The Sound Mirror

My review of The Sound Mirror by Heidi James. The Irish Times, 4 September 2020, p. 13:

The Sound Mirror starts on such a high note that one wonders how the author will ever manage to sustain it. After an opening sentence such as “She is going to kill her mother today” — with its nod to Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Ann Quin’s Berg — the only way is down, surely. Against all the odds, Heidi James rises to the challenge, parlaying this expository gambit into an exhilarating, heart-rending work that is full of surprises. The main motif, crudely put, is the past in the present; the collective in the individual. It is introduced in the first chapter and reprised in the last, but what may have come across as theoretical is now so emotionally charged that the words resonate in the pit of your stomach, bringing tears — of joy as well as sorrow — to this reader’s eyes. Quite an achievement.

The pre-emptive incipit notwithstanding, James is a mistress of suspense. Chapters alternate between the three women — Claire, Tamara, and Ada — whose destinies are limned from the second World War to the present day. It is not giving too much away to reveal that Claire and Tamara are related, although this is only established at a late stage — a few pages, in fact, after we finally discover how Ada’s life intersects with the other narrative strands. The first clue that Claire and Ada’s paths are about to cross — a dead horse blocking the road (possibly evocative of Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin) — is so unobtrusive that it could easily be overlooked.

Time is out of joint in this hauntological saga, and not only because of the parallel lives and abrupt flashbacks. Tamara’s mission — as the last female in her family line — is to erase the past after cancelling the future. The chapters devoted to this character are narrated by a Greek-style chorus composed of all her female ancestors. “What we are,” they declaim, referring to a long history of hurt, both endured and inflicted, “is the story she is made of”. Tamara’s tinnitus, like the trauma encoded in her DNA, is but a manifestation of this collective voice: “The body remembers what the conscious mind will not”.

James’s fourth novel is dotted with references to mythology and tragedy: it is the chronicle of a death foretold, free will is locked in battle with fate; Persephone crops up twice, not to mention matricide and incest (already contained in the Nabokovian name Ada). The most striking feature, however, is the figure of Tamara as conduit: “She’s a recording, a medium the past speaks through”. This condition is usually associated with oracles, rhapsodes, or Aeolian harps, not the head of communications for a high-street bank, hence the giddy feeling that one is reading a contemporary feminist novel composed by Sophocles’ sister.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the realm of poetry can only be accessed through the madness of the Muses. The “family sickness” Tamara has inherited “like a tarnished heirloom” is also a form of madness — that of generations of women “trapped and raging and muzzled like beasts”, their horizons “snipped small”. One of her ancestors describes it as just a kind of “second sight” but the boundaries between past, present and future are now “leaking and mixing and contaminating” at an alarming rate (mimicking the convergence between the three plot lines). The disease turns out to be degenerative: “She is a translation. A bad one. The code has been perverted. It will, having been replicated too many times”.

Language — at the heart of the tension between atavism and “unbelonging” — is another code that has been corrupted by overuse. Claire, who justifies her venomous tongue by claiming to speak as she finds, only happens upon hackneyed phrases as clapped out as her husband’s nag. Like Tamara, she is ventriloquised. Her cockney patois (that remains just on the right side of Dick Van Dyke) will prompt her daughter to belittle her own offspring for dropping her aitches. Racist shopkeepers pretend that they cannot understand Ada because she was born in Calcutta, recalling Claire’s father’s attempts to eradicate all traces of their “eyetie” origins.

Language is also a means of reinvention. A posh word like “marvellous” fills Claire’s mouth “like a sweet heavy cream”. Throughout their lives, all three women try out different versions of themselves, but are borne back ceaselessly into the traumas of the past. James should be commended for not writing the pain away. The pathetic fallacy Tamara expects, following the climactic event, fails to materialise: “There’s no magical sign from the universe. No portent, no natural phenomenon she can misread”.

This defamiliarised family saga ends with a ray of sunshine: in spite of everything, love can be found between “what was and what will be”. We are “stories in transmission” — and the saga goes on.



We Were So Turned On

Hochreiter, Susanne. “‘We Were So Turned On’: Reflections on Queer(ing) Past and Memory.” Sexual Culture in Germany in the 1970s: A Golden Age for Queers?, edited by Janin Afken and Benedikt Wolf, Macmillan Palgrave, 2019, p. 48:

The ghosts that we hear represent what Jacques Derrida referred to as ‘hauntology’ in his Specters of Marx: The term refers to the situation of temporal, historical and ontological disjunction in which the apparent presence of being is replaced by an absent or deferred non-origin, represented by ‘the the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive’, as Andrew Gallix puts it (Gallix, 2011). . . . Many or even ‘all forms of representation are ghostly’ as Andrew Gallix puts it in his article: ‘Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escpes representation’ (Gallix, 2011).

[PS I’m afraid the first quote is actually me quoting Colin Davis.]

Life on Marx

Ashford, James. “What is Hauntology?” The Week, 31 October 2019:

[…] And away from politics, “at its most basic level, it ties in with the popularity of faux-vintage photography, abandoned spaces and TV series like Life on Mars”, said writer and academic Andrew Gallix in The Guardian in 2011.

“When you come to think of it, all forms of representation are ghostly,” he added. “Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation.”

Hauntology Under the Volcano

La Mont III, Alfredo. “Sin maquillaje” Excelsior, 25 December 2017.

. . . Sí, y el filósofo Jacques Derrida acuñó el término hauntología en 1993 para describir la nostalgia de un futuro imposible: un posible futuro que desde entonces ha sido superado por los acontecimientos de la realidad. Una especie de ensueño “qué pasa si…”, es también un juego de palabras sobre el término filosófico ontológico o el estudio de la naturaleza del ser.

“La hauntología es probablemente la primera tendencia importante en teoría crítica que floreció en línea”, escribe Andrew Gallix, en The Guardian. “Hoy, la hauntología inspira muchos campos de investigación, desde las artes visuales a la filosofía a través de la música electrónica, la política, la ficción y la crítica literaria. En su nivel más básico, se relaciona con la popularidad de la fotografía de faux vintage, espacios abandonados y series de televisión como Life on Mars”.

Haunting Hauntology

Frances King, Georgia and Paul Smalera. “Nostalgia is the Ultimate Privilege.” Quartzy, 17 December 2017 2017:

Philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term Hauntology in 1993 to describe nostalgia for an impossible future — a possible future that has since been overtaken by the events of reality. A sort of “what if” reverie, it is also a wordplay on the philosophical term ontology, or the study of the nature of being.

Hauntology is probably the first major trend in critical theory to have flourished online,” Andrew Gallix writes in the Guardian. “Today, hauntology inspires many fields of investigation, from the visual arts to philosophy through electronic music, politics, fiction and literary criticism. At its most basic level, it ties in with the popularity of faux-vintage photography, abandoned spaces and TV series like Life on Mars.”

All Representation is Ghostly

Walley, Joanne ‘Bob’ and Lee Miller. “The Hauntologies of Clinical and Artistic Practice.” Risk and Regulation at the Interface of Medicine and the Arts: Dangerous Currents, edited by Alan Bleakley, Larry Lynch and Greg Whelan, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, pp. 101-102:

And while it [hauntology] absolutely applies to the digital, the dispersed, the postmodern, it might also be indicative of all arts practice. As Andrew Gallix observes:

[w]hen you come to think of it, all forms of representation are ghostly. Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation. See, for instance, Borges’s longing to capture in verse the “other tiger, that which is not in verse”. Or Maurice Blanchot, who outlines what could be described as a hauntological take on literature as “the eternal torment of our language, when its longing turns back toward what it always misses”. Julian Wolfrey argues in Victorian Hauntings (2002) that “to tell a story is always to invoke ghosts, to open a space through which something other returns” so that “all stories are, more or less, ghost stories” and all fiction is, more or less, hauntological (Gallix, 2011: UP).

A Ghostly Presence-Absence

Aaron John Gulyas, The Chaos Conundrum: Essays on UFOs, Ghosts & Other High Strangeness in Our Non-Rational & Atemporal World (Redstar Books, 2013): 13-14

From Chapter One, “Ghosts”:

Not ghosts in the paranormal, “haunted house” sense. Rather, ghosts and hauntings in the sense meant by Jacques Derrida. In his 1993 book Specters of Marx, he discussed the notion that Marxist ideas would haunt the world long afyer the philosophy’s “moment” had passed. Today, the term “hauntology” connotes a more general sense of atemporality — past and present overlapping in art, music, and architecture. A great example is the music of Belbury Poly, which sounds like nothing if not the lost soundtrack to every 1970s Doctor Who episode.

Writers and futurists like Warren Ellis and James Bridle, along with designers such as Russell Davies, have identified atemporality with the emerging digital culture in cities. On this point, writing on the Guardian website in June 2011, Andrew Gallix discussed the connection between hauntology, cities and the digital: “Smartphones, for instance, encourage us never to fully commit to the here and now, fostering a ghostly presence-absence.”

Literary Hauntology

Lars Iyer, “Outside Literature: The Lars Iyer Interview,” interview by Tim Smyth, The Quarterly Conversation 31 4 March 2013

In Vila-Matas, we find a humorous recapitulation of Blanchot’s sense that a certain way of literary writing is at an end, and that a new kind of writing, one which registers this end in some way, is beginning. Andrew Gallix has much of interest to say on the topic of the various “ends” of literature that have occurred.[2] In one sense, I want to say that literature is always ending! The end is eternal. It will go on forever. There can be no “apocalypse” of literature. And for that reason, there will always be more hot tubs, more lists, more distractions! But I also want to insist on the specificity, on the singularity of this end . . . I believe in it . . .

Let me risk pretension by putting as follows. Historically, any simple avant-gardist idea of a new literary practice necessarily reconsolidates the traditional institution of literature that it claims to critique. A literary practice that is ostensibly “outside” literature posits an “inside” of literature. By disobeying the police who maintain the borders of literature, they simultaneously confirm the role of those police; avant-garde practices depend on them. But what happens when the police leave their posts? What happens when no-one mans the border — when the sanctity of literature becomes a matter of indifference? There can no longer be an “outlaw” avant-gardism, because there is no law to transgress. But nor is there a literature self-certain enough, secure enough, to arrest, domesticate or tame its “outside.” The authority of literature has vanished. The house of literature is deserted. Granted, that house is haunted. There are such things as literary ghosts, even a literary “hauntology,” as Gallix calls it.

Ruins in Reverse

Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey 1967,” Ruins, Ed. Brian Dillon (MIT Press / Whitechapel Gallery, 2011)

That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is — all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the “romantic ruin” because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.

Future Anterior

Brian Dillon, “Present Future,” Art Review 18 June 2012

[…] ‘The future’, writes Nabokov, ‘is but the obsolete in reverse’.

Isn’t that essentially the would-be paradox that animates a good deal of the future-oriented art of the last decade or two? To the extent, in truth, that it has become a cliché on a par with the popular claim that science-fiction futures are only ever versions of the present in which they are imagined. Contemporary art seems to go further — further back, that is — and assert that the only futures we can conjure today are in fact those that belong to the past: a past in which technology, ideology and avant-garde brio meant that things to come were palpable, vivid, almost present, for much or most of the last century. To speak in terms of tense, the only future that seems to have mattered in the recent past has been the future anterior: what will have been, or more accurately what might have been. […]