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Ordering memories.

It is hardly fortuitous that the origin of the art of memory should be marked by a case of untimely death, coming though as a strike of fate, a fact upon which I intend to rely to launch my study. I here refer to an anecdote contained in Cicero's De oratore that indicates the poet Simonides of Ceos as being the inventor of such art (Yates 1999: 3). According to the mentioned source, the originating circumstances are the following: during a banquet where he had been invited to chant in honor of his host, Simonides was told at a certain moment that two men were waiting for him outside, men whose intriguing identity, probably indicative of divine intervention (an assumption supported by the fact that Simonides had included in his chant a passage in praise of the gods Castor and Pollux, to the dissatisfaction of Scopas, his host), would not be ultimately disclosed. During his absence, the roof collapsed and those present were instantly killed. The mingled corpses could not have been identified had it not been for the poet's accurate memory. He had formed a faithful mental image of the event and was therefore able to remember the exact places where each guest had sat at the table.

This account reveals not only that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory, fact confirmed by subsequent mnemonic practices, such as palaces of memory, but it also emphasizes the ritualistic and social role of memory in establishing another kind of order, namely guaranteeing a proper mourning, a decent respect paid to the dead and hence the anxiety at the possibility of not being able to comply with the requirements of burial.

Furthermore, the fact that a poet was the revealer of such knowledge is somehow illustrative of a venerable association between memory and imagination, between fact and fiction; this is supported scientifically by locating the corresponding common areas of brain activity occurring during the two processes: "frontal and medial temporal-parietal lobe systems that are traditionally linked to planning and episodic memory" (Buckner 2007: 49). However, more recent investigations challenge this association, identifying through multivariate analyses distinct patterns of activity within the hippocampus, which correspond to the two cognitive processes (Kirwan et al 2014: 177). Either way, a common neural locus is invested with intertwining energies of past and future projections.

Moreover, this originating anecdote might suggest that the need of ordering memories addresses both aesthetic and ethical concerns, expressed through a sense of harmony and retribution/ redemption, operating on a personal as well as on a social level. These aspects can be graphically illustrated in the works of Shakespeare and Poe through the figure of the ghost, a simultaneous presence and absence shifting in time "from narrative device to spectrality as literary trope and a critical tool" (Berthin 2010: 1), rendering the uncanny textuality in quests of ever-deferring signification, a shift that was particularly favored by the Gothic tradition. To further rely on its instrumentality, I posit that this recurrent image of the ghost as mnemonic legislator connects Shakespeare's and Poe's works as it pervades memory's algorithm of pending deaths, unfolding from hypothesis, throughout demonstration to resolution, without quite reaching a full circle. And this is precisely the trajectory that I will pursue throughout my paper.

The ghost of Hamlet past

At the level of hypothesis, there are two aspects that require--and indeed have been granted--a more thorough examination, namely the question of the ghost's reliability and that of a share ability manifested between two worlds, which extend beyond the textual towards the space of critical reception, as we are addressing this matter to two authors with an affinity and intuition towards popular taste for sensationalism, while managing somehow to preserve the subtlety of expression and representation, and thus complying with the requisites of an eclectic readership.

And it is partially this increasing thirst for sensationalism that keeps the figure of the ghost quite vivid and believable, lingering invariably of the shaking religious grounds, although submitted to Catholic versus Protestant opposing views on the Purgatory.

However "ghosts are no longer a question of belief" (Berthin 2010: 1) challenging our reluctance towards the supernatural, but rather disruptors of a conventional notion of reality, as constructed along subjective and objective intertwining lines of residual thought. As such, they are said to enter a metatextual discourse articulated around the uncanny nature of language. Surpassing the level of mere signs of superstition, they have been rehabilitated as objects of research within the area of hauntology (Derrida 1994: 10), a field for the study of a particular kind of indefinite entities that unsettle the boundaries between past and present, between presence and absence. A particularly interesting terminological distinction that Derrida makes is that between specter or revenant and spirit, the former being a "paradoxical incorporation, the becoming body, a certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit" (Derrida 1994: 5). We shall return to this distinction at a more opportune stage of our argument.

Initially integrated within a religious discourse as some sort of purgatorial entities, the reliability of Hamlet's ghost, and for what is worth of the Shakespearean ghost in general, has been subsumed to the objective versus subjective opposition, a debate more heatedly approached during the Enlightenment in favor of them being either "figments or realities," "projections of disturbed or guilty minds," only to acquire flesh and blood, and therefore an autonomous status, in the 19th century. (Davies 2007: 218)

Tightly connected to the ghost's believability, the importance of exploring the hauntological realm has also been formulated in ethical terms, as a matter of transgenerational undercurrent and duty of preservation:

Attending to the ghost is an ethical injunction insofar as it occupies the place of the Levinasian Other: a wholly irrecuperable intrusion in our world, which is not comprehensible within our available intellectual frameworks, but whose otherness we are responsible for preserving. (Davis 2005: 373)

Shakespeare is said to have "invested the vengeful ghost with a new dignity and endowed it with a new purpose," in other words to have vectoralized it somehow, to have assigned an orienting status, exerted upon a successor. "It is the depth and resonance of the ghost scenes in Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar which ensured their enduring appeal to audiences of all tastes and social levels." (Berthin 2010: 1) Nonetheless, prior to this contemplation of vengeful enterprises that tears him between word and action, Hamlet's initial torment derives from "continued doubts about the precise nature of the Ghost and hence about the trustworthiness of the Ghost's account of the murder in the garden" (Greenblatt 2013: 220). This situation engages him in a detective-like search for truth, meant to dismiss the possibility that the apparition might actually be a demon. The enquiry is performed also by Horatio through what Greenblatt perceives as a "version of the questions asked in the discretiospirituum." (Greenblatt 2013: 210)

The ghost's authority, an authority exerted upon the faculty of memory in the imperative formula "Remember me!," resides in physical resemblance as well as in its ability to communicate its difference in its changed condition, somehow askew (paralepsis) but nevertheless effectively (During 1992: 206). This devious strategy further hollows the internal space of loss and separation, in an echoing effect, resounding the untold-though-hinted-at: "I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word/ Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes like stars, start from their spheres, Thy knotty and combined locks to part,/ And each particular hair to stand an end,/ Like quills upon the fretful porpentine: But this eternal blazon must not be/ To ears of flesh and blood." (Shakespeare 2001: 48-49)

The physical resemblance extends over an even more surfacing and shallow materiality, actually questioning the materiality of the immaterial, in surprisingly trivial details such as clothing. Shakespeare's particular choice of representing Hamlet's ghost in armor has been responded with theories of material mnemonics, of psychometry (a pseudoscience according to which an object is surrounded by an energy field carrying information about its history, something reminding up to a point of Poe's theory of sentience), reaching an interpretation of garment as symbolical indicatives of an effort at recognition through likeness. However, this likeness, as opposed to actual identity, rather than acting as a form of confirmation, leads to a doubling of the self, then and now: "What they are seeing is not physical reality, however lifelike the resemblance: instead, as their responses suggest, the apparition on the battlements is a kind of embodied memory" (Greenblatt 2013: 212). Lastly, the helmeted appearance offers the ghost the advantage of unilateral vision, more precisely, "the power to see without being seen," the so called visor effect. (Derrida 1994: 6)

Such force of the glance is present as well in many of Poe's stories. Such is the case with the eye of the old man in The Tell-Tale Heart, a "pale blue eye with a film over it," which is such a disquieting feature that it awakens murderous instincts or the empty socket of the resentful Black Cat, standing as proof of a perverse outburst of violence. Moreover, one could speak of a visual "dialectic off-lanerie" occurring in The Man of the Crowd: "on one side, the man who feels himself viewed by all and sundry as a true suspect and, on the other side, the man who is utterly indiscoverable, the hidden man" (Benjamin 1999: 420). The anxiety of vision triggers the chase of the chaser, which brings us to another common point between Hamlet and Poe's troubled narrators, namely an inversion that turns the chasing act into a mutual act. Thus, the Ghost both haunts and is haunted, as it requires to be followed, thus marking a temporal break: "Here again what seems to be out front, the future, comes back in advance: from the past, from the back." (Derrida 1994: 10)

A similar anxiety in grasping--or more exactly in not being able to grasp--an all too bodily memory is traceable in Poe's lines, connected as well with crime: "I would not, if I could, here or today, embody a record of my later years of unspeakable misery, and unpardonable crime" (Poe 2004: 195). Thus, Poe's recurrent--and probably one of the most frequent--theme of the Doppelganger was more explicitly explored in "William Wilson," also associated with a certain anguish experienced towards similarity and self-estrangement. Moreover, it is not at random that this short story is considered to be one of Poe's most autobiographical tales, or at least as autobiographical as its fictional nature allows. Its autobiographical nature, temporarily overlapping the realities of fiction and the "realities of reality," is enhanced by descriptive exercises of memory, performed with the pleasure of unburying architectural details, as the act of recollecting becomes a form of inhabiting, meant "to dwell upon minute recollections" (Poe 2004: 196). The pleasure that such details offer derives from a sense of security and reliability on space and on sensorial stimulus, as the narrator admits "seeking relief [...] in the weakness of a few rambling details." (Poe 2004: 196)

Nonetheless, relying on physical likeness is both comforting and obsessive, as details acquire a haunting quality and serve to trace over a vanishing memory. Thus, the impression of absolute lifelikeness enhances the portrait of the king, as it is constructed on interrogation: "A countenance more in sorrow than in anger," "And fix'd his eyes upon you," "his beard was grizzled" (Shakespeare 2001: 39). This corroborating insistence manifests in intense dialogic descriptions that enhance the tension between showing and telling.

And just as in Poe's "Oval Portrait," representation eventually smothers life, the memory-image of Hamlet will reach a state of rigid idealization that replaces the father for the king, the person for the figure, the institution, the thing, and the actual presence of the living not only loses the associated sense of longing but becomes irrelevant, blurred by a sense of helplessness toward death.

On the other hand, this questionable reliability is a condition tightly shared by perceiver and perceived and the resulting tension is precisely what triggers and stimulates the mechanisms of terror in Poe's Tales. As pointed out in "Berenice," "memory was replete with horror--horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity" (Poe 2004: 219). Doubt in horror hinders the possibility of enunciation due to an incomplete assimilation of reality and bounds it to a haunting incantatory repetition. The subjective versus objective opposition aligns Poe to the Romantic tradition, while bringing forth its specific treatment of Gothic topics. The particular experience acquires a universal force of expression: "The true wretchedness, indeed--the ultimate woe--is particular, not diffuse.

That the ghastly extremes of agony are endured by man the unit, and never by man the mass--for this let us thank a merciful God!" (Poe 2004: 327)

As for the communicability of the ghostly condition, it enters a game of realities and appearances in tales such as Poe's Mesmeric Revelation, the reliability of the otherworldly witness being supported by a disruption of material rhythms. Thus, the sudden decay, or rather sternness, of matter indicates a deceptive physicality, sustained by a hypnotic utterance from beyond: "no sooner had I done this, than, with a bright smile irradiating all his features, he fell back upon his pillow and expired. I noticed that in less than a minute afterwards his corpse had all the stern rigidity of stone. His brow was of the coldness of ice" (Poe 2004: 635). The sudden break between body and spirit is marked by a singular alarming expression. It is a case of death after death, should we understand the former as metaphysical experience and the latter as ceasing of vital functions, a succession supported by dialogic energies, forcing the shareability of the utmost intimate experience.

Pending death

Under the same succession of terms, in Hamlet's case, death can be said to occur before death (a reversal of the previous situation), but this more acceptable persistence of the spiritual, or for what is worth of memory, over the material is questioned by a return from the grave, which acts as a reminder of unfinished affairs. The rupture between physical and spiritual existence occurs in the Shakespearean ghost who does not reflect the decaying physical traces of death and cannot animate a rotten body, but borrows a previous physical appearance. The boundaries between the material and the spiritual are thus severed, the opposition turning into a matter of gradation, of level of existence, in which memory ensures a coherent, because linking, inbetweenness. This gradation can be said to compensate for the untimeliness of murder.

The supposed succession between demonstration (of murder, or for what is worth of transgression) and resolution proves highly problematic. Initially dealing with what can be qualified as "purposeful ghosts" orienting towards a particular redemptive result, there is a shift of focus from solution to understanding, and furthermore to gratuitous contemplation, something that reminds of Keats' so-called "negative capability," attributed to the Bard, and suspends the actions of the haunted ones in tense contemplative loops.

Considering the perception of ghosts as Ur-police, the violent search of justice is tempered by exercises of the analytical mind, moving from the register of exactitude and fact to that of a partial truth, balancing along the thin line between life and death. On doubtful grounds, Hamlet proceeds to an investigation consisting in a fictional reenactment of the crime, which would demonstrate not only the truth of the enunciation (the murder) but that of the enunciator (the ghost) as well. Poe's narrative technique consists in explaining yet not exhausting, that is completely clarifying, the supernatural, a technique that can be traced back to the beginnings of the Gothic genre, with the case of Ann Radcliffe. As far as his detective fiction is concerned, memory unfolds retroactively in a linear yet not so obvious trajectory, thus stretching the causal chain past (that shared sense of) obviousness, in a demonstration of silent observations. We are not certain whether the demonstration is retrospective or anticipatory. Or, could it be both?

However, traumatic memory is said to disrupt the causal chain. Contradictorily, Hamlet's devotion to his father's memory begins in forgetting, which disrupts the relation between past and future: "the Ghost's words initiate in Hamlet a fantasy of the annihilation and reformation of the self through forgetting and the subsequent inscription of a memory trace" (Sullivan 2005: 13). The newly acquired knowledge cannot be aligned to previous knowledge and therefore must proceed to erasure and a dramatic shift of relevance that no longer allows trivial details to hinder a higher purpose:

"[R]emember thee?/ Yea, from the table of my memory,/ I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,/ All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,/ That youth and observation copied there;/ And thy commandment all alone shall live/ Within the book and volume of my brain,/ Unmix'd with baser matter." (Shakespeare 2001: 15)

However, there is a subsequent transformation that returns Hamlet to his old self, one who is not afflicted by mourning and melancholia: "when Yorick's skull replaces the helmeted ghost, then the mature Hamlet has replaced the self-chastising revenger, and a different sense of death's power over life has been created" (Bloom 2005: 4). This is nothing short of "disinterestedness," which we might see as a form of forgiveness, again a rupture, an ahistorical phenomenon. If in the beginning, mourning is an act of memory that quantifies sorrow and also a source of reproachful encounters with his mother, one of the rituals that "have lost touch with the inner human realities they purportedly express," it eventually reaches a point of fading recollection. "The Hamlet of the last act seems to express a Zen-like acceptance of his situation" (Mousley 2007: 40) no longer agonizing in search of a meaning or, rather, more humble in his inability to change the past.

Poe's treatment of the mourning act must be seen in the context of a sentimental American culture, deriving from this condition both pleasure and a sense of responsibility. One could point out an idiosyncratic thematic area, as Poe's representations of death are ambiguous, connected with life, for what is worth to his own life:

Much of Edgar's career, too, may be understood as a form of prolonged mourning, an artistic brooding-on and assemblage of the fantasies activated by an ever-living past. As no product of his imagination would put to right what had gone wrong or restore what he once possessed, he would begin over and over, repeating in new forms, different imagery, and fresh characters and scenes the dilemma which he presented in his new volume as the peculiar condition of his existence. (Silverman 1992: 78)

Furthermore, in Poe's case, supposedly there is no such reparation, no moral redemption. One can at most aspire to compensatory aesthetic reparation. "Poe's aesthetically compelling discourse of trauma skillfully and astutely sidesteps the linguistic unavailability of trauma that would have made any attempt at redeeming its core truth to fall through, and sets his vision, instead, on the power storytelling possesses in redeeming an otherwise inaccessible experience and, implicitly, in creating meaning." (Carstea 2014: 54)

In further exploring the mechanisms of traumatic memory, we are informed by psychoanalitic interpretations of trauma as an event in absentia, delayed into memory and built retroactively with a necessity of materializing fear in order to gain a sense of power/control. This need for a controlling reality leads, in Shakespeare's case, to a paradox of inscription as "the ghost orders Hamlet to remember because memory is, in a circle, what has become problematic, just because it is stored as writing which, in turn, is material and expungeable" (During 1992: 210).

In Poe's case, the materializing process manifests as obsessive objectuality (fetishism: the evil eye, teeth) or in the reflective either flimsy or threatening spatiality in an urge of possession. Possession has a double reference: concrete and demonic. An illustrative example is Ligeia's case, showing how memory has an enlivening function, and that holding to a memory can disrupt the passage from life to death and vice versa, suspending time in the act of mourning, triggering intermittent comebacks in a "hideous drama of revivification" (Poe 2004: 135). The spatial sharpness and the decomposing matter reflect an anxiety towards forgetfulness. The skeletal transparency of material forms becomes haunting as spirits animate matter so as to be remembered, that is to continue to live in spite of death. Revengeful characters such as Madeline Usher resist the rupture and continue to demonize a vulnerable space, suggesting a reality beyond material surfaces. Consistent with a notion of memory as an essential element in the construction of selfhood, forgetfulness is "erosive of identity" (Sullivan 2005: 40). However necessary this erosion, it triggers an anxiety of oblivion, which is nothing but a natural subsiding into the background of life with the passing of time, following an equally necessary but unaccepted pending death. Interestingly enough, to forget oneself means to split body and soul, in a double erotic as well as a thanatic sense.

The act of forgetting as resolution can be submitted as well to an ethical judgement, meant to establish whether or not it is a natural phenomenon. Claudius's discourse goes along the idea of an algorithm of acceptance, integrative of the religious and even educational profile:

"But to persevere/ In obstinate condolement, is a course/ Of impious stubbornness. 'Tis unmanly grief,/ It shows a will most incorrect to Heaven,/A heart unfortified, a mind impatient/ An understanding simple, and unschool'd." (Shakespeare 2001: 34)

But when forgetting is conditioned by forgiving, the situation changes, the need of adjustment to the natural cycles is no longer consistent with a redemptive and tensioned causality, with a reality interfered upon by murderous acts. Caught in a chain of reactions, Hamlet's hesitations and the need of feigning madness as artifice questions the righteousness of the vengeful act. On the other hand, forgiveness would seem to disrupt the cycle of expected reactions. Thus, "in contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which, because of the irreversibility of the action process, can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action." (Arendt 1998: 241)

In Poe's case, one way of representing fear of forgetfulness is through the theme of premature burial, gaining an archetypal force in the short stories and reflecting a contemporary reluctance in medical diagnosis. Poe had pointed out that "to be buried alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality" (Poe 2004: 327). The anxiety insinuates in the intertwining between superstition and fact, manifested on the threshold between life and death.

Thus, the enumeration of apparent facts (cases of premature burials) from a third person perspective is complemented by a more intimate account of fear, from a psychological angle that captures the emotions experienced at the thought of an untimely interment. The "narratives upon this topic," sustained by scientific grounds, yet dependent on the hearer's willingness to believe, are both opposed and supported by the narrator's "own positive and personal experience," thus tracing a dynamics of understanding and experiencing. In the Shakespearian text, this dynamics between word and action is thought to mobilize the entire internal conflict. Moreover, extending it towards the reading space, Ann Radcliffe, a representative of Gothic fiction, would notice in respect to the opening of the Shakespearian play, marked by the appearance of the ghost, an "ability to synchronize its audience's feelings with those of the characters experiencing the supernatural." (Mangham 2010: 12)

Either direct participants, constructed as hybrid characters caught in a karmic cycle of vengeance or sacrifice, or witnesses to experiments performed on an indefinite territory, meant to verify "to what extent, or for how long a period, the encroachments of death might be arrested by the process" (Matus 2009: 345) of mesmerism, the characters become puppets, hanging in a death row, whose roles transcend concrete acts and individual existence and address the need of a higher order, an ethical order surpassing however the strictly conventional sense of the word and rather referring to a natural retributive balance. But, as "traumatic experience is recorded in the brain as 'a reality imprint' or subjected to unconscious fantasmatic reordering" (Matus 2009: 7), the reliability of these witnesses remains questionable.

All in all, the central figure of the ghost connects the two authors along the memory's algorithm of reordering and pending death. The disruptive effect of untimely departure determines conflicts that channel narrative energies in an aesthetic contemplation and psychological adjustment to the most radical transition from life to death, in coping with vengeful instincts, sometimes self-oriented, and anxieties of forgetfulness.


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Tania Peptan, MA; PhD Student, University of Craiova; Craiova, Romania;
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Author:Peptan, Tania
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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