"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, January 28, 2022

Vernon Lee: Reading notes from Hauntology by Merlin Coverly (2020)

Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past by Merlin Coverley (2020)


Mythic Time: Vernon Lee

     'Those pedants say that the dead are dead, the past is past. For them, yes; but why for me? [...] Why should there not be ghosts to such as can see them?' So writes the author Vernon Lee in her short story, 'Amour Dure' (1890).41 Lee, the pen-name of Violet Paget (1856-1935), may at first glance appear an unlikely inclusion in a survey such as this, and yet her pioneering gothic tales, in which history is experienced as a kind of haunting, demonstrate many of the temporal traits which have since come to be associated with hauntology. Educated in Germany and Italy, Violet Paget adopted the masculine nom de plume 'Vernon Lee' at the age of 19 because, in her own words, she was 'sure that no one reads a woman's writing on art, history or aesthetics with anything but unmitigated contempt'.42 Her first work of scholarship, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), was published at the age of 24 and brought her great acclaim; over the next 50 years she was to produce 43 major works of fiction, history, philosophy and aesthetics. Yet by the time of her death in 1935 these works were largely neglected. It is only since the 1980s and the revival of overlooked feminist voices from the late nineteenth century, that her supernatural tales have been rediscovered and her reputation as a pioneering modernist restored. 

     An acknowledged disciple of the art critic, Walter Pater (1839-94), Lee was particularly influenced by his essay 'Pico della Mirandola' (1871) in which Pater translates from Heinrich Heine's 'The Gods in Exile' (1853). Heine's essay imagines the deposed pagan deities returning to medieval Christian society where they are forced to disguise themselves or to undertake humble employment, an idea of the return of the mythical pagan past into later Christian history which was to have a powerful impact upon late Victorian society. Heine (1797-1856) believed that the exuberance of the Greek myths had been superseded by an ascetic Christian tradition which rendered these pagan deities as little more than malignant spirits. But what if these gods remained amongst us still, albeit in rather reduced circumstances? With Apollo now a lowly shepherd in Austria and Mars an Italian peasant and soldier, Heine depicts these dethroned deities as little more than a band of melancholy and malevolent wanderers:

     I am speaking here of that metamorphosis into demons which the Greek and Roman gods underwent when Christianity achieved supreme control of the world. The superstition of the people ascribed to those gods a real but cursed existence, coinciding entirely in this respect with the teaching of the Church. The latter by no means declared the ancient gods to be myths, inventions of falsehood and error, as did the philosophers, but held them to be evil spirits, who, through the victory of Christ, had been hurled from the summit of their power, and now dragged along their miserable existences in the obscurity of dismantled temples or in enchanted groves, and by their diabolic arts, through lust and beauty, particularly through dancing and singing, lured to apostasy unsteadfast Christians who had lost their way in the forest [...] then these unfortunate heathen divinities were again compelled to take to flight, seeking safety under the most varied disguises and in the most retired hiding-places. Many of these poor refugees, deprived of shelter and ambrosia, were now forced to work at some plebeian trade in order to earn a livelihood.43

     The gods have become revenants forced to return from mythic time to historical time by the loss of belief in the pagan religion that sustains them. Seen out of their true temporal context they become in Christian terms no longer godly but demonic, a ghostly trace of a pagan prehistoric past that never went away. In her essay 'Dionysus in the Euganean Hills' (1921), Lee describes the exile of the gods in supernatural terms, as 'a kind of haunting; the gods [...] partaking of the nature of ghosts even more than all gods do, revenants as they are from other ages.'44 Here, Lee's appropriation of Heine's motif is both an extension of her preoccupation with Hellenic culture and an expression of her understanding of history as governed by the ghostly return of the past.

     First published in her most celebrated collection of supernatural tales, Hauntings (1890), 'Dionea' is the story in which Lee draws most explicitly on Heine's work. Through a fragmentary exchange of letters, Lee describes the rebirth of Venus (Aphrodite) in late nineteenth-century Italy and the malignant consequences of her return. Dionea, a young girl of mysterious origins, is cast ashore after a storm and placed in a local convent. Needless to say, she soon reveals herself to be ill-suited to her new environment, and quickly alienates her companions. As she grows older, her beauty and her behaviour begin to have an increasingly unsettling effect, particularly on the men with whom she comes into contact, and this malign influence soon proves fatal for those who follow in her wake. Dionea is a strangely ambivalent figure who seems detached from and wholly unconcerned by the evil influence she exerts, a character both out of place and out of time, whose very existence is at odds with modern Christian society. Early in the narrative, lest her readers might have overlooked Heine's influence, one of the narrators, a scholar of pagan mythology, reveals himself to be 'enthralled by a tragic history, the history of the fall of the Pagan Gods', asking 'Have you ever read of their wanderings and disguises, in my friend Heine's little book?'45 Soon Dionea's otherworldly nature begins to exert itself upon her environment as her true identity becomes apparent: 

     Certain it is that the Pagan divinities lasted much longer than we suspect, sometimes in their own nakedness, sometimes in the stolen garb of the Madonna or the saints. Who knows whether they do not exist to this day? And, indeed, is it possible they should not? For the awfulness of the deep woods, with their filtered green light, the creak of the swaying, solitary reeds, exists, and is Pan; and the blue, starry May night exists, the sough of the waves, the warm wind carrying the sweetness of the lemon-blossoms, the bitterness of the myrtle on our rocks, the distant chaunt of the boys cleaning out their nets, of the girls sickling the grass under the olives, Amor-amor-amor, and all this is the great goddess Venus.46

     As the story ends, Dionea disappears, having overseen the ritualistic death of the sculptor who was creating her statue, returning from historical time to the realm of myth: 'Some say they have seen her, on stormy nights, wandering among the cliffs [...] a Greek boat, with eyes painted on the prow, going full sail to sea, the men singing as she went. And against the mast, a robe of purple and gold about her, and a myrtle-wreath on her head, leaned Dionea, singing words in an unknown tongue, the white pigeons circling around her.'47 'Dionea' reveals the clash between two different and incompatible forms of temporality and the cultures through which they are sustained; on the one hand, the cyclical time of mythology and the eternal return of the pagan gods, and on the other the linear historical time of a Christian society on the cusp of secular modernity. Both here and throughout her work, Lee explores the impact of the mythic past as it returns momentarily to destabilise the present, with chaotic and unpredictable results.48

     In her preface to Hauntings, Lee outlines her belief that the supernatural is a peculiar kind of history, a past that refuses to remain dormant and which exists in tandem with the present:

     That is the thing – the Past, the more or less remote Past, of which the prose is clean obliterated by distance – that is the place to get our ghosts from. Indeed, we live ourselves, we educated folk of modern times, on the borderland of the Past, in houses looking down on its troubadours' orchards and Greek folks' pillared courtyards; and a legion of ghosts, very vague and changeful, are perpetually to and fro, fetching and carrying for us between it and the Present.49

     The past that Lee evokes is not the recent past that preoccupies hauntology, but rather the distant past of mythological time. And yet, paradoxically, despite its apparent distance from the present, this past continues to exist alongside us, just beneath the surface, and can be accessed by those attuned to its presence. 'They exist, these ghosts', Lee writes, 'only in our minds [...] They are things of the imagination, born there, bred there, sprung from the strange confused heaps, half-rubbish, half-treasure, which lie in our fancy, heaps of half-faded recollections, of fragmentary vivid impressions, litter of multi-coloured tatters'.50 Lee's ghosts reside both in the distant past and within our heads, triggered by half-forgotten memories of time and place. Lee was dismissive of psychical research which she saw as antithetical to the imagination, arguing instead that there are 'no genuine ghosts in the scientific sense [...] no hauntings such as could be contributed by the Society for Psychical Research [...] no spectres that can be caught in definite places and made to dictate judicial evidence.' 'My ghosts', she claims, 'are what you call spurious ghosts (according to me the only genuine ones), of whom I can affirm only one thing, that they haunted certain brains, and have haunted, among others, my own and my friends.'51

     These ghosts may reside in our memories and imagination rather than in physical reality but their presence is no less keenly felt as a result. Indeed, in her essay 'Faustus and Helena: Notes on the Supernatural in Art' (1880) Lee argues that it is precisely because the ghostly is experienced through feeling and suggestion rather than reason that it maintains its power to evoke the past, providing us with a residual substitute for the primitive religions of antiquity:

     We none of us believe in ghosts as logical possibilities, but we most of us conceive them as imaginative possibilities; we can still feel the ghostly, and thence it is that a ghost is the only thing which can in any respect replace for us the divinities of old, and enable us to understand, if only for a minute, the imaginative power which they possessed, and of which they were despoiled not only by logic, but by art. By ghost we do not mean the vulgar apparition which is seen or heard in told or written tales; we mean the ghost which slowly rises up in our mind, the haunter not of corridors and staircases, but of our fancies. Just as the gods of primitive religions were the undulating, bright heat which made mid-day solitary and solemn as midnight [...] so the ghost, their only modern equivalent, is the damp, the darkness, the silence, the solitude [...] Each and all of these things, and a hundred others besides, according to our nature, is a ghost, a vague feeling we can scarcely describe, a something pleasing and terrible which invades our whole consciousness, and which, confusedly embodied, we half dread to see behind us, we know not in what shape, if we look around. [...] And the more complete the artistic work, the less remains of the ghost. Why do those stories affect us most in which the ghost is heard but not seen? [...] Why, as soon as a figure is seen, is the charm half-lost? [...] Do not these embodied ghosts owe what little effect they still possess to their surroundings, and are not the surroundings the real ghost?52

     Lee suggests that the ghostly resides in the apprehension of our immediate environment, in our sense of place or genius loci, and in asserting that the supernatural may be found in the ephemeral and impressionistic rather than in the logical and experiential she is proposing an aesthetic theory at odds with those aspects of the gothic which sought to present the ghostly in a more clearly embodied manner. This outlook is apparent throughout her fiction, both in Hauntings and elsewhere, in which the ghostly is always rendered as insubstantial and associative. It is her insistence that the very conception of the supernatural resides within the mythic time of pagan antiquity that foreshadows later studies of primitive religions as well as furthering our understanding of the temporal antecedents to hauntology.

     It was the historian of religion, Mircea Eliade (1907-86) who famously distinguished between the sacred and the profane, and the two opposing forms of temporality through which they are expressed. Sacred time describes the point at which myths entered our world to give it meaning, the fabled time of 'beginnings', while profane or historical time is chronological and linear, and is the setting for the ordinary (non-religious) duration of time. According to Eliade, sacred or mythological time is cyclical by nature and allows for the reiteration of mythical events through ritual, in which the protagonists are transfigured, stepping outside of chronological time and returning to re-enact these primordial myths, not as spectators but as participants, experiencing the event as if for the first time. These myths therefore describe those moments when the sacred or supernatural breaks through into the world, the point at which the mythical and the historical intersect:

     For religious man time too, like space, is neither homogeneous nor continuous. On the one hand there are the intervals of sacred time, the time of festivals (by far the greater part of which are periodical); on the other there is profane time, ordinary temporal duration, in which acts without religious meaning have their setting. Between these two kinds of time there is, of course, solution of continuity; but by means of rites religious man can pass without danger from ordinary temporal duration to sacred time. 

     One essential difference between these two qualities of time strikes us immediately: by its very nature sacred time is reversible in the sense that, properly speaking, it is a primordial mythical time made present. Every religious festival, any liturgical time, represents the reactualization of a sacred event that took place in the mythical past, 'in the beginning'. Religious participation in a festival implies emerging from ordinary temporal duration and reintegration of the mythical time reactualized by the festival itself. Hence sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable. [....] The sacred time periodically reactualized in pre-Christian religions (especially in the archaic religions) is a mythical time, that is, a primordial time, not to be found in the historical past, an original time, in the sense that it came into existence all at once, that it was not preceded by another time, because no time could exist before the appearance of the reality narrated in the myth.53

     For the religious man of primitive or archaic society, Eliade explains, the eternal repetition of mythical time gives human existence its meaning. This cycle of eternal recurrence as time returns periodically through the observance of sacred ritual is experienced positively as significant and celebratory. This only remains the case, however, as long as the beliefs which underpin such rituals are maintained. In their absence, life is stripped of its meaning and cyclical time becomes hollow, mechanised and terrifying, an oppressive and endlessly repetitive cycle of meaningless time:

     For religious man of the primitive and archaic societies, the eternal repetition of paradigmatic gestures and the eternal recovery of the same mythical time of origin, sanctified by the gods, in no sense implies a pessimistic vision of life. [...] The perspective changes completely when the sense of the religiousness of the cosmos becomes lost. This is what occurs when, in certain more highly evolved societies, the intellectual √©lites progressively detach themselves from the patterns of the traditional religion. The periodical sanctification of cosmic time then proves useless and without meaning. The gods are no longer accessible through the cosmic rhythms. The religious meaning of the repetition of paradigmatic gestures is forgotten. But repetition emptied of its religious content necessarily leads to a pessimistic vision of existence. When it is no longer a vehicle for reintegrating a primordial situation, and hence for recovering the mysterious presence of the gods, that is, when it is desacralized, cyclic time becomes terrifying; it is seen as a circle forever turning on itself, repeating itself to infinity.54

     This, Eliade tells us, is what happened in India, where the religious and philosophical elites despaired at the prospect of 'cyclic time repeating itself ad infinitum.'55 Indeed, as the West appears to move inexorably towards a post-Christian society, so has our own sense of the duration of time become similarly divorced from the repetition of religious ritual that once lent it meaning. It is precisely such a sense of temporal disjunction, the belief that the linear flow of historical time has been disrupted or curtailed, which is characteristic of hauntology. In this context both Eliade's distinction between sacred and profane time, as well as Lee's depiction of history as a form of haunting, demonstrate similar and allied concerns with the ways in which the present may be undermined or haunted by a mythic past which falls outside our schema of temporal duration.

     As we have seen, in 'Dionea' Lee outlines precisely such a scenario in her depiction of the impact of mythic return upon historical time, and this is a theme she returns to throughout her work. Elsewhere in Hauntings, for example, it is 'A Wicked Voice' (1890) which seems most directly relevant to our discussion of hauntology, for which it provides a clear precursor. Here, once again, Lee depicts the past as a trap, as her narrator is exposed to the horror of cyclical time. Set in a Venice floating 'in the stagnant lagoon of the past', the story has as its central character Magnus, a composer who is attempting to complete his opera; but following the disparaging comments he makes about a portrait of the eighteenth-century castrato, Zaffirino, he soon finds himself haunted by his voice.56 Zaffirino, we learn, was once said to possess a voice of such unearthly beauty that women found it irresistible, and anyone exposed to its sound three times in succession would be struck dead. Magnus is soon bewitched by this ghostly, and potentially fatal, earworm which he comes both to despise and to long for in equal measure, recognising an agonising dependence upon a music he detests and which eventually drowns out his own musical inspiration. Unlike the castrato's earlier victims, however, Magnus survives, but only with the realisation that he must forever remain in thrall to Zaffirino, whose music has now displaced the possibility of him ever creating his own: 

     Recovery? But have I recovered? I walk, and eat and drink and talk; I can even sleep. I live the life of other living creatures. But I am wasted by a strange and deadly disease. I can never lay hold of my own inspiration. My head is filled with music which is certainly by me, since I have never heard it before, but which still is not my own, which I despise and abhor: little, tripping flourishes and languishing phrases, and long-drawn, echoing cadences.57

     The idea of a voice of such power that it can enchant the listener instinctively recalls us to the mythic past and the similarly destructive song of the Sirens; for Lee's depiction of music as both a haunted and haunting medium is particularly powerful in conveying the endless repetitions of myth. 'A Wicked Voice', with its unwilling listener forced into a dependency upon a past he cannot escape, clearly foreshadows contemporary discussions around sonic hauntology, but it is another of Lee's tales that most memorably encapsulates the circularity of mythic time.58

     'Amour Dure' (1890), also published in Hauntings, is again written in a rather fragmentary form, this time through the pages of its narrator's journal. The story describes the experiences of a Polish historian named Spiridion Trepka, who is conducting archival research in Umbria in 1885. As we shall see, the figure of the obsessive historian who becomes haunted by the subject of his research is something of a staple in the stories of MR James, and in this respect Lee's story acts as a template for much of James's work. In this instance, Trepka becomes infatuated by the portrait of a medieval noblewoman named Medea da Carpi, whose lovers, suitors and husbands all suffered mysterious deaths, seemingly at Medea's bidding, before she herself was finally put to death. As he learns more of her past, so Trepka's obsession grows, and gradually Medea's story begins to bleed into the present, his journal revealing glimpses of Medea in the street and in church. The past is being relived in the present with Trepka fulfilling the role of Medea's latest victim in a cyclical re-enactment of infatuation and vengeance. As the story reaches its conclusion, Trepka appears resigned to his fate, trapped within a historical cycle he is powerless to resist: 'And I, for what am I waiting? I don't know; all seems as a dream; everything vague and unsubstantial about me, as if time had ceased, nothing could happen, my own desires and hopes were all dead, myself absorbed into I know not what passive dreamland. Do I long for to-night? Do I dread it? Will to-night ever come? Do I feel anything, does anything exist all around me?'59

     Trepka has stepped out of historical time into mythic time, the still point where 'time had ceased', becoming a passive spectator to his own impending death, for despite the warnings he receives from the ghosts of Medea's earlier victims, the story unfolds inevitably towards his murder.60 Lee's tale is a curious retelling of the myth of Medea, in which the past is repeatedly and violently restaged in the present. In the Medea of Euripides, Medea, deserted by Jason, takes her revenge by killing both his daughter and her own two sons by him. It is this vengeful figure which haunts Lee's tale, and through whom this cycle of violent retribution is enacted. Lee's concern here is for the mythic time of eternal recurrence, the primordial time outside of time which continues to repeat itself in the present, and which is symbolised by the inscription sealed on Medea's letter to Trepka, 'AMOUR DURE – DURE AMOUR', 'Love that lasts, cruel love.' This punning use of 'Dure' and the circularity of the inscription itself only re-emphasises the cyclical nature of mythic time, in which Trepka assumes a sacrificial role within the unending cycle of Medea's retribution.61 

     If Lee's peculiar sense of the past was coloured by her fondness for an assortment of pagan gods, classical myths and Renaissance artists, so too was she equally alert to the preoccupations of her late Victorian contemporaries. In her depiction of the uncanny effects of temporal disjunction, she not only foreshadows our own disquiet at the ways in which the present is subject to the distortions and repetitions of the past, but also highlights the widespread sense of temporal anxiety that underpinned her own age. We may well believe ourselves to be uniquely haunted by the revenants of our recent past, but there have been few historical periods subject to as profound a shift in the perception of time as the latter half of the nineteenth century, an era in which the remnants of the mythic past exhumed by Lee were overshadowed by the newly discovered realms of deep time.

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

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