Books

Of Bodies and Souls: Representing the Historically Marginalized in 'The Spirit Photographer'

In Jon Michael Varese's latest, exposure and concealment interweave into an intricate tapestry of interconnected motivations and intentions.

The Spirit Photographer
Jon Michael Varese

Overlook

Apr 2018

In The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese, spirits lurk in the memory, as does the scarcely buried history of slavery. Atmospheric, lyrical, and poignant, the novel deftly interweaves strands of history and fantasy, peering into several characters' subjective perspectives in a gradual unfolding of revelation and retribution.

Like its subject, the book is a material artifact with spiritual intentions. Interspersed in its pages are fictional newspaper and newsletter articles, letters, and interviews, which emerge as intriguing instances of literature within literature. That the text fuses journalistic, dialogic, and narrative accounts, it at times renders more akin to an ethnographic study or a legal investigation than a novel. This is seen in its approaches and methods to the observation of the human psyche, in its Agatha Christie-like questionings of crimes to which the solutions are in many ways already known, in its explications of spirit mediumship and Reconstruction-era politics.

The 'primary source' materials -- fragments and correspondences -- expose yet more layers of thematic meaning beneath the main narrative, even as the apparitions of spirits imbue hidden overlays upon the photographs, the simultaneous superimpositions creating an intricate interplay between textual and thematic layering. Form intertwines with function as multiple levels of reality and representation blur the lines between fact and fiction, authenticity and artifice, subjectivity and objectivity, truth and deception. These features are found in the narrative voice, the characters' perspectives, the 'published' pieces; juxtaposed with the real photographs, the fraudulent spirit images, and the "real" ghost image.

In the spaces of photographic negatives, new insights can be revealed. In a sense, the story emerges as a study of contrasts cast into relief, between Elizabeth and James Garrett, Edward Moody and Joseph Winter, north and south, public and private, individual and societal, darkness and light, spirituality and materiality, freedom and slavery, abolitionists and conservatives, decency and deception, morality and immorality. Only in peering at one can we truly perceive the other, with its flaws and complexities, passions and anxieties, that expose the human image.

Exposure and concealment interweave into an intricate tapestry of interconnected motivations and intentions. Isabelle, a deceased daughter of a former slave, is the connecting thread that traverses each character's story. Her elegy threads through the narrative, her absence emerging as an uncannily sensed presence; she is the conscience, the heartbeat that drives the quickening action. The revelation of her secret renders possible the others' redemption. In relating each tale in turn, the novel tells us that life is but a forgetting, to which only the spirits of the departed give remembrance.

In the keen psychological introspection emerges the liminal spaces between imagination and reality, between a longing and its fulfillment. The word 'imagination' finds its roots in 'image', as conjuring an image in the mind becomes an act of imagining. Yet the visual imagery in the novel is not innocuous but imbued with significance. In particular, the 'darkness', the storms, the winds that pervade and permeate the pages, prove problematic: the association of darkness with evil and foreboding transcends degrees of skin tone to the entrenched nature of color symbolism as associated with race. In the light and dark imagery, even for the black Isabelle, it is her lightness that illuminates her beauty, moral goodness, and spiritual purity: " … there is a shock of light… the crystalline reflections off the water almost blind him, and amidst those diamond-like flashes, she stands". In contrast, the darkness of her hair accentuates physical beauty that assumedly awakens desire: "And her head is uncovered, her black hair loose and rippling over her shoulders, as undulous as the cane fronds themselves."

Yet the rendering of such scenes as more seduction than sin proves particularly problematic. Without inhabiting Isabelle's inner identity, we do not know her intentions and motivations. Even in her fragmented speech, she is not given a voice, an assertion or articulation, a disposition, an inner life, until she is heard in Joseph's memory. For each of the men, she is merely his "spirit", she "belonged" to him, she "was his" -- these are conquerings which, in their invisible insistence, prove far worse than the chains of chattel slavery. Moody succumbs to his own temptations; he loves Isabelle for her surfaces, not her depths. Yet the pulses of power and pleasure rob women of livelihood, of personhood, of belonging, of being.

In a painful irony, the 'spirit' of the story is turned into an idealized, illusory figure -- a body -- embodiment in the semblance of spiritualism. Without subverting its depictions, the narration casts Isabelle as the Other -- as inherently unknowable yet simple, shrouded in an aura of mystery by her "quiet defiance", "her unreadable stance… luminously transparent." Significantly, the narrative as told through Moody's viewpoint describes Isabelle as a "mirrored reflection of herself", yet in contrast to this statement, it seems as though she is merely a reflection of his views of her, mirrored through his subjective, distorted, incomplete lens, not her own. Even the southern landscape is described as "possess[ing] secret knowledge", inhabiting the space of an unfathomable Other removed from northern civilization. As Henriette sagely states, "She belonged to everyone -- to all of us. Her voice was the voice of all of us." But more importantly, she belongs to herself.

Granted, considering its photographic subject, the metaphors are aptly visual, as Pip's "You are in every line I have ever read" is transformed into Moody's "She was, in a sense, in every picture he ever took." Yet the portrait of Isabelle seems to elude a nuanced reading or interpretation of her subjectivity. A character who cannot 'read' another must give her a room of her own in which to write. To unravel the psychology and intentionality of a character is not a plot point, but a prerequisite. To enhance its impact, the narration needs to explicitly critique this dehumanization of women and cast violation as a vital wrongdoing greater in action and consequence than mere misconduct; its masking as romance is more sinister than Dovehouse's exaggerated racism.

From this vantage point, a radical, postcolonial, feminist re-envisioning could extend Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic (Yale University Press, 1979) to the context of the American Reconstruction period, supplanting the various Rochesters in this text -- Edward especially -- with Isabelle in the role of Antoinette. To reverse the gender roles -- for Estella to describe Pip through her eyes, for Scarlett to probe Rhett's psyche, for two women to search for a handsome, yet mysterious man they once loved, to uncover his unreadable intentions -- would seem strange, yet strangely liberating.

To problematize the pervasiveness of the male gaze, particularly of white males toward women of color, of historical oppressors to the oppressed, is a direction toward which we must strive. Moody is put on a trial for his crime of deceit but does not truly atone for a crueler and more insidious crime. Similarly, Garrett's acuity about the race problem arises at the societal, not the individual level. He, unlike the other senators, has the foresight to support the free labor of emancipated slaves but his treatment of women belies this broader benevolence. For the three men, a glimmer of moral restitution is scarcely deserved; the moments of regret are told rather than shown or felt.

Given the inextricably intertwined nature of the sexual and the political, and the intersecting ideologies of race, gender, and class, it's vital to reclaim identity, power, and dignity to the voices, beyond the images, of the once enslaved, in order to manifest their and our liberation and agency. Only then can we begin to give (re)birth to a nation dismantled of injustice and rooted in justice, to cast better shadows of the past upon the looming future.

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