Fuck Stephen Fry: towards a new theory of ghosts

by Sam Kriss

Derrida […] even wrote about his belief in ghosts, which seems to be literal.
Johann Hari, Why I won’t be mourning for Derrida

Pictured: front-page reviews of Stephen Fry’s latest TV drama

Hallowe’en is coming. If, like all sensible decent right-thinking people, you live in the temperate portion of the northern hemisphere, you’ll have noticed its portents already. The night draws its claws from one languidly extended arm; the days are racked by a series of shuddering contractions. These temporal shifts leave debris everywhere. As we begin to approach the winter solstice the nocturnal howls of the neighbourhood dogs are drawn out longer and longer with every passing night; by the time Christmas starts to roll around even the flimsiest yappiest terrier can sustain a single note for up to thirty-five minutes. Meanwhile as the sunlight hours – or what passes for them – are condensed into an ever-smaller period of time, the tiny specks of water vapour in the air are forced together: the clear skies of summer cloud over, and it rains for days on end. Maybe it’s all the fault of the trees. When their leaves crinkle into those soft yellows and burnished browns people are so fond of it’s because they’re being filled with a summer’s worth of poisons. Then the leaves fall and get mulched up into the earth, and their rot drifts up into the atmosphere to feed the endless nights. If they didn’t put on this prismatic striptease for our distraction maybe none of it would happen – but they do, and so Hallowe’en is coming. For one night in the year, the spirits of the dead once again walk the earth; according to some experts, the Devil is granted free reign over the sublunar world. Like all earthquakes, it has its tremors. Already several respected media outlets are reporting on an epidemic of black-eyed ghost children, ferocious snarling creatures haunting our public spaces and wreaking strange vengeance on our cherished local businesses. Lock your doors, hug your loved ones: the frost outside has fangs.

There is at present no broadly accepted scientific explanation for the phenomenon of Hallowe’en. The once-dominant Einsteinian model (first proposed by Nathan Warstein in his famous 1931 paper) is now largely discredited, but given its past influence it bears repeating. It’s now well known that the cherished Abrahamic-Enlightenment linear conception of time is false: time is not an unbroken line stretching from the Creation to the Last Day, but a dimension in the manifold of Minkowski space or the spacetime continuum. This fabric of spacetime is warped or disturbed by massive objects; while this distortion is usually all but imperceptible except in the cases of supermassive phenomena such as black holes, it is always present. As the Earth rotates around the Sun, it trails behind it a field of distortions in the spacetime manifold; when it completes a full circuit this turbulence starts to interfere with itself before snapping back into the planet’s gravitational pull. During this brief period of extreme temporal flux, which usually occurs on or around the 31st of October, past events will recur, and the dead are reanimated for one night, thus explaining the existence of ghosts.

Of course, the problems with this theory are obvious. If the Warstein model is correct, all ghosts appearing should be of those individuals who died during the year from the previous Hallowe’en. This implication was put to the test under laboratory conditions in 1988 by the MIT research team of Davis, Wilkes and Jobanputra. Over a sixty-hectare area in the Nevada desert, they observed 1,129 ghosts, of which 657 appeared to originate from the period before 1945. Ghosts are notoriously difficult to communicate with, so it was impossible to determine their era with any precision – but even allowing for the possibility that some individuals had died while attending historical re-enactments or retro burlesque evenings, or while performing on the set of a period drama, it was concluded to be statistically impossible that so many instances of anachronistic dress would occur among the recently dead of 1987-8. Since the overturning of the Einstein-Warstein theory of ghosts, numerous other models have been put forward: one of the most popular, proposed by a team at the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie posits a form of quantum entanglement occurring across all spatiotemporal dimensions. Whatever the merits of the Radler-Grosz Hypothesis, it’s yet to be met with full academic consensus: many feel, reasonably enough, that any recourse to quantum physics to account for macro-scale phenomena smacks of pseudoscience. A possibility many of these researchers seem to have missed is that the appearance of the superannuated ghosts identified by Davis, Wilkes and Jobanputra may in fact be a recent development. Ghosts in Shakespeare – those of Banquo, Old Hamlet, and Caesar) appear relatively soon after death; now, however, as Hamlet declares – and as Derrida is fond of quoting – the time is out of joint. Derrida expands on this point in his interview with Maurizio Ferraris: there is, he points out, a dislocation of the present, which renders the present non-contemporary to itself and these people non-contemporary to each other […] our time is perhaps the time in which it is no longer so easy for us to say ‘our time’. In other words, despite its aura of ancient mysticism, which pervades despite all scientific advances, Hallowe’en takes the form it does because of us, the living, and our relation to the past.

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Given that Hallowe’en is a perfectly normal astronomical event, and one that (barring especially large solar flares) tends to occur every year, why is it so connected in the popular imagination with fear? Not just ghosts: Hallowe’en is a time for vampires, werewolves, witches, demons, sharknadoes, flibblemitkins, satsumas, and all the other hobgoblins of the medieval mind. Why are we so afraid of the paranormal? There’s so much more to be afraid of than a humdrum old ghost. The world is going very badly. Forces of the Islamic State have occupied huge swathes of the East Midlands and are advancing on Daventry; real estate in London is so expensive it’s only being marketed intergalactically, to sentient beings from planets made of solid diamond; Michael Portillo is a sexual being. With all this going on, why do we waste our fear on things that are real but not important or important but not real? Why aren’t we afraid of Stephen Fry?

Stephen Fry (if such a thing indeed exists) is, on first appearance, the opposite of Hallowe’en. While Hallowe’en marks a moment of rupture or discontinuity in time, Stephen Fry is all smooth progression: a tweed-wearing atavism that is also inexplicably popular on Twitter, the last seventy years all rolled up into one big bundle of plummy homogeneity. While Hallowe’en celebrates the chilly and the gothic and the intoxicatingly unpleasant, the very sound of Stephen Fry’s voice is like sinking into a warm bath of treacly English mush. While Hallowe’en reminds us of the human inability to understand such basic phenomena as death or ghosts, Stephen Fry gives us a world easily broken down into tiny scattered monadic concrete facts, all of them vaguely engaging, but without any particular bearing on anything at all: they’re quite interesting, but never interesting on the level of sex or God or even football. Stephen Fry is utterly (but sadly not uniquely) awful. He represents an insidious brand of unbearable bourgeois smugness: knowledge of useless facts and a fetishistic fondness for gin reconfigured as the instruments of class power. In Stephen Fry’s utopia, those nasty estates full of yobbos would all be bulldozed (if possible with the residents still inside) so lots of bunting can be hung on the wreckage and everything can go back to being simply lovely again. Anyone unaware of what a cummerbund is, or unable to identify which red wines go with a nice Brillat-Savarin (sirens blare! trick question! It’s none of them; the saltiness of the cheese is best paired with a malty pale ale) would be shot against a wall behind the National Gallery and have their remains carted off to fertilise a charming wooded dell full of flowers. He might have lots of little facts in that fleshy bulbous head of his – and might try to convince us that this makes him very clever rather than, say, a human filing cabinet – but this knowledge is never actualised in the form of a critique of anything. Whenever anything like critique emerges, it’s always predictably myopic. As his various pronouncements have shown, Stephen Fry can’t understand religious faith, or why some people might find hate speech offensive, or the basic concept of informed sexual consent. He’s an idiot, and one who marches at the head of a long column of idiots, all fanatically devoted to him. Local pub quiz champions, pipe smokers, grown adults who say ‘poo’. Never mind Hallowe’en: the ghouls already walk among us, every day of the year.

I’m not going to dwell too long on all that; enough space has been devoted in these pages to the general hideousness of the English middle classes and their godawful cuntish heroes. Instead it might be productive to zero in on the third example of Stephen Fry’s all-encompassing idiocy identified above. In 2010 he provoked some consternation when he insisted that women don’t enjoy sex and only engage in the whole rigmarole to snare a male partner. Earlier this year there was rather a bit of a fuss when he appeared to claim that women habitually make false rape accusations in hope of fame or revenge. And recently (on the same day that the first reports of black-eyed ghost children emerged; as I intend to demonstrate, this is not a coincidence) a bloody silly kerfuffle kicked off when he suggested that 14 year old girls raped by celebrities should not be considered victims. Why does he keep doing this? More to the point, who’s listening? It’s not as if he’s an expert on the subject. Stephen Fry was voluntarily celibate for fifteen years, and by his own account found the idea of sex viscerally disgusting; it’s hard to see him as anyone’s first choice for some down-home truths about fucking. His interminable televised displays of factiness might have turned him into an object of national transference, a collective sujet supposé savoir – but every time he says something so plainly and evidently abhorrent there’s the public sphere’s equivalent of QI‘s flashing lights and honking sirens as ten thousand blog posts and opinion pieces are unleashed on him in a ritual display of performative condemnation. You’d think his status as a designated font of all knowledge would have declined by now, but if anything it’s getting stronger by the day: a monstrous, morbid, undead power over the mind.

People like Stephen Fry for the same reason they fear ghosts. It’s all visceral: he’s warm and friendly while they bring the damp mouldering chill of the grave wherever they go. What both represent is a certain way of relating to the past. Stephen Fry gives us an imagined British past of bow ties and cocktails on the lawn (along with repressed sexuality and chronic depression: our cherished twee fantasies still aren’t very nice), one that contradicts material reality but still manages to live on in and through the paunchy presence of Mr Fry himself. As long as he’s alive that past is too; switch on your TV and it can blend seamlessly into our own time. Ghosts remind us that the past is dead, or death itself, and their presence only underscores the impossibility of that presence, the absolute break and cold irretrievability of what once was. Where do ghosts come from? It’s not quantum entanglement, it’s not general relativity, it’s not unfinished business in the world of the living. Whenever Stephen Fry opens his mouth and comes out with some piece of retrograde nonsense about sexual politics, a disjuncture occurs between the generally accepted values of our own time and those of the past: we can hold him accountable, and cut the link to our suddenly gruesome history, or this rupture can be displaced in the form of a ghost. Stephen Fry exhales ghosts in their swarming thousands (it’s surely no coincidence that the Davis-Wilkes-Jobanputra experiment took place on the October after the first broadcast of A Bit of Fry & Laurie). New ghosts, from the distant past, not the harmless echoes we’re used to but vicious biddable black-eyed monsters. As for why he’s doing this, it should by now be obvious. Stephen Fry is the deceiver, the shining one, father of abominations, prince and general of ghostly legions that mass unseen, awaiting the one night in the year when he is granted free reign over the sublunar world. Feel the heat drain from the room? Hear the sound of evil screeching on the wind? Shiver in your corners, bolt your windows, have your gun ready – it won’t save you: they can walk through walls. Hallowe’en is coming.