Haunted Subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis and the Return of the Dead (Book Review)

Author:  Davis, Colin
Publisher: Houndsmills, Basingstroke, Hampshire, and New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 
Reviewed By: Doris Brothers, PhD, Winter 2009, pp. 11-12

One of the most unsettling things I discovered as a fledgling analyst was that the patients who entered my consulting room were not alone; they brought their dead along with them. And today, many years after completing my own analysis, and despite Leowald’s (1960) claim that, in the course of psychoanalytic treatment, our ghosts may be “laid to rest as ancestors,” my dead still come along
with me. After reading Haunted Subjects by Colin Davis, I understand more clearly why we ignore
these revenants at our own risk.

Although Colin Davis is not an analyst, his remarkable book guides analysts to a fuller appreciation of the extent to which their patients’ haunted subjectivities, as well their own, inform the analytic process. In his examination of our highly ambivalent and complicated relation to the dead, Davis, a professor of French at Royal Halloway, University of London, draws on his studies of modern French thought, literature, film and Holocaust testimony.

Insofar as the dead and the undead are omnipresent in contemporary films and on television, Davis contends that they “walk among us now as much as ever” (p. 1). Why do the dead return? Are they trying to settle unfinished business on earth? Do ghosts lie or do they tell us the truth? Do they speak to us or do we speak for them? Do we want to keep them with us, or do we want to be rid of them, the better to get on with our own lives? Is their function to reassure us that there is some higher order overseeing our lives? To address these provocative questions Davis turns both to psychoanalysts
including Freud, Lacan, Abraham and Torok, and to leading philosophers such as Sartre, Heidegger, Agamben, Levinas, de Man, and Derrida.

Davis not only elucidates the ways in which our relation to the dead has come to assume great importance in deconstruction and psychoanalysis but he also reveals how both disciplines contribute to our views on death and the return of the dead. He claims that Derrida’s investigation of ghosts in Spectres de Marx (1993) helped to make “hauntology” respectable. Today it is much more than
merely respectable. “Hauntology,” he notes, “supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive” (p. 9). He also sees hauntology as having a role in the ethical turn of deconstruction and believes that the ghost occupies the place of the Levinasian Other “whose otherness we are responsible for preserving” (p. 9). Moreover, he notes that it was Derrida who called attention to the psychoanalytic explorations of Abraham and Torok into transgenerational communication.

Davis’s examination of Derrida’s obsession with death seems to me eminently analytical. He contends that Derrida’s Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde (2003) is “as much a work of mourning as it is a work about mourning” (p. 129). Puzzling over Derrida’s virtual silence about melancholia despite his volubility on the topic of mourning, Davis suggests that Freud’s (1955/1917) essay and the reworking of it in the thought of Abraham and Torok (1976) influenced Derrida’s text. Yet, he contrasts Freud’s contention that mourning can normally be brought to an end with time, with Derrida’s account of mourning as interminable and “always already begun” (p. 132). According to Davis, Derrida’s mourning is closer to Freud’s melancholia, which occurs when the normal process of
mourning is blocked.

I found Davis’s sensitive examination of Holocaust testimony very moving, particularly his disagreement with those who claim it is impossible for survivors to bear witness to it. For example, Elie Wiesel (1958) contends, “Those who have not lived through the experience will never know; those who have will never tell . . . The past belongs to the dead” (quoted in Agamben, 1999, p. 33). Similarly, Felman & Laub (1992) argue that the Shoah has no witnesses because those who were present were either destroyed or deprived of their ability to bear witness.

The witness who cannot bear witness is, according to Giorgio Agamben (1999), embodied in the figure of the “Muselman,” that is, the corpse-like prisoner, drained of all vitality, who gave up and was in turn given up by his or her comrades. Davis argues that survivors do serve as witnesses for those who perished insofar as the dead speak through “the mouths of the living” (p. 121). Nevertheless,
he criticizes the certainty with which Agamben (1999) claims to tell us how to listen to the voices of dead. Noting that Levinas (1991) had suggested that if there were any meaning to be had from the dead it would be a meaning that surprises, Davis complains that Agamben does not seem very surprised. Listening to the dead, according to Davis, entails attending to signs “which signify without any ascertainable signifying intention” (p. 126).

It seems to me that Davis’ words might just as well be directed toward analysts who are called upon to serve as witnesses to unspeakable traumas. After all, we too must deal with “a gap or lacuna which signifies but does not mean” that is often to be found in the dissociated experience of our patients. We too must be surprised by what we find there.

Having read Davis’ riveting introduction to Levinas’s writings (Davis, 1996), I expected nothing less
than his lucid and succinct account of Levinas’ quarrels with Heidegger’s views on death. Heidegger insists that there is no dialogue or relationship with the dead, and that the only death which authentically concerns Dasein is its own. Passionately disagreeing with both claims, Levinas proposes that in love we discover that the death of the other matters more to us than our own. He argues that the self is constituted by the living other and by the dead other.

This book will undoubtedly hold special appeal to analysts with a strong interest in film. As Davis notes, “To watch film is to be in the presence of spectres . . . (p. 21). While he touches on recent films such as Ghost, Truly Madly Deeply, and The Sixth Sense, he examines two vampire films in great depth: Louis Feuillade’s serial film of 1915 Les Vampires, which he discusses in light of Freud’s work from
around the same period, and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Readers turning to Davis for clear answers about our relation to the dead will be disappointed, and possibly, frustrated. To a very large extent Davis has achieved his goals of resisting a “tidy restoration of moral and epistemological orders,” and “a clear delineation of the domains of the living and the dead” (p. 157). However, as someone who locates existential uncertainty at the heart of the psychoanalytic enterprise (Brothers, 2008), I find much to applaud in his refusal to grasp at certainty. Through his example, he encourages his readers to reflect on the “gaps and inconsistencies” in our discourses, and the “fault lines” in our knowledge. By preserving the veils that shroud our relation to the dead he helps us to appreciate that which is unknowable in our relation to the living.


Agamben, G. (1999). Remnants of Auschwitz: The witness and the archive. trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books.
Abraham, N. and Torok, M. (1976). Cryptonymie: Le Verbier de l’homme aux loups. Paris: Aubier Flammarion.
Brothers, D. (2008). Toward a psychology of uncertainty: Trauma-centered psychoanalysis. New York and London: The Analytic Press.
Davis, C. (1996). Levinas: An introduction. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Derrida, J. (1993). Spectres de Marx: L’Etat de la dette, le travail du deuil et las nouvelle Internationale. Paris: Galilee.
Derrida, J. (2003). Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde. Paris: Galilee.
Felman, S. and Laub, D. (1992). Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York and London: Routledge.
Freud, S. (1955). Mourning and melancholia. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14, pp. 243-258). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1917)
Levinas, E. (1991). La Mort et le temps. Paris: Editions d‘Herme; Livre de Poche edition.
Loewald, H. (1960). On the therapeutic action of psycho-analysis. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 41, 16-33.
Wiesel, Elie (1958). La Nuit. Paris: Minuit.

Reviewer Note

Doris Brothers
New York, NY


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