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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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After this point, the echoes of the decadent movement become less pronounced in twentieth-century phantasmagorical literature, though the form itself retains its vitality and appeal for writers. One who did consciously invoke the memory of the decadence was the American H. P. Lovecraft, whose phantasmagorical horror story ‘The Hound’ (1924) mentions the ‘sombre… thrills’ of Huysmans and Baudelaire.21 In a more light-hearted vein, Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao (1935) describes the visit by a fantastical circus to the fictional town of Abalone in rural Arizona. More famously, Italo Calvino and Jorge Borges occasionally veer into the phantasmagorical, providing a model of it for later writers. Among their works, Calvino’s Invisible Cities (Le città invisibili) (1972) and Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings (known as both Manual de zoología fantástica and later El libro de los seres imaginarios, in Spanish) (1957) perhaps most clearly show the traces of the phantasmagorias of Chesterton and Dunsany. In the introduction to the 1967 edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges remarks that the work ‘is not meant to be read straight through; rather, we should like the reader to dip into these pages at random, just as one plays with the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope’,22 suggesting the random progress and miscellanea of a phantasmagorical collection.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s – particularly among the so-called ‘New Wave’ of Fantasy and Science Fiction – writers continued to experiment with phantasmagorical forms in popular fiction. One obvious example is Michael Moorcock. His ‘Dancers at the End of Time’ trilogy (comprising An Alien Heat, 1972;

The Hollow Lands, 1974; and The End of All Songs, 1976) describes a society of people living just before the end of the known universe. Inspired by 1890s dandyism and the blithe comedies of Oscar Wilde, the immortal and careless inhabitants of the End Time amuse themselves by employing their near-limitless powers to create endlessly strange and beautiful objects, buildings, landscapes and items of apparel that fill their homes and cover the face of Moorcock’s future Earth.


H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cuthulhu and Other Weird Stories, ed. S. T. Joshi (London: Penguin, 2002), 81.

Jorge Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings, translated by Norman Thomas Giovanni (London:

Vintage, 2002), 12.

256    Among later writers influenced by Borges and Calvino, the most notable for our purposes is Umberto Eco. In The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa ) (1980) and The Island of the Day Before (L’isola del giorno prima) (1994), collections of wonderful and seemingly magical objects are highly prominent. The monastery in which The Name of the Rose is set and the sailing ship ‘Daphne’ aboard which the hero of The Island of the Day Before is confined are both stocked with a variety of phantasmagorias: in the first case, with collections of books, luscious illustrations, carvings depicting heaven and hell, holy relics and jewelled reliquaries; in the second, with exotic birds, tropical plants, fish and ingenious mechanical clocks. Besides this focus on phantasmagorias, these two novels also betray Eco’s fascination with the philosophies and theories that the people of past ages (and, by implication, our own age as well) use to understand and explain their world. In The Name of the Rose, Eco is irresistibly attracted to medieval philosophies of the divine and the place of the church in society. In The Island of the Day Before, he takes as his subject the seventeenth-century quest to discover the secret of longitude, filling the novel with intricate theories of time and navigation. What are we to make of this conjunction between the phantasmagoria and these subjects that Eco so often returns to in his writing? It may be that, just as the early nineteenth-century phantasmagoria suggested the fallibility of the idea of a rational order to the world, Eco’s phantasmagorical collections, by their mere presence, signify the dream-like insubstantiality of past ages, as well as their – and our own – attempts to impose a subjective and flawed scheme of understanding on our surroundings.

At the same time as Borges, Calvino and later Eco, the British author Angela Carter was producing works which continued the process begun in the immediate post-decadent period of moving the phantasmagorical into public space.

Carter’s penultimate novel, Nights at the Circus, is probably her most overtly phantasmagorical work. It is predominantly the story of Fevvers, a woman who, while achieving fame as an acrobat and circus performer, claims to have been hatched from an egg and later developed fully functional wings. Set immediately before the turn of the twentieth century, the novel not only reinterprets several of the familiar aspects of curiosity culture, but also directly engages with the social and material conditions that produced decadent phantasmagorical writing in the first place: an aspect of the work no doubt underpinned by Carter’s regard for writers such as Wilde and Huysmans.

257    One particular incident crystallises the novel’s handling of the phantasmagorical. At one point, Fevvers encounters a Russian Grand Duke whose house in St Petersburg is, Locus Solus like, filled with exotic mechanical toys and costly artworks. While she is his guest, alone with him in his home, the Duke informs Fevvers that, ‘I am a great collector of all kinds of objets d’art and marvels. Of all things, I love best toys – marvellous and unnatural artefacts’.23 This phantasmagorical sentiment precedes Fevvers’s realisation that the Duke can – more literally even than Lorrain’s Claudius Ethal – magically change people into objects, and that he threatens to turn Fevvers into just such a toy, inside a Faberge Egg.

In this exchange with Fevvers, the Duke is clearly supposed to represent a particularly predatory, wealthy interpretation of the phantasmagorical collector.

After all, not only are his collections material, private and built upon a vast accumulation of capital, but he also reveals exactly how he sees Fevvers and in what image he would like to remake her: a toy, ‘marvellous and unnatural’. For him, she is a ‘curiosity’ to be observed and, if possible, added to his collection. The way the Duke and Fevvers relate to each other is only the most obvious instance of a set of ideas that Carter develops throughout the book. Here and at other times, Fevvers struggles with the perennial problem of the person who identifies themselves as a ‘curious’ object of spectatorship. Like dwarves, giants and other exotic or freakish eighteen-century human curiosities, Fevvers has to resolve the question of how one remains an object of fascination without becoming an object of consumption. Fevvers is well aware of her potential value as a type of rare commodity; that there is money to be made from displaying herself to the public. On her way to the Duke’s palace, Carter has Fevvers debate this very point with herself; she spells out her nature as ‘the kind of spectacle people pay good money to see’.24 Anticipating her meeting with the Duke, she ponders that: ‘The sums he is about to squander on this bright pretty useless thing, myself, have nothing to do with my value as such. If all the women in the world had wings, he’d keep his jewels to himself… My value to him is as a rara avis’.25 Fevvers is keenly aware of her own status as a rarity and a spectacle. As she wanders through the Duke’s house, observing the wealth of his possessions, she ‘add[s] a further sum to the price she’d already put upon whatever entertainment she might be called upon to


Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London: Vintage 2006), 220.

Carter, Nights at the Circus, 217.

Carter, Nights at the Circus, 218.

258    provide’.26 Fevvers understands that the money she extracts from her ‘spectators’ is a result of her rarity. She has to perpetually reinforce the idea of herself as an exclusive item, glamorous and only available at the highest prices; in effect, she has to introduce a scarcity into the commodity that is her own being. Her relationship with the Duke is one of control and economics. The fear of him that she begins to feel as the evening wears on comes from her growing sense that it is he, and not herself, who is in control of the exchange between them. The Duke (again, in a manner that is vaguely reminiscent of the all-devouring Ethal) is the master of this system of commodities, of which Fevvers has willingly made herself part. Her fear of him comes from her realisation that, rather than commanding a high price for her sexuality and exoticism, his wealth allows him to buy her – to treat her as another intriguing toy for his collection. Fevver’s attempt to maintain control through exclusivity means nothing to him. This struggle between Fevvers and the Duke is the struggle of the human curiosity; the struggle to sell the spectacle of one’s self without losing ownership of one’s self; to remain an exclusive commodity; to retain control of the market. This is a struggle that is reminiscent of the relationship between Dorimenus and Philecta in Haywood’s The Masqueraders, as also of the ‘objectification’ of Swift’s Gulliver and Celia.

In terms of the evolution of the phantasmagorical, the significance of this exchange between the Duke and Fevvers is that the phantasmagoria is being used here to dramatize a set of definite social relations. For the decadents, the appeal of the phantasmagoria was, in no small part, that it displayed a superiority of taste and a fantasy of wealthy indifference to capitalism. Fevvers identifies the Duke as having just this quality: ‘he is so rich that money hasn’t any meaning for him’.27 In the Duke – and in Fevvers’s attempts to sell herself to the Duke while he in turn tries to buy Fevvers for himself – Carter shows us the traditional decadent phantasmagoria from the outside. The Duke’s collection represents the sterility of accumulated wealth and social dominance. The vital factor here is the shift in perspective. We are no longer seeing the phantasmagoria from within, as an attempt to out-pace and out-refine bourgeois consumption, but as Fevvers sees it, as a representation of the precariousness and vulnerability of her social position: a moment’s carelessness may precipitate her from being an all but unobtainable object of desire to being a mere toy


Carter, Nights at the Circus, 218.

Carter, Nights at the Circus, 217.

259    to be used and discarded at will.. Among the decadents, the phantasmagoria had served as a means for middle-class subjects to reject normative middle-class conformity – to escape upwards into an imagined state of ‘aristocratic’ dreaminess, taste and indulgence. Post-decadent phantasmagorias arguably begin a process of moving the phantasmagoria towards the public sphere, allowing the middle and working classes to participate in the phantasmagorical experience, becoming themselves phantasmagorical entities – witness, for example, the grocer in Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill. (Indeed, in Locus Solus, Roussel succeeds in making the phantasmagoria entirely bourgeois, even locating it in that most bourgeois and genteel of spaces, the public pleasure garden.) In Nights at the Circus, the Duke’s phantasmagorical collection becomes a means to critique his social station and financial dominance. Carter’s revisionist phantasmagoria reflects back on the conditions that led to its creation.

The Duke’s collection, though, is not the only phantasmagoria that Carter includes in the work. The titular circus in which Fevvers performs – with its anarchic clowns, highly intellectual but also alien-seeming chimpanzees, dancing tigers, acrobats, strongmen, oracular pigs and Fevvers herself – is surely more than a little phantasmagorical. Likewise, before she embarks on her career as a circus performer, Fevvers is recruited into a combination brothel and freak-show run by the emaciated Madam Schreck. Among Schreck’s employees are, as Fevvers recalls, ‘[other] prodigies such as I. Dear old Fanny Four-Eyes; and the Sleeping Beauty; and the Wiltshire Wonder, who was not three foot high; and Albert/Albertina, who was bipartite, that is to say, half and half and neither of either; and the girl we called Cobwebs’.28 Schreck’s brothel is another phantasmagoria. There is an important difference, though, between these groups of spectacular people and the Duke’s collections. Although these individuals are all involved in the sale of themselves – or the sale of the spectacle of themselves – to a paying public, they are also communities.

Here, we can again perhaps detect that pattern of moving the phantasmagorical away from an elite consumerist mind-set and towards a more ‘democratic’ form. The idea that seems to shape the phantasmagorical after the end of the nineteenth century is the idea of a phantasmagorical place or a phantasmagorical people; the claustrophobic phantasmagorias created by Poe and his successors are apparently displaced by less


Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus, 66.

260    confined, less introspective and less socially restrictive visions. In a way, this may be said to be the fulfilment of one of the paradoxes of the nineteenth-century phantasmagoria: that not only were many phantasmagorical works highly popular despite their claims to exclusivity (witness, for example, Against Nature (À Rebours) and Dorian Gray) but also that these phantasmagorias – that were so insistent in their rejection of the middle-class – were in fact produced by authors that were themselves middle-class. The change in the character of the twentieth-century phantasmagoria may in fact be only the realisation of factors that were already present in its nature.

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