Talking to Ghosts


Yesterday I read about Avery Gordon’s ideas on hauntings, ghosts, the uncanny and wondered about the times I have felt haunted?

There were times years ago when in conjunction with a dream I felt the cold touch of my dead father’s hand on my arm in the corridor in the middle of the night as I walked to the kitchen for a drink.

Sometimes I have wondered about this house itself, which has undergone many lives since it was built in 1905. Years later it was divided into two, two rooming houses. Before then it had been a doctor’s surgery. By the time we bought it, the house was in serious disrepair, especially the two kitchen lean twos in the back section and the two bathrooms and toilets.

Bill found a wedding ring on the floor beneath the mantelpiece when he was renovating what is now our bedroom some twenty years ago. I wear it to this day. At first I felt uneasy wearing a ring that must once have been lost by a stranger. How upset she must have been, I thought. Or relieved to be spared the burden of her marital ring. The latter is less likely. She would have existed pre 1980, maybe even at the turn of the century. It must have saddened her. It must.

Avery Gordon is on about haunting and the sociological imagination and in it she includes a chapter on psychoanalysis. She re-tells the story of Sabina Spielrein who as a young woman in the early 1800s was sent by her parents, to the Burgholzli hospital. She was said to be suffering a serious nervous disorder, elsewhere and later described as schizophrenia. Within a few years it appears she was cured of her illness and was then sent off to see the great Carl Jung and the two it seems fell in love with one another, a common enough story, particularly in the early days of psychoanalysis. These days too if you are to read Esther Helfgott’s account of her more recent analytic experience.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that the relationship between Jung and Spielrein was or was not consummated, it was mutual. Evidence a plenty from letters between the two. Jung called it off because the rumours were flying and Spielrein herself went on to become a psychoanalyst, and her relationship with Jung continued over a number of years. Her story ends badly, with her early death along with her daughters at the hands of the Nazis.

Gordon considers that Spielrein is a ghost hovering over the pages of analytic history. It was Spielrein who first wrote a paper alluding to the death instinct. She developed other ideas, too, that Jung and Freud borrowed. But in the end, despite initial recognition of her achievement, they soon forgot it. Not an uncommon story for those days in the history of women kind. Freud refers to her in one of his letters as the ‘little girl’.

Did I raise the specter of a ghost in my presentation to the VAPP three weeks ago? Did I cause everyone in the room to shudder under the icy chill of death’s wings? Incest, real and imagined, incest familial, professional and historical.

Why can we not find a ‘hospitable place’ in which the ghosts of our ancestors might rest? Or must we continue to blame the messenger, chastise the one who speaks because she dares to speak out against other fixed beliefs.

Revisting past landscapes

We can only approach the past from distance, writes Alice Monro in her book, The View from Castle Rock. She can revisit the area where she was born almost daily if she wants. It is only twenty miles away from where she lives now in Ontario and although the area has changed and the house of her childhood has been pulled down and a car wrecking yard stands in its place, she can still revisit the area if she wants, but she does not. She has no such desire. Perhaps were the house still standing she might.
I think she is right. You can only approach the past from a distance. Only then can you get a broad enough perspective to capture the essence of your experience. I look back on my own childhood and my memory looks different from what I see today when I drive along Canterbury Road and up Wentworth Avenue.
I was five when we first lived in the house at 2 Wentworth Avenue in Canterbury. The house still stands, though seriously renovated, the back gutted to make way for a clean open living area and an elevated study that looks out onto a small neat garden. They have sacrificed some of the old back yard for rooms inside. I know this because a number of years ago the house came up for sale and one of my brothers and one of my sisters and I went to have a look when it was open for inspection. As we came in through the side front door, the whole place looked so different, no longer the worn carpet, no longer the dark stained wood paneled doors. The distance between the front door and the hallway and first line of bedrooms had shrunk so much I needed only a few footsteps to cross it. We used to pay marbles in that stretch of ground and the piano stood in the corner there pressed against the wall with plenty of room for the stool and a person playing the piano, room enough for people to walk up and down behind. But now the hallway too has shrunk into a narrow corridor that is no longer dark. A skylight in the ceiling sends a shaft of light that converts the hallway, changing it from a long and tedious stretch of land that I had to cross daily, many times to get from my bedroom past the lounge room into the kitchen and from there out to the back yard, into a small enough area to conquer in two or three steps.
I know this is the price we pay for growing up: that all the vast spaces of our childhood shrink to a fraction of their original size. I wish it were not so. I wish that my memories, at least the ones that relate to space and distance could be met today as they were then. But that is not to be and, although I say I wished it were so, I’m not so sure of that on further reflection. On further reflection, I revel in the surprise and sense of discovery I have when I revisit a landscape from my childhood and compare its dimensions now with those from the past.

Here’s a picture from Google Earth of my old home.


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