind as being completely separate from and independent of the physical body.
“Deus ex machina” (Latin for “God from the machine”), on the other hand, was originally a theatrical term. Whenever a Greek or Roman playwright got himself entangled in an insoluble plot line, he always had the option, frequently exercised, of having one of the gods swoop in at the end of the last act (suspended over the stage by a mechanical apparatus) and straighten everything out. Today, the term generally applies to any unlikely or awkward dramatic contrivance.