Raising the Dead (What Ghost Guest/Guessed: A Hermeneutics of Necromancy)

[This text, written in some haste for presentation on November 10, 1992 in the Work-in-Progress Seminar organized by my colleague Lesley Marshall of the University of Guelph's English Department, has not previously been published.]


This paper, I should be explicit from the start, is very much a work in progress—so much so that, as you may have noticed, its very title has gone through a certain evolution during the past few days. It was first announced by Lesley Marshall, a fortnight ago, as “To Be Announced”—a title which may have raised expectations of some very fancy theoretical footwork. There is indeed a sense in which any discourse, even in its final words, is always 'to be announced'—always, that is to say, in motion ad nuntios, towards those whose act of witnessing completes its constitution as discourse. But I don't at the moment find this idea especially enthralling; my real title (once I had thought one up) was “Raising the Dead.”

Imagine my surprise on discovering that, while some of the posters in our corridor and elsewhere advertised me as proposing to deliver a talk on this subject, others, by the discreet omission of quotation marks, held out the promise of an altogether more exciting event: “Michael Keefer Raising the Dead.”

Some of you, then, may be here under false pretenses. For while, like Owen Glendower in Henry IV, Part 1, I can indeed “call spirits from the vasty deep,” I should be no less surprised than Hotspur if any were to come at my summons.1

But my subject is not a joking matter. This declining season of the year is one in which the dead, more distinctly than at other times, are among us. I refer of course to Hallowe'en, All Hallow's Eve, and to All Saints' Day, the Day of the Dead; and I refer as well to another Day of the Dead, Remembrance Day—and to a more private grief, which I hope I do not debase by mentioning here that the eve of Remembrance Day is the anniversary of my father's death.

Oddly enough, these occasions had no conscious part in my decision, scarcely a week ago, to speak today about a commerce with the dead as a model for what goes on in the act of interpretation—and as in some sense, indeed, a paradigmatic form of that act. In the process of writing this paper, however (a process still by no means complete), I have become aware that what I am proposing is also an alignment of interpretation with mourning. To readers of Paul de Man, that will hardly seem a novel idea. And yet—for reasons which I hope go far beyond the fact that my talk today, no less than any other writing in the scholarly or the more overtly fictive genres, bears traces of a private allegory—I wear my rue with a difference. As a sign of which, I now add to my title, “Raising the Dead,” a subtitle, which I would like you to hear almost subliminally, as a sibilant whisper—and with the aural ambiguity of the last word, and the odd pun of its written form, left for the moment unexplained: “What Ghost Guest.” My talk is directed towards what I will call a hermeneutics of necromancy, though I cannot do more today than begin to broach this subject.

Should I start, then, by telling how, in scanning the Oxford English Dictionary, I found among the earliest attested uses of the verb “to interpret” (all of them, by the way, from Wyclif in the early 1380s), this verse from Wyclif's translation of the book of Daniel: “I herde of thee, that thou mayst interprete derke thingis, and vnbynde bounden thingis” (Daniel 5: 16)? But although Daniel is described in this passage as having been appointed “master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans and soothsayers” (5: 11 [Authorized Version]), he speaks not with the dead so much as with the soon-to-be dead; what his interpretation “unbinds,” and thus releases from uncomprehended potentiality into activity, is the message of Belshazzar's condemnation—from which follows at once the conclusion to the story: “In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain” (Daniel 5: 30).

Perhaps a better starting point might be the fact that Hermes, the god of interpreters from whom we derive our name for the science or philosophy of interpretation, hermeneutics, was also for the ancient Greeks the psychagogos, the one who led departed souls to the underworld. But as Jacqueline de Romilly has observed, the word psychagogoi could also refer to a contrary motion, to an evocation of dead souls so that they might be questioned by the living. In the Persians of Aeschylus the chorus performs a góos, or song of mourning—the word is cognate with goeteia, “magic” or “sorcery”—which raises the soul of King Darius. The dead king describes what has summoned him as a psychagogois orthiazontes góois (Persians 687): a high-pitched wailing invocation. What we witness on stage, then, is an act of necromancy; and in Euripides, psychagogos means “necromancer” (Alcestis 1128).

De Romilly 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 in relation 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?”2

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 “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.”3 Psychagogía thus implies a double movement, both aspects of which might be said to fall under the patronage of Hermes, in his dual capacities as psychagogos or necropompos, 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. But are we talking, yet, about interpretation?

Let me begin, then, for a third time. (You may remember that, according to Goethe's Mephistopheles—whose expertise on such matters is surely unimpeachable—it is necessary to call out three times when summoning a spirit to enter an enclosed space: “Du mußt es dreimal sagen.”)4

I call out this time in the words of two more recent writers, both of them intensely concerned at one and the same time with questions of interpretation and with the difficulties that historical distance places in the interpreter's path. The first of these, Nietzsche's opponent, the great philologist Ulrich von Moellendorf-Wilamowitz, might be described as an “old historicist”; in his Oxford lecture on Greek Historical Writing, he commented on the endless efforts demanded of the scholar, who before he can properly hear the voices of the past must pour out blood—his own blood, in effect—for the ghosts:

The tradition yields us only ruins. The more closely we test and examine them, the more clearly we see how ruinous they are; and out of ruins no whole can be built. 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 invoke demand the blood of our hearts. We give it to them gladly; but if they then abide our question, something from us has entered into them; something alien, that must be cast out, cast out in the name of truth! For Truth is a stern goddess; she shows no respect of persons, and her handmaid, Science, strides ever onward....5

“Wilamops,” as Nietzsche liked to call him, is alluding to the nekuia, the rite of necromancy in Book XI of Homer's Odyssey. Here (in the translation of Robert Fitzgerald), Odysseus tells how, having reached the place along the Ocean stream foretold by Kirkê, he dug a votive pit, poured out libations, and then

... addressed the blurred and breathless dead, 
vowing to slaughter my best heifer for them
before she calved, at home in Ithaka, 
and burn the choice bits on the altar fire;
as for Teirêsias, I swore to sacrifice
a black lamb, handsomest of all our flock. 
Thus to assuage the nations of the dead
I pledged these rites, then slashed the lamb and 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.6

Once Teirêsias, the Theban seer, has drunk from the “sombre blood,” he prophesies to Odysseus, and in answer to his question about the silent ghost of the living man's dead mother, tells him that “Any dead man / whom you allow to enter where the blood is / will speak to you, and speak the truth; but those / deprived will grow remote again and fade.”

The blood, then, gives voice to the dead, and as Wilamowitz emphasizes in his allegorical appropriation of this scene, it is blood from our own time—the scholar's blood, indeed—that imparts sufficient life to the ghosts to enable their speech to us. Recognizing, however, that “something from us has entered into them,” Wilamowitz 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, and by which they are in effect possessed. It is an exorcism, note, in which the operative word, the word of power, is “truth.” Wilamowitz nonetheless appears to be 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 them?) This is to be done “in the name of truth”—which would imply an acceptance of Teirêsias's claim that ghosts who have drunk the blood indeed “speak the truth.” It does not occur to Wilamowitz that their true speech to him may perhaps seem so for the very reason that it is animated by his heart's blood, and infused with his concerns.

I turn now to my second voice, that of a “New Historicist”—indeed, of the chef de fil of American New Historicists. In the opening chapter of his book Shakespearean Negotiations, Stephen Greenblatt writes:

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 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.7

A dialogue of this sort amounts to something like possession: the interpreter's own voice is taken over, at least intermittently, by those of the dead which speak through or within it. 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 once again a kind of daimonic possession, but in reverse.

The notion of “possession,” like that of psychagogía, 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 subject to the shaping power of the living. These voices from the past are filtered; they have become another voice, which in renewing them also displaces and usurps them.

Let us not forget the allegory of Wilamowitz, according to which it is the blood of our own time which energizes and makes audible to us the voices of the past. It is also the case that the dead, having told their own story, having been its subjects in that active sense, are now subjected to another story, as its subject-matter.

We are perhaps saying no more here than that our understandings of past texts take form through a process of interaction between the values, concerns and motivations of our own time with those that we are able to discern within the language of texts from another time. But what Wilamowitz suggests about the difficulties involved in that discernment needs to be unfolded. The philological expertise and delicacy that is required must be not just linguistic but also, simultaneously, contextual—for to understand the nuances of the language, its syntax, rhetoric and figurations is also to reconstruct, in the fullest feasible sense, the context of originary textual production—and that indeed is a labour calling for the scholar's “heart's blood.” But it is also a labour motivated by the subjectivity-shaping forces at work within the scholar's own socio-cultural context, and enabled within the conditions of textual reproduction supplied by that context.

It is precisely this dialectical interaction between contexts of originary textual production and contexts of secondary reproduction or interpretation that Wilamowitz evades when, after recognizing that only the life of the present can re-animate the dead ruins of the past, he then wants to subtract that re-animating force of the now and pretend that what remains is truth. Greenblatt is similarly evasive, sliding with suspicious rapidity (and with what may seem a bureaucratically decorous evasion of any hint that scholarly shamanism might involve—even metaphorically—a shedding of blood) from mere “textual traces” to the dramatic claim that his own voice was the voice of the dead. Issues of context, mediation, and motivation have been silently elided.

These metaphorics of what one might call a hermeneutics of necromancy may then be of some use in clarifying our responses to historicisms both old and new. Perhaps we can complicate matters slightly by observing that narratives of raising the dead can serve not just as allegories of interpretation, but as means of legitimizing certain kinds of interpretation, and de-legitimizing others.

A number of such narratives come to mind—such as the Witch of Endor's invocation, at the request of King Saul, of the prophet Samuel—a narrative which has certain features in common with the Homeric nekuia (in both cases a dead prophet is being asked to interpret a king's future), and also with the story of Daniel and Belshazzar (the news in both cases is a prophecy of extinction).8

One might equally well consider the manner in which New Testament accounts of raising the dead serve to legitimize a particular messianic interpretation of the Old Testament's prophetic “testimonies” (collections of which, many scholars believe, provided the basis for the generation of gospel narratives in a process of midrashic interpretation through the generation of narrative)—and at the same time to de-legitimize the claims of competing groups. The raising of Jairus' daughter in Mark 5 and Luke 8, for example, is a polemical illustration of the spiritual impotence of the synagogue, of which Jairus is “one of the rulers”;9 the same story in chapter nine of the gospel of Matthew, where the reference to the synagogue is dropped, functions as part of a sequence designed to make clear the legalism of the Pharisees, the vacuity of the disciples of John the Baptist, and the messianic legitimacy of Jesus: “And when Jesus departed thence, two blind men followed him, crying, and saying, Thou son of David, have mercy on us.”10

But I would like instead to conclude by turning to a more reflexive text. I would like to recite for you a short poem which belongs, I think, to that literary—or rather, pre-literary—genre of which I spoke at the beginning of this paper: the góos, or song of mourning. The poem, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, is entitled “Spring and Fall: to a young child.”11

Like other songs of this genre, it exercises a powerful goeteia, or magic; and like them, it effectively raises a spirit, or ghost, which is made to speak to us, and which speaks the truth. But certain displacements have occurred. The poem is quite explicitly a scene of instruction, of instruction in interpretation, and of induction into what may be the most intimate meaning of grief.

Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 
And yet you wíll weep and know why. 
Now no matter, child, the name: 
Sórrow's spríngs áre the same. 
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed: 
It ís the blight man was born for, 
It is Margaret you mourn for.

“Spring and Fall”: the addressee is a child, who in the spring of her years naively mourns the leaves stripped from the evocatively named Goldengrove—and discovers, in that autumnal wastage, the springs of sorrow. Her heart has heard, her 'ghost' guessed, a truth unexpressed by mouth or mind; the ghost of the living child has intuited a meaning—indeed, a principle of interpretation—that is at once banal, profound, and unavoidably our own.

For it is also our own ghost, our own tremulous subjectivity, or a guest within that self, that this poem in its deceptively simple manner has raised.

What that ghost or guest guesses at is a truth we have always preferred to suppress.




1  Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, ed. A. R. Humphreys (Arden Shakespeare, 1960; rpt. London: Methuen, 1966), III. i. 50, p. 90.

2  Jacqueline de Romilly, Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), pp. 8, 15.

3  Ibid., p. 3.

4  Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Faust. Der Tragödie, erster und zweiter Teil, ed. Hanns W. Eppelsheimer (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch, 1962), I, line 1531.

5  Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, 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.

6  The Odyssey, Book 11, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (1961; rpt. New York: Anchor Books, 1963), p. 186.

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

8  See 1 Samuel 28: 3-25, and Daniel 5: 1-31.

9  Mark 5: 22; cf. Luke 8: 41.

10  Matthew 9: 27.

11  Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W. H. Gardner, (3rd edition, London: Oxford University Press, 1948), p. 94.