«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
of the phantasmagoria becomes ‘the delirium of history itself’.65 Like the French Revolution, the phantasmagoria seems to erode certainties and obscure clarity. The period takes in the aspect of a shadowy pandemonium, where it is all but impossible to differentiate between real and unreal. By referencing the phantasmagoria, Carlyle projects the image of the revolution as a type of historical nightmare. Carlyle’s use of this image is predicated upon the notion that there is something inherently nightmarish about the phantasmagoria itself; the phantasmagoria has become the expression of nightmare and delirium.
It is important to understand, though, that there were also many who would have understood it to represent something much more positive. With its multiplicity and air of unreality, the phantasmagoria could illustrate both the terrors of nightmare and the wonders of dream. Castle herself acknowledges that ‘The emotional value of the metaphor fluctuated. Some writers, to be sure, used the phantasmagorical image fairly light-heartedly, to evoke pleasurable or whimsical states of imaginative experience’.66 The phantasmagoria could, on the one hand, represent the imagination as something terrifying alive and alienated from the self: an invasive parasite or tumourous outgrowth of the consciousness. Simultaneously, it could be used to represent the imagination as something vibrantly alive, a creative faculty that was in a constant state of excited animation. In both cases, the phantasmagoria preserves fundamentally the same meaning: a vibrant, multiplicitous spectacle that was, somehow, vaguely unreal, like a riotous carnival in the brain. What varies is how people react to this experience – as either an alarming derangement of the mind, or a spectacular flowering of the imagination; as an awful delirium, or a potent spectacle.
Often, it was understood to be both at the same time.
In 1835, Washington Irving described the chivalric fantasies that filled his thoughts while wandering in the sun-dappled woods near Byron’s ancestral home, Newstead Abbey: ‘Such was the phantasmagoria that presented itself for a moment to my imagination, peopling the empty place before me with empty shadows of the past.’67 For Nathaniel Hawthorne too the phantasmagoria presented itself as an image of unconstrained imaginative freedom. In the preface to The Blithedale Romance (1852), Hawthorn, in disavowing any direct connection between his community of Castle, The Female Thermometer, 141.
Castle, The Female Thermometer, 158.
Castle, The Female Thermometer, 158.
Blithedale and the real life socialist community at Brook Farm, writes that: ‘[my only] concern with the socialist community [at Brook Farm in Roxbury] was merely to establish a theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures of [my] brain might play their phantasmagorical antics, without exposing them to too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives’.68 For both of these men, the phantasmagoria is an image of imaginative freedom and dynamism.
Hawthorne’s metaphor of creating a theatre for his ‘phantasmagorical’ imagination is especially telling. By calling the community a theatre, Hawthorn implies that it and indeed the novel as a whole is a metaphorical space in which to play out a mental ‘phantasmagoria’. The result of this metaphor is to suggest the underlying idea that there is something essentially phantasmagorical about the action of the imagination itself. Rather than a regulated process of composition and creation, a mimetic recombination of elements already found in reality, imaginative creativity is presented as a semi-mystical, uncontrolled and spontaneous emergence of fantastic images altogether separate from real life; the forms of the romancer’s imagination come to mirror the vague, spectacular forms inhabiting the phantasmagoria. Later, this view of the imagination becomes even more pronounced when Hawthorne proposes that ‘what the American Romancer needs’ is to cultivate ‘an atmosphere of strange enchantment’ in his work. He writes that ‘In its absence, the beings of imagination are compelled to show themselves in the same category as actually living mortals; a necessity that generally renders the paint and pasteboard of their composition but too painfully discernable’.69 This cultivation of a pervasive sense, or ‘atmosphere’, of the fantastical is one of the most subtle but also most powerful aspects of the phantasmagoria experience. By invoking this ‘strange’ and ‘enchanting’ atmosphere, Hawthorne links the novel, its characters and events, with the realm of dream. Rather than aping the forms of reality, Hawthorne emphasises the novel’s disconnection from reality. The characters and events are suggested to be products of the realm of imagination and the atmosphere of enchantment that surrounds them legitimises this rejection of reality by turning the novel into a sort of phantasmagoria. In effect, we are presented with the image of the novel as a window into the phantasmagorical realm of the imagination;
the novel becomes a way of encapsulating the intoxicating forms of the imagination itself. This concept also creates an equivalence between the act of imaginative Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (Boston: Osgood, 1871), pp. iii- iv.
Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, p. iv.
production and the act of exhibition. The writer displays the products of his imagination like the fantasmagore exhibiting his creations or like the curioso exhibiting his collection.
These examples are from several decades after the first exhibition of the phantasmagoria. Hawthorne, for example, was writing in 1852, sixty years after Philidor first set up shop on the Rue de Richelieu. The phantasmagorist’s contemporaries, though, seem also to have been vividly aware of its imaginative potential. Robertson himself seems to have had a remarkable degree of insight into the metaphoric functions of his creation, reproducing in his memoirs Sébastian Mercier’s response to it, which represents one of the most powerful and direct illustrations of the
phantasmagoria as a symbol of the imagination:
The answer to Mercier’s question, ‘who has excavated the dream?’, we might assume to be Robertson himself, with the phantasmagoria as his instrument. Mercier’s vision is of the phantasmagoria opening up, the dominion of dreams, and releasing it into the conscious world. This projection of unrefined dreams is notably similar to the ‘atmosphere of strange enchantment’ that Hawthorne described. Critically, Mercier does not describe this as a fearful or alienating experience. Instead of a horrible fragmentation of the self, the phantasmagoria is where we truly live, a manifestation of the inner world where the soul has its supreme authority. Like Irving and Hawthorn, Mercier sees the phantasmagoria as a pattern for the imagination itself. In doing this, Mercier also reflexively arrives at the idea that the imagination must itself be phantasmagorical: unpredictable, unbound by rules, pluralistic and brilliantly alive.
Cohen, Profane Illumination, 244.
The phantasmagoria was repeatedly used in this way over the coming decades. Often, this association with imaginative intensity and energy is made very explicit. In 1843, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published a romance called ‘Ignacio Guerra and El Sangrador: A Tale of Civil War’. The work features a scene in which the young title character Ignacio tries to sleep beneath an overhang of rock, sheltering himself from a violent storm: ‘Throwing himself on the ground, with his feet toward the flames, he endeavoured to get a little sleep… but it was in vain. … Gradually, a sort of phantasmagoria passed before his “mind’s eye”, wherein the various events of his life, which, although a short one, had not the less been sadly eventful, were represented in vivid colours.’71 Similarly, in March 1837, The Morning
Post carried a review of ‘Mr Ainsworth’s New Romance, “Crichton”’:
Each of these articles describes its particular phantasmagoria as ‘vivid’. This repetition is important because it strongly suggests that, in this context, the phantasmagoria was not meant to convey the dread of madness or insidious delirium, but to convey instead ‘Ignacio Guerra and El Sangrador: A Tale of Civil War’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 53 (January-June 1843), 797.
‘Mr Ainsworth’s New Romance’, The Morning Post, no. 20669 (8th March 1837).
a particularly vigorous and colourful imaginative experience. Obviously, there is a slight ambiguity in Ignacio Guerra’s use of the phantasmagoria symbol. Ignacio’s phantasmagoria is hallucinatory, the result of ‘thoughts that he was unable to drive away’.73 The mixed value of the phantasmagorical metaphor was that it could suggest an imagination that was at once unrestrained but also out of control. There is no ambiguity in The Morning Post’s usage though: it is unequivocally positive. The book contains a ‘masquerade… gorgeous and mysterious’. The phantasmagoria is a symbol for an experience that is thrillingly alive and thrilling in its variety. In the mind of the reviewer, the elements of the novel whirl around each other and contrast with each other: the heroic Crichton, the austere Huguenots and the beautiful but corrupt courtiers. Like Mercier’s depiction of it as the realisation of dream, this ‘vividness’ of the phantasmagoria associates it with wonder and astonishment. The reviewer’s reference to the masquerade suggests a certain degree of parity between the two concepts: the aesthetic appeal of the masquerade is the same as the aesthetic appeal the phantasmagoria. Both emphasise the variety of sights and the quantity of sights; both represent an unsystematic, contrasting and vividly alive type of wonder.
Similar wondrous connotations can be seen in an article from the 1830s that Walter Benjamin reproduces in The Arcades Project. It is an advertisement for the ‘Nocturnorama’, a concert in which ‘All that the music expresses… will be rendered visible through painted transparencies’. The assertion was that ‘Haydn’s Creation… accompanied by the appropriate phantasmagorias, will no doubt doubly captivate the senses of the audience’.74 Again, the phantasmagoria is used, comparatively simply, to imply an arresting, enticing, almost magical visual spectacle: the synesthetic experience of music made visible. While there is a potentially hallucinogenic property to this performance, it is obviously intended to beguile rather than terrify. The phantasmagoria suggests dreamy intoxication and whimsy instead of mental derangement.
Likewise, another article from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine from November 1844 on the writing of the French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine praises ‘the splendid phantasmagoria with which his memory is stored’, but points out that the consequence of this is that ‘He is too rich in glowing images; his ‘Ignacio Guerra and El Sangrador: A Tale of Civil War’, 797.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (London: Belknap Press, 2002), 530.
descriptions are redundant in number and beauty. The mind even of the most imaginative reader is fatigued by the constant drain upon his admiration – the fancy is exhausted in the perpetual effort to conceive of the scenes which he portrays to the eye’.75 Even more clearly than in the advert for the Nocturnorama, the phantasmagoria here encapsulates the idea of imaginative excess, of being overcome by wonder and the sheer quantity of delights on display.
At the same time though, the phantasmagorical metaphor acquired another related association, derived from its quality of multifariousness. In 1825, Maria Jane Jewsbury published a two volume collection of writings under the title Phantasmagoria. The work consisted of a variety of essays on philosophy, modern life and history, as well as poetry and short stories, among them ‘Cursory remarks on modern ballads’, ‘The Relief of Lyden’ (a prose story), ‘The parting of David and Jonathan’, ‘Lines sent with an hour glass’, ‘Lines suggested by seeing two lovely infants at play’, ‘On the habit of analysing our emotions’, and ‘Recollections of a Tour’. This last is representative of the mainly comic and light-hearted tone of Jewsbury’s essays in general. In it, she cheerfully admits to having totally failed to find poetic inspiration on her tour of the north of England (a shameful position for a professional author to find herself in), and uses the essay as an opportunity to make fun of many of the features of picturesque travel literature. In the conclusion of the work, she applies this same self-effacing tone to a discussion of how she arrived at the title for her book. After describing the relative difficulties of finding titles for novels,
books of poems, travellers’ tales, and sermons, Jewsbury writes that: