The Journal of the London Institute of ’Pataphysics, issue 12, dated February 2016, carries the text of ’Spirit’ Photography, a 1965 booklet that Simeon Edmunds wrote for the SPR. It was reissued in 1968 but has long been out of print and copies are now scarce, so it is a pleasure to see it made available once again, albeit in limited quantities. It is reproduced unabridged.
A journal devoted to ‘pataphysics may seem a curious vehicle for a dissection of spirit photography, but it is entirely appropriate. ‘Pataphysics is a philosophical term that was invented by the French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry in the 1890s, and is an attempt to blend art and science – going beyond metaphysics by generating ‘imaginary solutions’ (though solutions to what is intentionally left an open question), tendered in a playful though serious, often paradoxical, way.
Accompanying Edmunds’ critique is a translated essay by Giorgio Manganelli, "Disquisition on the Difficulty of Communicating with the Dead" (1972), the issue’s centrepiece. Manganelli was a member of the Italian avant-garde (or rather neo-avant-garde) Gruppo 63, and his ‘Disquisition’ fully conforms to what one might expect from a writer in that tradition. It cannot be regarded as a contribution to psychical research, yet his elaborate style has its own internal logic and attractiveness.
In addition the issue contains extracts from the séances in which Victor Hugo participated on Jersey (a subject covered in detail by John Chambers in Victor Hugo's Conversations with the Spirit World: A Literary Genius's Hidden Life), titled ‘Conversation with Death’; a short post-mortem communication allegedly from Oscar Wilde transmitted via Irish medium Hester Travers Smith, originally published in 1923; plus other articles which in true ’pataphysical style defy easy categorisation.
Manganelli’s elliptically poetic text is juxtaposed with Edmunds’ clinical analysis, duly blending science and art. Edmunds’ essay, described in the issue’s ‘Prolegomenon’ as ‘a classic investigation by the SPR’, has been illustrated with photographs produced by individuals he mentions (including leaves from the albums of images taken by Ada Emma Deane which are held in the SPR collection at Cambridge), as well as with the cover of the original 1965 booklet.
In keeping with the philosophy of ’pataphysics, the accompanying photographs shuttle between notions of the scientific, pseudo-scientific and aesthetic, amplifying Edmunds’ words and providing a focal point which is a reminder of spirit photography’s enduring fascination and, like the idea of ‘pataphysics itself, of how slippery its meaning remains.
Copies of the issue can be consulted at both the Society’s London library and in its archives at Cambridge University Library.