PHANTASMAGORIA by Marina Warner (OUP 469 pp.)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
There are ideas which we half-conceive, squinting from corners of our minds, and Marina Warner is the poet-scholar who tells us what they are, and what are the connections between them. Frighteningly literate and well-informed, she isa writer whose whole point is that we read her going 'Yes...Yes...But...And?' in a perpetual delight at the intelligence on display and at the way she makes us smarter than we normally are in our need sometimes to disagree with her.
A companion to earlier books on fairy-story and the complex of ideas which surround them, and to doubles and the splitting of the self, Phantasmagoria is a meditation on what we mean by the soul in a secular age, and on the various technologies which seem to steal or imitate the spirit, so as to create an appearance of life. We live in mirrors and on video-tape and summed up in models of our DNA; we watch things that never could be on film, massacres of Orcs and Elves made more real than the deaths in the news. For earlier ages, there were mirages and mirrors, spirit messages and the slime of ectoplasm; at the edges of our culture there are lurching zombies and the garish dreams of Christian millenialists; Warner knows more than any of us about these things as a whole, and draws out connections thin but strong as spidersilk.
She is more at home with the Bible and Renaissance Art and the weird tales of German Romantics than with contemporary popular culture, but she gives the new and the commercial full attention when it strikes her as relevant. For someone who did not grow up with the works of Philip K. Dick at her fingertips, she has a clear sense of what he thought of as important. Often too, her grasp of the popular stops her being pompous - a discussion of zombies which might otherwise be all Jane Eyre and cognitive philosophy is anchored in the accessible by Night of the Living Dead and the calypso Zombie Jamboree.
The real nuisance of today was trying to post books to Jen in Korea and realizing that the cost was simply prohibitive...