:: Article

modernist ghosts

By Richard Marshall.

Fiddleblack Annual 1: Apparitional Experience. Fiddleblack 2012.

You notice two things about the condition of modern literature. One is that modernism is doing very badly. The other is that modernism is doing very well. New writers seek new forms and the constraints and objectives of modernism are thought too po-faced or irrelevant and are at best precariously enacted. Modernism, however, is everywhere proclaimed and almost universally accepted as the valid form. John Wisdom once said about something completely different that there were people who thought there was no literature after TS Eliot and others who thought there was none before Derrida and that there was no reason to exclude the possibility that both were right. Perhaps we can see things like this: modernism is best thought of as an uncommited crime, to misquote Adorno. Maturing early, it is a constant anticipation. There’s a kind of crisis in this. Dante reserved the darkest places of hell for those who retained their neutrality in such times. So there’s a need for honest critique, and on the principle that if you can fake that you’ve got it made, we write fiction. There’s something to what Groucho Marx said: ‘Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.’

So here’s what I know. This collection looks like a version of some contemporary modernism to me. A key idea in it is something like occasionalism, an old and largely discredited metaphysical thesis about causality. It’s related to the question of powers. From where do creative and annihilating powers arise? That’s the issue. David Foster Wallace says: ‘any writer’s real motivations are forever occult’ which is like saying that you see more of people once they’ve left, which is truthful but on a cusp of paradox. What is the nature of that ‘occult’ here? ‘Occult’ is being flammable and having legs and yet blocking a fire exit. As though, as Mitch Hedberg rightly points out, if there was a fire you’re not going to run. ‘Occult’ is a certain insane metaphysical assumption that has some credence when looked at from a certain angle,but only from that angle,like someone saying they they haven’t slept for ten days because that would be too long, or the Rodney Dangerfield story: ‘A girl phoned me the other day and said .. ‘Come on over, there’s nobody home.’ I went over. Nobody was home.’ The occult is like this, ignoring the spirit and just sticking to the form and never stopping what isn’t working. And for writers it can be very productive, so long as you’re not wanting to build a bridge or something.

At certain times and for certain writers placing epistemic conditions on all causality and powers is a submerged trope. Call this the epistemic causality thesis. So what is it again? Everything causal is constrained by knowledge. If something causes something to happen or to come into existence then the causal agent – even brute stuff like chairs, tables, atoms – must know how they bring about their effects. And of course this seems like a crazy thesis, mixing epistemology with metaphysics and running into category mistakes all over the place. But nevertheless, in fiction, writers experiment. They make things up. So they make up their metaphysics too and they make up their epistemology in order to discover something that we can’t grasp outside of this process. It’s what the imagination is for, dummies, to run our thought experiments off-line, as it were. When done well, like all make-believe and all fiction, we can believe it for a time. Or not disbelieve it anyway. Or not care about whether we believe or don’t believe at any rate.

There’s a kind of story that is about the relationship between hopes and actuality. Reality is inevitably, and tragically, the boss, relentless and remorselessly impervious to the dreams of its inhabitants. We hope for autonomy, agency, but fear it’s just the drink talking post hoc most of time. ‘When you say my name, you retain nothing of me but my absence. And nobody is present behind these words I speak’ says Emilie in the Andrew Gallix short story ‘Fifty Shades of Grey Matter.’ The story presents a doomed lover contemplating his lost love. The materiality, the bodily anxiety presses in against the frenetic, desperate and seething mind of the protagonist and throughout there’s a need to try and combine the two – the mind and the body – to understand the relationship in some way. The story is implacable and granite strong in this. The violence of physical action, the dangerous crime that bodies seem to presuppose in the narrative, carries ‘the mute reminder of the possibility of impossibility’ symbolized by an insane aside about anal rape. What kind of dark matter is being imagined in this? The subject is Occasionalism, the question of powers and causality.

Occasionalism is not just a seventeenth century Cartesian issue. Certain radical Muslim theologians had it way before Descartes. Leibniz points out it solves body- body issues of causation as well as mind-body ones, mind – mind ones and the distribution of Divine grace. There are degrees of it and different types. It came about when Aristotelianism was rejected. Theodicy is an issue it’s intimate with i.e. the old question of how is there evil if a benign God is omnipotent and omniscient. It began, perhaps, with a skepticism about causation. Nicolas of Autrecourt in the 14th century through to David Hume of the eighteenth had doubts that we could ever justify establishing causal necessity in nature. This is not the same as outright rejection of the metaphysical fact of causation, but just says that whatever the actual case about necessary laws of causation is, we can’t know it. Muslim theologians in the eleventh century attacked necessary causes in Aristotle. Nicholas of Autrecourt, Malebranche and Hume only rejected epistemological causation and left the metaphysical thesis about causation alone. Malebranche didn’t, however, and he rejected metaphysical causation as well, on the grounds that if we couldn’t know them, why assume they’re there? Steven Nadler, an expert on this subject, thinks he goes too far.

Nadler looks at Malebranche’s argument for denying metaphysical causal efficacy in natural things. One argument he has is that if God sustains everything then there is no room for finite causal activity. He also says that ‘a true cause as I understand it is one such that the mind perceives a necessary connection between it and its effects.’ But he says there aren’t any. He also argues that given that finite stuff is made of inert and passive extended material there can’t be any causal powers in them. If there were then material wouldn’t be inert and passive.

This statement also seems to suggest that to be causal the power has to know how to bring about the effect. Causality then has this epistemic side to it. Given that material stuff is incapable of knowing, causality is ruled out of any domain with just material stuff. And people too. Most of us are ignorant about the causes of even ordinary effects like moving limbs. Jugglers and peasants can do it but need no knowledge of how. ‘Can one do, can one even will what one does not know how to do? Can one will that the animal spirits expand in certain muscles, without knowing whether one has such spirits and muscles? One can will to move the fingers, because one sees and one knows that one has them. But can one will to impel spirits that one does not see, and of which one has no knowledge? Can one move them into muscles equally unknown, by means of nerve channels equally invisible; and can one choose promptly and without fail that which corresponds to the finger that one wants to move.’ There is always too much information required.

If knowledge is required for causality then this ignorance shows that something else, an infinite Spirit or Soul, presumably God, must be causing the limbs to move ‘… because in order to move.., an infinite number of communications must take place.’ Because the will is blind, it can ‘proceed only towards things the understanding represents to it.’ What the mind can’t know, it can’t will, ‘hence cannot cause’ as Nadler says with pith. In a Cartesian modernist Samuel Beckett we see sustained presentations of bodily, material agents in motion and then suspended. Like Malebranche, the concern seems at first to be not about general causality but only that which touches on volitional and conscious agency.

Malebranche says, ‘ I deny that my will is the true cause of my arm’s movement, of my mind’s ideas, and of other things accompanying my volitions, for I see no relation whatever between such different things. I even see clearly that there can be no relation between the volition I have to move my arm and the agitation of the animal spirits, i.e. of certain tiny bodies whose motion and figure I do not know and which choose certain nerve canals from a million others I do not know in order to cause in me the motion I desire through an infinity of movements I do not desire. I deny that my will produces my ideas for me , for I do not see even how they could produce them, because my will, which is unable to act or will without knowledge, presupposes my ideas and does not produce them.’

Arnold Geulincx also thinks ‘It is impossible for someone to bring about something if they do not know how it is to be brought about… You are not the cause of that which you do not know what you do.’ And he broadens out this principle beyond just intelligent, conscious agency. ‘Fire, the sun and rocks are all only brute things, which I know to be without sensation, devoid of consciousness … they are totally ignorant of how to produce such effects, and in general they have no knowledge of any sort.’ Nadler tentatively suggests that both Geulincx and Malebranche are arguing that all, not just human or intelligent, causation requires the epistemic condition.

Why might this seem likely to them, especially given the Cartesian separation of body and mind? Why extend epistemic constraints on causality from minds to brute bodies when Cartesianism gives a picture that radically separates them? Nadler considers a residual Aristotelianism as the reason. Brute matter derives activity from constitutive immaterial forms. A body falls as a result of seeking its natural place. The ‘forms act like intelligent causes.’ This is Aristotelian teleological nature, something modern physics has now ruled out. But Nadler finds this a bit too tentative. He thinks there may be another reason why Malebranche and Geulincx found the thesis of epistemic causality attractive and plausible.

Anti-Aristotelian medieval traditions deny willpower in inanimate objects. Islamic scholars such as al-Ghazali, a ‘one-time fellow traveler of the Asherite school of Mutakallimum’ denied the possibility of necessary connections between any natural objects. The Mutakallimum were arguing against necessitarian ideas of Aristotlelians such as Avicenna. God was the only true agent, so it followed, contra the Aristotelians, that God was the sole cause of natural events. To the Mutakallimum, causation was an act of creation and annihilation of atoms and their accidents. Only God and human souls have this capacity to create and annihilate. So this is an ancestor of the idea that all causality requires knowledge. Al Ghazali argued against Avicenna that there was any distinction between natural causation and voluntary action. Natural causation, he thought, was only metaphorical.

In Andrea Mantegna art moves from an emotional to an archeological outlook. His art is sculptural, a mesmeric ‘rilievo’, and it makes lyricism a terrific masonry of antiquity and stone. Mantegna makes perspective strange; in a brilliant essay Lawrence Gowing writes of the fresco ‘St James Led to Execution’: ‘In the towering landscapes through which St James was led to martyrdom perspective had the character not of a new logic so much as of a new and violently compelling paradox: the spectator was drawn involuntarily into the fatal system of the picture.’ What is essential in his art is a certain monumentality, a rock-like quality that is a force, brute, physical and carved out in solids. Beckett’s theatre seems like this, with its implacable black and white architectonic anatomies angular and painful, resisting the idyllic in a fibrous toughness. Just as Mantegna’s deep absorbtion in stone is not naturalistic but archaic and formularized into Gothic symbols so are Beckett’s landscapes nothing else but the hard and pitiless expression of a devotion to the ruins of art, and the discovery of death in life. In both Mantegna and Beckett there is a force close to self-annihilation that runs to the sublime for deadly passion. It may be a form of Occasionalism, hence the powerful evocation of the sculptural and the bodily in both.

What they ask is ‘what is the cause?’, ‘where are the powers?’ In the characters of rock, of brute, passive material matter, there is no autonomous agency based on knowledge of how to be creative. And this reflects, I’m claiming here, the disquieting idea, assumed or believed, of the thesis of epistemic causality. Their most merciless martydom holds no promise of reward. What reward can there be if all causality is in the power of some other unknown and unknowable force? If everything, even stone itself, is all under the same condition, the same power, then no individual finite being can bring about anything, can neither create nor annihilate, any more than brutish rocks can.

Gallix’s odd fiction seems also to hold lyricism in a merciless fixed embrace. The facts are stone, as dry as archaism, stratified, absorbed and the utter indifference to the sensual passion of its protagonist is expressed in a language chisselled and polished like marble. Everything is imagined with prodigal allusiveness. It’s as tight as wire, extremes of tragedy, pathos and irony are cut like contours ploughed into copper with a burin. If the effect is a dismembered cruelty, it is a cruelty of the universe, of a cause from somewhere else altogether, somewhere or some agency that knows enough to cause it.

Gallix’s approach is not alone in the Fiddleblack collection. Nor is this conceit I’m pressing – arbitrarily at times, but then making a run of it to see where we might go, for there are others that might be mysteriously pressed into action. The impossibility of causality without knowledge of how to create or annhiliate, well, that has some edge, even if we think it exactly false. But Gallix, to continue using him as a catalyst here, has that line about the ‘possibility of impossibility’, and who cannot unforgive a paradox when we’re telling each other stories about how it isn’t?

So, say, imagine, there are no ghosts in these ghosts stories. But they are all exactly alike. So it is not definitely true that they are ghost stories. Proof that it is definitely true that they are would, contradictorily, make it false that they are ghost stories. This premise leaves us with an idea as primal as quarrels in a womb. All these dizzying stories make that indefinite claim about themselves. They all refuse a type of fullness – I am a ghost story – and do so identically (suppose) and so formed, their identities refuse the usual gorged plenum of truth. There is no malarkey about how to use ‘true’. There is no ambiguity that makes a jot of difference. The stories don’t undermine themselves. Nor do they undermine each other. The object of the collection is not self-defeating. They are stories where saying that they are not fully true only denies another sentence. This issue, as always, is about inference. They are also identically saying that it isn’t definitely true just what they are.

Reading the protean energies of John McManus’s ‘The Gorge’ which runs from ‘the winter of his ninth year when Emmett Gant first touched himself…’ to when, heading east he ‘… didn’t check his phone until the Kentucky line to find his brother was missing, might be dead, and could he come to town to ask Obie Mantooth some questions’ the fizz buckles up weird mangrove excitements – all heat, blood, cut-throats and mad jerking-offs bound in some ethereal and hazy mystic reach for the Badlands – and it’s clear that Emmett Gant’s ghostliness has the same relationship as Proetus to Acrisius, not fully true and so playing with you, like the question at the side of your mouth, swelling like a star of spittle: how long will it take for me to deny that this pair is true. Well, I won’t. I’ll rather just leave it as: it isn’t fully true. To avoid any misunderstandings straight away, that isn’t a fault, it’s more a way of saying what these stories are.

The symmetry of the life and its ghost destabilizes what we think we’re reading, and it comes down to matching the two like they’re twins. The ghost that is more oneself playing the part of an identical twin is where the trouble starts. And by trouble I mean deft fun. Usually the proof of a proposition is sufficient for it to be definitely true. The truth of the ghost stories, and the pairs in them – the absent ghost – which makes it not definitely true that they’re ghost stories – and which makes the living the same, equal, symmetrical, not fully true either – the discovery of a proof – any proof – as in ‘Settler’s Walk’ where the proof is somehow connected with settling, or resting – perhaps in its impressive snatch of images – ‘ storm wind or lightening charred in pieces scattered among the green’ – a fragile play of silhouette and sound even though, of course, these stories lie silent on the page, and as we move through the stories then Emmett Gant and his twin brother, his ghostly past, transformed quickly into Acresius and Proetus become nestled in with relatives in the next story, then the next, each one having relatives that increase the relations between ghosts, well, any proof of the definite truth that they’re ghost stories produces the paradoxical statement that they are not ghost stories. Gallix’s ‘possibility of impossibility’ is secured.

So we can imagine the second story ‘Settler’s Walk’ as not twins but triplets to the first. And the next, ‘A Chocorua Funeral’, quadruplets – this one especially apt because it starts where a ghost story might be expected to begin, with the ominous paradigm: ‘Max returned the day of the funeral.’ So we might feel that here, in the tiny details – ‘just ahead of the rain’, ‘dust colored fur like a blanket that chapped the earth’ and so forth, there’s the impossibility really coming to life. Quadruplets, quintriplets and all of them under the original symmetry principle just as ‘not definitely true’ as the first pair, the twins and Emmett Gant. So if none are true then they are all definitely true, because they’d be described as definitely true by one of the sequence. If there are ghosts and it can’t be and so isn’t definitely true then if that’s false, then it’s proved definitely true. Definite truth implies truth. But it’s not definitely true, so there we have it. A contradiction and so impossibility and a bereft anaclisis. For there is no one else to rely on. Again and again, the ‘possibility of impossibility’ playfully aligned.

In this the ground of the stories’ desolation everywhere spreads out. Jean Buridan’s eighth sophism tempts the ghost stories here. Things get peculiar when we transpose the sophism into a new idiom and stretch things. It immediately has your attention, some of it seems like we are trapped into liar paradoxes and other spandrels. ‘What the writer is saying is false.’ Buridan has an infallible principle. ‘ Any proposition that in conjunction with something true entails something false is itself false.’ Were the stories saying something false then, if true, the negation of them would be true, and that truth would imply a falsehood. We’d be in the layer of contradiction. Yet these stories are of a scale which is a kind of mimicry of scale, small enough to expose the principle and yet large enough to deny it. Our initial twins are symmetrical and don’t trigger the principle because they are not definitely true, so addition of each, and the onwards march through the relatives, is also not definitely true. What this explains is the plaintive strange cruelties and the line ending ‘Home In A Hard Country’ which is ‘ I left as I thought a grown man was supposed to, never looking back.’ Which is a stubby branch and dark bottomed version of Buridan’s eighth sophism as the whole damn story is him looking back and getting angry, unable to claim anything definite in it.

The apparitional appearances are moused slick like hair, jam their hands in deep pockets and come on in images and events that are wired, translucent and inflamed. The sheer nerve of the collection is coiled and solidified. These are a filled up indeterminacy, shimmering in strong flushed up talk-language. They’re working in a different direction to the merely emptying of a plenum, but nevertheless there are connections. This, recall, was the ground of David Foster Wallace’s precise adumbrations in his essay on David Markson’s ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’ from some time ago now. There he writes: ‘Well, first off, its easy to see how radical skepticism — Descartes’s hell & Kate’s vestibule — yields at once omnipotence and moral oppression. If the World is entirely a function of Facts that not only reside in but hail from one’s head, one is just as responsible for that world as is a mother for her child, or herself… what’s less clear & way richer is the peculiar slant ‘omniresponsibility’ takes when the responsible monad in question is historically passive…’ and Wallace’s interest in the passivity of world to mind and mind to world. That’s what his scrutiny presses.

Which cunningly returns us again to the Occasionalist thesis, that of epistemic constraints on all causality. Daniel Roberts begins ‘I didn’t mean to get so pissed off about that, when you laughed at that chick. Truth is I get pissed when people laugh at people that have a stutter…’ and sure, he goes on proposing a cause but there’s no reason ever to believe anyone knows what they’re talking about, or that they are always going to be telling the truth, not in fiction and not in life. And certainly not in Todd Grimson’s ‘I Crash Forever’ where, like in a reprieved Beckett, ‘Pham can see the mouths opening. Mouths, more mouths than evermore.’ But the orgiastic demonstration of writing’s imaginative physique is best in the antiquity of Gallix’s Roman fairy tale of Valentin Vermot, a ghost haunted by ghosts that, abbreviated to an essentialist verbatim, goes: ‘Once upon a time there was a man called Valentin. Valentin Vermot. Just like you. He thought he was haunted by a ghost, but his ex-wife assured him that there was no such thing. ‘There are no ghosts’ she said. ‘There are no ghosts.’ Valentin opened his eyes. He was all alone, but Emilie’s voice was still ringing in his ears. There are no ghosts, there are no ghosts, there are no ghosts, there are no ghosts…’ It all depends where you draw the line and in stories conclusions, sardonic, tragic, perhaps disturbing or graceful never stay clear nor develop in the usual respect. They are ejected by force of will and accurate transcriptions that resist formulaic greyness. They are stories that come on like blinding epiphanies abandoning mendation and accumulating a series of really bad dreams favouring concrete and frantic action or else frozen stochasticism ie randomness. Which is something, when you take the time to think about it, and complicated.

Foster Wallace says something that covers this territory when he objects to authors giving feelings a particular motivation. He would rather have meditations on the relationship of those feelings to language itself which is something that has happened in this Apparitional Experience collection. He also uses a great little phrase worth repeating out loud; ‘the near-Nixonian trickiness of ordinary language itself.’

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 18th, 2013.