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  • Plato's Ghost: Spiritualism in the American Renaissance
  • Matthew J. Dillon
Cathy Gutierrez . Plato's Ghost: Spiritualism in the American Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 218.

By turns fantastical and farcical, miraculous and morbid, the nineteenth-century phenomenon of spiritualism has led numerous historians on the quest to pin down its phantoms. Many have followed the reigning fashion in studies of spiritualism, choosing to focus on a single theme or geographic territory within this frustratingly amorphous movement and research it exhaustively. Cathy Gutierrez's recent contribution to the literature offers up a bolder, expansive vision that utilizes a history of ideas approach to chart the development [End Page 222] and transformation of several themes—memory, machines, marriage, medicine, and mind—as reimaginings of Platonic and Hermetic ideas within the religious history of spiritualism. Structured around these five interrelated, thematic essays, and graced by her erudite yet playfully accessible prose, Gutierrez's book is an essential rereading of the spiritualist phenomenon as "the religious articulation of the American Renaissance."

In her introduction, Gutierrez unpacks how spiritualism is best understood as the "religious articulation of the American Renaissance" in the sense that both are "enraptured" by the classical past, "seeking therein for advice about the present" (3). Yet this "double helix of time" is complicated by being enmeshed within contemporary concerns for progress and futurity. As a reaction to the exclusive and sharply dualistic salvation theologies of Calvinism, spiritualism absorbed and appropriated esoteric models of heavenly ascent and divine nature that helped to form and legitimate these notions of progress. "Plato's ghost" thus hovers as a Weberian "elective affinity" that characterizes spiritualist views on the nature of the soul, the cosmos, and even education. Spiritualism thus stands between postmillenialism and esotericism, attempting to answer a cultural ambivalence about time with religious answers.

In her first thematically oriented chapter, on "Memory," Gutierrez illustrates how two contrasting constructions of time—a progressive postmillenialism and a Victorian, death-centric preservation of the past—are illuminated in notions of memory and the afterlife, and argues that the preservation of the past ultimately disrupts notions of progress. Opening with a depiction of how the shift to an industrial economy and the aftershocks of the Second Great Awakening dually facilitated a more individualistic and feminine brand of religiosity along with increasingly intimate relations between mothers and kin, Gutierrez charts how the distancing of death from the home—into funeral homes and community cemeteries—leads to the rise of Victorian mourning practices and memorabilia. As these progressive forces remove the dead from the home, mourning culture itself elevates the practice of remembrance and suggests a general cultural anxiety about the past. Gutierrez then examines the notion of memory in relationship to the judgment of the soul upon death and the necessity of forgetting in the ascension through the heavens, and shows how both of these are in tension with a reimagined notion of embodied Platonic anamnesis that was circulating in the culture around the same time.

In her third essay, Gutierrez depicts how "Machines" were used to establish the objectivity of spiritualist claims of connection to the spirit world and how these objects creatively participated in the discourse surrounding the [End Page 223] cutting-edge science of the time: magnetism, electricity, and photography. As she describes it, "[animal] magnetism, like its Siamese-twin force electricity, was poised at the cutting edge of the future but was understood through the traditional constructs of the past"—specifically, a Hermetic cosmology imbued with the divine (52). After investigating the development of machine discourse from the notion of "medium as machine" to the development of machines designed by spirits or designed to objectivize them, Gutierrez sets off the real fireworks of this section: spirit photography. Adorned by the antispirit photographs of Edouard Buguet, the fraudulent spirit photographer who, once caught, distributed photos with vaporous devils strumming violins above the living, this section elucidates how the shift to photography entailed a shift in validity from sound to sight. As Gutierrez argues, objectivity became a property of the images, not the memories of the bereaved. Even more astutely, she recognizes that the dead jumping into photos exhibited a reversal of...


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