Ghostliness and Purgatorial Wastelands in Modernist Literature


British / Global Anglophone

Joshua Elwer (Heidelberg University)

Stefano Rossi (University of Padua)

This panel revolves around the passion of several modernist authors for the theme of ghostliness: spectrality and indefiniteness are in fact pivotal elements in several modernist literary works. Dealing with the destabilising finiteness of human existence and the precarity of a universe (shell-)shocked by the horrific impact of the war, modernist literature often presents characters deprived of their awareness of being alive. J. Joyce, T. S. Eliot, V. Woolf, S. Beckett – to mention only some – often depict spectral figures that appear as stuck in between life and death, neither utterly living, nor dead. Associated to the deranged and the marginalised, several modernist characters find themselves disoriented in a (non-)world made up of rubbles, insanity, and nothingness, where, haunted by the memory of the trauma (and by the trauma of memory), they meditate on the utter pointlessness and meaninglessness of existence. Exiled to a provisional world and persecuted by the horrors of the war, the modernist character is condemned to wander aimlessly in purgatorial wastelands in which no salvation seems to be conceived. Spectral figures in modern literature become thus symbols of a society that has failed miserably: what does the modernist engagement with spectrality say about modernist characters and modernist aesthetic? How does modernist writers narrate ghostliness in their works? Is there a connection between ghostliness and the alienation that psychosis or trauma might cause? What is the role of trauma in the construction of one’s own condition of spectrality? How does ghostliness impact on the identity of modernist characters?

The theme of ghostliness is often present in modernist literature and boundaries between life and death are very often blurred. What can the recurrent invocation of spectrality say about modernism and modernists? How do modernist authors represent their characters who dwell a death in life (or a life in death)?