Srdjan Smajić, Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists, and Jill Galvan, The Sympathetic Medium

Srdjan Smajić, Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists: Theories of Vision in Victorian Literature and Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 262pp. £50 hb. ISBN 9780521191883.

Jill Galvan, The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, The Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859-1919 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010). 216pp. £27.95hb. ISBN 9780801448010.

The obvious connection between Smajić’s Ghost-Seers and Galvan’s Sympathetic Medium is their focus on the practices and meanings of spiritualism. Yet the links between these two very different approaches to the study of literature and science are more numerous than this. Both consider the place of detective fiction, investigate the gothic, and take a peek at the occult. Both, too, are interested in science’s ability to interpret: from the telegraph turning signals into meaningful messages in Galvan’s reading of communication technologies to Smajić’s view of vision as an essentially interpretative biological function, a mode of perception that turns light into knowledge.

Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists offers to “examine the ways in which ghost and detective fiction are structured by and in conversation with contemporary philosophical and scientific work on visual perception” (3). It does so in 3 parts—across 13 chapters and a short final coda—which consider, in turn, ghost stories and the extensive literature on visual illusions, the semiotics of sight in relation to detective fiction, and the unseen world of spiritualism and the occult. Smajić’s key claim is that vision, for the Victorians at least, allowed access to the unseen as well as to the seen (to the occult or the other world of spiritualism, for example). These, Smajić argues, are forms of vision that are both material and immaterial, and the discourses of vision that emerge in science and philosophy provide “a spectrum of models and theories” (18) rather than one dominant visual mode. While there were any number of scientific works that might explain away ghosts and spectres as motes in the eye or optical anomalies there also existed “an alternate discourse on sight and ghost-seeing whose proponents contrasted the limited capabilities and built-in flaws of the corporeal eye with the more reliable and valuable insights of inner, intuitive, spiritual seeing” (19). This oscillation between the seen and the unseen is familiar from Kate Flint’s work on Victorian vision in The Victorians and the Visual Imagination. Smajić does not offer anything particularly new, then, but he does deepen our understanding of these two visual arenas through extensive reading of philosophical, scientific and literary texts.

These readings begin with a consideration of the ghost story in the context of scientific work on optical illusion and ocular deficiency. Smajić argues that while physiological examinations of the eye explain away ghosts and ghost-seeing, ghost stories resist that materialism. So, for example, in ghostly fictions by Scott, Le Fanu and Dickens there is a “counter-retinal” (45) disruption of scientific orthodoxy that highlights the dissatisfaction with science’s efforts to explain spectres as products of the eye’s frailty. The material Smajić brings to bear on this argument is both impressive and well-chosen. Yet this first part does not engage as extensively as it might with the interesting history of science criticism that exists on the topics of ocular deficiency and eye disease, and which would have made the arguments richer. Certainly the consideration of ghost stories offers a fresh cultural perspective that such works have not previously considered. However, the lack of engagement with this material does not lead to a greater attention being paid to the fictional text. Smajić’s reading of the fiction as receptacles of scientific knowledge obstructs any analysis of them as imaginative texts whose linguistic richness might offer something other than a recycling of optical theory. That is, it is more problematic than Smajić acknowledges to take scientific ideas and to “read them into ghost stories” (47). It is fair, though, to recognise that there is a well-wrought effort to consider how these fictions might write back to science. In doing so the stress falls on their anti-mechanistic philosophies, emerging from Poe and early nineteenth-century romanticism, which trouble the belief that only science can counter epistemological uncertainty.

With these interesting conclusions as a foundation, the second part of the book is a great deal stronger. In a succession of chapters on seeing as reading, the links between vision and knowledge are investigated through attention to visual learning. What emerges is a semiotics of vision in which perception is constructed as a learned understanding of signs as opposed to a natural ocular knowledge that we all enjoy without having to work at it. This paradigm of vision is reached via close attention to theoretical optics of the mid-nineteenth century, with Helmholtz’s hugely important work as the central impetus. Smajić then considers what this might mean for detective fiction, where observation is central and the knowledge derived from it vital to narrative development. Through some fine readings of Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle this second part develops a much more finely-tuned sense of the relationship between the visual sciences, their philosophical implications and fictional interpretations of them. As a result, the conclusions drawn are sounder and more original than in the first part. In particular, Smajić’s reading of The Moonstone as an “anti-detective novel that exposes the flaws in the genre’s fantasy of transparency” (118) is the tour de force of the book.

It is in the third part that the connections to Galvan’s Sympathetic Medium are most prominent. Here, Smajić develops his thesis on the unseen, paying particular attention to the occult and to spiritualism. The argument shifts from its focus on vision to consider how hypotheses in physics and geometry opened up access to unseen worlds that can be identified by the inner eye of clairvoyance and mediumship. From a valuable short analysis of Le Fanu’s occult scientist Martin Hesselius, the final chapters consider the relationship between and conflicting ontologies of materialist sciences of vision and spiritual knowledge of other worlds beyond the ken of the bodily senses. Smajić makes senses of these opposing forces by arguing that, in detective fiction at least, alternative “modes of perception” are not incompatible with rational science but rather “are versions of these practices, and vice versa” (181). This is important analysis: a further argument to highlight the considerable interaction between science and the occult, or perhaps between science’s centres and margins, too often disregarded as insignificant or denied.

Galvan’s Sympathetic Medium has a similar aim. It places spiritual mediumship in the context of a range of communication technologies (telegraphy, telephony and typing) in order to think very specifically about the role of female communication workers. Although less ambitious than Smajić’s work, Galvan’s book is an extremely well-focussed and truly interdisciplinary analysis of an important feature of the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century communications network: the female communication go-between. In a persuasive introduction, Galvan argues for the importance of considering the “mediating woman” (17) whose work with technologies of communication was characterised in particular ways. The female medium (and medium is used by Galvan as a descriptive term in all forms of communication) prospered because she was thought to be particularly prone to automatism and was therefore a simple and safe conduit for knowledge. Additionally the female medium provided “sensitivity or sympathy” (17) for users of communication technologies. Yet, despite this usefulness, there remained the dangerous potential for female mediums to fail to recognise the privacy of communications and to make them public.

Through this introduction and the chapter that follows, which looks closely at Henry James’s In The Cage, Galvan argues very successfully that women were at the centre of communications networks in Britain and the United States. These “neurally sensitive women” (32) made human the increasingly alienating technological world of communication. This is how we should read the female telegrapher in James’s novella; yet James complicates the status of such a woman by revealing her (dangerous) interest in the communications she mediates. For Galvan this speaks directly to class as well as to gender: and it is within technologies of communications that this is made most apparent. Intriguingly, the female medium becomes a threatening presence in this complex interplay of communication via technology: her curiosity leads her to invade the private spaces of communication.

What was required was a female medium who was “intellectually withdrawn but sensitively present” (66), and in the second chapter Galvan explores this type in late Victorian gothic fiction. Through a reading of Stoker’s Dracula (and of the character of Mina in particular) the characterisation of the female medium as “magically manipulable automaton” (70) is investigated. Although Galvan does not explicitly draw attention to how these markers of femininity might be read in broader contexts, there is a clear connection between the typology of the female medium and recognisably Victorian stereotypes of the angelic, domestic woman with few intellectual attributes but a great deal of vital, nurturing sympathy. It is unfortunate, too, that more consideration is not given to the role of attention here. Galvan notes the importance of the female medium reducing their attention to the communications they enable, but little theorising of attention is attempted. Jonathan Crary’s work on attention in modern culture would have been valuable here (as Smajić would have recognised from his use of Crary’s theses). Crary’s recognition that attention tells us a great deal of the new subjectivities that were emerging at this historical moment may have provided Galvan with another perspective in which to place the female medium.

This does not detract from either the importance or interest of the cultural analysis that follows in the next three chapters. In the third chapter Galvan addresses mediumship in its most commonly-recognised incarnations: mesmerism and spiritualism. Reading the work of George Du Maurier, and in particular the character of Trilby in the novel of that name, Galvan argues that the role of women as mediums for other-worldly communications highlights the “powers of the unconscious mind” (134) and tells us something more about the medium as inattentive conduit. Further, the connections sparked by spiritualism’s discovery of the other world “allow us a glimpse of a world yet to be fully realized, where the self combines with other selves in vigorous new formations” (134) that will characterize future communications technologies.

In the final two chapters, Galvan turns her own attention from the freedoms of the occult medium to the conservatism of fictional accounts of typists and the unconvincing communications of men. In Conan Doyle’s detective fiction she recognises a conservative ideology of womanhood in the figure of the intellectually limited typist whose inattention leads to her victimhood. The analysis provided of both ‘A Case of Identity’ and ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ are sharp and original, and yet somehow perfectly obvious in the contexts which Galvan has created. This has to be seen as a mark of really superior scholarship. A little less convincing, perhaps because of the excellence of the work directly preceding it, the final chapter dealing with George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil is not altogether persuasive. Galvan makes an effort to read the story as an example of spiritualist communication rather than mesmeric (which always seems a stretch) and considers Latimer as an unreliable narrator who misrepresents his reading of other minds. To see Latimer as unreliable and his narrative as personally misrepresentative does not seem entirely new, and nor does the turn to male mediums quite work as well as the focus on women.

What does work is Galvan’s short epilogue, which connects her work to contemporary representations of women in networks of communication. From Star Trek to Medium, there is great fun to be had here, yet a serious purpose emerges in reminding us how important it is to understand the Victorians if we are to understand the present. By contrast, Smajić’s own short epilogue, his coda, apologises for paying attention to the single sense of vision rather than the sensorium in the round. This highlights the incredible ambition of his work, and the extraordinarily acute focus of Galvan’s. Interestingly, while Smajić’s subject matter has the greater potential, it is to some extent unrealised in its grander narratives of what vision might mean in the nineteenth century. By contrast, Galvan’s field looks niche and particular, but by the time we reach the end of her epilogue we have been persuaded of its broader significance and historical importance.

Martin Willis, University of Glamorgan