I remember the first time I ever saw a ghost. I was tiptoeing through the remnants of a burnt-out row house in Washington, D.C., in one of the neighborhoods where, in the 1990s, one could still discern the architectural scars from the urban rebellions meant to avenge the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., thirty years before.
As I stepped gingerly over charred beams, scanning the scattered furniture, my eye landed on a toy—a doll, lying relatively unscathed amidst the debris. In an instant I saw the house as it had been, in its unburnt serenity. A family had lived there. Children grew up there. Psyches, fortunes, relationships germinated in this place. Fortunes that were not mine, lives given their shape by the monstrous hammers of class and race in America. The image I saw—the past I made—awakened questions. What happened to these people? Where had they gone? Why were there so many houses like this one, abandoned and empty in a city where so many lacked homes? That was probably the day I decided to become a historian.
Historians live a good deal of their lives in the past. In doing so, one realizes how many ways there are to inhabit it. The past can serve variously as wellspring, shelter, or cage. There are many pasts to live, as well—personal pasts and political pasts, individual and collective ones. Oftentimes we live them all at once.
How can we represent these histories? In those brief moments when state support has released artistic production from the straitjacket of marketability, one could explore these questions in a robust way on public television channels watched by millions of people. If you had tuned in to the BBC on the evening of March 21, 1974, for example, you would have seen a singular film with a singular name—Penda’s Fen. “Penda” was Penda of Mercia, the last pagan king in England. A “fen” is a piece of marsh, neither land nor water, a marginal zone resonant in English folklore but largely destroyed by the advent of large-scale agriculture.
The film, set in the West Midlands, emerged from the BBC’s Birmingham outpost and aired as part of the network’s Play for Today series, which for a decade and a half served as a kind of studio system for avant-garde drama. It depicts the transformation of a boy growing up in 1970s England, who is shaken from the stultifying conservatism of his upbringing by a series of visions that emerge from the landscape, which is alive with a wilder past that strengthens him in his confrontation with capitalism, patriarchy, and nationalism. Though Penda’s Fen aired only twice in four decades, its flame was kept by a circle of devotees until digital distribution meant it could be shared more broadly. As interest in the film has grown, two books on Penda’s Fen have appeared in the last decade: The Edge Is Where The Centre Is (2015) and Of Mud and Flame: A Penda’s Fen Sourcebook (2019). While the film is set in a specific time and place, its radical conception of a buried past that remerges at moments of crisis to galvanize the forces of liberation can resonate deeply for those who let it.
The hero of Penda’s Fen is Stephen, a parson’s son coming of age amid the Malvern Hills, near Worcester. His village has an odd name—“Pinvin.” Stephen begins the movie as a horrid prig and a fanatical servant of ideology—family, church, nation. When a local playwright—a cipher for the film’s screenwriter, the Anglo-Irish dramatist David Rudkin—delivers a searing philippic against the government and the rich at a town meeting, Stephen recoils in horror. “I think he’s unnatural,” the boy stammers to his bemused parents. The world, for Stephen, presents itself in a series of panicky binaries—wholesome and subversive, dirty and clean, natural and unnatural.
But this is overcompensation. Something is calling to Stephen. He can’t resist scrambling down the stairs each morning to greet the hard-bodied milkman. In dreams, he spies a demon perched atop the church tower, which he converts, through “willpower,” into an angel and back again. “A Manichean dream,” sighs a disinterested teacher. The next dream delivers a writhing scrum of teenaged rugby players, capped by a vision of a brawny classmate, loins aflame. As Stephen begins to drift away from the customs of his school, all anxious, belligerent masculinity and counterfeit noblesse oblige, he earns the sadistic ire of student and teacher alike.
Meanwhile, something is happening in the hills. “The earth beneath your feet feels solid there. It is not,” warns Arne, the local playwright. The landscape is alive but contested. On the one hand, the forces of “technocratic death” assemble—an ominous government installation appears in the countryside; a carousing teen is disfigured by an explosion in the fields. On the other, something older stirs. Stephen begins to see ghosts. The revenant of Edward Elgar, Stephen’s musical hero, vouchsafes a secret. He pinched the melody for The Dream of Gerontius—“the most shattering moment in all of music,” in Stephen’s rapturous description—not from the screams of angels, but from a whining dog. Scramble your categories, the composer urges. Binaries are illusions. Those who cling to them simply “have no demon for counterpoint.”
For Stephen, the past holds the key to escaping a future whose promise is paralysis and death. Clues emerge from the landscape. A careless sign painter misspells “Pinvin” as “Pinfin.” It was once “Pendefen,” Stephen learns. “Penda’s Fen.” The old demons, denizens of what the poet Geoffrey Hill called “coiled entrenched England,” still inhabit the landscape. Even the Christians were not Christian, Stephen learns, at least not in the mutilated version he has imbibed at school. Penda, Elgar, Joan of Arc, Jesus—through these spirits, Stephen grows within himself an indictment of postcard nationalism as well as the strength to resist it. He remains a romantic, but his assignations with the past are shot through the charge of liberation. He has become a descendant of those who, as André Breton wrote, sought emotions “incapable of expressing themselves in the limitations of the real world; emotions which have no other outlet than responding in desperation to the eternal lure of symbols and myths.” He has become a surrealist. The film depicts a battle between two romanticisms, one that serves the present—what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called “the myth of that which is the case”—and another that serves to explode it.
In Penda’s Fen, the landscape becomes a vehicle through which the past repeatedly bursts into the present in order to expose and criticize it. In its encounter with a debased present, the old cannot but become something new. Rudkin’s method in Penda’s Fen parallels that of Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, another excavation of the past in service of the present. Benjamin, inspired by the Surrealists, sought to construct “dialectical images,” where “what has been comes together in a flash with the now.” The shock of juxtaposition, he believed, might awaken us from the dreary sleep of capitalism and foster a new, politically charged historical consciousness. The significance of the past, in this view, is only ever given by the present. When King Penda appears to Stephen, imploring him to inhabit his role as “our sacred demon of ungovernableness,” it is less to fix his gaze on a lifeless past than to puncture the exquisite governability of public-school England.
Like Benjamin, Penda’s Fen traffics in alternative temporalities, redeeming the dead by enlisting them as comrades. Benjamin decried what he called “homogeneous, empty time”—time as mere unit, a neutral container filling up with one damn thing after another. Marx had pointed out how abstract time—homogeneous, empty, without quality, and thereby measurable and tradeable—was an indispensable corollary of exploitation. This time, Benjamin insisted, belongs to the oppressor; to consent to it means to be asleep. Its ghastly, cynical epitome was Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return, where human experience is cast as mere sum, nothing more than the mechanical combination of finite, discrete elements. In Benjamin’s eyes, Nietzsche, Charles Baudelaire, and other weary spokespersons of the nineteenth century embodied the exhaustion of the bourgeoisie as the weight of the commodity economy pressed down upon everyday life. Against this “subdividing” spirit of the age, Benjamin stressed rupture, discontinuity, and Erfahrung, experience that is not merely endured but assimilated, thereby becoming a motor for change. His dialectical images established a polychronic time—time lent human meaning, time with qualities. Reestablishing control over time becomes a political imperative. During the July Revolution, Benjamin pointed out, militants across Paris fired on the clocks.
Penda’s Fen is often read alongside the “folk horror” films of the 1970s, the most famous of which is Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). While it shares a set of themes with those films, Penda’s Fen is both more formally daring and more directly politicized than its genre cousins. Rudkin was clear: “It’s a bloody political piece. I’ve always thought of myself as a political writer.” Elsewhere, he remarked:
I think capitalism will fail as a relationship of violational exploitation between man and the planet, though I don’t know how long this will take or what catastrophes its collapse will encompass. For all that it is a terribly convincing lie, it is comfortingly anti-paradoxical in its profession to have defined, colonised and expunged all contradictions: It demands that people part company with their shadows, whereas I think the function of the poet is to bring the shadow back into the light.
What Enlightenment gives and what it has taken away is at the heart of Penda’s Fen. Rather than retreat into atavism, though, Stephen marshals the shadows as armor against the irrational values into which he has been schooled, replacing them with queerness as emotional courage and an ethic of care.
By the end of Penda’s Fen, impurity is no longer a source of anxiety for Stephen. Contradiction has become the motor of his development. In the film’s final scene, he is tempted one last time by the forces of order. “I am nothing pure,” he retorts. “My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man. Light with darkness. Mixed. Mixed. I am nothing special. Nothing pure. I am mud and flame.” As the film closes, Stephen strides off across the landscape. The final lines of Rudkin’s script, included as an appendix to Of Mud and Flame, read: “Which shall prevail? The Angel, or the Pandemonium; the sickness of power and obedience to power, or the sacred demon of ungovernableness.” The latter is Stephen’s new title, given him by King Penda. In Hill’s Mercian Hymns, composed around the same time as Penda’s Fen and similarly concerned with the telescoping of past into present, the poet writes of Offa, a successor of Penda, that his is “a name to conjure with.”
With whose names will we conjure today? In the months that followed last summer’s rebellions, our landscape seethed with its own demons. On the grand staircase in Fort Greene Park, I saw a woman tying placards to the trees, each one emblazoned with a photo and biography of a Black person lynched by the police. Near the entrance to the park, someone assembled an impromptu memorial to the uprising, spelling out “BLACK LIVES MATTER” with the ashes of a burnt police van. It remained for months as a kind of shrine, replenished by volunteers until one day, I noticed, it was gone. The city needs autonomous public art like this to disappear so that public space may be returned to its role as lubricant for commerce and nothing else. The belligerent policing of the last forty years, and the wrecked lives it has left behind, are part of this project to rub space clean, to make it abstract again, to reclaim it for those who have given themselves to the cult of “the economy.” For this reason, the effort to defend black lives, the struggle for public spaces, both physical and fiscal, and the movement to weaken capitalism are, in the end, indistinguishable.
Here in New York, the space around us is becoming clean once again. The demons slumber, visible only in the mind’s eye, only to those who, like Stephen, need to see them. But monuments, visible and invisible, link us to the past. In “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin wrote of “a secret agreement between past generations and the present one,” manifested as images that spring forth at a “moment of danger.” These connections are not merely imaginary, since the world we live has been given to us by the struggles of the past. Seeing buried pasts means seeing the future, because in doing so, we learn how to see beyond the catastrophic present. The goal is not to repeat the past, as if that were possible, but to resurrect its spirit, forge our bonds with its protagonists, and redeem their struggles by waging ours. When we pour into the streets to defend the lives of the vulnerable, we join what Karl Marx called the “historical party.” We activate what Benjamin called a “retroactive force,” whose power is to “call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.” We redeem our departed comrades by making good on the promise that their struggle was not for nothing.
Benjamin, his life cut short by the Holocaust, never visited the United States. Still, the philosophy of history he articulated in the midst of catastrophe resonates in meaningful ways with the Black radical tradition as imagined by writers like Cedric Robinson and Robin D. G. Kelley, a tradition that has always germinated in the fields and in the streets before it is codified and written down. What they share is an embrace of historical consciousness against capitalism’s obligation to erase the past, a series of carefully tended connections with the traditions of the oppressed, a suspicion of what is glibly called “progress,” an awareness that prophecy is a political act, and an unembarrassed emphasis on the negative moment—a “total rejection” of an intolerable condition, a revolt that guarantees nothing but liberation, even if that comes as death. Too rigid an emphasis on blueprints and solutions—on guarantees—can concede too much to the oppressor and obscure the way in which the negative moment is also a positive one. Binaries are illusions. Weakening the police strengthens the forces of care.
These wilder pasts are everywhere, if we care to look. When I walk around downtown Manhattan, I see the colonial proletarian underworld conjured by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, where Africa met Ireland and crime was resistance. I walk north into another century and see the West Side piers, where Alvin Baltrop, David Wojnarowicz, and Sylvia Rivera once roamed. These places become coordinates in a spiritual counter-history that sustains what Benjamin called “the tradition of the oppressed.” This tradition enters into us when we read Robin Kelley on Alabama communists and Black surrealists, Saidiya Hartman on the Black women rebels “deemed unfit for history,” or C. L. R. James on the Maroon chief Makandal and the ceremony at Bois Caïman, the symbolic opening of the Haitian Revolution. Ancient people believed in a genius loci, a spirit that animates a particular place. Our job is to conjure a new genius loci that splashes itself rudely across the abstract spaces of capitalism. With whose names will we conjure?
When we assemble in the streets, these spirits circulate and enter into us. We are inspired, in the older, richer sense of the word. We are filled with the breath of another; we let the demons in. These spirits are supernatural in the sense that they help us puncture reality, but they are not quite ghosts, nor are they something set apart from us. They are invisible, yet they exert material force in the world. They are composed not only of our relationships with the past, but also of the force of our relationships with one another—what they have been, what they are, and most important, what they could be.