Envelop/e

31Oct20

There is a particularly odd aspect to the transition from the gothic to the modern, from familial ruins and rotting lineages (themselves already transplanted from their old world haunts across the sea) to the leakiness of the mind and the blurriness of the landscape. This is in some sense at least the beginning of the weird though without being overtly engaged in its materialism per se. From Dracula’s castle, to the house of usher, to the shunned house there is still a haunting of a different sort between the last two.

Mike Flanagan’s recent The Haunting of Bly Manor based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw as well as “The Certain Romance of Old Clothes” operates in the not yet material swamp of this leakiness and blurriness. But I want to say James’ tales are less about the constant question of the unreliable narrator, the question of realism, then it is about the cost of externalizing one’s mind and of attempting at the same time to internalize it ‘against’ the world. There is no neutral ground where the flow between the mind and the world is adequately bricked up – rather one is at risk of either being too deeply tucked away in a memory (and hence possessed by it) or seeing ghosts and traces of other people’s lives everywhere.

In this same time period the British Idealist F.H. Bradley dedicated much of his life work to showing how thought is suffuse with feeling and, at the same time, that one must constantly battle the threat of solipsism. Bradley extrapolates heavily from Hegel’s philosophy of mind and attempts to describe a metaphysics that makes sense in world where thought and feeling constantly bleed into each other. At the same time Bradley is well aware of a kind of loneliness that comes with engaging with metaphysics:

“It may come from a failure in my metaphysics, or a weakness of the flesh which continues to blind me, but the notion that existence could be the same as understanding strikes as cold and ghost-like as the dreariest materialism. That the glory of this world is in the end appearance leaves the world more glorious, if we feel it is a show of some fuller splendour; but the sensuous curtain is a deception and a cheat, if it hides some colourless movement of atoms, some spectral woof of impalpable abstractions, or unearthly ballet of bloodless categories.” (Principles of Logic, 1883)

And then decades later:

“A true philosophy cannot justify its own apotheosis. Nay, from the other side the metaphysician might lament his own destiny. His pursuit condemns him, he may complain, himself to herd with unreal essences and to live an outcast from life. It is three times more blessed, he may well repeat, to be than to think.”

And the connected note:

“The shades nowhere speak without blood, and the ghosts of Metaphysic accept no substitute. They reveal themselves only to that victim whose life they have drained, and, to converse with shadows, he himself must become a shade.” (Essays on Truth and Reality, 1914)

This latter essay is entitled “On My Real World” and also discusses Théophile Gautier’s short story “La Morte Amoureuse” in which a priest is tempted by a vampire courtier. Though it has been read as a moral lesson about temptation this is not how Bradley reads it – he sees it as a good argument for our commitments to our dream life being as, or more important than, what we take to be real in a banal sense.

The notion of ‘my real world’ appears earlier in Bradley’s Appearance and Reality in the section that discusses time and space. The artificial finitude of our self is a necessary net cast for coherent meaning just as space and time are. But Bradley thinks that there can be no solid metaphysical justification for the dimension of time having a singular direction or arrow. The fact that we cannot be sure there is a fixed passage of time, that there is a multitude of presents, comes from the self-as-frame problem mentioned above. We cannot pop out of our frame (or spotlight) and check a metric of time and then pop back into our spotlight of perception and assume that the events we are tracking have not themselves changed in someway outside of our limited perception.

The self as a present moment is always pulled between unity and plurality – ‘this is now and this is what now is happening (or what ‘now’ is made of).’ This gives feeling an undeniable ghostly character. Just like James’ characters in The Turn of the Screw one is not immediately aware that one is in a memory if that is externally caused (like a dream via the possession of a ghost). The ghosts of the story anchor themselves in time by taking over the consciousness of the living pushing the living mind into a kind of dream land (essentially making them ghosts but of their own minds and memories and not the external world). In perceiving a ghost the living are not simply seeing what is ‘there but shouldn’t be’ but they are also interacting with a consciousness or a frame of the present that must root itself somewhere and somewhen where it is not.

But because presentness is felt (in Bradley’s sense of being intensely self-referential) one can see the distinction between one’s memories and the gap between one’s frame and that felt state if only with some practice. While I can be possessed by a memory (in the term of a flashbulb memory where a smell or sound sends me deep into my archives) I often think I can peruse my memories at my leisure (‘what are the best meals I’ve had?’ or ‘what are the prettiest views I have seen’ etc). But I am not in control of the affective states which will arise from these strolls down memory lane.

This is why I have argued and given talks that horror is a kind of anti-nostalgia – because if nostalgia is the feeling of the desire of an old wound then horror is about creating disruption around old wounds – wounds that wont stay closed or that insist (such as in a haunting) that they must be closed, that the body be properly interred, that vengeance be had, that a house be left empty etc. Ghost stories are about the presentness of the past with ghosts tipped towards the past and the living tipped towards the present but with both stitched back to back to the other time frame.

If we think we are outside the present when we have a memory ‘now’ we are either inflating the powers of our private world frame or denying the affective character of the past as being different because we are experiencing it now. Being haunted is about being lost in that gap for longer and longer pasts-as-nows that never arrive as fully present.



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