Kontou, Tatiana and Sarah Willburn, eds.: The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult.
Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn have edited a thoughtful and informative volume of essays, The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult. This wide-ranging anthology reveals the numerous ways that both spiritualism and the occult informed, and were informed by, the social and political movements of the nineteenth century, all of which continue to resonate in today's world. The essays go a long way toward proving Kontou and Wilburn's opening claim that spiritualism and the occult were "culturally central for many Victorians" (1) as well as the idea that the ordinary concerns of the Victorians are "made extraordinary" when viewed through the lens of these supposedly marginal mystical pursuits.
With 17 chapters and an introduction, Kontou and Willburn's book is Comprehensive--almost sprawling--in scope, and often exceeds the editors' attempts to contain its message. Although the introduction endeavors to pull together all the strands of Victorian mysticism, the book is appealing not in spite of but because of its imperfect expansiveness. After setting up the difference between spiritualism and the occult, the introduction acknowledges the overwhelming nature of its topic and Victorian mysticism's relationship with subjects as varied as literary criticism, socialism, feminism, and even food studies. We are told, "Placing death beside life, as spiritualism and the occult did, produces a modern aesthetic that insists on commensurability between disparate people and things as well as the virtual immediacy enabled by many much more recent technical media"(l). While this is true, the book is at its best when the authors do not insist upon the subjects' relevance to the present.
Divided into three sections, the book's range of essays shows what the authors call the "flexibility" of the subject matter. While some of the contributors seem to want to construct a sort of apologetics for spiritualism and the occult--or at least their study of them--the essays are far more interesting than that idea implies. Section One is "Haunted Laboratories and Ghosts in the Machine: Spiritualism, Science and Technology." Its five chapters are the most interrelated, exploring the ways in which spiritualism intersected with the new inventions and scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. Christine Ferguson's survey, "Recent Scholarship on Spiritualism and Science," shows the ways in which recent scholarship has "challenged the supremacy of the crisis of faith hypothesis hitherto used to account for the popularity of seances and mysticism" (19). Ferguson also introduces an important caveat for Tantou and Willburn's readers, asking us not to get carried away with the idea that spiritualism was fully aligned with the progressive social movements of its time. Extending on Ferguson, Richard Noakes's "The Sciences and Spiritualism in Victorian Britain" uses a study of spiritualist practice, and its appropriation of scientific language and practice, to show the correlations between "popular" and hard science. Noakes analyses how the terms and practices of science were brought to bear on non-scientific phenomena.
The next three chapters focus on the relationship between spiritualism and the practice of writing, especially the parallels between new writing technologies like the typewriter and the work of spiritual mediums as transmitters of messages from the supernatural world. The chapters complement each other, each offering a fascinating and easy to follow argument. In "The Undead Author: Spiritualism, Technology and Authorship," Anthony Enns parallels the work of mediums to that of typists, noting that the two occupations emerged at the same time in history. Enns uses this parallel to discuss new definitions of authorship, especially in an era when most typists and mediums--and many writers--were women. If Enns reimagines authorship, Jill Galvan discusses writing technology and the seance in terms of the posthuman. In "The Victorian Post-human: Transmission, Information and the Seance," Galvan shows the ways in which the seance and the typewriter each pre-figure our present era's focus on the transmission and storing of information at the expense of human connection while at the same time offering ways to expand conceptions of the human--from "life after death" to Second Life. Finally, in "The Cross-Correspondences: the Nature of Evidence and the Matter of Writing," Leigh Wilson studies the phenomenon of posthumous Correspondence--letters supposedly written from dead people to other dead People--among members of the Society for Psychical Research, to create a fascinating and lucid analysis of the physical and metaphysical nature of writing itself.
Part Two, "Occulture: Sex, Politics, Philosophy and Poetics," focuses on the Victorian study of the occult and its effects on the development of literature and politics. Although the connections among the chapters in this section are less obvious, each adds to the discussion in fascinating ways. J. Jeffrey Franklin's straightforward and persuasive "The Evolution of Occult Spirituality in Victorian England and the Representative Case of Edward Bulwer-Lytton" follows two of the author's more occult-heavy works, Zannoni and A Strange Story, to show how his work influenced later occult fiction from Ryder Haggard to contemporary vampire novels. In '"Out of your clinging kisses ... I create a new world': Sexuality and Spirituality in the Work of Edward Carpenter," Joy Dixon focuses on the writings of the social activist and early gay advocate. Dixon ably illustrates how Carpenter's attempts to reconnect the sexual and the spiritual in his writing served as a response to Christian body/spirit dualism. If Dixon's focus is on sexuality, Matthew Beaumont is concerned with social class. In "Socialism and Occultism at the Fin de Siecle: Elective Affinities," Beaumont mounts a persuasive rebuttal to claims that nineteenth-century theosophists were aligned with a conservative, anti-socialist agenda: "The occult can be shaped by the hope of active social transformation as well as the despondent dream of actively escaping society altogether" (180). Christoforos Diakoulakis's necessarily subtle "William James: Belief in Ghosts" takes the volume in yet another direction, carefully and ultimately successfully challenging psychic researcher James's espousal of unbelief. Last in the section, Mazen Naous's close reading of Yeats "The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid," "The Turn of the Gyres: Alterity in 'The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid' and A Thousand and One Nights," uses the figure of the medium to critique Orientalism. While this essay is thorough and well argued, it may be less accessible to the lay reader.
With seven chapters, Section Three "Staging the Victorian Afterlife: From Magic Shows to Dinner Parties" centers on performers and performance in Victorian spiritualist and occult practice, and on questions of authenticity and legitimacy. In "The Case of Florence Marryat: Custodian of the Spirit World/ Popular Novelist," Tatiana Kontou studies the reception of the famous medium's memoir in order to show the difficulty--perhaps the superfluousness--of separating fact from fiction in the representation of psychic phenomena. Erika White Dyson's '"Gentleman Mountebanks' and Spiritualists: Legal, Stage, and Media Contest Between Magicians and Spirit Mediums in the United States and England" examines the legal contests between magician performers and mediums--each calling the other a fraud. Dyson's engaging account shows the ways in which each group struggled for legitimacy. "Mirth as Medium: Spectacles of Laughter in the Victorian Seance Room" by MacKenzie Bartlett deals with both spirit laughter and the laughter of attendees at seances and argues convincingly that rather than de-legitimizing the encounter, laughter could create points of contact. Legitimacy comes up again in Marlene Tromp's essay "Eating, Feeding, and Flesh: Food in Victorian Spiritualism." This is a cogent argument about the ways that handling food, a traditionally feminine occupation, had potential to create agency for the females within the spiritualist community. Bridget Bennett goes a different way in '"The Dear Old Sacred Terror': Spiritualism and the Supernatural from The Bostonians to The Turn of the Screw." This neat bit of literary criticism examines the ways in which James's two works chart the evolution of the ghostly--its transmission and the reader's response to it--throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The volume's last two chapters have to do with visual representations of the spirit world. In '"The Sublimation of Matter into Spirit': Anna Mary Howitt's Automatic Drawings,'" Rachel Oberter nicely charts the creation of the titular drawings to illustrate a philosophical concept: that art needs a physical medium, that the spirit is indebted to "materiality." Finally, in "Viewing History and Fantasy through Victorian Spirit Photography," Sarah Willburn eschews any judgment about whether such photos--and the related practice of "dorchagraphy"--were "real. " Instead, she examines "their cultural meaning and significance," especially as ways of representing history (social and personal) as it happened (359). She ignores "the question of authenticity" so important in earlier essays in this section.
The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult, with its focus on people in search of newer, better worlds and theoretical depictions of contact between the living and the dead, will naturally be of interest to scholars of the fantastic. Well chosen and scrupulously edited, it is a good choice for libraries. While some of the chapters are more accessible to the lay reader than others, this book would be a valuable resource for students, fiction writers, and others who might use these essays as background research. The breadth and depth of Tantou and Willburn's scholarship and that of their contributors makes this a useful and engaging work.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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