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Stanford Report, May 10, 2000

Ghosts, seances and the Mausoleum explored in symposium on Gothic imagination

From the moment Terry Castle pulled her introductory remarks out of her sleeve, it was a symposium unlike many others.

"I'm calling up the spiritualist interests of Jane Stanford," Castle, the Walter Haas Professor in the Humanities and chair of the English Department, said at the start of "Spectres of Enlightenment: A Symposium on the Gothic Imagination" on April 28.

"It's an ectoplasmic manifestation of sorts," Castle added, as she continued to extract her notes, inch by dramatic inch.

Ectoplasm, ghosts, seances, miasma, pornography, fragments of antiquity, fascist phantasmagoria, the Stanford mausoleum and uncanny blackberries took a turn in the spotlight as 12 speakers from five disciplines addressed an audience of about 50 at the Humanities Center Annex.

Susan Dunn, associate director of the Humanities Center, had organized the symposium as a gathering for Stanford scholars "who are indebted to Terry Castle and her theorizing about the Gothic and the 18th century," but who rarely have an opportunity to talk with one another.

"It started out with a historical focus and then branched out to include people who are engaged with these ideas on a more imaginative level," Dunn said about the range of topics on the program. "In the end, I think it really had more to do with the materiality of the imagination."

Dunn also hoped the daylong discussion would challenge accepted norms about the look and texture of academic conferences.

"I wanted this to be an opportunity for people to try something different -- to maybe come in costume -- but it has been hard to break through the culture of how conferences ought to be," Dunn added.

Several speakers did rise to the challenge, including Sarah Burns, an art historian at Indiana University and a Marta Sutton Weeks Fellow at the Humanities Center, who sported a black scarf with spectral spider webs during her talk about the Gothic tropes of darkness and entrapment that are found in Civil War-era paintings. And another visiting scholar in the English Department -- Nick Groom, a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol -- donned dark glasses and tossed his shaggy mane to summon the ghost of Ossian, a legendary Celtic bard.

But it was hard to top Adam Casdin, a graduate student in the English Department, who drank a glass of water while delivering a disembodied introduction of classics Professor Michael Shanks. Casdin achieved his ventriloquial sleight of voice by slipping a tape recorder into a faux treasure chest near the podium during a coffee break.

British author and critic Marina Warner set the tone for the symposium with two keynote talks on April 27 and 28. In her Friday morning remarks, titled "Spirit Visions: Ectoplasm," she examined the 19th-century quest for invisible forces by looking at how several artists had portrayed moments of apotheosis and by speculating about why "some of the best minds of the last century" had dabbled in seances. Although she acknowledged that their efforts to "materialize the unseen" tend to "fill contemporary observers with astonishment," Warner argued that mediums of the late 1800s represented a "yearning for metaphysical dimensions" that can't easily be dismissed.

Alice Rayner, associate professor of drama, brought that message home in the concluding remarks of the day. In a talk about "The Stanford Memorial Crypt" that alternated between wry observations and thoughtful questions, Rayner suggested that unlike Shakespeare's Hamlet, the ghosts of Stanford are less metaphorical and "more real."

Noting the annual celebration of what originally was a memorial day for the birth of Leland Stanford Jr. but became "Founders' Day" after the death of Leland Stanford, Rayner asked, "Whose day is it? What exactly are we remembering?"

In the yearly cheerful reenactment, where staffers portraying Leland and Jane Stanford are greeted at the mausoleum by University President Gerhard Casper, Rayner suggested that "we have the effigy, both in words and reentombment, of whatever it is that Stanford in its history was and has become."

The university was "settled on the death of a child," Rayner added, and "the mother's grief and the father's guilt" also are part of that foundational memory.

"How do they creep into the institutional identity?" she asked. "Is it possible to say that the pragmatic research in the sciences, which seems quite strong here, has foundations in mourning? Is it possible that excellence itself, in itself, can be a tyranny?"

Between the bookends of Warner's keynote address and Rayner's concluding remarks, the range of topics reflected organizer Dunn's insistence on being imaginative -- from Shanks' description of the "dark side of the antiquarian imagination" to English Professor John Bender's look at pornography in 18th-century anatomical atlases.

Jeffrey Schnapp, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, showed how photographic images of crowds were manipulated in a semi-official party organ of 1920s Italy, La Rivista, and Lori Merish, a Mellon Fellow in the English Department, spoke about the "popular narratives of seduction" associated with the antebellum women workers in the Lowell, Mass., mills.

Alexander Nemerov, associate professor of art history, took a fanciful tack in his talk about a painting of blackberries by Raphaelle Peale. Noting the animation and uncanny positioning of the fruit, Nemerov suggested that the blackberries were "more lively than one would like one's berries to be."

Daniel Tiffany of the University of Southern California spoke about enigmatic 10th-century riddles about wine cups, bagpipes and quill pens that suggest "real bodies composed of unreal substances."

And in his discussion of Plato's tales of cosmic upheavals and the anarchy of the ages, Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian, raised at least one dissenting voice.

"Who needs Gothic when you have Greek?" he asked. SR