Gavin Hopps, ed. - Byron’s Ghosts: The Spectral, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural. Reviewed by Chris Washington

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - 11:37

Byron’s Ghosts: The Spectral, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural, ed. Gavin Hopps (Liverpool University Press, 2013). 246 pp. (Hdbk., $99.95; ISBN 9781846319709).

Chris Washington
Francis Marion University

There is a spectre haunting Byron studies. And oddly, and paradoxically, enough, as Gavin Hopps claims in his introduction to this volume of essays, this spectre is materialism, which, as Hopps also asserts, has long haunted romanticism itself. Byron’s Ghosts, then, as the collection’s title indicates, attempts to restore attention, contra materialist studies, to the various ghosts, spectres, spirits, and other numinous presence-absences that pervade Byron’s work.

The first essay, Bernard Beatty’s, thoroughly canvases Byron’s oeuvre to track the various ghosts that populate it, giving us a graveyard tour of these literary hobgoblins. Beatty’s essay provides a valuable map (and calculus, since by his reckoning ghosts appear in fifty percent of Byron’s work [33]) even while it makes concrete distinctions the other essays will challenge. He claims, for instance, that, for Byron, ghosts have once been alive whereas spirits have not, hence “ghosts have nothing to do with morality […] they are simply summoned or palpable presences from the realm of death” while “spirit […] imply a moral order that cannot be evaded” (31). Fittingly, perhaps, this initial essay sets up several schematics and schisms that Byron repeatedly explores in his poetry, ghostly demarcations the remainder of the essays will variously interrogate.

Hopps’s focus on the “in-between” in Byron, “the bits of reality that the fabric of language doesn’t quite cover,” serves as a smartly written icebreaker to begin thinking more about the depths of Byron’s commitment to weird ontologies (48). Hopps draws on Derrida’s notion of “hauntology,” what Hopps understands, via Mary-Jane Rubenstein, as the in-betweenness of states of being (although this is not strictly correct; hauntology, in Derrida, refers facetiously to the trace, a (no)thing that precedes being as difference itself and is hence not, precisely, an in-between state of being as such; it has no ontology)(48). Despite this slightly errant formulation, the chapter is a fine one, explicating Byron’s use of liminal figures to suggest how he uses “shades of being”— who are neither here nor there, and, indeed, neither are nor are not—to craft a more coherent metaphysics of transcendence than is usually attributed to Byron (or that is normally dismissed as a Wordsworthian rip-off induced by Percy Shelley’s dousing him unto nausea) (74).

Mary Hurst turns our attention to the demonology at work in Byron’s poetry, focusing on a condition called acedia from Greek and Scholastic theology that was understood as “a noonday demon.” This condition, she explains, helps understand a well-known commonplace of Byron: “he is always intrigued by the indeterminacy between body, mind and spirits, and the condition of acedia is indeterminate in precisely this sense” (87). It is, in other words, the “puzzling mixture of spirt and matter that fascinated Byron,” which she reads in Childe Harold and Manfred evidencing a more spiritually questing Byron than we are accustomed to seeing.

In his essay, Dale Townshend returns to Derrida’s Specters of Marx, frequently invoked in both Hopps’s introduction and essay, to show how Byron’s figuration of the ghostly exceeds the then-dominant sense of the Gothic, to propose that “Byron conserves what, in Derridean terms, is respect for ‘the heterogeneity of the other’” (126). This conservation, he asserts, “open[s] up an ethical alternative in relation to spectres, one that resides in the alterity of the ghost and its defiance of the anthropomorphic, somewhat violent gestures of invocation and exorcism” (126). Townshend’s point, then, is that Byron uses the ghost as a figure for an absolute alterity that demands a radical recalculation of ethics and hospitality “cognate with that of Derrida” (125).

Grouping together the works of such authors as the Marquis de Sade, Benjamin, Lacan, Derrida, and Agamben, Piya Pal-Lapinski nicely theorizes how various forms of violence intersect in Childe Harold IV. In this canto Byron, by turning away from the body as the privileged site of history’s, materialism’s, and nature’s violence, finds, in the ruins of Venice, signs of a spectral violence that can potentially evade recourse to material violence. On Pal-Lipinski’s account, Byron never totally resolves this dilemma of the spectre’s backwards fall into violence, but the anguish she discovers in Byron as a result of this inability to avoid “generat[ing] a more shattering violence” may, perhaps (although it is not altogether clear how this would play out), lead to an unconditional Derridean forgiveness untied to Christian redemption orthodoxy (143). 

Two other essays in the collection, like Hurst’s, examine spirits as they relate to religion, as seen in Philip Shaw’s reading of Childe Harold and Don Juan and Alison Milbank’s reading of religion in Byron alongside the work of Ann Radcliffe. Although these approaches are different, and carry different conclusions, both note that typical readings of skepticism as motivating Byron’s work fall far short of a full accounting of his religious thinking. Shaw, for instance, accepts Byron’s skeptical moorings, but finds them to be the launch pad for an opening toward the hauntings of religious faith. Milbank’s essay connects back to earlier essays in the volume to continue thinking a middle ground, between absence and presence, life and death, the real and the spectre, to illuminate a supernatural belief in Byron, especially in Don Juan, tarrying somewhere between idealism and materialism.

The final two essays pair well, as well, both featuring ingenious, superbly helpful explications of key moments in Byron. For Peter W. Graham, this concerns the Black Friar haunting that closes the now-final fragment of Don Juan, in which Byron blurs the Gothic with the comedy of manners to slyly hoodwink the reader as to what is real and what is not in Juan’s encounter with the friar. What this reading discloses is a subtle eroticism wrought by uncertainty that upends the conventions of both genres to “tease readers from beyond the grave” (185). Corin Thorsby’s essay also takes up the idea of Byron teasing his readers, this time via flirtation, which Byron undertakes “through a process of disclosure and veiling” that gives “readers enough of a glimpse to excite their curiosity, but left enough gaps to enable them to interpret ‘Byron’ in whatever way they pleased” (203). She tracks this flirtatious apparitioning in the unlikely form of The Giaour, a poem famous for its gaps, though not obviously the flirtatious ones Thorsby admirably adduces as “draw[ing] attention to the spectral presence of the poet behind them” (206).

Easily the slightest, and arguably unnecessary, piece in the volume, Peter Allender’s afterword, “Blowing on a Dead Man’s Embers,” surveys various new biographies of Byron, which he dismisses, particularly those by women (although justifiably in the case of Benita Eisler’s scurrilous Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame [1999]), with the exception of Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire, which is, in any event, not a conventional biography. He does however approve of Stephen Minta’s On a Voiceless Shore (1998) and David Roessel’s In Byron’s Shadow (2001), both of whom supposedly sympathetically understand their subject whereas the others do not.

Though the final essay’s inclusion is questionable—it is, after all, tough to see how it is meant to function as an afterword—and there is no essay devoted to Byron’s letters (which remain a fascinating read and could use some good ghost-hunting), Byron’s Ghosts nonetheless makes a crucial contribution to Byron studies by moving him beyond materialistic concerns understood sensu stricto. In fact, in its multidirectional exploration of Byron’s spectres, the volume speaks beyond Byron studies proper to many contemporary debates about materiality, affect, realism, and life. Within Byron studies the volume helpfully moves accounts of Byron beyond a focus on a narrow but often-cited skepticism. Indeed, the collection demonstrates that, like the spooky agents of The X-Files, Byron wants to believe.