Shadows, phantoms, and spirits feature prominently in oral legends and have an important place in most cultures. When a supernatural being appears it is not in the least surprising, and is even expected as they can be an integral dimension of belief systems and cosmologies. Ghostly entities witness, interrogate, dislodge, challenge, and disrupt individual and collective experience for the characters and the reader as they slip into the lives of the living whenever and wherever they wish.
In Katrina. A History 1915-2015 (Harvard University Press, 2020) Andy Horowitz argues for the relevance of the past (or history) itself. The August 29, 2005 hurricane named Katrina, was not just a natural disaster–a discrete moment in New Orleans history– but the legacy of endemic and enduring racist-classist social reordering of the (un)natural urban environment over the course of a century. Impressively archived and absorbing to read, Horowitz reveals that Katrina did not cause many of the effects commonly attributed to it, such as the housing recovery program appropriating money to home-owners but not recenters, or political officers arresting musicians for leading jazz funerals without city permits, as violent crime plagued the city. Horowitz presents the loss and horror for New Orleanians of the disaster as he equally demonstrates how Katrina becomes an easy excuse for the unaccountability, corruption, and irresponsibility of powerful men. Reading Katrina and watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out movie lead me down this haunted path of literature I now share with you.
Towards the mid-nineteenth century, Indigenous cultures, such as the Lakota, started ghost dancing. Initially it seems to have been a mystical ritual that slowly spread through western Indigenous reservations. For many cultures, it metamorphosed into a symbol of resistance to the ongoing oppression by the U.S. government, a last, desperate self-affirmation in the face of cultural annihilation. To ghost dance was to perform defiance against total extinction.
In the opening scene of Sony Labou Tansi’s La Vie et Demie (Life and a Half, Indiana Press, 2011) we meet the rebel leader Martial, in the fictional post-independence African nation of Katamalanasie. Martial is arrested with his family and brought in front of the dictator or ‘providential guide’ of the country. The guide kills and cannibalises Martial and his family in a barbaric and horrific manner. Martial’s spirit lives on to guide his followers in their fight against the dictators. In the closing chapters of Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner, 2017) one of the narrators, a black teenager named JoJo, comes across “a great live oak” full of ghosts. The ghosts share their stories of violent deaths—brutal torture, rape, suffocation–as Jojo is on a road trip with his family. Ward’s novel, written in the 21st century, highlights that racial violence has never gone away. It is indeed, as the ghosts are, an ever-present and visible lineage that accumulates, adapts, morphs rather than dissipates and heals with the passage of time. Ghosts are experienced everyday for some people; for others they will never ever meet those ghostly ethers. This kind of ghostly atmospheric violence was examined by Frantz Fanon in Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Atlantic, 1961). Fanon presents a psychological analysis of the dehumanizing impact of colonization and how liberation, a space free of atmospheric violence, can only be achieved through its own mechanism, outright brutality. Helen Olajumoke Oyeyemi picks up some of Fanon’s themes in White is for Witching (Penguin Random House, 2014). In this unconventional ghostly tale, Oyeyemi subverts the European vampire metaphorical associations replacing it with the Caribbean soucouyant. The soucouyant represents the fears of the outsider or foreign and an unnatural appetite. Oyeyemi’s novel about Miri, a young woman who suffers from pica, a disorder that compels her to eat foreign objects. She lives with her twin brother and widowed father in a haunted house across the street from a cemetery full of unmarked graves. The author blends female insanity and a coming-of-age into a novel that dizzies the reader in ways that offers a mere glimpse to second-handedly “experience” trauma and despair. These books do not offer bright futures, exorcise the ghosts from their brutal pasts, offer correctives or solutions or pathways for the reader to feel good about the state of the world. They challenge readers to question the roots and ghosts of systems that depend on the alienation, criminalization, displacement, and disenfranchisement.
Pankaj Mishra’s latest book, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, the West, and the Afterlives of Empire (Verso, 2020), is an early post-mortem on an era of neo-imperialist liberalism that Mishra wishes he could finally pronounce dead. Call it “the end of history”—history that shocked many complacent liberals by “beginning” again in 2016 with Brexit and Trump. Mishra’s essays, written over the past two decades, evolve from indictments of the generation of interventionist liberal policy-makers and intellectuals who enabled and defended the Iraq War to calling out many of those same intellectuals’ naive shock at the failures of the “deplorable” masses in 2016 to continue their tacit support of an elitist, neoliberal, neo-imperialist agenda that had become as unsustainable as it was utterly taken for granted. Mishra’s primary targets include Niall Ferguson’s tired defenses of (white) civilization and whitewashing of the crimes of British imperialism, numerous fearmongering bestsellers alleging that Islamic barbarism is taking over the West, and the out of touch editorial elites of The Economist. As Rebecca Liu writes in her smart and sympathetic review, these “Western consensus-shapers have taken to asking what went wrong in the history of liberalism – the likes of Tony Blair and Joe Biden urge a return to a stable centre. But Mishra sees the chaos of the past years as a belated but inevitable homecoming for a broken social and political ideology whose high-minded rhetoric espousing human rights, tolerance, and mutual respect has continually stood at odds with the violent disregard for human life that defined its practice.” Another highly symptomatic target of Mishra’s criticism, Jordan Peterson’s pseudo-philosophy, which posits the inherent maleness of human consciousness, seems to have also inspired Mishra’s forthcoming next book, entitled The Trouble with Men: A Short History of Masculinity. One of the only figures who emerges from Mishra’s book unscathed, and in fact as a perceptive model intellectual who learned from their mistakes and then some, is the intellectual historian and legal scholar Samuel Moyn, who in the course of a few years went from working in the liberal-interventionist Clinton White House to indicting an hypocritical liberalism whose only issue seemed to be its enemies. This hawkish “anti-totalitarian” liberalism, as these critics have documented so well, used the covers of humanitarianism and human rights to impose democracy abroad by force, with catastrophic consequences. After 2016 that “bland fanaticism” (as Reinhold Niebuhr once called it) returned like a zombie from the dead, but Mishra roared back, too—the critic as zombie hunter.
Few books have made me more aware of my own profound ignorance than David Edgerton’s fantastic history of 20th century Britain. Before I read this book, I thought I had a good idea of the basic outline of modern British and British imperial history. However, Edgerton’s many cutting-edge arguments challenge nearly every piece of conventional wisdom. Bit by bit, he lays out a profoundly novel argument about the trajectory of modern Britain since the early 20th century. His primary aim is to challenge “declinist” narratives that insist that British industry, business, and much else went into terminal decline after 1945. Instead, he argues, the period between 1945 and 1970 was when British industry was at its peak. At the same time, he shows that there emerged a unique and peculiarly national orientation in British society that diverged from the liberal, free-trading, and largely imperial inclination of the first half of the twentieth-century. There are several other arguments in the book that compel one to re-think one’s understanding of modern British history. Among other things, he shows that it is warfare, not welfare, that is the central story of the modern British state. Similarly, in line with his argument about the “British nation,” he suggests that we should think of Labor as a nationalist party first, and a socialist party second.
To me, the most fascinating parts of the book are the ones where Edgerton launches withering attacks on the various historical and historiographical stereotypes that have come to shape our understanding of modern Britain. Not all of these are convincing. Some of them might even appear extreme at times. But provocative and thoughtful they certainly are. For instance, Edgerton is keen to call out leftist histories that blame all of Britain’s ills on the empire. As he writes, “overplaying the significance – economic, ideological and political – of empire has been at the expense of understanding non-imperial, indeed national, sources of inequality, racism, economic problems and militarism too. Blaming empire and imperialism has let the guilty get away scot free!”
While the book is fantastic on 1900-1970, it loses its pace and clarity as we enter Thatcher’s Britain. Though Edgerton convincingly shows that the British nation as he conceives it began to disappear in the 1970s, he does not explain why this was the case. But the last pages of the book are a devastating indictment of British politics since then. Speaking initially of Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in 1998, he writes:
“Margaret Thatcher was voluble in his support, as well she might be, given his free market views and his help in the war against Argentina. Her last speech to the Conservative Party conference, in 1999, was on his arrest. It is even more telling that while in office New Labour agreed to an all-but-state funeral for Lady Thatcher, a ceremonial funeral with military honours. Big Ben was muffled, and Prime Minister’s Questions cancelled. Most prime ministers were buried privately: Winston Churchill was the only one since William Gladstone to have had a state funeral. The country saw her passing, when it came in 2013, rather differently. Her body was carried on a gun-carriage from the National Gladstone Memorial at the Aldwych, at whose unveiling in 1905 crowds had thronged years after his demise, along Fleet Street into the City of London and St Paul’s Cathedral, where her funeral service was held. There were no cranes left to be dipped in respect by dockers in the unprecedented honour the London proletariat gave Churchill in 1965. In the old and distressed pit villages of England, of Scotland and of Wales, forgotten former miners celebrated bitterly. Tony Blair, meanwhile, was making money working for some of the vilest torturers and dictators on earth. Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events.”
I taught for the same course in the spring that I do now, and I’ve watched the same lectures given in person then and recorded in advance now. The way that I hear them and the way the students experience them have changed too. In a lecture hall you can zone out, lose track, spring back to attention and choose when a fleeting moment is worth immortalizing in your notes. On a recording you can keep rewinding by a few seconds. Any lapse in attention can be reversed. Judging when a moment is worth recording in your notes feels less urgent when every moment is already recorded. The ability to hear every turn in a historical narrative with as much attention as you want to give, I thought, must inform how students hear the course material.
I was thinking about these questions as I read Jordan Alexander Stein’s new literary history, When Novels Were Books (Harvard University Press), and it has shaped that thinking since. Stein approaches the history of the English novel in the seventeenth and eighteenth century through their material construction. Through this view it becomes clear just how unextraordinary they were for most of the period. They shared material features — lightweight, octavo or duodecimo, thick but portable in the pocket — with remarkably popular “devotional steady sellers.” These other “short, tubby bricks,” to use historian Stephen Foster’s term, were Protestant guidebooks that readers were supposed to dive into regularly but at appropriate locations for particular circumstances This “discontinuous reading” only gave way to the continuous reading with which we are more familiar later in the seventeenth century, as individuals striving — like the reader — for salvation could become more recognizable as characters. In books like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress of 1678 we see a prose narrative depicting a (barely) named character, Christian, follow a path toward salvation that looks novelistic but also conventionally devotional. For most of the eighteenth century novels and pious narratives would be largely just as indistinguishable until the religious societies that distributed the latter condemned their competitors in the former.
Continuous reading for the way the whole story “hangs together” became more common and more natural at the expense of selection of passages to produce an “application” to oneself. Stein’s story is not about technological or even significant material transformations of the medium, yet those profound effects of continuous reading for the way audiences think about novelistic narrative and its recognizable characters made the same impression as my students’ attitudes toward our lectures. Since they can listen to them at will and with a technologically-enhanced degree of attention I have found they’re also more inclined to treat the lectures like the other texts we read, as stable stories rather than collections of important notes on lined paper or google docs. We are all also much more accustomed to the way recorded lectures work. We listen to them and rewind them and speed them up in the same way we do with podcasts and a proliferating array of recorded media. Like novels in Stein’s account, these lectures enter a media environment in which they don’t look that different and certainly not that special.
Featured Image: Carl Gustav Carus, Faust’s Dream (~1852). Courtesy of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.