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The Tower of Beowulf and Hauntological Architecture

Ghost Buildings and Tolkein’s Tower

Complete Lies. has a very interesting post  on the Ghost Building practices of acquaintance of his, Brian MacKay-Lyons, who retires to his Nova Scotia property to build ephemeral building, much of them constructed out of fragmented site materials, as Complete Lies would have it, out of the very bones of the site’s past. Below, one of the beautiful structures, “Ghost 6”

The philosophical conclusion drawn from these wonderful architectures is that of perpetual bone usage in the construction of our present. I have some difficulty with the prevalence  of the idea of “hautology” on the internet thesedays, as the word seems to operate as something of a meme, without coherent conceptual content (no determinative defintion, with all kinds of phenomena being grouped under its heading). And perhaps the word “ghost” can be seen as symbiont to it. And I can’t see where the idea as it is loosely used is much improved from Benjamin’s concept of the Angel of History, as Complete Lies writes:

We have impermanent structures, rooted deeply to the past, make essentially of the corpses of long lost entities, made with and in the spirit of these pasts. These are ghosts brought back. Architecture as necromancy. This shows exactly what I mean by the possibility of ghosts returning in a Spectral Realism, the idea that their bones could reassemble, perhaps not in the same way, but in the same spirit. In this way, a ghost can never achieve the perpetual peace of absolute non-existence, but is always only “almost dead.” No ghost is ever entirely here, nor are they ever entirely absent.

This being said though, the architecture brought to might one of the most spectacular scholarly essays written in the history of literary criticism, J. R. R. Tolkein’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936) [click here]. (Not everybody knows that Tolkein was a formidable Medievalist, and this lecture represents the turning point of modern Beowulf scholarship. But Tolkein’s vocation is not the point here. There is a wonderful paragraph that nearly opens the article that vividly points up the aspect that Complete Lies is trying to bring forth. Tolkein is taking Beowulf scholars to task for not understanding the towerly dimension of the Beowulf project. They have knocked down the text and rummaged through its old stones, realizing that  it had been build from the pieces of an older culture. They see that it is part Christian, part pagan, and are left with something like rubble, the bones of the past. What they don’t realize is that the author was building, not a house, but tower:

I think this analogy has significant address to those concerned with the hautological aspects of modern or post-modern history. The author of Beowulf indeed was a fragmentist, restacking the bones, inscripted stones, the broken pillars of an age lost or in decline, but in stacking them was not reconstructing them (there is NO compulsed mourning, but formal mourning), not harkening back on impulse, no trying put the shards in place, but rather the stacking is in the present, the building of tower, a vantage point assembled out of the remains of all that had been, that memory, making it high.

Tolkein’s metaphor is most adroit, for he draws recursively upon the final image of the poem itself, where the great funeral pyre for Beowulf is constructed (talk about ghost architecture). There, as the structure burned down from its great height, it also becomes a signal to be seen from far out at sea: 


THEN fashioned for him the folk of Geats
firm on the earth a funeral-pile,
and hung it with helmets and harness of war
and breastplates bright, as the boon he asked;
and they laid amid it the mighty chieftain,
heroes mourning their master dear.
Then on the hill that hugest of balefires
the warriors wakened. Wood-smoke rose
black over blaze, and blent was the roar
of flame with weeping (the wind was still),
till the fire had broken the frame of bones,
hot at the heart. In heavy mood
their misery moaned they, their master’s death.

Tolkein tells us that the haunting of the social forms of Beowulf are not what we thought they were, habitations. They rather were memorial heights, vantage points that we achieve when we stack the bones of the past. The invitation of course is to build, and then burn (live) our own tower.  The ghost, the haunt, is to be something that we willfully construct, the means of our standing higher, the vantage we have over our sea. I believe that the hautological, in this sense, is only our return to the originality of our past, the focus points of lasting intensity to elevate ourselves. And though it can happen in paranoic revisitations of the repressed, or the disjointed specimen collecting of a mania, a corporeal regrouping, it is at best a careful choosing of one’s ancestors with a view towards a plentitude of arched vision, the way in which we expose ourselves the forces which made up determinatively what we are.

[An Q & A with Brian MacKay-Lyons on the Ghost Lab program]