«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
There is no individual portion of the architecture and decoration of that bridal chamber which is not now visibly before me. Where were the souls of the haughty family of the bride, when, through thirst of gold, they permitted to pass the threshold of an apartment so bedecked, a maiden and a daughter so beloved? I have said that I minutely remember the details of the chamber – yet I am sadly forgetful on topics of deep moment—and here there was no system, no keeping, in the fantastic display, to take hold upon the memory. The room lay in a high turret of the castellated abbey, was pentagonal in shape, and of capacious size. Occupying the whole southern face of the pentagon was the sole window— an immense sheet of unbroken glass from Venice—a single pane, and tinted of a leaden hue, so that the rays of either the sun or moon, passing through it, fell with a ghastly lustre on the objects within. Over the upper portion of this huge window, extended the trellicework of an aged vine, which clambered up the massy walls of the turret. The ceiling, of gloomy-looking oak, was excessively lofty, vaulted, and elaborately fretted with the wildest and most grotesque specimens of a semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical device.
From out the most central recess of this melancholy vaulting, depended, by a single chain of gold with long links, a huge censer of the same metal, Saracenic in pattern, and with many perforations so contrived that there writhed in and out of them, as if endued with a serpent vitality, a continual succession of parti-coloured fires.
Some few ottomans and golden candelabra, of Eastern figure, were in various stations about—and there was the couch, too—the bridal couch—of an Indian model, and low, and sculptured of solid ebony, with a pall-like canopy above.
In each of the angles of the chamber stood on end a gigantic sarcophagus of black granite, from the tombs of the kings over against Luxor, with their aged lids full of immemorial
This chamber, to which Rowena, the narrator’s second wife, is apparently confined, is relentlessly phantasmagorical. Like the curious collection, there is ‘no system’ to it; it is instead, purely a random ‘fantastic display’. The objects arranged within are all culturally alien to European society and, crucially, culturally alien to each other as well. Poe’s description emphasises disassociation and an uneasy hybridity. Thus we have the carved ‘semi-gothic, semi-druidical’ devices of the ceiling, the ‘Saracenic’
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 119-120.
censor with its multi-coloured lights, Turkish and Indian furniture and the huge black granite Egyptian Sarcophagi. The decorations of the phantasmagorical fabric covering the walls and floor is of another character again, being, somehow, at once arabesque, Christian and pagan. The description of the chamber quickly becomes an account of a collection of bizarre and freakish exotica. The freakishness is emphasised by the continual reiteration of the chamber’s lack of order and proportion: the walls are ‘unproportionally’ high, the ceilings ‘excessively lofty’. Likewise, the decorations appear to take on a disturbing semblance of life, with the tapestries moving in ‘hideous and uneasy animation’ and the censor’s light writhing with ‘serpent vitality’. These qualities not only lend the objects a supernatural dimension, a kind of dark, frightening charisma, they also associate them with the traditions of curiosity culture. The sense of disproportion – the massive and the miniscule – and the union of opposites – to be both animate and inanimate at once – were inherent to defining what made an object curious.
While his house (it is strongly suggested that Rowena’s bridal chamber is typical of the rest of their home as well) is full of curiosities, the narrator’s own personality also repeats aspects of typical eighteenth-century curiosity criticism. Like Usher, his taste for curiosities is suggested to be indicative of an underlying mental dysfunction or derangement. Poe’s depiction of Usher and the Husband is derived from the idea that the love of the disordered, or monstrous, bespeaks the disorganised or monstrous nature of the collector, their failure to restrain the appetite and forge a coherent, respectable personality. Here though, the idea is not treated comically but as something darkly serious. There is something seriously otherworldly about the Husband and about Usher that finds its expression in their tastes for the curious and phantasmagorical. The narrator of ‘Ligeia’ desperately excoriates himself for creating the bridal chamber and for allowing Rowena to enter it. He describes it as being the
result of ‘a child-like perversity’. He elaborates by saying that:
Like the satirical curioso, the Husband’s tastes are equated with either the immaturity of childhood or the degeneracy of old age – indicating an improperly developed personality. Importantly though, the notion of pretentiousness, the quintessential failing of the comic curioso, is absent from this depiction. Instead, the chamber indicates madness. The tradition of curiosity culture contained the idea of the collected self, of the collection as an external manifestation of the collector’s self-consciously assembled personality. In ‘Ligeia’ the phantasmagorical chamber becomes an expression not only of the narrator’s selfhood but also his dreams. In a disruption of internal and external reality, Rowena’s entry into the room is like an entry into her husband’s mind. The phantasmagorical nature of the chamber reflects the phantasmagoria of the mind, the potency of dream and nightmare. In effect, the chamber is not only a manifestation of its creator’s dreams and fantasies; it also has the power to engender these same fantasies in those who inhabit it. As time goes on, Rowena becomes increasingly prey to ‘the phantasmagorical influences of the chamber’,103 experiencing frightening and amorphous hallucinations prompted by the shifting tapestries. The phantasmagorical chamber is not only born out of dream as an expression of the narrator’s fantastical visions but like Usher’s books it has the power of producing this same dream state, of creating a kind of drug-like feeling of nonreality. The objects contained in the chamber take on an additional spiritual or supernatural vividness; they exist not only as themselves but as embodiments of a phantasmagorical fantasy.
Rowena and her husband no longer seem to live entirely in either dream or reality but instead in a mixture of the two. As his wife’s sickness progresses, the narrator admits ‘let me confess it, I could not all believe… that those gentle variations of the figures upon the wall were but the natural effects of that customary rushing of the wind’,104 and this doubt as to the distinction between the real and the fantastic leads him into the same delusions as hers. Where the phantasmagorical collection of Usher’s books prompts a delightful elevation into dream, the phantasmagorical Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 118.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 121.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 121.
collection in the chamber prompts a descent into nightmare. In each case though, the effect is the same, the production of an experience of the unreal through exposure to an multitude of curious spectacles. This phantasmagorical aesthetic is derived from the phantasmagorical model of the mind; its mutability, its uncontrollable imaginative proclivity, spawns an aesthetic based on manipulating these effects.
While both of these stories betray phantasmagorical influences on their invention and portray phantasmagorias at play simultaneously in their narratives and their characters’ thoughts, Poe’s most entirely phantasmagorical story is probably ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. The plot of ‘The Masque’ is relatively minimal: it describes the story of Prince Prospero and his court, who seal themselves up within the Prince’s castle to avoid the deadly plague of the Red Death that is ravaging their lands.
The majority of the story is devoted to describing the spectacle that Prince Prospero produces within the castle to keep the inmates amused – a vast masquerade, at the end of which the incarnate spectre of the Red Death itself appears to claim the inhabitants of the castle. Poe begins by describing the castle itself and its interior. Outside, it is ‘an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the Prince’s own eccentric yet august taste’.105 Inside, the Prince’s apartments consist of seven rooms. These are all arranged to turn at right angles to each other and each is decorated predominantly in a single colour. The only source of light for these chambers are tall gothic windows set into the walls, with coloured glass to match the colouring of the room and with braziers behind them so that the artificial coloured light shines powerfully into them.
Poe writes that the eastern end of the room ‘was hung, for example, in blue and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple.’ This continues with green, orange, white and violet rooms and, as Poe tells us, ‘thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances’.106 The exception to this is the last chamber which is upholstered in black and illuminated by a deep scarlet coloured light. This final room produces such ghastly effects that ‘there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all’.107 Through all of these chambers (except the last, fearful one) there
proceeds an elaborate masquerade:
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 37.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 38.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 39.
There is much that is obviously phantasmagorical in the Prince’s apartments. The masqueraders that seem to be a ‘multitude of dreams’ are a delirious assembly, combining the alluring and the horrible, the beautiful and the disgusting. These figures not only recall the eighteenth-century masqueraders who excited their contemporaries’ curiosity, but also Robertson’s phantasmagorias that combined horror, lyricism, comedy and spectacle. Their appeal comes from their variety and their disorder – such that they become dreams made flesh.
The design of Prince Prospero’s suite is also significant. Again, with its variety of colours and optical effects, it is not hard to trace its descent from the phantasmagoria. However, what Poe does is to disassemble the phantasmagoria and arrange it spatially. Its effects are spread across the seven rooms, arranged so as to amuse the masqueraders. In this arrangement, it is possible to see something of the passion that the collector has for exhibiting his collection. The phantasmagorical effects become incidental amusements strategically placed throughout the apartments, they become almost like objects in a collection that the revellers and, implicitly, the reader, wander among. They seem to encourage a type of undirected, pleasurable wandering from room to room, the characteristic style of encountering the curious.
This combines with the figures of the masquerade to give ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ a gaudy, colourful but also threatening attractiveness which contrasts with the desolation of the finale. This chaotic and vivid spectacle is embodied in the story by Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 39–40.
the Prince himself. Like the curious collector or phantasmagorical impresario, he
presides over all:
The Prince’s tastes are even more overtly curious than those of the Husband and of Usher; his is a love of oddness for oddness’s sake. Not only is he curious though, he is, in his very being, somehow supernatural. Another important similarity between the curious collection and the phantasmagoria was the notion of a single controlling figure at its heart. The collector could, through possessing his collection, transform himself into a part of it – he became another object of wonder around which all the other wondrous objects circulated. This was the nature of the collected self – the collector’s identity became one with his collection. Something similar could be said to occur with the phantasmagoria; by controlling the phantasmagoria, the performer became himself somewhat phantasmagorical. Phantasmagorical literature repeats this paradigm and enlarges upon it. When, in 1822, Byron described King George III as ‘a phantasmagoria in himself’,110 the reference was a comical one. Twenty years later, in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, Poe treats this same idea with total seriousness. The Prince is literally phantasmagorical. He is in part an embodiment of the whole frightening, astounding spectacle of his castle, like the curious collector who comes to embody his collection. After describing the various light and colour effects that abound in the Prince’s rooms, Poe uses the same luminescent imagery to describe the Prince’s own personality. He writes that ‘His plans were bold and fiery and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre’. The Prince appears in our mind’s eye like a glowing phantasmagorical spirit – somewhat unreal but simultaneously more vivid Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 39.
George Gordon, Lord Byron, The Complete Poetical Works, Vol 4, ed. Jerome J. McGann and Barry Weller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 336.
than reality. He seems to transgress both social limitations and the limitations of normal human nature. He dismisses the dictates of fashion and pursues his own more wondrous and extreme system of taste; like later phantasmagorical figures such as Dorian Grey or Martial Canterel, he seemingly transcends the limits of fashion and conventional imagination. It becomes necessary to see him, hear him and touch him to be sure of his sanity and also, presumably, to confirm that he really exists, that he is not another fantastic grotesque like those that people his castle. So vibrant is he that his very existence becomes questionable. Prospero is the sum of all the phantasmagoria in the story. Like the collector, he simultaneously possesses objects and becomes an object himself; he rules over a phantasmagoria and he becomes phantasmagorical.