SEXUALITY AND THE GOTHIC MAGIC LANTERN: DESIRE, EROTICISM AND LITERARY VISIBILITIES FROM BYRON TO BRAM STOKER by David Jones, Reviewed by Jerrold Hogle
 

SEXUALITY AND THE GOTHIC MAGIC LANTERN: DESIRE, EROTICISM AND LITERARY VISIBILITIES FROM BYRON TO BRAM STOKER
By David Jones
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) x + 254 pp.
Reviewed by Jerrold Hogle on 2015-04-19.

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Perhaps there is not always too much of a good thing. In 2011, David J. Jones published the very informative Gothic Machine: Textualities, Pre-cinematic Media, and Film in Popular Visual Culture, 1670-1910. This work remains a significant advance in Gothic and cultural studies, even though it followed other studies of "fantasmagoric" lantern-show technologies and their relations to literature by Terry Castle, Mervyn Heard, and Marina Warner. Like Heard, Jones thoroughly knows and has revived lantern technology himself, and in Gothic Machine he stakes out rediscovered territory of his own and reveals many little-known facts in the process. He thereby shows that Gothic fiction, theater, and poetry at their very foundations, starting even in ingredients that preceded Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), are deeply bound up with many aspects of "Magic Lantern" slide projections. Though some features of Gothic fiction have long been thought "pre-cinematic," they actually have roots never studied before in the images, techniques, and scare-tactics of lantern-projection displays that have flickered in the West since the later seventeenth century. In addition, besides detecting many traces of lantern technology and imagery in Gothic texts throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Gothic Machine is especially helpful in tracking the development of projection media from the earliest forms of "lanternicity" (Jones' own word for all the elements and associations conflated into lantern shows) to more recent technological advances (such as the stereopticons that produced early animation) and the early stages of cinema itself, as in the first Frankenstein film (1910).

Jones's new book is not so much a sequel to his previous one as (yes) an illuminating re-examination of the time-span and range of works that Gothic Machine covers. Exploring the sexual suggestiveness of many lantern-style images, ranging from the subtle to the pornographic, this volume shows that lantern shows were not only sexy from their very earliest manifestations -- as in the Lakenhal Leiden collection of highly salacious lantern slides from the 1720s (14-16) -- but also increasingly provided the "lanternist sexual codes" (203) frequently used in Gothic scenes, actions, specters, and character-portraits from the 1760s on. All of these, Jones demonstrates, regularly referred to erotic Magic-Lantern icons and technical devices across an arc of time stretching from the late eighteenth century (before Byron, despite Jones's subtitle) to the early twentieth: from the "phantasmagoria, involving images projected on smoke" (38) designed to tempt the susceptible Prince in Schiller's Der Geisterseher (1787-89) to the novels of Bram Stoker, which recall how the "advanced lanterns" of his day could "superimpose and dissolve images" (182) in the most eroticized moments of Dracula (1897) and The Lady of the Shroud (1909). In between these "bookend" Gothics, Jones highlights further examples of this kind while rightly noting that there are many more: scenes in M.G. Lewis' The Monk (1796) that echo the lanternicity of Der Geisterseher; the Norman Abbey cantos of Byron's Don Juan (1823-24); Charlotte Brontë's most brilliantly Gothic novel, Villette (1853); and J.S. Le Fanu's much-debated novella Carmilla (1870-71), still one of the most provocative "lesbian vampire" tales in history, filled as it also is with references to lantern-shows and several of their more infamous projections.

Overall, the revisionist history and the particular analyses presented here contain enough genuine revelations and convincing parallels, as well as enough striking re-interpretations of works already studied in previous criticism, to make this study a compelling (and -- why not?) sexy addition to the burgeoning scholarship on the true underpinnings of Gothic fiction, theater, and film. This book also helps elucidate the history of cinematic forms, the filiations of Romanticism across the nineteenth century, and the history of sexuality and its deployment in changing symbols. In addition, as a contribution to the ongoing development of New Historicist/Cultural Studies, it juxtaposes different media from the same era to show how each affects and is affected by the other in "associations" that enable the modern reader "to discover a forgotten intermedial world of allusion" (ix).

To be sure, this book is not as consistently sharp as its predecessor, as I explain below. But it succeeds in several valuable ways. For one, while quite precisely describing what eroticized Gothic fictions take from suggestive and often underground lantern shows, it also reveals why lantern technology and its descendants have been so erotic from their earliest days. Jones may be straining when he finds "analogies with sex" in the workings of lantern machinery from the "twisting of the barrel" to the "slotting in of new slides" and "an alternating forwards and backwards movement in the case of the fantascope lanterns" (20). But we can hardly deny the eroticism and the influence of the "slip-slide" (166), by which one lantern-slide is shown and then withdrawn, or even pulled in and out repeatedly, to disclose a more shocking and usually quite sexual image in a slide slotted behind it. In a very similar fashion, Ann Radcliffe's Sister Agnes (in The Mysteries of Udolpho) hides beneath her habit the lawless passion of her earlier self as Signora Laurentini di Udolpho, and the Bleeding Nun of Matthew Lewis's The Monk, whose veil both conceals and signifies her sexuality, begets an image that lasted for decades in lantern shows themselves (56-57).

Furthermore, as Jones observes, we cannot ignore the "relative intimacy that the audience felt with the lanterns" in confined salons plunged "into the darkness needed for projection" that "often led to close contact between the sexes" (21), a clear precursor for the "Gothic atmosphere" of eroticized entrapment in dark, close spaces where layered images can seem to float in the gloom. In his chapter on Villette, for example, Jones examines Lucy Snowe's confrontation-- in a dimly-lit attic-- with the Comte de Hamal disguised as a legendary ghostly nun. For Jones this version of the already much-projected Bleeding Nun of many phantasmagorias "represents a real and active sexuality" that Lucy struggles to accept in herself (119). In this moment, Jones persuasively argues, Lucy even adopts "the lantern show's personae and double views in order to cope with, split off, and reject her [most] overwhelming feelings" precisely because "certain aspects of the lantern repertoire" have by this time "become a habitual reflex or unconscious mode of envisaging life, a kind of default setting of the mind" after long popular exposure to Magic Lantern technology (122-23). At such junctures -- and there are more than a few -- Jones achieves a symbiosis of the literary image with specific lantern-show precursors. He thus convincingly shows how a highly artificial and fairly public form of image-projection can be used to explain the workings of the mind itself, just as we now use metaphors drawn from the cinema to explain our "natural" psychic dissolves and dream-shifts.

Indeed, even when its interpretations are unexpectedly sexual, this book is solidly persuasive whenever Jones's comparisons of literature and lantern shows are based on well-documented links between written works and specific shows, such as the Fantasmagorie of Étienne-Gaspard Robert (or E.G. Robertson) staged in Paris from 1797-1805 and much publicized thereafter in drawings and eyewitness accounts (60-66). But the exactitude of Jones' parallels varies in precision, just as his readings of specific works vary in quality.

At one end of this spectrum, the most fully convincing chapter here is the one on Le Fanu's Carmilla, which Jones treated pointedly but briefly in Gothic Machine. In this more capacious reading of the link between Robertson's show and Le Fanu's heroine-narrator, Laura, Jones persuasively argues that Le Fanu adopts "the phantasmagoria as a structural basis for his [entire] story" (150) and even that the novella constructs a three-sided analogy between vampirism, lesbianism, and "lantern-slide simulacra"; in preying on Laura, Jones contends, Carmilla drains her of her most "normal" means of sexual expression much as projected slides perform a "leeching and drawing on the likenesses of [such norms as] paintings and daguerreotypes" (147-48). Though other scholars have already explored Carmilla's allusions to lantern shows, this is one of the strongest readings we now have of what has rightly come to be seen as a multi-layered Gothic classic.

Other readings in this study, such as the analysis of Lucy's encounter with the "specter nun" in Villette, tend to be persuasive at certain points rather than convincing as a whole. A potent example of such persuasiveness is Jones's fine explanation of why--for a long while -- Stoker's Rupert in The Lady of the Shroud mistakes his love-object for the vampire she finally is not. For Jones he is the victim of a "Gothic enthrallment" spawned by his deep familiarity with the "entoptic" phenomena (ghost-objects remaining internally on the eyeball) that stay after lantern-images fade (199). Like other lantenicities recalled in this novel, those "objects" are often of a Laura-like innocent who is already understood, like Carmilla, as a surface over a darkly sexual depth, the upper and most visible slide that is now and then drawn back to reveal the erotic slide beneath it.

In other parts of this book, however, looser associations of texts with lantern images lead to some readings much less convincing than these. Jones oddly argues, for example, that like the early Byron (he believes) before the late cantos of Don Juan, Lewis in The Monk is not as overt as Schiller in adopting obvious lantern-show elements. Yet some episodes in The Monk are quite clearly informed by Magic Lantern parallels: on the one hand, Matilda's illuminated mirror shows the monk Ambrosio an image of the undressing Antonia hovering before him; on the other, the light that seemingly emerges from within a looming figure, like the rear projection often used in lantern shows, reveals a luminous shape-shifting Satan in the dark depths below the monastery tempting the monk with the surface appearance of a sensual young man, as Matilda has already done, quite seductively, in her initial disguise as the novice "Rosario." Such images recall lantern slides very like those that Jones has already mentioned, in some of which he has even found suggestions of homoeroticism; yet Lewis, he claims, feared that "the imputation of lantern trickery" would undo "the metaphysical framework of his novel" in the eyes of his readers (51). The only evidence Jones cites at this point is an 1806 Critical Review attack on the lantern-image specters in Madam de Genlis's Alphonsine.

Jones's Byron chapter is not much more persuasive than this account of The Monk. He plausibly argues that in the Norman Abbey episodes of Don Juan, the poet explicitly uses lantern-show parallels, more directly than he ever had in previous poems with laternist overtones, to show Juan's hosts playing "Monk"-Lewis-like tricks on their unsuspecting guest. But Jones uses this argument mainly to solve a "who-done-it" that has remained a mystery since Byron broke off Don Juan in the midst of Canto XVII. Who has produced the stagey nocturnal concoction, in a Gothic pile that was once a real Abbey, of a haunting monk-figure designed to push Juan into the arms of the disguised Duchess Fitz-Fulke -- and thus away from the younger Aurora Raby? According to Jones, the behind-the-scenes mastermind is the Abbey's own Lady Adeline (supposedly the sort of concealed manipulator who turns out to be Satan in Lewis's Monk) now seeking to divert Juan from Aurora in order to win him eventually for herself (106-08). Jones's evidence for this claim is "the concealed player of [a] glass harmonica" behind this scene, which does indeed recall a long-standing source of sound-and-music effects in Magic Lantern shows (first noted on 4-7). He also notes the player's possible connection to the narrator's earlier trope for Adeline as "the glass of all that's fair" (Don Juan 13.8, qtd. 106, emphasis Jones's) along with other brief instances of her apparently re-enacting lantern-show subterfuges. Adeline may indeed have been Byron's intended manipulator, but are these references enough to convince us that she would have been for certain had Byron lived to complete this sequence?

Whatever the answer, this questionable case for Adeline's lanternicity pales beside one even less convincing. When in Villette Lucy Snowe disguises her dark early history behind the metaphor of a "shipwreck" borrowed from lantern-show dissolves of whole ships into "splintered" ones (113), Jones argues that she thereby represses a level of "psycho-physical abuse and violence, including forced fellatio" (114). As anguishing as Lucy's upbringing may have been, nothing in either Lucy's own allegorical remembrance or in Jones's account of lantern-dissolve wrecks (112-13) begins to suggest such a hidden memory of extreme sexual cruelty. Early on in the book, Jones candidly admits that his "historicist . . . emphasis" is sometimes augmented, as it too clearly is at this point, by "Freudian and Jungian notions of psychological and sexual behavior where relevant" (30). Yet his occasional psychoanalytic insights become truly relevant in this study, I find, only when he has unquestionably shown how erotic literature definitely parallels particular forms of lantern-show eroticism and the suggestions that they originally conveyed.

Happily, lapses such as these are frequently outweighed by considerable intertextual proof of "lanternicity" in several Gothic uses of Magic Lantern motifs for at least a century and a half. In his nicely provocative "Conclusion," moreover, Jones ventures beyond the nineteenth century to note the ongoing "impact of laternicity [on] the sexuality of neo-Gothic artistic creations," including notable work by "the dramatist Len Jenkin, visual artist Kara Walker, and graphic novelist Guido Crepax" (207). As sampled here, all of them clearly demonstrate that the now-wide Gothic "spectra of erotic unease, menace and triumph" continue to "bear witness to the sway of the magic lantern" (211). Given the combined weight of Gothic Machine and this mostly impressive sequel to it, then, I for one am prepared to accept the invitation that Jones offers at the end of the latter: "both to travel back and to look forwards into lanternicity and to re-envisage the magic lantern," which, considering everything that Jones has recovered for us, remains "a quintessentially undervalued artistic medium" (211).

Jerrold E. Hogle is Professor of English and University Distinguished Professor at the University of Arizona.


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