Navigation – Plan du site
2. « A Death of One’s Own » - Narratives of the (Un)Self: American Autothanatographers, 19-21st centuries

Inside Paul Auster’s Crypt: Autobiography and Spectrality in Ghosts



Ghosts, second volet de La Trilogie new-yorkaise de Paul Auster, peut se lire comme une réflexion à la fois fictionalisée et théorisée sur l’autobiographie, qui oppose des notions telles que autobiographie et hétérobiographie, le soi et l’autre, l’écriture de sa vie et l’écriture de sa mort. Dans ce roman, l’écriture d’Auster fait écho aux travaux de Jacques Derrida sur l’autobiographie : Ghosts, en effet, reflète et complexifie tout à la fois la pratique autobiographique d’Auster en mettant en scène un détective privé postmoderne dans une intrigue qui joue sur la position du critique. Le criminel devient auteur et le détective lecteur, deux rôles instables et interchangeables. Détective et criminel sont des effets d’opérations linguistiques, piégés dans le tissu textuel qui les entoure et les lie ; textes, lettres et rapports circulent et sont adressés de façon à être retournés à l’envoyeur, obéissant ainsi à la logique de ce que Jacques Derrida a appelé le principe postal.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy (1985-1986), comprised of the short novels City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, is a collection of three playful and yet bleak renditions of the postmodern detective novel set in the American metropolis. Auster’s first work of prose fiction takes the form of a textual web of repetitions and recurrent motifs, a tightly woven fabric of numerous intertextual references, self-reflexive suggestions, doppelgangers and paradoxes. The New York Trilogy chronologically follows Auster’s first prose work, the autobiographical volume The Invention of Solitude (1982), which sets the tone and introduces several of the themes and patterns that would later pervade Auster’s fiction. Having since then published four more memoirs, Auster has managed to establish himself as an important voice in contemporary American self-writing, devotedly practicing the genre in parallel to his work as an author of fiction. In what follows, I intend to situate Ghosts, the second installment of the Trilogy, within the framework of a discourse on autobiography drawing on Jacques Derrida’s insights on the issue, developed mainly in his essay “To Speculate—On ‘Freud’,” so as to shed light on a characteristic facet of Auster’s literary strategies and underlying structural schemata of his work.

  • 1 William V. Spanos introduced the term anti-detective story in his essay “The Detective and the Boun (...)
  • 2 See for example Lavender 78, Russell 97.

2A typical sample of the genre that has been termed by critics as anti-detective or metaphysical detective story,1 the Trilogy exhibits traits that bring it to close proximity with poststructuralist assumptions. By highlighting self-referential and mise en abyme structures, emphasizing (inter)textuality and the primacy of the signifier and the (written) trace over the authority of the paternal logos, and adopting a skeptical stance towards both origins and ends, Auster’s work, as has been argued,2 bears a characteristic relevance to deconstruction. Moreover, the sustained interest in the theme of writing, which Auster explores consistently from his earliest work to his most recent books, a theme to which the strong metafictional element of his novels is indebted, entails an implicit affiliation with Derrida’s thought. In his “Interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory,” published in The Art of Hunger (1992), Auster links writing to secrets, loss, and trauma: “Writing, in some sense, is an activity that helps me to relieve some of the pressure caused by these buried secrets. Hidden memories, traumas, childhood scars—there’s no question that novels emerge from those inaccessible parts of ourselves” (285). All books come from the same matrix, Auster suggests, a crypt or a hidden space in the author’s personal history populated by ghosts. Ultimately, what is at stake is survival: “Writing is no longer an act of free will for me, it’s a matter of survival” (285). The issue of survival is more radically posed in Ghosts, where, as we shall see, the climax of the narrative is concurrent with the emergence of the author and the coming into being of the book as a consequence of the death of the other that the protagonist survives. The above themes are familiar topics in Derrida’s work and ones that the philosopher has explored extensively in a variety of different contexts.

3In “To Speculate—On ‘Freud’,” Derrida elaborates on the (compulsively) repetitive use of the word “speculation” in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (a word that, interestingly, is also repeated frequently in Auster’s Trilogy), taking into consideration all its meanings—conjecture, specular reflection, production of surplus value—and comments on its significance in Freud’s thought: “I am alleging that speculation is not only a mode of research named by Freud, not only the oblique object of his discourse, but also the operation of his writing, the scene (of that) which he makes by writing what he writes here” (The Post Card 284). The word “speculation” functions as a point of intersection between the three texts. In Ghosts, Auster hints at the operation of his own writing in a brief etymological comment concerning the same word: “If thinking is perhaps too strong a word at this point, a slightly more modest term—speculation, for example—would not be far from the mark. To speculate, from the Latin speculatus, meaning mirror or looking glass” (146). From the same linguistic root, I might add, also comes the word specter, a key term in Derrida’s later philosophy, which, along with mirroring and doubles, marks a thematic and stylistic motif that dominates Auster’s work. Moreover, Freud’s important essay famously offers the analyst’s theorization of children’s play in the form of the fort/da game which, in a number of variants, makes its appearance in Auster’s work so as to become an extensively used literary device and a structural motif reflecting his own writing.

1. Jacques Derrida and Autothanatography

  • 3 See for example “Envois” in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond and “Circonfession” in (...)

4Autobiographies have enjoyed a privileged status in the vast corpus of texts that Derrida has chosen to read critically in his œuvre. Starting from his earlier readings on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography Confessions, and Claude Levi-Strauss’ memoir Tristes Tropiques, in Of Grammatology, Derrida has rigorously explored the philosophical ramifications of autobiography, while, following the Western tradition of philosophers trying their hand at the specific genre, he has frequently included autobiographical passages in his own works.3

5An autobiography is in principle an open structure. What would appear to be the proper ending of a life’s narrative, the author’s death, is excluded as an inaccessible “outside.” Autobiographical writing attests to the essential non-identity of the self by disclosing symptomatically the impossibility of the closure of subjectivity into a totality; hence Derrida’s sustained interest in autobiography as an issue that resonates with his project of the deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence. Autobiographical writing, by bringing its subject and its object into coincidence, belongs to the experience of what Derrida calls auto-affection. As Derrida argues in Part II of Of Grammatology, auto-affection is not possible without hetero-affection, a necessary relation to an alterity that intervenes in the structure of hearing-oneself-speak, the closure of the circle from mouth to ear, the self-presence guaranteed by the voice. It follows that the written self-representation necessitates an address to an other which disrupts it as an internal irreducible difference. Moreover, by interrogating the difference and différance between writer and written, body and corpus, lived experience and its trace, autobiography brings about a relation between life and death that is not one of opposition. As Derrida notes, “[w]hat one calls life—the thing or object of biology and biography—does not stand face to face with something that would be its opposable ob-ject: death, the thanatological or thanatographical” (The Ear of the Other 6). Belonging to the order of writing as “the becoming-absent and the becoming-unconscious of the subject” (Of Grammatology 69), autobiography bears the trace of its outside, the author’s non-presence or death, as its constitutive condition. The autobiographical impulse is tainted by the drive towards (the writing of) death and autobiography is haunted by its aporetic supplement, the spectral residue of autothanatography.

6In “To Speculate—On ‘Freud’,” his essay on Freud’s discourse on the death drive, titled Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud’s famous thanatography, Derrida locates the arche-writing of the psychoanalytic literature and the primal scene of the psychoanalytic institution in the passage where the Viennese therapist invites his reader to speculate with him on the meaning of a scene taking place inside the marital bedroom of his late daughter, Sophie. Freud’s brief diversion into autobiography ushers us into what appears to be a disguised scene of writing. In order to gain a sense of control over the disappearances of his mother, Freud’s grandson Ernst plays with a little bobbin that he throws away pronouncing the sound o-o-o, interpreted by Freud as standing for the German word for “gone,” “fort,” and, pulling the thread, brings back repeatedly with the sound a-a-a, interpreted as “there,” “da.” The spool that comes and goes, that is dispatched in order to return, marks the magical mechanism of a substitution. It re-presents the mother (brings the mother back into presence) as a simulacrum, a phantom, or a supplement. The game involves the repetitive exchanges between conceptual oppositions (proximity/distance, presence/absence, life/death) that overlap as each term becomes haunted by its opposite as possibility and as threat. The relevance of the Freudian play to a number of Derrida’s critical concepts is crucial. The game involves the measuring of time (of the absence of the mother) through space (the length of the string), and vice-versa. The fort/da is the becoming-time of space and the becoming-space of time; what separates fort from da is temporization and spacing. Play, in other words, is another name for différance. Derrida often uses the graphic type fort:da in order to stress the fact that there is flow and contamination between fort and da and emphasize the presence of a hymen rather than a clear-cut boundary separating the two terms. As Derrida notes, “in its ‘overlapping’ the fort:da leads autobiographical specularity into an autothanatography that is in advance expropriated into heterography” (The Post Card 333). In the child’s game, the experience of the unmediated presence of the other, if such thing exists, is substituted by the logic of the trace. The absent mother returns by way of a spectral writing taking place in the trajectory of the spool that disappears leaving the line of the thread behind.

7There is a structural association between the economy of presence and absence that the fort/da plays upon and the workings of pleasure in the libidinal economy of the subject. The pleasure principle functions by way of dispatches of cathectic energy to external objects, like a correspondence that is being carried out, an exchange of letters moving back and forth for which Derrida coins the term postal principle. Pleasure binds subject to object like a thread through which libidinal energy circulates, is sent and is expected to return after a detour and through a circular trajectory back to the subject in order to be sent off again. In the process, pleasure is normally increased. In Freud’s economic model, as Derrida repeatedly states, the pleasure principle, like Freud himself, is a speculator.

8Derrida argues that a discourse on the fort/da is always subject to a play of fort/da itself. Freud’s writing, his legacy, his biography, and the history and future of the psychoanalytic movement are reflected in the anecdote of the spool which is repeated infinitely and set en abyme. The abyss of representation extends on the side of Derrida’s own discourse on the fort/da as the play mirrors his own writing, the performative qualities of his essay on Freud and the playfulness characterizing the sum total of his writings that comprise a body of work inseparable from his (auto)biography. His last “posthumous” short text, titled “Final Words,” an autothanatographical supplement to his biography, was read by his son Pierre Alféri in 2004 at his graveside, on the day of his funeral:

“Jacques wanted no rites and no orations. He knows from experience what an ordeal it is for the friend who takes on this task. He asks me to thank you for coming and to bless you. He beseeches you not to be sad, to think only of the many happy moments you gave him the chance to share with him.

Smile for me, he says, as I will have smiled for you until the end.

Always prefer life and constantly affirm survival . . .

I love you and am smiling at you from wherever I am.” (462)

9A funeral oration in reverse, one that is addressed from the deceased to the mourners, Derrida’s farewell note is placed within quotation marks that render the source of the text ambiguous. The intended effect is one of a ghostly ventriloquism. The son does not deliver a speech written in advance but speaks with the paternal phantom, allowing it to take possession of his speech for a brief moment. By letting the text slide from third to first person, Derrida makes his ghost appear before the gathered mourning friends and relatives through the voice of his son (in French fils, meaning also thread, a double meaning that Derrida exploits extensively in The Post Card) for a brief da before the final, irrevocable fort.

2. Paul Auster’s Scenes of Writing

10The New York Trilogy presents three different allegories of the act of writing staged in and around three different (crime) scenes of writing. The detective and the writer occupy positions that are concurrent or interchangeable, contingent on the twists and turns of the plot. Auster exploits the metafictional potential of detective stories by making the most of the homology “author: reader = criminal: detective,” one of the twenty rules of detective fiction introduced by crime novelist and critic S. S. Van Dine in 1928 (qtd. in Todorov 49). However, the homology is radically complicated and problematized as the boundary between detective and criminal is blurred, the detective functions as both reader and writer, and the issue of authorship remains open and undecidable. Moreover, in rendering the subject positions of author and reader, criminal and detective, unstable and interchangeable, Ghosts opens up issues of an ontological nature that exceed the limits of the epistemological paradigm of conventional works of detective fiction. As Scott A. Dimovitz points out, in The New York Trilogy “detection functions not so much as an issue of defining the terms of knowledge, but rather as an issue of defining the structures of subjectivity”(620).

11“The Book of Memory,” the second part of The Invention of Solitude, opens with the following passage: “He lays out a piece of blank paper on the table before him and writes these words with his pen. It was. It will never be again” (75). In very few words, Auster brings together several of the themes that I discuss in this essay: writing and loss, self-reflexivity and iterability, and hints at the whole problematic of the trace and the interplay of presence and absence which figures as a main question of interest here. Moreover, the same text is a meditation on the isolation and confinement of the writer in the closed space of his room. Auster works on a series of metaphors derived from the image of a man alone in a room: “Memory as a room, as a body, as a skull that encloses the room in which a body sits” (88). The room acquires further, arbitrary meanings that stem from wordplay: “The words rhyme, and even if there is no real connection between them, he cannot help thinking them together. Room and tomb, tomb and womb, womb and room. Breath and death” (159-160). Auster’s preoccupation with rooms and enclosed spaces covers the entire span of his oeuvre. A large part of his Winter Journal (2012) is dedicated to descriptions of the rooms and houses that have surrounded his body as its outer protective shell and have become the scenery of his work as a writer (59-112). The habitats are presented in chronological order, from the first home of his childhood in New Jersey, to the small “coffin-sized” room apartments of his youth, to the current residence in Brooklyn (66). In the more recent autobiographical work Report from the Interior (2013), he locates the source of this obsession with rooms and confinement in his childhood trauma associated with his parents’ unhappy marriage: “to be a part of that disaster when you were a boy no doubt drove you inward, turning you into a man that has spent the better part of his life sitting alone in a room” (48). In The New York Trilogy, the writer’s room becomes a fictional setting abounding with metafictional suggestion and paradoxical mirroring patterns, as well as a rich repository of metaphors and metonymies associated with the act of writing. The novels convey three different powerful images of confinement; the detective/writer finds himself trapped in the small space of a room, irrevocably lost and obsessively immersed in the solitary enterprise of writing.

12Ghosts is the most abstract and sketchy of the three works comprising the Trilogy. The novel functions as an extended metaphor on autobiography, an allegory on the condition of the writer watching the events of his life taking shape on the written page. Auster puts into effect a writing practice that challenges the limits of what we are accustomed to call fiction and define in opposition to discourses of the factual, that sometimes are sorted under the categories of testimony or (auto)biography. The setting is Brooklyn Heights and the narrative begins on 3 February 1947, the exact date Auster was born. Auster hints at the complicated relation that the novel bears with autobiography by choosing for its starting point the date that conventionally marks the opening of autobiographical narratives, that is, the date of the author’s birth.

13The plot is elementary: A detective named Blue is hired by White in order to tail a man called Black. The detective is led to a room across the street where Black lives, and is asked to watch him through his window and mail weekly reports to White. Blue is disappointed to realize that there is not much action in the job: Black does almost nothing but read, write, and look out of his window. Blue’s job to shadow Black constantly is a monotonous, passive, and solitary enterprise, one that bears an uncanny resemblance to the act of reading. Given the fact that White is in reality Black in disguise, Auster seems to imply that spying on Black means leaning over a white piece of paper and reading the black print.

14There are several instances in the novel where Auster stresses the elements of textuality and self-reflexivity. After having introduced the basic elements of the plot and characters, Auster makes an implicit yet striking reference to the act and process of writing, employing the metaphor of walking which had been a dominant motif in City of Glass: “Such is the way of the world: one step at a time, one word and then the next” (138). Before reaching a crucial moment for the development of the plot, Blue decisively states that “it’s time to turn the page” (167). The case, described by Blue in terms that invoke a literary narrative, becomes a trap that he cannot escape and the room becomes a prison cell of written words: “There is no story, no plot, no action—nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book. That’s all there is, Blue realizes, and he no longer wants any part of it. But how to get out? How to get out of the room that is the book that will go on being written for as long as he stays in the room?” (172). Auster moves freely on a chain of metonymic substitutions, as “room,” “book,” and “case” are used as interchangeable signifiers that point toward an elusive center that is never completely present, the recurring scene of a writing that is disseminated in a kaleidoscopic space without interior or exterior borders.

15Blue sees his monotonous, repetitive daily routine repeated in the room across the street. Soon, he realizes that Black has become his own reflection: “in spying out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself” (146). From the opposite perspective, Black, aware of the fact that he is constantly being gazed upon, is capable of returning Blue’s gaze through his own window. And Blue senses this spectral gaze: “It seems perfectly plausible to him that he is also being watched, observed by another in the same way that he has been observing Black” (170). Auster sets up a mise en scene of two mirrors facing each other, a setting that produces the phenomenon known in optics as infinite regress. Both Blue and Black see their reflections repeated infinitely in the mirror/text that the other becomes. The two characters take part in a dizzying topology that creates the unsettling effect of a mise en abyme. Each character becomes the simulacrum of the other, the other’s reflection, and both are caught within a confusing setting that produces folds in the texture of the plot—resulting in the overlapping of Blue and Black—and repetitions of repetitions that are extended ad infinitum. Paul Jahshan, in his essay “Paul Auster’s Specters,” a study of duplicity and mirroring in Ghosts, notes: “The vertiginous and writerly glance at the abyss opening up when the signified is finally seen as infinitely deferred and hence forever unattainable is allegorized most effectively by the mirror image with which Auster constructs a meta-literary, virtual representation of a writing looking back at itself” (392). The play of reflections expands and is developed as the narrative advances to extend, finally, beyond the limits of the book. Jahshan views the novel as an allegory of reading and interpretation that “reflects back our own specter and our own reading process” and that in “looking at Blue’s case through the frame of the book … we are also looking at Paul Auster looking at us” (404). “Duplicity,” Jahshan concludes, “doubles itself and becomes, one is tempted to say, quadruple, almost a quadruplicity” (404-405).

  • 4 On Derrida’s notion of the crypt, see “Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok.”
  • 5 The allusion here is to Peter Schlemihl, the man who sold his shadow to the devil, protagonist of A (...)

16The two rooms occupied by Blue and Black are settings in which a scene of writing is played out. Interior and exterior at the same time, open and secret, each room hosts the ghost that haunts the inhabitant of the room across the street. The author’s crypt,4 a space governed by the spectral effects of writing and the economy of death, folds into itself, is multiplied in the play of reflections, and is mirrored upon the space opened by the written text, Blue’s reports. The diction Auster employs when he describes the reports is quite telling: “for the past few months [Blue’s] reports have been exceedingly cryptic, no more than a paragraph or two, giving the bare bones and nothing else” (167, emphases added). According to Derrida, “the theory of the ‘ghost’ is not exactly the theory of the ‘crypt.’ It’s even more complicated. Although it’s also connected to the crypt, the ghost is more precisely the effect of another’s crypt in my unconscious” (The Ear of the Other 59). The crypt, the artificial space inside the Ego that hosts the incorporated phantom, according to Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s theorization to which Derrida refers in the above passage, is clearly presented in Ghosts as a space producing writing and textuality and is linked to a ghost-effect emanating from the crypt of the other. As inhabitants and captives occupying these spaces, Auster’s characters are reduced to traces of beings, subjects to the operations of the letter, shadows without bodies, like twin inverted Schlemihls5. Their mutual ghost hunt is a deadly struggle for the acquisition of a body in flesh and blood, as well as a textual corpus.

3. Playful Ghosts

17Frustrated by the passivity and boredom that the situation has inflicted upon him, Blue decides to act. Disguised as an old bum, he appears before Black during one of his strolls around the city. The two characters engage in a conversation from which we are led to assume that Black is a writer. “There are ghosts all around us,” says Black, referring to the historical personalities that have walked the specific street in the past (176). During their discussion, Black refers to figures of the American literary canon, namely, Whitman, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. He narrates the plot of Hawthorne’s short story “Wakefield,” the story of a man who decides to disappear from his wife and relatives for no apparent reason, rents a room near his house and hides there for years before he returns home as an old man, knocks on the door and thus the story reaches its abrupt ending. Black seems to imply that there is an autobiographical trait in “Wakefield” and that Hawthorne and Wakefield, like Blue and Black, are mirror images. The story reflects the condition of isolation and solitude that Hawthorne experienced as a writer, a condition to which both Blue and Black are subjected: “Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense a writer has no life of his own. Even when he’s there, he’s not really there” (178). Writing produces a ghost-effect, Black claims. It reduces the writer into a spectral (non)entity hovering in an undecidable space between being and non-being, presence and absence, “there” and “gone.”

  • 6 Freud has frequently been compared to a detective. See, for instance, Brooks 270: “Freud apparently (...)

18Blue gets fascinated by stories about detectives, unsolved cases that he reads about in magazines and films he watches during the frequent visits he pays to a movie theater. There, before the window of the movie screen, Blue indulges in watching black and white films, thus repeating uncannily his position in the room across Black’s. The narrative folds once more as the movie screen with the flickering black and white images overlaps with the window looking at Black/White. Auster provides a plot summary of one of Blue’s favorite movies, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 film noir Out of the Past, a story of a detective who decides to change his life and withdraws in a small town under a different name, until his past returns and the new life he has created collapses. Out of the Past, like “Wakefield,” involves the disappearance and subsequent return of a revenant; both stories are variations of a motif whose most abstract and elementary form may be identified in the fort/da game that Freud observed his grandson play, when, like a detective himself,6 he set off in search for clues about the mysterious beyond of the pleasure principle and was led to the theorization of the repetition compulsion and the death drive. Blue enacts his own fort/da game by appearing repeatedly before Black in disguise and disappearing again, thus postponing the final confrontation. “It’s got to be hide and seek, [Blue] says, hide and seek to the end” (181).

19The second time Blue and Black meet, an interesting reversal occurs. Black introduces himself to Blue as a private detective whose job is to watch someone and send a report about him every week. Black describes the details of the case to Blue and refers to the fact that he has come to identify with the object of his observation. About the object of the other man’s writings, Black pretends to take a guess: “I think he is writing about himself. The story of his life” (183). With this overt reference to autobiography, Auster provides his reader with a clue, a valuable interpretative tool for the reading of Ghosts that illuminates and at the same time complicates the relationship between Blue and Black. In writing his reports day after day, over a year’s period, Blue is actually composing a biography for Black, one that is dictated by Black from across the street. At the same time, the reports are also autobiographical, since for that period Blue’s life has been reduced to a reflection of Black’s. The limit separating self and other starts to blur as the paradoxical structure of the internal difference that disrupts autobiographical writing and auto-affection is literalized. Autobiography is also heterobiography, and Blue, the reader, becomes the author of the autobiography of the other.

20The play between proximity and distance, identity and difference, is soon interiorized and gradually becomes delirious. Blue reflects on the nature of his relation to Black:

There are moments when he feels so completely in harmony with Black, so naturally at one with the other man … On the other hand … (t)here are times when he feels totally removed from Black … It puzzles him that he should switch so rapidly from one state to another, and for a long time he goes back and forth between extremes, not knowing which one is true and which one is false. (158)

21Blue decides to break into Black’s room so as to terminate his torment by bringing the play into a halt. Before entering Black’s room, Blue is contemplating on the significance of the trespass: “From now on, he thinks, everything that happens will affect everything else. The door will open and after that Black will be inside of him forever” (186). Blue returns to Black’s room two more times. The second time, Blue takes advantage of Black’s absence and manages to steal some pages from the manuscript of the book he had been watching Black write. Being alone inside the other’s room, behind the mirror, Blue is once again faced with the threat of the total collapse of ontological difference and the elimination of the spacing required for the continuation of the game he has been part of: “To enter Black … was the equivalent of entering himself, and once inside himself, he can no longer conceive of being anywhere else. But this is precisely where Black is, even though Blue does not know it” (192). Upon returning to his own room, Blue realizes that the pages he has stolen are the reports he has been writing all along.

  • 7 Derrida summarizes his schema in the analogy PP (+ PR) / pp, whereby PP stands for the pleasure pri (...)

22In his final return to the room across the street, Blue is greeted by Black who awaits him masked and armed with a gun. “I’ve needed you from the beginning,” Black says, “[t]o remind me of what I was supposed to be doing. Every time I looked up you were there, watching me, following me, always in sight, boring into me with your eyes. You were the whole world to me, Blue, and I turned you into my death.” (196) Blue was hired in order to keep a constantly present gaze upon Black so as to become the author’s super-ego, to control Black and command his imprisonment, and at the same time bear witness to his solitude. The biography recorded in the reports is also a testimony of a writer’s self-imposed solitude, an image of complete isolation in a closed space without witnesses. Black’s claim that he has turned Blue into his death denotes the fact that the latter has been turned into the author of Black’s death, his thanatographer, an incarnation of the death drive. So long as Blue cooperates and complies with Black’s dictates, he functions as the embodiment of the Freudian drive for mastery, which must be exteriorized so that the self can become the object of control. In this sense, to recall Derrida’s schema from “To Speculate—On ‘Freud’,” Black corresponds to the pleasure principle and White, supplementing Black, to the reality principle. Blue obeys Black’s (and White’s) authority, as it is exercised by way of the postal principle, with the postal dispatches of his reports.7 When Blue decides to act independently of Black and turns against his authority, he turns into an aggressive and destructive entity, threatening the existence of Black himself, the archon, and his archive, comprised by the autobiographical reports. In Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995), Derrida speaks of the death drive as a subversive force which “destroys in advance its own archive,” effaces its traces, and “seems not only to be anarchic, anarchontic (we must not forget that the death drive, originary though it may be, is not a principle, as are the pleasure and reality principles): the death drive is above all anarchivic … It will always have been archive-destroying, by silent vocation” (10).

23Blue’s revolt against Black’s authority, manifested as his decision to end the game regulated and conducted by Black, entails the end of the autobiography and its substitution by its spectral supplement, autothanatography. In the end, the victimizer becomes the victim; the writer becomes the written. The last word written on Black is Blue’s violent assault on his body. Their physical conflict ends in murder:

Eventually, when Blue’s fury begins to abate and he sees what he has done, he cannot say for certain whether Black is alive or dead. He removes the mask from Black’s face and puts his ear against his mouth, listening for the sound of Black’s breath. There seems to be something, but he can’t tell if it’s coming from Black or himself. If he’s alive now, Blue thinks, it won’t be for long. (197)

  • 8 María Laura Arce notes the significance of the notion of inspiration in the novel, drawing on Mauri (...)

24With the doubt he instills about the source of the dying breath, the pneuma or spirit, a metonymy for the artist’s inspiration,8 Auster implicitly raises a question about the identity of the survivor and renders the difference between reader and author, detective and criminal, once again ambiguous. Black’s biography will soon be terminated when he reaches his biological death. The limit separating the bio-logical and the bio-graphical is for a moment radically challenged; gramme is no longer distinguishable from logos, writing from speech. Black’s autobiography reaches its impossible closure.

  • 9 In the “Time Capsule” section of Report from the Interior, Auster refers to a similar circular rout (...)

25Before leaving Black’s room, Blue collects the manuscripts lying on the desk. Thus, the reports return to the detective and the book to its writer. The text is situated within a closed postal economy, with its risks, relays, and delays, following the course of a closed circuit, from the sender to the receiver and back to the sender again. Auster narrates the paradoxical ex-appropriation of an archive of the self; the creation of an inheritance that is handed over to the heir, and the subsequent return of the specter in order to claim it back for itself. Derrida often refers to this problematic of sending and the paradoxical structure of the circular dispatch. One’s relation to oneself remains open so long as the closure of the circle of postal dispatches is interrupted by the other who intervenes from a spatial and temporal distance in order to respond or send the letter back. Even if the self and the other coincide, if the letter is addressed directly to its writer (the postal equivalent to auto-affection), the underlying structure is the same. One sends oneself a letter, one writes oneself in order to send, post, destine, and distance oneself, so as to receive the letter as a reassuring token of self-presence. However, the circle of self-presence is fundamentally disrupted by the possibility of non-arrival. As Derrida notes, “a letter does not always arrive at its destination, and from the moment that this possibility belongs to its structure one can say that it never truly arrives, that when it does arrive its capacity not to arrive torments it with an internal drifting” (The Post Card 489, emphasis in original).9 In Ghosts, the addressee acquires the role of the signatory in a structure of textual dispatches whereby sender and receiver overlap. The purloined letters reach their destination after a detour through Black’s room. The book, like Ernst’s spool, is sent away in order to return to the sender, who, finally, with a last stroke, places his signature on his book by killing the impostor.

4. Conclusion

26In his “Interview with Joseph Mallia,” included in The Art of Hunger, Auster comments on the writing of the second part of his autobiographical work, The Invention of Solitude: “I began writing it in the first person, as the first part had been written, but couldn’t make any headway with it … In order to write about myself, I had to treat myself as though I were someone else. It was only when I started all over again in the third person that I began to see my way out of the impasse” (267). In Winter Journal and Report from the Interior, Auster shifts to the second person to achieve a similar effect of distance from his object and address it/himself directly in his writing. Auster places himself before an invented specular image of himself, a double, so as to make himself an object of observation and investigate and explore “the interior of his own head” (Winter Journal 107). In Ghosts, he stages this split by dividing the subject of autobiography into the twin characters of Blue and Black. Moreover, since “[i]nvariably, Auster’s protagonists appear to be versions of Auster,” Blue and Black are both his doubles (Martin 130). Like Freud who performs in his writing a fort/da with the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Auster, employing his own performative discourse, moves back and forth between body and specter, himself and his characters, his work as a memoirist and his work as a novelist. Auster’s books of memoirs and his works of fiction mirror each other like the two characters of Ghosts. In both his novels and autobiographies, Auster speculates, in all three meanings of the word, on his own condition as a writer.

Haut de page


Arce, María Laura. Paul Auster and the Influence of Maurice Blanchot. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2016. Print.

Auster, Paul. The Invention of Solitude. 1982. London: Faber and Faber, 1988. Print.

---. The New York Trilogy. London: Faber and Faber, 1987. Print.

---. The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews and The Red Notebook. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.

---. Winter Journal. London: Faber and Faber, 2012. Print.

---. Report from the Interior. London: Faber and Faber, 2013. Print.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1992. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. 1967. Trans. Gayatry Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. Print.

---. “Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok.” 1976. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Foreword. The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonymy. By Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok. Trans. Nicholas Rand. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986. xi-xlviii. Print.

---. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. 1980. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago and London: The U of Chicago P, 1987. Print.

---. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. 1982. Trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988. Print.

---. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. 1995. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: The U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.

---. “Final Words.” Trans. Gila Walker. Critical Inquiry 33.2 (2007): 462. Print.

Derrida, Jacques and Geoffrey Bennington. Jacques Derrida. 1991. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago and London: The U of Chicago P, 1993. Print.

Dimovitz, Scott A. “Public Personae and the Private I: De-compositional Ontology in Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.Modern Fiction Studies 52.3 (2006): 613-33. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1920. Trans. James Strachey. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1961. Print.

Jahshan, Paul. “Paul Auster’s Specters.” Journal of American Studies 37.3 (2003): 389-405. Print.

Lavender, William. “The Novel of Critical Engagement: Paul Auster’s City of Glass.” Contemporary Literature 34 (1993): 219-39. Print.

Martin, Brendan. Paul Auster’s Postmodernity. London and New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Merivale, Patricia, and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney. “The Game’s Afoot: On the Trail of the Metaphysical Detective Story.” Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism. Ed. Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney. Philadelphia: U of Pensilvania P, 1999. 1-24. Print.

Russell, Alison. “Deconstructing The New York Trilogy: Paul Auster’s Anti-Detective Fiction.” Critique 31 (1990): 71-84. Print.

Spanos, William V. Repetitions: The Postmodern Occasion in Literature and Culture. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1987. Print.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. 1971. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1977. Print.1

Haut de page


1 William V. Spanos introduced the term anti-detective story in his essay “The Detective and the Boundary: Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination.” According to Spanos, “the paradigmatic literary archetype [the postmodern literary imagination] has discovered is the anti-detective story … the formal purpose of which is to evoke the impulse to ‘detect’ … in order to violently frustrate this impulse by refusing to solve the crime” (24-25). On the metaphysical detective story, see Merivale and Sweeney.

2 See for example Lavender 78, Russell 97.

3 See for example “Envois” in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond and “Circonfession” in Derrida and Bennington.

4 On Derrida’s notion of the crypt, see “Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok.”

5 The allusion here is to Peter Schlemihl, the man who sold his shadow to the devil, protagonist of Adelbert von Chamisso’s 1814 eponymous novella. Marx alludes to the work in his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) and Derrida does so as well, in Spectres de Marx (1993).

6 Freud has frequently been compared to a detective. See, for instance, Brooks 270: “Freud apparently was fully aware of the analogies between psychoanalytic investigation and detective work. Faced with fragmentary evidence, clues scattered within present reality, he who would explain must reach back to a story in the past which accounts for how the present took on its configuration … In his earliest case histories—those in the Studies on Hysteria (1895)—he almost explicitly assumes a Holmesian posture, pressing his patients for the symptomatic clues, reaching back to uncover a moment of trauma, a scene of crime that makes sense of all subsequent events.”

7 Derrida summarizes his schema in the analogy PP (+ PR) / pp, whereby PP stands for the pleasure principle, PR is the reality principle, and pp is the postal principle, and explains: “this is the generation of the master and the condition for rightful pleasure” (The Post Card 350, emphasis in original).

8 María Laura Arce notes the significance of the notion of inspiration in the novel, drawing on Maurice Blanchot’s appropriation of the myth of Orpheus: “Words came to Blue across the mirror that the window represented. That bridge governed at the other side by his double Black gave him the inspiration to write a story he knows by heart, because he is the author of it. With Orpheus’s gaze and Blue’s transgression, Blue’s death and disappearance begin. By fusing with Black, by killing Black, he is melting with his signified and therefore he vanishes among the words of his creation. The work of fiction is finished and with it, Blue and the novel Ghosts too” (92).

9 In the “Time Capsule” section of Report from the Interior, Auster refers to a similar circular route of letters. A short period after he started writing the book, he received in his mail the letters he had written as a late adolescent and young adult to the young woman who would later become his first wife, fiction writer and translator Lydia Davis. Auster observes: “you were … visiting yourself as a young man, reading words you had written so long ago that you felt as though you were reading the words of a stranger, so distant was that person to you now, so alien, so unformed” (181).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Giorgos GIANNAKOPOULOS, « Inside Paul Auster’s Crypt: Autobiography and Spectrality in Ghosts », E-rea [En ligne], 15.1 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2017, consulté le 19 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6079

Haut de page



National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece
Giorgos Giannakopoulos is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of English Studies of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. He holds an MA in Literature, Culture, and Ideology from the same department. His academic interests include American literature, deconstruction, and psychoanalysis.

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals