Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

A Real Phantasmagoria: The Great Belzoni’s Show: Optical Uncanny

Optical Uncanny

Ruysch (outside his laboratory, looking through the keyhole): Diamine! Who’s been teaching these dead folks music that they thus sing like cocks at midnight? […] with all my philosophy I tremble from head to foot. It was an evil spirit that induced me to take these gentry in. I do not know what to do. If I leave them shut in here, they may break open the door or pass through the keyhole, and come to me in bed. Yet, I do not like to show that I am afraid of the dead by calling for help. I will be brave. Let us see if I cannot make them afraid in their turn.
– Giacomo Leopardi124
Haunted modernity was made by optics.
– Marina Warner125

In its trajectory, the phantasmagoria accompanies, as a kind of ambivalent visual correlative, the rise and crisis of modern Western reason—Locke’s camera obscura turned into a haunted room.126 As the Italian poet and philosopher Leopardi, writing a few years after Belzoni’s exhibit, in 1827, ironically suggests in the passage quoted above, once we let them in, it is difficult to get rid of mummies (or other irking “presences”). And yet, even if we try to keep them out, it is impossible to make sure that they would not pass through the keyhole—or the peephole. With his Real Phantasmagoria, Belzoni occupies a curious and somewhat counterintuitive position in the history of what Marina Warner has called “haunted modernity,” the paradox “that modernity did not by any means put an end to the quest for spirit, and the desire to explain its mystery.” “So, after the telescope and the microscope,” Warner writes, “bold optical technologies turned to communicating the inner workings of the mind, not retinal pictures or observations of the world. The magic lantern, dark chamber or camera obscura, mirrored the melancholic mind.”127

According to Terry Castle, the metaphorical evolution of the term phantasmagoria is revealing in another sense: once it has become part of our psyche, “the figure of the inward spectre-show... concealed a profound epistemological confusion... derived from the ambiguous notion of the ghost” as both real and unreal, at the same time dead yet alive.128 We may wonder what exactly is set in motion with the opening of Seti I’s burial chambers—not the first time such a desecration took place, of course, but symbolically, as we are concerned, the beginning of the mummy’s long journey in modern Western culture (fig. 34).

Its recurring theme is “a scene that cannot be described,” but it is nevertheless evoked and reproduced, time and again, provoking what we may call the eternal return of the (optically) repressed, “for the idle to gaze at, and for the serious to meditate upon”—as Charlotte Elizabeth writes in her 1833 description of a family visit to the mummy room in The Museum.129 In Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria, all the components of this ambivalent haunting come together: the mystery of Egyptian mysticism is revealed, in all its splendor, turned into a spectacle, and desecrated into a commodity—yet its aura is not entirely dispelled, on the contrary, only transmuted into a very physical virtual presence.

In this chapter and in our simulation, we have attempted to capture the ambivalent nature of the aura embedded in Belzoni’s phantasmagoric exhibit and emanating from the peculiar objects and relics displayed in the Wunderkammern at Egyptian Hall, or in the austere halls of the British Museum, with the rest of the Salt collection. We have also tried to show how our own digital technologies are involved in the regeneration and revelation of the past, producing an illusion that is the more powerful and deceptive as it is closer to the objects it pretends to reproduce. We can only conclude this case study with a telling portrait of Madame Belzoni, Sarah Bane, left to us by a visitor to her humble abode in Brussels a decade after her husband’s death:

The disconsolate companion of the most heroic of all modern travelers was still in faded weeds, and intently occupied in reading from a very fine folio Bible. A large coffin covered with hieroglyphics, stood open and up right before her—it contained the most perfect mummy perhaps in existence. The walls and floor of her little room were covered with fragments, drawings, and objects of Egyptian antiquity; on the table were several relics, deemed holy, in holy land, which once would have been purchased by the diadem of royal saints and imperial pilgrims, but which now derived their chief value in the eyes of their triste possessor as memorials of that all-enterprising mind whose researches extended into the womb of time, and rescued from oblivion evidences of many of the great and successive events which marked its passage to eternity.130

Perhaps this is the best definition of the aura possessed by the relics of the Belzoni collection, encapsulating in “the womb of time” and rescuing from oblivion, like their digital facsimiles, both the time immemorial of their “presence” on earth and the living memory of their “discoverer”—objects of wonder and curiosity, capable of triggering the most profound meditation and the most desecrating form of voyeurism. Nothing uncanny in this image of Madame Belzoni reading from the Bible, in the company of a mummy. Indeed, it should never be forgotten that we owe to her devotion, as the active custodian of her late husband’s legacy, the survival, and contemporary regeneration, of the Great Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria (fig. 35).

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