Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, by Joachim Kalka, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, NYRB Books, 241 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1681371184
End of a century, oh, it’s nothing special.
Blur, “End of a Century” (1994)
The American author David Rieff remarks, in the preface to his late mother, Susan Sontag’s, Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963, that she possessed a “nineteenth-century consciousness”. He makes this comment in reference to Sontag’s singular ambition as a writer, likening her to the kind of provincial intellectual made good who appears in more than a few of the era’s central novels. Daniel Mendelsohn, in his review of Reborn for The New Republic, notes that “with her insatiable avidity for experience and her penchant for the Continental novel as model of the highest form of literary activity”, Sontag probably would have approved of being thus labelled. But what does having a nineteenth century consciousness mean? Does it begin and end with Mendelsohn’s description of “grand passions and Romantic energies”, which he disputes Sontag ever having demonstrated to begin with?
German academic and translator Joachim Kalka has more than a few opinions on nineteenth century culture. Gaslight, his first book to be translated into English, is subtitled Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, though this is not to say that he approaches his subject as something totally removed from contemporary consciousness (like, for instance, a lantern slide). If anything, Kalka argues, our distance from the 1800s leaves us well-positioned to comment on them. “Doesn’t it thrill us when the abyss of the past gapes?” he asks in the preface. “We can’t grasp the twentieth century, but doesn’t the nineteenth paradoxically seem to draw closer?” The passing of time has done away with fin de siècle anxiousness; if the last century is still too close for us to analyse, at least some of its roots may be found in the hundred years that preceded it. And while intense study of a particular period may produce a bewildering plethora of information, this, Kalka believes, provides us with more material to pursue and link to the present.
Kalka writes with a pleasing lightness of touch ‑ his translator, Isabel Fargo Cole, has done stellar work ‑ and is as happy to reference modern sources such as the Coen Brothers’ Fargo or Woody Allen’s Radio Days as he is Balzac or Dickens. The pieces in Gaslight had all been published previously, and Kalka is playful about his book’s hodgepodge themes; he calls his volume “opportunistic”, before going on to question the idea of the nineteenth century as a tangible whole in a way that, he hopes, readers may one day do for the twenty-first. Described in this way, Gaslight may seem unfocused and abstract. It is not a book that lends itself well to beginning-to-end reading ‑ but few essay collections do. Rather, Kalka’s willingness to digress, as well as his readiness to write about less examined works and characters, are central to what makes his book appealing and singular. The connections he draws on his tangents often bring to the surface ideas that he mischievously skirts around in the introduction.
Consider, for instance, the preponderance of disaster movies, dystopian novels and contemporary hand-wringing that all centre on the malign influence of technology. Kalka looks at the role of machines in shaping the nineteenth century with a fascinating piece on the German writer and industrialist Max Eyth and “the Specter of Technology”. The essay forms the ideological heart of Kalka’s book, as it succinctly defines why the nineteenth century had such a bearing on “all the times to come, including our own insouciant era: the discrepancy between our technological capabilities and what our mind is truly able to penetrate, between our inventiveness and our moral imagination”. Nineteenth century industry was sufficiently novel to provoke both opposition to and celebration of inventions that we now think of fondly, whether in the form of the Parisian arcades that made the city Walter Benjamin’s “Capital of the Nineteenth Century” or the steam train.
Committed believers in the romance of the machine ‑ and in its potential for unbridled progress and social good ‑ would later have to account for the mechanised horrors of the Great War. Eyth had died nearly a decade previously, but there was still plenty of European opposition to the century’s dizzying automated advances during his lifetime, not least among his conservative compatriots. Of course such primitive forays into mass production compare well with latter-day ills such as monolithic big tech, carbon emissions, globalisation and deindustrialisation. “We are already beginning to gaze back yearningly at the industrial labor that was seen for so long as the epitome of alienation,” Kalka writes. “Technology as a whole confronts us with a problem: humanity ‑ thinking, feeling humanity ‑ ags behind its (technological) time.”
Perhaps this is why it is hard to read the piece on Proust and the Dreyfus Affair without thinking of Marine Le Pen’s France, or wondering what then prominent critic Wolfgang Menzel’s extreme ideological distaste for Young German writers like Heine might have looked like in today’s climate. With nationalism on the rise around Europe ‑ including in Germany, even current political events notwithstanding ‑ I can’t help but wonder if it is a coincidence that Romantics, who exalted nature and German identity in common with National Socialists, seem to be experiencing something of a comeback in the land of Goethe and Schiller.
Then again perhaps not. The author of Gaslight does not go in for such direct proclamations of cause and effect, beyond a global, not unamused look at the shortcomings of the nineteenth century versus those of nowadays. Kalka’s penchant for odd themes ‑ as well as a tendency to look at his subjects in rather abstract fashion ‑ makes for an inconsistent collection of work. The author’s Eurocentricity comes across as more charming than provocative as regards interpreting history; however, a book about the nineteenth century that gives no serious consideration to America, colonialism, slavery and the American Civil War could certainly be said to be lacking in scope. But I wonder if what David Rieff meant by “nineteenth-century consciousness” really refers to an ability in one’s self to hold numerous, possibly conflicting, viewpoints at the same time. As Adam Gopnik recently said of Philip Roth: “Like any writer worth paying attention to, [he] turns out to be the sum of his contradictions.”
In the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play with which this book shares its title, Mr Manningham attempts to convince his wife that the lamps in their house aren’t really dimming: a piece of trickery that gave rise to the term “gaslighting”. Kalka recognises the human ability for (self-) deception, and recommends examining the past to better understand the present. “We must go back to the nineteenth century to grasp some little part of the chain of unsolved ‑ unsolvable? ‑ problems we drag along behind us,” he notes. “For it is there that everything begins.” If our problems are indeed unsolvable, then we may as well have fun discussing them.
Stephen Cox is a writer from Dublin. He has been published in the New Statesman, Literary Review and the Honest Ulsterman, among other publications. He is currently based in London.