Saturday, January 5, 2013

Spectropia - Mirage and Ghost Stories at the Morbid Anatomy Library: Guest Post by Laetitia Barbier

I am very pleased to introduce the first of what I hope will be many guest posts by Morbid Anatomy Library intern Laetitia Barbier; she has been working with us on and off over the past few years, and has just returned to America to finish her dissertation for The Sorbonne on painter Joe Coleman.

Laeti will be writing a series of short articles for this blog based on her favorite books in the Morbid Anatomy Library; following is her first:
While helping Joanna with the post-Hurricane Sandy library unpacking, I recently stumbled upon this incredible book. Squeezed between larger volumes of the vast “Death and Art” section, this amethyst-colored booklet was so thin that its title was almost impossible to read. Spectropia or the Surprising Spectral Illusions Showing Ghosts Everywhere and of any Colors” - A rather theatrical headline, rendered on the front cover in a multiple typography layout evoking 19th century entertainment posters. The pamphlet cover is also illustrated with a silver, almost invisible hooked nose ghoul, pointing an accusative finger at an even more invisible target. In good condition, the book is in fact a recent facsimile of a Victorian era manual. Its author, J.H. Brown, a complete stranger to me, published it 1864 both in England and in America.

Spetropia - What does it mean? I was both amused by this obscure neologism, and by the idea that the ghosts mentioned in the title did, apparently, not suffer any constraints of space, time or even hue - 'everywhere and of any colors. ' If omnipresence could be a common aspect of spirit's nature, the concept of their polychromatic manifestations was obviously something very new to me and so far incredibly bizarre. It is only by reading the texts and shuffling through the pages of this book that the magical aspect of this treasure item revealed itself to me. 
Spetropia is no necromancy handbook, neither an history of Phantasmagoria spectacles as its macabre iconography might have suggested. It is, instead, an optical illusion manual, a toy book, a pure product of rational amusement. Spectropia in fact suggests that there is no need for a magic lantern operator to create frightening apparitions; your own eyes can serve as a substitute.

Dividing his book in several sections, Mr. Brown explains in his introduction a few simple facts about eye anatomy and their physiological specificities, and also on optic and chromatic learning, so that even young readers could understand that the experiment he proposes is not a metaphysical one, but truly rooted in science.

As he explains, the first step in this intriguing visual path is to pick out your own ghost from the sixteen large lithography plates--a pretty complex dilemma, as those Santa Muerte-like figures vie with each other in terms of amiable whimsicality, reflecting the minimal, almost naïve aesthetic preferred by Brown himself for practical purposes; at one point in the book, he apologies profusely for “the apparent disregard of taste and fine art” of his illustrations. Once your spooky companion is chosen, stare at it for about “a quarter of minute” and then move your eyes to a neutral, preferably white surface: a wall, a sheet of paper or, in my case, the ceiling of the Morbid Anatomy Library. Subsequently, the monochromatic monsters will appear, floating in the air like phosphorescent silhouette, an afterimage produced by the persistence of vision for only few seconds on the retina. As Brown explains it, the illusion will be produced in the complementary color of its original paper doppelganger. For instance, if you were to select the purple hand image (5th down), you will be haunted by a yellow ghost whereas an extended focus on a green one (3rd down) will manifest into a flamingo pink apparition… Spectres, or so it would seem, are true dandies.
But beyond this fantastic imagery, Spectropia has another quite surprising particularity. Brown's main interest was, in fact, not to amuse a young audience; instead, very alarmed by what he called a “mental epidemic” and the superstitious zeitgeist of his era, Mr. Brown was an anti-spiritualist crusader, and his aim was to bring belief in communication with the deceased to an end. By showing through playful optical experiments how ghosts could be seen everywhere and of any colors, and according to demonstrable scientific principles, Brown's object was to demonstrate how the human mind could so easily and predictably be tricked by deceiving the senses.

A true scientific mind himself, who denies legitimacy to ''the follies of spiritualism,” Brown eventually offers a quiet poetic vision of the limits of his own rationalism when, in his anatomical expose, he describe the eye as “the most wonderful example of the infinite skill of the Creator.”
You can find out more about Laetitia Barbier by clicking here; you can read some of her articles about Parisian curiosities for Atlas Obscura by clicking here. You can find out more about this book--and order a copy of your own!--by clicking here. Very big thanks, also, to my sister Donna Ebenstein for gifting this book to me a number of years back.

All images are scanned from the book; click on image to see larger, more detailed versions.

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