Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cambridge Library Collection - Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge

Cambridge University Press has announced that it will be issuing a forthcoming Cambridge Library Collection - Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge (also listed as the Cambridge Library Collection on Magic and the Supernatural), starting in January 2011.  Some twenty books, most published in the nineteenth century, will be released over the next three months. The initial set of titles include Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, Joseph Ennemoser’s The History of Magic, Daniel Dunglas Home Incidents in My Life, William Howitt’s The History of the Supernatural in All Ages and Nations, Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Richard Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, and Annie Besant’s An Autobiography. Some of these would have been immediately familiar to Mme. Blavatsky, as she also cites them. Prices range from $20. U.S. to $50. U.S. The list can be seen here.

Not only are older titles like these being recognized again, but the very way we approach these texts appears to be changing. New resources in the field of research are being developed in the area of Victorian studies. As Dan Cohen notes in his keynote address, Searching for the Victorians, at the Victorians Institute Conference, held at the University of Virginia on October 1-3, 2010:

Many humanities scholars have been satisfied, perhaps unconsciously, with the use of a limited number of cases or examples to prove a thesis. Shouldn’t we ask, like the Victorians, what can we do to be most certain about a theory or interpretation? If we use intuition based on close reading, for instance, is that enough?  

Should we be worrying that our scholarship might be anecdotally correct but comprehensively wrong? Is 1 or 10 or 100 or 1000 books an adequate sample to know the Victorians? What we might do with all of Victorian literature—not a sample, or a few canonical texts, as in [Walter] Houghton’s work, but all of it.

Cohen goes on to describe his work with Fred Gibbs on a Google digital humanities grant “that is attempting to apply text mining to our understanding of the Victorian age.” If we were to look at all of these books using the computational methods that originated in the Victorian age, what would they tell us? And would that analysis be somehow more “true” than looking at a small subset of literature, the books we all have read that have often been used as representative of the Victorian whole, or, if not entirely representative, at least indicative of some deeper Truth?

Using 1,681,161 books that were published in English in the UK in the long nineteenth century, 1789-1914, he provides a number of graphs for words, such as science, religion, sacred, faith, divine, churches, universal, truth, which can be seen here. Techniques like this, he says, will play a part in the debate about how we know the past and how we look at the written record that I suspect will be of interest to literary scholars and historians alike.

Matthew Bevis, lecturer at the University of York in Britain, comments that scholars should also remember that the past contains more than the written record. Fewer references to a subject do not necessarily mean that it has disappeared from the culture, but rather that it has become such a part of the fabric of life that it no longer arouses discussion. He quoted Emily Dickinson: “Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our mind?”

Alice Jenkins, professor of Victorian literature and culture at the University of Glasgow, feels that “Close reading will become even more crucial in a world in which we can, potentially, read every word of Victorian writing ever published.”

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