- Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists: Theories of Vision in Victorian Literature and Science by Srdjan Smajić
Srdjan Smajić’s fascinating study brings together two distinct literary genres—ghost stories and detective fiction—that are usually thought to have diametrically opposed epistemological bases and argues convincingly that both are informed by and in close dialogue with nineteenth-century theories of visual perception. Smajić demonstrates that, although the explanatory machinery of the supernatural tale depends on a conviction that “seeing is believing,” while the premise of the hyper-rationalist detective story is just the opposite (that the evidence of the senses is not to be trusted, or as Smajić terms it, “seeing is reading”), both types of Victorian tale depend upon the metaphorical primacy of the visual mode. The epistemological convictions of both genres, however, are complicated by the uncertainties and contradictions of the models of vision that they inherit and, in turn, further complicate: “Ghost and detective fiction implicitly or explicitly articulate the notion that vision, bluntly put, is a messy affair.… Is the ‘seat’ of vision in the eye or in the mind? How do optical illusions work? What is the difference between sensation and perception?” (4). The rest of the study carefully traces the shifting responses to these fundamental questions, furnishing fresh and insightful readings of both primary scientific and philosophical materials and such literary classics as The Moonstone (1868), Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin tales, and the Sherlock Holmes canon.
Part 1 treats the nineteenth-century ghost story, paying particular attention to the optical theory—the notion that images of ghosts are caused by tricks of visual perception or even by diseases or disorders of the optic nerve—and spiritualists’ attempts to respond to this widely forwarded hypothesis. As Smajić argues, Victorian ghost stories repeatedly invoke the optical theory as a possible explanation of events only to repudiate it: seeing is believing, these stories seem to insist, and the evidence of the ghost-seers’ senses must be taken at face value within the intradiegetic logic of the tales. This insistence is particularly striking given that, as Smajić shows, an alternative mode of seeing was vying for attention at the same cultural moment: the metaphysical mode of “inward eyesight” in Thomas Carlyle’s words, or as John Ruskin puts it, the “soul of the eye”—a sixth sense, or ability to access the spiritual realm in a direct and unmediated manner. Strangely enough, ghost stories themselves do not rely on this spiritualist rhetoric but instead insist upon the literal, bodily acts of vision of the ghost-seers they depict. While Smajić’s suggested explanation for this paradox—that ghost-story writers and supernatural investigators insisted upon corporeal acts of vision in order to have any hope of proving the existence of spirits to rational materialists—is convincing in and of itself, this section is the weakest part of his analysis. He claims that the alternative, non-corporeal model of vision we see in Carlyle and Ruskin is itself beset with contradictions, “not [End Page 221] least of which [is] its entanglement in corporeality” (45)—that is, its inability to move definitively away from the metaphors of bodily vision it means to attack—yet it is not at all clear that these contradictions troubled the authors of the “counter-retinal” (45) model or in any sense interfered with its coherent application. In short, the stakes of these tensions and paradoxes for modern exegetes of spiritualist texts, whether philosophical or ghostly, are not at all clear.
The second part of the study, which analyzes detective fiction, is much more successful in laying out the importance of its claims. In this section, Smajić turns to a later development in the epistemology of vision: the growing insistence that “the question of what happens when we misperceive is one that only tangentially concerns optics” (67). As he explains, “for Victorian epistemologists and philosophers of science such as John Stuart Mill, William Whewell, Herbert Spencer, and George Henry Lewes,… the problem has to do...