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  • Bewilderments of Vision: Hallucination and Literature, 1880–1914 by Oliver Tearle
  • Ágnes Zsófia Kovács
Oliver Tearle. Bewilderments of Vision: Hallucination and Literature, 1880–1914. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic, 2013. 207 pp. $53.32 (hardcover).

For Jamesians, Bewilderments of Vision rings with the echo of Strether’s transforming adventure in Paris. In The Ambassadors bewilderment means an experience that forces one to reconsider one’s former notions of his relations to others, his place in the world. One pauses to review different possible interpretations of a sequence of impressions before making a decision on how to interpret them publicly. Bewilderments of Vision has nothing to do with Strether per se, as it maps out how five mostly little known authors used hallucination in their short stories between 1880 and 1914, but the title phrase is borrowed from James (25). “Bewilderment” is relevant here in a general sense: the book links hallucination to the experience of hesitation between different interpretations of a visitation by ghosts, so hallucination becomes a trope for a bewildered sense of ambiguity. From the perspective of Jamesians, then, the issue of hallucination in ghost stories will be linked to the problem of individual perception and experience James was engrossed with in other genres of fiction as well, as has been discussed lately in and on account of Henry James and the Supernatural (Reed and Despotopoulou 5, Pahl 8). Although authors other than James were writing similarly ambiguous ghost stories that also relied on established devices, such as the meta-text of Gothic fiction and the haunted house, they have not received sustained critical attention.

Bewilderments of Vision explores little-known ghost stories from before 1914 in which hallucination appears as a narrative ambiguity to be resolved. The book traces the rise and fall in the popularity of the theme with the help of contemporary documents. By the 1920s, the ghost story was an unpopular nineteenth-century genre, while hallucination had spread out of the ghost story and “infested” literature: Modernist literature and art would be its new home. As Virginia Woolf comments on ghost stories by Henry James in 1921:

[t]he stories in which Henry James uses the supernatural effectively are, then, those where some quality in a character or in a situation can only be given its fullest meaning by being cut free from facts. Its progress in the unseen world must be closely related to what goes on in this . . . [so] the ghost story, besides its virtues as a ghost story, has the additional charm [End Page E-15] of being also symbolical. . . . Henry James’s ghosts have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts—the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons. They have their origin with us.


The question arises why the ghost story and the theme of hallucination were so popular in the nineteenth century, and exactly what kind of experience hallucination carried when it was transferred to the Modernist text.

According to Tearle, hallucination is linked to the psychological aspect of the ghost story, which has not been sufficiently studied before. How did Robert L. Stevenson, Vernon Lee, Henry James, Arthur Machen, and Oliver Onions explore the potential of hallucination for representing psychological content before Modernism? The study answers this question in part by contextualizing the literary issue of hallucination, introducing the contemporary scientific discourse of hallucination the stories rely on. Tearle argues that the falling popularity of psychic science and the rise of psychoanalysis in the early decades of the twentieth century coincided with the decreasing interest in fictive ghosts and hallucinations.

The argument starts out by discussing late-nineteenth-century scientific definitions and uses of hallucination. The most important theorist of apparitions, Edmund Gurney, published his volume Phantasms of the Living in 1886, in which he analyzed real cases of hallucinations and proposed the possibility of hallucination among the sane. Gurney recognized the scientific need to find the blurred line between ordinary perception and abnormal perception (hallucination) and defined it as “a percept which lacks, but which can only by distinct reflection be recognized as lacking the objective basis which it suggests” (Tearle 10...


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