Dedicated to the ‘Magic Town of Providence,’ and written with a light touch, the story of Phoebe Hicks is just as much about the place in which the action unfolds as it is about its nineteenth-century heroine, the inspired star of spiritualist séances. The harbour town of New England, that most European part of the United States, is famous throughout the country for its maple trees whose colours in autumn ‘change through over thirty shades of scarlet and pink.’ Providence is Agnieszka Taborska’s second home after Warsaw. There, at the Rhode Island School of Design, this distinguished expert on Surrealism teaches the history of art and literature. The story of Phoebe, which is fictional, although apocryphal in the Surrealist meaning of the word, is as much saturated by the magical genius loci as it is by spirits. Phoebe herself is, in a sense, the literary incarnation of Providence. Staidness, madness and beauty have endured here for centuries alongside one another in unruffled harmony. In the ingeniously composed miniatures that make up the book’s chapters, Agnieszka Taborska consistently steers a middle course between rationality and the creation of a deception, between humour and erudition. The story, passing itself off as a literary game, is also an exposition of classic spiritualism; factual in its details, it also unlocks the imaginations of those who long to get to the bottom of photography and cinema, the cult of psychoactive substances or different states of consciousness.
‘Who was Phoebe Hicks?’ Even before she conducted her first séance in 1847, as a consequence of her providential poisoning by a clam fritter, she was a privileged being, ‘thanks to her good birth into a well-to-do home on Benefit Street.’ But the piece of stale clam brought her a fascinating opportunity! After vomiting fits that lasted all night and were almost fatal, Phoebe had a vision, which opened up to her for years to come a mental corridor leading directly to the Beyond. It gave her an exceptional status, somewhere between that of an artiste, priestess and a rather dubious creature. She was fortunate that her fraud was never proved, but maybe she was not an imposter. Miss Hicks, who clearly enjoys the sympathy of her author, is also apparently presented as an eater of hallucinogenic mushrooms and a smoker of marihuana. Among female mediums, however, notorious for sexual scandals, conjuring tricks and arduous efforts to summon up spirits before large public audiences, she was exceptionally staid and sober-minded. Full of mysterious fantasy and artistic inventiveness, she is introduced by Agnieszka Taborska as a prototype both of the psychoanalyst and the performance artist—and also a special kind of cultural researcher, who sought the symbolic figures of the collective imagination. The woman medium would call forth and give shape to unconscious desires, becoming the guardian and guide of this nocturnal aspect of the souls of respected citizens, with which they could not otherwise associate.
This strange adventure in the history of American rationalism, the mania for summoning up spirits that gripped the continent in the second half of the nineteenth century, is retold through the life story of the enigmatic Miss Hicks with great care and charm. The series of collages by American artist Selena Kimball, which illustrates the book, gives added depth and context to that extraordinary yet comic collective hallucination known as spiritualism, just as with time Freudian psychoanalysis and Surrealist art would give depth and context to encounters with ghosts.
Materialization from the Azure Plasma
The spirit of Harry Houdini inaugurated the third phase of Phoebe’s fame. He joined the séance by materializing out of an azure-coloured cloud hovering over the table, which some took for plasma. He remained with the company throughout sixteen long evenings—sometimes looming out of the plasma, sometimes stepping from behind a heavy curtain concealed in the gloom, sometimes emerging from under the plush drape spread over the table. Before the start of the final séance with his participation, he sat at Phoebe’s right hand, awaiting the guests like any legitimate citizen of this world. It could be argued, of course, that he was merely the medium’s assistant dressed as a magician, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the others, emboldened by their gullibility. Yet how to interpret his materializations from the azure cloud? Or explain the appearance of the ghost of someone born a quarter-century later? And what possible interest could the medium have had in fighting a duel of magic tricks with Houdini, which would comprise her in the eyes of spiritualists?
Phoebe contra Houdini
Nothing anticipated Phoebe’s duel with Harry Houdini. The magician’s spirit started it suddenly during his sixteenth séance and then, two hours later, abandoned the bemused participants. Garbled tales of the duel circulated across New England for many years to come. It’s not true the spirit jangled his chains. Nor was the medium irritated by the situation while he maintained a cold indifference. The only account anywhere close to the truth concerned the vying of the sides: every time Phoebe caused a thing or person to materialize, Houdini made it disappear. The list of objects she conjured from the abyss is not long: a rusty teapot, a bouquet of dried yellow flowers and a Turkish carpet, which on closer examination would probably have proved a lousy fake. Figures momentarily summoned from the Other World included Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great and Alexander Pushkin, thereby confirming rumours about American mediums’ weakness for Russian culture. Anyway, Harry Houdini did not allow any phantom who would testify to Phoebe’s genius to remain among the living for more than a minute. Even in his ghostly form, the greatest unmasker of fraudulent mediums did not miss an opportunity to belittle Phoebe’s merits.
Few realized Phoebe was something more than a go-between for the Beyond. Well acquainted over the years with human nature, she would assume during her séances the role of psychoanalyst avant la lettre. Before darkness descended along with the start of the séance, she would patiently hear out her clients, rarely interrupting with a question or comment. Perhaps—not unlike the fraudulent mediums—she took advantage of a chance to acquire useful information. It seems, however, something more was at stake. Like Freud later, she was fascinated by other people’s accounts of missed opportunities, squandered potentials, alternative versions of life that wielded boundless power over the imagination. This too distinguished her from other mediums.
Head of the Couch
In her new life, the thing Phoebe most valued was that her thoughts—up until then so restless—now revolved around one issue: whether the next séance would be just as successful as the last. Such a clearly formulated goal brought inner peace. Wishing to share with others her simple discovery about how to make sense of life, she even contemplated changing her profession. She imagined herself sitting in a comfortable armchair at the head of a couch, on which a patient lay relaxing. She listens attentively and then gives her advice—which is always the same: that he should devote himself to some mission provided he does so absolutely. Apparently, she came quite close to making the change. She was dissuaded, however, by the obtrusive materializations of a German-speaking boy who would reiterate with a persistency worthy of a better cause that such a career had been assigned to him. The toddler kept appearing at the most inappropriate moments until she promised to drop the idea. The visits were so exhausting she never investigated why he had left behind his earthly shell in Europe to plague the Atlantic town as a luminous phantasm.
The Houses’ Fatigue
And now a few words about the town without which there would have been no Phoebe and no séances, without which the spirits would have been condemned to remain forever on the Other Side. Providence is the capital of Rhode Island—the smallest state of the Union, an important hub of New England, the European part of America.
All its streets give the impression of being side streets, so limited is the traffic upon them and so insignificant the role they seem to play in the life of the town. They are like old stage sets stored in a props room, not used for years, but from behind which ghosts of past productions might peep at any moment. The disorientated passer-by will rarely stray this way, overawed by the crushing atmosphere of provincial banality. This type of difficult-to-define atmosphere no doubt had its effect on the imagination of Phoebe Hicks.
Just as the town had formed her, so she had an influence upon the town. Her séances were rightly seen as the source of changes beginning to affect the houses. For the houses of Providence are bursting at the seams. Walls stretch and bulge under the impact of the spirits that inhabit them, of vapours rising from once living matter, of unfinished conversations hanging in the air. Interrupted sentences and questions without answers grow heavier and heavier with time, bloated like dry bread rolls soaking up water. The walls of especially haunted houses are almost oval. Inhabitants of neighbouring towns laugh at Providence and long into the night discuss the superiority of straight lines over crooked. The uncouth nature of the citizens of Johnston, Warwick and Pawtucket stops them troubling to inquire what might cause the walls to swell. Their views have no effect on the habits of the spirits, of course. What’s more, some ghosts, bored by their sojourn in the Beyond, seem to derive a particular pleasure from altering the shapes of the walls. It’s enough to walk down Benefit Street in the late afternoon, when the setting sun casts shadows of gas lanterns against distended façades, emphasizing their absurd forms, to grasp the scale of the disturbing transformations.
Houses in Providence also have wrinkles. No one speaks openly of the connection between the frequency of the séances conducted within them, and the pace of their ageing. It’s an open secret that the shortest séance transforms even quite new façades beyond recognition—as a sleepless night can add years to a human face. From the degree to which the house-paint is cracked or walls are crooked, from the feeling that a ceiling is about to cave in, connoisseurs can tell how often the occupants succumb to their addiction of communing with spirits. As a matter of fact, you don’t have to be a great specialist to observe the symptoms. It’s enough to be born in Providence, or stay there a little while, to see the houses’ fatigue as clear as day.
Gentlemen and Phoebe’s Fury
Some phantoms seem just as astonished by their sojourn in this world as mortals who observe it. Now and then they repeat nonstop the same words or motions, as if trying through familiar gestures and sounds to prove to themselves they again exist. Their maniacal behaviour makes the living attribute offences to them they’ve not committed: breaking a window, spreading fire, displacing objects to weird places, shooting furniture or utensils into the air, making superfluous objects appear in houses, the banging of shutters, the sudden opening of locked doors. Spirits attempt to rebel against the unfair charges, yet few mortals perceive that rebellion.
Phantoms’ looks and physicality also afford misunderstandings. Desiring to see in them ethereal creatures fashioned from congealed mist, séance participants never ceased to wonder when their hands did not sink into a spirit as if into dough, but settled on entirely material skin. Hence the rumours about mediums disguised as ghosts. In this “unclear” situation, some sitters found an excuse for impertinent behaviour. Groping at women arrived from beyond the grave, New England gentlemen risked outbursts of Phoebe’s fury.
It Has Not Yet Shown Its True Colours...
Phoebe’s story seems to belong more to dream than reality, but everything going on in this town creates a similar impression. Even today, female inhabitants of the magic town of Providence are convinced Phoebe Hicks has been reborn in them. Bleached-blond clerks, green-haired students in ripped jeans, bored wives of bankers, are united by a common secret: certainty that they are incarnations of the mediumistic impostor. Her spirit soars over New England’s provincial towns, mingles with the smell of fish and the ocean breeze. For reasons unknown, the guide-books never mention her. Their silence smacks of conspiracy. Like a stubborn memory, the spirit of Phoebe Hicks tethers and smothers the lives of descendants of Atlantic fishermen, great-grandchildren of slave traders, and new immigrants who settled not long ago, unaware of the dangers inherent in the place. It has not yet shown its true colours...
Translated by Ursula Phillips