PHANTASMAGORIA: SPIRIT VISIONS, METAPHOR, AND MEDIA
Oxford University Press (Hardback) 2006
Vintage Press (Paperback) 2006
Phantasmagoria explores ideas of spirit and soul since the Enlightenment; it traces metaphors that have traditionally conveyed the presence of immaterial forces, and reveals how such pagan and Christian imagery about ethereal beings are embedded in a logic of the imagination, clothing spirits in the languages of air, clouds, light and shadow, glass, and ether itself. Moving from Wax to Film, the book also discusses key questions of imagination and cognition, and probes the perceived distinctions between fantasy and deception; it uncovers a host of spirit forms—angels, ghosts, fairies, revenants, and zombies—that are still actively present in contemporary culture. It reveals how their transformations over time illuminate changing ideas about the self.
Phantasmagoria also tells the accompanying story about the means used to communicate such ideas, and relates how the new technologies of the Victorian era were applied to figuring the invisible and the impalpable, and how magic lanterns (the phantasmagoria shows themselves), radio, photography and then moving pictures spread ideas about spirit forces. As the story unfolds, the book features the many eminent men and women—scientists and philosophers—who in the Society of Psychical Research applied their considerable energies to the question of other worlds and other states of mind: they staged trance séances in which mediums produced spirit phenomena, including ectoplasm. The book shows how this story connects with some of the important scientific discoveries of a fertile age, in psychology and physics.
Over a sequence of twenty-eight chapters, with over thirty illustrations in colour and black and white, Phantasmagoria thus tells an unexpected and often uncomfortable story about shifts in thought about consciousness and the individual person, from the first public waxworks portraits at the end of the eighteenth century to stories of hauntings, possession, and loss of self as in the case of the zombie, a popular figure of soulessness, in modern times.
‘Marina Warner has made herself mistress of the uncanny and the supernatural as they interweave with European culture…’
- Lisa Jardine, The Financial Times. (Full review can be read here)
‘It begins with a mummified saint in a church in Bologna…’
Hilary Mantel in The Guardian
‘In her tirelessly inquisitive, myriad-minded/ Phantasmagoria/, Marina Warner conducts her own exercise in weighing the modern soul. The book moves through a range of soul-stuffs and material contrivances that, since the Renaissance, have bodied forth ideas of soul, spirit, mind and life: wax, air, clouds, shadows and reflections…’
- Steven Connor, The Independent. (Full review can be read here)
‘Phantasmagoria is a fascinating history of spirited bodies and haunted machines, but a reminder too of why the metaphors still get under our skin.’
- Brian Dillon, The Daily Telegraph (Full review can be read here)
‘Creative topsy-turvy” comes about, Marina Warner suggests, when a densely populated area with a long history is excavated. Strata no longer lie neatly in chronological order in these sites, but “get turned over and jumbled up”. Deriving her metaphor from archaeology, Warner applies it to an intellectual landscape: the subject of her new book, the investigation of the notion of “spirit” and “spirits”. Yet it also describes her critical method, proceeding by the juxtaposition of facts, ideas and observations in the belief that contiguity will forge its own connections.
It is a method that has served her well in the past, illuminating most recently notions of metamorlihosis and identity, he pleasurable aspects of fear, and the forms of the fairy tale.
The collage technique works best when subjugated to a well-defined structure: history, biography or fairy-tale plots. Where the organizing principles are more diffuse, the reader may be left grasping only insubstantialities, wondering where the argument is. Exploring a subject that is in itself elusive and intangible carries risks, then, but Warner, largely, manages to keep control of the soul-stuff and sprites which throng the pages of Phantasmagoria.’
- Carolyne Larrington, The Times Literary Supplement
‘Frighteningly literate and well-informed, Marina Warner is the poet-scholar we read murmuring ‘Yes, Yes, But, And?’ in perpetual delight at the intelligence on display.’ ￼
- Roz Kaveney chose Phantasmagoria as Book of the Week in Time Out
‘Her subject is the metaphors that have been used to clothe the ideas of soul and spirit since the Enlightenment, from religious art to gory death-masks, and from the fairy photographs that fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1920s to the avatars in today’s “massively multi-player online role-playing games”.
As one would expect from some of Ms Warner’s earlier surveys, which have included books on monsters, fairy tales, heroism and theveneration of the Virgin Mary, the result is a wonderful cabinet of keenly observed curiosities.’
- Anthony Gottlieb, The Economist
‘In these dense pages, she ranges from Platonic appearances to Philip K. Dick’s replicants, from the camera obscura to the Internet; she cites the work of contemporary writers, artists and filmmakers on one page and the speculations of Renaissance polymaths and Victorian scientists on another. While Warner always writes clearly, she nonetheless demands attention: Her diction will test your vocabulary even as her anecdotes, illustrations and ideas will stretch your mind.’
- Michael Dirda, The Washington Post. (Full review can be read here)
‘Some of Warner’s most fascinating chapters, nonetheless, are those most firmly rooted in science. There is an interesting digression on ectoplasm…’
- Mike Dash, The Sunday Telegraph (Full review can be read here)
‘This latest installment in Warner’s career-spanning investigation of image and embodiment contains twenty-seven chapters organized under ten rubrics, “vehicles” for spirit—“Wax,” “Clouds,” “Ether,” “Ectoplasm”—whose names sound like the section headings in an instruction manual for angelic photographers. Warner promises to treat spirit forms as a large-scale collaborative “work of art continuing over time, similar to a cathedral or another grand and sacret artefact”.
The motivating paradox of her archeology of spirits inheres in the strange fact that while ‘spiritual’ incarnations such as religious effigies are often distinctly solid and present and corporeal, forces like electricity and gravity—quintessential subjects of modern scientific inquiry—remain “mysterious, elusive, and ethereal,” a magical inversion which leaves faint traces of amazement and perplexity like snail’s casts throughout the book.’
- Jenny Davidson, Guest Author on www.thevalve.org. (Full review can be read here)