An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


What has literature to do with ghosts? The word ’ghost’ is related to and originates in the German Geist, a word that Chambers Dictionary defines as ’spirit, any inspiring or dominating principle’. The OED gives, as its first and fourth definitions of ’ghost’, the ’soul or spirit, as the principle of life’ and ’a person’. In these respects, the ghost is fundamental to our thinking about the human: to be human is to have a spirit, a soul, a Geist or ghost. But the more common modern sense of ’ghost’ (albeit only listed seventh in the OED) involves the idea of a spectre, an apparition of the dead, a revenant, the dead returned to a kind of spectral existence — an entity not alive but also not quite, not finally, dead. Ghosts disturb our sense of the separation of the living from the dead — which is why they can be so frightening, so uncanny. These conflicting senses of the word ’ghost’ suggest that ghosts are both exterior and central to our sense of the human. Ghosts are paradoxical since they are both fundamental to the human, fundamentally human, and a denial or disturbance of the human, the very being of the inhuman. We propose to devote this chapter, to dedicate it, to the living-dead, to the ghost(s) of literature. And we propose that this scandal of the ghost, its paradoxy, is embedded in the very thing that we call literature, inscribed in multiple and haunting ways, in novels, poems and plays.

Ghosts have a history. They are not what they used to be. Ghosts, in a sense, are history. They do not, after all, come from nowhere, even if they may appear to do just that. They are always inscribed in a context: they at once belong to and haunt the idea of a place (hence ’spirit of place’ or genius loci), and belong to and haunt the idea of a time (what we could call a ’spirit of time’ or rather differently what is called the ’spirit of the age’ or Zeitgeist). In other words, it is possible to trace a history of ghosts, as well as to think about history itself as ghostly, as what can in some form or other always come back. We might, for example, pursue a history of ghosts in terms of what J. Hillis Miller calls ’the disappearance of God’ (Miller 1963) in the nineteenth century. If the Christian God is, as Karl Marx claimed, ’Spectre No. 1’ (Marx 1976, 157), it is fair to suppose that this ’disappearance’ has altered the conception of ghosts, holy or otherwise. Correspondingly, we might pursue a history of ghosts in terms of the nineteenth-century emergence of psychology and, in particular, psychoanalysis. Ghosts, that is to say, move into one’s head. In the course of the nineteenth century the ghost is internalized: it becomes a psychological symptom, and no longer an entity issuing commandments on a mountain-top or a thing that goes bump in the night.

In particular, psychoanalytic accounts of ghosts have revolutionized literary studies. We might illustrate this in terms of what is arguably the greatest ’ghost work’ in English literature, Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600—01). The play itself is cryptic and elusive about the apparition and truthfulness of the figure of the ghost of Hamlet’s father: why is it, for instance, that when the ghost appears in Act 3, scene 4, it is only seen by Hamlet and not by his mother? But it is also clear that the play’s representation of the ghost is grounded in the Christian mythology of Shakespeare’s time — hence Hamlet’s fear that ’The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil’ who ’Abuses me to damn me’ (2.2.600—1, 605). In twentieth-century psychoanalytic readings such as those advanced by Jacques Lacan or Nicolas Abraham, however, the ghost has become something very different. Lacan develops the ghostly or phantasmatic dimensions of the basic Freudian reading of the play as Oedipal drama: Hamlet cannot take revenge on his murderous uncle Claudius because he is haunted by the sense that what Claudius has done is what he would have wanted to do — kill his father and go to bed with his mother. In Lacan’s scandalous and brilliant development of this reading of Hamlet (in a seminar in 1959), the ghost has to do with the phallus. As ’an imaginary object which the child comes to accept as being in the father’s possession’ (Wright 1992, 318), the phallus is in a sense the very symbol of paternity. For Lacan, the reason for Hamlet’s inability to kill Claudius (until, at least, the moment of ’complete sacrifice’, i.e. of his own death) is that ’one cannot strike the phallus, because the phallus, even the real phallus, is a ghost’ (Lacan 1977b, 50—1). In this way, Lacan makes Hamlet an allegory of phallocentric culture: phallocentrism (everything in a culture that serves to equate the symbolic power of the father, the phallus, with authority, the proper, presence, truth itself) becomes a sort of farcical but terrible ghost story. In Lacan’s reading, Hamlet’s being haunted by his father is an allegory of the nature of the ego. In an appalling pun, he calls Hamlet an ’hommelette’, a little man, a son, who is both dependent on his namesake King Hamlet and has his ’ego’ scrambled — like an egg — by this haunting. As Maud Ellmann neatly summarizes it: ’the ego is a ghost’ (Ellmann 1994, 17). There are problems with what Lacan does with a literary work like Hamlet, in particular in seeming to appropriate it simply as an allegorical means of presenting the ’truth’ of psychoanalysis. But his thinking has proved extremely productive and stimulating for critics and theorists concerned to analyse the ghostliness of identity in literary texts and to question the nature and terms of the phallocentric ghost story in which we continue to have our being.

In the work of Nicolas Abraham, on the other hand, Hamlet is a central text for his theory that ghosts have to do with unspeakable secrets. The only reason why people think they see ghosts is because the dead take secrets with them when they die. In his essay ’Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to Freud’s Metapsychology’ (1975), Abraham observes that ’the theme of the dead — who, having suffered repression by their family or society, cannot enjoy, even in death, a state of authenticity — appears to be omnipresent (whether overtly expressed or disguised) on the fringes of religions and, failing that, in rational systems’ (Abraham 1994, 171). Ghosts are everywhere, a painful fact of life. Abraham contends that ’the “phantom” [or “ghost”], whatever its form, is nothing but an invention of the living’. People see ghosts because ’the dead were shamed during their lifetime or … took unspeakable secrets to the grave’. These secrets remain, like a crypt, a gap, in the unconscious of the living. The ghost or phantom thus embodies ’the gap produced in us by the concealment of some part of a loved object’s life … what haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others’ (171).

Abraham’s account is helpful in illuminating the strangeness of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, its obscure but persisting sense of secrets taken to the grave, of what the ghost calls the untellable ’secrets of my prison-house’ (1.5.14). But his ’Notes on the Phantom’ also opens up new ways of thinking about ghosts in literature more generally: in effect, it inaugurates a theory of literature as a theory of ghosts. We can think of this ghostliness, first, in the relatively straightforward sense described by a character called Stella Rodney in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948): ’What’s unfinished haunts one; what’s unhealed haunts one’ (322). From the great fourteenth-century Middle English dream-elegy Pearl to Don DeLillo’s very different dream-elegy The Body Artist (2001), literature is a place of ghosts, of what’s unfinished, unhealed and even untellable. But more precisely, and perhaps more eerily, Abraham’s work alerts us to a ghostliness about which characters, and even authors themselves, are unaware. Here we encounter the strangeness of the ghostly secret as, in Esther Rashkin’s words, ’a situation or drama that is transmitted without being stated and without the sender’s or receiver’s awareness of its transmission’ (Rashkin 1992, 4).

If psychoanalysis has been important in providing new ways of thinking about ghosts, however, this has not happened in a vacuum. As we suggested earlier, it is in fact part of a more general shift in how ghosts have been figured, theorized and experienced since the end of the nineteenth century. The emergence of psychology and psychoanalysis has its ghostly counterpart in literature, especially in the emergence of psychological realism and the psychological novel. Nowhere is this clearer than in the fiction of Henry James (1843—1916). In an essay on his ghost stories, published in 1921, Virginia Woolf writes:

Henry James’s ghosts have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts — the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons. They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed by the strange. (Woolf 1988, 324)

Stories such as The Turn of the Screw (1898), ’The Beast in the Jungle’ (1903) and ’The Jolly Corner’ (1908) conjure and explore the ghostliness of experience in profoundly unsettling ways. All of these stories bear witness to the ungovernable, overflowing strangeness which Woolf evokes. More particularly, they also illustrate the sense of ghostly secrets, of what Abraham called the ’gaps left within us by the secrets of others’, together with a sense of the ghostliness of the ego (or ’I’) itself.

The last of these stories, ’The Jolly Corner’, is especially forceful in its evocation of the idea of the ’I’ as ghost. As in a number of other ghost stories — for example, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters (1901) — ’The Jolly Corner’ is both the name of a house and the name of the text itself. The literary work is a haunted house. ’The Jolly Corner’ recounts how a 56-year-old wealthy New Yorker called Spencer Brydon, long settled in Europe, makes a ’strangely belated return to America’ (190), having been absent for 33 years. He goes back to his childhood home, ’his house on the jolly corner, as he usually, and quite fondly, described it’ (191). Rented out and a source of income for decades, the house is now, ostensibly, empty. Brydon becomes obsessed with the place, with visiting and wandering around it, increasingly caught up by the sense that it contains some ghostly secret of the past. Following a dense but queerly captivating third-person so-called omniscient narration, we are drawn into a hunt, in which the protagonist turns out to be both hunter and hunted, haunter and haunted. As the narrator asks, with the bizarre tone of detachment characteristic of the text as a whole: ’People enough, first and last, had been in terror of apparitions, but who had ever before become himself, in the apparitional world, an incalculable terror?’ (202). Of course — and this is where fiction is itself most manifestly a haunt — this ’apparitional world’ to which James refers only appears through writing. The very strangeness of fiction may be said to consist in this idea of a ’medium’, a text, in which the apparitional and non-apparitional are made of the same stuff, indistinguishable. As E.M. Forster put it, in Aspects of the Novel (1927): ’Once in the realm of the fictitious, what difference is there between an apparition and a mortgage?’ (Forster 1976, 103).

Despite appearances, then, we don’t want to limit our talk about ghost stories just to ghost stories. Indeed, we would like to suggest that the greater the literary work, the more ghostly it is. This might be one way of understanding what Derrida is getting at when he proclaims, in his book Spectres of Marx, ’A masterpiece always moves, by definition, in the manner of a ghost’ (Derrida 1994, 18). Playing on the earlier Latin sense of ’genius’ as ’spirit’, he says that a masterpiece is ’a work of genius, a thing of the spirit which precisely seems to engineer itself [s’ingénier]’ (18). Masterpieces, such as Beowulf or Hamlet (which is the example Derrida is discussing) or James’s ’The Jolly Corner’ or Beckett’s Molloy, are works that give a sense of having been spirited up, of working by themselves. Great works call to be read and reread while never ceasing to be strange, to resist reading, interpretation and translation. This is one basis for thinking about canonicity in Harold Bloom’s terms: the canon is always a spectral affair. As he declares, in The Western Canon: ’One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify’ (Bloom 1994, 30). A great work will always seem uncanny, at once strange and familiar; a surprising, unique addition to the canon and yet somehow foreseen, programmed by the canon; at once readable and defiant, elusive, baffling. For Bloom, writing itself is essentially about a relationship (always one of anxiety, according to him) with the dead, with earlier great writers. The point is most succinctly made by Bloom’s precursor, T.S. Eliot, when he says in his essay ’Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919) that the ’best’, ’most individual’ parts of a literary work are ’those in which the dead poets … assert their immortality most vigorously’ (Eliot 1975b, 38). It is a relationship eerily evoked in Eliot’s ’Little Gidding’ (1943), where the speaker describes an encounter in which he ’caught the sudden look of some dead master / … The eyes of a familiar compound ghost / Both intimate and unidentifiable’ (Eliot 1975a, 193). For Bloom, as for Eliot, poetry is also a ghostly discourse in a more general sense. This is hauntingly exemplified by Wallace Stevens’s ’Large Red Man Reading’ (1948), in which the subject of the poem, the reader himself, evokes ghosts: ’There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases, / As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae. / They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more’ (Stevens, 423). We are all haunted: experience itself is never enough; and it is the ghostly discourse of literature which most sharply testifies to this.

One problem with talking about the canon in the way Bloom does is that it appears to be ahistorical: in other words, literature seems to belong to a timeless realm, the canon seems to be impervious to the material effects of social, political, economic and cultural history. Our argument in the present chapter, however, is that while literature is indeed ’ghost work’, its haunt is historical. The ghosts of the twentieth century are not the same as those of the nineteenth, and so on. We might, for example, reflect on the links between ghosts and technology. In the context of Western culture in the third millennium, and from the point of view of so-called common sense, we may like to believe that we do not believe in ghosts any more; but in important respects the world has become and is continuing to become increasingly ghostly. As Jacques Derrida has observed:

Contrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, like the landscape of Scottish manors, etc., but … is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone. These technologies inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure … When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms. (Derrida 1989, 61)

This recalls, or calls up, the image of Derrida in Ken McMullen’s film Ghost Dance (1983) being asked if he believes in ghosts and replying: ’That’s a hard question because, you see, I am a ghost.’ In a film, everyone is a ghost. If the ghost is the revenant, that which uncannily returns without ever being properly present in the first place, it becomes clear that, more than ever, we live in the midst of ghosts: the voice on the telephone is only ever the reproduction of a voice, the image on television or movie-screen only ever a reproduction. Freud conveys his amazement at the surreal nature of telephones when he remarks in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) that ’[w]ith the help of the telephone [one] can hear at distances which would be [regarded] as unattainable even in a fairytale’ (1985e, 279). But since Freud’s day, we have witnessed the successive ghostly arrivals of the space age, the answerphone, video recorder, camcorder, personal computer, email, the internet, virtual reality, video-conferencing, skyping, the mobile or cell phone, texting, sexting, blogging, tweeting and messaging, along with multiple other new forms of interaction via social media.

Whether in literature, psychoanalysis or philosophy, contemporary thought is irrevocably hooked up to developments in technology and telecommunications. Contemporary literature faces new kinds of challenge in terms of how to represent, assimilate or think the increasing ghostliness of culture. The question of literature today is inseparable from an increasingly prevalent, indeed unavoidable encounter with a technics of the ghost. DeLillo’s The Body Artist, for example, with its haunting evocations of ghost-voices and ghost-images in telephones, answering machines, voice-recorders, webcams and video projections, suggests that calling up ghosts in the twenty-first century is inseparable from such technologies.

We would like to conclude by trying to explore some of these ideas in relation to Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. This novel, first published in 1987, is set in America, in the years leading up to and following the abolition of slavery. It is about the unspeakable reality of slavery, about ghosts and the way in which US culture continues to be haunted by the atrocities of its past. The narrative of the novel rests on the dynamic of ghostly secrets and the untellable. ’Beloved’ is a baby murdered by her mother, Sethe, because the mother sees death for her daughter as preferable to slavery; ’Beloved’ is also a beautiful ’shining’ ghost of a woman who, years later, haunts the lives of Sethe and her other daughter, Denver, and Sethe’s drifting partner Paul D. The novel, in its very title, is a ghost, or gathering of ghosts. Beloved is about

what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin; to feel the baby blood pump like oil in [Sethe’s] hands; to hold her face so her head would stay on; to squeeze her so she could absorb, still, the death spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life. (251)

This, 250 pages into the text, is the most ’graphic’ description we are given of what nevertheless haunts the book from the title onwards. The haunting is inscribed in the passage just quoted, for example, in the eerie double sense of ’still’ (as adverb ’yet’ and verb ’stop’): this gross moment is a still, stilled moment, caught in time, which still haunts, is still to be absorbed. On the final page of the novel we encounter the statement, ’This is not a story to pass on’ (275). This statement suggests that the story should not or cannot be told, but also that it is not one we can pass by. The history of the United States is an untellable ghost story that must not, however, be forgotten. Every house in America is a haunted house. As Baby Suggs says in grimly comic response to her daughter-in-law Sethe’s suggestion that they vacate the baby-haunted house known only by its number (124): ’Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband’s spirit was to come back in here? or yours? Don’t talk to me’ (5).

Beloved is set in the nineteenth century and is faithful to the modes of ghostliness, spirits, tele-culture and telecommunications available at that time: the text opens with an attempted exorcism and an instance of apparent telekinesis (’The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did’: 4); there are allusions to telegraphy and the recently invented Morse code (110), to ’long-distance love’ (95) and even to photography (275). But in other ways Beloved is a profoundly contemporary novel, a work of the late twentieth century not only in style and form but also in terms of its conception and implacable analysis of ghosts. In particular, it is written out of or through a psycho-analytically-inflected understanding of deferred meaning, a sense of trauma as ghostly, as that which comes back again and again, which continues, hauntingly. Morrison’s novel is about the unspeakable not only now but in the future, slavery as a legacy still, not as something belonging to what we call the history books.

Marx in 1848 saw communism as ’a spectre … haunting Europe’ (the famous opening words of The Communist Manifesto). Writing nearly 150 years later, in 1993, Derrida too sees communism as spectral. Hence its rapport with deconstruction. Deconstruction, as Derrida describes it, is concerned to think about the sense that ’everyone reads, acts, writes with his or her ghosts’ (Derrida 1994, 139), to think about presence (and absence) as necessarily haunted, about meaning as spectralized. In these respects, deconstruction offers perhaps the most important contemporary theory of ghosts. Communism is like democracy itself: ’it has always been and will remain spectral: it is always still to come’ (Derrida 1994, 99).

Further reading

For two helpful and wide-ranging accounts of the ghostly in literature from a ’gothic’ perspective, see David Punter, The Literature of Terror, 2nd edition (1996), and Fred Botting, Gothic (1997). Terry Castle (1995) has a good chapter on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conceptions of ghosts, entitled ’Spectral Politics: Apparition Belief and the Romantic Imagination’. For a lucid and helpful exposition of Lacan’s notoriously difficult essay on Hamlet, see Bruce Fink (1996). For some very good, clear and accessible readings of literature-with-Lacan, see Linda Ruth Williams (1995). More challenging Lacanian accounts of the literary may be found in the brilliant work of Shoshana Felman (1987), Jacqueline Rose (1996) and Luke Thurston (2014). On ghosts seen through the lens of German idealism, gothic novels and optical media, see Stefan Andriopoulos (2013); on ghosts and Victorian literature, see Julian Wolfreys’s Victorian Hauntings (2002); and on ghosts and modernism, see Jean-Michel Rabaté’s The Ghosts of Modernity (1996) and Helen Sword’s Ghostwriting Modernism (2002). Nicolas Abraham’s ’Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to Freud’s Metapsychology’ and ’The Phantom of Hamlet or The Sixth Act, preceded by The Intermission of “Truth”’ are collected in The Shell and the Kernel (1994). For a difficult but thought-provoking elaboration of Abraham’s work on ghosts, see Esther Rashkin, Family Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Narrative (1992). On psychoanalysis more generally, see Stephen Frosh’s Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions (2013). Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1994) is a very rich, demanding but now classic account of spectrality and politics, focusing on Hamlet and the writings of Karl Marx. For a good collection of essays on ghosts in relation to deconstruction, psychoanalysis and history, see Buse and Stott (1999). Also on the ghostliness of Derrida and deconstruction, see David Appelbaum (2009) and Kas Saghafi (2010). For the links between psychoanalysis, technology and telecommunications, see Derrida’s challenging but fascinating Archive Fever (1995a); for an account of the cultural and philosophical importance of the telephone, see Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book (1989). Peter Nicholls’s essay, ’The Belated Postmodern: History, Phantoms and Toni Morrison’ (1996), offers a subtle and stimulating reading of Beloved by way of many of the notions of the ghostly discussed in this chapter. For more on American ghosts (from the Salem witchcraft trials to contemporary film and politics), see Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination, ed. Weinstock (2004). Finally, here are three good recent essay-collections on ghosts and the ghostly: David Howes, ed., The Sixth Sense Reader (2009); Lisa Kròger and Melanie R. Anderson, eds, The Ghostly and the Ghosted in Literature and Film (2013); and María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, eds, The Spectralities Reader (2013).