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Diacritics 30.3 (2000) 53-71

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Ghostly Politics

Jann Matlock


The failure of the Second Republic, as we know well, thanks to Marx, was a matter of ghostly politics.1 Successful revolutions succeeded—claimed Marx—in "waking the dead" in order to glorify the new struggles. Unsuccessful revolutions parodied, as in 1848, the old ones. The Second Republic failed to find again "the spirit of revolution" ("den Geist der Revolution"); instead, it made its "ghost walk about again" ["Der 18te Brumaire" 116].2

The "conjurations of the dead" ("Totenbeschwörungen") [115] of the failed Second Republic—and of the Second Empire, which crowned its disastrous experiment—were nowhere more apparent than in the obsession that swept France in 1853 within months after Louis-Napoléon declared himself Emperor in the spectral shadow of his great-uncle, as contemporary Louis Figuier described:

Suddenly—it was near the last days of April 1853—Paris woke up prey to the [Table-]turning epidemic, and the newspapers, which finally had to break the silence, informed us that [the epidemic] had simultaneously burst forth in Strasbourg, in Marseille, in Bordeaux, in Toulouse, and in all our other great population centers. For the public, it was, at first, only a simple amusement to which people everywhere surrendered themselves amidst great bursts of laughter. Pedestal tables [guéridons], [other kinds of] tables, hats, plates and washbasins—everything that was within reach—were called into service. Some people succeeded. Others—and these were the greater number—failed at the experiment; they accused the successful of deception [supercherie], and the successful, in their turn, accused the unsuccessful of failing to believe. "They turn; they donít turn": that summed up all the debates on this subject, and these were the only two terms through which, among the vulgar, the question of the tables was thrashed about. In our country, always quite frivolous about serious matters, though sometimes extreme in its credulousness and sometimes absurd in its skepticism, the tables were for the larger share of people only an amusement, only a way to kill time in society. Quarrels were frequent [End Page 53] on this subject. People denied. People confirmed. People laughed—when they were not losing their tempers.
Nevertheless, the phenomenon soon appeared to make progress, and this was quite another story. Not only did the tables turn, but they spoke and wrote; they rose up and held themselves in the air without any strings—or at least without any visible ones. The tables gave consultations, discovered secrets buried in the most profound mystery, put the world of the living in communication with the world of the dead, and finally, behaved in such a way to let people believe they were haunted by spirits [hantées par des esprits]. [294-95]

The Baron Du Potet, editor of the Journal du magnétisme, remarked in the summer of 1853 that "The tables are making one hell of a noise! —Enter into the porter's lodge, you'll see him make his table turn; go to the home of a judge, of a lawyer, of an archbishop even, and their tables are turning—after dinner, of course. It seems that they are even interrogating tables in palaces" [643]. Alexandre Erdan, author of an 1855 book on "the religious excentricities" of contemporary France, denounced the table turning as "a universal monomania" and declared it the "the characteristic event" of the year 1853, "that memorable period of universal mental estrangement" [71]. Daumier honored the trend in May and June 1853 with a series of a dozen caricatures called La Fluidomanie.3 Caricaturist Cham continued to ridicule its believers well into the year 1853 [Fig. 1].4 Louis Huart, author of a series of satirical articles in the opposition newspaper Le Charivari recounted a debate between two scholars on the subject: "Sir, are you for tables turning or for tables not turning," asked the first. The second replied, "It's all the same to me so long as the table is well served and it doesn't turn while I'm eating." Huart's conclusion, not dissimilar to that of most...


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