‘Ideas are ghostly things, and scholarly writing is a kind of magic’

As a manuscript haunts her, Shahidha Bari muses on Apple and the Bard

November 19, 2015
Daniel Mitchell illustration (19 November 2015)
Source: Daniel Mitchell

Like most serious-minded academics who are only ever persuaded of the truth of a thing by the hard proof of empirical evidence, I wouldn’t say I was the naturally superstitious type. And I certainly wouldn’t dream of pointing an accusatory finger at the troupe of sweetly face-painted skeletons, Spider-Men and Elsas from Frozen that came knocking at my door on Halloween at the end of last month – oh no. But, quite frankly, my laptop has been acting up ever since I tipped a bag of half-eaten Fruit Gums into their little buckets and waved off their crestfallen urchin faces.

If that’s a “trick”, then it’s a pretty mean one, guys, and I’d rather you just kicked the gate or cursed me with a wart or two. It’s not my fault I’ve been so absorbed wrestling with a knotty bit of my book that I’ve barely managed to put the bins out, let alone made time to purchase copious amounts of easily distributable confectionery. Nor have I made much of an effort, I confess, at devoutly remembering the souls of the sundry martyrs, saints and faithfully departed Christians, specified as the appropriate devotional activity for Allhallowtide – that three-day liturgical extravaganza from which our bowdlerised, sugar-fuelled Halloween tradition comes.

’Tis the season to be spooked. ’Tis also, it turns out, the season for academics to trot out festively relevant scholarship, lending some sobriety to the silliness. Radio 3’s nicely playful, night-time arts and ideas programme, Free Thinking, managed to rise to the occasion with a 45-minute special on witches, balancing a rather creaky academic discussion on the history of witch trials from Pendle to Salem with a more exasperated review of the newest piece of Vin Diesel hokum, The Last Witch Hunter, released last month and directed by Breck Eisner – with any luck, it’s not showing at a cinema near you. I missed the film myself, but with my laptop on the blink I did find a spare moment to go and see Justin Kurzel’s excellent and genuinely gruesome new film adaptation of Macbeth. It’s an atmospheric and ferocious rendition of the play, not ploddingly faithful to the original but smart in its innovations (and perhaps most smart in negotiating a neat solution to the perennial problem of how to get “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill” without the indignity of having grown men shuffle across a stage in a bush). It’s a reasonably brave effort too, daring to follow in the line of an intelligent tradition of cinematic Macbeths, not least Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood, which transposes the play to feudal Japan and makes you look askance whenever you’re offered a glass of sake for ever after.

In Kurzel’s version, the witches are more ordinary and downtrodden than the wart-plagued pantomime crones of most productions; they are instead, rightly, cold and glum, hovering on the edges of a bitterly damp Scottish fog, but still eerie and unsettling. Michael Fassbender’s ferocious and maniacal Macbeth is a bloodied, battle-worn and brutalised survivor of war, whose derangement is a manifestation of post-traumatic stress. When Marion Cotillard’s coolly damaged Lady Macbeth accuses him of weakness, being too full of “th’ milk of human kindness”, you remember the peculiar brilliance of that Shakespearean turn of phrase: the idiom so strange and perfect. Duncan’s murder may be “the be-all and the end-all”, as Macbeth muses in his soliloquy building up to the vicious act, but there’s no shaking off the enduring legacy of Shakespeare’s language that still haunts our everyday exchanges.

You don’t have to believe in ghosts to find them everywhere in literature and language. In psychoanalysis particularly, though, the spectre is a powerful figuration of a past that still has purchase on the present. In his 1917 essay, “Mourning and Melancholia”, Freud’s interest is in the afterlife of grief, or the ways in which the dead remain with us. What happens, he asks, to the feelings we have for those whom we have loved? That they can remain, long after the beloved has gone, is a kind of a haunting. Psychoanalysis is, oddly, tasked with the job of theorising something that is there and not there at all. You need not be a card-holding Freudian to believe that there are always some aspects of mental life that are inaccessible to us, the shadow of things unknowable, just at the edges of our understanding. We are spectres even to ourselves, haunted by things we only barely apprehend.

If, at Halloween, scholars are reminded that their job is the sober demystification of illusions, the dispelling of misconceptions, we might also remember our own fraught relationship with knowledge. Ideas themselves are ghostly things, and writing is a kind of haunting, an activity in which we find ourselves troubled and agitated, trying to bring into being things that are incorporeal, elusive and compelling nonetheless. Getting that right is the equivalent to pulling off a kind of magic. Perhaps there is even a sort of witchcraft involved for those of us thinking about the dead and writing to the future.

As for my laptop: the technicians at the Apple store shake their head and tell me it’s as dead as a doornail, but not to worry, because they can upload my data. Apparently you don’t need a Ouija board or even an eye of newt for this. My laptop may have kicked the bucket, but it’s not the be-all and the end-all.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.

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