We, wild Victorians
My, dzicy Wiktorianie


Once upon a time, on quite a large island, there lived a queen. She was called Victoria, a name which predicted a glorious future, and her title, which confirmed the power and range of her authority, was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland... She was also the ruler of newly-created countries – Queen of New Zealand, Queen of Canada, Queen of Australia and Empress of India. She had succeeded to the throne in 1837 and reigned continuously for almost 64 years and during her reign Great Britain became an Empire of such a size that the sun never set on it. It is said that the first decision made by the young queen was to move her bed from her mother’s bedroom to a separate room... It was also she who came up with the idea that, during the wedding ceremony, the bride should appear in a white dress. This idea became universally accepted and today every haute couture fashion show ends with a model appearing on the catwalk in the company of her father-designer dressed in one more variation on the theme of Queen Victoria’s wedding dress.


Obviously, Victoria’s London was also the London of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper – a never existing detective living at 221b Baker Street and a never captured serial murderer on whose subject various speculations exist to this day. They appeared in London and in our imaginations more or less at the same time, around the year 1888. It may well be that the famous detective brought to life by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have been the only person who might have solved the mystery of the beastly murders... if he had only existed. When the mysterious murderer was prowling with impunity in the area of Whitechapel, Sir Francis Galton, the nephew of Charles Darwin himself, not only came up with the idea of using fingerprints for the needs of criminology but also became the creator of the theory which, in his opinion, would enable the creation of practices facilitating the “winnowing out” from the ranks of the healthy community those individuals who were pathological and capable of committing crimes. Eugenics, which undoubtedly fitted perfectly into the colonial context of the Empire, definitively showed its true face in the 1940s and also after the war, which is possibly even more horrifying in a certain sense, in such countries as the United States of America and Sweden, among others. This “science” was, however, started by Galton, who created it in order to be able to extract the terrifying face of a murderer from the anonymous urban masses in those settlements that were arising with disquieting haste in the wake of the great Industrial Revolution... Who was Jack the Ripper and what did he do? These questions remain unanswered to this day. On the long list of suspects we can find such names as Lewis Carroll, whose stories for little girls are said to be coded descriptions of crimes committed. In the very idea of reading books for children as an anagram containing hidden truths there lurks something that is essentially Victorian. A strange mixture of faith in the possibility of understanding the world with the help of the rational mind on the one hand and the pleasures of discovering its strangeness and paranormal secrets on the other. Just as in the case of the aforementioned Sir Arthur, who, with the help of the method of investigative induction (and not deduction!), explained, through the words of Sherlock Holmes, that which might appear to less effective minds to be a devilish trick but who also with great pleasure participated in murky meetings of gullible spiritualists. The latter were defeated by one of the best-known exposers of false séances and fraudulent mesmerisms, the famous American illusionist Harry Houdini, which became in fact the reason for the break-up of his friendship with the “father” of the famous detective.

Spiritualist séances were a real plague in those days and their “effects” were registered many times thanks to the development of the new field of photography. Today it is probably hard to imagine what a great shock for Victorian people all these new machines were, making humanity’s ancient dreams suddenly come true. Various new discoveries meant that people could travel ever more quickly, sound could be transmitted over a distance and the image of a given moment could be preserved... it must have been truly difficult to believe all this. And this was just the beginning, since soon there would appear film and the possibility of being able to move through the air! Indeed this must have caused an enthusiastic belief in the possibilities of the human mind, absurdly tangled up with a fascination with things that were incomprehensible. When we look at photographs of Victorian “spirits”, we become witnesses of the birth of surrealism which, in these photographs, creeps into history so unnoticeably that sometimes we notice with great surprise that a given image was recorded not at the end of the nineteenth century but, for example, in the 1930s. A typical Victorian story about a mysterious duality, this time of a human nature and dealing with the battle between good and evil in our consciences, was Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel about a well-known London doctor, entitled Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and published in 1886. The fascination with scientific discoveries is mixed here with the anxiety that such uncommonly rapid development aroused – and all of this in a miraculous atmosphere drawn from the folk tales about werewolves and other monsters that were brought to the towns and cities by the people flooding in from the provinces. This was said to have been one of Queen Victoria’s favourite books.

Meanwhile, however, Leopold Sacher-Masoch and Dr Freud, also devotees of the dark matters and meanderings of the human soul, were living in Austria... And although the most famous works of the latter were not published until the beginning of the twentieth century, just after the death of the English queen, his famous practices, which became the foundations for his later considerations and theories, had already been conducted by the end of the century that interests us here and which is being followed with chronological precision. When Sigmund Freud was trying in Vienna to cure the well-known suffragist, Berthe Pappenheim, of the hysteria that had seized her (let us remember that these were still times when every woman who tried to gain free access to education and other civil rights and liberties could easily be regarded as mad or abnormal), he discovered, together with his patient, what was in fact a fairly logical fact – that talking sincerely about what one thinks and feels can bring considerable relief. And so Freud picked up the trail of psychoanalysis. At the same time the German philosopher, Karl Marx, exiled from his country (for sincerely talking about what he thought and felt), was sitting in Camden Town in London, writing another volume of Capital. Freud settled here much later, after being driven out of Vienna by the Nazis.


Let us try, however, to approach the term Victorianism by somewhat loosening its close connection with its island atmosphere. Let us unlace the stiff corset of the historical context in order to check whether we can call ourselves children of this epoch more universally, more globally, and whether we can do this even in some strange corners in which, or so it seems to us, there never really existed a bourgeois culture, in places such as... Poland. Whom did Michel Foucault have in mind when he wrote "We, other Victorians", when, so many years ago on the other side of the English Channel (sometimes also known as La Manche), he began one of his most important books The history of sexuality in this way: “For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime, and we continue to be dominated by it even today. Thus the image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality”1.

In order somehow to confirm the global dimension of historical Victorianism, the characteristic atmosphere of the epoch, constituting something akin to the “youth” of the world in which we currently live, I will recall one of the heroes of my own childhood, the French writer, Jules Verne, who lived from 1828 until 1905 and who was an eye-witness of Victorian history. In his Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse [Memories of my childhood and youth] from 1884, he wrote, “It was a time of street-lamps, foot-straps, the National Guard and cigarette-lighters. Yes! I witnessed the birth of phosphorous matches, detachable collars, cuffs, letter paper, postage stamps, short trousers, overcoats, opera hats, laced-up boots, the metric system, steam-boats on the Loire, called ‘inexplodable’ because they exploded less frequently than the others, the omnibus, the railways, the tramways, gas, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the gramophone!”2.


What a youth that was! Let us accept 14 July 1789 as the date of the birth of modernity. On that day, the rebellious people of Paris stormed the gates of the Bastille in order to liberate Marquis Donatien Alphonse François de Sade. I have previously mentioned the importance of this moment, including in a curatorial text accompanying the exhibition entitled Embarkation for Cythera (Odjazd na Cyterę), which took place in the summer of 2008 in the rococo Oliwa Park which surrounds a rococo palace currently fulfilling the role of a museum housing contemporary art collection3. At that time I took the liberty of asking a fundamental question about our culture, the past, and also maybe the future: can rococo become our antiquity? Is it time for a rococo renaissance? And even if it was a joke, it was told completely seriously. It concerned after all, in my opinion, a very important moment in the history of European culture, when the newly arisen ideas stopped fitting into the still old forms which, torn apart and scattered by these contents, began their process of transformation.

At the time when the rebellious people of Paris were forcing the gates of the prisons and guillotining their leaders, in the country on the other side of La Manche (sometimes also known as the English Channel), a completely different revolution was developing and gathering speed. Ten years later, in the London district of Soho, gas lighting was used for the very first time. A short time later, the whole of London was thus illuminated and soon other European cities began to follow suit.

Now our interest will be absorbed by what happened from that fateful year of 1789 and led us to the place in which we currently find ourselves. I would like to examine the trails, rediscover the paths along which we came here through the meanderings of a garden maze... How simply and perfectly was this shown by Sally Potter in the film based on a book by the semi-Victorian Virginia Woolf. Tilda Swinton, playing the eponymous role of Orlando, runs through a French hedge as if looking for a way out of this uncomfortable trap of form and transforms herself (once again) into a completely different person, who then, in new clothes, suddenly appears in the transformed scenery of an English garden. The mysterious mist of the moors mingles with the steam produced by the mechanism of some modern machine. Here, Orlando meets her beloved Shelmerdine, borne by the wind, and here she meets the future. And if I were to say that Woolf’s book and Potter’s film are telling the story of a woman, that would be merely a part of the truth.


The Victorian Project will initially be an Internet curatorial and research project., making use of the Internet’s hypertextual possibilities. The materials gathered in this way would then serve to create a bi-lingual, Polish-English book. This will be an attempt to look at the Victorian age from the point of view of contemporary culture and also to find the sources of phenomena that are contemporary to us and that derive precisely, or so it seems, from the aforementioned epoch as well as an attempt to interpret contemporary culture through this particular context. This will initially, therefore, be a kind of experiment, an attempt to touch upon Victorian themes in the broadest possible sense, both through finding and constructing links to articles and sites that already exist on the Internet and, above all, through cooperation with invited authors. Our common aim will, therefore, not only be to trace the survival of Victorian motifs in contemporary art and European culture in its broadest sense (I intend to invite representatives of many different fields to cooperate on this project: above all, cultural studies, literature, architecture, history of art, philosophy and art) but also to answer the question as to how it was possible for Michel Foucault to start one of his most important works with the words: “We, other Victorians”.


Why, however, are my Victorians wild? Well, I reached for yet another book in order to recall a myth which had accompanied my childhood – of a journey to a land known as Papua-New Guinea, which was situated on numerous islands and was a paradise land of surrealistic cannibals, most of whom today profess to be followers of Protestantism. Published in 1972 (before the first edition of the first volume of Foucault’s work in 1976), the book was called We, wild Papuans and was written by the Polish traveller, Wojciech Dworczyk. It represents everything that is or could be, for a representative of Euro-American culture, a voyage to a distant exotic land: fascination with “strange” beauty and wildness, an escape from an artificial world of norms and conventions to a “childlike” innocence, the myth of a shaping and transforming journey, the myth of “carrying” civilisation somewhere, and finally a tale about European curiosity, mobility and inventiveness, whose other less praiseworthy sides are conquest and subordination, the triumph so conspicuous in Victorian colonialism but also so ambiguous and with effects still felt to this very day.


What can we find today that is interesting and important in that distant and strange epoch? Can we, by contemplating and understanding the people living at that time, their desires, predilections, anxieties and customs, find out something about ourselves? In our culture we are accustomed to treating time as a chronological chain of events developing in a linear fashion from the point of the mythical origin towards the end of all things looming somewhere on the horizon of our consciousness. This is undoubtedly a useful vision which will also allow us here to talk about the world in a continuous way and to find in the maze of history those lost themes which are waiting for us like Ariadne’s golden thread once waited for the hand of the brave Theseus. But Theseus is obviously not enough for Ariadne... In history there also appears – like a wheel rolling by itself – Victorious Dionysus. He arrives unexpectedly, like the wave of a sudden tide and an attack of madness which turns out to be the greatest wisdom. Together with his colourful procession there appears this strange god-man dressed as a woman or – who knows? – perhaps a woman looking like a man... Dazing and seducing. And to be “madly” in love means that the past and the future have been carried away by this violent wave and we find ourselves on a desert island where the only thing that exists is that which is, just that one unending moment whose eternal duration will be forgiven until the end of time.

As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote (he put all of himself in the words that he wrote but never dared to be himself in the life that he led) in the letter of 3 January 1889 addressed:

“To Princess Ariadne, My Beloved.
[…] However, I now come as Dionysus victorious, who will prepare a great festival on Earth ... Not as though I had much time ... The heavens rejoice to see me here ...”4.

Obviously you can treat these words as another testimony of history, particularly if you are professionals educated in order to discover its ways and interpret its facts. But what would you say? What would you do if I really returned once more, to prepare a festival on Earth?



Kamila Wielebska
20.03.2009


English translation © Tadeusz Z. Wolański

Notes:
1. M. Foucault, The history of sexuality, English translation by Robert Hurley, Pantheon Books, New York 1978.
2. See: http://jv.gilead.org.il/works.html
3. http://www.obieg.pl/prezentacje/4446
4. F. Nietzsche, Letters, http://www.geocities.com/thenietzschechannel/nilett7.htm


I invite to cooperate with me all those whom this has inspired.

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