There is no sleep so deep
On hosting ghosts
There is no sleep so deep that I would not hear you there.
— Samuel Beckett, Footfalls
Writing this text is like returning to Rua do Poço dos Negros no. 55 in Lisbon. The invitation to the residency program at RE.AL made me a guest in that house for eleven days and twelve nights. The invitation to contribute to this book made me return to the word GHOST that was written all over the place like smeared graffiti. It was also written by the front door when I entered. While writing this text, reading, watching, I saw the word GHOST multiply; discovered it all around me, not always visible at first sight but appearing in due time—an apparition. How could I have failed to see it before? A guest, an intruder, a lover, a stranger, a parasite, a host… What, has this thing appeared again tonight? (1)
Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us;
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
“Before we see the ghost, the ghost sees us,” writes Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx. For him, writing in French, the very name “spectre” says that the ghost is the “frequency of a certain visibility: the visibility of the invisible.” Frequency is an important term here. ‘Tis here, ‘tis here. – ‘Tis gone. Now you see it, now you don’t. A cinematic apparatus: without the darkness between the images, there would be no film. Without that which escapes our seeing, there would be no seeing. It is common for a ghost to appear when and where we didn’t expect to see anything, and to disappear or remain invisible when we had expected to see something. The ghost comes and goes unexpectedly. It defies the common rules of perception and how we usually relate to the world. Time, distance, identity—when a ghost appears, all this is thrown into crisis. The ghost checks us. Enter ghost—somebody facing us “out of nowhere.” “Who is this?” – “Who is asking?” The questions echo. Is it me or the other who speaks? Speak! I charge thee, speak! – Exit Ghost. – ‘Tis gone, and will not answer.
Frequency has a temporal meaning. It suggests movement, regular or not, a come-and-go of occurring and disappearing, arrival and departure, departure and arrival. Enter ghost—exit ghost. Derrida notes that visitare, “to visit,” denotes the temporality or frequency of seeing—visere: “to see.” The ghost is a visitor; the visitor is akin to the ghost. As guests we enter the realm of the ghostly and our visit might turn into a visitation. To accept this, we need to strip our idea of ghosts from the common connotations of threat and dread. We need to remove the sheet from the ghost (like we relieve a guest of her coat), and we should be prepared to not find a body underneath, to not find anything visible at all; to find instead something invisible which is there nevertheless, which is there with the ghost. Which is the ghost. A story, a memory, a language that we don’t speak, another way of doing things and seeing ourselves. Before we see the ghost, the ghost sees us. Seeing the ghost therefore means seeing ourselves.
As a name for the RE.AL residency, GHOST merges “guest” and “host.” The word has a camouflage effect; it hides what it shows. The HOST is there, fully visible. Of the GUEST we see the head and the feet, enough to guess the rest. Guest and host are standing there, yet what I see instead is a GHOST. I return, as I said, to this word. Three years ago I put together a small film program titled Ghost Stories which I showed in Vilnius. The program addressed the haunting experiences, ghosts, and visitations of the past that have become legion in contemporary societies. So when I saw the GHOST on Rua do Poço dos Negros I felt that, yes, it had seen me, before I saw it, and that it would tell me something about myself that I had failed to notice earlier. That’s why I returned to it, and it is only now (on the second or third time, but can these visitations be counted at all?), that I see the GUEST—and that means that I see me. It is only now that I see that I am the ghost.(2)
The time to arrive is at night. Darkness is when we are stripped of appearance. We don’t disappear, but our appearance turns vague. Transformed into silhouettes, we become less easily locatable, less easily identifiable. Light is what they flash in your face to check and identify you, to fix you, to chase away the ghosts of ambiguity. Constant light is a form of torture. We need the darkness. Not to hide, but to ease the weight of fixed identities, to air our heavy coats and feel the possibilities, to venture the impossible and become the other. Enter ghost. Who is this? – Well, you tell me.
Who could it be? An unexpected knock on the door can have this effect on us: our mind searches for possibilities, sometimes coming up with absurd and farfetched assumptions. But the farfetched is the ghost—coming a long way, impossible to anticipate, unlikely to show up. Who could that be? Do I imagine someone I wish to see, or someone I fear? Am I ready for a surprise? The ghost sees me before I see the ghost. It has already begun to speak about me, my fears and desires, the past and the future. The ghost is bound to no time, or rather: asynchrony is the ghost, time out of joint. The ghost is what’s throwing rocks at my window while I am watching TV. The ghost is what asks Do you still love me? while I am painting a wall white. The ghost is what talks about war when we read labels in the supermarket. The ghost is what says: There will be a time when you wish you had hosted me. It knocks again. Of course it could simply be the neighbor asking for eggs or garlic. We open the door. We have a guest.
In Albert Camus’ short story “L’hôte,” a policeman brings a prisoner to a teacher’s house. The teacher is ordered to bring the prisoner to the gendarmerie in the next town on the following day. Daru, the teacher, refuses to deliver the man, but agrees to host him as a guest in the schoolhouse. “L’hôte” is a modest and masterful story set in the barren highlands of Algeria during the last phase of French colonial rule. While most languages have two words for “guest” and “host,” the French “l’hôte” means both. This synonymy is difficult to understand for someone who didn’t grow up with it. All these words (guest and host, Gast, hôte, óspede) conserve the long etymology of the semantic group around hospes and hostis which became hospitality and hostility, hotel, host and hostage, host and guest: strangers stemming from the same root. Michel Serres wrote that there are “dark patches” in language and that “l’hôte” is one of them. Darkness again, time for a ghost to appear. What else is GHOST but a translation of the indistinguishability between guest and host?
It is not clear then who the title of Camus’ story refers to, Daru or “the Arab.” When night falls on the schoolhouse, the two men lay side by side in the dark. Watching the silhouette of his guest in the darkness, the host cannot find sleep. The sound of the other man’s breath, the lines of his body — the host grapples for hints that the guest is asleep. Only then will he be able to relax. Once during that night, “the Arab” gets up and walks out. Daru is instantly alert, but then realizes that the other just went for a piss. The teacher is afraid that “the Arab” might attack him, but what really happens during that night in the schoolhouse is that guest and host become inseparable. In a colonized country, a country under siege, what else can they do but disobey the rules and trust the darkness to treat them as equals? When Daru finally finds sleep, he stirs only once when he thinks he hears footsteps encircling the house. “I am dreaming,” he appeases himself, and falls back to sleep.
The night in the schoolhouse is surrounded of course by the French colonial intrusion which turned “the Arab” into a stranger in his own house. His scantiness of expression and his “incredibly silent” movements are evidence enough that this guest is a ghost. So many ghosts inherited from History, “that no one can ever be sure to stand only on one side,” writes Derrida in Spectres de Marx. Like Camus (and like Daru), Derrida is French-Algerian, Algerian-French, but this story is not about biographies. It is a ghost story, and this means it is a story in which no one can ever be sure to be only themselves, only one self. The next morning, after letting “the Arab” choose between prison and freedom, Daru finds on his wall a message from the future: “You delivered our brother. You will pay for this.” It is only then that he feels lonely. He thought he could avoid choosing sides, but sides have been chosen for him.
Legally separated since 1962, Algeria and France are still struggling with the consequences of their corrupted history. Derrida, in Of Hospitality (1997), even predicts that the consequences haven’t fully arrived yet. The riots of recent years in the banlieues of French cities were interpreted by some as being related to this history. Who knows for sure, however, what other violations have fostered these eruptions? And how long the pretty lie will be believed that “the Arab revolutions” of last year are only directed against the archaic regimes of the present? So many ghosts. Naming one of them can be a strategy to cast out others.
Today’s European migration politics are openly hostile. They are based on structures of property and territory that resulted from colonial violence and war and that are defended likewise. There are no guests in Europe; Europe is not a host. Migrants are considered intruders and forced into ambiguous, ghostly forms of existence. Harassment is temporarily suspended when the stranger has agreed to become a hostage and work for Europe’s economy. This perverse system already came full circle in the 1950s when the booming European north imported labor from the struggling south, and when Germany labeled this new labor force “Gastarbeiter,” “guest workers.” It is unusual to put guests to work. Guests, if anyone, are traditionally exempted from work. If there is work to do, the host and his family are expected to do it or to have it done at their expense. Guests are meant to remain seated and watch the table being laid. And then eat and be served first. That’s how we imagine it: courtesy, abundance. An intuitive knowledge of principles even understood by those who violate them. The traditional generosity towards a guest has been linked to messianic beliefs. The unexpected guest, the knock on the door could be the longed for Messiah. It could be someone on whose door I will be knocking on my next journey. It could be a herald of the future or a revenant from the past, or, of course, it could turn out to be my enemy. For any of these possibilities, generous hospitality is advisable. Granted, there is calculation in such reasoning, too. But “Gastarbeiter” is a physical violation.
The “guest workers” in Germany, France, Switzerland and Sweden were not guests who were coincidentally put to work; they were workers hired on a temporary basis(3). The word guest, the “Gast”-element in “Gastarbeiter,” was not meant to make these men and women feel welcome or comfortable. It was meant to appease the local population by insinuating that these workers would not stay, but return to their home countries. After they had finished their jobs, of course. Yet, even during their temporary residence, the label “Gast” did not foster a relation of guest and host, but rather preserved the alien status of the workers and therefore their alienation from German citizens. Guest workers were housed in specially built barracks, sometimes with strict curfews. Their demanding work hours kept them from socializing with anyone beyond their limited realm. If they fell sick they soon lost their right of residence, and after their term was over they had to return to patria immediately. Everything was designed to exploit their labor at maximum while keeping their influence on social and cultural life at minimum and their political existence marginal.(4) Open a window today in any city in Germany and before long you can hear, smell, and sense the absence of those who built the house you live in and paved the street whose noise you hear, the absence of those who planted and groomed the trees that filter the sun in your room, and of those who have fed the social security system when you were a child and in need. Their absence is there; it has remained until today. And their grown-up grandchildren are still being asked: Where are you from?
This year Germany officially celebrates “50 years of Turks in Germany.” Fifty years? The date is taken from the ratification of the “recruitment agreement” which marked the official beginning of state-monitored labor migration from Turkey to Germany. As if there hadn’t been Turks living in Germany before. Who? Mehmet Talât, aka Talât Pasha, for example. On March 15th, 1921, he was shot to death on Hardenbergstraße in Berlin by a man named Soghoman Tehlirian. Talât had been interior minister and briefly head of state during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. He was the political guarantor behind the genocide of Armenians, orchestrating during his time in office the massacre of some 500,000 people with laws, orders, and decrees. His murderer Tehlirian was an Armenian and had seen his parents and siblings massacred in their hometown Erzinga during Talât’s reign. Talât had come to Germany as a “political refugee” in November 1918. When World War I was coming to a defeating end for Germany and its Turkish allies, he was smuggled from Istanbul to Odessa on a German submarine. A few months later, when an Istanbul trial sentenced him to death in his absence, Germany refused to deliver him and granted him asylum.
Tehlirian had come to Germany sometime in 1920 on a tourist visa. During his murder trial in Berlin, when asked by the judge when the idea to kill Talât first occurred to him, Tehlirian answered: “Approximately two weeks before the incident. I was feeling very bad. I kept seeing over and over again the scenes of the massacres. I saw my mother’s corpse. The corpse just stood up before me and told me, ‘You know Talât is here and yet you do not seem to be concerned. You are no longer my son.’”(5) The court gave Tehlirian full credit for the traumatizing experience of witnessing the massacre of his family, and it even seemed to accept the ghost of the mother in the courtroom. At one point an assessing doctor inquired whether the ghost appeared to Talât in a dream or when he was awake. But I shouldn’t get tangled up in this particular ghost too much. Recognizing one ghost often serves to hide another. A few minutes after the murder, Tehlirian was caught and delivered to a nearby police station where he cried out to the surrounding crowd: “I am an Armenian. He is a Turk. It is no loss to Germany.” He was right.
Tehlirian was acquitted against all odds. Why did the court let the murder of someone who had been granted asylum go unpunished? This is of course again a story of guests-turned-ghosts. By the time Tehlirian murdered Talât, Germany had lost the war, and public opinion in the country had turned against the imperial policy of the former Empire. Germany’s military pact with the Ottoman Empire was being scrutinized in the press and in parliament. German officers were accused of participating in the genocide of the Armenians. Some of them became important witnesses in Tehlirian’s trial. Along with other German “experts,” they attested to the atrocities which Tehlirian and other Armenian witnesses had described to the court. They confirmed that Talât was the responsible person behind the genocide, and they insisted that not a single German had committed any atrocities against Armenians, but that, on the contrary, they had all tried “to prevent the worst”. Acquitting Tehlirian was too advantageous to be dismissed: it was in accord with public sympathy with the Armenians and chased away the ghosts of German complicity. The mass murderer Talât had chosen the wrong host country, and Tehlirian was lucky to be a guest who could be put to use.
Coming to the end of this text, I feel a bit concerned that my thoughts have taken such a somber course. Returning to Rua do Poço dos Negros meant returning to a precious and joyful time with friends and I didn’t mean to spoil the mood. I want to express this feeling with a Polish phrase which I recently learned from a person I love and which is untranslatable. “Jest mi przykro.” It means that I am sorry, sad, concerned, complicit, minus the sense of apology or blame which all of these words seem to transport. It means that things have passed through me.
Published in: Atelier RE.AL: GHOST Residencies, Lissabon 2012.
1 – The italicized quotes in the following paragraphs are from Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act One, Scene One.
2 – I often feel that working with films puts me in the company of ghosts. The French film critic Serge Daney—quoting his peer Jean-Louis Schefer—referred to “the films that watched our childhood.” For Daney, growing up in the 1950s, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour in particular were “among those ‘things’ that watched me more than I saw them.” Daney’s conversation with Serge Toubiana, from which these quotes are taken (in: Postcards from the Cinema), is rich with epiphanies of the ghostly aspects of cinema, among them the idea that “cinema exists only to bring back what has already been seen once: well seen, poorly seen, unseen.” There is a “retro-spective” element in all film watching, a feeling of something looking back at us — not in the sense of gazing at a mirror, because what is looking back at me from a film is not myself but another, yet it is “my other.” This is what creates the feeling that films watch us watching them, and I think that this is related to the exchange of gestures and gazes that we call “hospitality”.
3 – The Swedish word “gästabetare” (literally “guest worker”) originated in the 1860s when poor Swedish country folk were recruited to work in Germany. Even more striking however in our context is the fact that “gast” (in German “guest”) is Swedish for “ghost.” – Let it also be mentioned that the chain of continuity in forced labor practices includes Nazi Germany’s unprecedented exploitation of millions of Europeans during World War II. Much of the design of the “Gastarbeiter” system looks like a relatively civilized update of the ruthless scheme that had preceded it by barely a decade. However, investigating this and related continuities and the consequences on Europe’s current design will demand much more time, care, and contributors than the limits of this text can provide.
4 – John Berger and Jean Mohr’s masterful and devastating book, The Seventh Man (1975), is dedicated to these workers.
5 – The transcripts of the court sessions can be read in English translation here.