The Self can take many forms, this novel shows you their true colours

Paul Auster’s Ghosts unfurls a story clouded with mystery and fantasy. It narrates a detective story that resonates with contemporary spectatorship.

Three characters, Detective Blue, White as the client, and Black as the suspect, reflect three roles played out in contemporary spectatorship—the viewer, the artist, and the object.

The story begins with White asking detective Blue to follow a man named Black. The case seems easy, as Blue assumed at the beginning–‘It’s a marriage case and that White is a jealous husband.’ But the whole story takes a sudden twist as Blue realizes that he is not speculating Black but himself.

As Auster recounts: ‘For in spying out at black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking out into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself.’ Speculation, in this sense, becomes a mirror that reflects Blue’s own image. Blue’s speculation resonates with the spectatorship that viewers play out in the contemporary art context. The case resembles the artwork encountered by viewers. The viewer, like detective Blue, called for deciphering the case.

Contemporary artworks, similar to the nature of this case which seems easy at the beginning, conceal a pleasure in the process of speculation. The pleasure, as Blue discoveries, is not from the case itself, but from making up stories out of what he has observed.

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This process of ‘making up’ accounts for the encryption of the case. ‘Day by day,’ Auster continues, ‘the list of these stories grows, with Blue sometimes returning his mind to an early story to add certain flourishes and details and at other times starting to add again something new.’

Aligning with this experience, the viewer’s participation is also a process of making up stories. Instead of digging something up from the artwork, viewers add new ideas on the original and render it personal. Since the speculation reflects the viewer’s own image, observing the other becomes observing ‘Myself’.

What has been explored, felt, and seen is thrown back on ‘me’. In this regard, the viewer, as he/she encounters the artwork, gazes at his/her own image in the artwork. ‘for the first time,’ as Blue felt that ‘he has never given much thought to the world inside him, and thought he always knew it was there, it has remained an unknown quantity, unexplored and therefore dark, even to himself.’ The artwork like a mirror that enables the viewer to recognize his/her self as a whole. For the first time the viewer realizes that what has been aware of is merely a part of his/herself. There is more to tell, more to explore.

The contemporary spectatorship, therefore, focuses not on the artwork but on the viewer. The viewer is the object that is gazed at not by others but by his/herself.

mackayan: paul austers ghosts