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  • Poetics of Melancholy and Psychic Possession in Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters and Other Haunted Texts
  • Dianne Hunter

I'd seen a play where the heroine was possessed by a dybbuk [demon soul of a dead person], and when the dybbuk spoke from her mouth its voice sounded so cavernous and deep you couldn't tell whether it was a man or a woman.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1971)

Prologue: Juan Peron's Exteriorized Psychic Crypt

The death (of cancer) of Eva Peron in 1952 contributed to the downward spiral of her husband's political fortunes. Although "Evita" (as she was popularly known) had virtually co-governed Argentina during the first six years of Juan Peron's presidency, the army blocked her will to become his Vice President. In death, Eva Peron became more than ever "Santa Evita," her corpse treated as a sacred relic in Argentine popular culture. When Juan Peron, out of power and out of favor in Argentina, fled to Spain in 1960, he arranged to have Evita's coffin reside there with him. This arrangement lasted even after Peron married Isabel Martinez in 1961. A magician who had joined Peron's entourage performed a ritual in which the second Mrs. Peron lay atop the coffin of the first so that she could receive a soul transfer from the sainted dead. This feat apparently accomplished, the Perons returned to Argentina, where Peron made a comeback to presidential power, with Isabel ultimately fulfilling Eva's old wish. The second Presidential wife became Argentina's Vice President. When Juan Peron died of a heart attack in 1974, his widow assumed the presidency. Eva's will having occupied Juan after her death, he psychically transferred it to Isabel, who fulfilled it. [End Page 129]

The Hungarian-French psychoanalysts Abraham and Torok, and their American literary follower Esther Rashkin offer a deeper and more culturally significant version of object relations and mourning than the individualized ego-centered concept of Freud's 1917 essay. The psychology spelled out in The Shell and the Kernel (1994 [1987]) adds intergenerational haunting to Freud's idea of how we internalize versions of the people to whom we closely relate. Freud points out that the ego resists renouncing its attachments to loved ones, even when they are dead. Internalizing the image of the lost dead person as an imago treated as if it were part of the self provides a way of holding on to someone otherwise lost. Abraham and Torok's theories of intergenerational haunting add to this the idea that when we internalize or encrypt within our psyches persons to whom we are closely related, we also internalize whatever is or was in their unconscious, including their secrets, even secrets unknown to them, secrets passed down in a family via messages conveyed by what its members avoid mentioning directly but glance at through verbal allusions and by what the family does not say. Families may carry ancestral secrets without consciously knowing it. In a brilliant analysis of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," Rashkin uses the idea of intergenerational haunting to generate a reading that shows the story madly voicing a scene of rape of a maternal ancestor who broke the Usher line by secretly introducing bastardy into the Usher descent. Neither Usher, nor his sister Madeline knows this secret; neither does the story's narrator, but the tale conveys it unconsciously to the reader, without, argues Rashkin, even Poe himself necessarily being aware of it (Rashkin 1992: 152-55).

The late-twentieth century British poet Ted Hughes, disquieted by the role of Germany in the two world wars, responded to the German ancestry of his first wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath. Hughes's fantasy, set out in his 1998 collection Birthday Letters that Sylvia Plath was haunted and possessed by the ghastly one-legged, mad Otto Plath and by a maternal Kraken (sea monster) looks, in view of Hughes's preoccupation with the trauma of World War I and what Peter Porter calls "postwar shrinkage of British confidence" (2001: 21), very like Ted's projection of his own paternal haunting and fixation on Germany into Sylvia as an...


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pp. 129-150
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