Hauntological Philosophy, Marxist Spectres and Phantoms

Colin Davis
Colin Davis

Hauntology, as a trend in recent critical and psychoanalytical work, has two distinct, related, and to some extent incompatible sources. The word itself, in its French form “hantologie”, was coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida in his ‘Spectres de Marx: l’état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale’ (1993), which has rapidly become one of the most controversial and influential works of his later period.

Marxist and left-leaning readers have been less than enthusiastic about Jacques Derrida’s claim that deconstruction was all along a radicalization of German philosopher Karl Marx’s legacy, their responses ranging, as literary critic Michael Sprinker puts it, “from scepticism to ire, to outright contempt.” But in literary critical circles, Jacques Derrida’s rehabilitation of ghosts as a respectable subject of enquiry has proved to be extraordinarily fertile. Hauntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.

Attending to the ghost is an ethical injunction insofar as it occupies the place of the “Levinasian Other”: a wholly irrecuperable intrusion in our world, which is not comprehensible within our available intellectual frameworks, but whose otherness we are responsible for preserving.

Hauntology is thus related to, and represents a new aspect of, the ethical turn of deconstruction which has been palpable for at least two decades. It has nothing to do with whether or not one believes in ghosts, as North American literary critic ad Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson explains: “Spectrality does not involve the conviction that ghosts exist or that the past (and maybe even the future they offer to prophesy) is still very much alive and at work, within the living present: all it says, if it can be thought to speak, is that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us.”

The second, chronologically prior yet less acknowledged, source of hauntology is the work of Hungarian Nicolas Abraham and French psychoanalyst Maria Torok, especially in some of the essays collected in ‘L’Écorce et le noyau’ and Maria Torok’s work subsequent to the death of Nicolas Abraham. In fact, Jacques Derrida played a key role in getting the work of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok known to a wider audience.

In 1976, the year after Nicolas Abraham’s death, their radical re-working of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s ‘Wolfman’ case study, ‘Le Verbier de l’homme aux loups’, appeared in the Group Flammarion ‘Philosophie en effet’ series of which Jacques Derrida was one of the co-directors, and it was preceded by a long and influential essay by Jacques Derrida entitled ‘Fors’.

Jacques Derrida’s essay suggests some of the similarities between his thought and that of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, but he has next to nothing to say about their work on phantoms and the marked differences between their conception and his. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok had become interested in transgenerational communication, particularly the way in which the undisclosed traumas of previous generations might disturb the lives of their descendants even and especially if they know nothing about their distant causes.

What they call a phantom is the presence of a dead ancestor in the living Ego, still intent on preventing its traumatic and usually shameful secrets from coming to light. One crucial consequence of this is that the phantom does not, as it does in some versions of the ghost story, return from the dead in order to reveal something hidden or forgotten, to right a wrong or to deliver a message that might otherwise have gone unheeded. On the contrary, the phantom is a liar; its effects are designed to mislead the haunted subject and to ensure that its secret remains shrouded in mystery. In this account, phantoms are not the spirits of the dead, but “les lacunes laissées en nous par les secrets des autres” (‘L’Écorce et le noyau’, p. 427).

This insight offers a new explanation for ghost stories, which are described as the mediation in fiction of the encrypted, unspeakable secrets of past generations: “Le fantôme des croyances populaires ne fait donc qu’objectiver une métaphore qui travaille dans l’inconscient: l’enterrement dans l’objet d’un fait inavouable” (‘L’Écorce et le noyau’, p. 427).

The ideas of Abraham and Torok have renewed psychoanalytic theory and therapeutic practice dealing with transgenerational trauma and family secrets. They have also appealed to some critics working on literature and popular culture. A notable success in this domain was scored by the psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron in his book Tintin chez le psychanalyste (1985).

Analysing a sequence of Tintin albums in which Captain Haddock is haunted by the ghost of an ancestor, Tisseron speculated about a possible connection between the ghost’s illegitimate origins and a drama of legitimacy in the family history of Tintin’s creator Hergé.

Subsequent biographical research undertaken after Hergé’s death showed that Hergé’s father was indeed the illegitimate child of an unknown father; and in subsequent publications Tisseron took credit for deducing this secret purely from the analysis of the fictional albums, even though he had in fact been mistaken in suggesting that the illegitimacy was most probably on Hergé’s mother’s side of the family.

Literary critical work drawing on the thought of Abraham and Torok most frequently revolves around the problem of secrets, even if it generally neither achieves nor seeks the biographical confirmation found by Tisseron.

The work of Nicholas Rand, especially his book ‘Le Cryptage et la vie des œuvres’ (1989), deserves particular mention here. Rand was instrumental in demonstrating the relevance of Abraham and Torok for literary criticism, and he also helped extend their work through his later direct collaborations with Maria Torok.

The work of Nicholas Rand, especially his book ‘Le Cryptage et la vie des œuvres’ (1989), deserves particular mention here.

Rand was instrumental in demonstrating the relevance of Abraham and Torok for literary criticism, and he also helped extend their work through his later direct collaborations with Maria Torok. The other major study that should be mentioned in this context is Esther Rashkin’s ‘Family Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Narrative’ (1992). This book offers what is still the best short account of Abraham and Torok’s concept of the phantom and an attempt to develop a critical approach on the basis of it through readings of Conrad, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Balzac, James and Poe.

Rashkin is keen not to set up a prescriptive model for interpretation, but to attend to the specificity of each individual text. The works she studies are “in distress”, harbouring secrets of which they are unaware, but which the reader or critic may be able to elicit. Her readings track down secrets and bring them to light.

In her chapter on Balzac’s ‘Facino Cane’, for example, she endeavours to make intelligible Cane’s “perplexing obsession” with gold (Family Secrets, p. 82). She finds a possible solution in what she suggests is the secret drama of his Jewish origins, and this in turn is reflected in the narrator’s unconscious desire to know the story of his own origins. ‘Facino Cane’ is not explicitly a ghost story, but in Rashkin’s reading it revolves around the transmission of phantoms and family secrets in the sense of Abraham and Torok.

Despite the intellectual vigour of works by Rand, Rashkin and others, the direct impact of Abraham and Torok on literary studies has in fact been limited, perhaps because the endeavour to find undisclosed secrets is likely to succeed in only a small number of cases. By contrast, Derrida’s Spectres de Marx has spawned a minor academic industry.

His hauntology has virtually removed Abraham and Torok from the agenda of literary ghost studies; or, to be more precise, when Abraham and Torok are now discussed by deconstructive-minded critics, their work is most frequently given a distinctly Derridean inflection.

It is to say the least striking that the only mention of Abraham and Torok in ‘Spectres de Marx’ is in a footnote which refers the reader to Derrida’s essay on them, ‘Fors’ (‘Spectres de Marx’, p. 24). In fact, Derrida’s spectres should be carefully distinguished from Abraham’s and Torok’s phantoms (which is why the title of the present article maintains the distinction between them, even if the authors themselves are not always consistent).

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