About 14 years ago while searching on eBay, we came across an auction for a human soul. The auction wasn’t for a generic soul, a one-size-fit all soul, but the unique and presumably immortal essence of a certain Rebecca Ahlberg.
We weren’t deliberately searching for souls mind you, or the meaning of life, or the Holy Grail or any other such intangible, but Ahlberg was Joan’s paternal grandmother’s maiden name. We regularly search on eBay for family-related items using a surname search. (This was how we managed to purchase a photo postcard of Joan’s grandfather from 1909. See our previous post https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/grandpa-baseball-and-ebay/)
It was the summer of 2000 when we first saw Rebecca’s soul offered up to the highest bidder. The seller wrote in the eBay auction description:
I won it in a bet, never you mind over what, but I need some fast cash so I guess I’m willing to part with it, although I have enjoyed owning it. I am the first owner, after Rebecca, of course, so it’s had relatively low mileage, but TONS of wear and tear. Item is sold AS IS.
The winner will receive this original, suitable-for-framing one-of-a-kind document, and will also receive an auxiliary contract, signed by me, transferring Rebecca’s soul to the winner’s name.
The description went on to say that the document was written on the back of a printed list of the rules of backgammon.
Nothing in the description gives any real clues about Rebecca herself. A photo of someone, presumably Rebecca since there was a caption that said so, was included in the eBay listing. In the photograph we see a young woman who appears to be writhing in despair on a sandy beach. The listing and photograph raise important questions. We ask ourselves, does she regret selling her soul? Did she sell it to the wrong person or, worse yet, too cheaply? Did she get what she wanted in return? Most importantly, how did her soul become involved with a game of backgammon?
EBay is pretty clear on its long-standing policy banning soul-selling; it disallows items:
Where the value is placed on an intangible factor. For example, listings that offer someone’s “soul” or a container that claims to have someone’s “soul” are not allowed. Listings that have no item or service for sale.
We are not theologians (and clearly eBay staffers aren’t either), but is eBay saying that souls exist, although intangible, or are they saying that they are less than intangible, indeed nothing at all?
We aren’t sure, but perhaps because documents, including the backgammon sheet contract, were promised the winner of this auction, the “Rebecca Ahlberg’s Soul Item #393563004” was permitted to be listed on eBay. Or, perhaps, this listing just slipped past eBay’s notice. Twice.
Poor Rebecca. Not only has she forfeited her soul, but now the machinery of auction comes into play and her eternal, intangible soul’s value is to be determined. Is one’s immortal soul priceless? The most precious thing we own? Apparently not. The first time Rebecca’s soul was put up for sale on July 26, 2000, bidding started at a penny, but a reserve was placed on the item. By the time the first auction ended on August 5th, fifty bids had been placed, with $1,525 as the final bidding price. Since a reserve placed by the seller had been higher than $1,525, the highest bidder for that auction didn’t win possession of Rebecca’s soul. The seller probably regretted setting the reserve.
We had once thought that only God might judge the value of a soul, but apparently we can do it via eBay as well. Ahh, the wonders of the modern world never cease to amaze!
This first, bumbled attempt at soul-marketing was, apparently, a learning moment for the seller. About a week and a half later on August 17th, our soul merchant put Rebecca Ahlberg’s eternal essence up for auction a second time. As before, bidding started at a penny, but this time there was no reserve. The seller added to the listing’s description:
This is a unique opportunity, for though the auction may last only 10 days, Rebecca’s Soul is immortal, an heirloom to be passed down from generation to generation through the ages.
That second auction ended on August 27th after the bidding reached a mere $73, with only thirty-two bids. Whether the highest bidder ever paid up, and the seller actually shipped Rebecca’s soul and the two contracts remains unknown. As does Rebecca’s apparently soulless fate. We have even more questions now. Does she miss her soul? Did she notice any difference at all?
“Selling your soul” has meant many things over the course of history. Sometimes we use it as a figurative expression indicating that we have given up something important. We old hippies from the Sixties now collecting pensions after years of stolid work in the establishment sometimes wonder whether we sold ours for the material benefits of middle-class life. Have we, like Tennessee Ernie Ford’s archetypal coal miner, sold our soul to the “company store” in order to accumulate the cars and houses and consumer goods that fuel modern America? In making that contract we fear we have given up something important and essential: the passion for justice, the search for equality, the belief in an America that once seemed possible in 1968.
Or is selling one’s soul a more literal act, an actual conveyance of human essence to devils, demons, or Satan himself, perhaps consummated at a crossroads like the contract Robert Johnson, iconic bluesman, allegedly made. Faust, Paganini, Agrippa, and other soul-sellers gave up their souls to devils and demons in exchange for something else they valued more: intelligence, fame, talent, money, sexual potency, you name it.
We don’t know. And as lifelong skeptics of things so numinous and unknowable, we wonder if, indeed, Rebecca actually had an incorporeal essence with which to bargain. In selling her “soul” did she simply participate in a meaningless exchange and sign a contract whereby nothing at all was conveyed and lost? And by doing so did she make a marvelous (maybe intentional?) statement about today’s America where everything and maybe everyone is up for sale?
Still, we think about eBay, a crossroads if there ever was one, and corporations, and other demons of a more real sort that are available to take us up on our offers to give up items of real importance: like privacy, civil liberties, freedoms of speech and assembly, and other intangibles as rare and precious as souls.