Essay: “Barbican Resident” in Garageland 21, ‘Urban Ghosts’

London’s Barbican layers time through its architecture. Near the old Roman city wall the medieval church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate, one of few city churches to survive the Great Fire and The Blitz, stands on a site of Saxon origins amongst the glass and concrete of the modern Brutalist estate. It is like one of the “little bubbles of old time in London” as Neil Gaiman puts it in Neverwhere. And as the names of Barbican walkways and blocks testify (Shakespeare Tower, Ben Jonson House, Andrewes High Walk, Defoe House) the church and the surrounding parish are associated with a clutch of illustrious writers who could be said to “haunt” this area.

In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Jacques Austerlitz feels a kind of heartache caused by “the vortex of past time” at Liverpool Street station. He thinks of the accumulation of suffering on this site where Bethlem Hospital, or Bedlam, used to be and later observes: “I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces … between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like.” In St Giles church the past similarly impinges on the imagination of a visitor walking where Daniel Defoe, John Milton and John Bunyan worshipped, where Launcelot Andrewes (vicar of St Giles and translator of the King James Bible) preached, where Milton’s funeral took place, possibly attended by Andrew Marvell, and where he is buried next to his father. Playwrights Ben Jonson and Thomas Dekker and the actor Edward Alleyn were residents in the area and in the early 1600s William Shakespeare (whose ghosts I shall dwell on) lodged around the corner from St Giles with a Huguenot family called Mountjoy (hence Mountjoy House).

But being haunted by the past is not just about trying to visualise Defoe or Milton in the light of their own day or even sensing time collapsed in the manner of Austerlitz. In literature, film and other forms of media and culture, ghosts are revenants, they come back, overshadowing and invading the present often with news of buried horror. Shakespeare’s most famous ghost, Hamlet’s father, in one of the most famous ghost-works of all, represents the return of the buried, hidden and tormented. The essence of so many hauntings, in reports of “real” spectres as in literary texts, is to do with an unpunished or hidden abomination: the apparitions of James I’s murdered cousin or of the two murdered Princes “seen” in the Tower of London, the ghosts of the children in Kubrick’s filmThe Shining, Banquo’s ghost spoiling Macbeth’s supper party or ghosts of murdered victims appearing to Shakespeare’s Richard III at the end of the play. In the last two examples the haunted man is himself the criminal. A ghost is therefore a useful metaphor for the buried, guilty or tormented aspects within; a way of revealing repressed and unacceptable psychic contents lurking in “a ‘nocturnal element’ at the very core of what passes for the subject” (Achille Mbembe, Life, Sovereignty, and Terror in the Fiction of Amos Tutola).

My own paintings of ghostly figures grew in part from these ideas. In 1999 I made rapid, abbreviated drawings of figures in London which I turned into paintings of translucent, layered figures floating on black, ‘nocturnal’ backgrounds. I saw them partly as spectres from the distant past but also as present-day figures seen as future ghosts. “What you are, I once was. What I am, you will become”, as the gravestone message reads. But I also wanted to suggest that people walking around in the present, the ones I drew rushing around Bishopsgate or the Barbican, carried layers of buried history and damage within them. They could be seen as palimpsests of personal or even transgenerational trauma. These impressions were inadvertently conveyed by the Barbican Resident magazine which featured the paintings and made the cover painting seem like an illustration of the title. A Barbican Resident is either a phantom or a creature composed of ghostly strata.

The magazine article was called “Art at St Giles” because, thanks to Katharine Rumens the vicar of St Giles Cripplegate, these paintings were shown in the church in 2001. Being installed there seemed to reinforce some of the ideas behind them, making them explicitly to do with the dead but also with the idea of Geist: ghost or spirit. Scarred and mutilated, with a glance at one (disputed) meaning of the name Cripplegate, they referenced the physical decay working away continually inside the living. Their damaged bodies also perhaps recalled people killed by plague in the teeming squalor of the area around Cripplegate in the 17th century, buried, according to Dekker, in graves “like little cellars, piling up forty or fifty in a pit”. They looked like corpses, remains from the crypt, yet on the other hand could be seen as emerging from the vaults as resurrected spirits or as ghosts. And perhaps it wasn’t just their filmy white bodies that made them appear ghostly, their very ambivalence reinforced this impression.

In critical thinking about “hauntology” (the term coined by Jacques Derrida) the ghostly resists dichotomous thinking or linear chronology. It is characteristically dubious, borderline, interstitial, hybrid. It occupies “a liminal position between visibility and invisibility, between life and death, materiality and immateriality” (María del Pilar Blanco/Esther Peeren, Conceptualising Spectralites,). It is “neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive” (Colin Davis, Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms). And each particular ghost brings with it other puzzles and riddles according to its context. In Hamlet the distress of the past breaks into the present but what does it signify? Is the ghost the dead King or a devil or even an emanation from the psyche? Is it telling the truth or tempting Hamlet to damnation? Where is it from? Purgatory? But Purgatory did not exist according to the current thinking of the Protestant church and nor did ghosts.The dead were beyond reach, as Hamlet himself says in describing death as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. And if from Catholic Purgatory why does this ghost ask not for prayers and masses but for murder and revenge? Like the “compound ghost” in T.S.Eliot’s Little Gidding, it is “both intimate and unidentifiable”.

Ghosts are ambivalent, riddling, enigmatic and it is this that makes them haunting. The haunting is the inscrutable–a theory that has been applied to literature itself. Nicholas Royle in “Ghosts” (a chapter in An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory) ) suggests even that “the greater the literary work the more ghostly it is”. He considers that this is one way of understanding Derrida’s words in Spectres of Marx that “a masterpiece always moves, by definition, in the manner of a ghost” and he writes that “Great works call to be read and reread while never ceasing to be strange, to resist reading, interpretation and translation.” Like Derrida he cites Hamlet as one of these ghostly works that are in some way opaque, resistant to complete interpretation and that haunt us precisely because they are “defiant, elusive, baffling.” And while of course a work can be hauntingly inscrutable without ghosts, the ghost in Hamlet contributes significantly to the play’s bottomless and labyrinthine nature.

Haunting and inscrutability belong together and also apply to unresolved psychological conflicts. Psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok describe Freud as haunted by the puzzle of the Wolf man: “from 1910 well into Freud’s extreme old age, the case of this enigmatic Russian, bewitched by some secret, never stopped haunting him, drawing from him theory upon theory because he could never discover the key …” In Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day Stella Rodney says that “what’s unfinished haunts one; what’s unhealed haunts one”. The haunted character is haunted by internal ghosts, as in Richard III or Macbeth, but in Abraham and Torok or in Freud or in The Wolf Man himself it is the inaccessible or enigmatic nature of fears, phobias, conflicts that makes them so powerful and persistent. And returning to my Barbican Residents in St Giles, I wanted them to seem haunted as well as haunting, to be haunted by the inner past, a sense I tried to represent by the inaccessible depths of layering inside their x-rayed bodies.