Howlong can you be absent before you are declared dead? Do you have any civil rights during this interval – which some societies set at the biblical seven years – or are you merely the target of legal action? What happens if you return and your spouse has remarried or the kids have sold the farm? Do you have any recourse apart from revenge? In Absentees, a book about the many ways, across time and place, that people have gone missing, been stripped of status, or become somehow undead, Daniel Heller-Roazen offers a typology of the ‘nonperson’, about whom it can be said neither that ‘he is a person’ nor that ‘he isn’t a person.’ A nonperson is thus a nonentity in the colloquial sense of the word, existent yet diminished, sometimes to the point of being an ‘it’. As Heller-Roazen demonstrates, nonpersons are neither singular nor rare in the past or the present: among their number are slaves, serfs, servants, most convicts, many Indigenous People, many gender nonconformists, some of the disabled and the ailing, many of the very old and the very young, and anyone else who is physically alive but civically lessened. He calls it an inhumanity, all too human, that we regularly visit on our own kind.

First in his typology are people who simply vanish. Right away Heller-Roazen demonstrates his range, citing ancient, medieval and modern philosophical texts, and examining Assyrian, Jewish, Roman, Islamic, Anglo-Saxon, European and US legal codes, all of which have a place for the absent. Islamic law holds that a missing person is ‘alive with respect to his own rights, yet dead with respect to those of others’, but the provision isn’t so clear in other systems (US jurisprudence is especially tangled on this point). Heller-Roazen also includes telling examples from literature, such as Hawthorne’s Wakefield, who one day abruptly leaves his London flat, lives incognito only a block away for the next twenty years, and then just as arbitrarily returns to his long-abandoned wife. Coming home isn’t easy for other protagonists in the genre, whether it be the prototypical Odysseus, the 16th-century French peasant Martin Guerre, who has to displace an impostor, or Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, who is received so badly that he relinquishes all claims, including to his own name: ‘But now I am buried underneath the living, under papers, under acts, under the whole of society, which wants to shove me underground again.’ (Heller-Roazen notes that ‘obstinately returning husbands haunt the French literature of the 19th century’ – they appear in Maupassant and Zola too – but doesn’t hazard an explanation. Social history isn’t really his thing.) Leave it to Kafka to derange these strange narratives further. The original title of his first novel, Amerika, was The Absentee (Der Verschollene), and for its protagonist Karl Rossmann, ‘too old to be a child and yet also too young to be a married man, there is neither departure nor return’.

The missing person features in the origin story of the plastic arts, at least as told by Pliny, who claims that the first act of representation was the tracing of the shadow of a young lover about to depart, ‘on the threshold of vanishing’. For Freud, too, mimesis begins as a way of dealing with loss, or so he thought as he observed his infant grandson play his ‘fort-da’ game, tossing away and retrieving a spool attached to a length of thread in an effort to mimic and so manage the coming and goings of his mother. There are also creepy uses of effigies; in Ovid’s telling, Laodamia treats the inanimate double of her absent husband very much as though it were the real thing. Modernists will recall the life-size doll that Oskar Kokoschka had made, to exact specifications, as a substitute for his lost lover Alma Mahler.

Images were produced not only to be loved but also to be spited, as in the case of pittura infamante, the pictures of traitors and other outlaws placed on city walls in medieval Italy. Sometimes effigies were executed in lieu of the condemned; apparently this is one source for the Hanged Man tarot card. All these examples attest to what the art historian David Freedberg calls ‘the power of images’, which more puritanical critics might see as fetishism writ large. ‘To be adored or punished, to be welcomed, dreaded, or expelled,’ Heller-Roazen concludes, ‘the image of the absentee is each time “wanted”, after the manner of its wanting subject. The fragile semblance of a placeless body, it can be no monument.’ Fans of Andy Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men, the massive mugshots placed on the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, then quickly painted over by order of its commissioner, Robert Moses, might disagree on that last point.

‘Myth and literature have imagined what can be neither known nor decided’ in law, so Heller-Roazen often resorts to fiction. Law drops the missing person once his case is closed by return or death, but myth and literature can follow him in his absence. For Lévi-Strauss myth is a way for a culture to work over social contradictions it can’t otherwise resolve (Althusser said much the same thing about ideology), hence the variations of many ur-tales. If a similar rule about fiction and law can be extracted from his cases, Heller-Roazen doesn’t present one. He treats them all, fictional or otherwise, as evidentiary pieces of a vast archive, including philosophical, religious and medical treatises, that can be subject to the same philological treatment, a close reading of terms that connect and complicate one another or diverge in signal ways.

In his second section, Heller-Roazen considers people diminished in legal standing, whose situation inverts that of the vanished: the living body remains but civil rights are peeled away. Roman law had a name for this procedure: capitis deminutio, or decrease of the head. Here it is key that the subordinate status is produced by active disenfranchisement, which was visited, to varying degrees, on pirates (who were deemed ‘enemies of all’, the title of a previous book by Heller-Roazen), foreigners and a host of others, including, most recently, Britney Spears. Most degraded of all were slaves, persons treated as things, chattel judged to be effectively deceased while still alive. Many convicts were also thrown into this category of ‘civil death’, which by the medieval period was also a voluntary state monks entered when they renounced all earthly possessions and so became dead to the world. Civil death could persist after life too: one could be marked by ignominy, which literally means loss of name (nomen), or by infamy, in which case a person lives on as an inglorious sign (the club president is Nero, but there are some worthy challengers in the present). Names and portraits might also be struck from inscriptions and monuments in the practice known as damnatio memoriae or condemnation of memory. More prosaically, Roman censors could place a mark beside a name, thus effectively cancelling its bearer – a practice that no longer sounds as archaic as it might have done even a few years ago.

Deemed a ‘barbaric fiction’, civil death was abolished in France in 1854, yet residual interdictions persisted there, in the US, and elsewhere. A criminal conviction can reduce legal personhood – the voting rights of ex-cons are disputed to this day – and people in many other categories were and are routinely stripped of rights. Heller-Roazen refers to George Orwell, who in ‘How the Poor Die’ recounted his treatment as an indigent ‘specimen’ in a charity hospital in France in 1921, and to the sociologist Erving Goffman, whose dissertation in 1953 concerned the ‘civil inattention’ practised on Shetland. Such silent treatment is hardly provincial, let alone past; today we call it ‘ghosting’.

Forced to wear a scarlet letter of shame for all to see, Hester Prynne was worse than ghosted, and even though Gulliver encountered many weird creatures on his travels, he was always the one seen as alien. The literary case Heller-Roazen privileges above all others is Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl, the plebeian Faust who sold his shadow to the devil for magical gifts quickly squandered and so lost his ‘human belonging’, as Thomas Mann put it. Here the Latin adage nomen omen has an ironic twist, for Chamisso thought Schlemihl meant ‘beloved of God’. Variations on the theme abound – his shadow turns up in a Hawthorne story, and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s character Erasmus Spikher loses his reflection instead (is there a connection to vampires?) – but Schlemihl is the one who lives on, ignominiously. ‘His name virtually becomes a common noun,’ Heller-Roazen writes, and so ‘almost no one. Alive, but undetected, not yet damned, but nonetheless unsaved.’

Heller-Roazen alludes to the ‘natal alienation’ of slavery, defined by the sociologist Orlando Patterson as a state in which all ‘blood’ ties and civil rights are annulled, arguing that in antiquity multitudes were born into that condition. Here Heller-Roazen differs significantly from Giorgio Agamben, whose influential book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (which Heller-Roazen translated into English) designates this Roman figure as a man ‘who may be killed and yet not sacrificed’, a man who is ‘sacred’ in the antithetical sense of the word largely lost to us – accursed, at the mercy of all. For Agamben the condition of bare life was precisely an exception, even if it has sometimes threatened to become the norm (Walter Benjamin thought so in 1940). For Heller-Roazen, on the contrary, homo sacer was one of many subjects stripped of standing. He isn’t even the lowest of the low, for he cannot be enslaved.

In his final section Heller-Roazen turns to the realm of nonpersonhood we all enter sooner or later: the dead. Neither missing nor diminished, no longer a human being but never a mere thing, the corpse is ‘the exemplary “nonperson”’. It also prompts the eternal question of what to do with ‘indeterminate and indeterminable remains’, where and to whom they belong. Heller-Roazen extends his archive to include anthropology – the different rites accorded the deceased by different cultures – but treats the dead primarily as a philosophical problem, following Christian thinkers from Boethius to Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus as they wrestle with the form/matter opposition inherited from Aristotle and riddle out where to place Christ’s body in such a scheme. Whether or not the corpse is a nonperson, it resembles a human being, at least for a time, and must be disposed of before that resemblance collapses. This status as ‘semblant body’ is a particular conundrum; in many languages the words for likeness and cadaver are similar or identical: ‘It is not “like” anything,’ Heller-Roazen writes, ‘being, rather, likeness itself.’ As a result ‘the cadaver is its own image,’ which ‘no longer entertains any relation with this world’, and this renders it ‘the most impure of sights’, the most uncanny of nonpersons – another reason to remove it quickly.

Sometimes in life, and often in fiction and film, the removal isn’t easy. Heller-Roazen can’t resist another reference to Kafka, whose Hunter Gracchus is a paragon of the undead. ‘Forever on the great stairway’ to the other world, he tells us (in an appropriately mixed metaphor), ‘my death boat went off course,’ returning him again and again to Riva on Lake Garda (where Kafka vacationed in 1909 and 1913). Kafka suffered his own repetition-compulsion with this story, writing no fewer than four versions. Maybe it encoded a contradiction for him à la Lévi-Strauss on myth; certainly it intimated an identification: Kafka means ‘jackdaw’ in Czech or graculus in Latin.

Revenants can also be more mundane, as common as ghosts. Even though the etymology of ‘spectre’ highlights the visual, ghosts often speak, but mostly in a garbled way. ‘Ghosts have a message for the living,’ but the living usually fail to understand or act on it. Perhaps the uncanniest spectre is the one that self-haunts. In ‘The Jolly Corner’ Henry James has his protagonist, Spencer Brydon, return after a long absence from his American home, only to confront his unlived self: ‘He’s none of me, even as I might have been.’ My favourite in this neo-Gothic genre is ‘The Smell’ by Patrick McGrath, whose first-person hero is haunted by a stench that is intimate but unlocatable (a Lacanian would call it ‘extimate’). The last lines read: ‘For I was indeed the source, I the smell, I the thing that dripped and stank … like a dirty cork in a bottle of rancid milk.’

Heller-Roazen finds a summa of nonpersonhood in Gogol’s Dead Souls, which tells of a scam to buy up the titles to deceased serfs since, for the purposes of taxes and mortgages, they count as living until a new census can be taken. ‘Dead, diminished, and missing,’ Heller-Roazen writes, ‘such “souls” decline … fundamental cases of nonpersonhood while combining them.’ In the Bible, too, counting has its loopholes and liabilities; censuses are often followed by plagues, which necessitate a different numbering, this time of the fallen (‘cadaver’ stems from cadere, to fall). Yet the purgatory of the dead can also be more poetic than bureaucratic. Heller-Roazen recalls the little girl in Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’, who, when asked by a passerby about her family, insists on including her absent and deceased siblings among the number: they are gone, Heller-Roazen offers as her reasoning, ‘but not nowhere’.

Sometimes counting is a matter of counting out, of casting lots, which ‘offers an abbreviated image of the relations between persons and nonpersons’, even in games as apparently innocent as ‘Eenie, meenie, miney, mo’ or ‘One potato, two potato’, those emphatic sequences of rhythm and rhyme that count every person in until one person is cast out. By way of Benjamin, Heller-Roazen suggests that the insistent repetition works over a persistent trauma; the little girl in ‘We Are Seven’ knows this ‘transformation of a shattering experience into habit’ in her own way. Interestingly, only in English is the one counted out called an inanimate ‘it’. But this stigma can also flip into a mark of distinction – a scapegoat does have its dark power after all – or even a sign of privilege, as when we speak of an ‘it’ girl.

Trained in philosophy and comparative literature, Heller-Roazen is, like Agamben, a brilliant philologist with a special talent for etymology. Sometimes, though, this book suggests that philology is philosophy tout court, treating language as though it were the decoder ring of all culture; this may be an inheritance of structuralism as well as its poststructuralist discontents. Yet language is what Heller-Roazen both works on and works with, and, more sceptical than faithful, he zeroes in on its complications and cracks, on what troubles definitions and puts pressure on typologies. This interest in aporia – where the logic not only of law but also of language fails – is another legacy of deconstruction, which prizes paradox over dialectics (that was declared dead long ago), and Heller-Roazen isn’t immune to its seductions (recall how he describes Schlemihl as ‘alive, but undetected, not yet damned, but nonetheless unsaved’). His fascination with liminal conditions and people, limit concepts and cases, is shared by many theorists: figures like Melville’s Bartleby and Kafka’s Odradek have elicited provocative texts from Deleuze and Agamben, and the diminished characters of Robert Walser have a critical fan club too. Nevertheless, the siren of that-which-exceeds has its perils (I hear it too); a sort of exceptionalist sublime captivated Bataille, not to mention Carl Schmitt, often with problematic effects.

Asked about this proclivity, Heller-Roazen replies that philosophy, especially since Kant, has often focused on limits, those of reason and language above all, and that he is concerned less with aporias than with ‘positivities’, that is, with concepts constructed in history, out of language, with a material concretion all their own. In this way Heller-Roazen identifies with Foucault the archivist more than Derrida the deconstructionist. Archives are incomplete by nature, and one lacuna in Absentees, which Heller-Roazen will no doubt address in subsequent work, is psychoanalysis, despite the fact that its case studies are full of ‘variously missing persons’, with much to say about uncanny returns, spectral states and other ‘lacks in being’ (as Lacan called them). ‘Where Id is,’ Freud wrote (using es or ‘it’), ‘there Ego shall be.’ Heller-Roazen runs this mantra in reverse: sometimes the I goes missing, or where the I is, sometimes an ‘it’ is made to appear.

The affinity with Foucault may point to the reason Heller-Roazen, unlike Derrida and Agamben, is discreet about the political implications of his work. More than once he states that the nonperson is ‘demanding of our attention’ without offering any explicit reason. This isn’t simply because such explicitness is often reductive and sometimes self-congratulatory. Heller-Roazen believes that a detailed account of legal-institutional problems – as presented by Foucault in Discipline and Punish, say – is more likely to produce political effects if it refrains from ethical judgments. In Absentees Heller-Roazen allows his intricate demonstration of the (il)logic of civil disenfranchisement to be the political prompt. (This isn’t to say the book doesn’t proceed by way of an ethical presupposition; for Heller-Roazen the problem of the inhuman is the human problem.) Such discretion lets the reader apply these precedents to the plights of those currently missing, diminished or undead: stateless refugees and asylum seekers, the disappeared and the dispossessed, those deemed untouchable or otherwise abject, the physically present but mentally incapacitated, those held hostage by state agencies or terrorist groups or bundled away by border patrols or drug cartels.

Is absence ever a good thing? At one point Heller-Roazen quotes a Pirandello character who, more escapee than absentee, is pleased enough to vanish: ‘Now I was alone, and I could not have been more alone on earth, being suddenly loosened from every bond and every obligation, being free, new, and absolutely master of myself, without the weight of my past, and before the future, which I would be able to shape as I liked.’ Even if desirable, is leaving the grid even possible today? There are times when to be ‘loosened from every bond’ does sound attractive. On the other hand, a recent piece in the New York Times diagnosed many of us as ‘languishing’ during the pandemic, not depressed but not engaged, at a loose end (‘languish’ comes from laxus or ‘loose’). I read Absentees in such a lax state, and it snapped me out of it for a while. With all its case studies it reads like a gripping (trans)historical docudrama. ‘What draws the reader to the novel,’ Benjamin writes in ‘The Storyteller’, ‘is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.’ Undeath does that trick too.