Ghostwritten: Kinship and History in Absalom, Absalom!

Article excerpt

"You always have to take the side of the dead."

-Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold (23)

In 1994, Jacques Derrida established a new way of thinking about the ghost. In Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and the New International, Derrida argues that an understanding of social justice without ghosts is impossible: "No justice," he writes, "seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead" (xix). Derrida's view of the ghost as a prompt to reparative action was widely influential across the disciplines. Avery Gordon's pathbreaking 1997 book Ghostly Matters built on Derrida's thinking to establish a new way of thinking about the exclusions of history, in which, as Arthur Redding neatly encapsulates in his survey of millennial ghost stories, "cultural practices articulate individual or collective subjective sensibilities by excavating alternative histories, or ghost' stories, by imaginatively summoning into presence those voices and beings that have been sacrificed to the march of progress and the consolidation of American literary and cultural traditions" (163). The presence of the ghost in a text, according to Gordon, signifies the "seething presence" of those who have not counted, who have not been taken into account, in the backstory of the present (8); and by paying attention to these not-quite-visible yet not-quite-invisible figures we can reach an under- standing of what we are called on to undertake in the present to achieve some- thing like social justice.

Such a calling is, however, not without its detractors. In a response to Spec- ters of Marx, Slavoj Zizek offered an alternative perspective: that instead of wel- coming ghosts, we should be seeking to exorcize them. In "The Spectre of Ide- ology," Zizek writes that "our primary duty is not towards the spectre, whatever form it assumes. The act of freedom qua real not only transgresses the limits of what we experience as 'reality,' it cancels our very primordial indebtedness to the spectral Other" (27-28). For 2izek, any hope of an absolute freedom requires that we not be tied to the past: there may well be specters, but our responsibility is to leave them in the past rather than to listen to them. Walter Benn Michaels excoriated the ghostly turn of deconstruction and New Histori- cism in The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (2004), arguing for a return to the subject and the knowable in opposition to the critical obsession with the unknowable and resistant ghost through which problematic (in Benn Michaels's view, at least) cultural identities are formed. Both Benn Michaels and Zizek read the ghost, at best, as a distraction from the real: a morbid fasci- nation with the past which we use to justify an undeserved feeling of belonging in the present. In the center of these debates, the ghost stands accused: it must bear the weight of history and pass on to us the burden of history, or it must be revealed as a fraud, a gimcrack special effect serving only to keep us from the struggle at hand.

The function of literature as always both explicit and implicit, hiding and revealing, has rendered the study of fiction a particular rich resource for think- ing through the paradox of the ghost. Does the appearance of ghosts in fiction imply a refusal to let go of a past that holds us back? Or does it suggest a broad- er understanding of what it means to be humanly responsible to others? When the ghost Beloved returns to haunt 124 Bluestone Road in Toni Morrisons 1987 novel Beloved, is Sethe right to welcome her in and feed her with everything she has, even to the point of a suicidal relation to the past? Is Quentin's suicide in The Sound and the Fury a consequence of his deeply embedded relation to the past in Absalom, Absalom! …