Literary Dimensions Seminar

Thursday, May 23, 2019
4:00pm to 5:00pm
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Dabney Hall 110 (Treasure Room)
Hands at a Séance: Manual Evidence in Victorian Spiritualism and the Ghost Story
Aviva Briefel, Professor of English and Cinema Studies, Bowdoin College,

Abstract: From the start of the Victorian spiritualist revival of the early 1850s, séance participants were haunted by spirit-hands, which provided palpable evidence of the supernatural. Spiritualism's manual fixation could in large part be ascribed to the fact that the hand in the nineteenth century had become a privileged signifier of various kinds of truth: of the superiority of the human over the animal, of evolution, gender, character, personal identity, and so on. Skeptics of spiritualism, however, challenged the truth-telling functions of spirit-hands by insisting on their fraudulence and uselessness. My presentation first examines the ways in which believers and skeptics addressed the redundancy of spirit-hands, and then moves on to discussing a mode of writing that took advantage of this redundancy to assert its own original approach to the supernatural: the ghost story. Focusing on Sheridan Le Fanu's "Ghost Stories of the Tiled House" (1863), I argue that the genre distanced itself from the self-referentiality of spiritualism to establish its own literary proprietorship over spectral hands.

For more information, please contact Cecilia Lu by phone at 626-395-1724 or by email at cecilial@caltech.edu.