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How To Do Things With Ghosts

The central idea of this course is that writers choose to write ghost stories for a reason (or reasons). They have a purpose (or purposes) in writing about ghosts. They want to accomplish certain things by writing about ghosts. In fact, they want their ghosts themselves to have a figurative or symbolic meaning and function (or more than one). Here are some arguments by literary critics about how writers have used ghosts and to what ends. I include them here so you may get a sense of what more experienced readers have said about the role and function of literary ghosts.

On Supernatural Literature and Ghost Stories

Supernatural literature, traditionally, describes a world of dualisms: rational/irrational; human/ghostly; known world/unknown; natural/supernatural. As readers we are vested in the natural, knowable, rational, and human. Whether the story ultimately affirms this worldview, banishing the unknowable thing, or challenges its stability, the affect of the classic supernatural story seems to be to make us cling more closely to the rational side of those dichotomies, to reinforce the readers' sense that the world is in fact dualistic, that the present is distinct from the past, the living from the dead, the natural from the supernatural. (Wendy Kolmar, "'Dialectics of Connectedness': Supernatural Elements in Novels by Bambara, Cisneros, Grahn, and Erdrich," Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, eds. Lynette Carpenter and Wendy Kolmar [Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991] 236-237)

The Gothic generally explores personal, psychic encounters with the taboo. At the most basic level, its ghosts function as plot device--providing crucial information, setting in motion the machinery of revenge or atonement--and, of course, as source of the pleasurable thrill we derive from the uncanny. On a more sophisticated level, the ghosts serve to illuminate the more shadowy or repressed aspects of characters. Like the ghosts in Shakespeare's plays, they externalize a character's state of mind or inadequately repressed feelings ("This is the very painting of your fear," Lady Macbeth tells her distraught husband when Banquo's ghost appears to him). The ghosts in recent African-American literature, while sharing these familiar literary functions, also serve another: they signal an attempt to recover and make social use of a poorly documented, partially erased cultural history. The haunted narratives of Wilson, Morrison, Marshall and Naylor undoubtedly offer us powerful dramas of the individual psyche, yet these dramas are woven inextricably into the recuperation of a people's history. Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), the first Gothic novel, gave Manfred's psychomania an exclusively familial context, but in contemporary African-American ghost stories the individual's or family's hauntingclearly reflects the crises of the larger social group. (Kathleen Brogan, "American Stories of Cultural Haunting: Tales of Heirs and Ethnographers," College English 57.2 [February 1995] 149-150)

Cultural ghost stories, which feature the haunting of a people by the ghosts of its own past, represent one way a group actively revises its relationship to the past. Not surprisingly, these stories tend to emerge in the aftermath of times of swift and often traumatic change, when old social bonds have been unhinged and new group identities must be formulated. (Kathleen Brogan, "Haunted by History: Louise Erdrich's Tracks," Prospects 21 [1996] 174)

Ghosts in contemporary American ethnic literature function ... to recreate ethnic identity through an imaginative recuperation of the past and to press this new version of the past into the service of the present. In doing so, these works have much to tell us about our own historical moment and the range of imaginative responses it provokes. Ghost stories reflect the increased emphasis on ethnic and racial differentiation in all social groups following the ideological upheavals set in motion by the black civil rights movement. They also register the tectonic epistemological shift we have witnessed since the seventies in the social sciences. A reevaluation of historical methodology, indeed, of what can be identified as history ("fact") versus story ("fiction"), has profoundly changed our understanding of how the past is translated and how ethnicity is constructed. The ghosts haunting contemporary American literature lead us to the heart of our nation's discourse about multiculturalism and ethnic identity. When summoned for close examination, they reveal much about the dynamics of social and literary acculturation. (Brogan, "American Stories of Cultural Haunting," 151)

On Haunting

Haunting is a constituent element of modern social life. It is neither premodern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import. To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it. This confrontation requires (or produces) a fundamental change in the way we know and make knowledge, in our mode of production.... In haunting, organized forces and systemic structures that appear removed from us make their impact felt in everyday life in a way that confounds our analytic separations and confounds the social separations themselves.... Haunting is a part of our social world, and understanding it is essential to grasping the nature of our society and for changing it. (Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997] 7, 19, 27)

If haunting describes how that which appears to be not there is often a seething presence, acting on and often meddling with taken-for-granted realities, the ghost is just a sign, or the empirical evidence if you like, that tells you a haunting is taking place. The ghost is not simply a dead or a missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life. The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eyes, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course. The way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening. Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition. (Gordon 8)

On Ghosts

The ghostly haunt gives notice that something is missing--that what appears to be invisible or in the shadows is announcing itself.... The ghost is a crucible for political mediation and historical memory.... The ghost is primarily a symptom of what is missing. It gives notice not only to itself but also to what it represents. (Gordon 15, 18, 63)

An investigation of literary ghosts will tell us a great deal about their authors' metaphysics, politics, and poetics. Some literary ghosts serve their creators as carriers of transcendental truths, as visible or audible signs of Spirit. Other ghosts carry the burden of tradition and collective memory: ancestral apparitions often act as correctives to the insularities of individuality, as links to lost families and communities, or as reminders of communal crimes, crises, cruelties. They may suggest displacement and alienation or, alternatively, reunion and communion. Still other ghosts are agents of aesthetic effect--el escalofrio, le frisson, the fantastical release/relief from the constraints of reason. Ghosts of this sort, whose function on first reading seems primarily affective, are not, however, to be taken lightly. They, too, are often bearers of cultural and historical burdens, for they represent the dangers, anxieties, and passional forces that civilization banishes. They may signal primal and primordial experience, the return of the repressed, the externalization of internalized terrors. They are always double (here and not) and often duplicitous (where?). They mirror, complement, recover, supplant, cancel, complete. Which is to say: literary ghosts are deeply metaphoric. They bring absence into presence, maintaining at once the "is" and the "is not" of metaphorical truth.... [Some] ghosts, themselves in-between beings, dramatize the painful economic and social liminality caused by the obliterating forces of modernization. (Lois Parkinson Zamora, "Magical Romance/Magical Realism: Ghosts in U.S. and Latin American Fiction," Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, eds. Wendy Faris and Lois Parkinson Zamora [Durham: Duke UP, 1995] 497, 541)

The double role of the ghost as metaphor for cultural invisibility and cultural continuity plays upon the curious there/not there status of the ghost. On the simplest level, the ghost can articulate a nostalgic return to the past or despair about its ineradicable loss. Yet ghostliness has a third, more complex function in Erdrich's work, one that releases the ghost from the either/or of presence and absence. The vaporous body of the ghost provides Erdrich with an apt metaphor for the malleable, partly remembered and partly imagined nature of tradition. The ghost [can be] a symbol of the imaginative element in the construction of ethnic identity and group history. The turn to the ghost as reconstructive agent simultaneously testifies to and attempts to transcend terrible loss. (Brogan, "Haunted by History," 170)

What kind of case is a case of a ghost? It is a case of haunting, a story about what happens when we admit the ghost‹that special instance of the merging of the visible and invisible, the dead and the living, the past and the present--into the making of worldly relations and into the making of our accounts of the world. It is a case of the difference it makes to start with the marginal, with what we normally exclude or banish, or, more commonly, with what we never even notice. . . . It is not a case of dead or missing persons sui generis, but of a ghost as a social figure. It is often a case of inarticulate experiences, of symptoms and screen memories, of spiraling affects, of more than one story at a time, of the traffic in domains of experience that are anything but transparent and referential. It is a case of modernity's violence and wounds, and a case of the haunting reminder of the complex social relations in which we live. It is a case that teaches a lesson (or two) about how to write what can represent that haunting reminder, what can represent systemic injury and the remarkable lives made in the wake of the making of our social world. (Gordon 24-25)

The ghost registers and it incites, and that is why we have to talk to it graciously, why we have to learn how it speaks, why we have to grasp the fullness of its life world, its desires and standpoint. When a ghost appears, it is making contact with you; all its forceful if perplexing enunciations are for you. Offer it a hospitable reception we must, but the victorious reckoning with the ghost always requires a partiality to the living. Because ultimately haunting is about how to transform a shadow of a life into an undiminished life whose shadows touch softly in the spirit of a peaceful reconciliation. (Gordon 207-208)


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EN 209: Novels and Tales, Fall 1998
Last modified: 12/2/98, 5:30 pm