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Raising a Modern Ghost: The Magic Lantern and the Persistence of Wonder in the Victorian Education of the Senses

  • Verity Hunt

…plus d’informations

  • Verity Hunt
    University of Reading

Corps de l’article

In The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use It, By “A Mere Phantom” (1866), a “handy guide” to presenting a magic lantern show in an “ordinary parlour or drawing room,” [1] the eminent Victorian inventor and scientist of optics, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), offers a testimonial to the importance and usefulness of that optical toy:

The Magic Lantern, which for a long time was used only as an instrument for amusing children and astonishing the ignorant, has recently been fitted up for the better purpose of conveying scientific instruction.

qtd. in 1st ed., 18-19

What led this famous and respected man of science to concern himself with a by-this-time familiar parlour toy? His seal of approval lends this popular guidebook pedagogical weight, and reflects his continued relationship with the popularisation of optics for the general public. Brewster figures the magic lantern moving along a linear trajectory from low to high culture, as it transforms from a tool of mystification into an instrument of science, and at the same time lifts the less educated or at least less specialist up. Indeed, the lantern’s popularity reflects the success of the scientist’s earlier educative texts on sight and the senses: the tools for his project set out thirty or so years before in Letters On Natural Magic, Addressed to Sir Walter Scott (1832), were becoming more and more available. No longer dependent on an “expert,” the layman could now own a lantern and perform optical “experiments” for himself at home.

In the opening of Letters on Natural Magic, Brewster declares his intention to dispel ancient fears and superstitions based on natural phenomena. He will redefine them as illusions of sense, via scientific description and explanation. [2] A new nineteenth-century science of sensory perception promises to replace an old order of mystical magic (founded in ignorance) with a rational appreciation of the “millions of wonders” (7; emphasis mine) that surround us in the natural world. A “wonder” in Brewster’s text is at the outer limits of everyday understanding; it inspires curiosity and awe, a feeling or passion of wonder, but nevertheless it is an object of scientific enquiry. This approach goes some way to accommodating an everyday, commonsense perspective into a positivistic world-view. Superstition, for science, marks a sort of stasis, or passivity of reason; it flounders in ignorance, astonished, fearful and fanciful. Brewster’s deployment of the term “wonder,” however, concedes that a moment of passivity—of gazing in awe at a mystery—may not be entirely antithetical to reason, once it is recast as a stage preparatory to scientific action, a spur toward knowledge. “Wonder” thus has a place in science, and in Letters on Natural Magic it particularly concerns those superstitions that may be reclaimed for reason because they are based in accidents of perception, which may be given rational explanations.

That an expert in optics wants to take “wonder” seriously is perhaps not incidental. Wonders are principally realized via the eye. Of all the senses, sight is, according to Brewster, the “most remarkable and important” [3] and it is crucial for any idea of science as founded on observation (Brewster, Letters 8). Yet the mind or spirit’s very reliance on the eye as its most favoured tool of perception also makes it “the seat of the supernatural” (Brewster, Letters 11) if misperceptions are left to the imagination. It is up to science to intervene before this can happen. The eye is thus by its very nature a “wonderful organ,” an object of wonder itself, but, at the same time, the “channel” of visual (mis)perception (Brewster, Letters 10). This relates to a wider ambivalence in nineteenth-century optics: newly emerging models of subjective vision from 1810 to 1840, render vision unreliable and cast the eye as an instrument open to possibilities of malfunction and design flaw,—but locating visual perception within the body of the observer places optics itself in a privileged position to cope with this, to measure and manipulate vision with external devices and new techniques. [4] Optics, then, has a privileged role in a model of science grounded on confidently observed facts; it offers knowledge of conditions upon which other sciences depend.

So, it is no accident that it is through optics that Brewster articulates the promise of a transition from superstition to an educated wonder. The nineteenth century has long been characterised by rationalization and intellectualisation; in an alleged hegemony of “positivism,” scientific means and scientifically oriented technology dismiss mystification and offer a practical means of mastering life technically. [5] Brewster is able to admit the fallibility of observation, the cornerstone of nineteenth-century empirical science, because he can offer adequate correctives. This article will discuss the particular visuality of wonder as sensory experience and the part played by discourses of magical wonder in Victorian educations of the eye. Objects drop out of an ever-changing order or catalogue of wonders and new ones move into it, and optical technologies and the visions they offer are instrumental in the evolution of an emerging nexus of Victorian wonders. Through a case study of a popular nineteenth-century optical device, the magic lantern, I will show how multiple, diverse “wondering” perspectives gathered around a single, longstanding visual machine. The magic lantern may be described as a technology of wonder. While its mechanism is not often an object of wonder, the lantern’s show is; the instrument is figured as generating or producing wonder, and, as literary analogy or metaphor, becomes a shorthand for describing wonder and visual (mis)understanding also.

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. [6] Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park describe an old order of wonders, including exotica, mythical and hybrid species and freaks of nature, falling out of favour with cultural elites at the Enlightenment, circa 1750, and either drifting to the margins of society to be valued with crude superstitious wonder only by the uneducated, or re-categorised and assimilated into burgeoning scientific discourses (343). [7] Daston and Park propose that wonder’s relationship with curiosity allows it a continued place in Modern science, but only in a new sanitized, “learned” (346) form, distinguished by “hard work and exacting observation” (345; emphasis mine). [8] Other recent commentators on the distinction between mysticism and rationality in the long nineteenth century, writing on subjects from medicine to electrical science and telecommunication, offer more fluid accounts of the relationship. [9] They suggest that the conflation of modernity with “disenchantment” has tended to sideline nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences and magic. Such critics figure themselves as “archaeologists,” excavating Victorian cultural practices and ideas that originally occupied a prominent middle ground, but that have been pushed aside or “buried” because they somehow did not fit the picture of a “disenchanted” Modern world. The implication is that, without an understanding of these apparently marginal areas, our map of the fabric of Victorian society has been distorted. Such “archaeologies” suggest that showmanship and sensation appeal to science “proper,” and that, conversely, serious science draws on methods of spectacular entertainment, raising the possibility that the two, apparently antithetical, poles may converge at some point. This restored context allows us to explore the possible enchantments of technology itself. I am interested here in the ambiguous hinterland between these positions: the popularisation of optical science and technology for the “vulgar” masses by members of the scientific elite. Someone like David Brewster may thus be understood as a player in this middle ground. 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. It is this middle term, between outright superstition and outright disillusionment, a volatile, slippery zone, which I am identifying here as a particularly Modern nexus of wonder and wonders.

Although Letters on Natural Magic comes from the side of “serious” science, it shares with the showmen an interest in spectacle, which will help us to understand the place of optics, and in particular the magic lantern, in this regard. Brewster’s text is explicitly marked as popularising: it was produced on Sir Walter Scott’s suggestion, as a follow up to Scott’s commercially successful Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Addressed to J. G. Lockhart (1830), a popular history of witchcraft written with a view to dispel superstition. Both works were published as part of John Murray’s Family Library series (1829-34) that aimed to provide quality new works, not reprints, for a wider middle-class market, at the affordable price of 5s a volume. [10] The transition from an “ignorant” to a “learned” wonder promised to the popular readership [11] of Letters On Natural Magic is particularly dependent on a visual education, a “not only amusing but a useful occupation” (Brewster, Letters 11). It will liberate the reader from misunderstanding, “the delusions which the mind practises upon itself” (Brewster, Letters 11), and those conjured by “the dexterity and science of others,” (Brewster, Letters 11) who would deliberately mislead and deceive the uneducated. This “visual education” variously entails: an education via the eye, a familiarisation with the appearance of optical illusions and phenomena; an education of the eye, training of visual perception; [12] and an education on the eye, a new understanding of the eye’s mechanism and its defects. Importantly, knowledge of the eye’s mechanism is part of a corrective educated wonder; natural phenomena are not dissipated, but supplemented by simultaneous understanding of the illusions as benign, artless “natural magic.” In effect Brewster argues that accidents of perception ought to be conceded and taken seriously, for otherwise they will open the way to exploitation.

During his career in optical science, Brewster famously invented the kaleidoscope (1816) and developed and popularised Sir Charles Wheatstone’s stereoscope (1849-50), [13] so it is pertinent that all three facets of the visual education proposed in Letters On Natural Magic are neatly encapsulated in the figure of the optical instrument:

[O]f all the sciences, Optics is the most fertile in marvellous expedients. The power of bringing the remotest objects within the very grasp of the observer, and of swelling into gigantic magnitude the almost invisible bodies of the material world, never fails to inspire with astonishment even those who understand the means by which these prodigies are accomplished.

Brewster, Letters 5; emphasis mine

The “marvellous expedients,” the devices or means of investigating wonderful objects are, by implication, the telescope and microscope here. The tools of a “learned” wonder, they at once educate the observer on an external world via the eye, and self-reflexively instruct the viewer on the eye, the processes of vision. The processes are not only enhanced or extended via machines but are themselves analogous to the machines, “prodigies,” wonderful feats at the limits of a “natural” vision. In as much as the gaze is framed and visual attention channelled, usage of an optical instrument is arguably an education of the eye also. But the eye conspires with the device in generating an illusion, albeit a controlled one. The “astonishment” at optical wonders, experienced here “even” by those “who understand” them, introduces another kind of wonder, one that goes hand-in-hand with knowledge, an educated appreciation of, and/ or inspiration in, a sublime, majestic natural world. The controlled “deception” of an optical instrument may offer a corrective to ignorant wonder: for example, stars in the night sky may become the object of a learned investigative wonder seen via the telescope. [14]

Optical devices transform everyday objects into new objects of wonder also; for instance, seen anew under the lens of the microscope, a drop of water reveals a hitherto hidden world of wonderful microscopic life. [15] This everyday example makes clear the extent to which the device helps a process of demystification by taking on responsibility for causing the wonderful phenomena. Placing causality within the technology locates the wonder within a framework of thoroughly referenced, mechanical understanding. This applies also to optical devices that do not have the primarily scientific function that telescopes and microscopes obviously have. Brewster devotes a notable portion of Letters on NaturalMagic to divesting optical devices, such as mirrors and the magic lantern, of their power to delude or inspire ignorant wonder via detailed explanation of their apparatus and effects. The importance of this move is two-fold: the same machines that may keep the masses in a state of mystification may work in the service of enlightenment also.

Optical devices of the everyday—toys and tools found in a middle-class home—are thus recruited for the purposes of science, as part of a popular nineteenth-century education on sight and the eye. [16] As reflected in the frontispiece of Brewster’s popular 1831 A Treatise on Optics this education does not attempt to completely disallow optical technologies’ power to enchant, rather it encompasses the pleasurable, entertaining aspect of illusion within a fully rationalised, scientific narrative. The vignette features a group of cherubic figures using optical devices: a mirror, magic lantern, telescope, and kaleidoscope. The scene is set in a typical nineteenth-century drawing room where family optical toys would have been kept; it features a draped table and heavy curtains with a pelmet decorated with swags of material. [17] Originating in Italian Renaissance art, putti are angelic figures belonging to heavenly orders and classical secular figures of romantic and erotic love, mirth and leisure. There was a major revival of putti in nineteenth-century painting, illustration and advertisements. The introduction of putti playing with optical toys into this contemporary domestic scene represents a bridge between worlds of popular religion and secular science—domesticity and metaphysics. The pair of figures by the window observes a rainbow—a classic figure of Biblical, philosophical and scientific wonder—with telescopes. [18] Other devices are more frivolous: the figure with a hand-mirror admires his reflection as he drapes himself with a swathe of cloth, and the group playing with a magic lantern look at a projection of theatrical characters, Harlequin and Columbine. The two light sources in the image, the window and magic lantern, present a dialectic between the natural and artificial, or truth and illusion. Tempered by understanding, optical toys and shows occupy a middle ground as domestic playthings and objects of scientific instruction. The domestic setting of this vignette implies the need to disseminate optical education of the sort offered by Brewster as deep into everyday practice as possible. The inclusion of the putti characterises this education as a recuperation of the old order of mystical illusions for a pedagogical end. [19] But does this move potentially allow the “genie” of superstition back out of the bottle? How far is popular optics’ relationship with the world of optical entertainment a boost or a threat to its rational scientific status? And to what extent is the “vulgarity” of superstition or mystification confined to the lower or less well-educated classes?

Figure 1

Frontispiece to David Brewster, A Treatise on Optics, London: Longman & Co, 1831. Image reproduced by kind permission of University of Reading Special Collections Service

Frontispiece to David Brewster, A Treatise on Optics, London: Longman & Co, 1831. Image reproduced by kind permission of University of Reading Special Collections Service

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The Magic Lantern: a “Universal Favourite”

The magic lantern is a particularly interesting example of this convergence of science, mysticism and spectacle. A figure of the new Modern magic entertainment industry, its illusions were understood and consumed as technological shows rather than the result of supernatural conjuring. Developed in the seventeenth century by Athanasius Kircher as a tool of theatrical illusions and magical apparitions, [20] and associated with the macabre phantasmagoria shows of the eighteenth century, the magic lantern took on new popular currency in the nineteenth century as a pedagogical tool. It was used to illustrate public talks on a range of subjects including history, science, the empire and Christianity. Adopted by professional and amateur lecturers alike, the magic lantern was not just an educative example to contemplate as in Brewster’s texts; operating the device demanded a new kind of technical instruction. A review of the second edition of The Art of Projecting (1888) in Manufacturer and Builder comments:

The great convenience offered by the magic lantern and its congeners for illustrating a lecture or discourse, as well as the elegance and satisfactory nature of this mode of demonstration as a means of imparting instruction and affording entertainment, has made them universal favourites. They may almost be said to have called into existence an army of lecturers, and to have created a new profession.

Rev. of The Art, 23

This review presents a common technology informing new developments in pedagogical practice, indeed producing a new generation of teachers. At the same time as it was being newly used in lecture theatres, the magic lantern was becoming a popular family entertainment and children’s toy. In the first years of the nineteenth century, itinerant “galantee” showmen travelled the country with lanterns giving shows in the places they stopped. But as magic lanterns became cheaper and easier to buy and Victorian popular science rendered optical toys a suitable past-time, people began to create lantern shows for themselves at home. In turn, the lantern’s success as a home entertainment brought the study of popular optics increasingly within the domestic sphere. Judith Flanders notes that by the mid-nineteenth-century, “[w]ith more widespread prosperity, improved manufacturing processes and falling real costs, toys became more ubiquitous,” (Flanders, The Victorian House 150) and she details a toy magic lantern as being amidst the play things kept in a well stocked toy-cupboard of the period. Flanders writes, “[a]s with children’s growing numbers of toys, adults’ possessions had multiplied too. More and more objects began to accumulate from the 1860s, becoming a deluge of ‘things’” (The Victorian House 151). The magic lantern also belonged among a long list of functional, ornamental and miscellaneous objects to be found covering the surfaces and shelves of the drawing room, the public face or “show room” of the Victorian house (The Victorian House 151). Early slides were hand painted. Photographic slides, first developed in the 1850s, were widely available by the mid-1870s and had a huge pedagogical impact. [21] Popular slide subjects in domestic and public shows included comic scenes featuring nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters, scriptural history, views of buildings and landscapes, and, importantly for this article, scientific studies of astronomical features and objects of natural history. [22]

Figure 2

Lecturer’s magic lantern. Courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services (Bill Douglas Centre)

Lecturer’s magic lantern. Courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services (Bill Douglas Centre)

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Figure 3

Enamelled toy magic lantern. Courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services (Bill Douglas Centre)

Enamelled toy magic lantern. Courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services (Bill Douglas Centre)

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Figure 4

“The Method of Using the ‘Phantasmagoria’ Lantern,” The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use it, By “A Mere Phantom,” London: Houlston & Sons, 1866, 20. (c) British Library Board. All Rights Reserved, 8715.aa.22 [23]

“The Method of Using the ‘Phantasmagoria’ Lantern,” The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use it, By “A Mere Phantom,” London: Houlston & Sons, 1866, 20. (c) British Library Board. All Rights Reserved, 8715.aa.2223

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Readily available for purchase in opticians’ shops, the popularisation and domestication of the lantern was marked, and nurtured, by a proliferation of new users’ manuals to the device. [24]The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use it, By “A Mere Phantom” went into a second edition by 1880 due to popular demand and developments in lantern technology. Reviews printed in the back of this second edition from The Athenaeum, Popular Science Review and a personal recommendation from Sir David Brewster reflect the book’s middle- to upper-class audience, and, more importantly, the lantern’s dual association with leisure and a scientific education. Brewster is quoted as saying “It is the most complete treatise with which I am acquainted, and cannot fail to have a wide circulation.” [25] This democratization of the technology that is now available for any paying customer has apparently had a significant role to play in the scientist’s plan to lead the masses from an “ignorant” to a “learned” wonder. However, the lantern’s changing role in Victorian culture was not so clear-cut. Like Letters on Natural Magic, The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use it concerns itself with the exploration and “exorcism” of certain optical “ghosts.” The second edition devotes a section entitled “The Ghost!!” [26] to explaining the optical apparatus and technique involved in creating the theatrical illusion known as “Pepper’s Ghost.” The effect, which involved a magic lantern light source, plate glass and hidden “mirror room,” was developed by Henry Dircks and John Henry Pepper at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, and could make objects and figures seem to appear and disappear. [27] It was premiered at the Institute on Christmas Eve 1862 in a production of Dickens’s The Haunted Man performed in a lecture hall. Importantly, Pepper had first planned this theatrical demonstration of his “ghost” as

a prelude to a lecture on optics, but the tumultuous applause persuaded him to keep the “ghost” a theatrical secret, and Pepper’s Ghost drew a quarter of a million visitors to the Polytechnic in the next fifteen months, as well as making spectral appearances in theatres across the country, suitably licensed by Pepper.

Flanders, Consuming Passions, 272

Pepper evidently saw the greater commercial possibilities of keeping audiences in a state of ignorant wonder of his “ghost”—maintaining its sensational appeal rather than enlightening audiences with a scientific optical explanation. The fact that this lantern effect started life as a scientific demonstration (albeit a theatrical one), and then became pure spectacle, reflects a reversal of the neat progressivist account of the technology’s development charted by Brewster. That the magic lantern can go both ways—high to low, low to high—reflects a middle ground in Victorian culture that is persistently middling, rather than a quickly superseded stage in a straight teleology toward absolute rationality and disenchantment.

Figure 5

“The Magic Lantern in its Application to the Modern Method of Raising a Ghost,” The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use it, By “A Mere Phantom” London: Houlston & Sons, 1866, Title page, (c) British Library Board. All Rights Reserved, 8715.aa.22

“The Magic Lantern in its Application to the Modern Method of Raising a Ghost,” The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use it, By “A Mere Phantom” London: Houlston & Sons, 1866, Title page, (c) British Library Board. All Rights Reserved, 8715.aa.22

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In its preamble to revealing the trick of the “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion, the lantern guidebook aligns itself with the enlightenment agenda of “pure” optical science:

The days of witchcraft and sorcery are happily past; and when in this nineteenth century any phenomenon savouring of the inventions of romantic fiction gains the public ear, explanatory suggestions, based on known principles of science, are immediately forth-coming, and the mystery is soon solved.

The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use It, 2nd ed. 93

Yet despite this professed allegiance with scientific rationality, the handbook itself describes how the lantern can be used to mystify audiences at home. For instance, the result produced by “dissolving” a black-and-white photographic image into a coloured version of the same picture seems “[t]o the uninitiated […] truly magical” (The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use It, 2nd ed. 87; emphasis mine). This is a trick with which to impress and dazzle your less technological friends. The lantern technique involved becomes a new sort of mystery: it is “classed among the ‘things not generally known.’” (The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use It, 2nd ed. 87). But mystification is not pernicious here: though the spectators do not understand the precise mechanism, they do understand the dissolving view illusion as a product of the technology. The narrative of increasing popularisation of the lantern and dissemination of optical know-how is countered by one of persistent ignorance. The domestic population itself is divided into experts and non-experts. And the latter are needed to complete the spectacle of the show.

Describing the history of the “dissolving view” effect, another manual, The Magic Lantern; Its History and Effects (1854), reflects on this process of division of the populace into knowledgeable-operators and uninitiated audience:

When dissolving views were first introduced the method of producing them was for some time kept secret, and the effect on the spectators was greater than it is at the present day, since their admiration was not alloyed by knowledge,—for there is no doubt that one of the great charms of optical and conjuring experiments lies in the mystery which attaches to them. Few persons care about seeing conjuring tricks when they know how they are done; we may, however, take away the element of wonder from dissolving views without destroying our admiration of them.

22; emphasis mine

Untouched, ignorant “wonder” allegedly produces a purer “admiration” of optical illusions. “Knowledge” moderates pleasure and “alloy[s]” the sensational “charms” of magical entertainments by dissipating their “mystery” and secrets. “Admiration” may persist in understanding, but in terms of pleasure, it is lesser than wonder. This handbook promises a technical education that will ensure lantern effects delight but do not delude—a disenchanted enchantment or enchanted disenchantment [28]—but still, knowledge’s gain is pleasure’s loss here.

Childish Wonder: the Pleasures and Perils of a Visual Education

No matter how many new “experts” are created by the proliferation of domestic magic lanterns and handbooks, a non-expert audience is continually needed to complete the show. A key model for this hierarchy is adult/ child: children present an understandably unknowing portion of the educated classes, authorised to experience wonder. [29] This goes a long way to resolving the class issues surrounding notions of susceptibility to enchantment—children of the middle- and upper-classes are forgiven flights of superstitious wonder and technological ineptitude—this kind of “ignorance” is treasured even. Throughout the nineteenth century, in its capacity as both a pedagogical tool and entertainment, the magic lantern was particularly associated with the child and children’s birthday and Christmas parties. Indeed, The Magic Lantern How to Buy and How to Use It provides an entire “Chapter for Children.” [30] Across science and literature, of all the marginal groups held at risk of superstition and ignorant wonder, the child is figured as persistently in need of a visual education—as one generation of children mature into “rational” adults, another “vulnerable” generation comes up behind them. Daston and Park propose an adult/ child hierarchy as a model for the changing place of wonders and wonder:

[N]ostalgia for an age of wonders, supposedly snuffed out by an age of reason, is rooted in an image of Enlightenment as the cultural and intellectual analogue of the transition from childhood to adulthood. To believe in wonders and to experience wonder are on this interpretation akin to the lost pleasures of childhood, which depend on an ignorance whose euphemism is innocence.

Daston & Park, 361

If the Modern adult “believe[s] in wonders” and indulges in the “lost pleasures” of wonder, it is akin to a regression to childhood, then. But with society’s approval to “wonder,” the child may experience enchantment for the adult—who shares the pleasure by proxy. In William Makepeace Thackeray’s comic Punch article, “Child’s Parties: And a Remonstrance Concerning Them,” (1849), Mr. Spec [31] describes the magical entertainments presented at juvenile parties:

At those houses where the magic lantern is practised, I still sometimes get a degree of pleasure, by hearing the voices of the children in the dark, and the absurd remarks which they make as the various scenes are presented […]—it is certainly not unpleasant to hear the “o-o-o’s” of the audience, and the little children chattering in the darkness. […]

As for the conjuror, I am sick of him. There is one conjuror I have met so often during this year and the last, that the man looks quite guilty when the folding doors are opened and he sees my party of children, and myself amongst the seniors in the back rows. He forgets his jokes when he beholds me: his wretched claptraps and wiggeries fail him: he trembles, falters, and turns pale.

[…] I should be glad to admire them if I could; but how do so? When I see him squeeze an orange or a cannon-ball right away into nothing, as it were, or multiply either into three cannon-balls or oranges, I know the others are in his pocket somewhere. I know that he doesn’t put out his eye when he sticks the penknife into it: or that after swallowing (as the miserable humbug pretends to do) a pocket-handkerchief, he cannot by any possibility convert it into a quantity of coloured wood-shavings. These flimsy articles may amuse children, but not us. I think I shall go and sit down below amongst the servants whilst this wretched man pursues his idiotic delusions before the children.

155-56 [32]

Mr. Spec seemingly follows rationality out to its hard cold extreme; from his point of view, the “humbug” conjurer and his show are indeed vulgar, the magic tricks “idiotic delusions.” The children’s enchantment is important here as a counterpoint to his claim to be disenchanted. The cynical Spec does not dismiss the show out of hand, but the only pleasure left in the magic lantern for him is drawn vicariously from the children’s reaction to it, their “o-o-o’s” of amazement. In Spec’s nostalgia for the children’s naive innocence, the child provides a proxy identity from which he can enjoy the entertainment.

This vicarious pleasure in the child’s wonder depends upon a persistent gap in the child’s understanding of the magic lantern’s technology and show: hence, while the child is commonly figured as standing in need of a visual education, practical instruction is often deferred or the child is presented as a poor technician. [33] Some texts are less happy to hand understanding of the magic lantern over to the child at all. Childish wonder affords pleasure, but a fanciful imagination unchecked by reason bears heightened anxieties also—ignorance can cast even the domesticated nineteenth-century magic lantern as a figure of fear. In Marcel Proust’s, Swann’s Way (1913), the young Marcel is given,

a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come: in the manner of the master-builders and glass-painters of gothic days it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted, as on a shifting and transitory window. But my sorrows were only increased, because this change of lighting destroyed, as nothing else could have done, the customary impression I had formed of my room, thanks to which the room itself, but for the torture of having to go to bed in it, had become quite endurable.

16; emphasis mine

The lantern is a figure of the uncanny here, it disquietly makes the familiar strange, and thus the nervous Marcel even more fearful. This strangeness is in part due to the lantern’s connection with a certain past, a medieval “gothic” world of “legends” and superstitious passions; viewed via an unschooled childish wonder, the rationality of the nineteenth century slides away, and the lantern’s coloured lights are once more “supernatural phenomena.”

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), a nervous, unhappy child, suffered similar paroxysms of terror in the face of the magic lantern. In her autobiography (1877) she describes first being terrified by the device at a phantasmagoria show at the age of four or five, where a slide of Roman goddess of wisdom Minerva and her owl, so like her “nightmare dreams” (121), caused her to shriek aloud and hide in the lap of “[a] pretty lady” (121) who sat next to her. Martineau’s Household Education (1848) expounds the theory that a childhood training of the senses, particularly hearing and sight, is instrumental to promoting enlightened freedom and rationality. As we will see, Martineau, a sickly child and adult herself, figures illusion, at least a superstitious belief in it, as a kind of bodily disease. She explains the primacy of vision to childhood experience: “life is for them [children] all pictures. Everything comes to them in pictures” (Household Education 228). According to Martineau, immediate vision and perception with understanding are distinct, but interlinked via growth—if visual training is stinted in childhood it may have later repercussions for the adult’s capacity for rational thought. [34] Like Proust’s young Marcel, Martineau describes her childhood fear of reflections from a coloured glass window, cast by the lamp lighter’s torch, which she regarded as “a sort of imps” (Household Education 98). She explains how her fears lay in ignorance, the result of something lacking in her visual education:

[A]s I never told any body what I felt, these fears could not be met, or charmed away; and I grew up to an age which I will not mention before I could look steadily at prismatic colours dancing on the wall. Suffice it was long after I had read enough of Optics to have taught any child how such Colours came there.

Household Education 98-99; emphasis mine

Martineau’s embarrassment that her “childish” terror of shadows and projections persisted beyond her earliest years is palpable in her wish to “not mention” the age at which she finally outgrew them. She shoulders much of the blame for this situation herself; she did not share her fears to have them explained away by adult knowledge and rationality at the propertime. The impact of this want in her visual education, is reflected by the point that when understanding does come, almost too late, it is insufficient to immediately quell her nerves, which persist irrationally, “long after” she has read the principles of optics. The fact that the adult Martineau now professes to be ready to rationalise the presence of such reflections for “any child,” figures a visual education as a common childhood necessity and right.

Martineau, then, supports and complicates Sir David Brewster’s unequivocal message that an optical education can transform mystification to rationality. According to Martineau, rationality’s power as a “cure” for ignorant wonder is not complete; it depends upon a visual education being administered at the proper time in childhood. Martineau’s fear of magic lantern shows persisted into her teens, much to her own intense “shame” (Household Education 91). Aged thirteen, in charge of a group of younger children, she swooned before a magic lantern projection of “a dragon’s head, vomiting flames” (Household Education 91):

I used to see it [the magic lantern] cleaned by daylight, and to handle its parts,—understanding its whole structure; yet, such was my terror of the white circle on the wall, and of the moving slides, that, to speak the plain truth, the first apparition always brought on bowel-complaint.

Autobiography 119; emphasis mine

Martineau’s contrast between the familiar, everyday machine and its eerie show is sharp, although her technological understanding of the simple machine cannot dissipate her irrational alarm. Indeed, the measure of her upset emotions is marked by their physical manifestation as a nervous “bowel-complaint.” These panics are “a matter of pure sensation, without any intellectual justification whatever” (Martineau, Autobiography 119); ignorant wonder is particularly corporeal here, apparently detached from cerebral faculty; its grip cannot be loosened by reason. This fear of wonder itself figures it as a bodily disease. As an educated, middle-class, young woman who ought to be rational, Martineau appeals to compulsion to explain her backsliding or regression to fearful wonder. In other words, once rationalism has been established but does not progress forwards as expected, the situation is pathologised. Martineau’s wonder must be a sickness because superstition and mystification are supposed to be outgrown with childhood.


So, for Mr. Spec, the child is a convenient proxy identity from which he can enjoy naïve wonder, one he can pick up and put down at will; but for Proust and Martineau, the child and childish wonder are something more intimate and lasting, something within themselves they cannot get rid of or command. These different relationships to the child seem to correspond to different attitudes to the economy of wonder and mystification: can it be efficiently managed, sanitized and reclaimed for science and pedagogy, or does it retain a degree of autonomy from reason? Victorian parlour toys like the magic lantern successfully reached out to a wider, popular audience of laymen and children, bringing the study of popular optics increasingly within the domestic sphere. But science’s ploy of inculcating scepticism of the “old,” supernatural magic, by replacing superstition not with hard, cold rationality, but with a pleasurable illusion, proved somewhat of a gamble. As long as secular versions of illusion retain sensational appeal, the glamour or fascination of a frisson of mystification, enlightenment rests on a knife’s-edge. The power of visual education to reform and quiet old superstitious fears is not infallible, or as sure as scientists like Brewster would have us believe. When training of the senses is mistimed or incomplete, popular optics’ apparently happy marriage with the world of optical entertainment is undermined, and toys like the magic lantern become more of a threat than a boost to scientific rationality. Reassessing this relationship, a Modern nexus of wonder and wonders emerges which functions on a sliding scale between mystification and positivism, a cultural middle ground haunted by the threat of old superstitions.

Parties annexes