The Art of Retrieval


David J. Jones, Gothic Machine: Textualities, Pre-cinematic Media and Film in Popular Visual Culture, 1670-1910 (£95, University of Wales Press)


'Magic lantern' is a pleasant name for a machine even though 'the lantern of fear' was often more apt. As the device itself evolved its names became legion and the evocative 'diorama', 'panorama' and 'phantasmagoria' gave way in the later nineteenth century to a cacophony of neologisms: 'mutascope', 'chromatrope', 'thaumatrope', 'kinetoscope', 'zoetrope', 'stroboscope', 'praxinoscope', 'phenakistiscope'. The images these devices projected were, more often than not, equally devilish.

David J. Jones' study is in part an account of the development of the magic lantern show into the early forms of cinema but by 'Gothic Machine' he intends something considerably more complex than any actual apparatus. 'Gothic "retrieves" the archaic,' he argues; 'it does so because it can be defined, in dialectical terms, as a machine and part of the function of this machine is retrieval.' While the projectors themselves were in Jones' view components of the Gothic machine 'the literature and drama of the uncanny' were essential to its operation. The themes and motifs which the emerging visual technologies took from print culture were in turn taken up by
print culture in 'recurrent coalescence'. We can perhaps infer that the one thing the Gothic machine has always lacked is a stop button.

I will return to Jones' thesis since it demands close attention but readers will find much to enjoy in this book whether or not they have particular interest in its theoretical aspect. As an historical survey it abounds in curious inventions, anecdotes, beliefs and eccentricities. We see the first magic lanterns at work in the mid-seventeenth century, showing danse macabres and other conjurations of memento mori themes common in the preceding centuries and popular among early printers. The Gothic machine is at once in retrieval mode and projecting apparitional images of apparitions: the trope is already deeply embedded. A century later we encounter Georg Schröpfer using his lantern to convene 'magic assemblages [...] in the milieu of Freemasonry and the coffee-house society of Leipzig.' Schiller will soon use 'optical technology as the linchpin of' his novel The Ghost-Seer
and the Marquis de Sade will associate the 'new novels' such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk with the phantasmagoria, while Etienne-Gaspard Robertson receives an eager public in his 'Fantasmagorie' in post-Terror Paris. We are shown many magic lantern allusions in the novels and stories of Sheridan Le Fanu and we glimpse farmers struggling through hard times as part-time lanternists in outlying villages, dispelling any notion that this was an exclusively urban phenomenon. The 'unstable and fragmented' images created by the rapid succession of new projectors tumble into the fragmented selves of the fin-de-siecle until 'only months into cine-history, the Gothic machine encoded (and encoding) in diverse media reasserted itself as a subset in cinematography.' In 1910 we meet 'the first authentically frightening monster of film' in the Edison Studios' production of Frankenstein. In the film's closing sequence the creator looks in the mirror and sees the after-image of his unhappy creation but 'under the effect of love and his better nature, the monster's image fades and Frankenstein sees himself in his rightful young manhood'. Jones remarks 'I cannot think of a more graphic re-envisaging of the Gothic machine.'

I have selected a few details to suggest the scope of the book. I could mention many more but will focus here on Jones' reconstruction of Robertson's 'Fantasmagorie' since it is in several respects the keystone of both his survey and thesis. Using Robertson's own account Jones refutes Terry Castle's influential claim that the spectacle took place 'in the crypt of an abandoned Capuchine convent near the Place Vendôme'; its actual site was 'in the milieu of the convent cloisters' and through his identification of Franćois d'Orblay's floorplan Jones has established that 'the refectory was the only cloister room to have the right dimensions for the salle de fantasmagorie.' Led through a preliminary labyrinth of corridors replete with optical illusions and frightening sound effects Robertson's visitors were persuaded they had descended underground; in fact a single wall separated them from the street outside, in a neighbourhood which as Jones reminds us was a mass grave for victims of the Terror. Jones conducts us out of the labyrinth into Robertson's 'well-lit laboratory' and then, with a glass harmonica ringing in our ears, through the 'Egyptian' door to the 'Mysteries of Isis', then again on to the dark 'chapel' where the 'phantasmagoria was a storm of conflicting signifiers, some licit and others illicit, some ecclesiastical, some pagan, some anticlerical and some necromantic'. We are given a taste of Robertson's accompanying lecture; not the 'somber, incoherent speech on death, immortality, and the unsettling power of superstition' which Castle describes but 'a montage of literary and scientific sources' – Racine, Sterne, Voltaire, Dupuis, Lavater, Rousseau, Schiller. All this before we are rewarded with the magic lantern show in which among other wonders 'Robespierre and Marat were "resurrected" nightly.'

Jones' recreation of the experience of visiting the 'Fantasmagorie' is peculiarly vivid and the reader might feel she's spent an hour or more in the same busy tomb herself. Reproductions of two stills from Howard Wood's computer-generated walk-through film of the site are also evocative and I would like to have seen more. An overall count of five illustrations in a book so devoted to the visual seems an ungenerous allowance by the publisher.

The book's disagreements with Terry Castle's account extend considerably further than her description of the 'Fantasmagorie' and they are intrinsic to Jones' notion of the Gothic machine. In what frame of mind did visitors approach Robertson's spectacle? Castle's thesis is that the eighteenth-century enlightenment would have already undermined their belief in the objective existence of the supernatural and they would view these goings-on with a considerable degree of empiricist detachment. Jones is surely right to dispute this. The Republican edicts against religion would soon be rescinded and it seems less than likely that at so early a period empiricist scepticism affected many except doctrinaire revolutionaries and the philosophical elite. Religion's influence may have begun to wane but was far from dead; indeed the next century would see the rise of a newfound spiritualism coupled with a resurgence of occult investigation and practice foreshadowed in Robertson's 'Mysteries' and emphasized by Jones in his discussions of Gothic motifs in Baudelaire's poems and Huysmans' novels. Robertson sought in any case to extend the 'supernatural' beyond the familiar ghosts and ghouls; magnifying fleas to gigantic sizes, for example, showed the audience what unseen, even monstrous, phenomena empiricism itself was disclosing. The shifting borders between scientific speculation and science fiction were ready-made components of the Gothic machine.

The implications of this disagreement are crucial. For Castle 'The rationalists did not so much negate the traditional spirit world as displace it into the realm of psychology. [...] The epistemologically unstable, potentially fantastic metaphor of the phantasmagoria simply condensed the historical paradox: by relocating the world of ghosts in the closed space of the imagination, one ended up supernaturalizing the mind itself.' I can see Jones frowning at the phrase 'the closed space of the imagination'; for him, I suspect, the 'space of the imagination' is never closed and this is precisely what the 'metaphor of the phantasmagoria' reveals. The phantasmagoria projects and externalises – and by externalising it keeps unending possibilities in play. It is therefore at once a metaphor for and a working part of the Gothic machine. And the wheels – and reels – of the Gothic machine go on turning regardless of the claims of a rationalised and essentially materialist psychology.

In its own sphere Gothic Machine should be regarded as essential reading for a long time to come. Perhaps an enterprising scholar will reconsider the poems and plays of Thomas Lovell Beddoes in terms of the Gothic machine, for it would be a corrective to the notion that Beddoes was an isolated revivalist exhuming Jacobean corpses of theme and diction. There has been some discussion of his borrowing from early nineteenth-century opera but none, so far as I know, of a possible debt to the phantasmagoria. Might we not read Beddoes' Dance of Death in the cloisters (Death's Jest-Book V.4) as a scenario for a magic lantern show very like the first spectacles described by Jones? Commentary generally relates it to the mural tradition, set in motion by Beddoes' fancy, but here as elsewhere the concept of the Gothic machine offers a broader perspective. Certainly a lanternist would have fewer problems than a stage director with the doubtful substantiality of several of Death's Jest-Book's characters.

I do regret that unless readers search Gothic Machine's acknowledgements and endnotes some may not realise that David J. Jones is one and the same as the poet David Annwn. There are, of course, reasons for an author to separate his scholarly from his creative work and this may seem an idle quibble. Nevertheless the themes which wave through Gothic machine have energized Annwn's remarkable poetry for many years and I hope appreciation of Jones will further the appreciation of Annwn.

© Alan Halsey 2011