«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
The discussion of this shift, however, leaves one important question to be addressed. How does this change in the social and materialistic associations of the phantasmagorical aesthetic effect its other main aspect, its connection to imagination and dream? Without a more thorough analysis, the answer to this question must necessarily remain partly speculative, but some productive material may be found in the fact that, in the last years of the twentieth century and in the first years of the twenty-first, the phantasmagorical aesthetic not only becomes more prominent in the popular consciousness, but also becomes more intimately associated with the fantastic.
Probably the best example of this change is to be seen in the popularity of the New Weird movement in the first part of the twenty-first century. Essentially a shift in emphasis within fantasy genre fiction, the New Weird takes its inspiration from the ‘weird tales’ produced by writers such as H. P. Lovecraft in the early twentieth century, as well as from later writers such as Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison and Neil Gaiman (all of whom, it should be noted, at different times made use of the phantasmagorical aesthetic in their own works). The New Weird, in common with the phantasmagorical, self-consciously identifies itself with concepts like, as Jeff Vandermeer writes, the ‘surrender to the weird’ and an emphasis on ‘visionary, surreal images’,29 enthusiastically embracing an excess of strangeness. This kind of language obviously recalls the decadent rhetoric of surrendering to dream, of being intoxicated by a plethora of fantastic images. The New Weird is, therefore, a naturally receptive medium for the phantasmagorical aesthetic. Works like China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000) are purposefully written so as to astonish the reader with the plurality and strangeness of their imaginative inventions. Miéville’s novel is continually phantasmagorical: set in an ancient, decaying city of subterranean
Jeff Vandermeer, ‘The New Weird: “It’s Alive?”’, in Jeff Vandermeer and Ann Vandermeer, ed., The
New Weird (San Francisco: Tachyon Publishing, 2008), pp. xi-xii.
261 punishment factories, clockwork automata, grotesque magical transformations, and human beings hybridised with machines, cacti, insects, frogs and birds, the novel is perhaps the most overt example of this new phantasmagorical paradigm. Every turn into a new street reveals some new spectacle of mingled astonishment and horror, the urban spaces of the city unfolding to expose a continuous stream of exotic or
The phantasmagorical is used in Perdido Street Station to imply the excesses of the entirely unrestrained imagination. Miéville’s intention here is clearly to suggest a kind of imaginative anarchy, to allow the reader to experience a much more extreme
China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (London: Pan Macmillan, 2000), 30-31.
262 version of the pleasurable delirium familiar from the phantasmagorias of the nineteenth century. Crucially though, while Miéville’s approach to the phantasmagorical recalls that of the decadents, he also continues the relocation of it away from the exclusive space of the collector. Perdido Street Station is less concerned with objects than it is with people and metropolitan spaces. The phantasmagorias of the novel are the phantasmagorias of the city itself and its inhabitants.
The novel – and this may be taken to be equally true of the New Weird movement as a whole – sets out specifically to astonish and bewilder its reader with the anarchic scale of its imaginativeness. In this sense, the phantasmagoria remains an inherently rebellious and disruptive aesthetic. This is also true of its social agenda.
While superficially, the novel appears to depict a hyperbolic representation of the variety and strangeness of the modern urban environment, in opposition to the homogenous, oligarchical regime that rules over it, in reality Miéville establishes that the phantasmagoria is as much associated with this regime as it is with the people it rules over. Indeed it is arguably in the crime lord Mr Motley, a shapeless unrecognisable mass of hooves, teeth, hair, horns, metal and flesh, that the phantasmagoria of the novel finds its clearest expression. Motley is part of the violent ruling elite of the city, despite his phantasmagorical form. And, as the novel wears on, the protagonists are increasingly co-opted into the same kind of acts of violence and exploitation as have been used to oppress them. In the conclusion, for example, they are forced to kill a homeless vagrant, in order to preserve the city itself – including its government. In Perdido Street Station, the ambiguity of the phantasmagoria is made apparent. We have seen how, in the nineteenth century, the phantasmagoria represented not only a means of escape from materialist culture but also the omnipresence and possible inescapability of that materialism. The phantasmagoria has this same paradoxical character in Miéville’s writing: it suggests both the impulse to rebellion and the danger of such a rebellion being absorbed into the very systems it opposes, into exploitation and authoritarianism. For Miéville, the phantasmagoria is therefore both an expression of imaginative vitality and, like Carter’s Nights at the Circus, a mechanism of social analysis.
It is these aspects of the phantasmagoria that remain most consistent throughout its history. The phantasmagoria inherited the culture of curiosity’s preoccupation with consumerism, and it was the combination of this overt 263 consumerism with its aggrandisement of imagination that made it so appealing to the decadents of the late nineteenth century. However, as the twentieth century wears on, the phantasmagoria gradually becomes less directly focussed on the acquisition and collection of material objects. What remains constant is its role as an aesthetic of dream and resistance. For successive generations of authors, celebrating the freedom of creativity suggested both the rejection of social constraints and the difficulties and contradictions inherent in such a rejection. In the writing of Miéville, Carter and others, we can perhaps see the echo of the phantasmagorias of Robertson and Philidor, hosts of monsters which mocked the architects of The Terror but were also entrepreneurial enterprises; which violated the certainties of the enlightenment but claimed to do so in the spirit of rationality; which rejected the authority of Robespierre and the committee, but which later showed Napoleon anointed by destiny. The phantasmagoria suggests the disruption of conventional order – the order of society, aesthetics and the self. At the same time, it is fundamentally paradoxical and selfcritical. In its hallucinogenic concoctions, there is both dream and nightmare, chaos and freedom. This beguiling ambiguity is the hallmark of the phantasmagoria, like the twisting shapes in a kaleidoscope or the monstrous colours of unbound imagination.
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