Sunday, 24 January 2010

“I’m disappearing inch by inch into this house”

When the soul departs, then what remains is dead matter, a sheer material thing, which no longer possesses in itself anything of the I as man. The Body, on the contrary, cannot depart. Even the ghost necessarily has its ghostly Body. To be sure, this Body is not an actual material thing—the appearing materiality is an illusion—but thereby so is the affiliated soul and thus the entire ghost (Husserl, Ideas).
When the dead come, how will they be found? Ordinarily, we raise our eyes to the world, in the hope of catching sight of some amorphous spirit lurking in the distance. And we are able to “see” the dead, as even the most ethereal of ghosts retains spatio-temporal extension. Only now, that spirit is reduced to a murmur, a corpse whose life has detached itself from its original site of existence. But the supernatural realm does not end with our eyes, nor does it privilege visual perception. In the burnt out corridors of old houses left to decay, things creep up behind us, their hands meeting with our own, the voices heard through our bodies.

How do we find the dead? The question must be reversed: how do the dead find us? Lacking the necessary sensory organs we associate with the living, the supernatural are forced to the surface of their natural habitat, at which point human life is thought of as intervening with the otherworldly. Yet this is an illusion. The realm of the supernatural does not exist in an “elsewhere,” far removed from human habitation. Nor does human life fortuitously encounter the experience of being haunted, as though ghosts dwelt in a dormant province, only awoken by the creeping dread of human fear. Rather, when the dead come, then they do so alongside the living who reciprocates the troubled desires and memories, which fuse the living with the dead.

Of the failure to transcend death, Eliphas Levi writes as follows: “When a man has lived well the astral body evaporates like a pure incense ascending towards the superior regions; but should he have lived in sin, his astral body, which holds him prisoner, still seeks the objects of it is passions and wishes to return to life” (p. 120). A spiritual abyss ensues, the life-world of the dead now strung in a celestial void. That Levi points toward “sin” as the cause of this void need not matter. Removing the moral content of his claim, we are left with a desire toward returning, repetition, and reconstitution—a debt the dead owe the living. In certain pathological instances, that debt exceeds the bounds of an immaterial realm, at which point “the suffering souls sometimes enter the organism of the living and dwell therein in that state which Cabbalists term embryonic” (Ibid).

The dead are with us. But para-phenomenology rather than necromancy is required in order to cultivate their presence of those trapped in the desolate void. Levi points us in the right direction in claiming that the dead “reason only be reflecting our thoughts and our reveries” (p. 121). From encountering the ghost in its haunt, we cross into a shared realm, whereupon the living becomes the voice of the dead, mirroring the disturbances from beyond.

In a key scene from Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) [of which, the screenshots are captured], this shared space is expressed perfectly. “I’m coming apart a little at a time,” so says the vulnerable protagonist, Nell, whose neurosis, guilt, and alienation enables her to commune with the dead, “I’m disappearing inch by inch into this house.” This chiasmatic interplay is the vital spark preserving the dead from their death. A haunting is mutual: the haunted become the haunt, and the haunt becomes the haunted (pointing us in each way to Freud’s understanding of unheimlich). In the The Haunting, the interplay carries with it an unconscious teleology, which is realised through the role of the house. More than a backdrop, the house renders the communion of Nell and the spectre possible—a living breathing, sentient entity, whose pulsating door, deathly cold spots, and ominous stares is the nothing less than the “Astral Light” rendered flesh.

Believing that her redemption from life dwells within the house, Nell’s “disappearance” into the house is the logical outcome of what Levi terms a “waking somnambulism,” placing the dead alongside the living. By the end of the film, this somnambulism has seized the body of Nell, producing a set of animated gestures opposed to her rational concept of “self.” Whose hands are driving the wheel that plunges her into a tree, killing her on the spot? There is no clear answer to this. By this time, the woman and the house have fused, and the otherness of the ghost has effectively become assimilated within her bodily scheme, thus producing a teleology exorcising both the living and the dead from the same place. Resigned to her fate, a waxy serenity reminiscent of Bataille’s “ling chi” descends upon her face, the car thundering into a tree: “Something at last is really, really happening to me,” she utters before dying.

Saturday, 16 January 2010


I am currently in the midst of finishing my second book, "The Memory of Place: a Phenomenology of the Uncanny," which is due to be submitted to the publisher in a month or so. I will be posting more details of the book in the months to come. In the meantime, I have posted some papers and reviews over here, and will be continuing to add some more shortly. One of the papers is from a talk I gave at the University of Bath yesterday, based on ideas from my "The Aesthetics of Decay." I may at some point expand this paper as a journal article, as I'm beginning to sense that for those who can't justify spending £45 on a book - and who can? - a distillation of the book's ideas in a journal article would be a worthwhile project. Back soon.