Fairies in the Garden

There have been a couple of prominent shows out of the US in the past year or so based around the work of what is sometimes called mentalism. Mentalism not in the philosophical sense of ideas being the basis of reality, but as a set of techniques based mostly on autosuggestion and hypnosis.

Derren Brown is to me easily the most proficient of the modern mentalists, and that short-changes him, because he has many other talents on top of mentalism. His TV and live shows must rate as some of the best and most thought-provoking entertainment available today, but unfortunately he's not well known outside of the UK, and his TV shows in Oz for example are consigned to pay TV, in unfriendly timeslots. But they've recently entered the US market, largely in response to shows such as The Mentalist, which rates in the top 3 shows in the country I think.

[To give you some idea of the colour in Brown's shows, he did a special called The Heist, where he used his mentalist skills to cause a group of conservative middle managers to rob an armoured car, without them even realising what was going on. Of course this was done under controlled conditions e.g. the armoured car and driver were props and actor.]

Brown also has a strong pedagogical emphasis to what he does, a passion for debunking fraudulent psychics and other charlatans. But he does it much more entertainingly than somebody like Richard Dawkins, pining for the days of the Enlightenment when Knights of Truth and Reason were in the saddle.

One of Brown's latest live shows (also broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK) speaks at one stage about Arthur Conan Doyle's (of Sherlock Holmes fame) embarrassing passion for spiritualism and fairies at the bottom of gardens. You can see the pictures that fooled Doyle in this post - the Cottingley Fairies. It seems almost incredible that these picture were taken seriously - the girls (Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths) only towards the end of their lives admitted the fairies were paper cut-outs supported by hat pins, and seemed amazed that people had ever believed them. But because Doyle was acknowledged as a brilliant man, and was world famous, they also felt too terrified to ruin him with potential embarrassment.

Brown's take on all of this is that people will believe what they want to believe. This was certainly true for Doyle.

I have a different response to all of this, which isn't about what people believe but rather about a sort of visceral reaction to that period in history. Every time I think about the 19th and early twentieth centuries the predominant thing in my mind is light. This was the time when electric light was being introduced, and as Paul Virilio pointed out in one of his books, the transformation this brought to the experience of life, particularly in the cities, has not been much thought about. We take for granted today the illuminated streets of a town or city at night, but before electrics things where much, well, darker. Night-life was a more unknown and mysterious world, with things lurking in the much darker and more prevalent shadows - in fact shadows were the main game, interspersed with pockets of light from not very bright lamps. A film noir existence.

You can get all of that in the literature and stories of the time, with much of the impact of Jack the Ripper narratives for example relying upon the Stygian gloom out of which he emerged with flashing blade, only to then be swallowed again by the blackness. And it's not just the light, the very dark Victorian clothes and heavy furnishings of the Victorian home, with pockets of light from table lamps, were all part of this wider sense of darkness and light. To me it also has a feeling of the crypt about it, I can't look at Victorian images or films based in this time without somehow feeling that there's something funereal about it all. The darkness of the coffin and then of burial, there's a 'dust to dust' vibe about it all which always evokes death for me.

So it seems hardly surprising that this was also the time when photography really started to take off. The Victorians loved photography, this art of light itself. And their images, like the fairies above, have a feeling about them of light escaping from the predominant sense of darkness and gloom, which was not just a limitation of the still maturing equipment being used. You can sense that to a Victorian a photograph was almost like an emanation, in the spiritual sense, rather than the predominant mental model we use for photography of it being some reproduction of the world.


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