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«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»

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The spread of the phantasmagoria marked a renaissance of the aesthetics of curiosity. The phantasmagorical shares many aspects of the curious and conforms to many of its dictates. Importantly though, alongside this resurrection of curiosity culture was something entirely new. The phantasmagoria became a symbol for the spectral, uncontrollable nature of the mind and of the imagination. Because of this, the phantasmagoria moves the curious aesthetic from what had once been nominally a scientific endeavour to an imaginative expression. Poe’s stories clearly demonstrate this process: the curious aesthetic, the curious collection, is also the aesthetic of the phantasmagoria. Poe uses it to reflect the phantasmagorical forms of his characters’ minds, to the extent that his characters reveal their phantasmagorical natures, the stories become phantasmagorical: it is at once the stories’ dominant aesthetic and a symbol for the minds of the characters they present.

As an aside to this though, it is worth noting that all three of these characters, Prospero, Usher and the Husband, who appear to control the phantasmagorias in these stories, end in either madness or death. It is almost as though the phantasmagorical nature of their existences ultimately escapes from them, giving rise to their destruction. If the phantasmagorical aesthetic is an aesthetic of transcendence, it also transcends the control that these characters try to impose on it.

The desire to completely break with normality, to completely ignore conventional tastes, social mores and authorities, seemingly leads finally to terrible consequences for them. They provide an early model of the fates of Des Esseintes and Dorian Grey, who are undone by their own phantasmagorical desires. In all three of these stories, Poe’s depiction of the phantasmagorical is in some way associated with madness. The paradox of the phantasmagorical aesthetic was that it showed the limitless potential but also the danger of the imagination – it was simultaneously an aesthetic of transcendence and of lunacy.

Poe was to have many imitators, both those who read his works and were directly influenced by them and those, who, like him, absorbed the phantasmagorical model of the imagination – one that was vibrant, unrestrained and dream-like in its actions. This was the seductive power of the phantasmagorical, that it seemed to transcend the normal: normality of taste, normality of imagination and normality of self; it became an aesthetic of resistance, it offered a vision of the limitless wonders of dream. Poe’s desire to capture this effect predominates in much of his work. In ‘A Tale of the Ragged Mountains’, Poe refers to the sight of an Indian City as ‘wildly


On every hand was a wilderness of balconies, of verandas, of minarets, of shrines, and fantastically carved oriels. Bazaars abounded; and in these were displayed rich wares in infinite variety and profusion—silks, muslins, the most dazzling cutlery, the most magnificent jewels and gems. Besides these things, were seen, on all sides, banners and palanquins, litters with stately dames close veiled, elephants gorgeously caparisoned, idols grotesquely hewn, drums, banners, and gongs, spears, silver and gilded maces. And amid the crowd, and the clamour, and the general intricacy and confusion— amid the million of black and yellow men, turbaned and robed, and of flowing beard, there roamed a countless multitude of holy filleted bulls, while vast legions of the filthy but sacred ape clambered, chattering and shrieking, about the cornices of the mosques, or clung to the minarets and oriels. From the swarming streets to the banks of the river, there descended innumerable flights of steps leading to bathing places, while the river itself seemed to force a passage with difficulty through the vast fleets of deeply-burthened ships that far and wide encountered its surface.111 The description goes on in this style. Here, we can see the city portrayed as the curious traveller would once have done it, as a mass of exotic singularities – a mad accumulation of the alien and the fabulous. Poe’s description of it as ‘wildly picturesque’ comes across as a deeply oxymoronic attempt to capture the chaotic imaginative energy of his vision, violently breaking through accepted rules of aesthetics, seeking some dynamic, fantastical alternative. This was the vision that Poe’s successors were to imitate – collection, intoxication, exoticism, grotesquery and beauty, warping the aesthetics of curiosity into new phantasmagorical forms.

Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 321-322.

CHAPTER 4 The Formula of Dreams: Victorian Decadence, the Phantasmagoria and the Collected Self.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the image of the phantasmagoria and of what it was to be phantasmagorical sat at the centre of a dense web of associations and connotations. The phantasmagoria could convey both the terrible abyss of nightmare and the boundless freedom of dream; an imagination alienated from itself and an imagination free from restraints; it was both a comic trope and an aesthetic of rebellion. And beyond these features that were entirely its own, the phantasmagoria also represented a partial renaissance of the eighteenth-century culture of curiosity. The elements of the phantasmagorical experience – most notably as they appear in literature – are the same as the elements of fashionable curiosity: a love of collections of singularities, grotesques and wonders; an interplay between the phantasmagorical collection and those who owned and exhibited it – such that the identity of the owner became bound up in his collection; and an idle, intoxicated wandering that was both unsystematic and directionless. As such, the phantasmagorical was often deeply elusive and hard to define. By its very nature it seemed to embody an element of delirium and illusion.

Perhaps this period’s most famous use of the term ‘phantasmagorical’ comes from Karl Marx’s Capital (Das Kapital) (1867). Marx uses the phantasmagoria to describe commodity fetishism. Arguing that the market conceals the fact that the commodity is a product of human labour, he writes: ‘the commodity form, and the value relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but a definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the phantasmagoric form of a relation between things’.1 Effectively, through the obfuscation of the market, ‘the product presents itself as self                                                             Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, translated by Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), 165. It is worth noting that many translations of Marx’s work use the word ‘fantastic’ instead of ‘phantasmagoric’. However, Caroline Evans notes that ‘Phantasmagoric [is] more appropriate, since Marx’s earlier references in the same paragraph are to the nineteenth-century science of optics.’ See Caroline Evans, Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 89.

Marx’s phrase in the original German is: ‘sie die Phantasmagorische Form eines verhältnisses von Dingen annimmt’; his use of the word ‘Phantasmagorische’ would seem to confirm Evans’s analysis.

See Karl Marx, Das Kapital Vol. 1 (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1955), 78.

156    producing’,2 taking on an almost magical dimension. In this context, Marx’s use of the term is comparatively straightforward. ‘The phantasmagoric relation between things’ is one which, like the phantasmagoria itself, is fundamentally illusory and hallucinatory. It captures Marx’s sense of the market as something spectacular but also something that confounds and dissolves the sense of a distinction between reality and fantasy. Here, the metaphor of the phantasmagoria conveys the ‘spectral’ nature of the market in the same way that, in Castle’s analysis, it conveys the spectral nature of thought in general; Marx’s use of the term conforms to Castle’s analysis of its metaphorical function. Following on from Marx, Walter Benjamin uses the term almost obsessively in his work on nineteenth-century material culture. In his writing, Benjamin seemingly ‘settled on the phantasmagoria as the… master-trope emblematising… the nineteenth century’s “new feeling about life”’.3 This sense that Benjamin understood there to be something inherently phantasmagorical in the ‘feel’ of the nineteenth century is obvious throughout, amongst others, his works on Baudelaire, both versions of Paris – The Capital of the Nineteenth Century and in the observations contained in The Arcades Project. He frequently refers to ‘the phantasmagoria of Parisian life’,4 the phantasmagoria of the flâneur,5 the phantasmagorias of the bourgeois domestic interior,6 capitalist culture,7 material culture,8 time and space, gambling, and the crowd.9 While it is unclear how far Benjamin comprehended the precise value and historical context of the phantasmagorical metaphor, his use of it, like Marx’s, is surprisingly consistent with Castle’s later analysis; even if he was not consciously aware of its various aspects he seems to have had a subconscious sense of them. His depictions of the phantasmagorical forms of nineteenth-century culture persistently return to interconnected images of dreams, narcotic intoxication, collections of objects (either in private houses or in the market place) and the interior. At different times in The Arcades Project he asserts that ‘At bottom, we may say, the collector lives a piece


Theodor Adorno, In Search of Wagner, translated by Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 2005), 74.

Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution (Berkely, University of California, 1993), 239.

Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, translated by Harry Zohn (London: Verso, 1997), 39 and 41.

Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 50.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (London:

Belknap Press, 2002), 9.

Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 8.

Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 7.

Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 21 and 12.

157    of dream life’10 and that ‘The [nineteenth-century interior] disguises itself – puts on, like an alluring creature, the costumes of moods… [it] is itself a stimulus to intoxication and dream’.11 In the 1939 edition of Paris – Capital of the Nineteenth Century he claims that the crowded city streets are the phantasmagoria of the flâneur.12 All of these are elements of the phantasmagorical experience. The sense of intoxication, of entering into the world of dream (remember, for example, Sebastian Mercier’s rapturous assertion that Robertson had ‘excavated the dream’),13 of collections and parades of wonders, are all important components of the phantasmagorical that we examined in the previous chapter. Essentially, it seems clear that many parts of Benjamin’s discussion, while he does not always make the connection explicit, are nonetheless inherently phantasmagorical: they conform to the aesthetics of the phantasmagoria. The experiences of the flâneur, the collector, the ‘dream of the interior’, all these are phantasmagorical experiences. Benjamin therefore establishes a parallel between various aspects of nineteenth-century French society and material culture and the phantasmagoria.

The principal literary sources that Benjamin examines in pursuing this phantasmagorical thread are Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe. Baudelaire was deeply influenced by Poe and Poe himself was fascinated by the phantasmagorical.

However, it is not until after Baudelaire and after the period of Benjamin’s investigation that the phantasmagorical aesthetic in literature reaches its fullest prominence. The phantasmagorical aspects of mid-nineteenth-century culture that so attracted Benjamin are amplified, exaggerated and self-consciously cultivated in the literature of the French and English Decadence in the 1880s and 90s.

The phantasmagorical aesthetic held a unique attraction for decadent writers, and this led to a pronounced flowering of it during the fin-de-siècle period.

Many of the social and aesthetic preoccupations of the decadent movement found their natural (or unnatural) expression in the febrile shapes of the phantasmagorical and the curious. The curious collection could satisfy the decadents’ love of luxury and material finery as well as of the strange and exotic. Likewise, the cultivation of a collected self – an identity formed from objects – was, like the elaborate posing of the dandy, another way for decadent writers to transform both themselves and their


Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 205.

Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 216.

Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 21.

Cohen, Profane Illumination, 244.

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