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Thursday, March 25, 2004

Bollettino

“The most remarkable letter came from a woman who signed herself Thérèse M***, who asked the Courrier des spectacles to call on women to join together to "unveil this madness and force her to appear for what she is, so that visible beauty no longer be humiliated by hidden ugliness." It seems that Thérèse's husband was so taken by this "spectacle held up as the triumph of [the female] sex" that he demanded that she make herself invisible, having no further communication with him except through acoustic horns protruding from a globe of glass. "You can easily imagine that a woman of 23, not badly treated by nature, would not accommodate herself with facility to such a condition," wrote the disconcerted wife. Nevertheless, she explained, she would give anything in the world to know this secret, for, she realized, "it is enough to be invisible, however ugly one is, to receive the most flattering compliments." – Jann Matlock, The Invisible Woman and her secrets unveiled.

We can’t do it. We can’t leave the discussion so up in the air.

Jann Matlock, like any good cultural studies theorist, has read her Benjamin, and her Ginzberg, and her Foucault. She is fortunate enough to work on French culture, especially the roots of modernity – which, for French scholars, are easy to trace. You go to the French Revolution, you go to Paris, and you read the papers. Perhaps this is how she found the marvelous Invisible Woman.

This is the layout of the Invisible Woman exhibit of 1800. Spectators file into a room in which a glass ball hangs from the ceiling. Four acoustic horns jut out of the ball pretty far. The spectators can listen, if they wish, to the voice that speaks through these horns. It is the voice of a woman. And the woman’s implicit and explicit claim is to be in the room.

In other words, an invisible woman.

The contrivance is as rich in dialectical possibilities as the Turkish chessplayer to which Walter Benjamin refers in the Theses on history. That chessplayer enters the canon of modernity via Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote a detecting essay about it. Benjamin, no doubt, found the essay through Baudelaire’s translation of Poe.

Just as that chessplaying automaton possessed a solution, so, too, the Invisible woman possesses a solution. Matlock quotes an anonymous demystifier:

“We know today how the show worked thanks to a number of texts published to capitalize on the popularity of this and similar shows. The most remarkable of these, a pseudonymous pamphlet of 1800, entitled "The Invisible Woman and her Secrets Unveiled," was most likely published by Robertson himself and sold to viewers of the rival show at Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois (fig. 5). Decrying the miracle of the Invisible Woman as deriving from "a puerility," the pamphlet proclaimed that its author had no scruples about dissipating "the marvel that fascinates the eyes of the blind multitude": "we believe rather that we should get credit and glory for giving the following recipe for effecting the false miracle that enraptures every day." 48 Anyone wishing to replicate this magic was directed to build an acoustic contraption in a room below another room connected only by a slit in the floor, explained the author of the pamphlet. One should then hang a glass box above the hole in the ceiling of the lower room to distract the public from the point through which they might be seen. "Place in the above room on cushions, so her movements make no noise, a girl who puts her eye to this oblong opening in the floor of her room so she can see the objects presented to her . . . and then name them by applying her lips to the opening in the hidden tube." From her hidden room, the girl would regale the crowd with what she saw in a room where she was supposed to be residing, invisibly, amidst the acoustic paraphernalia that conducted her voice. "You will thus have the magic," declared the pamphlet, "of the Invisible Woman." “

How can LI resist this image, since it lays out so exactly, so suggestively, the situation of the beautiful woman in the novel? Indeed, one feels – or at least the writer fields, with his irritable, extended sensibility, his ludicrous antennae -- the woman on her cushions in the chamber below her description. The words come out, the crowd is, as it wants to be, mystified, and no woman appears in the glass ball, which sways slightly. No one notices the slit in the floor.

As Mattlock remarks, invisibility – from invisible rays to invisible powers – was a popular topic of the late Enlightenment. Remember, this is the period both of Mesmer and Mozart’s Magic Flute. The naturalization of what, in a previous epoch, would have been considered the work of demons or angels, did not so much destroy the power of the invisible as transfer it to another field, and another regime of legimation.

We loved the instruction in sleight of hand that Mattlock finds:

For Robertson [the exhibitor of the IW], the Invisible Woman Show was not an "experiment" of invisibility but rather a demonstration of acoustics like those displayed in Fitz-James's ventriloquism act. 53 Indeed, the Invisible Woman managed to hold the attention of audiences through several decades of the nineteenth century in shows throughout Europe and the United States because the illusionists in whose cabinets she appeared increasingly made claims about the scientific significance of the acoustic system on which the show was based. As Jacques Lacombe remarked in his Dictionnaire des amusemens of 1792, in order to dupe the public one had not only to have several ways to do the same trick but a way of turning arguments about one's tricks to one's advantage. Lacombe particularly cited illusionist Henri Decremps's advice that, when performing tricks before an audience of enlightened individuals, one should always avoid claiming one's powers magic or supernatural, but rather should suggest that they came from "an uncommon source that was extraordinary although natural."

This image and its semantic field, all of which Mattlock so expertly discloses, seems to LI to give us a sense of why it is so difficult to create a beautiful woman in a story. And why, perhaps, it wasn’t so difficult in an epoch that bore the painful detachment from magical beliefs in its recent collective memory. As Mattlock puts it, “As one newspaper article noted, spectators may well have left the show aggravated by its failure to satisfy their curiosity, but they nevertheless repeatedly told others that "in your life you have never been shown anything so beautiful as the woman that one does not see.”

Holly, je pense a vous!

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