Susan Howe

Hauntological Spectres in _Eikon Basilike_

As the end of my last plateau suggests, I am particularly interested in the persistent images of ghosts, specters, and hauntings throughout Susan Howe’s work, and in Eikon Basilike in particular. Reading through the criticism surrounding Howe, it would seem that I am not alone. Kathleen Crown, for example, says Howe’s authorship functions as though the author is hearing “voices” (490), which I call spectral noise in my previous plateau. Craig Dworkin writes that her work contains the specters of authority and sense, and that “these specters fuse with the violent silencings that haunt the history of literature itself” (37). Gerald Bruns appropriately argues in his discussion of anarchic sound-forms that “for Howe, sound is also pneumatic” (39), a term that is especially appropriate in that it designates not only the spiritual, but also a system run on absence (that is, the absence that is pressurized air). Moreover, according to the OED, the term also designates the feminine, especially the voluptuous or busty feminine. In this plateau, I would like to discuss the role of the spectral and the supernatural in Eikon Basilike, beginning with the often-discussed but nonetheless important element of prayer in the text. While I have not explicitly discussed it, the theme of prayer has been latent in my analyses so far through the epigraphic poem that begins “Oh Lord / o Lord,” askew (51). The bending down of these lines has been read by many critics as the bowing of one’s head during traditional Christian (and especially Catholic) prayer. This bowing of the head, a prostration that denotes respect for a supernatural authority, recurs later in Eikon with the image of Charles I bending down in prayer before his execution: “He bowed down his head and said / two or three words / in a low voice” (59). Here, while monarchical and echoing the divine right of kings, Howe’s inclusion of this line amidst another mess of “visual prosody” emphasizes the imprecise and unclear nature of prayer, and thus the tenuous relationship between the physical act of prostration and the ethereality of the spectral presence.

In Eikon Basilike in particular, the strange relationship between the physical and the ethereal in prayer is explicitly gendered through the image of Pamela, the feminine character who dominates the prayers included in the “original” text, prayers that preoccupy Howe, especially in her introduction. Of the inclusion of Pamela’s prayer, Howe writes:

The prayer, a close paraphrase from ‘no serious book, but the vain amatorious Poem of Sr Philip Sidney’s Arcadia,’ was the prayer of a pagan woman to an all-seeing heathen Deity. A captive Shepherdess has entered through a gap in ideology. ‘Pammela in the Countesses Arcadia,’ confronts the inauthentic literary work with its beginnings in a breach. (49)

For Howe, Pamela serves as the scapegoat for the accusations of forgery and inauthenticity placed on Eikon Basilike’s original, and she extends these charges of inauthenticity to Milton, who many critics accuse as having included the prayer himself in order to ridicule the authenticity of the authorship; these charges against Milton are also contested and tenuous, as Howe remarks that they have “been [both] confirmed, and denied” (49). Pamela herself features in Howe’s text as the “heathen woman” on page sixty-seven, a feminine ghost that seems to circle the incantatory centre of the text.

But, of course, to call the “centre” of this text anything, to suggest that it exists at all, is a misstep. As Howe reminds us at the end of her introduction to the poem, the text is structured around an absent centre, and “[t]he absent center is the ghost of a king” (50). Howe also tells us that she borrows this concept of the absent centre from Pierre Macherey, and in so doing immediately connects this absent centre to French poststructuralist Marxism. While Macherey seems a good fit for Howe’s absent and spectral poetics, I am tempted instead to draw the connection between this absent centre and Jacques Derrida’s concept of “hauntology,” a concept I am particularly fascinated by. The portmanteau hauntology is a deliberate homophone, recalling (especially in Derrida’s native French) ontology. With his characteristic wordplay, Derrida draws attention the difference between hauntology and ontology: where ontology depends upon certain concepts or structures, hauntology foregrounds the construction of such concepts, and the absences they are founded upon (Specters 63). In Spectres of Marx he writes: “To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology” (202). The idea is, it seems quite clear, a readily available literary concept, and, in fact, Derrida uses literature throughout Specters of Marx to explain this idea of hauntology, namely in the Ghost of Hamlet, who serves not only as a symbol of the father figure that continuously haunts the son, but also as an image of father-son inheritance, as both Young Hamlet and the Ghost of King Hamlet are referred to by the same name, and Hamlet is in the position of heir, though that is usurped by Claudius. Hamlet does indeed inherit something from his father: a mission, a vengeance. But, in order to do so, Hamlet has to confront the spectre of his father, a fact Derrida notes himself: “One never inherits without coming to terms with some specter” (24). But, here the sexes match, and while this may appear arbitrary, when reading inheritance as a gift from the psychoanalytic Father, gender is of the utmost importance, as I will demonstrate. Hamlet is male, and thus has access to his own paternal inheritance, whereas such inheritance is denied for the daughter; Ophelia inherits nothing from Polonius[i]. For this reason, the hauntology of the daughter is complicated.

If all of this seems politically impractical, especially considering it is a political concept Derrida derives from and applies to Karl Marx, Tom Lewis, in his addition to the Verso symposium on Specters of Marx, tells us that that’s because it is impractical. Hauntology, he says, is not really looking to “succeed where European social democracy (‘reform socialism’) has failed” (135). Rather, the hauntological “specter thus may be said to represent more than the instability of the real; it also represents the ghostly embodiment of a fear and panic provoked by imitations of an impossible state of being” (140), which is to say that hauntology exposes the impossibility of a clear ontological position. Lewis concludes that hauntology is completely useless and unhelpful and argues instead that “our time [is] one in which classical Marxism and its tradition of revolution from below have much more to offer than hauntology does in the international struggle for a democractic socialist society” (161). The suggestion here is, inadvertently, that hauntology is in some sense anarchist at its core, impractical and demanding the impossible dissolution of ontological structures.

To return then to Eikon Basilike, it would seem that Howe’s hauntological specters are clear, as in the looming presence of Caesar’s ghost throughout. In a moment of humour, Howe writes a “Great Caesar’s ghost” (66) exclamation that reduces this particular specter—the ultimate figure of Western rule and civilization—to rhetoric. Shortly after this, every figure of masculine authority, from Charles I to Oliver Cromwell, becomes Caesar as well (80). But Howe’s representation of the hauntological is not so easy as “all authority is rhetoric,” and Eikon Basilike constantly negotiates the space between a desire “To write against the Ghost” (61) and a desire for “MAKING THE GHOST WALK ABOUT AGAIN AND AGAIN” (47). The two goals are, I would argue, incommensurate. But, it is in their incommensurability that Howe approaches the problem of gender at the heart of the hauntological. That is, as I suggested above, hauntology is pretty clearly gendered; this issue has been skilfully interrogated by Nancy Holland in her article “The Death of the Other/Father,” wherein she attempts to resolve Derrida’s hauntology from a feminist perspective. In order to do so, she begins with the issue of the gaze, where the spectre looks upon the son (or in this case daughter), but the gaze is not, and cannot be, returned. For Holland, this gaze is complicated because the paternal gaze is not cast upon the daughter herself, but rather an idealized woman: “But what if the ghostly apparition that looks at us sees not we ourselves, we daughters as we are, but only its own ghost, the spectral image of what it wants to see, desires to see, must see when it looks at the female form?” (67). If we understand what Holland speculates to be the case, the hauntological inheritance for the daughter is more than non-reciprocal, it is not even received.

To complicate this further, Holland argues that in order to intercept this gaze, to inherit anything at all from the father, the daughter is also under the gaze of an ideal, almost maternal, figure. “The ghost who looks at me,” Holland writes, “the spectral Other I have internalized so thoroughly that in some sense it has become me, is not my father, or not only my father, but also my father’s vision of the eternal idealized woman he would have loved” (67). This idealized woman is not simply the result of societal norms, nor is it the misplaced erotic desire in a Oedipal complex; Holland clarifies this, noting that this spectral Other “is not even the father’s mother, or the father’s father’s mother” (ibid). Rather, the spectral Other, the “tall, dark, [and] slender” Woman Holland uses to evoke laughter from her audience (ibid), exists and makes impossible an inheritance, a lineage from father to daughter. “For the son, there is always the opportunity … to exorcize the father’s ghost, through obedience and/or patricide” (ibid) or in this case regicide. But, for the daughter in hauntology, there are always two spectres, and never a direct gaze. Inheritance becomes complicated, and a simple line of lineage becomes impossible. In “The Ghost of the Father,” Will Montgomery extends this image of the father in Howe’s work to authority and to law, which in Eikon Basilike amount to the complicated and nearly lost inheritance, or, in some cases, to the figure of the father himself. He writes that in Howe, “law is represented through an insubstantial paternal figure” (27). Recognizing the limitations of the patrilineal (the grid, the law, the logos that is disseminated along this lineage), “Howe’s poetry seeks to evade such limits, authorizing its indiscipline by appealing to a chaotic understanding of the sacred” (34). Pamela, then, is indicative of this “bogus piety” that Milton hated about Eikon Basilike (38), and this chaotic sacred is necessarily coded feminine. Towards the end of the poem, then, it becomes crucial that Howe’s work rewrites the genre of the prayer from the perspective of the daughter who cannot meet the gaze of the Father. She writes:

In Authorem

Father and the Father
by my words will I be justified

Autobiography I saw (74)

It is a prayer that recalls the text’s desire to both summon the ghost and to banish him; the hauntological spectre of the Father forms the absent centre of the text, but Howe does not let him speak for her, merely through her, a kind of possession that works both ways. The feminine thus functions, in Howe’s poetic language, as the subversion that Cixous always maintained it would be: “She is a blank page / writing ghost writing” (68).


[i]This is, I should add, probably a good thing. I don’t know what Polonius would have that I would want to inherit.

2 thoughts on “Hauntological Spectres in _Eikon Basilike_

  1. I like this plateau, and in general the discussion is fascinating. The ending feels a bit abrupt, though–it feels to me like there’s more you can say about Howe’s rewritten prayer and how that act of rewriting directly relates to hauntology. (Or is that something you’ll pick up in the next plateau?)

    Also, I think you could clarify your comment about Lewis’s dismissal of hauntology. When you say that “The suggestion here is, inadvertently, that hauntology is in some sense anarchist at its core, impractical and demanding the impossible dissolution of ontological structures,” could you explain the connection you see to anarchism?

    Other than those minor points, I think the plateau is really successful.

    [BTW–throughout, I wanted to change “specter” to “spectre” (and I noticed you did make that change at least once). I think this is a British v US spelling issue–do we Canadians normally write it “er”? Does it matter? Am I just wearing my crankypants again?]

    • Spectre versis specter: yeah, so this is annoying because all my sources use “er” but I’m used to writing it “re” — I didn’t realize I was switching. I tend to use American spelling (I think? I don’t know… standardized spelling is colonial, or whatever).

      On the Lewis, I am pretty much just arguing that Lewis’s marxism has him insist on the material and the pragmatic, which leads him to disregard hauntology. If he were anarchist, he’d see hauntology as, in the end, demanding the impossible that a theoretical anarchism also demands. I obviously have to make that argument more clear/developed.

      And in my next plateau I’m talking about embodiment and prayer, but I don’t take up this issue of rewriting in particular. I will definitely expand on it, though. I’m fascinated by it, but as my Howe sections all ended up being almost 7 pages each, I felt the need to edit and cut. I am very happy to expand upon this issue though!


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