The Open Door: Towards an Ethics of the Literary Ghost (Public Lecture, 24th November)

sad child“It is bad enough to find your child’s mind possessed with the conviction that he has seen, or heard, a ghost; but that he should require you to go instantly and help that ghost was the most bewildering experience that had ever come my way.” Such is the problem that confronts a father in Margaret Oliphant’s 1885 story, The Open Door. This fourth lecture in the Institute of Advanced Study’s Evidence of Spirits series sees Dr Luke Thurston examining how this Victorian ghost requires readers to think about what it means to be different, or “other.” Join us on Tuesday 24th November, at 18.15, in Elvet Riverside 140. Everyone welcome.

Ethics, for Levinas, entails an impossible moment of access to a pure, unreadable exteriority, an otherness beyond the ontological enclosure of the ego’s signifying reality. In this paper Dr Thurston argues that the Victorian ghost story, though often weighed down by generic convention and cliché, occasionally stumbles up against an instance of radical otherness that gravely jeopardises the ontological security and consistency of representable reality. Through a close reading of Margaret Oliphant’s story ‘The Open Door’ (1885), Dr Thurston shows how the literary ghost can bring into the supposedly inert and sterile landscape of Victorian fiction an overwhelming moment of absorption in and concern for the being of the other. In its other-centredness, its terrifying opening onto the face of the other, ‘The Open Door’ outstrips the narcissistic experimentalism of much avant garde literature and foretells the modernist endgame of a Beckett or a Celan.

This series of lectures forms part of the Institute of Advanced Study’s year on the theme of ‘evidence.’ Future lectures will look at topics ranging from the ghost stories of Charles Dickens to John Keats’s shadows. Full listings can be found at the Institute of Advanced Study. The first lecture from the series, on ghosts in William Wordsworth’s poetry, is available to listen to now.


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