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Durham University

Department of English Studies

Event Archive

This is an archive of past events within the Department of English Studies. Please see our current events for forthcoming activities.

Some of our public events are recorded and are available as podcasts via our Research English At Durham blog.

Ghosts and Goblins in Early Modern Japan (18th-19th centuries)

10th November 2015, 18:15 to 19:15, Elvet Riverside 140, Dr Rosina Buckland (National Museum of Scotland)

Supernatural creatures were inextricably woven into early modern Japanese society. Their forms ranged from benevolent manifestations of sacred beings, through humorous goblins, to malevolent shape-shifters and ghosts. These themes were a mainstay of popular visual culture, theatrical productions and literature, and while the various creatures often provided entertainment, they also served to remind people of the importance of religious and folkloric beliefs. Some forms were imported from China, as part of the larger framework of classical civilization and learning, but other were native to Japan, emerging from particular topographies and practices. These supernatural beings can provide us with insight into the way Japanese people of the time understood the world around them, as well as that which lay beyond the knowable world. The lecture will present examples from the visual tradition, in woodblock prints, paintings, masks, and personal ornaments, exploring both the anthropological meanings and the artistic interpretations to be found in this rich cultural sphere.

We live in a world populated by ghosts. The landscapes scenes we pass through each day are inhabited – if not possessed – by spirits. Our everyday haunts are haunted by ghosts. The rationality which governs our lives, our thoughts, our beliefs urges us to conceal their spectral presence, to demote their evidence; we cannot see them, therefore we deny their existence. Ghosts dwell not in our world but, we like to think, in fictional or possible worlds – in literature, in film, in art. Or, perhaps, in some multiple time dimensions that science might discover.

Modernity, it seems, has freed us from ghosts; culture has invented for them the interstitial space of superstition. Yet by embodying an awareness of the presences of those who are not physically there, ghosts help us construct both our sense of place and of belonging to a given community. 

The organisers regard this project as interrogating how that awareness or feeling compels us to search for evidence of the ghostly – the evidence of spirits in our everyday life. They appear as strangers in our internal conversations, as expansions of our personal identity, as auras in our encounters with images, as eerily evident in our reactions to the visual arts, as traces of our posthumous condition, as spectres haunting our history, and even as ghostly presences in our syntax. We resist belief in ghosts and yet we feel their spectral presence everywhere. 

The project consists of three separate, but complementary strands: a lecture series, an exhibition on ‘Ghost Stories’ held in October 2015 at the Durham World Heritage Site Visitor Centre; and a one-day workshop to take place at the IAS on 23 February 2016. Lectures will be held fortnightly on commencing 13 October at 6:15pm in Elvet Riverside 140. Lectures and the exhibition are open to all, though attendees at the opening event of the exhibition will need to register in advance.

Contact for more information about this event.

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