How did the growth of spiritualism in the nineteenth century inspire German novelists? The next lecture in the Ghosts: The Evidence of Spirits series will see Professor Nicholas Saul talk about the ‘cult of the spirit’ during a period of perceived cultural crisis. Everyone is welcome to come on Tuesday 19th January at 18.30, in Elvet Riverside 140.
With the advent of Darwinism and the triumph of exact science in the latter half of the nineteenth century, German society faced religious and cultural crisis. In the re-established Empire the received religious truths embodied in the master narrative of the Bible had been usurped by the new master narrative of The Origin of Species, the dethroning of humankind from its supremacy over creation, and the materialistic struggle for existence. Thus the new American movement of spiritualism answered German needs. It seemed to offer objective evidence of spirit interventions and manifestations, so that the demands of science were satisfied, and the cherished doctrines of afterlife could re-emerge in a form apparently legitimated by the new epistemological authority. But what actually emerged was desire – the desire to deny loss and replace the lost in a newly-threatening world.
In a series of late nineteenth-century Wilhelmine novels the cult of the spirit was gradually unmasked as the need to believe in illusion itself, and that need was eventually identified with an Orphic and Pygmalionic vision of the artist as secular priest. The scene was set for modernist aestheticism. And spiritualism becomes a cipher for an Empire based on denial of the death of the past.
This series of lectures is organised as part the Institute of Advanced Study’s year on the theme of ‘evidence.’ Future lectures will look among other things at John Keats’s shadows, witches in medieval Europe, and gothic cinema; full listings can be found at the Institute of Advanced Study. Podcasts from the first lectures in the series are available now.