Friday, October 1, 2010

Shane McCorristine's "Spectres of the Self"

Shane McCorristine is a cultural historian with research interests in spiritualism and psychical research in British culture, the literature of the supernatural, surrealism, and Arctic exploration during the Victorian period. He received his Ph.D. in History from University College Dublin in 2008 and since then has worked on research projects in Paris (Irish participation in Bourbon naval forces) and at UCD (history of Irish Victorian science). From October 2010, he will be a Government of Ireland CARA Postdoctoral Mobility Fellow at National University of Ireland, Maynooth and Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge for a period of three years.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750–1920, and reported the following:
I am delighted to report that the “Page 99 Test” has found one of the more representative pages in Spectres of the Self! My main hypothesis in writing the book was that the ghosts which haunt the modern world should be considered spectres of the self, that is, figures which are both more real and less real than the haunting ghost of traditional Western culture, clanking chains in an old castle. They are more real because they involve all the senses, they visit people in mourning, and they now appear on photographs and on the television. But they are less real in that for the past two centuries thinkers have been exploring the way in which it is the mind itself which must be considered a haunted entity – that it is the mind which projects the phantoms of its own production onto reality.

One of the recurring riddles in much thinking about ghosts in England was “why do ghosts wear clothes?” If the ghost was an objective reality why should it be wearing clothes, and why should it be wearing the very specific clothes that were associated with a deceased person? If the spiritualistic hypothesis was true, should the soul which has returned to visit the earth not be perfectly nude, ethereal, or at least clothes-less? On page 99 I was midway through a survey on the thoughts of prominent psychical researchers about the ghost clothes issue, when many held this phenomenon to be proof that ghosts were projections of the mind – the idea being that the ghost-seer “dresses” the ghost in the manner they remember.
For Myers, the theory that the percipient was in the position of the clairvoyant when hallucinating a telepathic impression explained the fact that there were no cases of naked ghosts: ‘it therefore would be strange if I phantasmally saw the dying man unclothed, – as I have never seen him in life; if he, in his last moments, pictured himself as he has never hitherto pictured himself in colloquy with his friends’. In this sense, the clothing of ghosts, along with their other material accruements, were to be understood as symbolic representations indicative of an effort at recognition or, as Gurney put it, the ‘ghosts of old clothes’…Podmore [] noted that most apparitions were clothed as the percipient was accustomed to see the agent clothed, and not, as we should imagine given the sheer number of crisis-apparitions reported, dressed in bed clothes or night-wear. He therefore believed that the agent did not transmit to the percipient any ‘superficial content’ of his consciousness, but rather ‘the underlying massive and permanent elements which represent his personal identity’, thus allowing the percipient’s imagination to conceive of such an impression through the signifiers of identity, namely clothing and other relics of selfhood.
Read an excerpt from Spectres of the Self, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University press website.

--Marshal Zeringue