The undecidability of the revenant


Can there be a more challenging rewriting of the Ghost in Hamlet than the one that relates it to the spectres of Marx and the fate of communism after 1989? In his effort to come to terms with historical temporality and the question of the end of history Jacques Derrida teases fresh and shocking significances of the Ghost in his book Spectres of Marx.

What Derrida thinks to be of crucial importance about the Ghost is its status as a revenant, as a spirit that keeps coming back. The Ghost in Hamlet is not singular among Shakespeare's plays: the spectre of Caesar also comes back. Brutus expects its return and asks it: "Well; then I shall see thee again?" Ghost: "Ay, at Philippi" (4.2). Derrida emphasises the importance of the significances attached to the word again and associates them with a view of temporality in which repetition plays a key role. Repetition disrupts the view of a linear temporality that presupposes a smooth passage from the past to the present and further on to the future. The past is repeated in the present to the point of dislocating it. Worse, as Derrida argues, the repetition of the past is projected onto the future, so that it appears to be coming from the future.

If we take a close look at act I, scene 1 in Hamlet, we can notice, indeed, that the word again recurs hauntingly, suggesting, as Derrida has pointed out, both the desire for theghost to reappear and the anticipation of the horror that it is expected to produce. Marcellus, for example, asks Barnardo: "What, has this thing appeared again tonight?" (1.1.20) and later on " ...if again this apparition come/ He may approve our eyes, and speak to it" (28-29). The word again, suggesting repetition, does not refer only to the ghost's reappearances, which are beyond human control, but also to the act of story telling. When Horatio expresses his scepticism towards ghosts, Barnardo urges him to sit down and listen to their story again: "let us once again assail your ears, / That are so fortified against our story, / What we two nights have seen" (31-33). The story, of course, will be interrupted by the ghost's reappearance.

What Derrida further singles out about the revenant is the defiance of the basic dichotomies that organise our understanding of the world. Old Hamlet's ghost deconstructs the oppositions of presence versus absence, visibility versus invisibility, the past versus the present or the future.

Derrida calls the ghost "this non-present present, this being-there of an absent" which defies "semantics as much as ontology, psychoanalysis as much as philosophy" (Derrida, 60). Its ambiguous position in between and in betwixt is made manifest in the text by the fact that it is called "this thing". It is something in between a person and something else, something unnameable:

Marcellus: What ha's this thing appeared again tonight?

Barnardo: I have seen nothing. (1.1. 21-22)

The "thing", this thing ( notice the use of the deictic this to instantiate its presence in the here and now) is at the same time "nothing". It is both a presence and an absence. Furthermore it is both visible and invisible. When invisible, there is no knowing whether the "thing" is absent or present. It may be present and see us while we do not see it. Derrida describes this moment as the one when the Ghost "sees us not see it". It is at such moments that the Ghost makes manifest its absolute power over us, a power that is akin to transcendental power.

Derrida insists on the ghost's "paradoxical phenomenality, the furtive and ungraspable visibility of the invisible, or an invisibility of a visible X" (7). It is the "nonsensuous sensuous" quality of the ghost which in his opinion distinguishes the spectre, the revenant from the spirit and from the idol or the Platonic simulacrum of something. Derrida admits, however, that the revenant may share many features with the latter.

Other close readings of the Shakespearean text have insisted on the Ghost's status as a simulacrum, hence of something fake, at a large remove from the "essence". (Barker, 34-35.) Barnardo and Marcellus define the ghost as a mere simulacrum distinguishing it from the king that was dead and buried:

Barnardo: In the same figure like the king that's dead....

Looks it not like the king? Mark it Horatio.

Horatio: Most like. It harrows me with fear and wonder. (1.1. 41-44) (my emphasis)

The use of the third person pronoun it, makes, in my opinion, obvious the remove of the Ghost's ontological status from that of the actual king of Denmark. The use of the pronoun it has to be related with the description of the ghost as "the thing". The text, however, proves to be most bewildering, continuously changing the terms of reference for, and hence, the position of the Ghost. Horatio refers to the ghost as an it, only to change the pronoun in the next scene when he shocks Hamlet by saying that:

Horatio: My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.

Hamlet Saw? Who?

Horatio: My lord, the king your father.

Hamlet: The king my father! (1.2 189-192) Horatio no longer uses the pronoun it but reverts to him as if he no longer saw the spectre of the king ("the thing") but the king himself.

The oscillation between opposites — visible-invisible, present-absent, a fake simulacrum or the genuine thing/person, which fascinates deconstructionists like Derrida, is further compounded with religious and moral uncertainties. Is the ghost a devil assuming a false identity or a well-meaning ghost, possibly God's messenger? The dilemma is inextricably related to the source of the ghost. Hamlet puts the problem in the binary terms that the Protestant faith operated with:

Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,

Be thy intents wicked or charitable,

Thou com'st in such a questionable shape

That I will speak to thee. (1.4.39-44)

Hamlet neatly distinguishes between "a spirit of health" that comes from heaven and is therefore "charitable" and a "goblin damned", coming from hell and whose intention is wicked. The ghost has to fit in either of these two categories. This is an either or opposition where a third position or an oscillation between the two, a simultaneous participation in the two categories is not deemed possible.[1]

What is significantly left out from Hamlet's attempt at placing the Ghost, is Purgatory, a place of punishment where people who had died in a state of grace could expiate their venial sins for an appropriate period. Purgatory was first of all a link mediating between heaven and earth, so that upon the expiation of the sins the spirits were allowed access to Heaven. It might be said to have even facilitated a "compenetration" of this world and the world beyond (Delumeau, 70-75), with the spirits depending upon the intercession of the living for the shorting of their stay. At the same time the 16th and 17th century witnessed a "contamination of Purgatory with Hell" (Delumeau, 80 ) as the pains and suffering which spirits were thought to endure there became worthy of the Inferno itself.[2]

The Reformation rejected Purgatory as part of its overall policy to emphasize dualities and to accept no mediating or hybrid notions.[3] Protestants no longer believed in the validity of the living's efforts to alleviate the condition of the spirits of the dead, nor was anything allowed to cross the border between this world and the world beyond or to temper with dichotomies such as heaven and hell, the temporal world and the afterlife. The assertion of the binary character of these oppositions was crucial to the Reformation programme. Ghosts were said to come from hell and were consequently demonised. If a man sees a ghost, Archbishop Cranmer insists, "it is not the soul of the dead that saith, I am such a man's soul, but the devil counterfeiteth the dead to deceive the living: for souls departed the body cannot walk here on earth" (quoted in Greenblatt, 145) Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici also reflected this position:

I believe… that those apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the wandering souls of men but unquiet walks of devils, prompting and suggesting mischief, blood and villainy, instilling and stealing into our hearts that the blessed spirits are not at rest in their graves, but wander solicitous of the affairs of the world." (quoted in Sutherland and Watts 2000, 19)

Hamlet does admit that his father's ghost somehow defies the religious and ontological categories he was supposed to work with. The Ghost's shape is "questionable". Not unlike Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio before him, Hamlet tries to solidify and arrest the fluidity of the Ghost by interpellating it. (Derrida,12). In his effort to set it up as a partner in a dialogue, Hamlet gives it "a name and a local habitation", i.e. he defines its social, political and geographical position: "I'll call thee Hamlet,/King, father, royal Dane. Oh answer me." (1.4. 44-45). His definition of the Ghost as a living dead person disrupts the neat oppositions of Protestant dogma.

What may this mean,

That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel

Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon" (1.4.51-53)[4]

Notice that Hamlet does not question the contradiction in terms of the Ghost's ontological status (a "dead corse" behaving like a living being), but inquires into the goals, purposes that the Ghost might be pursuing.[5]

By employing this definition Hamlet actually switches over to norms and religious concepts of the pre-Reformation period. These concepts and the practices they regulated had been banned by royal fiat in the 16th century (Purgatory and the practices and institutions that developed around it were banned by 1563) but they were still lingering on as residual cultural elements in the early 17th century. Hamlet experiences the tension between the two different sets of norms and categories, which was all the greater as it had threatening political overtones. To voice Roman-Catholic views in ways other than ironical or derogatory was considered to be subversive from both a religious and a political perspective, with Catholic recusants and Jesuits pursued as the enemy of the state. Purgatory, for example, could safely be mentioned on the stage only in an indirect and circumscribed way, such as by mentioning St. Patrick. The encounter with the Ghost is all the more shattering for Hamlet, as it questions fundamental principles and encourages him to entertain transgressive thoughts. The Ghost's appearance results in

Making night hideous, and we fools of nature

So horridly to shake our disposition

With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls? (54-56)

The thoughts that go "beyond the reaches of our souls", that transgress against the limits imposed by the Protestant dogma can be related to Hamlet's later comment made to Horatio: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamed of in your philosophy". (I.5. 166-167) The Folio has "our philosophy" instead of "your philosophy", suggesting a community of thought and faith between Horatio and Hamlet. The philosophy refers to the beliefs associated with the reformed faith, whose birthplace was Wittenberg. The reality of a ghost that can only be perceived and understood in terms of the Catholic faith forces the prince to accept contradictory bodies of belief.

In the following sections I shall not try to disambiguate the ghost and solve the dilemmas it raises by adopting a totalising reading of the ghost. I shall relate its undecidability to the multiplicity of cultural traditions and discourses that coexisted in Shakespeare's time. The text conjures these discourses, "remembers" them, only to pit them up against dominant discourses in ways that are most mystifying and electrifying at the same time. This chapter investigates the extent to which the construction of the identity of the spectre depends heavily upon the conflicting significances generated by the armour.[6]

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