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Ghosts in John Banville’s The Sea

Les fantômes dans The Sea de John Banville
Pierre Vitoux


When the narrator of The Sea returns after fifty years to the place by the sea where his years of childhood had come to a tragic end, he notes that his sense of the uncanny is unorthodox, since its origin is not, or not chiefly, the presence around him of the ghosts from the past, but the aura surrounding the new world he had discovered in his innocence. But the reader finds itertextual clues in the text to solve the apparent paradox. They refer him to Freud’s description of the unending struggle of the ego to maintain a coherent personality, and also to his early speculations in his essay ‘The ‘Uncanny’ ‘ about what he will call the death instinct. That instinct is intertextually related in the novel to the ‘high instincts’, the ‘intimations of immortality’ of Wordsworth’s Ode, but as their obverse, so that the myth of the birth out of the sea is here steeped in the mood of serene disenchantment characteristic of the ironic mode of post-Romantic fiction.

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1‘How is it that in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known returning in a different form, become a revenant? So many unanswerables, this the least of them’ (Banville 2005, 10).

  • 1 This essay is the outcome of the discussions in a post-graduate seminar on ‘Fiction beyond ‘Realism (...)

2The chief of the authorities referred to is, of course, Freud. But what puzzles the aging narrator at that early stage in John Banville’s novel is the apparently unorthodox nature of his personal experience, since for him the ‘aura of the uncanny’ is attached not to the return of the past, but to the discovery of the new. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that the answer to his query lies in the essential ambivalence of Freud’s and Banville’s ghosts.1

3In Freud’s essay Das Unheimliche, translated under the title of The ‘Uncanny’, the initial definition is, in effect, that ‘the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’. But Freud acknowledges that the definition is based on a paradox. How is it possible for what is familiar, heimlich, and so normally experienced as comfortable, ‘homely’ and reassuring, to become ‘uncanny, frightening’ (Freud 1919, 340)? ‘Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or the other a sub-species of heimlich’ (Freud 1919, 347). This ambivalence is difficult to render in translation. ‘Uncanny’ has by now become accepted and to some extent specialized in the Freudian sense. But in French L’inquiétante étrangeté conveys only one half of the meaning, and Jacques Derrida, in a text to which I shall return, feels the need to redouble the translation: ‘There is no Dasein of the spectre, but there is no Dasein without the disquieting strangeness, the strange familiarity (l’inquiétante étrangeté, l’étrange familiarité) of some spectre’ (Derrida 1993, 165).

4Freud explains the paradox by way of Schelling’s remark that ‘everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’ (Freud 1919, 345). So, the aura of the uncanny attends the sudden and unbidden emergence into our experience of what is and should remain buried in the unconscious, of ‘something familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression’ (Freud 1919, 363–364).

5The manifestations to which the uncanny is attached always involve the phenomenon of the ‘double’. ist usual forms are self-duplication (the doppelgänger), identification with another self, and the return of the dead as ghosts. Freud then notes that the uncanny feeling can also result from ‘the repetition of the same thing’, in the abnormal recurrence of the same object or event or through the subjective ‘compulsion to repeat’, but he does not for the moment attempt to ‘trace [it] back to infantile psychology’ and refers the reader to his work soon to be published, Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

6Freud’s conclusion is that the sense of the uncanny proceeds from the recurrence of ‘the old animistic conception of the universe [. . .] characterized by the idea that the world was peopled with the spirits of human beings’ and manifesting the ‘narcissistic overvaluation of the power of man’s mental processes’ which led primitive men to strive through magic and rites to fend off death and resist the ‘manifest prohibitions of reality’ (Freud 1919, 362–363). Since the phases of human evolution are recapitulated in the development of the individual, the ‘primary narcissism’ naturally dominates the mind of the child. It has to be repressed under the pressure of social education. It is important to note, however, that the effect of the uncanny results from the persisting trace in the unconscious of the child’s natural, innocent apprehension of the world.

7At this point, Freud, who has so far used the words ‘repressed’ and ‘surmounted’ indifferently, elaborates a distinction between the two terms. In fact, both include the process of repression proper as well as the resulting unconscious material. The difference is between subjective and objective truth-value. The experience of the uncanny occurs when some impression revives the infantile narcissism persisting in the mind as repressed ‘ideational content’. That content as such is real, and it is an object of knowledge through psychoanalytic inquiry. Such an experience, however, often takes the form of the apparition of a double. Since man has become civilized by ‘surmounting’ (Freud adds ‘at least to a large extent’) his primitive animistic conception of the universe, the possibility of the double as a ‘real’ supernatural creature is dismissed. The experience must be finally considered as purely subjective, standing in a non-cognitive relation with the outside world that has given it occasion to arise. Ghosts are no more than such stuff as dreams are made on. Freud, recording the sudden apparition of his ‘double’ in a mirror, argues that it could not ‘raise the kind of fear which can be described as ‘a fear of something uncanny’’, since it is immediately interpreted as a reflection. He confesses, however, to a fleeting sense of ‘dislike’ manifesting the ‘vestigial trace of the archaic reaction which feels the ‘double’ to be uncanny’, and he concedes that ‘these two classes of uncanny experience are not always sharply distinguishable’ (Freud 1919, 371–372).

8That situation recurs in a different form in the case of literature, which is not submitted to reality-testing. Freud, however, makes a sharp distinction between the two modes of imaginative and realist fiction. On one side, we find the fairy-tale. The world it creates may be a projection of the old animist system of belief, but the very postulate that it is pure wish-fulfiment excludes the uncanny by dismissing any possibility of conflict with the real. On the other side, the writer who ‘pretends to move in the world of common reality’ must ultimately accept its laws. He may multiply the uncanny effects, of coincidence and apparitions. He may stimulate the reader’s imagination to provoke the Coleridgean ‘willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith’. Fiction may for a time play even the game of the fantastic, maintaining its balance on the line of division betweeen the imaginary and the mimetic. But it must finally decide on which side to fall. More significant for our present concern, however, is the effect of double perspective, for instance in the case of the ghost in Hamlet. Since he appears to us within the setting of poetic reality, he creates no direct effect of uncanniness, but we share by empathy Hamlet’s doubts and his uncanny sense that the figure he at first called an ‘illusion’ may have, if not flesh and blood reality, at least a spiritual existence as a suffering and revengeful revenant.

9What makes Freud’s essay notoriously slippery, difficult to grasp firmly, is that it is a work of transition to what is called his second topography (topique), which may for our present purpose be summarized as a critical revision of the Reality Principle. In his later essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud notes that what we call objective reality results from the filtering and ordering of our perception through the Kantian forms and categories of time and space, substance and causality, which cannot properly be called ‘necessary forms of thought’, but act as a shield protecting a special mode of development, that of the individual organisms, ‘threatened by the enormous energies at work in the external world [. . .] which tend towards a levelling out of them and hence towards destruction’ (1920, 299). Freud does not question the pragmatic necessity of that filtering, but he concedes that what the unconscious, free from time and space, preserves at the core of individual existence is the trace of its emergence out of the impersonal stream of life. Besides, he modifies his original view of the relation of Reality Principle and Pleasure Principle as a constructive dialectic, in which the RP was in a sense an extension of the PP, striving to raise man’s primitive instinctual nature to the level of civilized existence and a higher form of pleasure. Of course, he had all along been aware of the sacrifices that had to be made in the process. Now, however, he sees that the progress of civilization, culminating in the modern industrial system and the bourgeois morality, has carried the repression of the instincts far beyond what is pragmatically justified. He is thus led to a more complex view of the formation of the Ego. The status of the RP has been usurped by a power working for the destruction of the PP. His conclusion, in the concise formulation of Civilization and its Discontents (1930) is that besides the instinct to develop organic life and multiply its individual forms (Eros) ‘there must exist another contrary instinct seeking to dissolve those units and bring them back to their primaeval, inorganic state [. . .] an instinct of death’ (Freud 1930, 310). Life and Death are not in a relation of contradiction, they are Contraries in the sense defined by Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence’ (Blake 149). The individual Ego is finally dissolved, but it has managed (in Freud’s words in Beyond the Pleasure Principle) to ‘follow its own path to death,’ gaining the time to perpetuate and multiply the species in the service of Eros (see Freud 1920, 309–311).

10Jacques Derrida, in his extended running commentary on Beyond the Pleeasure Principle, carries further the implications of that fundamental ambivalence. Existence is an ‘economy of death’ (in the double sense of arrêt de mort, as both sentence and reprieve). ‘Ce qui garde la vie (watches over and preserves it) reste dans la mouvance (within the range and power) de ce qui garde la mort’ (Derrida 1980, 383). The Freudian death-instinct, as a permanent force which can erupt and haunt the ego through the daemonic power of the uncanny, is not destructive, but disruptive of selfhood in so far as the latter tends to constitute itself as a self-enclosed entity, that is in the return to the primitive narcissism of an onanistic Eros, no longer seminal and creative. It is an impulse to self-questioning and self-transcendence (or ‘differing’, différance) which leaves the self open to otherness, to what is unexpected or alien. In Spectres de Marx, Derrida calls upon the spectres to fight the new avatar of the totalitarian eschatological closure, Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’. But history is only one aspect of human existence. Derrida remarks, in a note referring to Freud, that ‘the logic of spectrality [is] indissociable f rom the very motif, no longer to be called the ‘idea’, of deconstruction’ (Derrida 1993, 24). And the brief passage quoted above, on the meaning of Heimlichkeit, asserts that the spectre has no Dasein, that is no existence separate from that of the self in the space-time dimension, but that it is indissolubly part of that existence: it has an existential reality, manifesting the presence within the self of a timeless past and an unrestrictedly open future (Derrida 1993, 24, 165).

11Max Morden’s narration takes its momentum from the crisis of Anna’s terminal cancer. It moves him to return one year later to the place by the seaside where he had been taken in childhood for his holidays. There, he re-lives his memories of his final summer, in an enchanted world which, as the opening sentence of the novel tells us, became suddenly disenchanted when ‘[they] departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide’ (Banville 2005, 3). The retrospective narrative moves freely through the three periods. So, early in the novel, at the crucial moment when Max is waiting for Doctor Todd’s verdict, immediate death or a life-sentence, present and past begin to ‘run together’ (in a passage here quoted with my italicizing of some key words): ‘I seemed to inhabit a twilit netherworld in which it was scarcely possible to distinguish dream from waking [. . .] as if it were I and not Anna who was destined soon to be one among the already so numerous shades. [. . .] On all sides there were portents of mortality. I was plagued by coincidences; long-forgotten things were suddenly remembered; objects turned up that for years had been lost. My life seemed to be passing before me, not in a flash as it is said to do for those about to drown, but in a sort of leisurely convulsion, emptying itself of its secrets and its quotidian mysteries in preparation for the moment when I must step into the black boat on the shadowed river with the coin of passage cold in my already coldening hand. Strange as it was, however, this imagined place of pre-departure was not entirely unfamiliar to me. On occasion in the past [. . .] I had felt myself break through the membrane of mere consciousness into another state, one which had no name, where ordinary laws did not operate, where time moved differently if it moved at all, where I was neither alive nor the other thing, and yet more vividly present than ever I could be in what we call, because we must, the real world. And even years before that again, standing for instance with Mrs Grace in that sunlit living room, or sitting with Chloe in the dark of the picture-house, I was there and not there, myself and revenant, immured in the moment and yet hovering somehow on the point of departure. Perhaps all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it’ (Banville 2005, 96–98).

12That experience, then, is typically uncanny, both strange and familiar. We note that it includes, besides the omnipresence of the ghost in the form of the double of the self, the symptoms of the Freudian death-instinct, recurrence and compulsive repetition, emphasized by the traditional evocation of the Styx, but also, with ‘portents of mortality’, by the transposition into the negative of the title of Wordsworth’s Ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. It finds its material in scenes from the past, but differs totally from the common return down memory lane. ist peculiar character may be made clear if we contrast it with Proust’s remembrance of things past. At the end of the Proustian search, time regained brings with it the sense that ‘there had been no discontinuity, that not for one instant had I ceased to exist, to think, to be conscious of myself, since that former moment still adhered to me, so that I could still return to it, just by going still deeper into myself’ (Proust 1927, 1047, my translation). Here, on the contrary, the ego goes deep enough to ‘break through’ the barriers delimiting consciousness into another ‘state’, the unconscious where the laws of the ordinary world are suspended. There is discontinuity, in the sense that the past recurs in separate scenes free from the order of time. And, above all, the experience is one of dissociation, not unity of the self. The individual self is both held together by his memories and divided by the sense that they belong to two modes of being, opposed and yet indivisibly constitutive of his existence, and each haunting the other. He is pursued in the present by the ghosts from the past he has buried within himself. Conversely, at the times when he revives that past, he also appears in it as a ‘revenant’, ‘vividly present’, co-present with the past manifestation of his own self, alive in the scene as well as to all that surrounds him. The self remains ever suspended between two worlds, ‘immured’ in the world of time and space as well as ‘hovering on the point of leaving it’.

13How, then, can the revenant be told from the self? We cannot stick to the simple alternative ‘alive or dead’. The concept ‘dead’ has no other content than ‘not alive’. We must move beyond the empirical logic of contradiction with its reciprocal exclusion of the opposites, life or death, to define ‘the other thing’ as a contrary. We must restore the sense of existence in time (dasein) as life-and-death. The entity of the ghost is paradoxical (opposed to common sense), as a supplement to the ego empirically defined, and on that account distinct but not detached from the self, still a participant, both manifest and secret (and so uncanny), in the world of space and time. It can be more or less subtle in its essence and manifestation. ist popular form as a visible phantom is a revival of primitive animism. It can move around us as the haunting invisible presence of the familiar dead. But its most frequent and powerful form is the double of the self.

14John Banville’s fascination for ghosts is part of his interest in the randomness and inconsistency of what we call ‘personality’ and tend to hold as the ‘authentic’ manifestation of our ego. Freud, in his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (a presentation of his second topography), says that ‘the ego, driven by the id, confined by the superego, repulsed by reality, struggles to master the economic task of bringing about harmony among the forces and influences working in and upon it’ (Freud 1933, 110–111). How then can we experience or postulate the coherence and permanence of that elusive, Protean ego?

15That question runs in various forms through all of John Banville’s fiction. Victor Maskell’s memoir, The Untouchable, is the record of his double life, as an art critic now become part of the Establishment and as an agent, in fact a double agent, in the secret services, and it is his ultimate attempt to ‘make sense’ of himself as ‘all of a piece, and yet broken up into a myriad selves’ (Banville 1997, 34). In Shroud, Axel Vender (the fictional projection of Paul de Man) is threatened by the unearthing of the younger self he had thought safely buried, though permanently undermining from within the persona he has managed to build, and he reflects for himself: ‘I wonder if other people feel as I do, seeming not so much a person as a contingency, misplaced and adrift in time’ (Banville 2002, 68–69). In Ghosts, Freddie Montgomery, remanded from prison and relegated to a nearly desert island, wishes to redefine and refine himself. ‘True, there is no getting away from the passionate attachment to self, that I-beam set down in the dead centre of the world and holding the whole rickety edifice in place. All the same, I was determined at least to try to make myself into a—what do you call it?—a monad. And then to start again, empty.’ But ‘I was myself no unitary thing. I was like nothing so much as a pack of cards, shuffling into other and yet other versions of myself [. . .]’ (Banville 1993, 212-213). But the emptiness around and within him is soon filled, with the landing of castaway ghosts from his past, and his life is haunted by Vaublin, himself the ghostly emanation from several ‘real’ painters (Vermeer, Poussin, Watteau) flitting from one of Banville’s novels to another, to become in The Sea the object of Claire’s studies

16Max faces the same problem of identity: ‘From earliest days I wanted to be someone else [. . .]. It was not what I was that I disliked, I mean the singular essential me—although I grant that even the notion of an essential, singular self is problematic—but the congeries of affects, inclinations, received ideas, class tics that my birth and upbringing have bestowed on me in place of personality’. Every individual, however, and every character in fiction, is the unique product of a personal history. What is characteristic of Max in this novel is his need of a return to the years of childhood and his radical speculation about the ‘problematic’ notion of the self’ (Banville 2005, 216).

17We have few details in the novel about the intervening years between the end of his childhood and the final crisis (although he appears in that interval as a shady art dealer at the background of Athena). What we are told concerns his relation with Anna, and involves the question he states in general ‘philosophic’ terms: ‘Who, if not myself, was I? The philosophers tell us that we are defined and have our being through others’ (Banville 2005, 217). The marriage Anna offers is ‘the chance to fulfil the fantasy of myself’ and to build up a reasonably coherent ego, though it can make no claim to impossible authenticity (Banville 2005, 105). He finds in her someone who suffers from the same difficulté d’être, and what they establish is a relation of complicity and conflicts which becomes necessary to the existence of both. That is why her death leaves him not just alone, but amputated

18He senses that his peculiar vulnerability has its origin in the distant past, in his last summer by the seaside, when he was admitted into the circle of the Grace family: the faun-like father, the plump and shapely mother, young elusive Chloe, and her fey twin brother Myles. Recollecting his falling in love with Chloe, he says: ‘In her I had the first experience of the absolute otherness of other people. It is not too much to say—well, it is, but I shall say it anyway—that in Chloe the world was first manifest to me as an objective entity. [. . .] And if she was real, so, suddenly, was I. She was I believe the true origin in me of self-consciousness’. So, he returns to rediscover his childhood, ‘the time of the gods’, and of the golden days of innocence.

19We must here revert to the narrator’s initial query about the nature of the uncanny. What uncannily haunts him in his present is, in a sense, the past, with the resurrection of the child he was. But in so far as he is a revenant in his own past, re-assuming after fifty years the child’s vision of the world, there is an effect of double perspective. What is is seen as old through the eyes of experience is discovered as new by the child in his innocence. But the child’s vision can also in its own right invest its object with the aura of the uncanny, for it is from the first a struggle to adjust to the world of experience, which is for him unheimlich in the primary sense of ‘unfamiliar’. We have seen that, according to the Freudian metapsychology, the ego is formed through the attempt to overcome infantile narcissism and control the death instinct. So, what is repressed in the process and resurfaces at any time with an uncanny effect is neither new nor old, but immemorial, in the sense of being innate, antecedent to individual experience. William Blake, in one of his Notes written on the Pages of the Four Zoas, suggests that the inevitable conflict between Innocence and Experience can be transcended into what he calls ‘the fourfold vision’: ‘Unorganiz’d Innocence: An Impossibility. Innocence dwells with wisdom but never with Ignorance’ (Blake 380). Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria refers to the same process of repression, but to be followed backwards as de-familiarization, when he defines Wordsworth’s poetry as arousing through the power of imagination ‘a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the mind’s attention [. . .]’ and directing it to ‘the wonders of the world before us’, which have become obscured by ‘the film of familiarity’ (Coleridge 147).

20That is the very theme of Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode. There was a time when ‘every common sight’ was ‘apparelled in celestial light’ (Ode I 279). But the infant is left on the strand by the tide that brought him, the shades of the ‘prison house’ of life close on the growing boy, and soon the vision ‘dies away’ and fades ‘into the light of common day’ (Ode V 281). He becomes an actor, playing successive roles, ‘[a]s if his whole vocation were endless imitation’ (Ode VII 282). But the man’s ‘shadowy recollections’, aroused by the sight of the ‘immortal sea which brought us hither’, and of ‘the children sporting upon the shore’, if they fail to restore the ‘delight and liberty’ of the years of innocence, have the power to sustain the adult’s ‘obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things’ and to make his ‘noisy years seem moments in the being of the eternal silence’ (Ode IX 283).

  • 2 That Note is interesting in relation to the sense of the ‘uncanny’ derived from the experience of w (...)

21Wordsworth, in his Note to the poem, does not go so far as to hold up those ‘intimations of immortality’ as actual reminiscences from a personal existence in another mode of being, but he presents them as part of a myth attesting the universal sense that time and space are not the ultimate reality, which is manifested as the child advances towards manhood by moments of uncanny de-realization (Wordsworth’s term is ‘idealisation’) of the world that surrounds him (Wordsworth 463–464).2

22What Max achieves through the return to his past is ambivalent. It confirms his awareness of the discontinuity of his ego, but it also engages him in a quest for the identity of a deeper self, surviving in time and possibly surviving time. Some distant but distinct textual echoes indicate that it follows a course parallel to the Immortality Ode, but reaches very different conclusions. He returns to a time of already troubled, disorganized innocence, the last days of the gods who will disappear with the ‘strange tide’ at the end of the summer. The picnic with the Grace family is evoked as a scene from the world of Watteau’s Fêtes galantes, or perhaps even more of the mythic Vaublin’s last and enigmatic picture Le monde d’or, The Golden Age (mentioned in Ghosts, and maybe itself a fake). When he sits entranced at the feet of Mrs Grace, he looks up to her as a giant goddess, in a spirit of pagan worship. But the apotheosis is brief, vanishing in a Panic dance of fauns and maenads, and the child soon remembers in crude terms her erotic display (Banville 2006, 121), though the narrator will realize only at the last that it had been intended not for him, but for the eyes of Rose, the companion of the children.

23But his closest tie is with the twins. He is, as narrator, that ‘phantom version’ of himself, the revenant, who watches the three children (for he is himself included) lingering ‘there on the strand in the half-light by the darkening sea that seems to arch its back like a beast as the night fast advances’ (137). The fact that Myles is web-footed and mute is a trace of his amphibian nature, and the sign of his incapacity to move away from the strand and further inland. Chloe is not his identical twin, but they have their private games and secret forms of communication, and she too stands uncertain, confused and angry, at the gate of the ‘prison house’ of life. She chooses to remain tied to her brother when he is claimed back by the great tide, and swims out and into the ‘indifferent world’ that soon closes upon both (Banville 2006, 244).

24The sea as a symbol, through images like itself endlessly repeated and renewed in myths, represents the cycle of life and death. The myth of the birth out of the immortal sea may be interpreted in an act of Wordsworthian faith: as the promise that our ‘noisy years’ will remain as ‘moments in the being of the eternal silence’, that our ‘shadowy recollections’ of a prior state of being are the manifestation of our ‘high instincts’, and an intimation of immortality (Ode IX 283). We can see the new naked self on the shore as the perpetuation in rebirth of an old self, perhaps our own, dispossessed of all its personal attributes, but starting again to assemble ‘some fragments from his dream of human life’ before engaging in earnest in the task of playing his successive roles (Ode VII 282).

25But what Max attains to is not Wordsworth’s ‘philosophic mind’ bringing ‘the faith that looks through death’ to the survival of the soul (Ode X 284). The sea appears as a monster ready to devour, indifferent to the individual human being. We must look into death without fear, but also without illusions, for we cannot see beyond it. ‘True, there will be something of us that will remain’, but the Wordsworthian echo here emphasizes the difference: for if something lives in our embers and survives beyond dissolution, ‘it is not immortality’ (Banville 2006 119). Just as we take form as individuals through our relation with others, so we persist as images, multiplied but also slowly becoming indistinct, in the memory of others. Each individual existence is one brief moment in the continued struggle of life to expand and diversify. It is bound to be at some point overtaken and overwhelmed by the opposite force of entropy, the death instinct which is the wish for the return to an undifferentiated state of being. What the next forward movement of the tide will deposit on the strand is a new naked self. The Sea concludes on a farewell to the illusions of the enchanted world of childhood. The mood is one of disenchantment, and it is typical of the mode that Northrup Frye names Irony: the return to myth in a cyclical vision of time, and in a spirirt of self-deprecating scepticism towards the claims of the ego, which is for him the proper mode of Modern post-Romantic fiction.

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Banville, John, The Untouchable (1997), London: Picador, 1998.

Banville, John, Ghosts (1993) and Athena (1995) in.Frames Trilogy, London: Picador, 2001.

Banville, John, Shroud (2002), London: Picador, 2003.

Banville, John, The Sea (2005), London: Picador, 2006.

Blake, William, Complete Writings, Oxford: OUP, 1969.

Coleridge, S.T., Biographia Literaria (1817), London: Everyman, 1949.

Derrida, Jacques, «Spéculer—sur Freud», La Carte Postale, Paris: Flammarion, 1980.

Derrida, Jacques, Spectres de Marx, Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1993.

Freud, Sigmund, quoted with reference to the volumes and in the translation of The Pelican Freud Library, Penguin Books. The ‘Uncanny’ (14, 1919), Beyond the Pleasure Principle ( 11, 1920), Civilization and its Discontents (12, 1930), New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (2, 1933).

Proust, Marcel, Le Temps retrouvé (1927), Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1957, vol. III.

Wordsworth, William, The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, edited by E. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, vol. IV, Oxford: OUP (1966).

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1 This essay is the outcome of the discussions in a post-graduate seminar on ‘Fiction beyond ‘Realism’’ held jointly in 2006–2007 by Jean-Michel Ganteau and Pierre Vitoux at the Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3.

2 That Note is interesting in relation to the sense of the ‘uncanny’ derived from the experience of what is new. I quote it here, for it is not easily accessible (it is not included in the OUP one- volume edition): ‘Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being. [. . .] But it was not so much from feelings of animal vivacity that my difficulty came as from a sense of the indomitableness of the spirit within me. [. . .] I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or a tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality. At that time I was afraid of such processes. In later periods of life I have deplored, as we have all reason to do, a subjugation of an opposite character, and have rejoiced over the remembrances [. . .]. To that dream-like vividness and splendour which invest objects of sight in childhood, every one I believe, if he could look back, could bear testimony, and I need not dwell upon it here: but having in the Poem regarded it as the presumptive evidence of a prior state of existence, I think it right to protest against a conclusion, which has given pain to some good and pious persons, that I meant to inculcate such a belief’ (W. to Mrs Clarkson, Dec. 1814).

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Electronic reference

Pierre Vitoux, Ghosts in John Banville’s The SeaÉtudes britanniques contemporaines [Online], 34 | 2008, Online since 28 May 2019, connection on 20 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Pierre Vitoux

Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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