Learning to Live with Ghosts

Thinking Through ‘Arco Iris’ by Sarah Vap, Saturnalia (2012), ISBN 9780983368649. $15

I remember once waking up in a town in Guatemala after a night of fitful sleep which had been, on and off, punctuated by automatic gunfire which seemed to come from right outside the window of my hotel. I was assured that it was nothing “political”, but arose out of “a fight about women.” I had a long journey ahead of me that day and I went in search of coffee to get myself going. The hotel’s coffee was almost undrinkable, so I searched out a cup at a little café down the street. It was worse than the hotel’s. I remember getting on a bus in a towering rage, incredulous that here of all places there wasn’t a decent cup of goddamn coffee to be had.

Such, Sarah Vap might say, is an emblem of the common lot of privileged white people like ourselves, traveling on the cheap through “other people’s misery”, and in one of six poems with the title “Travel” the speaker unleashes a tirade against the frustration of her needs:

I need a cup of coffee why’s it so hard to find coffee it’s fucking grown here where’s the fucking coffee. Are you kidding me Nescafe and white powder?—why don’t they drink South American coffee in South America—I’m crying again I have no coffee, twenty hours on a fucking bus and there’s no coffee, wait here’s a café for tourists they must have some fucking coffee—and you have ordered me three tiny sweet coffees!
Now get me some eggs and bread. (p.30)

Coffee, of course, is more than just a drink that gets us going in the morning. It is the second most traded commodity (after crude oil) on the global market, and as a commodity in the strict sense it is an element in the modern global capitalist system which constantly remakes product images to obscure the realities of commodity production: all of the sensuous human experiences, the lives and struggles of the men and women who are the growers, the pickers, the transporters, the roasters, the brewers, the servers… all that has led to the coffee in our cups is secreted under the “commodity-sign”, becoming “coffee” as a lifestyle ingredient, as much symbolic marker as consumable product.

What happens when we become conscious of all this and keep it in our consciousness? In Vap’s book Arco Iris the woman speaker who narrates her travels through South America becomes haunted; haunted by history and histories, by the political and the deeply personal. She is haunted by travel itself as a commodity. But in this book’s most brilliant insight she herself haunts, conceives of herself too as a spectral presence in landscapes and among people who have long been haunted by imperial adventures and their consequences. To read this book is to become implicated in both narratives and ultimately to experience a thorough exorcising of the last refuges of travelers’ self-deception—sentimentality and nostalgia. And, it implies, if there’s any escape from this world of mutual haunting it could lie in an ethic which, as Levinas might have put it, comes from looking into the human face of the Other, the faces of these strangers among whom we travel and to whom we are strangers.

But what does “haunting” mean? In the context of Sarah Vap’s book it is particularly relevant to recall the profound meditations of Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx, not just because he opened a new philosophical space for the concept of haunting but because he clearly articulates the political impulse behind such an opening. That impulse is to contest the bizarre triumphalist rhetoric of neoliberal philosophizing found in terms like Francis Fukuyama’s “the end of history”: the worldwide triumph of liberal democracy and the final banishment of the specter of communism in a world where all is going swimmingly, or soon will be. Derrida argues that the concept of such an “end” is based on a philosophical “sleight-of-hand” whereby a specific, empirical, historical event (the fall of the Berlin Wall) is conflated with the arrival of the liberal democratic ideal. So, on the one hand, the fall of the communist bloc is portrayed as signifying an empirical event that genuine democracy as such has finally come. But when we look to the empirical world to see how liberal democracy measures up to its own ideal, we see that all is far from well in the capitalist world. As Derrida puts it

in the name of the trans-historic and natural ideal, it discredits this same logic of the so-called empirical event, it has to suspend it to avoid chalking up to the account of this ideal and its concept precisely whatever contradicts them in such a cruel fashion: in a word, all the evil, all that is not going well in the capitalist States and in liberalism, in a world dominated by other forces whose hegemony is linked to this supposedly trans-historical or natural (let us say rather naturalized) ideal.

In coming to a point where oppositions such as the empirical and ideal cannot be traced to unambiguous and exclusive origins we come up against an impasse in meaning. But rather than leading to some kind of relativistic undoing of conceptual distinctions, Derrida posits another logic:

once the limits of phantasmogorization can no longer be controlled or fixed by the simple opposition of presence and absence, actuality and inactuality, sensuous and supersensible, another approach to differences must structure (“conceptually” and “really”) the field that has been reopened. Far from effacing differences and analytic determinations, this other logic calls for other concepts.

And this is the logic of hauntology, the ghost,or spectrality. Hauntology as a logic stresses the disruptive capacity of ghosts within a metaphysics of presence, including their undoing of any linear, chronological concept of history. Ghosts come from the past, but their effects are in the here and now, troubling such binary distinctions as past/present, living/dead, being/non-being. Though Derrida’s specific concern is to undercut Fukuyama’s and similar attempts to lay to rest Marx’s ghost, to exorcize a specter from whom there is nothing to learn, the logic of hauntology opens up a much broader critique. He asserts that the possibility of living “justly”, now and in the future is dependent on our “learning to live with ghosts”:

The time of the “learning to live”, a time without tutelary present, would amount to this[…]: to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. To live otherwise, and better. No, not better, but more justly. But with them. No being-with the other, no socius without this with that makes being-with in general more enigmatic than ever for us. And this being-with specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.

There is a way in which Sarah Vap’s book is a series of meditations on how one might possibly travel as an ethical being with and among ghosts, and as a ghost. How might one respond to the weight of being-with others whose present lives have been shaped by real systemic political and economic forces of which the speaker in the poems is both the real and symbolic bearer? She herself, of course, is also shaped by these forces but possesses a kind of privileged agency denied to most of those around her, especially the women. This woman traveling through South America with her lover on boats, trains, and buses, through cities and villages is no “innocent abroad”, and yet there are many times when the effort to be ethical threatens to undo her.

Poem after poem gets under your skin, shakes up any well-meaning liberalism with the moral shock of self-observation and self-analysis that feels painfully authentic. Every jab and poke at her own self-deceptions jab and poke the reader too, as every moment of insight and unexpected grace makes us feel like we’re part of that hard-won accomplishment, or ought to be.
From the beginning we know that we are about to leave behind any political self-satisfaction we might have, as in the earliest of the poems named ‘Travel’ :

The continent spread apart then the continent condensed around us. Like the continent, we made an effort to remember. Memory, we thought at first, was something like pathos—and at the infinite remove—
but memory was weight. Memory was the heavy mirror of history was shadow falling at your face—falling at your face. (p.2)

As soon as one grasps that pathos isn’t enough, that there’s a sense in which we always relate to history voyeuristically, we become weighed down by our own belatedness in the face of what remains of others’ projects (both intimate and social, for good or ill), and we are likely to be haunted by specific historical turns which undid all kinds of possible futures. And, of course, we ourselves encumber our world with our own incomplete and incompleted praxis and understandings. But history is as specific as geography, a North American traveler’s backpack weighs differently than a South American peasant’s pannier, and the difference opens a space for mourning. As Vap writes in the brilliant poem ‘Heave’:

We joined the tangle of heavy ghosts moaning out the strength of the patriarchs. Moaning out the impossible weight. Then we pulled the ghosts up by their chains to say: we will hurt you. We will tear you the fuck apart. We will hunt down your children we will hunt down your children’s children. We will never stop the ghosts wailed. (p.3)

Who, though, is this we, who are these we-s? Vap does an astonishing job at unweaving and reweaving the threads which make up the “we” who are the traveling speaker and her lover, the “we” who are those readers who share her array of privileges, the “we” who are the indigenous others on whom those privileges are based, the anonymous “we” of consumers in a globalized market-purgatory, and the “we” yearning for a better future from out of a common humanity that “groans and travails in pain together.” And so, in this book, the fragments of a travelogue become the records of a deep examination of conscience as “we” are brought face to face with all that haunts us as moral beings, including our capacity for moral evasion:

​We move slowly across the continent, up and down,
​across and diagonally, in boats and in airplanes,
​in trains, in cars, in bicycle taxis, in buses.
​We are feeling good. We aren’t hurting anyone.
​We are feeling good. We aren’t hurting anyone.
Everywhere we go, our minds think, we aren’t hurting anyone. (p.48)

But we are, in spite of our best intentions, hurting, being hurt. In Arco Iris there is no straightforward way in which all these hurts can be explained by their supposed origins, or even mourned in any way which finalizes the speaker’s relationships of understanding and contrition. Rather, they are constantly reexamined and reconfigured by the speaker as landscapes and people and modes of travel and memories and history thwart every yearning for the comfort that is arrival, stasis, firmament, certainty. Thus there are six poems with the title ‘Ghost’, five named, ‘Travel’, six called ‘Market’ or ‘Hypermarket’, four called ‘The coca leaf fortune teller’… Up and down and back and across– this book is a moaning ark for which there is no Ararat, and where a rainbow is as much the reflection coming off an oil-slick on a river as a transcendent sign sealing a covenant.

And so we travel. And right from the beginning the speaker in Arco Iris gives us a double vision of herself as spectral and embodied stranger encountering spectral and embodied others. Vap’s poems, while asserting the ethical and political claims which the dead and the living dead have on us, keep bringing us back to the body because without holding on to the bodily intimacies which, in important ways, are our world, we are in danger of falling into a facile discourse of transcendence which would seek to redeem the bodily only by devaluing or even erasing it. Hand to hand and face to face, such are the encounters which vivify the language of Arco Iris. The verbs “touch”, “fuck”, and “move” in all of their many senses are keywords in the book because their uses demarcate both deeply personal and broadly social power relations. And as touching is the proof that the specific way of being which is “my body” is deeply dependent, in an authentically erotic or convivial space, on another’s body, there are forms of touch in a colonial context (including its sexual dimension) which have always been the means of dominating, violating and possessing others. Remarkably, Vap’s poems manage keep the intimate body, others’ bodies, and the body politic in constant, if fraught, conversation, without reducing them to mere metaphors of each other. Their interdependence is crucial, as in the poem ‘Market’:

When the rainforest unfurls from its coil around us we arrive at the market. We eat breakfast, we kiss again.
White kiss. Cuban music. Instant coffee, travel agency—you insist that our kiss be quiet. Be this please. Please, say something important to me, I am quiet—and left alone with this quiet trajectory— I say: what do you think about that.
You say: we won’t be able to touch everything and all along.
You say: we won’t be able. I say the cruelty of our common life. The ghosts, we say, are not that long line behind us. (p.15)

This “cruelty of our common life” is as much an aspect of the speaker’s relationship with her lover as it is the very matrix of the system by which we’re constituted as beings in real economic relationships. The question becomes a question of how to love. And this woman who obsessively tests if her own adult soul’s aspirations are as brittle and predetermined as a music-box ballerina from her childhood, is haunted by love’s destructive potential, whether that be the erotic love of another or the “love” we might claim for “humanity”. Daringly and subversively, as if poking at and complicating the question of what kind of hearts “do in the faces rest”, Vap meditates on these loves by rewriting Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’ in her poem ‘As if we are hemispheres folding onto each other’:

​And where the deepest impressions made. Where
hurt most—you and I are two people who have always wanted to be right. We are two people who have never wanted to be wrong or to think anything wrong
or to say anything wrong and now all we do is smash continents and bodies together to see what will remain. Now we try to pull our impression apart from the great impression just to see if one can
now understand that that great impression is everywhere around us and also inside of us and we smash smash at each other—like this—to get it out— (p. 27)

This poem is especially interesting because it connects obliquely with one of Vap’s epigraphs to the book from Levinas’s ‘Totality and Infinity’, where she quotes the phrase “…as water gushing forth from rock washes away that rock.” It is worth, actually, putting that phrase back into its original context as follows:

The intentionality of enjoyment can be described by contrast with the intentionality of representation; it consists in holding on to the exteriority which the transcendental method involved in representation suspends. To hold on to exteriority is not simply equivalent to affirming the world, but is to posit oneself in it corporeally. The body is the elevation, but also the whole weight of position. The body naked and indigent identifies the center of the world it perceives, but, conditioned by its own representation of the world, it is thereby as it were torn up from the center from which it proceeded, as water gushing forth from rock washes away that rock. The body indigent and naked is not a thing among things which I “constitute” or see in God to be in a relation with a thought, nor is it the instrument of a gestural thought, of which theory would be simply the ultimate development. The body naked and indigent is the very reverting, irreducible to a thought, of representation into life, of the subjectivity that represents into life which is sustained by these representations and lives of them; its indigence—its needs—affirm “exteriority” as non-constituted, prior to all affirmation.

Here Levinas is laying the groundwork for what will later become a fully developed ethic arising from the fact of our embodiment. This body, for Levinas, is not reducible to thought, but is the fundamental means by which we orient ourselves on the earth as beings whose being is lack, who must eat , and therefore be bound to exteriority, before constituting ourselves as subjects capable of interiority. This contingent, fragile bodily existence operates in the mode of what Levinas calls “enjoyment”, which is actually the use of, the living off of, the other. But since since the other’s fragile bodily life is already in-carnated in one’s own bodily life we are confronted by an unavoidable moral demand when we confront the fragile face of the other. This demand is mediated through our bodily and sensual experience and not through our consciousness or any rational acceptance of a philosophical principle. This is where Levinas’s thought differs from traditional theories of ethics: instead of our moral acts arising from our free and autonomous acceptance of an ethical principle, for Levinas ethical action is spurred by the authority of the Other: our moral choices are not ones arising from autonomy but from “heteronomy”. So, when confronted with the face of another human being who is hungry, we are immediately morally urged to feed her. And what we make a gift of in such circumstances are bodily-nourishing material things like food, clothing, and shelter: “No human or interhuman relationship can be enacted outside of economy; no face can be approached with empty hands and a closed home”.

Many poems in Arco Iris engage with this ethic of the human face, and consistently as readers we feel the weight such an ethic places on us via the speaker’s unsparing honesty, enmeshed as we all are in an economy which constitutes everyone as face-less. We know what we ought to do, but so often faces become enigmatic bearers of economy, so that even our face-to-face interactions are constrained by the actions of invisible hands. As in the stunning poem ‘Sphinx’:

You, woman selling cloth at the market—I like to think of you as someone I can buy something from. And your little girl asleep beside you—I like to think of her as my—with what material do I attach myself to you—with ghosts thickened up into money, money thickened up into bodies thickened up into information and information thickened to—hold my attention—hold my attention—
you won’t be able to love it—
do you want to say something here. (p.39)

I do want to say something here, need to say something here, because despite the deep melancholy tone of much of this book there are flashes of color, inklings of a very hard-won hopefulness. The time horizons of Arco Iris—a personal and historical past, an anxious postmodern present—all haunted by what we do and fail to do—open to a future that is possibly pregnant with a little piece of light. For, in a very Levinasian sense, to read this book is to be approached by an other, to have one’s own present disrupted, to be so unsettled by the speaker, by her language, by her voice that we are shaken into attentiveness. For Levinas the other’s word comes to me as a Said, the mere remnants of a Saying that persists only as a trace. In order to attend to the other I must listen for the Saying which the Said almost drowns out. Thus I become alert to a world where this I resounds to the call of suffering from the other and takes on “total responsibility, which answers for all the others and for all in the others, even for their responsibility.” I want to say I don’t know if that is even remotely possible, but to have it raised as a question in the way it is raised in Arco Iris, to be invited to hear through to the Saying, is a poetic and ethical accomplishment of a high order. The book’s final poem, ‘The coca leaf fortune-teller’, brings us to a point where we’re enlisted in the hard work of embodied thinking if there’s ever to be a human future:

That darkness on the other hand seems to come from almost everywhere that darkness holds us that darkness is what is inside of us where—did anyone touch anyone else—

what do you think about that.
What are we supposed to think about that. (p.72)

For a start, I want to say, we’re supposed to think.

© Ger Killeen, 2015

Ger Killeen

About Ger Killeen

Poet, naturalist, trouble-maker, Ger Killeen lives on the Oregon Coast.
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