Soulful Phantoms

PhantasmagoriaPhantasmagoria is a most appropriate title for the book by Marina Warner that bears that single-word name. The back cover bears none of those helpful tags that give the reader a handle by which to categorize the book. The subtitle helps somewhat: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century. The book is about ensoulment. The popular rage among many academics is the exploration of embodiment—the times and trials and wisdom of having a physical body. (We all know it, but it is the scholar’s job to think about it.) Warner asks what soul stuff is and pursues this through many media: wax, air, clouds, light, shadow, mirror, ghost, ether, ectoplasm, and film. She’s not suggesting that souls are made of these things, but rather that people have used these media to explore what a soul might be. Apart from being a fine historical resource on these different avenues of exploration, individual chapters in the book focus on various artists, psychologists, parapsychologists, writers, and Scriptures. This makes for a fascinating, if challenging, exploration to undergo.

One of the topics that emerges in the discussion is how soul distinguishes itself from other unquantifiable aspects of being human: what is mind, for example. We can’t really define soul, but it is frequently differentiated from mind or personality, neither of which is particularly well understood. In an era when we’ve not so much ceased to ask these questions as sublimated them into various fictional realms, a book like Phantasmagoria is especially important. The reaction against materialistic reductionism is strong, if not empirically provable. We still flock to theaters to watch zombies on the screen, precisely because we too have become soulless. Romanticism had a place for Gothic sensibilities as well.

Along the way Warner makes a particularly apt observation that politics and entertainment have become difficult to distinguish. Thinking over the number of entertainers who’ve become policy makers, this is a particularly disturbing thought. We trust the media and it gives us entertainment. Most college professors make so little money as to be jokes when it comes to running a political campaign. Where your treasure is, as the saying goes. Media, in all the forms explored, has failed to capture the soul. The chapter on Revelation (the book) is truly spectacular, coming, as it does, in the section on film. It is the embracing of the chimera of the end of the world pieced together from various myths and nightmares that our political leaders find, in many cases, far too compelling. Someone like Warner might be a much better leader to trust, even if she is a scholar.

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