Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past by Merlin Coverley (2020)
Deep Time: Arthur Machen
Discussions of the work of Arthur Machen (1863-1947) are commonly prefaced with a reference to his unjust and prolonged obscurity; yet in recent years his works have enjoyed a welcome revival of interest. The reasons behind this new-found popularity are twofold: firstly, as a consequence of his role as an exemplary practitioner of weird fiction, a sub-genre which has garnered significant critical attention since the publication of ST Joshi's The Weird Tale in 1990, and which has since been explored in the work of, amongst others, China Miéville and Mark Fisher; and secondly through the identification of Machen's work as a significant precursor to psychogeography.62 As his prominent position within the tradition of psychogeography would suggest, Machen is a figure who is regarded principally as a writer of place, both of his native Wales and his adopted home, London. Throughout his work, but particularly in his three volumes of autobiography, his recollections of these two locations take precedence over his discussion of both family and career.63 Yet, not only is Machen a writer of place, he is also a writer of time, both of his own and also that of 'deep time', the vertigo-inducing expanse of the prehistoric past which forms the backdrop to so many of his early, and best-known stories. It is here, in his descriptions of those moments in which the ancient may unexpectedly intrude upon the present, in ways both malignant and benign, that Machen's work intersects with the contemporary concerns of hauntology.
In his discussion of the history of Gothic literature, Roger Luckhurst suggests a pattern of ebb and flow, in which he identifies three distinct waves in which the Gothic comes momentarily to the forefront of the popular imagination before once again retreating.64 The first wave was inaugurated by the publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story in 1764 and was followed by works such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) before concluding with Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820); the second wave struck in the late Victorian period with a cluster of the most famous works of the genre: Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), HG Wells' The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and continued into the early twentieth century before subsiding; the third wave, less clearly agreed upon, is marked by the 'horror boom' of the 1970s. 'For about 250 years', Luckhurst writes, 'this lowly, hybrid, barely controlled, vaguely embarrassing literature has not just survived but insisted on coming back repeatedly.'65
Characterised in this way, of course, the Gothic as a form comes strangely to resemble its content, a revenant form of fiction that refuses to be laid to rest, a hauntological, perhaps the hauntological literary genre, and one which, it would appear, is never far from the surface. But once these periods of ascendancy have been identified, the question then remains as to the cause of such periodic irruptions at these particular historical moments. The popularity of the Gothic in the 1790s has since been equated with the violent upheavals of the French Revolution, but what happened in the late Victorian era to provoke its re-emergence? Any explanation is less dependent upon a single historical event than it is upon the intellectual currents of the day, but what seems clear is that this period is one in which established distinctions between life and death, the material and the spiritual, the self and the other, the historical and the atemporal, were challenged by radical new ideas which threatened to erode or efface the boundaries between such categories.66
The publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859 was the major intellectual challenge to the certainties of the Victorian worldview with its assault upon both the hitherto unquestioned division between the human and the animal, and the accepted timescale of biblical creation. Darwin's theory of evolution was, however, a one-way street, a progressive journey towards human perfectibility. But what if man were capable not only of evolution towards an enlightened future, but its opposite, a regression to some primordial state of bestial ignorance? By the late nineteenth-century, Darwin's successors had begun to pose such uncomfortable questions to a horrified public. The theory of degeneration, the belief in an evolutionary ladder which man might slip down as well as climb, originated in observations of regressions in the life cycle of sea squirts described by Edwin Ray Lankester in his Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (1880).67
Foreshadowing the distinctly aquatic, or tentacular, nature of many of our subsequent literary encounters with the horrors of human reversion, Lankester's account of the downward spiral of evolutionary regression was soon extended to account for 'the animalism of the criminal classes, female hysterics and the insane, the hereditary taint that caused sons or daughters to regress, or even the decline of races, nations, and empires.'68 The identification of degeneration as the evolutionary explanation for societal ills was given further impetus by the publication of Max Nordau's Degeneration in 1892 which played upon the middle-class public's fears of racial and biological pollution with great success. It was this widespread perception of a future haunted by the biological imperatives of an unwanted past that formed the backdrop to the emergence of the late Victorian gothic and to Machen's fledgling career as a writer. Machen's first published text, 'Eleusinia' (1881), a long poem he wrote at the age of 17, depicts the rites of Demeter's worship, reflecting an interest in the pre-Christian mythic time of the pagan gods which was expressed so vividly in the work of Vernon Lee; and it is this anachronistic conflict between an allegedly secular present and a pagan, pre-Celtic past which is the hallmark of Machen's most celebrated tale, 'The Great God Pan' (1890).
Machen's story begins in the haunted landscape of his Welsh homeland, in the ancient woodland of Gwent, as a doctor performs an experimental brain procedure on a young girl: 'a slight lesion in the grey matter, that is all; a trifling rearrangement of certain cells, a microscopical alteration that would escape the attention of ninety-nine brain specialists out of a hundred.'69 The clinical language used by Dr Raymond to describe this operation masks its true purpose, however, which is a rather less than scientific attempt to rent the veil between present and past, between the material and immaterial: 'You see me standing here beside you, and hear my voice', Dr Raymond announces, 'but I tell you that all these things – yes, from that star that has just shone out in the sky to the solid ground beneath our feet – I say that all these are but dreams and shadows: the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes. There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and vision [...] beyond them all as beyond a veil [...] and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan.'70 Needless to say, this experiment doesn't go quite as planned, and the patient, reduced to a grinning idiot by the horror of what she has seen dies nine months later having given birth to a child as a result of her demonic union with Pan. It is her daughter, Helen Vaughan, who, under various guises, haunts this story, leaving death and despair in her wake along with repeated inferences to unmentionable and unspeakable acts. The story ends with the extraordinary manner of her death as her body undergoes what appears to be a process of grotesquely accelerated degeneration: 'The blackened face, the hideous form upon the bed, changing and melting before your eyes from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast'.71
There may seem little in Machen's tale, to the modern reader at least, to justify the overexcited critical reception it received, with The Westminster Gazette describing it as 'an incoherent nightmare of sex.'72 Yet in its depiction, or rather presumption, of transgressive sex, alongside the startling dénouement of bodily dissolution, 'The Great God Pan' manages to play successfully upon many of the late Victorian era's fears over degeneration – corporal, moral, and spiritual – in scenes to which Machen was to return repeatedly. For in this tale, as in many of those which were to follow, the present and all it represents – civilisation, progress, science, morality – is challenged by a distant past that refuses to remain dormant but instead threatens to return and overturn everything that the Victorians held dear. History is threatened by an ahistorical past, while the future is haunted by the ever-present possibility of a reversion to an earlier state. Time is clearly out of joint and not behaving as the Victorian public might have expected, in a linear fashion towards a preordained future; forward and upward, not backward and downward. Yet the theorists of evolutionary degeneration were not the only figures to upset the Victorian's sense of temporal equanimity, for the nineteenth century was to witness a revolution in the very conceptualisation of time itself.73
Until as late as the mid-nineteenth century the age of the Earth was a question less speculative than one might have presumed. There was a broad religious and scientific consensus that the world was 'no more than fifty or sixty centuries old', a span large enough to encapsulate 'the unfolding of the whole of known human history and therefore for the natural world, the stage on which it had been played out'.74 In short, human history was coterminous with the history of the planet itself, leaving no need for the concept of prehistory. In fact, in the mid-seventeenth century the historian and archbishop, James Ussher, had calculated the precise date of the Creation to 4004 BC, a figure which was to remain remarkably durable over the next two centuries. One cannot then overestimate the profound shock which was to result from the 'time revolution' of the 1860s, as the Victorian world suddenly awoke to the idea that human history was a barely significant span of historical time preceded by an unimaginably vast expanse of unrecorded time. Thanks to Darwin's theory of natural selection, millions of years were now required to provide a timeframe for human evolution.75 Archaeologists began to stratify human history into the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, while the publication of John Lubbock's Prehistoric Times (1865) introduced a further distinction between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic, the Old and New Stone Age. Faced by the immensity of this newly revealed past, historians responded by using the concept of prehistory (the five-million year span between the emergence of the first humans and the beginning of recorded or written history some 6,000 years ago) as a 'buffer zone' with which to protect human history from the 'abysses of deep temporality'.76
Soon the newly emerging disciplines of ethnography and anthropology were attempting to fill this blank space with speculative outlines of our rediscovered ancestors. But the evolutionary model suggested that human development was an uneven process and that not all cultures might have progressed at the same rate. Alongside the belief in atavism, the possibility that human evolution might revert to a more primitive form, or that an earlier biological modification might reappear, it was now suggested that cultures or entire races might be classified according to the degree of cultural, intellectual and physical development they displayed.77 In this light, the present could be haunted by the past in the form of a living race or individual in whom the past was embodied. For just as persons, events or objects might be subject to a chronological inconsistency that rendered them anachronisms, so too it seemed, to the Victorians at least, entire cultures or races might become misplaced in time, evolutionary anachronisms whose development had stalled or regressed within the aeons of this newly discovered past. It is through his recognition of intellectual currents such as these and the terrifying sense of an atemporal void that underpins them, that Machen's stories gain their enduring power. For the temporal juxtapositions he employs throughout his work act as a reminder to his readers, then as now, of the fragility of our historical categorisations and the futility of our attempts to keep 'deep history' at bay.78
The intrusion of the prehistorical past into the present is a recurrent theme of Machen's fiction but nowhere is he more explicit in his expression of these ideas than in 'The Novel of the Black Seal', first published as part of the series of interlinked tales that form The Three Impostors (1895). Here, the ethnologist, Professor Gregg, having come into the possession of a black seal containing the seemingly indecipherable markings of what he believes to be an ancient troglodytic race, eventually learns of their continued survival in the hills of South Wales. Gregg pursues his quarry only to discover that this malignant species possesses astonishing powers of transmutation, retained from an earlier evolutionary stage. When he fails to return from his final attempt to establish contact, a written record of these events is found:
While I should be very loath to receive any one specific instance of modern spiritualism as containing even a grain of the genuine, yet I was not wholly prepared to deny that human flesh may now and then, once perhaps in ten million cases, be the veil of powers which seem magical to us – powers which, so far from proceeding from the heights and leading men thither, are in reality survivals from the depths of being. The amoeba and the snail have powers which we do not possess; and I thought it possible that the theory of reversion might explain many things which seem wholly inexplicable. Thus stood my position; I saw good reason to believe that much of the tradition, a vast deal of the earliest and uncorrupted tradition of the so-called fairies, represented solid fact, and I thought that the purely supernatural element in these traditions was to be accounted for on the hypothesis that a race which had fallen out of the grand march of evolution might have retained, as a survival, certain powers which would be to us wholly miraculous. [...] What if the obscure and horrible race of the hills still survived, still remained haunting wild places and barren hills, and now and then repeating the evil of the Gothic legend, unchanged and unchangeable as the Turanian Shelta, or the Basques of Spain?79
Two years later, Machen was to return to what he called his 'Little People' mythology in 'The Red Hand' (1897), in which the existence of an evolutionary survival from the ancient past once again threatens to upset the scientific and cultural certainties of late Victorian London:
Who can limit the age of survival? The troglodyte and the lake-dweller, perhaps representatives of yet darker races, may very probably be lurking in our midst, rubbing shoulders with frock-coated and finely-draped humanity, ravening like wolves at heart and boiling with the foul passions of the swamp and the black cave. Now and then as I walk in Holborn or Fleet Street I see a face which I pronounce abhorred, and yet I could not give a reason for the thrill of loathing that stirs within me. [...] There are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead.80
It may be difficult for today's reader to see beyond the anxieties of race and class thinly concealed within the 'science' of ethnology employed in these tales, and yet the belief that previous cultures may have been left behind and that evolution operates at a different pace at different times was not then regarded as a work of fiction. Indeed, the anthropological theory of euhemerism, widely accepted at this time, suggested that the contemporary belief in 'little people' was in fact based upon the prehistoric existence of such a race. For just as the fossilised remains of the dinosaurs might provide retrospective validation for the belief in mythological dragons, so the euhemerist hypothesis of Victorian anthropologists such as David MacRitchie posited that 'a race of smaller-than-average people' had colonised Western Europe prior to the incursion of taller, Aryan or Celtic, tribes: 'Hounded out by the taller, more powerful Celts, these "Turanians" hid under the hills, appearing only at night, dancing by moonlight for exercise, and occasionally stealing food, and sometimes even women or babies, from their oppressors.'81 Such a theory appeared to provide a scientific basis to the surprisingly widely-held belief in fairies at this time, and throughout the late nineteenth century accounts were published which suggested that such people still survived in inaccessible areas of Morocco, the Pyrenees and Switzerland.82 Indeed, writing in 1898, Machen himself appears to subscribe to this view:
Of recent years abundant proof has been given that a short, non-Aryan race once dwelt beneath ground, in hillocks, throughout Europe, their raths have been explored, and the weird old tales of green hills all lighted up at night have received confirmation. Much in the old legends may be explained by a reference to this primitive race. The stories of changelings, and captive women, become clear on the supposition that the "fairies" occasionally raided the houses of the invaders.83
In this light, in which the existence of the 'little people' is no longer presented as the subject of supernatural belief but rather as a matter of historical fact, the Victorian idea of atavistic degeneration becomes less a fear of a recurrent past than of a past that has always been with us. For such evolutionary 'survivals' no longer predate modernity as throwbacks to the deep history of a pre-human past but exist alongside the present, hidden, enduring and evolving, no longer a revenant race that comes back to haunt the present, but one that never went away. Machen's fiction once again calls into question the linearity of historical time, suggesting an alternative past located not prior to the present but adjacent to it, not the pre-historical but the ab-historical, an unrecognised realm that lies within our own and upon which it may intrude.84
Machen's work is preoccupied with borders and the consequences that arise when they are crossed, boundaries between reality and illusion, the material and immaterial, between life and death itself. But the boundaries that are most frequently challenged in his work are temporal, those between the present and the historical past, and the deep time that precedes them, whose return or revelation disrupts the certainties of the day. As we shall see in later chapters, it is precisely this interpenetration of past and present which is characteristic of hauntology, and it is to be found in the works of later writers such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Nigel Kneale. Nowhere, however, has this theme been so singularly developed as in Machen's tales from the late nineteenth century. Perhaps one further reason behind Machen's welcome return to recognition in recent years lies precisely in his concern with the immeasurable depths of geologic time. For today we are all becoming increasingly accustomed to thinking in terms of deep time, or at least in categorising the present in increasingly geologic terms as we attempt to account for the consequences of humanity's effect on our environment. The proposed epochal classification of the Anthropocene is in this respect both an acknowledgement that the divergent scales of human and geologic time have momentarily intersected as well as an opportunity to recalibrate our own sense of the past in line with Machen's more expansive vision.
Hauntology, I too dislike it!
Hauntology is the latest in Coverley's series of interesting and mercifully brief books about intellectual flavors of the month.
"Hauntology" began as a bit of rhetorical shorthand by the late obscurantist Jaques Derrida. Eventually a more mundane and useful role was found for the term as Marxism was eclipsed in 90s academia.
The examples Coverley provides of works by his hauntologists strike the reader as (at best) eccentric themes from creative writing class assignments.
Excerpts from a zine called "Savage Messiah" by someone named "Laura Grace (formerly Oldfield) Ford" seem to be the acme of this kind of amateur gibberish, subsequently canonized with a Verso edition. Coverly suggests "Savage Messiah" valorizes atomized dead-end riots as examples of popular protests against "Thatcherism."
Mark Fisher of "acid communism" fame is given pride of place in the book's final chapter. I suspect Fisher called himself a Marxist by misunderstanding: his brand of petty bourgeois social democracy cross-fertilized with fashionable academic jargon is not fundamentally different from the priorities of old New Left Review/Tony Benn Labour reformist Bernsteinism.
Fisher's vaunted and "courageous" 1970s political nostalgia is untouched by the weight of the victory in Vietnam against US imperialism, the Portuguese revolution, or the Irish civil rights movement. His 1979 is oblivious to victories in Grenada, Nicaragua, and Iran, and the intensifying antiapartheid struggle. Crucially: no mention of class, class dictatorship, or class struggle. In the end, Fisher is one more purveyor of pink whateverism.
Coverley's sections on Vernon Lee, Machen, Susan Cooper, and Alan Garner will be useful to new readers looking for guidance. So are the lists of recommended websites, films, and books.
28 January 2022