Michael Dirda

Harry Houdini, who himself built a career on creating illusions, was critical of
Harry Houdini, who himself built a career on creating illusions, was critical of "spirit photographs." To expose the fraud, he photographed himself with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. (Library Of Congress)

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 24, 2006

PHANTASMAGORIA

Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media

Into the Twenty-First Century

By Marina Warner

Oxford Univ. 469 pp. $29.95

Kenneth Burke's Attitudes Toward History was once described by the poet Howard Nemerov as "two mouse-gray volumes containing all knowledge." Such a feeling of readerly awe might be similarly ascribed to Marina Warner's encyclopedic studies of the human imagination. Over the past 30 years, this brilliant English scholar has explored the cult of the Virgin Mary, the meaning of fairy tales ( From the Beast to the Blonde), metamorphosis in all its guises, our need for horror and the dark side ( No Go the Bogeyman), and now, in Phantasmagoria, humankind's ongoing attempts to fathom the relationship between the corporeal and the spiritual. In other words, Warner's new book addresses the mysteries of the soul -- and of soullessness.

Grand as that sounds, it hardly does justice to the sheer breadth of learning in Phantasmagoria. For Warner is no breezy culture-studies hipster, and she grounds her book in real scholarship. In these dense pages, she ranges from Platonic appearances to Philip K. Dick's replicants, from the camera obscura to the Internet; she cites the work of contemporary writers, artists and filmmakers on one page and the speculations of Renaissance polymaths and Victorian scientists on another. While Warner always writes clearly, she nonetheless demands attention: Her diction will test your vocabulary even as her anecdotes, illustrations and ideas will stretch your mind.

Phantasmagoria adduces 10 vehicles or categories of imagery through which people have tried to depict the spiritual. Broadly speaking, these might be labeled wax, air, clouds, light, shadow, mirror, ghost, ether, ectoplasm and film. Through each of these, artists and thinkers have tried to explore "the borderland between animation and lifelessness" or attempted (and failed) to reproduce warm, vital human life. Thus Warner opens with a meditation on wax figures -- think of death masks and Madame Tussaud's effigies -- and ends (or comes full circle) by examining our contemporary cinematic fascination with zombies and the living dead. In between, she discusses mummification, mirages, the apparent reanimation of Hermione in Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," mesmerism, the mind's inner eye, the double, spiritualism, the Society for Psychical Research, Freud's notion of the uncanny, magic shows, white marble busts and black silhouettes, Julia Margaret Cameron and the rise of photography, Rorschach blots, the allure of television, life in cyberspace and our current culture and rhetoric of apocalypse.

Any page of Warner offers an argument, a tidbit from history, an original thought. She reminds us that, according to Christian theology, "the devil's medium was enigma, illusion, darkling sight. . . . He is a mimic, an actor, a performance artist, and he imitates the wonders of nature and the divine work of creation. But unlike God . . . the devil cannot perform real miracles or alter real phenomena. He is merely the ape of God, the master of lies, of imitating and simulating and pretending -- impotent when it comes to really altering substance and matter (the waxwork, that perfect replica, remains inanimate)." Thus, because Satan deals in make-believe, the theater has always been suspect and stagecraft often judged little better than witchcraft. Elsewhere, Warner teases out the links between Old Testament angels, chubby naked putti and the dovelike Holy Ghost, reflects on the recurrence of whiteness, transparency, flimsiness and filminess in our depictions of the supernatural and charts the importance of clouds in Renaissance art:

"Clouds came ever more unquestioningly to figure the presence of the divine; as they cannot be seized or defined, they serve to convey the inexpressible realm of the supernatural, offering a metaphor for the veiled or hidden character of God; in the Old Testament, God wraps himself in a mist on the summit of Mount Sinai, and the smoke of sacrifice, rising from the inner sanctum of the Temple, obscures the rites -- and their object -- from view. The Shekinah, an aspect of divine wisdom, hovers over the Ark of the Covenant in a shining cloud: a veil concealing a further mystery. Clouds function as screens, as jalousies, as separation: in the medieval mystic image, divinity manifests itself through 'The Cloud of Unknowing.' "

In the same chapter, Warner points out the association of froth, foam and sperm with divinity (e.g., the first syllable of Aphrodite's name means "foam" since she was born of the ocean's white-capped surf). Symbolically, our own "world connects to the world above, the corporeal to the incorporeal, through the smoke of sacrifice."

At times, Warner can ascend to real eloquence, as when she evokes 19th-century photographs of great American Indian chieftains:

"These subjects do not communicate anything but heroic presence. . . . The immobility of the chiefs' frozen pose, their deep, awe-inspiring silence, their gravity and authority, all contribute to the power of these images. Such dignified and powerful men are unsettlingly captured for the present, the tense of a perpetual and permanent now, and the uncanniness of that time zone to which the photograph has transported them is intensified because it seems that the immortal part of them has endured there, in the image, when the mortal remains have long disintegrated. . . . These subjects remain present in their presence, crossing from the zone of the past into our time."

Alas, in this time of ours, she later avers, the sense of the soul has grown weaker, and "what it means to be you, what is the thing inside me that makes me me, has become the sharpest and most resistant of questions." Today, not the soul or the psyche, but the physical brain "has emerged as the prime vehicle of selfhood" and the locus for intense research and analysis. Yet the mysteries of the spiritual remain, along with our very real anxieties and the ache of a persistent emptiness within. In her conclusion, Warner quotes Felix Guattari:

"The burning question, then, becomes this . . . Why have the immense processual potentials brought forth by the revolutions in information processing, telematics, robotics, office automation, biotechnology and so on up to now led only to a monstrous reinforcement of earlier systems of alienation, an oppressive mass-media culture and an infantilizing politics of consensus?"

Why indeed? In the end, then, Warner offers us a record of noble failure, since the quest for spirit and the desire to explain its mysterious nature still go on. Nonetheless, whether analyzing the magic lantern experiments of Athanasius Kircher or the semiotics of modern video recordings, Phantasmagoria offers a magnificent survey of "some of the work of imagination in envisioning the invisible and giving form to the impalpable." Those last phrases -- suggesting, as they do, the conjunction of the earthly and the ineffable -- seem justly appropriate for Christmas Eve. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. He discusses books on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. at washingtonpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity