What is forever missing is a real understanding of what happens when you take a photograph and paint it. Sublimity, beauty, a slight remove from the source, the ability to furl and unfurl the so-solid surface that is a photo. Certain things beyond the realm of photography’s ability to capture might be revealed or invented out of whole cloth. But what if the image is as such that it demands itself closed to revision (beyond the natural compression and decompression of digital file circulation and the myriad printing processes via which it was distributed in the press)? Drafting the open casket photo in the service of her aesthetic practice with the purpose that it need be seen, based on an empathy that she acknowledges can only ever be partial (what empathy can ever be said to be close to complete? Watching himself from within a spectral realm, Scrooge’s experiences are doubled; young twins in matching attire are playing in the kitchen and one cuts her hand…) Schutz transgresses. Like calling ‘Bloody Mary’ or Beetlejuice, it is somewhere in the excess of repetitions that the image falters. It is one thing to feel empathy — we watch a film and cry as a character we’ve loved (perhaps over many films/seasons but maybe for just for the duration of the program) dies. It is what we do with this feeling that matters. Feeling another’s pain, does reproduction and/or revision grant a place of distance where at this pain can be considered, or does it pile on, distract, mask.
Mamie Till, presented with the norm — the dressing up through the mortuary arts of a body so as to seem blissful, a pinch away from simply waking up but happier somehow in their repose — chose instead to give the real. A harsh reality; sickening, heartbreaking. Christina Sharpe in an interview on Hyperallergic notes:
So Mamie Till refuses to have those images not be shown. And she says (this isn’t a direct quote): Look at what they did to my son. This is my son. Look at what they did to him. She insists that the violence that he has been subject to be seen, unobscured. It seems to me that what Dana Schutz has done is to take that unobscured violence and make it abstract. Mamie Till wanted to make violence real. And that thing — white supremacy, violent abduction, murder — that Mamie Till wanted to make absolutely clear is abstracted in Schutz’s work, and in her defense of the work. 1
The act perpetrated on this young man resulted in a body caught between two identities — the young man, his past and potential; and bare violence. “Look what they’ve done to my son,” yes, but also “look what they do!” – white supremacist violence, the holding of black life as lacking in value, disposable. What sort of spirit is conjured by Schutz’s work? The kind which burdens the living with its excess of suffering, a reminder, a remnant? You will never be forgiven for what you’ve done, you will never be allowed to move on, to forget. Or one of anguish, never allowed to rest, misused, held in a loop, suffering violence eternally like Prometheus’s liver?
An image can harm — they do so less frequently perhaps than words or actions but they may harm nonetheless. Reproduced in Schutz’s painting is not the person but the violence; the work’s ornament sits in direct opposition to the deceased mother’s wishes, represents a second defacement, however well-intentioned its fabrication may have been. 2
(Begin part 4 of 4)
Writing isn’t an easy taskmaster. Sentences left unfinished never continue as well as they had begun. New ideas bend the main arch of the text, and it never again sits perfectly true.
— Magda Szabó, The Door
24. The biographic & an introduction to Lafcadio Hearn
I don’t care about your ghost story, your ghostly experience. Not really. In the same way I’m disinterested in your personal moment with god(s), this or that prayer that was answered, your miracles et al. But let’s read your holy books together, let me see the story you made up. Truth, as a fiction through exclusion, with or without the imposition of my own desires and points of reference filling in the blanks, is a bit boring, tells me less about the world than your story, than a legend told seventh-hand.
Easy enough to say. And yet this text is peppered with my own biographical tidbits, many mostly true. Hypocrisy, sure. The teller assumes the relevance of their anecdotes while being barely able to stifle a yawn when subjected to another’s, sometimes. I feel likewise about the lives of artists — biography is so often used to buttress a practice which may, given room to breath, say more without it. And yet…
Born in 1850 in Greece, Lafcadio Hearn had a very complicated childhood. Moving around a bunch, he settled with his great aunt in Ireland and Wales at the age of seven, though both his parents were still alive. At sixteen he injured (and eventually went blind in) one of his eyes. A few years later the young and restless but intelligent boy, who had moved to Cincinnati, was given five dollars and essentially abandoned. Eventually, he would start writing for a newspaper until his writings for a satirical magazine and his vocally anti-religious views so angered business and clergy that they used his (then illegal) marriage to a black woman the pretense to have him fired. Always outside, unrooted, Hearn was an adventurous reporter and chronicler of the world, writing about local black culture while in Ohio, moving to New Orleans and getting equally deep into that culture, then spending a pair of years in the West Indies where he chronicled his time there along with penning Youma, The Story of a West-Indian Slave.
He later settled in Japan and it was here he found a true calling of sorts. Many a white American or European has been entranced by all things “Oriental” — so strange are the customs and culture of Asian cultures to a newcomer — and to be sure it would be an oversight not to note in his writings in Japan and elsewhere a strong element of exoticism and Orientalism. But I think always outside, always searching, Hearn was uniquely equipped for his research. All was other to him whether immersed in the Midwest, Southern Creole black culture, or in Japan.
He went on to write over fifteen books about Asian culture, especially focusing on folklore and the supernatural in works such as Some Chinese Ghosts, In Ghostly Japan, and most famously Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. To quote Hearn:
I sought especially for weird beauty; and I could not forget this striking observation in Sir Walter Scott’s Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad: “The supernatural, though appealing to certain powerful emotions very widely and deeply sown amongst the human race, is, nevertheless, a spring which is peculiarly apt to lose its elasticity by being too much pressed upon.” 3
25. Three ambiguities in Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan 4
In A Dead Secret, a woman named O-Sono reappears in ghostly form and a priest is called to root out the purpose of the spectre’s distemper. The ghost hovers around a chest holding the deceased’s personal belongings.
He searched the chest from top to bottom. In the last drawer he found — a letter. “Is this the thing that troubles you?” O-Sono’s gaze fixed upon the letter.
“Shall I burn it for you?” O-Sono then bowed before him.
He promised her that he would burn it that very morning. “No one shall read it, except myself.”
The figure then smiled and vanished. 5
He finds that she has kept a love letter from an infatuation she had while in school prior to meeting her husband. But the letter’s details are omitted from the text — her secret dies with the priest. This is a story of an erasure: we know the act is performed but what was erased is left unspoken in keeping with the ghost’s desire. We are adjoined to the world of the tale by our lack, by what we don’t know, what O-Sono felt it best no one ever know.
In Of a Mirror and a Bell, after an introduction to concept of nazoraeru, a kind of virtue-based exchange of value,
The word itself cannot be adequately rendered by any English word; for it is used in relation to many kinds of mimetic magic, as well as in relation to the performance of many religious acts of faith. Common meanings of nazoraeru, according to dictionaries, are “to imitate,” “to compare,” “to liken;” but the esoteric meaning is to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another, so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result.
For example — you cannot afford to build a Buddhist temple; but you can easily lay a pebble before the image of the Buddha with the same pious feeling that would prompt you to build a temple if you were rich enough to build one. The merit of so offering the pebble becomes equal, or almost equal, to the merit of erecting a temple…
The piece begins with a tale ending in a tragic, angry suicide which becomes legendary. A woman who donated her mirror to a great bell’s creation did so without all of her heart and it wouldn’t melt in the foundry, causing her great shame. As she died, she declared “to the person who breaks that bell by ringing it, great wealth will be given by the ghost of me.” People traveled from far and wide and did their best to break the thing, to the point that the priest had the thing taken down and rolled into a swamp.
The legend continued despite the bell’s disappearance. An individual in great need destroyed a brass basin, a convenient effigy which mentally representing the bell, and through nazoraeru the ghostly promised good fortune came. Others hearing this story did their best to repeat the process. A farmer who had fallen upon bad times (of his own making) “made for himself, out of the mud in his garden, a clay-model of the Mugen-Kane; and he beat the clay-bell, and broke it, — crying out the while for great wealth.” A spirit appeared to the man, presenting him with a jar: “I have come to answer your fervent prayer as it deserves to be answered.”
Into his house the happy man rushed, to tell his wife the good news. He set down in front of her the covered jar, — which was heavy, — and they opened it together. And they found that it was filled, up to the very brim, with…
But no! — I really cannot tell you with what it was filled.
We are left here — the story leaves the farmer’s fate unknown. The miraculous is fickle, furtive; we doubt whether the man is deserving of good fortune but whether the jar contains a second chance for the man or comeuppance (is empty, has something terrifying or worthless within) is left unspoken.
Here and there the tales Hearn chooses to relay have a real horror streak to them, with imagery not out of place in a horror film. The persistence of what frightens across such distances in time and culture is impressive — there are some universally terrifying images and circumstances.
Mujina is a brief tale. There is a small region of wild which is avoided, travelers going well out of their way to avoid a mujina, a kind of shapeshifter/animal spirit demon. Shared is a man’s tale of his encounter with the spirit. Hearing a woman in trouble, he stopped to ask her what was the matter.6 Her face is hidden behind hair and the sleeves of her garment but eventually she “turned around, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand; — and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth, — and he screamed and ran away.”
The man runs through the dark dark night, spotting a lantern in the distance, that of an itinerant soba-seller. The soba-man can tell the man is frightened and asks him what is the matter, had anybody hurt him? Had he been robbed?
“Not robbers, — not robbers,” gasped the terrified man… “I saw… I saw a woman — by the moat; — and she showed me… Ah! I cannot tell you what she showed me!”…
“He! Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face — which therewith became like unto an Egg… And, simultaneously, the light went out.
25. a quote submitted without comment, to be thought about in a future version
Let me illustrate what I mean from an experiment which Paracelsus describes as not difficult, and which the author of the Curiosities of Literature cites as credible: A flower perishes; you burn it. Whatever were the elements of that flower while it lived are gone, dispersed, you know not whither; you can never discover nor recollect them. But you can, by chemistry, out of the burnt dust of that flower, raise a spectrum of the flower, just as it seemed in life. It may be the same with the human being. The soul has as much escaped you as the essence or elements of the flower. Still you may make a spectrum of it. And this phantom, though in the popular superstition it is held to be the soul of the departed, must not be confounded with the true soul; it is but the eidolon of the dead form. 7
26. Not quite ghosts, yet…
The existential dread associated with death is merely a starting point — returning to Violet Hunt’s world, it is not only the threat of one’s death but of the dead themselves which draw out the nature of the characters. What a ghost says is true — though whose truth it tells is never so certain. In The Memoir, two ladies have an aggravatingly passive-aggressive quarrel over a man. Lady Greenwall knows she should say something to Cynthia Chenies to dissuade her from being so terribly close to her husband, but how to do so in an honorable, fashionable, classy way stymies her. When finally the opportunity presents itself, the two talk around the issue of the man’s infidelity, with Cythia coldly mocking the wife’s efforts to keep her away.
I am truly sorry, but, indeed, dear, this sort of carriage lecture never does any good. You can’t have straight talk to women. No woman can employ another woman to help keep her husband for her — it really isn’t done. 8
Eventually, the man dies on one of his adventures abroad — the wife summons the mistress to help her edit his memoirs apparently per his request. They speak to his undying love for his wife, his fleeting and unsubstantial feelings towards his mistress.
“Give me some hot water to drink,” gasped Mrs. Chenies. “Is — this your revenge, Mabel?”
“Dear Cynthia, aren’t you well? You do use such odd stagey words. Revenge! I am your friend and always will be. My husband wanted us to be friends.” 9
The dead-man’ missives hang between two possible truths, his and, as likely, those of Lady Greenwall who may have as easily forged the documents to hurt her gentleman’s suitor. Though this latter possibility is left unspoken, a ghost always shares two truths – the manifestation of the guilt and desires of the dead and that of the living.
When a ghost accuses the living of a sin, is the subconscious of the seer of the ghost conjuring the spirit? Or, in a special case of empathy, does the cessation of breath of another allow one to collapse their life into a previously unknown message?
This thing became as much about ghost stories-proper as it did about analogs, strange exceptions to the natural order lurking in plain sight all around. This project, or phase of this project anyway, is drifting to a stop. I’d write a bit about Julien Gracq’s Au château d’Argol, another ghost-less tale which couches a psychological drama between three people told completely without dialogue in a wash of gothic horror staples. I’d dig deeper into Uneasy Tales. But alas, this must come to an end. I’ll let fly some quick thoughts about The Door and a couple addenda.
27. The Door
In Magda Szabó’s The Door, a writer and her husband are afforded the care of a powerful spectre of a woman in a small Hungarian town. Terribly secretive, meting out attention and personal narrative according to her intense sense of privacy and justice, she chooses to work for the couple, and in various capacities most of the townsfolk, versus the other way around.
The main character is managing to be fairly successful despite the doubt of one’s own abilities, which seems more the norm than the exception for most creative types, and despite the recently perilous and still tenuous political situation in Hungary. She’s so successful that she is awarded a prestigious award and is asked to be a member of a delegation to an international conference.
Emerence sees right through her, in the fiercest, most biting way. Everything about her is a challenge to the author — morally good while shunning Christianity, absolutely dismissive of cognitive labor, valuing those who sweep above those who read.
Emerence, appearing in their life out of nowhere, with a terribly gothic backstory, is as likely to disappear at any moment. Severe, seemingly invincible, only pride and her own sense of justice might break the woman. Her heavily guarded abode, into which no one is granted admission (fueling neighborhood speculation about what manner of treasures might be hoarded within) is not her own — the property of the building which she manages, shifted to the next manager upon her departure. And her things, spectral treasures, might dissolve along with her.
Guilt, a sense of being unworthy of the privilege afforded one, has conjured Emerence into the narrator’s life. She and her husband develop a codependence with this living embodiment of both the haphazard nature of morality and their unfairly unprecarious place in the world.
In this light, even the title, which at first might seem a bit low-hanging metaphoric foothold (for the secretive, the withheld etc.), begins to recall the name of any number of ghost stories; ‘The ____’, for instance, The Raven, or Hunt’s in Tales of the Uneasy (all falling under this rubric The Telegram, The Coach, The Tiger-Skin…). In The Door a world of rational, educated people who believe in science and religion are parried by something more ancient, someone who denies religion yet remains pious, someone for whom communing with animals is almost the only way to house her dangerously fealtous love.
The primal scene: the fantasy of witnessing one’s own conception. Like a reverse ghost produced beyond the border of birth rather than that of expiry, haunting the world, marked by the knowledge gained by this atemporal haunt. Were one to make the lights flicker, the sound of rattling chains, a wolf’s howl, or to produce a gust of wind despite one’s parents having closed tight the windows and doors for privacy…
If there were ghosts I’d wish them access to who I am.
So many lies buttress the day-to-day. Oversights, purposeful omissions, misrepresentations — we mistell, mar otherwise sincere and true relationships with our self-design.
Were I to be damned let me be so by truth.
- Mitter, Siddhartha. ““What Does It Mean to Be Black and Look at This?” A Scholar Reflects on the Dana Schutz Controversy.” Hyperallergic. March 25, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://hyperallergic.com/368012/what-does-it-mean-to-be-black-and-look-at-this-a-scholar-reflects-on-the-dana-schutz-controversy/.
- This is where I depart from Coco Fusco’s declaration that “The most perplexing criticism that’s been bandied about regarding Schutz’s painting, both on social media and in discussions I’ve had, is that some great harm has been inflicted by the act of abstraction, as if the only ‘responsible’ treatment of racial trauma is mimetic realism.” Rather, there is nothing perplexing about this criticism: it is abstraction, a “painted face” as expected for the dead as something directly in opposition to the victim’s mother’s simple request (that Till be seen as is) which stings most. Fusco’s text (as with everything she writes) is definitely worth digging through: Fusco, Coco. “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till.” Hyperallergic. March 27, 2017. Accessed March 28, 2017. https://hyperallergic.com/368290/censorship-not-the-painting-must-go-on-dana-schutzs-image-of-emmett-till/.
- See the 1964 Masaki Kobayashi film Kwaidan for a great dramatization of some of these stories. It speaks to the extent to which Hearn managed to capture his subject that a Japanese filmmaker of Kobayashi’s strength would choose his works as the basis for his production.
- Moments when the texts remain incomplete or certain omissions are made. Hearn maintains a fealty to the source, not filling in blanks where they exist, maintaining ambiguities. His light hand, not over-Westernizing the works, is what makes these tales retain a wonder not simply couched in either the author’s pen or exoticism.
- All the quotes in this section are drawn from the stories mentioned therein in Hearn, Lafcadio. Kwaidan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1923.
- Here the narrator notes “He really meant what he said; for he was a very kind man.” This serves to allay any implication that what follows is deserved and not what it is — a whim of the unknowable.
- Lytton, Edward Bulwer Lytton. The haunted and the haunters, or, The house and the brain. Chicago: Rajput Press, 1911.An eidolon: a phantom, a shade/shadow, an unsubstantial image, often an ideal but definitely not the thing itself.
- Hunt, Violet. Tales of the uneasy. Ashcroft, B.C.: Ash-Tree, 2004.