A Note on the Summer 2017 Issue
"Unpredictably, but with purpose"—the last line of James Longenbach's remarkable poem "The Academy," which you'll find on page 129 of our Summer number—aptly describes the way an issue of Raritan comes together. "Unpredictably" for many reasons: we don't know what manuscripts will come in unsolicited; the imperatives to publish one piece over another vary from issue to issue; we don't plan theme issues; the line-up in our queue can change unexpectedly. "With purpose" because there is an ineffable but real Raritan spirit that governs the editorial process, from the selection of manuscripts down to the line edits.
The Summer issue nicely illustrates the unpredictable boon of unsolicited submissions. To my surprise, every piece in this issue—excepting Gene McCarraher's review of Chris Lehmann's The Money Cult—turns out to have come in over the transom, some from previous and valued contributors such as Adam Phillips and George Toles and others from writers and thinkers new to our pages. I had never heard of a Lichtenberg figure or of an eighteenth-century German aristocrat and amateur scientist named Adolf Traugott von Gersdorf until I read William Firebrace's fascinating account of Gersdorf's creation of over 1,300 Lichtenberg figures—electrical pictures created "when dust formed patterns on a resin cake" charged by some electrical source, such as lightning. Firebrace discovered Gersdorf's images, the record of his scientific experiments, in a small museum in a small German town. Firebrace's discovery prompted his own exploration of Gersdorf, of the late-eighteenth-century interest in electricity, and of the connection between art and science that is a peculiar feature of that period, before the division between the two cultures had hardened. There is a lovely symmetry between Gersdorf's attempt to catch a glimpse of another world through his electrical experiments and Firebrace's own desire to bear witness to and reconstruct Gersdorf's world.
Other worlds open up, too, in Megan Vaughan's study of a little-known neurologist, Hugh Stannus Stannus, whose description of Tropical Neurasthenia was based on his work and research in Nyasaland, "a remote and recently colonized corner of British Central Africa" (present-day Zomba, Malawi) between 1905 and 1918; in William Casement's essay, a peek into the rarefied world of art forgery and authentication; in Charles Bardes's "Distortions on Tudor Physicians," poems adapted from the writings and medical records of physicians of the Tudor period; and in "Caldera," a short fiction structured as a dialogue between two individuals who work for "the agency" (or as one of the agents calls it, "the question business"), which tells a tale that seems to be set in our world, and yet is so strange and disorienting—so corroded by suspicion and doubt—as to pull readers into the state of uncertainty and paranoia experienced by the speakers themselves. We trust you will be as surprised and delighted by these unsolicited submissions as we were.
One reader wrote to me shortly after the issue appeared to share his delight, noting that he especially liked the way William James seems to "haunt" the issue. It's a fair observation. (Indeed, William James haunts Raritan under the editorship of Jackson Lears in much the way Ralph Waldo Emerson haunted Raritan under the editorship of Richard Poirier.) This haunting is apparent not only in Adam Phillips's illuminating exploration of James's understanding of the idea of conversion, or in Megan Vaughan's reference to James as one of many late nineteenth-century men to reflect on "the melancholy and agitation that assailed the white man in the tropics," or in Gene McCarraher's invocation of James's phrase "ontological wonder" to describe "a way of seeing appropriate to sacrament." The spectral Jamesian presence exists, too, in the notion of a life—or even a quarterly magazine--moving forward, "unpredictably, but with purpose."