Dead Letters: Ghostly Inscriptions and Theoretical Hauntings

Dissertation, The George Washington University (1999)
Abstract
"Dead Letters: Ghostly Inscriptions and Theoretical Hauntings" explores a ubiquitous yet strangely ignored cultural phenomenon: the ghost. I focus on the imbrication of two key terms: "spectrality" and "textuality," or on what I refer to as the "uncanniness of language." The linchpin for my consideration of the "ghostliness" of language and memory is the "dead letter," considered both in the familiar sense of a letter which goes astray and also in the more unusual sense of a message or trace which "arrives" from the dead. Through the examination of postmodern rhetoric conjoining metaphors of spectrality with discussions of language, particularly in Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, and then through close-readings of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, Herman Melville's "Bartleby," Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," Edith Wharton's "Pomegranate Seed," Kate Chopin's "Her Letters," and Toni Morrison's Beloved, all of which juxtapose and intertwine "dead letters" with ghosts, I argue that the prominence of letters in ghost stories suggests the ways in which language itself is ghostly, built upon absence. ;The absent body---or problematic presence---of the ghost functions as a screen upon which to project certain significant human fears and hopes: the fear of death and the desire for an afterlife; the concomitant anxieties of both forgetting those we have known and loved and of ourselves being forgotten; the suspicion that certain crimes will remain forever unredressed and the wish that justice will ultimately prevail. As a figure from the past which invades the present, it disrupts the linearity of time; poised between remembrance and oblivion, the ghosts asks to what extent one will be ruled by the past and to what extent one can put events and times gone by "to rest." In this respect, the ghost, the incarnation of death, puts to the living, as Derrida has observed, the question of how to live "justly," of how to live with the weight of the past and the fact of death without being ruled by the history or paralyzed by the knowledge of our own mortality
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