October 30, 2019

Enlightenment-era Ghosts and the History of Technology

A detail of one of Etienne Gaspard Robertson's "phantasmagoria."
Ghosts were in the air in eighteenth-century London. Few knew this better than James Boswell, the friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson. On a gloomy Saturday in March of 1762, feeling “cold and spiritless” and having “lost all relish of London,” Boswell sought out the company of some friends. Unfortunately for Boswell, after dinner had ended, the group began to “talk of death, of theft, robbery, murder, and ghosts.”

Boswell's diary continues:

Lady Betty and Lady Anne declared seriously that at Allanbank they were disturbed two nights by something walking and groaning in the room, which they afterwards learned was haunted. This was very strong. My mind was now filled with a real horror instead of an imaginary one. I shuddered with apprehension. I was frightened to go home. 

Luckily, Boswell had a good friend in his companion Erskine, who “made me go home with him, and kindly gave him half of his bed, in which, though a very little one, we passed the silent watches in tranquility.” (Later, Boswell admitted that his lifelong fear of ghosts had made it impossible for him to sleep alone until he was eighteen.)

Perhaps ghosts had become a topic of conversation for Boswell's friends that evening due to the infamous case of the Cock Lane ghost. One of the most celebrated news stories of 1762, the Cock Lane affair had all the usual trappings of newspaper drama, including illicit sex, a controversial expert commission (which included Samuel Johnson), and spectacular allegations of murder – supposedly made by the ghost of the victim herself, one Fanny Lynes. All throughout the dreary winter and early spring of 1762, crowds of Londoners gathered outside the scene of the crime, regularly attempting to make contact with the spirit of the victim.

That same year, a play called The Orators had been staged in London which featured an incompetent attorney defending a client who happened to be a ghost. “What is a ghost? A spirit,” the grandstanding lawyer declaims:

What is a spirit? A Spirit is a thing that exists indepentently of, and is superior to, flesh and blood. And can any man go for to think, that I can advise my client to submit to be tried by people of an inferior rank to herself?... I therefore, humbly move to squash this indictment, unless a jury of ghosts be first had. 

The works of Shakespeare, especially his ghost-haunted plays Hamlet and Macbeth, began to enjoy a new level of renown in the same period, inspiring an entire sub-genre of spectral paintings and prints.

Detail from Benjamin Wilson's William Powell as Hamlet Encountering the Ghost (circa 1768).

In her book The Ghost: A Cultural History, Susan Owens argues (rightly, I think) that ghosts are “mirrors” of the cultures they haunt: “They reflect our preoccupations, moving with the tide of cultural trends and matching the mood of each age.” But I would go a bit further than this: ghost sightings seem to me to reflect, most of all, the technological preoccupations of an age. Thus it's little surprise that Enlightenment-era debates about ghosts fixated on whether the use of experimental tools, allied with reason, could banish these pesky supernatural entities altogether.

For the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, ghosts and apparitions helped inspire what is perhaps the most famous passage in Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: Section X, “Of Miracles.” By Hume's definition (“a transgression of a law of nature” enacted by "the Diety, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”) ghosts and haunting fell under the heading of “miracles,” just as the resurrection of Christ did. Hume was having none of it: the laws of nature are products of “a firm and unalterable experience,” he argued, that can only be changed by the testimony of many people from different times and places – a variation on the practices of collective observation and “virtual witnesses” that historians of science identify as one of the key aspects of the Scientific Revolution. According to Hume, ghosts and other miracles fail this test, because they are single, unique events. It is more sensible, he argued, to attribute claims of miracles to unreliable observers (motivated, for instance, by the desire to promote religious beliefs) than to assume a true violation of the laws of nature.

Given this, it's tempting to tie eighteenth-century ghosts to a larger narrative about what Keith Thomas called the “decline of magic” during the Enlightenment era. The witchcraft trials which had convulsed Europe in the seventeenth century began to peter out in the early decades of the eighteenth. Although Jane Wenham, an alleged witch who was condemned to death by a jury in 1712, was not the very last witch to be executed in England (as sometimes claimed), her case was deeply emblematic. In response to witnessing Jane's trial, a clergyman named Francis Hutchinson wrote an impassioned, skeptical essay on witchcraft that debunked many of the famous persecutions of the past few decades, including the Salem trials. Perhaps the decline in popular belief in the existence of living, human wielders of supernatural powers displaced that belief in the supernatural into non-living magical entities: ghosts, spirits, apparitions, and the like.

Francis Hutchinson's Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft (London, 1718) and Richard Boulton's attempt to "vindicate" the concept of magic in response (London, 1722). Boulton's book is discussed below.

Eighteenth-century ghosts were not quite the same as the ones familiar from present-day horror literature and films. They were not even the same as the ghosts of the Victorian era, which haunted seances with their disembodied rappings and knockings. The difference shows how technological change maps onto the ways that people think about magic. Victorian seances were inspired by what was, at the time, cutting-edge research into such things as X-rays, radio waves, and the aether. The spirits of the dead appeared in these late nineteenth-century accounts as something akin to telegraph operators, sending out long-distance communications by means of cryptic, coded communication. As Hilary Grimes points out in her book The Late Victorian Gothic, spiritualist seances mapped directly onto the technological changes of the nineteenth century. Early in the Victorian period, ghosts regularly communicated in Morse code; when the telephone was invented, however, disembodied voices began to be picked up from the aether.

In the earlier context of Enlightenment-era Europe, natural philosophers were intensely concerned with the question of how the limits of perception and reason could be experimentally determined. This was not just a philosophical debate, but one that related to specific technological changes.  Devices like the microscope and telescope, though invented in the seventeenth century, emerged as widely-available consumer items in the early decades of the eighteenth. The promise these new tools offered of being able to see what had previously been invisible prompted new questions about what else might be revealed by future technological advances, lurking beneath the surface of ordinary human perception.

George Cruikshank's "The Gin Shop," 1829. Notice the dancing ghosts in the "Spirit Vault" behind the bar. Admittedly, this is an early nineteenth-century image, but the link between distilled spirits and ghosts was older.

In the same period, another esoteric technology of seventeenth-century alchemists and natural philosophers became truly accessible to common folk: distilled spirits. The gin craze of 1720s and 1730s London is the most famous manifestation of this trend, but the vogue for drinking all manner of distilled spirits never really went away. (Here I can't avoid making a plug for my forthcoming book, The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade, which charts how eighteenth century Europe and its colonies became suffused with new forms of intoxication). The revelation of the power of this more prosaic form of “spirits” shaped how eighteenth century thinkers imagined the spirits within human beings. Robert Pitt, in his 1705 attack on “the Frauds and Villanies” of apothecaries, argued that distilled alcoholic spirits “evaporate" the spirits within the human body itself, creating a sort of feedback loop whereby “the Spirits and Blood are made more Spiritual, til the Senses are decay'd.”

In a 1722 book, written in response to Hutchinson's, which purported to “demonstrate" the “reality of magick, sorcery, and witchcraft,” Richard Boulton wrote that "human... Spirits” could be “altered, and preternaturally indisposed” by “evil Spirits.” This was a prosaic claim. But Boulton framed his beliefs in the worldview of an Enlightenment-era natural philosopher, arguing that the existence of evil spirits could be deduced from the principles of a Cartesian universe in which "new Forms, which were in Motion" continually bounced up against one another. This constantly-changing world of violent motion, invisible to the naked eye but experimentally detectable by means of tools like the microscope, was a domain in which not only physical bodies, but “Impressions of the Mind” could also make themselves felt: Boulton claims that this is evident due to the fact that “Grief and Sorrow” are well-known causes of the death and decay of the human body. “If the Body be afflicted,” he explained, “the Soul suffers, and the Spirits are depressed, and consequently the whole languishes and decays.” And if, following scripture, we take it as a given that “all spiritual Bodies are immaterial substances,” then Boulton believed this provided a space of possibility for immaterial “spirits” to impact the physical universe – including, yes, ghosts.

An engraving of one of Robertson's "phantasmagoria" performed in 1797, from Etienne Gaspard Robertson, Mémoires récréatifs, scientifiques et anecdotiques du physicien-aéronaute E. G. Robertson (Paris, 1831).

By the final decades of the eighteenth century, the concept of ghosts with a form that could manifest in the material world was falling into decline. Ghosts didn't go away, of course: as always, they simply adapted to new technologies. Susan Owens documents how ghosts gradually became transparent in this period due to the influence of a new breed of stage shows which relied on the use of magic lanterns to project images of spirits. Performers like Etienne Gaspard Robertson began advertising their ability to summon “apparitions of Spectres, Phantoms and Ghosts” on demand by using vaguely-described new techniques (Robertson wrote, perplexingly, of “experiments with the new fluid known by the name of Galvanism”). Given the enormous popularity of magic lanterns in the decades bookending 1800, one suspects that Robertson's audiences knew perfectly well that he was not, in fact, a practitioner of the dark arts. Instead, he was something closer to what would come to be known as a stage magician, a performer whose audiences were aware that what they were watching was a clever trick, not real magic.

Ultimately, the newly-transparent ghosts of the Romantic era dwindled further still, disappearing entirely from view to become the “telegraph ghosts” of the Victorian seance. Unlike Victorian children, these ghosts were to be heard, but not seen.

As for today? “Cursed images” haunt social media, and ad hoc collections of ghost stories like r/nosleep proliferate featuring a new breed of digital ghosts. From the corporeal ghost of the Enlightenment, to the transparent ones of the Romantic era, to the etheric specters of the Victorians, we have reached something that, once again, holds a mirror to our own technological preoccupations: the ghost in the networked machine.

Further reading:

• Allison Meier, "Robertson’s Fantastic Phantasmagoria, An 18th Century Spectacle of Horror," Atlas Obscura (2013)
• Fabio Camilletti, "Phantasmagoria: creating the ‘ghosts’ of the Enlightenment," BBC History Extra (2017)
• Mary Luckhurst and Emile Morin, eds. Theatre and Ghosts: Materiality, Performance, and Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
• Susan Owens, The Ghost: A Cultural History (Tate Publishing, 2017).
• Hilary Grimes, The Late Victorian Gothic: Mental Science, the Uncanny, and Scenes of Writing (Routledge, 2016).
James Boswell's London Journal.

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