Giphantia: an 18th century Photographic Dream?

The title page of Giphantia; or a view of what has passed, what is now passing, and, During the present century, what will pass in the world, translated from the French Original, with explanatory notes , 1761.

Recently I came across this intriguing passage in an 18th century French novel, Giphantia, which tells the tale of a man whirled up in a sandstorm and taken to a distant land where he meets the Elementary Spirits who guard the human race. The Prefect of the island shows him a series of wonders, including a globe-like mechanism by which ‘everything that passes in all parts of the world is seen and heard’ (Chap.VII) – the man is able to eavesdrop anywhere in the world by placing a rod against the globe, and by adding a mirror to the rod (Chap.XI) he is able to observe happenings across the earth. Unsurprisingly, his observations provide material for a series of wry Voltairean comments on human behaviour.

This is all what one might expect from 18th century France – the concept is not unlike that found in Zadig or Candide – but things take an intriguing turn in Chapter XVII, ‘The Storm’, when the author is shown a great storm through what he thinks is a window. But when he runs over to look out, his head strikes the wall and he realises that the images is projected onto a flat surface. As he relates the process by which this image was created, he seems almost to anticipate the invention of photography:

The Elementary Spirits (continued the Prefect) are not so able painters as naturalists; thou shalt judge by their way of working. Thou knowest that the rays of light, reflected from different bodies, make a picture and paint the bodies upon all polished surfaces, on the retina of the eye for instance, on water, on glass. The Elementary Spirits have studied to fix these transient images: they have composed a most subtle matter, very viscous, and proper to harden and dry, by the help of which a picture is made in a twinkle of an eye. They do over with this matter a piece of canvas, and hold it before the objects they have in mind to paint; The first effect of the canvas is that of a mirrour; there are seen upon it all the bodies far and near, whose image the light can transmit. But what the glass cannot do, the canvas, by means of the viscous matter, retains the images. The mirrour shows the objects exactly, but keeps none; our canvas shows them with the same exactness, and retains them all. This impression of the images is made the first instant they are received on the canvas, which is immediately carried away into some dark place; an hour after, the subtle matter dries, and you have a picture, so much the more valuable, as it cannot be imitated by art nor damaged by time.

The title page of a later edition.

So who was the author of this extraordinary work? Well, there’s a hint in the title – ‘Giphantie’ is an anagram of ‘Tiphaigne’ and the writer, Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche, was born at Montebourg, Cotentin, on 19 February 1722. After studying medicine at the University of Caen he began practising as a physician in 1744, with his first writings appearing soon after. His medical training may have had some influence on his work, for his anonymous novels are a blend of science, rationalism, alchemy and magic:

L’Amour dévoilé; Ou, le système des sympathistes (1749) proposes a physical cause for human affection – namely, a form of sweat. It was later translated into English as Love Unveiled; Or, the Theory of Sympathism. The theory might seem far-fetched, but it represented a materialistic approach to human behaviour that was typical of the time, deliberately breaking away from conventional explanations of mutual attraction that drew on Christian theology and classical mythology. His next novel,  Amilec, ou la graine d’hommes (Paris: Michel Lambert, 1753), uses the same dream/vision device as Giphantia, this time in order to explore the notion of inhabited planets while satirizing contemporary society. It was translated into English as Amilec, or the Seeds of Mankind (London : printed for W. Needham; and sold by M. Cooper, 1753.)  Bigarrures philosophiques (1759), or ‘Philosophical Streaks’, comprises three sections – Visions of Ibrahim, Voyage to Limbo, and An Essay on the Human Soul, and was followed by the more conventional Essai sur l’histoire œconomique des mers occidentales de France (Paris : Chez Claude-Jean-Baptiste Bauche, 1760.) Returning to the fantastic, L’empire des Zaziris sur les humains, ou La zazirocratie (Pekin [i.e. Paris]:  1761) introduces the Zasiris, mysterious sylph-like beings who live among us on earth and influence human destiny. His final work, L’Histoire des Galligènes ou mémoire de Duncan (Amsterdam, Chez Arkstée & Merkus,  Paris: La Veuve Durand, 1765) sees a Frenchman named Duncan shipwrecked on a distant island inhabited by the Galligènes, whose utopian society is founded on principles of common ownership, sexual promiscuity, free speech and religious tolerance.

Given the provocative nature of some of these ideas in pre-Revolutionary France, it is no surprise that Tiphaigne published these works anonymously. Giphantie was published in 1760 with the place of publication given as ‘Babylon.’

The visionary passage above might be dismissed as pure fancy, and its similarities to photographic methods pure coincidence – but this was almost eighty years before Talbot and Daguerre announced their discoveries, at least fifty years before Joseph Nicéphore Niépce began his experiments in what he called héliographie, and some thirty to forty years prior to Thomas Wedgwood’s success in capturing images on paper with silver nitrate. Sadly, Tiphaigne de la Roche did not live to see any of these – he died on 11 August 1774.

Those interested in reading more about this unusual author should consult Jacques Marx, Tiphaigne de la Roche: Modèles de l’imaginaire au XVIIIe siècle. (Brussels: Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1981.)

Ghoulies, ghosties and long-leggety beasties..

At a postcard fair in Broadclyst last summer I picked up three postcards with the title ‘A Cornish Litany.’ All three are the work of Stanley T Chaplin, and belong to a set of twelve postcards, but the background to their production turned out to be murkier than expected. First of all, what is this ‘Cornish Litany’?

Litanies are sets of prayers arranged in the form of a list of petitions, usually sung or chanted by cantors, to which others provide responses. These vary according to the nature of the petition: the name of saint invites the response Ora pro nobis (Pray for us), a general prayer has the reponse Te rogamus, audi nos (We ask you to hear us), while reference to some evil or misfortune – such as ghosts and ghoulies – requires the response Libera nos, Domine (Deliver us, Lord.) In the traditional litany of saints, these calamities include omni malo (all evil), omni peccato (all sin), insídiis diaboli.(the devil’s wiles), fulgure et tempestate (lightning and storm), a flagello terrae motus (earthquake), a peste (plague), fame et bello (famine and war)…etc. There’s nothing here resembling the contents of the Cornish litany. One explanation for this is that it was a local and perhaps unauthorised ritual, one that was used orally and was never recorded in a liturgical book. Some have claimed that it dates back to the 14th or 15th centuries, but such prayers would then have been in Latin, and the absence of any textual record for several hundred years – linking Pre-Reformation usage to a vernacular translation – is hard to comprehend. Tracing the origins of this phrase has proved far harder than one might have imagined. ‘Long-leggety beastie’ sounds like a distinctively Scottish pronunciation, and indeed in the anthology A Beggar’s Wallet (Edinburgh & London, 1905), edited by Archibald Stodart Walker, there is a contribution by Hugh Munro Warrand which is prefaced with a ‘Scots’ version:

Frae ghosties and ghoulies, long-leggetie beasties,
And things that go bump in the night,
Good lord deliver us.
– From a quaint old Litany

However, the fact that only the first word is distinctively Scots suggests to me that this ‘quaint old Litany’ was merely an attempt to ‘Scotticize’ a phrase which had been acquired from some other source. A few years later James Withers Gill, a former colonial administrator who helped catalogue the African collections in Exeter’s RAMM, published a scholarly article on ‘Hausa Speech, Its Wit and Wisdom’ in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1918), p.46, in which he remarks casually of the inhabitants of Hausaland in the Sudan: ‘To a people nourished on mystery who, in spite of their fatalistic creed, believe in genii, ghosts, goblins, and those terrific things that “go bump in the night”, protective charms are eagerly sought for.’ Again, the phrase is cited without any explanation, as if the author regarded it as commonplace.

Then, eight years later, Francis T. Nettleinghame published his Polperro Proverbs & Others (Polperro Press for the Cornish Arts Association, 1926) in which he describes the thriving pokerwork industry in Polperro. Pokerwork, or pyrography (“fire-writing”) involves using heated tools to burn designs into wooden objects and craftworkers in Polperro were doing particularly well selling products that featured ‘the Cornish or West country litany.’ The artwork for these wares was undertaken by Arthur Wragg, rather than Chaplin.

That’s really the limit of my knowledge, but an American collector named Debra Meister has done a great deal of research and self-published a book, A Litany…Cornish and Otherwise, which is now in its third edition. I haven’t seen the book yet, but may try and pick up a copy soon. Other sources of information include:

Donald T. Matter, ‘The Cornish Litany, a Prayer for All Times’, The McLintock Letter: the quarterly newsletter of the South Jersey Postcard Club. Vol. 11, No.5 (October 2011), pp.1-2
Susan Hack-Lane, ‘A New Look at the Old Cornish Litany’ in Postcard World Magazine (November-December 2011), pp.7-9.