The Afterimage of Death: Dr. Berkeley's Discovery (1889)

In 1888, the year before Dr. Berkeley’s Discovery was published, Jack the Ripper mutilated his second victim, Annie Chapman. Lacking a witness to the murder, the press wondered if an image of the killer might be preserved on his victim’s retinas — recoverable using the budding science of optography. This was an era when new media seeped into conceptions of the world and self, as sight, hearing, and other senses were extended beyond the body’s traditional reach. Telegraphy offered spiritualists a “medium” through which to conceive of instantaneous communication between the realms; phonography freed the voice from the biological limits of its body, allowing the dead to speak across their graves; and photography became a model for how images are imprinted on the eye and mind. That last analogy begged some questions: If photographs can outlive their subjects, and memory works like photography, do images somehow endure in the brain after death? Could these undead memories be recovered with the right technologies?

Tinkering in his laboratory with microscopic slides, the protagonist of Richard Slee and Cornelia Atwood Pratt’s sci-fi novel, Dr. Berkeley’s Discovery, suddenly yells eureka. He calls his labmate Farrington over to look through the scope. “Carefully focusing the object glass up and down, he studied the field for a while. The thing he saw was merely a view of a crowded city street, and, though wonderful as a micro-photograph, which he immediately assumed it to be, there was nothing about it, on that supposition, to create keen excitement as Berkeley evidently felt.” Things are stranger than they appear. An urban metropolis up close, the specimen on the slide looks, without magnification, like a smattering of “brain-tissue”. Berkeley lets out an unsteady laugh. “What have I to do with micro-photographs? Man! I’ve done what I set out to do. I’ve proved that there are pictures in the brain and that I can develop them—for that is a section of brain-tissue and it came—it came from the Centre of Memory!”

Like so many tragedies, the book begins with marriage. Ashford Berkeley is an absorbed scientist — absorbed in his work, absorbed in himself — living a life abroad after an undisclosed accident of youth. Tellingly, he does not “meet” his future wife, Aline Lefevre; “she came into his field of vision one evening in Paris”. He fails at making conversation; she doesn’t mind at all. “She had read that in America it was only the women that talked.” And so, Aline carries forth on her schooling in England, contemporary art, how she admires “the things that are new”. Ashford stares at his feet, tells her that she should visit America, “which is very new.” They marry and move to New York, but they put off “getting acquainted”: he is too busy with science. Aline grows wistful; Ashford neglects her for months on end. He takes her to France, leaves her with an aunt for the summer, flees back to New York to work alongside Farrington on his one true love, science. She writes long, impassioned letters, which are reproduced at length. We never see him respond. There is talk of Aline returning home early. Time passes and the letters grow sedate, “as if they were carefully made to conform to some pattern the girl kept in her mind of what such letters ought to be”.

Meantime, Farrington is sore that Berkeley beat him to the scientific discovery of the century, and jealous of his labmate’s new wife, whom he has yet to meet. Waking late after a long evening in the laboratory, he buys the morning paper and reads about a bloody crime just a few blocks away in New York. A hotel reported that a “M. et Mme. Massoneau, France” had checked in to a private parlor the previous evening, before the husband, in an agitated state, asked for directions to Jersey City and Chicago. A housekeeper later heard groans behind the door and entered to find Mme. Massoneau soaked in blood and clutching an oriental dagger. Suicide is suspected until the plot grows more sinister. “M. Massoneau” seems to be a lover with whom the woman eloped to escape married life in France. Farrington visits her in the hospital and hears her final words. “Tell—my—husband—”, but she doesn’t finish the sentence. The coroner hires Farrington to do the autopsy, and his examinations reveal very little — it seems like “a case for Sherlock Holmes”. Nevertheless, he brings her brain back to the laboratory; after dragging his feet, Berkeley prepares the slides. His beloved technique, his sole devotion and pursuit for so many years, is working once again. He starts to see dim memories of childhood. Autumn at an English boarding school. The streets of Paris. A joyful wedding. His own two eyes. . .

We know almost nothing about Richard Slee, whom is unfortunately sometimes credited as the sole author of Dr. Berkeley’s Discovery. On the other hand, Cornelia Atwood Pratt (1865–1929) is a forgotten nineteenth-century force. Born in Ohio, she graduated from Vassar before working as a journalist in Seattle. She wrote for popular periodicals like the Critic, the Century, and Harper’s Weekly, and served as a tastemaker for new literary forms on the cusp of modernism: “the map of the world and the atmosphere of civilization are changing radically”, she wrote in 1901. “A corresponding change in art should not be surprising.” Her short story collections, A Book of Martyrs (1896) and The Preliminaries (1912), were widely reviewed, as was her novel, The Daughter of a Stoic (1896). Reading her polemic — “Letter to the Rising Generation” (1911), published in the Atlantic Monthly — we see that Dr. Berkeley’s Discovery is barely science fiction. Cornelia Atwood Pratt believed that she was living on the cusp of a new historical era:

The brain-specialists and the psycho­logists between them have given in the last ten years what seems conclusive proof of the servitude of the body to the Self. . . . Coming as this psychological discov­ery does, in the middle of an age of unparalleled mechanical invention and discovery, it is almost—is it not?—as if the Creator of men had said, “It is time that these children of mine came to maturity. I will give them at last their full mastery over the earth and over the air and over the spirits of themselves. Let us see how they bear themselves under these gifts.”
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