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Comparative Literature Studies 40.4 (2003) 450-452

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Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920. By Pamela Thurschwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, x + 194 pp. $54.95.

This book adds a new dimension to our knowledge of occultism and magical thinking (thinking that collapses time and space) in late 19th and early 20th century England. The author argues that deep-seated anxieties about gender and sexuality intersected with new distance-annihilating technologies and occult beliefs, holding out the promise of previously unimaginable contacts between people and fostering new ways of imagining intimacy that transgressed traditional boundaries of gender and class, and that even allowed the living to speak with the dead. Magical thinking was reflected in the literature of the period and helped spawn the new disciplines of psychical research (the scientific study of the occult) and psychoanalysis.

The Society for Psychical Research, formed in 1882, sponsored experiments in telepathy (a word coined that year) designed to find out how it worked. That the phenomenon existed was taken for granted. Telepathy inspired visions of instant communication, many of them erotically charged, and of utopias in which the "rich would have to think about the poor and the poor could telepathically share the privileges of the rich" (25). Mark Twain, Thomas Alva Edison, Rudyard Kipling (whose sister was a medium!), Henri Bergson, and Sigmund Freud were all interested in psychical research. The transgressive potential of telepathy led some people to link it with homosexuality. In the anonymous pornographic novel, Teleny (1893), for example, telepathy facilitates a "phantasmatic homosexual male sexuality based on narcissism and non-differentation" (35) between the narrator and Teleny.

Psychical researchers were intrigued by hypnosis and so was the reading public. By the 1890s, a hypnotist was a staple of popular fiction. In the best-selling novel Trilby (1894), the mesmerizing influence of a demonic Jewish musician, Svengali, turns an artist's model, Trilby O'Ferrell, into an opera star and his sexual slave. Thurschwell expounds on the anti-semitism in the novel, and in English society, but not on why Trilby has an Irish last name. Erotically charged fears of "hypnotic imposition" (one's mind could be taken over by another) and psychic "contagion" crystallized in the trials of the "hypnotic aesthete" Oscar Wilde for homosexuality, which was criminalized (for men) in 1895. So powerful was Wilde's alleged hypnotic [End Page 450] power, that he was sentenced to solitary confinement, lest he "infect" others.

For Henry James, consciousness took on the power of magical thinking. In the first of two chapters about him, Thurschwell shows that a homoerotic element (James's "obscure hurt") links his novel A Sense of the Past (1917) with his wartime propaganda essays, because the dynamic is similar: "the desire for complete immersion in a perceived community from which one is excluded, the worry that the immersion is impossible, the shame which ensues from this fear, and the excitement which ensues from the negotiation of a new and unusually eroticized community" (71). On one occasion, James burst into a luncheon party declaring, "My hands, I must wash them. My hands are dripping with blood. All the way from Chelsea to Grosvenor Place I have been bayoneting, my dear Edith, and hurling bombs and ravishing and raping." He then went on to say that it was his "daydreamto squat down," with the rulers of England, France, and Russia "on the Emperor William's belly until we squeeze out of it the last irrevocable drops of bitter retribution" (81). This is an unusual way of imagining intimacy, to be sure, but the violence of the preceding outburst cries out for comment. The handwashing reminds me of Lady Macbeth and suggests guilt, rather than the shame that Thurschwell stresses throughout this chapter.

In the next chapter, Thurschwell draws a parallel between James's novella, In the Cage, and his relationship with his long-time amenuensis, Theodora Bosanquet, and in doing so, limns the complicated power dynamics of class and gender between male writers and their female employees. The novella is about a nameless female...


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