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Haunting History

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

Even Thucydides, the celebrated father of historical realism, found it impossible to avoid revising the past in the telling of it. “With reference to the speeches in this history,” he writes in the opening to The History of the Peloponnesian War, “it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions.” Dead men cannot verify the truth of the words put into their mouths. Which makes the past into something of a puppet show. Or at least makes history at its core a discipline shaped by desire, the desires we have to make sense of what has happened.

Some place greater demands upon and have wilder desires for their sources than others. Consider Voices from the Spirit World, composed by Isaac and Amy Post and published in Rochester, New York in 1852, a work which can only be described either as spectral historical revisionism, or social justice fan fiction.

Title page © British Library
Title page © British Library

In it, the ghosts of famous dead people contact the authors, who then translate the “spirit rappings” they receive into a series of letters from the spirit world with advice for the living. “Benjamin Franklin” is the editor, who writes in the preface in typical Ben Franklin fashion that “Spirit life would be tiresome, without employment.” Franklin is also credited with contacting the other luminaries of public life, although Thomas Jefferson complains: “I find more difficulty in arranging my communication than when embodied.” The purpose of these spectral communications is, again, in typical Ben Franklin fashion, improvement. “Let no man claim that he has made great improvements in the arts and sciences, unassisted by spirit friends …. It is our object to spread light in the pathway of those who have been blinded by their education, traditions, and sectarian trammels. We come not to blame any; we present these truths, that man…may realize what he is, and what he is to be; to tell him by what he is surrounded.”

It is an incredibly literal way to enact the basic truth that history does offer precedents that can be built off of in the name of progress. But the aims of Voices from the Spirit World go deeper still: Franklin claims his purpose is that “death will have no terrors” for the living who are aware of the spiritual world. That is the best that the Spiritualist Movement had to offer: it was about facing death without fear, it was about ensuring that those who had died had not done so in vain, that their lives could offer wisdom and guidance in times of difficulty. The table of contents is a mixture of founding fathers, famous thinkers, Quaker leaders (the Posts were Quakers), close personal friends, and anonymous ghosts moved to speak.

Table of Contents © British Library
Table of Contents © British Library

The “sentiments” each spirit leaves behind offer advice on a range of topics; Jefferson discusses political economy, Emmanuel Swedenbourg offers a lecture on magnetism, Voltaire oozes witticisms, Napoleon gives an account of “justice” in the afterlife that reads like a warning out of A Christmas Carol (1843):

From Napoleon Bonaparte © British Library
From Napoleon Bonaparte © British Library

But overwhelmingly the spirits speak with one voice: they denounce war, the slave trade and women’s inequality from cover to cover. In a “Communication from G[eorge] Washington. July 29, 1851” the first president condemns slavery: “I regret the government was formed with such an element in it…I cannot find words to express my abhorrence of this accursed system of slavery.” A communication, surprisingly, from John C. Calhoun admits: “It is very unexpected to me to be called upon by Benjamin Franklin, informing that you desired to hear from me…It seems to me unaccountable that my mind should have been so darkened, so blinded, by selfishness, as to live to spread wrong, while I endeavored to persuade myself I was doing right.” Andrew Jackson publishes an apology for his entire life: “I was wrong in almost everything.”

Andrew Jackson's apology © British Library
Andrew Jackson’s apology © British Library

Coincidentally, Isaac and Amy Post were passionate advocates for abolitionism, pacifism, and feminism throughout their lives. So it comes as no surprise that their dabbling in the spiritualist put spectral communication to work within the social justice movements they held dear, and this is what sets Voices from the Spirit World apart from other forays into spiritualism, which deal more expressly with grief and bereavement. The political nature of the work, the view of the other side offered by the Posts is nothing less than a utopia of ghosts.

There are no controversies, no “Sectarian Trammels” in the spirit world, there is no single religion that is better than others, no class, race, or gender-based inequalities. “It seems to me when spirit laws are understood,” Ben Franklin writes “every one will rejoice to be governed by them; hence the earnest desire that fills my heart to spread light before the earthly traveler.” So in place of a theory of progress that culminates, for Marx writing a few years earlier, in communism, the ghost of Ben Franklin would see the pinnacle of the living as submitting to the authority of the dead.

Yet for all its quirks,Voices from the Spirit World fits firmly within a tradition of Quaker publications dating two hundred years earlier to the 1650s, during the Commonwealth period in England. The origins of the movement were drawn from the revolutionary chaos of the English Civil War, and in common with other sects, the Levellers, Ranters, Diggers, Seekers, Baptists, turned their religious enthusiasm to the task of social reform: Quakers over the years advocated prison reform, education reform, gender equality, and racial equality. Particularly, Quakers in the colony of Pennsylvania committed to the abolition of slavery, with petitions against slaveowners (including other Quakers) being written in 1696, and throughout the 18th century until the movement came to a consensus on abolition around 1753, a story well told by Jeann Soderlund in Quakers and Slavery (1985).

The Posts were both Hicksite Quakers, a schismatic spin-off of the Society of Friends who followed the lead of Elias Hicks (1748 – 1830) in arguing that the ‘Inner Light’ (the presence of divinity in each human being) was a higher authority than Scripture. But this too is a more common fate for Quakers than simplistic histories suggest: controversy and schism was constant from the very beginning of the movement, and the ‘Inner Light’ was always a source of conflict, between Quakers and the government, and later between Quaker leaders and members. As a critic John Brown framed the problem in Quakerism the Pathway to Paganisme (1678): “we have much more advantage in dealing with Papists, than in dealing with these Quakers; for the Papists have but one Pope…But here every Quaker hath a Pope within his brest.” In Voices from the Spirit World, the Posts address this history of confrontation particular to the movement through various of its leaders: George Fox, William Penn, Elias Hicks, making them repent their fixation with schism: “O! What I  lost to myself by my Sectarian trammels!” Hicks exclaims.

Voices from the Spirit World is less about the way in which we are haunted by history than about how relentlessly we might haunt the annals of the past, hunt the dead beyond their graves, draw words from their mouths to make meanings of our own circumstances and support our own causes. As Isaac Post writes in the introduction: “To me the subject of man’s present and future condition is of vast importance.” While the form of the book rests as a real limit case to historical revisionism, in spite of the absurdity there is an earnestness to the Post’s project that makes more rigorous and less utopian historical initiatives fall flat.

A special thanks to bookseller Fuchsia Voremberg of Maggs Bros. Ltd for bringing Voices from the Spirit World to the author’s attention.

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Think Piece

Visual Affinities, Living History

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

There are all kinds of ways in which a book’s form can intensify its content, draw its words into relationships, inscribe its title within the family trees of works written by other people in other places and times. Books from the Fellow Travelers series started in 2012 by Publication Studio have exactly that effect from the very moment you look them in the cover: they are unmistakable descendants of works published fifty years earlier by Maurice Girodias at his Olympia Press, what he called its Traveller’s Companion series.

SextetTwo-Augusts

Through visual affinities, a lineage can be built, a history can be told, through bringing books together that look alike a pattern emerges not unlike the experience of spending time browsing Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, where images of similar gestures bespeak shared values, shared experiences.

Founded in 1953 from a desk in the back of the Rue Jacob bookshop in Paris, Girodias aimed to provide English-speaking soldiers abroad a complement to the already popular ‘Black Book’ series of detective fiction. But Olympia Press would scratch a different itch. Its name, after Edouard Manet’s infamous Olympia, is as evocative as gets: the first books in the series were erotic with no respect for the boundaries between high and low culture. Girodias collaborated with a collective of young ex-pats who moved to Paris as a kind of second-wave Lost Generation coalescing around a literary magazine called Merlin. At their insistence he published Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy alongside Marquis de Sade’s La Philosophie dans le Boudoir, Apollinare’s Memoirs d’un Jeaune Don Juan, and George Bataille’s L’Histoire de l’Oeil, and Henry Miller’s Plexus. Over the years, money was so short that the Merlin collective would meet, drink, and invent smutty titles they had not yet written, sending out false catalogues to their subscribers, as John de St. Jorre describes in The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press (1984). The money made from pre-ordered books paid the authors to begin writing them.

The books of Olympia Press were not the first to use the design. Girodias adapted it in homage to his father, the publisher Jack Kahane. Kahane ran Obelisk Press and had a whole history of his own in the shoestring publishing industry, and he was no stranger to obscenity. Obelisk Press published Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness in 1933, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1934, and Anaïs Nin’s House of Incest in 1936. Girodias had rebellious literary taste coded into his genes.

Well“Fans were as fascinated by the ugly plain green covers as the addict by the white powder, however deceptive both may prove to be,” Girodias wrote about the appeal of his own series. Deceptive, too, is the view of any of these books in isolation, not only as it goes against the reality of addiction and addictive reading, but also because bringing each green book among its companions recreates a sense of the wide, wide world of effort it takes to shift values and tastes. At Olympia Press, there was a rotating cast of contributors and collaborators, men and women: Alexander Trocchi, George Bataille, Bataille’s wife Diane, Iris Owens, Marilyn Meeske. Helen and Desire, White Thighs and The Whip Angels, were all part of the literary ecosystem that made possible, intellectually and financially, works like Lolita, and Naked Lunch, now canonized, set apart.

From visual affinities, to the bonds of blood, to the realities of fighting censorship through collaboration, the efforts of publisher-printers like Kahane and Girodias can be traced back and back. But they can also be seen to gain increasing vividness — and coherence — as they are lifted from the past and taken forward. The sparse covers of Kahane’s and Girodias’s books alongside those of Publication Studios name censorship as a common enemy of publishers. In Girodias’s case, Olympia Press opposed the censorship of obscenity laws; more recently, Publication Studios rejects the censorship that lies at the heart of a market that refuses to engage fresh talent in favor of predictable moneymakers. The constraints amount to the same thing: very similar groups of authors are left out, very similar types of writing are hard to find. Each Fellow Traveler (there are eight and counting) includes a Publisher’s Forward, which addresses the problem head-on:

Patricia No and Antonia Pinter’s battle cry gives new life to Maurice Girodias’s goals with Olympia Press, it gives coherence to his impact on the publishing landscape of the 50s and 60s, an impact that would have been difficult to assess at the time given his movements between Paris and New York, the constant legal and financial struggles. “We proudly present great work that the market has not endorsed, but that we believe in,” No and Stadler write. Their approach to updating the Traveller’s Companion to the Fellow Traveler’s series distills Girodias’s literary tastes into a modern manifesto against greedy publishing. Which is incredibly generous to Girodias, since he spoke as much about profit as love of good writing, and who did not always treat his authors well. He was a ‘toad’ to Valerie Solanas, and Breanne Fahs’ biography of Solanas painstakingly describes the conditions under which he held copyright of her S.C.U.M. Manifesto that pushed Solanas’s mental health struggles to breaking point. Girodias claimed she came to his office June 3, 1968 looking for him with a gun. He was out of town, so she went and found Andy Warhol instead. It’s unclear whether Girodias made this up to sell more copies of S.C.U.M. that he published immediately after the Warhol shooting made front-page news. Either way, Solanas’s fixation and despair over her treatment was a source of stress and debilitating paranoia she spoke of until her death in 1988. Publishing on the edge implies a certain kind of living on the edge, which does not necessarily imply kindness and fair treatment. Exploitation, however, can be dropped from the history that is kept alive, it can be re-written even if it is not done so by self proclaimed victors.

With Publication Studio, the struggle against market censorship goes even deeper, beyond the cover, to the ways in which the books themselves are assembled. Stadler and No are able to produce around 50 or 60 books per day through their Print on Demand system consisting of a black and white printer, a machine that puts glue on the spines, and a perfect binder: “Every day is different. That’s part of why we stamp date of production on the spine of every book.” Stadler said in an interview. The books are bound in file folders: “[B]ecause we were broke. You can get them free.”

Final
Book before and after the file folder binding is trimmed (author’s collection)

Moreover, the methods travel well: the original Publication Studio was set up in Portland, Oregon, but satellite publishers using similar POD technology have cropped up all over the USA, and Canada, with one of the most recent incarnation opening up across the ocean in London, run by Louisa Bailey of Luminous Books.

Where big publishing houses pay little attention to transgressive authors, and POD produces incredibly messy results, the emerging constellation of Publication Studios addresses the shortcomings of both through ethical, well-made books printed on demand that showcase novels with a transgressive or political edge, including queer authors like Shelley Marlow and STS. There is an emotionally rich collapse of space between the roles of publisher-printers of the past, who staked their livelihoods alongside their authors in the works they published, and the work of publishers who remain active interpreters of the traditions they have chosen to inherit.

Adapted from part of a lecture delivered at the launch of Shelley Marlow’s Two Augusts in a Row in a Row at the London Centre for Book Arts, 29 October 2015. Correction (11/20): The co-founder of publication studio is named Matthew Stadler, not Mark. Publication Studio’s first location in Portland, Oregon is now run by Patricia No and Antonia Pinter.