“Ghosts are relics of desire”


Considering the ghosts of Joseph Conrad, Allan Hepburn notes:

Ghosts are relics of desire. They incarnate covert erotic or political wishes that have gone unrealized and that come back to haunt the divided subject. They are also, sometimes, estranged elements of subjectivity projected as alien shapes. Ghostliness characterizes partisan roles or acted-out identities that have been violently repudiated, or just as violently endorsed, that is, a suite of identities adopted to suit changing circumstances. Ghosts stand for those aspects of character most full realized during moments of terror: who are we when we are frightened out of our wits? For the bereft, ghosts stand as figures of obstructed mourning. More specifically, in espionage fiction, specters express the uncanny return to consciousness of false commitments, betrayals, or collaborations tainted by error. Ghosts flit about scenes of crime, including assassinations and terrorist attacks. Such phantoms recall incidents of trauma, in the sense that Freud uses the term in the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis to define an excess stimulation that the mind cannot shed…. But the ghostly, and sometimes ghastly, representations of trauma in the novels of Joseph Conrad, especially Under Western Eyes, a seminal novel in the literature of double agency, yoke personal psychology with political affiliation.” (p.81)

A ghost recall not just a personal act of betrayal,” Hepburn explains, “of the student Razumov turning Haldin over to the police, but also a forcible integration into a conspiracy, of Razumov being recruited as a police spy in exchange for what he imagines will be a secure bureaucratic position. In a manner entirely new in the repertory of the thriller, Conrad demonstrates that modern subjectivity is predicated upon a split between being and doing – of character and action, or plan and praxis – that allows the spy to believe in meritocracy and to agitate for revolution at the same time. / Modernism is crowded with the ghosts of repudiated affiliations and renounced friendships. Not all these ghosts represent false political commitments. Many of them reflect hysterical disruption or inexplicability. […] Some [modernist] ghosts serve aesthetic purposes. Some answer psychological needs for remembrance and justice; they bedevil authority or confound the senses. Some acknowledge murder or strange disappearance. Some stand for the terrifying aspects of the unknown. More often than not, they recall mortality. The Canterville ghost appears just ‘before the death of any member of the [Canterville] family’ (Wilde 193). Ghosts figure modern facelessness and anonymity. ‘So many, / I had not thought death had undone so many,’ sighs the speaker in ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ the first section of The Waste Land, as he surveys urbanites drifting across London Bridge (Eliot 62).
A distinction needs to be drawn, however, between phantoms of the living and phantoms of the dead. Some of the most importunate ghosts of the twentieth century include the troops killed in the trenches during World War I. These ghosts force a confrontation with death as a reality beyond comprehension.” (p.82)

Hepburn argues: “Preoccupation with ghosts and death runs through many spy novels as a way of figuring the insoluble riddle of commitment.” (p.xvi)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Allan Hepburn (c2005) Intrigue: espionage and culture. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.


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