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IN KRAPP’S LAST TAPE, Beckett presents us with Krapp listening to the tape-recordings of his own voice from many years before. Suddenly he stops the spool and plays it back. The word that has snagged in his mind is viduity. He used it once, and so must once have known its meaning, but he does not appear to know its meaning any more. He goes backstage into darkness and returns with ‘an enormous dictionary’, in which he discovers – or rediscovers – that the word signifies ‘State – or condition – of being – or remaining – a widow – or widower.’ Krapp finds himself a little baffled by that phrase ‘being or remaining’, and repeats it.

He is right of course: the word ‘be’ here contains the word ‘remains’ (though the wording remains identical in the OED to this day). The life of Helen Thomas might have clarified his thoughts on the matter, since she became – and remained – one of the exemplary widows of the twentieth century. She played the faithful Penelope to the memory of one who did not return, as Odysseus did, from the great battle of his time, but died instead in the Great War of 1914-1918. This was the poet Edward Thomas, who only truly became a poet during the war years, and yet was not what we normally call a war poet.

Within six years of America’s twentieth-century involvement, there were said to be three million spiritualists in America…

There had never been such a sprouting of spiritualism since its birthing years of 1848 to 1854 in the U.S., when the Fox family of Hydesville got things moving swiftly upwards through the astral planes, with the knocking sounds of spirits from the other side. Within six years of America’s twentieth-century involvement, there were said to be three million spiritualists in America, their communicative urges dutifully serviced by ten thousand mediums. Now once again, as the Great War ground on, there had been séances held every night in one great city or another. The number of those who suddenly discovered a gift for establishing contact with the other side, or receiving messages therefrom, was effectively beyond counting. The Society for Psychical Research had been formed in 1882, by Frederic W. H. Myers and Edmund Gurney. And there were those, like W. B. Yeats, who believed it was only a matter of time before the existence of beings in a life beyond this one would be securely established. Scientific proof would be forthcoming; they were in no doubt of that.

Already there were photographs of the dead as they appeared during their sojourns amongst us. Particular photographic techniques, such as superimposition, played their part in this. And the sales of luminous cheesecloth rocketed, as ectoplasm in darkened rooms announced that, pace Hamlet, death was not that bourn from which no traveller returns.

Arthur Conan Doyle was at the centre of all this, fascinated by mesmerism, and the possibilities of different planes of existence, though one does not need Sherlockian gifts to diagnose the causes of such a huge expansion in the spiritualist trade in time of war, an expansion which was to carry on well into the 1930s. This was the most devastating war in history. So many who had been vividly alive a year or so before now lay dead. But it seemed that the conversation with them had to continue, so how precisely might that be achieved? It is a curiosity of the English language that if I am dealing with more than one organ of mass communication, then I must refer to media, but if I am addressing a gallimaufry of spiritualist communicators I must call them mediums. This usage is first recorded in the OED in 1851 in the U.S. The report concerned those ‘rappings’ that soon became such a salient feature of the séance. Those beings that had passed over were nothing if not percussive.1

Roman Jakobson listed the requirements for a successful communication thus:

  • there must be an addresser and an addressee
  • there must be a referent and a code through which it may be reached
  • there must be the contact, or physical means by which the message itself is to be conveyed from addresser to addressee.

So what happens, we are entitled to ask, if the addressee is reported missing in action, but the urge to communicate with him remains as strong post-mortem as it had been before the presumed fatality? One possibility is that what Jakobson calls the contact has to be substantially modified so as to take the recent death into account. The physical addressee is replaced by an enhanced contact or physical channel; in other words, the medium expands to fill the space allotted to it, for in this instance, the medium is the message. The medium in the shape of a psychic facilitator has arrived. Through the preternaturally endowed communicator the barrier between the living and the dead may be broken down. Conan Doyle put it thus in one of his notebooks:

The end and aim of spiritual intercourse is to give man the strongest of all reasons to believe in spiritual immortality of the soul, to break down the barrier of death, to found the grand religion of the future.’

All you need is one who is enhanced by the requisite sensitivities to the relevant vibrations, the whisperings, the rappings. This was a time, we should recall, when it had dawned on humanity that our realm of perception was radically delimited. We might live inside the visible spectrum, within our own circumscribed audible limits, but there was plenty going on outside those parameters. Even a dog hears sounds too high-pitched ever to register in the human auditory system. Because you cannot see infrared or ultraviolet with the naked eye does not mean those regions of the spectrum do not exist. They are packed with information we can only access by special means. In other words, we need to discover the right medium of enquiry.

Jakobson also lists the six functions of communication, one of which is the conative. This is the mode of second-person address, the vocative I-Thou, which articulates communication in the intimate space of a direct address. This function occurs more frequently in verse and song than in prose (except in the epistolary form). And we note how frequently the addressee in the conative mode, particularly in verse, can be either dead or entirely deaf to our multiple entreaties. Jakobson nowhere addresses the significance of this, but it forms a substantial portion of our cultural inheritance. We have spent so much time talking either to the non-respondent gods, or to the dead, frequently in verse. What does this tell us about ourselves and our culture? Physical absence in perpetuity, it appears, in no way precludes our earnest communication.

Dead Letters

IN HIS POEM ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’, Gerard Manley Hopkins writes:

……………………………………………………….And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! Away.

What does it mean to engage the conative function with an addressee who never answers: who seemingly cannot answer (in the human rubric) and yet must still be obsessively addressed? What does it mean to intone a psalm to Adonai, never expecting a reply? What does it mean to write poems addressing the Almighty (as Hopkins did) to which no reciprocal communication will ever be despatched? The Dead Letter Office to which Hopkins alludes was a necropolis of failed communications. This was where mail that could not be delivered ended up, often waiting there for years before the enigma of the addressee could finally be resolved. So what exactly does it signify to be talking to the dead? Or, for that matter, to so ventriloquize the dead that they would appear once more to be talking to us? Practising as a doctor in Portsmouth, long before the Great War, Conan Doyle had held a séance in which a commercial traveller asked that his family in Slattenmere in Cumbria be connected on his behalf. Doyle duly wrote and posted the letter as requested. There was no such place as Slattenmere, and the letter came back finally, via the Dead Letter Office.

To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction: this is Newton’s Third Law of Motion. But it would appear to apply far beyond the world of mechanics, or we might perhaps surmise that all realms have a secret system of mechanics governing them which, like the ultraviolet and the infrared, is all too frequently invisible to us. The expansion of postal services in the nineteenth century was phenomenal; it was their reliable multiple deliveries each day that facilitated the work of scientists like Charles Darwin. But such a massive expansion of postal communication produced an equal and opposite expansion of postal non-communication, and the emblematic black hole of this universe of missed connections was the Dead Letter Office.

The means of communication between soldiers in the trenches at the Western Front and their loved ones back in Blighty were letters and postcards. And then the dread communication might be delivered in the form of a telegram: Regret to inform you…. So this one too had gone.

The true spirit is eternal. Our funerary monuments tell us as much. A poem can be a kind of funerary monument, fashioned in words instead of stone.

Another husband, father, son or brother had stepped out of the air to join the fallen. When Helen Thomas received hers, it said that Edward had died on 9th April 1917. He had been killed by a shell-blast at the start of the Arras offensive. A month later Helen wrote to Robert Frost and his wife in America: ‘…how rich I am in his love & his spirit & all that is eternal, & all that was & is between us that he said again & again “Remember whatever happens all is well between us forever”.’ In other words, although he has died in body, he has not died in spirit, for the true spirit is eternal. Our funerary monuments tell us as much. And a poem can be a kind of funerary monument, fashioned in words instead of stone. The elegy is a continuance beyond death of the one who is seemingly lost for ever. This is the burden of Milton’s lines about Edward King in ‘Lycidas’:

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead…

The dead, when they are significant enough, enter the region of anamnesis. And significance here means love.


DAVID JONES SERVED in the Great War too, and he was also the recipient of the enemy’s shrapnel. But he survived. He survived to spend the rest of his life pondering those great events, and what they signified about humanity, ‘for Anthropos is not always kind’. He became a Roman Catholic, a poet, painter and essayist. And one of the terms he came to use more and more was anamnesis. The word means deliberated recollection; a calling-to-mind. It takes many cultural forms. One which was central to Jones was the anamnesis of the Catholic Mass. Do this in memory of me, said Jesus, in the cenacle on the first Maundy Thursday. Thus do I command you towards the accomplishment of this, my anamnesis.

One of Jones’s great sources for his contemplation of anamnesis was Maurice de la Taille, and his book Mysterium Fidei. De la Taille argued that on the Thursday night in the upper room, Jesus had ‘entered the order of signs’. What he then enacted in brute factuality the following day on the cross he had already enacted in the realm of sign on the night before. The implications of this for Jones’s thought are incalculable. His work from then on was in effect based upon it. Humans are the sign-making creatures. We create tools but such objects are – in Jones’s terminology – utile. When we create art we are fashioning the inutile; we are in effect engaging in an intransitive activity, an activity whose sole purpose is celebratory or reverential. This is the unique realm of sign-making. Like the Almighty, in art we engage in gratuitous creation. Another of Jones’s sources, Jacques Maritain’s Art et Scolastique, played down the distinction between art and artefacture. It was the identity of homo faber as maker that was significant, so that even our utile fashionings tend to spill over into the inutile. The sword might be meant to stab, but the decorations on its hilt or the damascene etchings on its blade serve no immediately lethal purpose. They are gratuitous too. Grace notes to the main theme of warfare.

All culture is based on memory. As Jones was fond of remarking, ‘If you wish to insult the Muse, forget.’

All culture is based on memory. As Jones was fond of remarking, ‘If you wish to insult the Muse, forget.’ A chronicle is only meaningful if we can retain the sense of what went before, and the same applies to a novel. You cannot understand this page unless you retain remembrance of previous pages. Whatever we designate due matter for anamnesis is what we deem unforgettable. All cultures surround their most treasured anamneses with ritual. Ritual is a physical form of remembering. In the Christian cultus to which Jones subscribed, the Eucharistic sacrifice at the heart of the Mass is the central event of life, to be repeated daily. The voluntary self-immolation of Jeshua of Nazareth ordained the religion that was to follow in his name. And he had proclaimed that ordination the night before when he entered the order of signs by instituting the Eucharistic meal for his disciples.

All poetry is memorial. It calls to mind and litanizes that which must not be forgotten; that which the poet, as cultural remembrance, is exhorting us to recall. So we have Yeats in 1916:

I write it out in a verse –
Macdonagh and Macbride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

And here again is Edward Thomas:

If I should ever by chance grow rich
I’ll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.

They are both doing the same thing, and both doing it in the same year, 1916. Litanies present themselves as life-saving repetitions. They remind us, to use the words of David Jones once more, that we must work within the limits of our love. And the central act of anamnesis will be illocutionary: we utter the words that incant the desiderated action or presence. We build the temple out of stone in order that the spirit should inhabit it; we build the temple out of words (litany or poem) so as to welcome the spirit home. The beloved being is brought back into focus on the altar of our rite. This is re-calling, re-membering, re-collecting. I have made a heap of all that I could find, wrote Nennius, one of Jones’s primary sources. These fragments I have shored against my ruins, wrote T. S. Eliot, with the ruined landscapes of the Great War forming a backdrop to his words.

Creating a Psychic Space

IT TOOK TEN years for Robert Graves to publish his war memoir, Goodbye to All That, and the same amount of time for Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to appear. David Jones had to find his own form, In Parenthesis, in which verse expands into prose, and prose contracts into verse on virtually every page. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell claims that the shock of the war was so great that a new form of remembering had to be duly invented in order to hold it in remembrance; a form had to be found in which to write it out. This is parallel to Freud’s argument in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that the unexpectedness of the war meant that it was never prepared for in the psyche. That which has been prepared for need not leave a trace; but that which is both shocking and unexpected leaves a trace, an experiential cicatrix in the mind’s flesh, because no mechanism of psychological acceptance had been prepared to receive the experience, with its traumatic potential. Freud came to believe that the endless reliving of war experience as trauma and dream was a way of retrospectively coping with the trauma. The calling to mind here was involuntary, so it was not anamnesis in Jones’s sense. A man returned from the front, having suffered neurasthenia (or, as the soldiers called it, shell-shock), shouting out in the night or losing control of his functions, was not engaged in anamnesis. This deranged recurrence was involuntary; not a litany, then, but a pathology. The mind was in effect shouting out: I had never been prepared for this, and must now belatedly prepare the psychic ground. Some of the suffering had been so severe that no one could ever have been ready for it. Those like Jones who subsequently underwent forms of psychotherapy were attempting to return to the trenches through recollection, in order to re-encounter the horrors, this time with a precognition which history had at last vouchsafed.

The Terrors of the Dead

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THE CENTRAL STATEMENT of the Mass is the priest’s utterance: ‘This is my body’. The tense is present. He does not, after all, say, ‘This was my body’, though Jesus has been certifiably crucified these last two thousand years. The words, taken from that ceremony where the order of signs was first entered, utter a presence. He who was dead is now living. The words of the liturgy are performative.

We are outnumbered by the dead. Should they all return at once, our world would be crowded, perhaps beyond endurance. Bob Hope waits in cryonic suspension, ready for that moment when the medical technology can restore him to the ranks of the living, where he might once more set the table on a roar, as Yorick too had done, before they laid him in the earth, before digging him up again. A prolepsis of archaeology. The earth holds the dead for us, like a safe deposit box, until we are ready to bring them out into the light once more, thus to begin our painstaking analysis.

The idea of encountering the dead has haunted poetry from its beginnings. The first real poem we ever created was Gilgamesh. In that the mighty ruler has to confront the fact that his beloved companion, Enkidu, has died, and gone to the dreadful region where the dead are punished, not with judgment, but merely with the hideous reality of imprisonment in the land of the dead, where you are dressed as birds in black feathers, and must eat dirt. There is no escape from this fate; cryonics have not yet made their entry. In Book 11 of The Odyssey, Odysseus travels to the place where members of the Underworld might be met. The shades arrive, hungry for the blood he offers. It is evident that the greatest blessing they might receive is forgetfulness. Then there is Book 6 of The Aeneid, where Aeneas travels to the land on the dead. And then there is Dante’s Inferno, where the dead really do get their just desserts.


ONE OF THE most extraordinary evocations of the dead, and the illocutionary force with which the psyche might summon them, is Solaris. This is the film made by Andrei Tarkovsky from the novel by Stanislaw Lem, who came to regard the film as a travesty of his book and very nearly disowned it. In both film and book a new planet has managed somehow to insert itself into the solar system. It constitutes a sea of liquid gas. In its vicinity curious occurrences take place. The most curious of them is that the dead come back to life, reconstituted apparently as a ghostly physiology of neutrinos. Even if you destroy the revenant once more, he or she will rapidly be reconstituted. They are infinitely reconstitutable, and amnesiac. Their only connection to memory is the remembrance of those to whom they are attached. They are like a prosthetic manifestation of the memory of the other.

The dead appear to be activated by the psychic potencies of those whose obsessions resurrect them. The return is not necessarily welcome.

The dead appear to be activated by the psychic potencies of those whose obsessions resurrect them. The return is not necessarily welcome. Kelvin tries to fire his dead wife Hari back to earth on a rocket, so he might be rid of her in perpetuity. But she returns the next day. His own troubled remembrance, it seems, cannot be so easily shortcircuited by its own manoeuvres. She is the reincarnation of the troubled part of his memory in which she subsists. She has a home there which cannot be demolished. And one of the questions the film asks is this: how much do we really want the dead to return? If Bob Hope were to arise now from his sepulchre of chilled hydrogen, having been sustained in his state of cryopreservation, would we really thank him for the memory? Or, like Kelvin with Hari, would we try to find a means of disposing of him once more? What was it like at the evening meal that Martha and Mary prepared for their brother, Lazarus? What questions do you ask? ‘So, what’s it like being dead then?’

Remembering the Remembered

‘DO THIS IN memory of me.’ Thus Jesus, on the first Sherthursday feast, inaugurating his own anamnesis. And Geoffrey Hill at the beginning of his magisterial poem ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy’ has these lines:

………Must men stand by what they write
as by their camp-beds or their weaponry
or shell-shocked comrades while they sag and cry?

The text of memory might demand more of us than we are ready to give. And when a writer dies, it is the texts that remain. Helen Thomas began to memorialize her husband, who had so effectively memorialized beloved parts of the English landscape, turning topography into a kind of liturgy. She did not pretend that the memorializing was unproblematical. Thomas was a difficult man, and knew it. With downswings of mood so dreadful that they placed a curse not only on him, but on all in his vicinity. His poems of 1916 can be seen as partly penitential: a making amends for his failures as husband and father.

But Helen loved him; loved him enough not to sentimentalize him. She tried to see him steadily and see him whole. She knew the poetry had come out of pain as much as exhilaration.

It is notable how religious the language of memorializing the fallen in times of war often is. The sacrificial self-immolation of Christ seems echoed in the sacrifice of the serving soldier. Blood spilt can still make the land sacred, though perhaps with less conviction as each fresh year goes by. Modern warfare still links up with primitive rituals. To repeat David Jones’s remark, to insult or even widow the Muse, all you have to do is forget. Or designate memory a region for prosthetic devices, to be cached inside computers and in cyberspace clouds. The price of her viduity will be the shallowing-out of all our lives.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and now a second collection, this time of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, is now available. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.


  1. The subject of ‘scientific’ spiritualism is also the topic of  James Gallant’s Fortnightly 2015 essay on Materializations, as well as an earlier Fortnightly article, ‘A Defence of Modern Spiritualism’, by Alfred Russel Wallace, originally published  here in 1874.

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