Blood for the Ghosts

This text was presented at the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English Conference at Brock University (23-26 May 1996). It reworked, not very satisfactorily, material I had begun to explore in my 1992 'Work in Progress' paper “Raising the Dead”; like that earlier text, it has not previously been published.


What, in relation to the acts of interpretation that largely constitute our professional lives, does it mean to pour out blood for the ghosts? This, you will remember, is the act performed by Odysseus in what some scholars have liked to think may be the oldest part of Homer's Odyssey, the nekuia or rite of necromancy in Book XI. Odysseus tells how, having reached the place along the Ocean stream foretold by Kirkê, he dug a votive pit, poured out libations, “addressed the blurred and breathless dead” with promises of choice sacrifices for them once he returned to Ithaka, and then slaughtered a lamb and a ewe,

letting their black blood stream into the wellpit. 
Now the souls gathered, stirring out of Erebos, 
brides and young men, and men grown old in pain, 
and tender girls whose hearts were new to grief; 
many were there, too, torn by brazen lanceheads, 
battle-slain, bearing still their bloody gear. 
From every side they came and sought the pit
with rustling cries; and I grew sick with fear.1

Holding off the others with his sword, Odysseus lets the shade of Teirêsias, the Theban seer, drink from “the sombre blood,” and hears from him what he came for—a prophetic insight into his own future.

The blood gives voice to the dead: it allows shadows who are bound to the past, lifeless and yet horrifyingly thirsty for life, irretrievably removed from the onward current of time, to enter our time and to speak to us on matters of vital interest, even to unravel the secrets of what is yet to come. The Homeric nekuia offers itself, then, as an allegory of interpretation.

The notion that interpretation is a kind of necromancy has occurred repeatedly to scholars during the past century or so. Sir Walter Raleigh, who in 1904 was appointed as the first Oxford Professor of English Literature, declared that “the main business of Criticism, after all, is not to legislate, not to classify, but to raise the dead. Graves, at its command, have waked their sleepers, oped, and let them forth.” But blood is nowhere in evidence here: the point of this passage seems rather to suggest an identification of Raleigh the critic with Shakespeare's Prospero (“graves at my command / Have wak'd their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em forth / By my so potent Art” [The Tempest, V. i. 48-50])—and therefore, since the character of Prospero was widely taken to be a Shakespearean self-portrait, with the Bard himself.2

When the great nineteenth-century philologist Ulrich von Moellendorf-Wilamowitz, Nietzsche's opponent, reflected upon the nature of historical understanding, he had recourse not to an early modern representation of necromancy, but rather to the Homeric nekuia. In his Oxford lecture on “Greek Historical Writing,” he commented on the endless efforts demanded of the scholar, who before he or she can properly hear the voices of the past must pour out blood for the ghosts:

The tradition is dead; our task is to revivify life that has passed away. We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts. We give it to them gladly; but if they then abide our question, something of us has entered into them: something alien, that must be cast out, cast out in the name of truth!3

“Wilamops,” as Nietzsche liked to call him, thus emphasizes in his allegorical appropriation of the Homeric scene that it is the interpreter's own life-blood that must be poured out for the ghosts, imparting sufficient life to them to make possible their speech to us. Recognizing, however, that “something of us has entered into them,” he insists upon a second transaction no less uncanny than the first—a casting out of that “something” from the ghosts, an exorcism not of the ghosts, but of that which we have imparted to them in invoking them, and by which they are in effect possessed. It is an exorcism, note, in which the operative word, the word of power, is “truth.”

Despite this recognition of the ghosts as possessed by that life we have imparted to them, Wilamowitz is nonetheless blandly confident, in the manner of positivist scholarship, that the voices to which his own blood has given the power of speech are genuinely Other. (How else could he insist that their otherness must be separated from that “something alien” which has entered into them?) It does not occur to him that their true speech to him—true in the sense that the prophetic words of Teirêsias to Odysseus were true—may perhaps be so for the very reason that it is animated by his blood, and infused with his concerns. How can these be “cast out in the name of truth”?

New, no less than old historicists, have been drawn to allegorize the Homeric nekuia. In the opening chapter of his book Shakespearean Negotiations, Stephen Greenblatt wrote:

I began with the desire to speak with the dead.

This desire is a familiar, if unvoiced, motive in literary studies, a motive organized, professionalized, buried beneath thick layers of bureaucratic decorum: literature professors are salaried, middle-class shamans. If I never believed the dead could hear me, and if I knew that the dead could not speak, I was nonetheless certain that I could re-create a conversation with them. Even when I came to understand that in my most intense moments of straining to listen all I could hear was my own voice, even then I did not abandon my desire. It was true that I could hear only my own voice, but my own voice was the voice of the dead, for the dead have contrived to leave textual traces of themselves, and those traces make themselves heard in the voices of the living.4

A dialogue of this sort amounts to something like possession: the interpreter's own voice is taken over by those of the dead. What Greenblatt neglects to say, however, is that another kind of possession is involved as well. For to conjure up the dead, or, more generally, the past, is also to appropriate it, to take possession of it. Or perhaps, as seems to be indicated by Wilamowitz's uncanny suggestion that the alien blood which has entered the ghosts has possessed them and must be cast out, this is again a kind of daimonic possession, but in reverse. The notion of possession thus appears to work both ways, and in its doubling there lies an irreducible duplicity: the process of “conjuration,” while in some sense empowered by the dead, is at the same time enabled by the living, and subject to their shaping power. The voices from the past are filtered; they have become another voice, which in renewing them also displaces and usurps them. The “blood”—whatever we mean by this—of our own time energizes and makes audible to us the voices of the past (in Odysseus' case, the very recent past). In the very process of telling their own story, speaking as its subjects in that active sense, the dead are now subjected to another narrative, as its subject-matter.

If time permitted, I would like to explore in greater depth the substitutions and evasions built into Wilamowitz's and Greenblatt's appropriations or echoings of the Homeric nekuia. The former insists, with a pathos of self-sacrifice, that his own blood, rather than that of a sacrificial victim, has been poured out—although he then wants very quickly to expunge any trace of bodily fluids from the transaction. The latter removes any hint of violence and blood from his intervocalic exchanges with the dead: the “bureaucratic decorum” of which Greenblatt speaks is arguably active in his own text, and one of the things it does is to suspend any adequately reflexive critical engagement with the interests and the social and political functions of his work as what he disarmingly calls a “salaried, middle-class shaman.”

While the metaphors—if that is what they are—of blood and ghosts may perhaps have imparted a certain spin to the understanding of interpretation I want to engage with here, the structure of thought that emerges from even such a cursory allegorizing of the Homeric nekuia as I have offered is a thoroughly familiar one.

The notions of a duplicitous reciprocity, of exchange, and of mutual possession that I have outlined are paralleled, obviously enough, by the manner in which exponents of literary hermeneutics and reception theory distinguish between contexts of originary textual production and of secondary reproduction or reception, and then analyze the traces of the former in the Wirkungsgeschichte or effective history constituted by the latter.

In another sense, this uncanny and duplicitous reciprocity is also paralleled by the delicately dialectical analyses of agency and subjection that have been developed during the past fifteen years or so by literary and cultural critics like Catherine Belsey, Judith Butler, and Alan Sinfield.5

But if this understanding of interpretation as an act and a predicament in which agency and subjection, ethos and daimon,6 are implicated in a kind of mutual possession—if this understanding is in one or several senses a familiar one, it is also a recent achievement—and possibly a rather tenuous one. I say recent: that seems obvious enough, if it was possible for as powerful and scrupulous an interpreter as Stephen Greenblatt to miss the point little more than a decade ago. And tenuous? Here I am on uncertain ground. But it seems to me that a dialectical understanding of the historicity, the situatedness, the temporal spacing of interpretation is possibly easier to misplace and forget than it has been to develop and disseminate.

As we all know, very powerful forces in the corporate world, in government and the media are currently devoting themselves to cultural amnesia on a large scale, to a misplacing of interpretive understanding that is also a quite systematic closing down of the public spaces within which critical analysis of the forces at work in our society and culture is possible.7 I am not going to repeat here any part of the analysis of this closing down of public space, and of the attendant strategies of what I have called “subtractive politicizing,” that I have recently brought forward in my book Lunar Perspectives.8

However, I would like to quote Jacques Derrida's remark, in Specters of Marx, a book about which I will shortly have more to say, that “No one ... can contest the fact that a dogmatics is attempting to install its worldwide hegemony in paradoxical and suspect conditions.”9 I would like to quote as well John Ralston Saul's identification of the ideologues and agents of this dogmatics as “courtiers” of an antidemocratic corporatism.10 And I cannot deny myself the pleasure of quoting one of the most egregious of those courtiers of corporatism, the journalist Michael Coren, whose understanding of the subtleties of cultural interpretation is adequately summed up by his declaration that “There is no mystery or puzzle to an appreciation of a good book, and those who try to pretend that there is have no genuine regard for literature. Dante will always be Dante, Shakespeare will always be Shakespeare.”11 This is the hermeneutics of common sense—of the common-sense counter-revolution.

Do I digress? I think not. For one of my purposes here is to bring us to reflect together upon the manner in which skilled interpreters in our discipline and adjoining ones in Canadian colleges and universities—our colleagues who work as sessional and part-time faculty, and our graduate students who are also our colleagues—are being reduced to a ghostly silence through the immiseration of underpaid migrant labour, or through the further indignity of full unemployment.

The work of interpretation, in this context, becomes also a work of mourning; in a sense beyond anything conceived by Paul de Man, it takes on an elegaic tone. I want to suggest, however, that the act of theorizing a hermeneutics of literary, cultural and historical interpretation as a work of mourning can also become an act of resistance, a movement towards the construction of a counter-discourse to that neoconservatism whose triumph in the political domain threatens to undo the work of the past generation in literary and cultural studies.

For when I speak of elegy and the elegaic I am thinking not of a passive expression of loss and of regret, but rather—to return to ancient Greek texts and to the necromantic motif with which I opened this paper—of the góos or song of mourning, a form of words that gives daimonic force to that which is lamented and invoked. The word góos is cognate with goeteia, “magic” or “sorcery”; and in the Persians of Aeschylus, the ghost of King Darius is raised by a song of the chorus, which he himself describes as a psychogogois orthiazontes góois—a high-pitched wailing lamentation.12

In one sense at least, the work and the politics of interpretation is thus a form of psychagogy. For Hermes, the god of interpreters from whom we derive our name for the science of interpretation, hermeneutics, was also for the ancient Greeks the psychagogos, the one who led departed souls to the underworld. But the same word psychagogos could also refer to a contrary motion, to an evocation of dead souls so that they might be questioned by the living. What we witness in Aeschylus's Persians is an act of necromancy; and in Euripides' Alcestis, psychagogos means “necromancer.”

Jacqueline de Romilly—from whose work I have been drawing in the preceding two paragraphs—notes that this necromantic meaning persists in later texts: in Plato's Laws (909b), as well as in Plutarch and Lucian. But the word psychagogos is also applied to language that is designed to lead or summon the souls of the living—to allure, to persuade, or to delude them. Thus Isocrates speaks of the harmony of poetry as moving its audience to a state of rapture (psychagogousin [Evagoras 10-11]), while in the Phaedrus (261a) Plato asks, “Would you not call, on the whole, the art of rhetoric a psychagogía tis, acting through words?”13

In these examples, words—whether those of tragic poetry, or those invested by the rhetorician with a similar rhythmic and emotive force—are understood as possessing a magical violence of the kind attributed to logos by the sophist Gorgias, who spoke, in a vocabulary which (as De Romilly says) “combines all the expressions that can be used of magic and witchcraft,” of the deceits of tragedy and of rhetoric, and of the “divine charms working through words.”14 Psychagogía thus implies a double movement, both aspects of which might be said to fall under the patronage of Hermes, in his dual capacity as psychagogos or necropompus, and as an archetypal thief and deceiver. This is a matter, clearly, of exchanges and circulation between the realm of the living and that of the dead, a two-way traffic between past and present.

But where is the political edge to this allegory of interpretation? The beginnings of an answer can be found in Marx's famous injunction in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that our making of history takes place under conditions that we do not choose, but rather inherit. The weight of unchosen tradition, he says, “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” leading us, at the moment of our most radical transformations of self and society, to “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the part to [our] service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.”15

The metaphor of the stage, no less than that of necromancy, calls out for comment; however, I will limit myself to the latter.

In his recent book Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida has contributed very importantly to opening up an awareness of the extent to which Marx's writings are pervaded by what I have called a hermeneutics of necromancy. In its patient intricacy, this book is in many ways illuminating. In other respects—in, for example, its movement towards a conflation of the psychagogic metaphors of Marx and those of his contemporary, Max Stirner, the ideologue of individualism whom Marx and Engels mocked in The German Ideology as “Saint Max”—Derrida's book is less adequate. And Derrida is perhaps not sufficiently mindful of Marx's differentiation of Geist and Gespenst, “spirit” and “ghost,” and of the application of this distinction in (for example) his statement in The Eighteenth Brumaire that the “awakening of the dead” should serve the purpose “of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not of making its ghost walk about again.”16 The distinction is between that to which we impart a certain shadowy life, and that which can serve as an animating principle of further action.

In a presentation as confined as this one, I cannot hope to do justice either to Derrida or to the texts of Marx and of Stirner upon which he comments. However, I would like to underline two matters to which Derrida gives particular emphasis. The first is the principle of answerability to a time beyond our own. “No justice,” Derrida writes,

seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppression of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism. Without this non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present, without that which secretly unhinges it, without this responsibility and this respect for justice concerning those who are not there, of those who are no longer or who are not yet present and living, what sense would there be to ask the question “where?” “where tomorrow?” “whither?”17

This is a matter not only of justice, but also, more generally, of value—for our allocations of value, and indeed our capacity to implant as well as to recognize value in cultural productions and in nature, are intimately connected to the manner in which we situate ourselves in a generational continuity of human time.18

The second point I want to underline is Derrida's reminder of the three distinct meanings of the French word conjuration. The word means a convoking, a summoning up, and also an exorcism, a driving away of that which haunts us. But in addition to these senses, “we must take into account another essential meaning: the act that consists in swearing, taking an oath, therefore promising, deciding, taking a responsibility, in short, committing oneself in a performative fashion....”19 With this in mind, it becomes apparent that the hermeneutics of necromancy or of conjuration also implies a willingness to involve oneself in collective action.

What is at issue, Marx insisted in the eleventh of his Theses on Feuerbach, is not simply interpreting the world (something the philosophers have been busily doing in their various ways). The point, he says, is to change it.20 But let us not make the elementary mistake of assuming that interpretation and action must be mutually exclusive categories.

I want to conclude with a reminder of one further resonance of the model of interpretation as necromancy that I have been evoking for you today—and a resonance that very strongly suggests the interplay between interpretation and action.

One of the earliest attested uses of the verb “to interpret” occurs in Wyclif's translation, in the early 1380s, of the book of Daniel: “I herde of thee, that thou mayst interprete derke thingis, and vnbynde bounden thingis” (Daniel v. 16). On the basis of this capacity to interpret the inscrutable, to unbind meanings and release them from uncomprehended potentiality into the domain of social action, Daniel is able to speak truth to power.21 The uncanny text, the ghost-written script that he deciphers is a condemnation of the misrule of a king who has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. And this concluding moment of my paper may at last justify its inclusion in a conference session that has the word “Apocalypse” in its title.

Daniel unbinds, gives voice to this dark message—and the ruling order of things, the reign (if you like) of common sense, is overthrown. “In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain” (Daniel v. 30).




1  The Odyssey, Book 11, lines 37-43, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (1961; rpt. New York: Anchor Books, 1963), p. 186.

2  I am indebted for this quotation from Raleigh's Letters, ed. Lady Raleigh (2 vols,; London, 1926), vol. 1, pp. 128-29, to Terence Hawkes' brilliant discussion of Raleigh in That Shakespeherian Rag (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), p. 59.

3  Ulrich von Moellendorf-Wilamowitz, Greek Historical Writing, and Apollo: Two Lectures Delivered before the University of Oxford June 3 and 4, 1908, trans. Gilbert Murray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908,), p. 25.

4  Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), p. 1.

5  I am thinking in particular of Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London and New York: Methuen, 1985); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990); and Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992).

6  See Heraclitus, Fr. 119, and my comments on it in Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars (Concord, ON: Anansi, 1996).

7  I would specifically include the public space of learned societies meetings like the one for which this paper was prepared: the cutbacks imposed by the Chrétien government have resulted in reduced funding both for Canadian learned societies like the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English and for the humanities and social science federations which have been instrumental in organizing the annual Learned Societies Conference.

8  On “subtractive politicizing,” see Lunar Perspectives, pp. 86-95, 122-24, 205-06.

9  Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 51.

10  John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization (Concord, ON: Anansi, 1995), pp. 17, 27-28.

11  Michael Coren, “Deconstructing the deconstructionists,” The Globe and Mail (18 July 1994): C3. For comments, see Lunar Perspectives, pp. 62-65.

12  Aeschylus, Persians, in Aeschyle, ed, Paul Mazon (2 vols.; Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1920), vol. 1, p. 86. My discussion of psychagogy is indebted throughout to Jacqueline de Romilly, Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).

13  De Romilly, Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece, pp. 8, 15.

14  Ibid., p. 3.

15  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), p. 96.

16  Ibid., p. 97.

17  Specters of Marx, p. xix.

18  See, on this subject and on the closely related issue of “radical futurelessness,” Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk, Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1982).

19  Specters of Marx, p. 50.

20  Marx and Engels, Selected Works, p. 30.

21  I like this notion of speaking truth to power, as developed in, for example, the writings of Edward Said—though I suspect that if one seriously wants to rearrange the distribution of power in a social order, there's something to be said for speaking truth to the powerless as well.