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On October 23, 1804, William Blake wrote to William Hayley: “Suddenly, on the day after visiting the Truchsessian Gallery of pictures, I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door and by window-shutters” (756). This article explores the significance of Blake’s delayed response to the viewing experience of the Truchsessian Gallery. It revisits the connections between Blake and Newton, optics, Locke and perception, and situates Blake’s understanding of colour and colour vision in its contemporary context; it investigates Blake’s account to Hayley and analyses some of the problematic representations of embodiment in the works done in the 1790s, arguing that the large colour prints demonstrate Blake’s awareness of the physical and optical qualities of colour.
This articles seeks to recover a lost visual device proposed in 1812 by the English traveller and materialist philosopher John "Walking" Stewart, and to explore how the imaginary apparatus participated in a prevailing intellectual climate of ambivalence to which Keats's imagination was particularly responsive. Stewart's curious contraption, the "panoscope", was fashioned as a pseudo-scientific, quasi-medical implement which could enable the aperture of human perception to resolve with a kind of rationally achieved omniscience the material reality that constitutes the eternal interchange between substances in states of "patiency" and "agency—life and death. The inherent ambivalence of panoscopic vision towards the prevalence of life or death, it is argued, came to distinguish much of Keats's writing in the last phase of his career as the promise of transmutation between literal and literary states of "composition" and "decomposition" became at once a comfort and anxiety for him.
The early nineteenth century saw a rebirth of British arctic exploration and the enthusiasm inspired by these new, seemingly benign imperial endeavors spread quickly and thoroughly through the popular press. One of the most popular media for conveying the news and results of imperial projects was Barker’s panorama in Leicester Square. This medium encouraged a form of vision that was particularly conducive to garnering public support; the overwhelmingly large and meticulously detailed canvases caused the viewer to engage in a swift, haphazard form of looking that conveniently drew focus away from all the potential violations of people, landscape and property implied in exploration of regions such as the Arctic. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published just before the exhibition of Barker’s first arctic panorama, presents a critique of this form of vision in the arctic frame narrative, which is plagued by Captain Walton’s continually distracted looks.
A rhetoric of spectrality pervades Thomas Carlyle’s writings, in a way which is intimately related to his characteristic position of “natural supernaturalism.” This essay argues that Carlyle’s rhetorical emphasis on spectral hallucinations in his descriptions of social upheavals such as those of revolutionary France reflects the influence on his work of physiological theories of perception stemming from the medical thought of Erasmus Darwin, theories which are frequently invoked in early nineteenth-century theories of ghosts and apparitions. Carlyle’s preoccupation in his historical writing with the figure of the “Great Man” also reflects this medical context, in that the Great Man’s superior ability to perceive the reality of his historical moment is understood by Carlyle as indicative of a superior cultural “health” that he manages to convey to the society of his time, contrasted by Carlyle with the state of feverish delirium characteristic of revolutionary situations. The essay suggests that this relationship to theories of perception aligns the Carlylean “Great Man” to the figures of the Wordsworthian poet and the Romantic genius more generally, and also helps to explain the Victorian emphasis on “character,” of which the Carlylean historiography of “Great Men” is an example. The placing of individual character at the centre of accounts of perception by nineteenth-century thinkers such as Carlyle and Ruskin reacts against the determinism associated with Enlightenment thought’s assumption that in perception the mind is passively imprinted with sense-data, and reflects the influence of the alternative account of perception as a process of interpretation of signs put forward by Thomas Reid and other Common Sense philosophers.
This article begins by posing the question of why the eminent Victorian inventor and scientist of optics, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), chooses to appear in a popular domestic magic lantern handbook of the 1860s, offering a testimonial to the value and importance of that by-that-time familiar parlour toy? By looking back some thirty years or so to Brewster’s Letters On Natural Magic (1832), in which the scientist sets out his project for a popular training of the senses, it highlights the part played by optical entertainments and discourses of magical wonder in Victorian education(s) of the eye, and the particular visuality of wonder as sensory experience. In its discussion of wonder, this article asserts the importance of an emotion frequently excluded from a longstanding picture of a nineteenth century ‘disenchanted’ by science and technology. Someone like Brewster is interesting because he explicitly, programmatically weighs in against irrationality; yet, in explaining away superstitious wonder in terms of, predominantly optical illusion, he retains some of the glamour or fascination of these illusions. As a member of the scientific elite working for the popularisation of optical science and technology for the ‘vulgar’ masses, the scientist may be reassessed and understood as a player in a cultural middle ground, an ambiguous hinterland between positions of outright superstition and outright disillusionment. Exploring the enchantments of technology, this article underlines how optical devices and the visions they offer are instrumental in the evolution of an emerging nexus of Victorian wonders. Through a case study of the magic lantern in nineteenth-century popular science and entertainment, it shows how multiple, diverse ‘wondering’ perspectives gather around a single, longstanding visual machine.