Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists: Theories of Vision in Victorian Literature and Science

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Seeing is believing: in broad terms, the complexities of this axiom form the overarching theme of Srdjan Smajić’s Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists: Theories of Vision in Victorian Literature and Science, a study that examines the correlations and disparities between vision and knowing in the nineteenth century. In thirteen concise chapters organised into three sections, Smajić investigates how scientific and philosophical approaches to perception were disseminated, manipulated, and problematised in Victorian ghost and detective fiction.

The scope of the project is reflected in the range of texts and authors considered: scientific treatises by David Brewster, George Berkeley, and Hermann von Helmholtz and philosophical proposals by Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and John Stuart Mill are studied in relation to popular ghost and detective fiction by canonical authors including Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as lesser known authors such as Catherine Crowe and Kate and Hesketh Prichard. Smajić tackles this potentially unwieldy subject through robust analyses that revolve around the ways in which ghost and detective fiction depended on and challenged contemporary discourses of vision. Over the course of the study, he reveals the slippages between biological theories of vision – how one “sees” the material world – and epistemological models of perception in the nineteenth century.

Smajić’s approach is, as he acknowledges, indebted to Jonathan Crary’s argument in Techniques of the Observer that the early nineteenth century saw a shift in the conceptualisation of vision from “an orderly, rational space” located outside of the seer and towards a more physiological understanding of vision that emphasised the “messy corporeality of the observer” (18). However, Smajić distinguishes his analysis from Crary’s emphasis on physiology with his claim “that the discourse on vision in this period is better understood as a contentious field and a spectrum of models and theories” (18). As he goes on to show, this “spectrum” of theories offered authors of ghost and detective fiction a variety of avenues to explore corporeal and spiritual perceptions of the seen and the unseen worlds. In his brief but illuminating opening chapter on the contextual history of ghost fiction (and “ghostology” more generally), Smajić argues that, rather than passively reflecting Victorian theories of vision, “representations of ghost-seeing in Victorian ghost fiction are in conversation with contemporary treatments of visual perception” (17). While new physiological studies about the functions of the eye worked to undermine spiritualism and the occult by dismissing ghost encounters as optical illusions or tricks of light played on the retina, ghost fiction challenged this materialist narrative by expressing doubts about purely scientific rationalisations for apparitions. Smajić demonstrates that many ghost stories routinely contrasted corporeal sight with intangible forms of perception; thus, as he puts it, “[t]he genre prominently manifests the tension between ocularcentric faith and anti-ocularcentric skepticism that defines much of Victorian thinking about vision” (18).

In Part II, arguably the strongest section of the book, Smajić shifts away from ghost stories to study the pivotal relationship between vision and language in Victorian detective fiction. Rather than sharing the ghost story’s preoccupation with the unreliability of the eye, detective fiction is built upon “faith in the eye as an error-free, non-interfering conduit of sensations”; at the same time, the detective must be an adept reader of these visual signs in order to solve the case (71). In a series of chapters focusing on popular literary detectives, including Poe’s Auguste Dupin, Collins’s Sergeant Cuff, and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Smajić shows how logic, reason, and deduction – represented through the detective’s visual observation of the material world – frequently blur with sensation, imagination, and intuition, as the detective showcases his ability to see beneath the surface of things to gain access to the “truth”. A particularly edifying chapter reads The Moonstone as “a parodic anti-detective novel” (111), and it is here that Smajić summarises the epistemological link between vision and language: “To see something, Collins suggests, is already to put this something into words, to inscribe an object or action into the matrix of language and give it meaning… there can be no seeing without reading, no transformation of raw sense data into knowledge, without the intervention of language” (114-15). Smajić goes on to suggest that the language of sight provided an important thread that connected ghost and detective fiction in the nineteenth century and enabled authors to examine the process of interpreting the world through both optics and linguistics.

In the final section of the book, Smajić moves away from “ocularcentric” discourses of vision to consider how alternate models of perception – including intuition, clairvoyance, and even spiritualistic mediumship – were reinforced by emerging theories in mathematics and physics. The wave theory of light, for instance, provided some mid-Victorian men of science with incontrovertible evidence of the existence of the ether, that ever-present yet invisible substance that many spiritualists believed offered a conduit between the realms of the living and the dead. In this section of the book, Smajić brings together his previous arguments to suggest that, in addition to the tropes of the ghost story, these new scientific proposals about perception offered authors of detective fiction a framework for combining elements of the occult with the tangible, observable world of the mystery solver, eventually leading to what he identifies as the hybridization of ghost and detective fiction (the “occult detective story”) in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. A story like The Hound of the Baskervilles, he argues, “opens a fissure in the epistemology of detective fiction: the genre transgresses its own rules and it becomes difficult to tell whether The Hound is a detective story with supernatural touches or a ghost story in detective-fiction format” (133). He highlights these genre-blending qualities by examining the portrayal of the detective as a “borderline occult figure”, someone who is comfortable dealing in the ostensibly opposite (but in reality deeply interconnected) realms of empiricism and spiritualism and who therefore both works within and challenges received notions of vision and knowledge (135).

This is an ambitious study, and occasionally the enormity of the subject threatens to overwhelm the nuances of Smajić’s claims, particularly in the penultimate chapter, where he describes how the rise of non-Euclidean geometry provided a new paradigm for spatial perception in the late nineteenth century: an intriguing subject, to be sure, but one that is not given the space necessary to become fully integrated with the rest of his argument. Nevertheless, this is a compelling volume that effectively conveys both the scope and the importance of cultural readings of ghost and detective fiction, while also deepening our awareness of visuality and extrasensory modes of perception in the Victorian period. These subjects are illuminated by Smajić’s lucid prose and engaging investigation, making Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists a significant text for scholars interested in questions of genre, science, spiritualism, and vision in nineteenth-century popular literature.