Marina Warner is one of our most erudite and morally serious writers, a historian of how forms and figures become the repositories of larger cultural values and meanings. In her earlier books she explored, among other things, how the Virgin Mary became “so satisfying a symbol”; how the female form became an allegory for desires and virtues that real women were thought to lack–justice, liberty, wisdom; and how the short career of Joan of Arc came to lodge “in the minds of people who heard her story” through the ages. Warner is interested in the ways that the really big furniture of our minds–religious as well as secular worldviews–came to be there.
Phantasmagoria is her most ambitious book, an intellectually dazzling struggle with how the modern world (beginning roughly in the Renaissance) has imagined the stuff of souls, the nature of the psyche, the “mysterious, elusive, and ethereal” thing that somehow distinguishes the truly dead from the living and makes us what we are. It is also her most challenging book, a wonderfully suggestive though not rigorously analytical work that often reaches further than it can grasp and admits as much. After all, the “enthralling borderland between animation and lifelessness” is not a well-lit terrain, however irresistibly it draws our attention.
In one sense the word “phantasmagoria” captures precisely what the book is about: how various technologies–wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s, photographs, movies, digital images–became vehicles for imagining something that animates and gives life to what is lifeless. It is a late-eighteenth-century neologism that refers to both the optical illusion of a “phantom”–an apparition or spirit, an appearance that deceives–and the instrument first used in 1798 by Belgian inventor Étienne-Gaspard Robertson to generate these creatures. (In fact, Warner shows, the seventeenth-century polymath Jesuit Athanasius Kircher had already begun painting images of spirits on glass slides, one of several technologies for “producing and rendering the operations of fantasy.”) But if the means by which we represent what we know to be unreal were all that interested Warner, her book would not be so compelling and so rich.
Phantasmagoria is instead a history of the “logic of the imaginary,” which encompasses, among others, convinced spiritualists who believe in a still enchanted world; experimental thinkers like William James who felt that spiritualists might be onto something; modern-day religious fundamentalists who read the Book of Revelation as the literal truth; and critics of enchantment who nevertheless recognize that we do imagine life in inanimate things, from Karl Marx, with his theory of commodity fetishism, to Walter Benjamin, with his concept of the “aura” surrounding a work of art, to artists who have digitally constructed the life of Japanese cartoon figures. Warner does not distinguish between these levels of reality, nor is she bound by chronology. This elasticity of method allows her to traverse centuries and circle easily through the chaotic contemporary “mental skyscape” of spirit–an explosion of multimedia images–and the “wild heterogeneity of the Hellenistic world” thousands of years ago.
Warner’s story of spirit begins solidly, however, with three corpses: the mummified body of Santa Caterina de’Vigri in Bologna’s Church of Corpus Domini; the remains, in a grave only yards away, of the eighteenth-century scientist Luigi Galvani, who studied how electrical currents seemed to revivify dead frogs (this suggested to Mary Shelley the way Dr. Frankenstein could give life to his monster); and the famous “auto-icon” (the mummified body) of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, which sits in University College London and occasionally presides over Senate meetings there. The dead saint remains somehow present in an uncorrupted–or at least recognizable–body that testifies to the purity of the soul that once inhabited it and still gives it miraculous properties (not least of which is resurrection). The dead scientist is presumably dust, although we are reminded that life was but a spark. The dead materialist philosopher is strangely all there, evoking an eternal present, because what we see is the seat of personhood, at least as he understood it. How we think about what these bodies mean depends on how we answer the question of what animates matter.