27 February 2013


Stephen Frosh. Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Let me confess that there are large sections of this book, dealing with the “haunted “ nature of psychoanalysis and its Jewish roots, psychoanalytical interpretations of Old Testament stories, Freud’s ambiguous views on telepathy etc., which I am totally unqualified to review.
It does not directly deal with “haunting” as understood by psychical researchers but it does contain some general themes which may be pertinent.

If there is a central theme, it is the influence of the unacknowledged past on the present, particularly where that past is hidden, locked away into what Frosh calls 'the Crypt'. Froth takes as example his own post-war British Jewish childhood in the 1950s, in which the Holocaust (not yet really spoken of) was present as something mysterious on the edges, a sense of something indefinably wrong in memory. Other examples would be that African American and African Caribbean people are haunted by slavery, or how the presence of American Indians haunts that country.

If the hauntings of victims is one thing, the haunting of the perpetrators and their descendants is another, Germany is still haunted by its Nazi past - can you imagine someone doing a German version of Who Do You Think You Are? - and similarly Russia and its former satellites are certainly haunted by the spectre of Communism and its crimes.

There are two kinds of ‘off-campus history’: the suppressed and hidden kind discussed by Frosh and the stuff that screams in your face, as for example in Northern Ireland, and it is perhaps a moot point as to which is the most dangerous.

An interesting connection between psychoanalysis and classical ghost stories are that they are both phenomenon of bourgeois repression. Both inhabit the realms of the respectable who repress those aspects of their personality and history that do not fit in with the idealised bourgeois self. As the studies by Owen, Stuart-Maxwell and Clarke have shown the working class ghost is something much more open and communal. The classic Victorian ghost belongs to the secret realm of the idealised middle class home, and its whisperings point to secrets that cannot be acknowledged. Such stories generate a “terrible fascination”, as witness the Cheltenham haunting, where the respectable family are haunted by the image of the woman who had fallen into the abyss.

Behind many ghost stories there is a kind of projection , it is not me who is haunted by the unwanted past and its traumatic memories, it is the bricks and mortar.

Such stories can be metaphors for that which cannot be spoken of. One story I was told concerned a door which resisted attempts to open it, in a house which was somehow “wrong” (further details were too traumatic to relate). It cannot be a coincidence that the person who told me this had a family riddled with secrets (a US marine father who turned out to be gay (this in the 1960s), and who worked with secrets (the family never knew quite what) and that the only place my informant knew as a real home in her peripatetic military childhood turned out to be a quintessentially American small town, under which was a massive nuclear arsenal!) No wonder that door was so reluctant to open.

One does not have therefore to be a psychoanalyst to realise that ghosts are not something that can be hunted down by pseudoscientific equipment. -- Peter Rogerson

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