What do we mean when we say that we see something? And how do we navigate the gap between our assertion of sensory perception (“I see”) and the untrustworthy corollary of comprehension (“Oh, I see!”), that slippage between the material and the epistemological that underwrites, among other things, Othello’s fateful demand for “ocular proof”? It is that question, the nineteenth-century attempts to answer it, and the popular narratives that arose from those attempts, which provide the basis of Srdjan Smajić detailed study Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists: Theories of Vision in Victorian Literature and Science.
Over thirteen compact chapters, Smajić lays out the nineteenth-century accounts of the phenomenology of perception, tracing their sources in eighteenth-century and Romantic-era thought as exemplified by George Berkeley, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Auguste Comte as they were taken up, reworked, and challenged by such Victorian philosophers, critics, and scientists as John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, George Henry Lewes, William Whewell, and John Tyndall. Alongside that history, Smajić reads a number of literary figures—including the canonical (Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Arthur Conan Doyle) and the less canonical (Catherine Crowe and Kate and Hesketh Prichard, among others). He considers how these writers engaged the perceptual, spiritual, and epistemological issues that the scientific debates raised. Broadly, the project of the book is to explore the Victorian phenomenologies and epistemologies of perception as they fall into a series of conceptual poles that literature could engage, tweak, or parody. These include intuitionism and empiricism, materialist sensation and cognitive comprehension, axiomatic truths and assumptions grounded in experience that seem to be axiomatic, and the desire for “fixed, universal semantic value” which moves toward the (mistaken) fantasy of a collapse of knowledge into pure, unmediated sight (112).
Smajić draws the genres of the ghost story and detective fiction into the realm of the scientific and philosophical developments in that all call for “a different way of seeing” and offer a challenge to received understandings of the relationship between sight and knowledge (39). “I shall maintain,” Smajić announces, “that representations of ghost-seeing in Victorian ghost fiction are in conversation with contemporary treatments of visual perception, particularly in regard to what these works had to say about the reliability of bodily sight as a channel for knowledge about the world—and the world after this one” (17). He likewise claims that detective fiction, despite its realist aspirations, analogously mobilizes a set of conceptions about perception and comprehension that draw upon the same tropes: “Presumably,” he points out, the “semiotic prowess” of the detective “derives from experience: the sort of visual learning that Berkeley and his Victorian followers argue is required for making inferences” (96-97). But at the same time the fantasy of the detective genre relies upon the portability of that prowess into unfamiliar scenarios: “On the other hand, however, it is necessary for the reader to believe that any kind of prior knowledge and inductive legwork is redundant if he or she is to trust that [Poe’s] Dupin can accomplish a similar feat when scrutinizing a face he has never seen before in order to penetrate a mind about which he knows nothing” (98). Ultimately, as he argues that Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) makes clear, “there can be no seeing without reading, no transformation of raw sense data into knowledge, without the intervention of language—a mediation that is simultaneously an obstacle in the detection of plain meaning and the prerequisite for the detection of anything at all” (115).
As the title of the book suggests, Smajić is juggling a lot of balls here, and he is not always completely successful in keeping them all in the air. (A brief “Coda” registers his regret that he had to focus just on visual perception rather than including other sensory modes, but it is certainly for the best that he did since he provides an almost dizzying array of materials and methods already.) After the introduction, the first section of the book (comprising four chapters) has virtually nothing to do with detective stories, focusing instead on spiritualism and ghost narratives; the second section (another four chapters) drops ghosts almost completely in order to consider detection. As late as the second to last chapter, Smajić introduces a new historical and theoretical frame: the development of non-Euclidean geometry and its ramifications for notions of spatial dimensions outside of the three that we commonly experience. The material is fascinating, but its appearance is as abrupt and seemingly disconnected from what has come before as its invocation in Smajić’s introduction:
The Hound [of the Baskerville]’s merger of epistemes reflects a larger epistemological and ontological restructuring in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. I follow the progress of this restructuring in vision-related developments in physics, optics, and mathematics, specifically the momentous shift from the particle (corpuscular) to the wave (undulatory) theory of light, and the rise and popularization of non-Euclidean and n-dimensional geometries.7
That is a lot to fit into a couple of sentences, and it is a lot to fit into a book.
Similarly, although he makes a case for the convergence of detective and ghost narratives in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-2), in Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius tales, and in a series of early twentieth-century representations of the occult detective or psychic sleuth, Smajić’s argument for the necessary relationship of these particular modes of Victorian genre fiction is occasionally less than fully compelling. Smajić himself seems to acknowledge this at points: “It should be clear by now,” he observes halfway through the book, “that I am not interested in a point-by-point comparison and contrast of ghost and detective fiction. The two genres in the nineteenth century pursued divergent paths in their problematization of the vision-knowledge nexus, and I am keeping them separate (for the time being) for the sake of convenience and emphasis” (106). It is a fair point, but it raises the question of why this study focuses on these two specific genres in the first place, except that (as Smajić observes) the focus on these particular narrative forms represents his contribution to an already growing field of Victorianist accounts of perception.
In fact, Smajić closes his “Coda” with a quotation from George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), and that quick and surprising mention shines like a revelation. (Eliot appears just twice more in the book, including the notes, always in passing.) How exciting it would be to read Eliot’s wonderfully nuanced accounts of the psychology of perception—and its slips—in light of the intellectual history that Smajić brings to bear here. Why is the only mention of Middlemarch (1871-72) a quick reference in the notes to Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies (which Smajić reads as an antecedent to Sherlock Holmes’s Book of Life) rather than an engagement with the famous parable of the pier-glass that opens Chapter Twenty-Seven? The basis of Smajić’s book is the claim that the genres of ghost and detective fiction are symptomatic of the larger Victorian concern with (and theorization of) vision and knowledge. But in light of Eliot’s beautifully conceived image of the pier-glass, they end up seeming a somewhat arbitrary and trivial choice, and the focus on them rather than the wide spectrum of Victorian literary engagements with the epistemology of vision leads to deformations in the structure of the book, which at its heart appears to be much more interested in the philosophical history than in the readings of particular examples of popular genre fiction. Engaging with different sorts of literary texts would, of course, threaten to expand the study uncontrollably, to turn it into another version of Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies. But solving that problem by restricting the literary analyses to works from genres that, by the book’s own account, have little to do with each other except that, like many other contemporary genres, they arise from a broader philosophical and scientific context, is not quite satisfying either.
Yet, this is still a significant book, and its historical discussions are deeply informative and exhaustively researched. For this reader, it was also surprisingly satisfying and, in fact, fun to read; it’s rarely ponderous in its language or in its logic, even while it takes up some of the densest prose of the Victorian period. The readings of the novels are pleasant and often insightful, but it is for the broader cultural and philosophical context that I will return to this volume. For it is there that Smajić teaches us, even as we look, how little we understand about what it means to see.
Patrick R. O’Malley is Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University. He is the author of Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture (Cambridge, 2006).