Friday, July 22, 2011

Ghost stories

"Récit de fantôme où meme le fantôme est absent...."  --Blanchot ("Ghost story where even the ghost is absent")
"Schreiben aber heißt, sich vor den Gespenstern entblößen" --Kafka ("Writing means, denuding yourself before the ghosts")

"Frate, / non far, ché tu se' ombra e ombra vedi." --Dante (Virgil to Statius: "Brother, / don't [try to embrace my legs], for you are a shade, and are seeing a shade.")

As one of those quick heuristic claims, I found myself saying the other day that every good short story is a ghost story.  We'd done Turn of the Screw, so that was the context: ghost story or not, it's a ghost story.  So we quickly went through the syllabus of stories we'd read, proving the point and identifying the ghost.

"Hills Like White Elephants"? The fetus. Their love. Their past. Their future. (Of course: since the fetus represents all those things.)

"A Day's Wait": The boy. (His mother too: what do you say about two people and two ghosts?)

"Gift of the Magi": The hair, the watch.

"Miss Lonelyhearts": Miss Lonelyhearts, Shrike.  "They were not worldly men." Sick-of-it-all's mother.  Mrs. Shrike's mother. Any of the letter writers. Christ.

"Slave on the Block" (Langston Hughes): The "wonderful colored cook and maid" who sleeps in the basement and takes sick and dies.

"Wash," Faulkner's short story version of the death of Sutpen: Sutpen himself, riding home from the War.  The past.  The missing daughter, the dead son.  And much, much more.

Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour": The dead husband.  Who turns out not to be dead.

Hammett's great pair of stories: "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money": Papadapolous.  The Old Man.

"The Swimmer"?  The swimmer.

Anything by Alice Munro: what more needs to be said?  Anything by Dennis Johnson: likewise.  Ditto Javier Marías.  And Bolaño.  Hawthorne.  Melville. Carver. Alistair Macleod, Borges.  Flaubert.  Chekhov.  Tolstoy.  Megadittoes to Isaac Babel. No need to mention Duras or Blanchot.

I wondered a little about comic stories - farce, really - but all you have to do is read "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."  Or Saki.

Salinger: "See more glass" could be the epigraph to this entry.

Listing it like this makes the game too easy, maybe, but it shouldn't be quite that easy. The ghosts haunt the stories, come to haunt them, make the stories haunting.

That's as far as we got in class, but later I found myself trying to think in a literal-minded way. The lesson I thought this game taught me was that stories play off of an interesting juxtaposition of anecdotal specificity and the generic world.  Novels have time to invent their world, invent background and context for their characters. Unhappy families are represented as unhappy families in an unhappy world, in a world which reflects and explains their unhappiness.  But in stories, everyone else is just "reasonably waiting for the train."  So the juxtaposition between the characters and the generic world always, in one way or another makes the characters into survivors.

Survivors: those who outlive a world or space or time or community or family or love or hope in which they're in sync with the world.  The story begins when they're no longer in sync.  This idea is generically related (how else should it be related?) to Warshow's description of "the gangster as tragic hero":
Thrown into the crowd without background or advantages, with only those ambiguous skills which the rest of us—the real people of the real city—can only pretend to have, the gangster is required to make his way, to make his life and impose it on others. Usually, when we come upon him, he has already made his choice or the choice has already been made for him, it doesn't matter which: we are not permitted to ask whether at some point he could have chosen to be something else than what he is.
The short story character is faced with a generic world: a world become generic for him and her, however rich and specific it is for everyone else.  The rich and specific have become generic, and the character doesn't belong to that generic world.  It's a ghost for her or him, or the character is a ghost in that world.  Those two ideas are the same: the character's relation to the world is what's ghostly.  The ghost is the relationship, and whoever represents that relationship in the story: fetus or husband or dead first wife (Edith Wharton's "Pomegranate Seed") or Shrike or Mr. Sappleton ("The Open Window) or Billie, the Oiler (Crane's "Open Boat"), or the child in the dream of the burning child reported to Freud is the ghost.

Anyhow, I was wondering whether this was fair and accurate.  Is that what a real ghost is like?

What a question!

Why would I even ask it?  Why would I think I could think about a real ghost? And the answer that came to me was that it's in stories that you interact with ghosts. These characters you interact with: they don't stay. And unlike lyric poetry, they don't repeat themselves either, in endless songs of love or longing or farewell.  Lyric is about the generic as the place we can continue to live, interact with, belong to, take comfort in.  But the stories are not our stories.  They're ghost stories.

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