«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
Aside from the humorous suggestion that she lit upon ‘phantasmagoria’ out of simple desperation to find something to call the book, Jewsbury’s justification of the title hinges upon one fact: the variety of the two books’ contents. None of Jewsbury’s writings could be convincingly labelled as grotesque, or even fantastical, but they are, as she says ‘multifarious’. The work is an eclectic ‘scrapbook’ assembled from different forms of writing and she presents it to the reader as something self-evidently disconnected. Significantly though, despite the disconnectedness, the individual essays are of a very conventional character; calling the work ‘phantasmagoria’ does not refer to any strange, delirious or wondrous property on the part of the contents. Instead, it is used merely to convey the diversity of the material on offer. Deprived of hypnagogic associations, we can see that the sense of what it is to be phantasmagorical is here almost synonymous with the idea of a collection; specifically, an incongruous, disjointed collection. To refer back to the OED’s definition of phantasmagoria, we can see that this sense of being a collection is an essential part of that definition.
Maria Jane Jewsbury, Phantasmagoria, Vol. 2 (London, 1825), 305-308.
the curious collection, the phantasmagoria was unsystematic. Order and rational formulation would have reduced its power, and so like its curious predecessor it emphasised juxtaposition, variety, scale and oddity. The last of these essential features of the phantasmagorical aesthetic was its air of unreality. This dream-like, intoxicating dimension of the phantasmagoria reiterates the random, lackadaisical progression of the visitor to the curious collection or the dazed observer of the masquerade. Both the curious and the phantasmagorical contain the sense of an altered reality – a fusion of consciousness and dream.
Like the phantasmagoria, the curious aesthetic was an assembly of singularities; it derived its power from the contradiction of normal certainties and conventional systems of knowledge. From its earliest days, the phantasmagoria was understood to symbolise the breakdown of rational certainties and systematic order.
Even in its infancy, as a satiric representation, it was used to show the world as being composed of ridiculous monstrosities and institutionalised falsehood. Later, it seemed to undermine the validity of rational observation and restrained imagination. Where conventional enlightenment discourse held out the promise of universal vision and comprehension, the power to grasp ‘the full scope of a whole epoch of human intellectual development’,77 the phantasmagoria suggested the collapse of a rational, controlling self. This disruptive quality of the phantasmagorical aesthetic can be seen in its subsequent literary incarnations.
Despite all these points of similarity, there is an important difference between the curious and the phantasmagorical that had a significant effect upon how they manifested themselves. The phantasmagoria was, with a very few exceptions, essentially linked with the imaginative. Not only was the phantasmagoria an imaginative, fantastical experience, but as a metaphor it was quickly internalised and came to articulate something about the nature of imagination itself. The phantasmagorical embodied the shadowy quality of dream or nightmare and seemed to exist on the periphery of consciousness. Unlike curiosity, it never existed as a codified set of cultural institutions; in fact it was actively opposed to such codification.
Curiosity culture had, at least nominally, been founded upon the pursuit of scientific investigation and its fashionable offshoots had been derived from what was regarded as a more authentic form of curious activity. Curiosity, despite its unsystematic nature, Stephen Oettermann, The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium, translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 38.
implied the advancement of knowledge. The phantasmagorical, by being internalised, manifested itself as a particular imaginative literary mode, instead of an obvious cultural activity.
As Castle suggests, the creation of the phantasmagorical metaphor produced a compelling new pattern for describing imaginative activity. It gave rise to the notion of an imagination that could not be restrained by the mind’s own rationalising principles; a mind that might suddenly and tyrannically impose delirium upon itself at any time. Critically though, there were those who regarded this kind of unrestrained, bizarre extremity of imagination as something compelling and seductive, something to be deliberately produced and cultivated. Hawthorn had envisioned producing a metaphorical theatre where his imagination could play out its phantasmagorical antics. Others took this concept far further. The subconscious absorption of the phantasmagorical model of the imagination created the preconditions necessary for a phantasmagorical form of literature. Writers transformed their texts into a conceptual space in which they could exhibit the most extreme products of their imaginations: collecting its most bizarre, exotic or alarming creations. The defining feature of this phantasmagorical literature was that it produced a phantasmagorical impression on the mind of the reader, who was immersed in this textual phantasmagoria and exposed to all its spectacle, multiplicity and intoxicating unreality. In this way, the phantasmagoria provides the impetus for the relocation of the curious aesthetic, and much of its associated discourse, into the realm of the imagination. Eighteenth-century writers had produced fictional versions of the curious traveller and collector for the purpose of satire and social critique; later writers produced curiosities because of the seductive appeal of their very strangeness – the phantasmagorical attraction of the curious. By imitating some of its features and altering others, the phantasmagoria led to the reinvention of curiosity as a specific type of imaginative exercise and aesthetic preoccupation.
Of the writers who cultivated this phantasmagorical quality in their work, one of the first and most influential was Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s use of the phantasmagorical in his works is sometimes very explicit. In ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, for example, the word is used twice: once near the beginning of the story to describe the ‘phantasmagoric armorial trophies’ that crowd the interior of Usher’s ancestral home,78 and again a few pages later, to characterise one of Usher’s paintings – a ‘Phantasmagoric conception’ that ‘may be shadowed forth, although feebly, in words’.79 In these examples, the phantasmagoria is invoked as a way of suggesting some disturbing, hallucinatory property in the object under consideration. These phantasmagorical things seem to have the power of sapping the narrator’s sense of
reality, contaminating it with the fantastical images of the mind. He describes how:
The ‘phantasmagoric’ nature of the suits of armour and their accoutrements reflects their power to produce these ‘unfamiliar fancies’. Like the spirits in a phantasmagoria, Poe suggests, they form a huge, claustrophobic multitude which, along with the carvings, the oppressive ‘ebon blackness of the floors’ and the ‘sombre tapestries’, seem to crowd in upon the characters, trapping them in a maddening phantasmagorical space. Again, like the illusions produced by the magic lantern, the subtly unreal quality of the House of Usher seems to be transferring itself into the minds of the characters, gradually infusing them with the fear that they have lost the ability to determine what is real and what isn’t. In this context, the narrator’s repetition of ‘while’ becomes especially disturbing, conveying a desperate attempt to temporise, to hold off admitting his awareness of the strange and unfamiliar actions that are occurring in his mind. This may also constitute a darkly punning reference from Poe, since the narrator and Roderick Usher will, for the rest of the story, try purposelessly to ‘while’ away their time until the final deaths of Roderick and Madeline and the subsequent implosion of their ancient home.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy (London: Penguin, 2006), 129.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 133.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 129.
Usher’s paintings generate a similar effect, being both indicative of Usher’s own madness and capable of somehow transmitting something of that madness to the observer. Usher’s friend tells us that ‘If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher’; they convey ‘an intensity of intolerable awe’ as well as ‘a vagueness at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered not knowing why’.81 However, there is a more subtly phantasmagorical quality to both the
painting and Usher’s malady. It can be seen most clearly in the details of the painting:
The most immediately disturbing quality of the picture is the nature of the illumination that it depicts. The light itself appears to be almost tangible, to have a physical presence in the subterranean chamber. The preponderance of liquid imagery used to describe it reinforces this: it is a ‘flood’ that ‘rolls’ through the chamber and ‘bathes’ it. Like the phantasmagorical spirit, this light is at once (or, perhaps, neither, such is its confusing and contradictory status) substantial and insubstantial, at once corporeal and ethereal. The light also has no source; it seems to be emitted from the substance of the chamber itself. Like the watery description of the light, this seems to erode the distinction between material and immaterial natures. Usher’s picture illustrates a frightening, hallucinatory vision, in which normal mechanisms of sensation are deranged or have become irrelevant. Like the phantasmagoria, Poe uses Usher’s painting to confront us with a horrible sensory miscegenation – merging the visual with the tactile.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 133.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 133.
In addition to this direct referencing of the phantasmagoria, Usher’s own mind is often presented to us in luminous or ethereal terms. The narrator describes how his friend’s ‘excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphurous lustre over all’. More disturbingly, when he tries to alleviate the ‘darkness’ in Usher’s mind he discovers that ‘[For him, it was] as if an inherent positive quality poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom’.83 Usher’s madness is characterised by phantasmagorical images; this is how Poe describes it to us and how it manifests itself in his painting. These inversions and contradictions – light with an inherent physicality, darkness that radiates like light – represent the mind’s own sense of disorder and contradiction. These luminescent images are echoed in the final storm that engulfs the titular house of the Ushers, in which the clouds themselves seem to glow with their own light, and which the narrator attempts to explain as ‘electrical phenomena’ or as having ‘their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn’,84 similarly vague and nebulous explanations for vague and nebulous events. Indeed, the narrator’s attempted explanation only serves to highlight the futility of reason when confronted with such obviously maddening occurrences.
Finally, the poem that Usher composes in order allegorically to portray the collapse of his sanity ends on the most explicitly phantasmagorical image of the entire story.
Having portrayed his once sane mind as a green valley ‘by good angels tenanted’,
Usher ends by describing his final descent into madness with the lines:
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 132-133.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 140.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 135.
Here the phantasmagoria is literally playing in Usher’s brain as he imagines a ‘hideous throng’ rushing through his mind. Crucially the final verse of the poem, though disturbing, is full of activity and spectacle; it is colourful, full of the phantasmagorical experience, at once intensely visual, multiplicitous and indicative of unreality.
From these details we can see the potently phantasmagorical influences that predominate in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. As well as providing a stock of imagery with which to define Roderick Usher’s madness, the story (like many of Poe’s other works) portrays a largely phantasmagorical conception of thought. The influence of the house’s furnishings on the narrator is one instance of this. The ‘unfamiliar fancies’ which they produce are an example of the malleable nature of the mind.
Rather than a firm beacon of rationality, the mind can be moulded and reshaped by its environment; its surroundings have an unaccountable power to impose new forms and thoughts on it. As the story begins and the narrator rides up to the crumbling House of
Usher, he wonders: