Literature, Technology, and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920

Literature, Technology, and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920

Literature, Technology, and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920

Literature, Technology, and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920

Synopsis

Thurschwell examines the intersection of literary culture, the occult and new technology at the fin-de-si¿cle. She argues that as new technologies, such as the telegraph and the telephone, began suffusing the public imagination from the mid-nineteenth century on, they seemed to support the claims of spiritualist mediums. Making unexpected connections between, for instance, speaking on the telephone and speaking to the dead, she examines how psychical research is reflected in the work of Henry James, George DuMaurier and Oscar Wilde among others.

Excerpt

How do we conceive of intimacy with another human being? What do we mean when we say we know someone 'inside and out'? In the 1880s and 1890s one way to answer these questions is to take them literally, to imagine bodies and minds spatially. In Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) or the psychotic judge Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of my Nervous Illness (1903), minds and bodies are invaded by hostile outsiders, filled up with foreign contents, sucked dry of their own. Buildings, bodies and minds can be seen to house ghosts, invaders from the past. Economic models of invasion are often correlated with linguistic models of communication. The dead want to communicate with the living, delivering messages through mediums; the rays which invade Schreber's body are made out of language; Dracula finds himself telepathically connected to the victims whose blood he ingests. At the turn of the century fantasies about language, communication and suggestion are being worked out through economic models, just as formulations, in literary and scientific texts, of the 'actual' contents of the body and mind invoke fantasies about how language works to enable and disable communication. What barriers do these fantasies cross? What barriers do they establish?

Consider the following series of scenarios: imagine that you can communicate with the dead; imagine that you can communicate with someone miles away through a telegraph or on the telephone; imagine that God is sending rays made of language into your body and that his lackeys are recording every one of your thoughts and utterances; imagine that two people in the enclosed space of an office, one of whom spews out uncensored language while the other listens, can come to some sort of understanding of, or cure for, the pathologies of the speaker; imagine that there is telepathy, that . . .

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