Hamlet or Kaonashi: A Non-Metaphorical Approach to the Ghosts within the Self

Yi Chen

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In Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to reveal a disturbing truth and exact revenge. Ghosts as supernatural echoes of a moral injustice, are commonly viewed as metaphors for a longing for justice.

As Hamlet shows, this echo is not one of material substance: as the grave digger throws about skulls and skeletons, one can no longer tell a lawyer from a maid who committed suicide, and when Hamlet holds the skull of his beloved childhood jester Yorick, its musty smell curbs pleasant memories. Rather, the echo is one of meaning, it establishes in resonance of the other with the self, its demands – internalized – can neither be morally denied, nor properly granted. And since this meaning is established within the self, it invades the gap between the self and the world, and threatens the self’s very existence.

Instead of applying any moral allegory or metaphor, the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki portrays a gallery of ghostly spirits in his animated film “Spirited Away” (2001). These ghosts are given sensational and emotional presence in their own unique shapes and gowns. In a non-metaphorical way, Miyazaki exposes human nature through ghostly figures such as Kaonashi (“No-face”), who displays an uncanny combination of a Noh mask like neutral face and an insatiable need beneath the seemingly tranquil appearance. Applying the “neutral beauty” of Noh masks, which describes a deep sense of loneliness of Kaonashi through the subtlest expressions of facial movements, Miyasaki explores and expresses the profound presence of “yūgen” (幽玄), initiated by the 17th century Noh master Zeami, through silent images of vast ocean blue in the film.

Going beyond the conventional, metaphorical use of ghost as a theme of revenge and a moral allegory, the non-metaphorical approach brings ghosts from the afterlife to this moment, where they are truly alive and present and perform within ourselves. Such embodied presence resides in a “rift of times” (Zeitenschrunde), to use the poet Paul Celan’s neologism, as an uncanny past–in–presence, through shadows and echoes that do not simply imitate the absent voice, but open the unfathomable abyss of this very moment around us, an awareness of the thickness and depth of a truly lived moment.

Thus, our ghosts alert us to such fissures and gaps, which are not the flaw of life but the body of life itself. Our performance in everyday business and in organizational life is not only shaped by social relationships, but also how we interact with the Kaonashi within us, who reduces us to our needs, and the Spectre of the King of Denmark, who reduces us to our acts. Embracing them is what saves us from becoming their prey.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - Jul 2019
EventStanding Conference on Organisational Symbolism
: Ghosts
- University of York, York, United Kingdom
Duration: 8 Jul 201910 Jul 2019


ConferenceStanding Conference on Organisational Symbolism
Abbreviated titleSCOS
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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