‘Haunting is a constituent element of modern social life. It is neither pre-modern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import. To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspect of it.’
(Avery Gordon 1997:7)
Sometimes reality is far from transparent. In fact often our taken-for-granted realities are challenged by a feeling, an experience that does not seem to fit into our everyday life. Sometimes events have no empirical evidence attached to them. Sometimes what we experience as an event is so wispy that it defies articulation. We move into the realm of ghostly matters, of hauntings, where barely visible things, traces, render us unable to attach any typical meaning or description to what is happening to us. The usual polarised boundaries between the visible / invisible, the dead / the living, and the past / present suddenly begin to seep into each other and we realise that far from tidy and neat categories of empiricism and knowledge, we actually flounder in a fug of messy uncertainty where time and presence play themselves out in uncanny reconstructions.
It is unfortunate then, that we are not trained to recognise these experiences for what they are. In fact the troubling inability to deal with uncategorisable experiences is too often written off as mystical superstition or unworthy of academic study. Yet to study our subjective world is surely as important as studying hard, solid things that we can pin down in the outside world, for is it not these very inner experiences that we transmit into our social interaction? Surely, ‘investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life.’ (Gordon 1997:8).
To be alive is to suffer loss and loss means there is a space where something once was. There is a shape of something that is missing. How we deal with this absence of physicality is an individual matter but what is certain is that often loss can lead to experiencing the missing object in unconventional ways. These ways could be describe as hauntings, as ghostly or spectral apparitions, and such hauntings occur at the very site where the lost object and the individual meet. The paradox being that forces occur which make the object both there and not there at the same time. So we must question what is occurring at this meeting point. Traces? Residue? A unique and particular experience of reality? What is the purpose of hauntings, particularly if they occur against our will? Do they even need to have a purpose or is it our ability to play around with the malleability of reality and our capacity to create ruptures in linear temporality coming into its own? For some people, it seems, ghosts will simply not go away. Therefore, whether they appear with a purpose or not, we either have to learn to live with their presence or listen to what they are trying to tell us.
The year is 1989. I am standing at the graveside of Sylvia Plath in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire. The train ticket and overnight stay in the small village is my birthday present. There is nothing else I wanted or anywhere else I wanted to go.
Interestingly, the layers multiply, increase, and become more complex when readers seek out a dead writer. For although, as Jacqueline Rose has argued, Plath haunts our culture, I would argue that her ghost has equally become haunted by her readers. In other words, Plath’s very own spectral presence in our lives has itself become a site of haunting. How can this be? How can someone who is dead be haunted by the very people she herself is supposed to be haunting? How can our experiences suddenly become so slippery and unreal? Time, past and present, potentially become muddled because we can conjure up people we know whether they are alive or dead. Their physicality is irrelevant. Time is irrelevant.
This maddening, cyclical attachment creates a complicated relationship. To what extent we choose to be haunted by Plath or to what extent she chooses to haunt us becomes irrelevant once the reciprocal haunting begins. My fantasies are grounded in the place where I stand in a time I can never be. My imagination plays with events of the past. I am transformed from my ordinary social context to something, somewhere new. There is nothing tangible occurring here, but there is a shift in consciousness, like being in the same place at two different times, but equally at the same time. Simultaneously my modes of perception are both real and illusory.
Plath is resurrected, both into the present and into reliving the past through my own imaginings. Reconstructing her as she flits between the gravestones shows the value we embed in physical sites and how the emotional attachments we create become part of who we are, part of the stories we tell.
I walk past an open grave, earth piled at the side, ready. I walk past graves so new there are no stones there yet. I see familiar family names. I see your grave and am both disappointed and amazed. It is the closest I will ever get to you. I feel the earth and remember ‘Electra on Azalea Path’ and the line ‘How far gone is he?’ I am being grisly. A sense of history, of meaning given to a place draws on memory, myth, fantasy, and desire. The frustration of six feet of soil.
So a haunting then does not seem to be a passive event. A person does not just sit back and let the experience wash over them like an empty jar waiting to be filled. There is a sense of reciprocity in hauntings. When the ghosts appear either because they are conjured or because they are just there waiting to be found, once their presence is experienced, then like anything else, we develop a relationship. We try to figure why the ghost is there, what they might want from us or what we might want from them. What is the draw? Why does this spectral presence remain and refuse to leave, why do we not with our own sense of agency exorcise this uncanny presence in our lives?
Avery Gordon (1997) explores the idea that we may need a certain hospitable mind set to receive the presence of ghosts and questions whether our need to reckon with hauntings is really our own need to reckon with justice. Bothering with a ghost out of concern for justice, for Avery, would be the only reason one would bother. Is then the shadowy presence of Plath a need for us to somehow compensate her for her last months of life, for the ‘hacking and worming’ of her last works left so neatly binded and then slashed into fragments and pieced back together so wrongly? Is our own reciprocal haunting of Plath somehow an attempt to give voice to a feeling of helplessness or silence?
May be so and yet it feels that receiving ghosts simply to address some issue of justice does not quite cover the range of emotions experienced during a haunting. What about pleasure, or hope, or longing or empathy? The fact that we choose through our own agency not to exorcise the ghost, but in some cases to encourage the communication, suggests there is more than a struggle for justice taking place. Could it be there is a mutual function? Plath wanted her work to travel further than a classroom, further than a lifetime. Her words reach us through the barrier of time. We give her what she wants by reading her, by keeping her alive. But at the same time we also gain. The pleasure of the words, the shock of reading thoughts that seem to have sprung out of your own head but so much more eloquently, so much more brilliant. Her ghostly presence saves lives. I was still living in my idyll when I found Plath and I almost grew into aspects of her defiant suffering, so from the age of thirteen onwards when everything was going wrong and truly for the first time I knew everything was beyond my control, she had already been there and knew.
Psychoanalytic theory would explain these experiences as introjection and projection. The establishment of an idealised other who we project our fantasies onto and subsume those features that we would most like for ourselves. The narcissistic self craves to find mirroring and cohesion in another who is capable of sharing similar mental experiences. Yet this very act of identification is the one thing that makes us aware of our own agency and this identificatory love plays a central role in our notions of desire and pleasure. This ideal other creates, according to Jessica Benjamin (1988), a safe space that permits self-discovery, aloneness in the presence of the other. Yet this intersubjective view of the self argues that the idealised other plays an active part in the struggle of the individual to creatively discover and accept reality. But as I mentioned previously, is our so-called knowledge of reality so categorisable? Do we really need to explain those events which do not fit into our tidy descriptions of life as mere psychological quirks? There is something unsatisfactory about this explanation that appears to place full agency on the person being haunted and appears to deny any intervention on the part of the ghostly presence of the other.
I did not create Sylvia Plath; she already existed before I was born. I did not conjure up her words, they were written and published and present. They had a life of their own beyond mine. To reduce this meeting of reader and text to a psychological state is, in my opinion, as unsatisfactory and inhibiting as the belief in purely empirical knowledge. We have seen how hauntings lead to boundary seepage, how taken-for-granted realities become hazy and uncertain, therefore somewhere between pure psychology and pure empiricism must lay a more uncertain position. The very nature of hauntings mean they are ambiguous and indeterminate, spectral presences indefinable, so where does that leave us in our tentative search to understand this phenomenon? To claim the existence of some misty, foggy middle ground seems equally as unsatisfactory. But perhaps we do have to acknowledge that the presence of ghosts is to a certain extent inexplicable and that our well trained minds are not quite equipped to understand the devastation such a haunting can wreak.
‘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 1997:8)
Is it this magical element that we need to learn to become more comfortable with? The effects of hauntings and ghosts can easily manifest themselves as social phenomena. We can apply psychoanalytic theory to explain reasons why we may be drawn to particular people or places, but it is not so easy to explain the reciprocity of hauntings and it is certainly not easy to explain that murky uncharted territory where empiricism crumbles away leaving an empty, unexplored place.
Benjamin, Jessica, 1988. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the problems of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books.
Gordon, Avery, 1997. Ghostly Matters: haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Plath, Sylvia, 1981. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber.
Rose, Jacqueline, 1991. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. London:Virago.