Learning to Talk with Ghosts: Canadian Gothic and the Poetics of Haunting in Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach

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Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,437 words

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[(essay date spring 2006) In the following essay, Castricano suggests that Monkey Beach communicates with the aboriginal past by inverting the psychological and literary strictures of European dominance.]

In Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida claims that 'learn[ing] to live' is difficult because we have to learn from ghosts. According to Derrida, this means learning how to talk 'with' ghosts (176). The task of learning how to talk with ghosts is complex, however, because, as I have argued elsewhere, 'talking with ghosts does not only mean being in conversation with them. It also means to use them instrumentally and, in turn, whether one knows it or not, to be used by them.' Similarly, learning to 'talk with ghosts' is complicated by the understanding that 'the word with produces a sense of simultaneity and doubleness' and, thus, gives rise to an uncanny uncertainty regarding subjectivity or autobiography (134). Finally, as Derrida has observed, to learn to live and to learn to talk with ghosts is further complicated by the pedagogical questions which hang in the balance: 'to learn to live: a strange watchword. Who would learn? From whom? To teach to live, but to whom? Will we ever know how to live and first of all what "to learn to live" means?' (xvii). In Western thought this undertaking has proven precarious because it involves rethinking what Derrida refers to as 'the sharp distinction between the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living, being and non-being ... in the opposition between what is present and what is not' (11). Of course, prior to Derrida's questioning of Western metaphysics, such radical rethinking lay already within the purview of the Gothic, historically, an aesthetically disavowed and morally repudiated genre that nevertheless deals in the epistemological and ontological aporias apparent in the totalizing gestures in Enlightenment value and thought.1 As Derrida has pointed out, these aporias are sites of contradiction in any ideology that pretends to totality. Yet there appear fissures in the system; these are faultlines that, according to Jeremy Hawthorn, 'authority tries to conceal ... while dissidence attempts to expose them--often in transposed or disguised forms' (114). Usually, the Gothic can be seen to engage in such exposures, transpositions, and disguises by dealing in what is often barred from consciousness yet returns to haunt the living in the form of a ghostly inheritance: 'the untold or unsayable secret, the feeling unfelt, the pain denied, the unspeakable and concealed shame of families, the cover-up of political crimes, the collective disregard for painful historical realities' (Rand, 21). In the Gothic tradition, coming to terms with the unspeakable means, paradoxically, learning how to talk with ghosts, a task which not only takes the form of a legacy but also brings with it the responsibility of an heir.

In Eden Robinson's novel Monkey Beach, the contemporary Haisla of Kitimaat Village on the northern coast of British Columbia are haunted by the legacy of European contact. For the Haisla,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100104218