21 January 2017


Ruth Heholt and Niamh Downing (Eds.). Haunted Landscapes: Super-Nature and the Environment. Rowman and Littlefield, 2016

Haunted Landscapes: Super-Nature and the Environment is a collection of essays concerning the interaction between what we think about ghosts and what we mean by a ghostly location or landscape. It consists of twelve essays ranging from Heidegger to W.G.Sebald and the Whitechapel London of Jack the Ripper to the shadowy landscape of Anglo-Scots borders.
The introduction contains a vivid description of ghostliness written by Vernon Lee in 1898.

“Ghosts and ghostly things are things of the imagination, born there, sprung from the strange confused heaps, half-rubbish, half-treasure, which lie in our fancy, heaps of half-faded recollections of fragmentary vivid impressions, litter of multi-coloured tatters, and faded herbs and flowers, whence arises that odour (we all know it), musty and damp, but penetratingly sweet and intoxicatingly heady, which hangs in the air when a ghost has swept through the unopened door, and the flickering flames of candle and fire start up once more after waning.”

Lee’s Victorian prose is a little over-wrought but engaging as she draws us in to explore a ghostly terrain. Unfortunately two thirds of the twenty first century academics gathered here, never write with such colour. Too often their style, and therefore sense, falls into grey high dense jargon.

My title for this review is “What is a chronotape? That question is partly answered in the essay “Gothic Chronotapes and Bloodied Cobblestones: The uncanny psycho-geography of London’s Whitechapel Ward” by HollyGale Millette. She is referring to Mikhail Bakhtin in his The Dialogic Imagination (1982) who defines chronotape as “a place wherein time and space collapse”. That sounds wonderfully spooky in a black hole sort of way. But unfortunately Millett then quotes other writers to develop this concept. We are given “historical-geographical materialism” and a “spatio-temporal turn.” Soon the chronotape becomes “the gateway to a diatonic approach to narrative truth-telling about the landscape.” The landscape in question is the infamous Whitechapel slum district of 1888 where Jack the Ripper murdered prostitutes. Now I’d have loved this essay if it had been an exploration of the evil atmosphere and festering ghosts of a once feared spot. No such enjoyably florid Vernon Lee prose, alas: only Millet’s hard theorising that throws up impenetrable sentences.

“Space too is a discursive material as well as a material engaged in reproducing heteropatriarchal imperatives. The death of the women of Whitechapel produced a materiality of victimhood, which conveniently reconstituted the matrilocal space as male and allowed predatory male voyeurs free reign over a hitherto feminised space.”

To be fair to Millett she does reveal many interesting facts about the Whitechapel of the 1880’s. Just steer very carefully round her language.

Thankfully not every contributor is so tortuously dense. About one third of Haunted Landscapes is very compelling. Particularly section 3 called “Borderlands and Outlands.” Here we discover Scotland’s haunted geography, a consideration of the writings of the brilliant W.G.Sebald and Bram Stoker’s depictions of nature. This section of the book proves the most interesting. Alongside of which I would place the intriguing opening essay about the hut used by the great German philosopher Heidegger to do his writing. “Place as Palimpsest” is a discussion of the cultural overlays and antecedents where Heidegger worked and linked to a probing poem by Paul Celan concerning Heidegger’s links to Nazism. A very suggestive essay, indeed.

Daniel Weston’s subject is W. G. Sebald. And in his essay “W.G.Sebald’s Afterlives” he quotes writer John Wylie on Sebald’s Rings of Saturn as a work that “has come to stand as something of a model of contemporary cultural geographies of landscape.” I wouldn’t disagree with that. For me the book is also part novel, part travel book, part work of philosophy, cultural history and walker’s journal. Weston is very good on describing what’s going on in Sebald’s mind. So much so that he made me want to re-read this brilliantly original writer. It’s so sad that Sebald died in 2001 aged only fifty seven. He would have been a great (greater) contributor to this book. Here is the Sebald extract from his The Rings of Saturn.
“In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set of to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident in that remote place.”
That’s a beautifully written passage expressing intense apprehension and containing a melancholy as suggestive as Vernon Lee’s paragraph on the ghostly presence. Weston talks of a Sebaldian traffic always from “the cues in place towards histories now absent from this place or any other” he then argues that the affect of this is to something that “carries the corollary that there is a constant slippage of attention away from the experience of place. History overburdens the moment of engagement.” This is engaged and perceptive writing that sensitively probes, free of psycho-geography jargon, an original writer’s sensibility. Sebald would have definitely approved.

Haunted Landscapes: Super-Nature and the Environment has taken the concept of ghosts, visitations, cultural memory, psychology and landscape and produced a work that’s both maddeningly blocked by its hermetic language, whilst also illuminating in the cracks in its author’s academic styles. When the significance of ghostly presence, supernatural or other, does come through, I was fascinated by this uneven, yet rewarding and original book. Its cluster of ideas still managed to haunt me, even when their analysis of texts often stumbled through a lack of clarity. – Alan Price.

No comments: