Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Some Brief Notes on Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo, Ghosts, and the Wax Cylinder Recording of Robert Browning

*Numerous spoilers ahead*

Lake Mungo is a movie about an Australian girl who drowns.  Which is troubling in its own right to be sure, but her family is further vexed by the presence of her ghost, haunting their house and appearing in photographs and videos.  As the film progresses, and her family—mother, father, brother—learn more about her, it becomes apparent that Alice, in the months before her death, was leading a secret life.  First off, the neighboring parents for whom she was baby-sitting were having sex with her (her parents find a sex tape, the sex appears to be consensual, I don’t know what the age of consent is in Australia, I don’t want to look it up, but for the record, Alice is sixteen).  And second, and perhaps worst of all, several months before she died, Alice was confronted by the ghost of her future drowned self (which she managed to videotape on her cell phone, of course).

The sadness of Lake Mungo: Alice is a girl confronted by the reality of death.  Perhaps she is also confronted by the horror of adulthood.  She is unable to discuss her “issues” with her parents, which would be sad under any circumstances, but especially when you’ve just seen a doppelganger of your dead future self.  Perhaps that is when one genuinely becomes an adult: when one can no longer consult one’s parents.  Michel Houellebecq has this excellent line at the beginning of his novel Platform: “I don’t subscribe to the theory that we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult.”  Alice is also isolated and alone, and not just because she’s having sex with the neighbors, but because her knowledge (or rather, foreknowledge) of death makes her different than other people.  Her friends in the movie all sound like idiots; clearly they would have nothing to say on the subject of death, or at least nothing useful.  Death is the ultimate separation; the horror of death is the horror of isolation.  Before her actual death, Alice experiences a living death that erects a barrier between her and everyone else.  One gets the impression that she had become increasingly ghostly even before the appearance on the scene of her ghost.

The popularity of so-called spirit photography in the Victorian era and the subsequent fascination with capturing traces of ghosts on tape or video was probably an inevitable outcome of the developments of these technologies.  For the first time in the history of humanity, we could capture the voices and the real-life images of people and preserve them long after the people in question had died.  When you watch a film of a person who has subsequently died, or hear a recording of their voice, you are in a sense watching or hearing a ghost.  There is no historical precedent for this.  The human species has spent the vast majority of its history without these technologies and the “ghosts” they capture.  Imagine the psychic disruption this must have had on us. 

The following anecdote is illustrative: in 1889, just before his death, the British poet Robert Browning was recorded on wax cylinder attempting to recite his poem, “How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.” I say “attempting” because after a few lines he exclaims, “I am terribly sorry, but I can't remember me own verses.” After his death, a group of his friends gathered to listen to the recording, and the effect on them was staggering.  This was probably one of the first times in human history that the voice of a man was heard after the man’s death.  There was no way to psychologically prepare for this.  For the persons assembled, it must have been the voice of a ghost.

Here is the Browning recording:

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