Wandering Spooks

David Simpson

  • Ghosts of War in Vietnam by Heonik Kwon
    Cambridge, 222 pp, £25.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 88061 9

Conjuring up the ghost of his dead friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh asks what things are like in the afterlife. Enkidu tells him it might be better that these truths remain hidden, but he agrees to answer the hero’s questions about the individual fates of those he knew on earth. It seems that life after death is not so different after all, a somewhat intensified but not inexplicable or inappropriate continuation of worldly behaviour. Ghostly as he is, Enkidu can still be embraced. Achilles is not quite so lucky: after a long conversation with the spirit or phantom of Patroclus in Iliad 23, he reaches out but grasps only air, as the image of his dead friend turns to vapour and disappears beneath the earth, losing language as well as form.

Physical and immaterial, on earth but not of it, both meaningful and incomprehensible, ghosts come and go in the literary myths of the West – in Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare. Some speak, some are silent; Patroclus speaks clearly enough at first only to vanish while ‘gibbering’ or ‘squeaking like an animal’. Ghosts inspire fear but also offer comfort, giving timely warnings or visiting grieving survivors. Freud’s great essay ‘The Uncanny’, written a year after the end of the first major European war of the 20th century, explores his fascination with the semantic interchangeability of the heimlich and the unheimlich, the familiar and the strange, the commonplace and the spooky, that which belongs in the home and that which lies outside it. Freud’s concept of the uncanny was to haunt a violent century in which emphatic distinctions would be made between self and others, friends and enemies, compatriots and strangers. When the familiar and the unfamiliar can’t be clearly distinguished, thrones and altars start to tremble. Who is my friend and who is not? What are the duties or practical implications of hospitality? Is my neighbour to be trusted or feared? Who, or what, is foreign to my interests and wellbeing?

These questions have been especially charged in times of war. Wars bear a good deal of the responsibility for the production of ghosts, modern wars in particular, partly because they have come to involve an art of killing which blows bodies apart so that nothing is left behind for ritual burial. Felicia Hemans, one of the greatest poets of modern death, recorded this change not only in the horrible physical extinction of the boy on the burning deck in her most famous poem, ‘Casabianca’, but also in her attention to the anonymous and unmarked spaces of empire where bodies vanished beneath the waves or wasted away on the desert sands, uncommemorated and unnoticed. Such diminished spirits might justifiably continue to make claims on the living. The sheer scale of the destruction in modern warfare should make all the more implausible the notion that ghosts preserve the images of recognisable personal bodies. Such ghosts as do appear could be thought of as gratifying fantasies, figments of an intact, living form still available to be interacted with or appeased.

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