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Reviewed by:
  • Surrealist Ghostliness by Conley Katharine
  • Jean-Michel Rabaté
Conley Katharine. Surrealist Ghostliness, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2013. 320 pp.

In her thought-provoking and suggestive Surrealist Ghostliness, a book moving elegantly between minute descriptions of works of art and rigorous conceptual analysis, Katharine Conley offers three main definitions of ghosts. The first definition pertains to literary history and cultural anthropology. A ghost is an "undead" character returning from the past, either because of a transgression like a murder that has to be avenged, or the non-observance of some rites, or because of an ancient family fate that condemns some dead souls to wander through the world. This is the "gothic ghost," which is familiar to us because it has traversed plays like Hamlet and Romantic literature before reaching our screens where it flourishes in countless horror stories, whether serially produced by Hollywood or by Asian film companies. The second definition is psychoanalytic, and shows us a ghost coming back from the deeper and darker recesses of a collective memory. Such a ghost reveals that the repression without which culture could not exist does not go as deep as we thought—"uncanny" returns testify to the agency of repressed drives via weird coincidences, troubling resemblances, vanishing subjects, or haunting refrains. This is the "Freudian ghost," with which the Surrealists were well acquainted. And [End Page 169] finally there is the family ghost, a literal ghost dependent upon technologies like trick photographs, Ouija boards and turning tables in darkened rooms. This is the "spiritualist ghost," a mediumistic deep throat producing superabundant words predicting the past and remembering an uncertain future. This is the ghost in whose existence we pretend not to believe and whose symptomatic apparitions are met with thrilled expectation as much as suspicion.

What is impressive in Conley's book is that she is able to bring this triple definition of ghostliness to bear cogently on a corpus marked by Surrealism. The corpus also goes beyond Surrealism with more contemporary artists who have perpetuated a tradition. Thus Conley presents in great detail the work of Man Ray, Claude Cahun, Brassaï, Salvador Dalí, Lee Miller, Dorothea Tanning and Pierre Alechinsky, remaining within a canonical definition of Surrealism that begins in the 1920's and encompasses the late sixties. One can note the presence of more women than men artists, a wise reminder that Surrealism was not only a male invention, as some have claimed. Conley adds two important artists who are not often seen as fellow travellers of Surrealism, Francesca Woodman and Susan Hiller.

In her general approach, Conley highlights an aspect of Surrealism that was neglected by referencing original views about Surrealism provided by philosopher Michel Foucault, a thinker rarely mentioned in that context. In 1966, Foucault had paid homage to André Breton in an interview with Claude Bonnefoy. Foucault called Breton a "French Goethe." Breton would have attempted to combine actual knowledge (with psychoanalysis, anthropology, art history, comparative religion, linguistics, etc.) with visionary poetry. However, for Foucault, Breton was not just a continuator of the German Romantics: he was not simply dreaming the night but inserting an "unbreakable kernel of night in the heart of the day."1 Breton, a "swimmer between two words" granted writing a moral function—it had to change life and keep the horizon of a Revolution in view as an absolute. Breton's stress on the Imagination nevertheless was to situate it in discourse and not just in our hearts. For Foucault, fundamentally, Breton ushered in a new conception of experience, an experience that both unified and dispersed poetic practices while erasing borders between hitherto separate domains. Conley manages to use Foucault's original insights as a connective tissue linking her close readings of visual works.

Among these, special mention should be made of Francesca Woodman, whose beautiful 1976 House 3 adorns the cover: typically, it shows the artist's body half-erased, with only one leg in the real world and on the floor [End Page 170] of a dilapidated apartment, which suggests an anamorphic exchange between the house and the photographer. The vivid details of partly ruined walls full of holes and rough floorboards strewn with debris highlight...


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pp. 169-172
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