The New York Times
The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Deathby John Gray (2)
A Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011 Title
At the heart of human experience lies an obsession with the nature of death. Religion, for most of history, has provided an explanation for human life and a vision of what comes after it. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such beliefs came under relentless pressure as new ideas&/p>/i>
A Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011 Title
At the heart of human experience lies an obsession with the nature of death. Religion, for most of history, has provided an explanation for human life and a vision of what comes after it. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such beliefs came under relentless pressure as new ideas—from psychiatry to evolution to communism—seemed to suggest that our fate was now in our own hands: humans could cease to be animals, defeat death, and become immortal.
In The Immortalization Commission, the acclaimed political philosopher and critic John Gray takes a brilliant and frightening look at humankind's dangerous striving toward a scientific version of immortality. Probing the parallel faiths of Bolshevik "God-builders," who sought to reshape the planet and psychical researchers, who believed they had evidence of a nonreligious form of life after death, Gray raises fascinating questions about how such beliefs threaten the very nature of what it means to be human. He looks to philosophers, journalists, politicians, charlatans, and mass murderers who all felt driven by a specifically scientific and modern worldview and whose revolt against death resulted in a series of experiments that ravaged whole countries.
An urgent examination of Darwin's post-religious legacy, The Immortalization Commission is an important work from "one of Britain's leading public intellectuals" (The Wall Street Journal).
The New York Times
“Beautifully conceived and executed . . . Deftly blending philosophy and history, [The Immortalization Commission] rips along with the narrative drive of the most vivid fiction.” Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast
“A chilling reflection on the post-Darwinian world.” Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
“The British philosopher and freewheeling intellectual John Gray is in serious danger of making philosophy exciting and fun to read . . . Gray captures the hilarious audacity and absurdity of the search for immortality, one that could be conceived only by such charmingly quixotic creatures as human beings . . . A fascinating piece of intellectual history.” Clancy Martin, The New York Times
“John Gray is a connoisseur of human idiocy. In this brief, modest-seeming yet profound book he makes his most compelling plea yet for man to come to his senses and stop dreaming of immortality, for himself and for the earth.” John Banville, The Guardian
“Enthralling. . . John Gray's superb meditation on our desire for immortality makes for an enthralling read. ” Richard Holloway, The Observer
“An engrossing double-act play about scientific hubris.” Thomas Meaney, The Wall Street Journal
“A core strength of this engrossing book lies in his readiness to take absurd endeavours seriously and to consider morally complex individuals sympathetically.” Marek Kohn, The Independent
“The author is undoubtedly one of the most important and insightful polemicists currently writing in English. Like most of Gray's work, this book is filled with diverting anecdotes and ironic asides, yet swells to a powerful philosophical conclusion . . . An engaging additional chapter in its author's long-running campaign to expose the quasi-religious and magical thinking that underpins our visions of progress.” Stephen Cave, The Financial Times
British political philosopher and critic Gray (European Thought/London School of Economics; Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, 2007, etc.) explores the great quest for eternal life.
The author's noteworthy analysis plumbs the great enigma of death and the afterlife, pitting the ideas of rigid Victorian-era skeptics against more progressive-thinking individuals like 19th-century philosophers Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers. Both men eschewed the popularity of secular thinking and grew eager for proof of paranormal phenomena and philosophies delivered outside the realms of religious ideology or "scientific materialism." Automatism, cross-correspondence (communications with the spiritual world), séances, mediums and subliminal though—all were vigorously investigated by Sidgwick, Myers and others, however stymied by the naturalistic theories of Charles Darwin, who asserted that a belief in human immortality only served to cushion the inevitable likelihood of universal extinction. Gray also examines Russian secular pseudo-religion dubbed the "God-builders," who sought "deliverance from a chaotic world" and argued that science was capable of demonstrating death as a passage to another plane of consciousness. One such advocate was Russian diplomat Leonid Krasin, who attempted to freeze Lenin in the hopes of reviving him via "scientific resurrection." But these beliefs can be challenged and overturned, Gray asserts, as in the history of author H.G. Wells, whose torrid love affair with a suspected Russian double-agent altered his lifelong belief in controlled evolution. Of course, more contemporary means of techno-immortalism, such as cryonics, calorie-restricted diets and nanotechnology, can be challenged, the author contends, by basic theism. Writing with stiff, academic solemnity, Gray evenhandedly weighs source material from books, poetry and quoted dialogue and rhetorically offers cautionary trepidation toward a subject that continues to bewilder: "What could be more deadly than being unable to die?"
An occasionally dry but profound exploration into the unknown.
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The Immortalization Commission
It is an illusion that we were ever alive, Lived in the houses of mothers, arranged ourselves By our own motions in a freedom of air ... Even our shadows, their shadows, no longer remain. These lives lived in the mind are at an end. They never were ...
The seance that Charles Darwin attended on 16 January 1874 at the house of his brother Erasmus at 6 Queen Anne Street, London, brought Darwin together with Francis Galton, anthropologist, eugenicist, Darwin's half cousin and one of the founders of the modern science of psychology, and George Eliot, the novelist who explored more deeply than any other the ambiguities of mid-Victorian life. All three were anxious that the rise of Spiritualism would block the advance of science. Darwin found the experience 'hot and tiring' and left before anything unusual happened - sparks were seen, table rapping heard and chairs lifted on to the table - and another seance was held,eleven days later, with his son George Darwin and T. H. Huxley acting as Darwin's representatives. After they reported that the mediums were using sleight of hand, Darwin wrote: 'now to my mind an enormous weight of evidence would be requisite to make one believe in anything beyond mere trickery ... I am pleased to think that I declared to all my family, the day before yesterday, that the more I thought of all that had happened at Queen Anne Street, the more convinced I was it was all imposture.'
Others committed to scientific materialism had a similar reaction. Galton confessed he was 'utterly confounded' by some of the things he had witnessed at seances; but under the influence of Thomas Huxley, 'Darwin's bulldog' and a fervent materialist, Galton recanted, and in later life rejected Spiritualism entirely. Despite having a long interest in the equally doubtful creeds of phrenology and mesmerism, George Eliot was consistently hostile to Spiritualism, condemning it as 'either degrading folly, imbecile in the estimate of evidence, or else an impudent imposture'. Huxley, who coined the term 'agnosticism', was most dogmatic, declaring that he would refuse to investigate the phenomena even if they were genuine.
The three missionaries of materialism would have been even more concerned had they known the future career of a fourth participant in the seance, F. W. H. Myers. The inventor of the word 'telepathy' and a pioneer in the investigation of subliminal mental processes, Frederic Myers went on to be one of the founders and presidentsof the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Henry Sidgwick, one of the most respected thinkers of the Victorian age, was its first president. Later presidents included the philosophers William James (the elder brother of the novelist Henry James), Henri Bergson and the Nobel-prize-winning physiologist Charles Richet. The Society attracted writers and poets such as John Ruskin and Alfred Lord Tennyson and politicians and prime ministers such as W. E. Gladstone and Arthur Balfour. Leading scientists joined, two of whom - Lord Rayleigh, the Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge who married Balfour's sister Evelyn, and Sir William Barrett, a physicist who believed he had demonstrated the reality of 'thought-transference' (in Myers' coinage, telepathy) - went on to become SPR presidents.
The purpose of the SPR was to examine paranormal phenomena in 'an unbiased and scientific way'. These Victorian seekers believed the paranormal must be investigated using scientific methods, and demonstrated their commitment by exposing the fraudulent character of table-rapping, ectoplasm, spirit photography, letters materializing from mysterious mahatmas and the like. But their commitment was never to the whole range of scientific knowledge. It focused mainly on the question that preoccupied nearly all of them: whether death is the end for the conscious human individual. They pursued their inquiries indefatigably, continuing to communicate their findings to fellow researchers - if automatic writings are to be believed - even after they died.
Myers died in a clinic in Rome in January 1901, where he had gone at the suggestion of William James to receive an experimental treatment for Bright's disease. According to the doctor who treated Myers, James and Myers had made 'a solemn pact' that 'whichever of them was to die first should send a message to the other as he passed over into the unknown - they believed in the possibility of such communication'. James, who was also at the clinic receiving treatment, was so grief-stricken that he could not bring himself to stay in the room where Myers was dying. Even so, he tried to receive the message his friend had promised to send:
he sank down on a chair by the open door, his note-book on his knees, pen in hand, ready to take down the message with his usual methodical exactitude ... When I went away William James was still sitting leaning back in his chair, his hands over his face, his open note-book on his knees. The page was blank.
A further attempt also seemed to draw a blank, when another sealed envelope Myers had left with the psychical investigator Sir Oliver Lodge was opened in December 1904. The letter failed to correspond with messages automatists claimed to have been receiving from Myers, though it did contain a reference to a formative episode in Myers' life, long kept secret, which would feature prominently in later scripts.
The efforts of Sidgwick and Myers to communicate from beyond the grave had come to nothing. That did not dampen the hope that he would continue the attempt.
Myers was among several ostensible authors of a series of interconnected automatic writings produced over several decades by mediums in different parts of the world, seemingly with the aim of demonstrating the fact that human personality survived the death of the body. Another ostensible author of the scripts was Edmund Gurney, a gifted musician, classical scholar and SPR founder-member. Gurney suffered a devastating loss when three of his sisters were drowned in an accident on the Nile, and he died in 1888 at the age of forty-one, most likely by accident, while using chloroform. A third was Sidgwick himself, one of the presiding sages of the Victorian age. Other purported communicators included Francis Maitland Balfour, a Cambridge biologist and brother of Arthur Balfour, who died in a climbing accident in 1882; Annie Marshall, the wife of a cousin of Myers with whom Myers had fallen in love, who committed suicide in 1876; Mary Lyttelton, with whom Arthur Balfour had been in love, who died of typhus in 1875; and Laura Lyttelton, Mary's sister-in-law, who died in childbirth in 1886.
The 'cross-correspondences' seem to have begun in 1901, when the first of a number of practitioners of automatic writing, all of them women but only one a professional medium, began to receive texts claiming to come from Myers. The automatists included Mrs Verrall, the wife of a Cambridge classical scholar; Mrs Verrall's daughter Helen, wife of W. H. Salter, a lawyer who became president of the SPR; 'Mrs Holland', a pseudonym usedby psychical researchers to conceal the identity of Alice Fleming, the wife of the British army officer John Fleming stationed in India and sister of Rudyard Kipling, who is believed to have authored or co-authored some of Kipling's early Indian tales; 'Mrs Willett', the pseudonym of Winifred Coombe-Tennant, suffragist and British representative at the League of Nations, who took up automatic writing while trying to communicate with a beloved daughter who had died; and the one professional medium, Mrs Piper.
It was Mrs Verrall who, on 5 March 1901, received the first decipherable script. Though at that point doubtful of the reality of survival, she had begun practising automatic writing earlier that year in the belief that if Myers had survived she could be a channel for his post-mortem communications. Over the following years a number of other automatists joined her in receiving texts claiming to be authored by Myers. In 1902 Mrs Verrall received messages that seemed to link up with those received by Mrs Piper, then in America, and in 1903 'Mrs Holland', at the time in India, sent a script addressed to Mrs Verrall in Cambridge. 'Mrs Holland', who suffered a mental breakdown in 1898 that the Kipling family attributed to her experiments in automatic writing, had given up the practice for several years. She resumed after reading Myers' book Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, in which Myers had suggested that only clear evidence of intention on the part of a group of people acting together from beyond the grave could ever prove survival beyond reasonabledoubt. Not long after, 'Mrs Holland' began to receive scripts signed 'FWHM'.
Leading psychical researchers soon came to believe that Myers was engaged in the experiment he had proposed in his book. In 1908 Eleanor Sidgwick, the wife of Henry Sidgwick and also a leading psychical researcher, asked:
have we got into relation with minds which have survived bodily death, and endeavouring by means of the cross-correspondences to provide evidence of their operation? If this ... hypothesis be the true one it would mean that intelligent cooperation between other than embodied human minds and our own, in experiments of a new kind intended to prove continued existence, has become possible.
Even when they were themselves firmly convinced, psychical researchers knew that none of the phenomena they studied proved survival to be a fact. Only clearly interlinked communications coming through several channels over a period of time could show that post-mortem minds were at work. The result was a deeply puzzling body of texts, in which - as one psychical researcher who studied it carefully wrote - 'the material to be investigated experimented on itself'.
The theory that the scripts contained cross-correspondences designed to give proof of life after death was first set out in June 1908 by Alice Johnson, a member of the SPR known for her critical outlook:
The characteristic of these cases - or at least some of them - is that we do not get in the writing of one automatist anything like a mechanical verbatim reproduction of phrases in the other; we do not even get the same idea expressed in different ways, - as might well result from direct telepathy between them. What we get is a fragmentary utterance in one script, which seems to have no particular point or meaning, and another fragmentary utterance in the other of an equally pointless character; but when we put the two together, we see that they supplement one another, and there is apparently one idea underlying both, but only partially expressed in each.
... Now, granting the possibility of communication, it may be supposed that within the last few years a certain group of persons has been trying to communicate with us, who are sufficiently well instructed to know all the objections that reasonable sceptics have urged against all the previous evidence and sufficiently intelligent to realise to the full all the force of these objections. It may be supposed that these persons have invented a new plan - the plan of cross-correspondences - to meet the sceptics' objections.
The automatists, investigators and ostensible authors of the scripts, though at times separated by thousands of miles, were linked in many ways. Mrs Verrall had known Sidgwick, Myers and Gurney, while Mrs Salter and Mrs Piper had known Myers, who married one of the sisters of Winifred Coombe-Tennant's husband. All the automatists were familiar, in differing degrees, with the main communicators. Sidgwick's wife Eleanor, who became the SPR president and studied the cross-correspondences closely over many years, was Arthur Balfour's older sister,while Gerald Balfour, also an SPR president, who analysed the cross-correspondences at length while playing a hidden role in them, was Arthur Balfour's younger brother. Jean Balfour, Gerald Balfour's daughter-in-law, became the main archivist of the scripts.
The people involved in the cross-correspondences belonged in the topmost stratum of Edwardian society. Many of those involved had suffered agonizing bereavements; some had long-hidden personal relationships. The scripts became a vehicle for unresolved personal loss, and for secret love.
Some of the many thousands of pages that flowed from the automatists had to do with issues bearing on the question of survival, such as the relations of the mind with the brain. The project that was revealed in the automatic writings went beyond proving that the human mind survived death, however. The scripts were also the vehicle for a programme of world-salvation, involving a liaison between two of the people most closely implicated in their production - a Story and a Plan, as the scripts put it, to intervene in history and deliver humanity from chaos.
The involvement of leading figures in psychical research posed a powerful challenge to scientific materialism. Darwin was in no doubt about the threat. The man he acknowledged as the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, had concluded that the human mind could not have developed simply as a result of evolution. Wallace's response to Spiritualism was in some ways highly credulous - he was an ardent defender of 'spirit photography', for example. Worse, from Darwin'spoint of view, he described Spiritualism as 'a science based solely on facts', declaring that he knew that 'non-human intelligences exist - that there are minds disconnected from a physical brain, - that there is, therefore, a spiritual world ... and such knowledge must modify my views as to the origin and nature of human faculty'.
Darwin was dismayed when, in April 1869, in an article in the Quarterly Review, Wallace suggested that the human mind could only be the work of an 'Overruling Intelligence'. Before the article appeared Darwin had written to Wallace, 'I shall be intensely curious to read the Quarterly: I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.' That was just what Wallace had done.
Though they admired and respected one another, Darwin and Wallace were very different personalities. From a poor family, self-taught and always hard up, Wallace was fearless in following his own line of thinking. His travels had left him with the conviction that life among primitive peoples was more civilized than that of the poor in advanced countries, so he became a political radical and advocated land nationalization. His conversion to Spiritualism was part of a lifetime of heresy. The result was that Wallace was soon virtually forgotten, while Darwin's ingrained caution secured him a reputation for iconoclasm that only increased with time.
Wallace's conversion to Spiritualism posed a challenge to Darwin's entire enterprise. Aiming to overturn the belief that 'man is divided by an insuperable barrier from all the lower animals in his mental faculties', Darwin argued in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that the most distinctively 'human' faculties evolved from animal abilities. Wallace wanted to rebuild the barrier between humans and other animals that Darwin had pulled down. In effect Wallace was advancing an early version of the theory of Intelligent Design, applied to the human mind.
Wallace's theory may not be very plausible. A glance at any human should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being. Still, Wallace had raised questions that Darwin was extremely reluctant to confront. Darwin avoided public discussion of his religious beliefs. He seems to have moved from theism to agnosticism mainly as a result of the death of his beloved daughter Annie, rather than as a consequence of his discovery of natural selection. Yet the implication of natural selection was clear. Humans had no special place in the scheme of things.
Despite his caution, Darwin shattered the uneasy peace that sheltered religion from attack in mid-Victorian England. Until the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, agnostics could leave open the possibility that the human species was specially created. After that time another view of things was available, in which humans belonged in the natural world along with their animal kin.
John Stuart Mill (1806 - 73), along with Sidgwick one of the most influential Victorian public intellectuals(whose On Liberty was published, like Darwin's Origin of Species, in 1859), wrote several essays on religion, published posthumously by his wife Harriet, without ever mentioning Darwin. In a curious way, Mill's empiricist philosophy enabled him to side-step the issues Darwin had raised. Viewing the material world as a construction of the human mind, empiricism gives consciousness a kind of centrality in the scheme of things. Sense-impressions are the basis of knowledge; physical objects are assembled from these impressions. Darwinism, on the other hand, laid the ground for reductive materialism - a philosophy in which mind is just a local episode in the history of matter.
Contrary to the cartoon history of ideas that prevails today, Darwinism's threat to religion did not come principally from challenging the biblical account of creation. Until a few centuries ago the Genesis story was known to be a myth - a poetic way of rendering truths that would otherwise be inaccessible. At the beginning of the Christian religion, Augustine warned against the dangers of literalism. The Jewish scholars who preceded him always viewed the Genesis story as a metaphor for truths that could not be accessed in any other way. It was only with the rise of modern science that the Genesis myth came to be misunderstood as an explanatory theory.
Yet Darwinism was still a major threat to religion, for it confronted Victorians with the prospect of their final mortality. Darwin forced them to ask why their lives should not end like those of other animals, in nothingness. If this was so, how could human existence have meaning?How could human values be maintained if human personality was destroyed at death?
The Cosmos of Duty is thus really reduced to a Chaos: and the prolonged effort of the human intellect to frame a perfect ideal of conduct is seen to have been foredoomed to inevitable failure.
No one was more haunted by these questions than Henry Sidgwick. Like his friend Myers, Sidgwick was the son of an Anglican clergyman. Along with many eminent Victorians he could not accept revealed religion. Unlike most of them Sidgwick acted on his doubts and in 1869 resigned from his Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, which required Fellows to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of Anglican doctrine. Much admired at Trinity, he was reappointed as a lecturer in Moral Science. Later Sidgwick became a professor and resumed his Fellowship. He never returned to the Christian faith he had lost. But neither did he give up hoping that theism - the belief in a Supreme Being that created the universe - might be true:
It is now a long time since I could even imagine myself believing in Christianity in any orthodox fashion ...
But as regards Theism the case is different ... I do not know whether I believe or merely hope that there is a moral order in this universe that we know, a supreme principle of Wisdom andBenevolence, guiding all things to good ends, and to the happiness of the Good ... Duty to me is as real a thing as the physical world, though it is not apprehended in the same way; but all my apparent knowledge of duty falls into chaos if my belief in the moral government of the world is conceived to be withdrawn.
Well, I cannot reconcile myself to disbelief in duty; in fact, if I did, I should feel that the last barrier between me and complete philosophic scepticism, or disbelief in truth altogether, was broken down. Therefore I sometimes say to myself 'I believe in God'; while sometimes again I can say no more than 'I hope this belief is true, and I must and will act as if it was'.
Here Sidgwick gives the reason for his continuing need for belief in God. Unless theism is true there can be no 'moral government of the world'. In that case, living by any code of duty is senseless.
In arguing for the necessity of theism Sidgwick was not accepting the authority of religion. A thoroughly modern thinker, he accepted science as the standard by which all knowledge must be judged. If death was the end the world was chaotic; but Sidgwick could not take life hereafter on trust. He had to have proof, and only science could supply that.
Describing the scientific approach that he and his friends brought to psychical research, Sidgwick declared:
We believed unreservedly in the methods of modern science, and were prepared to accept submissively her reasoned conclusions, when sustained by the agreement of experts; but we were not prepared to bow with equal docility to the mere prejudicesof scientific men. And it appeared to us that there was an important body of evidence - tending prima facie to establish the independence of soul or spirit - which modern science had simply left on one side with ignorant contempt; and that in so leaving it she had been untrue to her professed method, and had arrived prematurely at her negative conclusions.
Sidgwick distinguished between science as a fixed body of knowledge and science as a method of inquiry. As pictured by materialism the universe had no human meaning; but the solution was not to reject science. It was to apply the scientific method, which could show materialism to be false. Like so many others, then and later, Sidgwick looked to science for salvation from science. If science had brought about the disenchantment of the world, only science could re-enchant it.
The result of scientific inquiry seemed to be that humankind was alone. Evolution would bring about the death of the species and eventually, as the sun cooled and the planet ceased to be habitable, life itself would die out. It was a desolate prospect, but one that could be accepted if science could also show that human personality would survive the universal extinction.
Paradoxically, Darwin's theory of evolution rekindled the hope of immortality. Darwin recognized the link, when he wrote in his Autobiography:
With respect to immortality, nothing shows me so clearly how strong and almost instinctive a belief it is, as the consideration of the view now held by most physicists, namely, that the sunwith all the planets will in time grow too cold for life, unless indeed some new great body dashes into the sun, and thus gives it fresh life. Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress. To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.
A scientific vision of universal death strengthened the need to believe in a future life. The task of science was to show such a life was possible. As Myers recalled, describing the conversation with Sidgwick that led them towards psychical research:
In a star-light walk which I shall not forget (December 3rd, 1869), I asked him, almost trembling, whether he thought that when Tradition, Intuition, Metaphysic had failed to resolve the riddle of the Universe, there was still a chance that from any actual observable phenomena, - ghosts, spirits, whatsoever there might be, - some valid knowledge might be drawn as to a World Unseen. Already, it seemed, he had thought this was possible; steadily, though in no sanguine fashion, he indicated some last grounds of hope; and from that night onwards I resolved to pursue this quest, if it might be, at his side.
Sidgwick's search for evidence of survival was intertwined with his work in ethics. Unless human personality survived bodily death, he believed, morality is pointless. Theism posits a universe that is friendly to human values:goodness may go unrewarded here on Earth, but the imbalance will be righted in the hereafter. Without this assurance, Sidgwick believed, there was no reason why humans should not yield to self-interest or their passing desires.
Sidgwick believed universal benevolence was self-evidently good. But self-interest was also a self-evident principle, and in Methods of Ethics Sidgwick examined and rejected several ethical systems, including Utilitarianism, which tried to reconcile the two principles. He could find no way of showing that behaving morally was in anyone's interest. The result was a black hole at the heart of ethics, which he was convinced only theism could fill.
Moralists in Sidgwick's day and later objected that good people do not need a self-interested reason for behaving morally - they do their duty even if they know their self-interest will be damaged. But Sidgwick did not deny that good people do their duty for its own sake (he was such a person himself). Rather, he asked why anyone should want to be a good person. If there is no reason to be moral, we might just as well live as we please. Only theism could supply that reason. As Sidgwick wrote in the closing sentences of the first edition of The Methods of Ethics:
Hence the whole system of our beliefs as to the intrinsic reasonableness of conduct must fall, without a hypothesis unverifiable by experience reconciling the Individual with the Universal Reason, without a belief, in some form or other, that the moral order which we see imperfectly realized in this actual world isyet actually perfect. If we reject this belief, we may perhaps still find in the non-moral universe an adequate object for the Speculative Reason, capable of being in some sense ultimately understood. But the Cosmos of Duty is thus really reduced to a Chaos: and the prolonged effort of the human intellect to frame a perfect ideal of conduct is seen to have been foredoomed to inevitable failure.
Sidgwick deleted these sentences from all later editions of the book, replacing them with a carefully hedged conclusion in which he describes the reconciliation of duty and self-interest as a 'profoundly difficult and controverted question'. Yet he never altered his belief that without God there was no reason to be moral. The end-result of Sidgwick's work in ethics was an irresolvable contradiction, which he called 'the dualism of practical reason'. Selfishness was as reasonable a basis for living as morality, and when they were at odds only 'non-rational impulse' could settle the issue. In that case, the deepest questions of ethics were insoluble.
Sidgwick feared scientific materialism because it meant humans were trapped in a 'non-moral universe'. He could not share the confidence of the secular thinkers of his day, who believed belief in progress could be a substitute for religion. In the 'Religion of Humanity', invented by the French Positivist thinker Auguste Comte and preached by Mill and Eliot, theism could be dropped while morality stayed much the same. This was the faith of many Victorian intellectuals, and remains that of secular humanists today. With his more penetrating intelligence,Sidgwick understood that this faith is an illusion.
For Sidgwick morality was categorical: it told people to do the right thing. Almost by definition, moral values were more important than anything else. But why not pursue other things - beauty or pleasure, say? Why should anyone do what morality tells them is their duty? Only theism, Sidgwick believed, could give them good reason.
To be sure, there are conceptions of the good life that Sidgwick does not consider. His way of thinking shaped by Christianity, Sidgwick takes for granted that the core of morality is a set of commands and prohibitions. But for the ancient Greeks, who lacked even the idea of 'morality' as Sidgwick understood it, the good life was not a matter of obeying categorical imperatives. The art of life, which they called ethics, included concern for beauty and pleasure. Crucially, there is nothing in this Greek view about any duty to humanity.
Victorian secular thinkers imagined that when God had faded away, morality would fill the space that was left. But when theism has gone the very idea of a categorical morality becomes meaningless. Like Nietzsche - with whom he had very little else in common - Sidgwick understood that theism and morality cannot be separated. If belief in God is given up, the idea of morality as a system of duties soon follows.
A story told by Myers illustrates how Sidgwick differed from George Eliot and other secular believers who imagined that the sense of duty could survive the loss of religion:
I remember how, at Cambridge, I walked with her (Eliot) once in the Fellows' Garden of Trinity, on an evening of rainy May; and she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men - the words, God, Immortality, Duty - pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. Never, perhaps, have sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law. I listened, and night fell; her grave, majestic countenance turned toward me like a Sibyl's in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp, one by one, the two scrolls of promise, and left me the third scroll only, awful with inevitable fates. And when we stood at length and parted, amid that columnar circuit of the forest-trees, beneath the last twilight of starless skies, I seemed to be gazing, like Titus at Jerusalem, on vacant seats and empty halls - on a sanctuary with no Presence to hallow it, and heaven left lonely of a God.
Eliot welcomed the passing of religion because she believed it would leave the sense of duty purer. In the same way, she rejected Spiritualism because she coveted the sense of nobility that comes from being virtuous without expecting a reward. An afterlife might deny her this satisfaction, so she condemned the search for evidence of survival. As she put it to Myers, 'The triumph of what you believe would mean the worthlessness of all that my life had been spent in teaching.'
Sidgwick was more sceptical, as well as more realistic, in doubting that the sense of duty could persist oncereligion had faded away. For a time people would retain their moral sense. As disbelief replaced doubt regarding the claims of religion, they might even find a sort of solace in doing their duty. That was how Sidgwick carried on, after he had concluded that evidence for survival might never be found. Eventually, though, as the fact of personal extinction seeped into daily awareness, morality would crumble away.
Everything depended on finding evidence of survival, and of this Sidgwick often despaired. Writing in 1858, he declared that his 'ghostological researches are flourishing'. In 1864 he was writing: 'As to Spiritualism, I have not progressed, but am in painful doubt.' By 1886 he was confessing that 'the natural drift of my mind is now towards total incredulity in respect of extra-human intelligences'. Near the end of his life he told his friend Myers, 'As I look back on my life I seem to see little but wasted hours.'
Without belief in posthumous survival, Sidgwick concluded, there was no reason for living morally. In most things an almost absurdly moral person, he died without any such belief.
We no more solve the riddle of death by dying than we solve the problem of life by being born. Take my own case -
'Henry Sidgwick', posthumous communication
Sidgwick's argument that an afterlife could fill the hole he had found in ethics was hardly watertight. If theprinciples of self-interest and universal benevolence were really contradictory, the existence of an afterlife could not alter that fact. The most an afterlife could do would be to ensure that the consequences of following the principles were the same. But what Sidgwick wanted from theism was a world in which duty and self-interest pointed in the same direction. In such a world, he thought, the two principles would not really be at odds.
Could theism deliver what Sidgwick wanted? Theists believe the world is created by a divine person, in whose image humans are formed. If personality is built into the nature of things as theists believe, humans might conceivably survive death. Yet Sidgwick's dualism might still not be overcome. Theism might be true, but God might not share Sidgwick's values.
Like most thinkers at the time, Sidgwick believed that universal well-being was the primary good. In some versions of theism, however, other values are more important: a selfish believer might go to heaven while an unbelieving do-gooder would end in hell. Nineteenth-century Calvinists were strongly hostile to Spiritualism, with its promise of a heavenly afterlife for everybody, for this very reason. Theism will not ensure the convergence of self-interest and general welfare if God cares more about the salvation of an elect few than about the well-being of everybody.
In any case not all versions of theism promise an afterlife. Biblical Judaism says very little on the subject - there are references to a netherworld (Sheol), but it is populated by shades of those who have died rather than by theirsurviving personalities. Another view is that of the ancient Gnostics, who believed the world is the creation of a demigod; salvation lies in ascending to a higher plane and being absorbed into the true Deity, which is impersonal. A variation on this theology occurs in David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, when one of the interlocutors describes the view of 'the most religious and devout of all the Pagan philosophers', according to which worship of God 'consists not in acts of veneration, reverence, gratitude or love; but in a certain mysterious self-annihilation or total extinction of all our faculties'. In another variation, Hume has one of his interlocutors imagine that the world may be
only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance; it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors; it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him.
Hume's playful suggestion that the world may be the work of an infantile or a senile God, forgetful of why he made it, may be one of the more plausible versions of theism. Such a God is unlikely to remember to ensure an afterlife for its human creations.
Even when theism has promised a future life that life has been imagined in very different ways. The heterodox current in Judaism led by Jesus seems to have had nonotion of an immortal soul, created by God and then infused into the body: immortality meant being raised from the dead in the body one had in life, then living for ever in a world without decay or corruption. In the Christian religion invented by Paul and Augustine, which was strongly influenced by Plato, immortality meant something quite different - a life out of time, enjoyed by the 'soul' or 'spirit' of the departed. How this Platonic immortality could preserve anything like the persons that once lived was not made clear. In the version favoured by Christians in Sidgwick's day, which shaped his thinking even when he no longer believed in it, a future life meant continuing after death as the person one has been in another world, with a new body that lacked the imperfections of the one that had been left behind.
Non-theistic religions are different again. Instead of a divine personality, Hindus and Buddhists believe in an impersonal moral law. Karma is moral cause and effect operating in every sphere of existence; there is no need to postulate any God passing judgement on human life. There is no unbridgeable difference between humans and other animals: souls - or in Buddhism, which rejects the idea of the soul, chains of mental events - migrate across species boundaries, in a potentially unending cycle of reincarnation. In these non-theistic faiths continued existence in another world is not seen as in any way desirable, but as something that should be avoided. The everlasting persistence of the person we have been in life could only be a type of hell. Immortality is found in dying and not being born again, in this world or any other.
None of these visions may be coherently imaginable. Each contains contradictory ideas mingled together - time and eternity, the resurrection of the body and the end of ageing, the salvation of the individual and the extinction of personal identity. This incoherence should not be surprising, since human responses to death are contradictory. When we find life worth living we want it to go on for ever; when it seems senseless we want to die for ever or never to have been born.
Of course a future life might be just a fact. Among Victorian seekers after immortality there were atheists and agnostics who believed that, if a future life existed, it was as part of the natural order of things. There were occultists, who believed that survival of death was possible, but only for the few that had developed their hidden powers. There were also many like Myers, who believed a future life was implied by the fact of evolution. 'Spiritualism, ' wrote one leading advocate, the Egyptologist and poet Gerald Massey, 'will accept Darwinism and complete and clinch it on the other side.' For these non-theists, Spiritualism was not a philosophy of immaterialism in which the physical world is an illusion, such as the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (influenced by Hindu and Buddhist thinking) had formulated. Spiritualism was another version of naturalism, an account of the material universe enlarged to encompass an invisible world.
Understood in this way, human survival of death could come in many different forms. When someone dies the contents of their minds might persist for a time, but withoutbeing accompanied by any ongoing experiences. These mental traces might continue as separate streams of thought, gradually trickling away, or else they might flow into some kind of cosmic storehouse, where they would remain indefinitely. Either way there could be no action from beyond the grave. Alternatively, the contents of the dead person's mind might persist along with personal experiences, but these experiences could be fragmentary and discontinuous, like those we have in dreams; this would be the kind of post-mortem existence imagined in Greek myths, in which shadows of the people we have been wander witless through a dingy netherworld. Or else the dead might more closely resemble the persons they were before they died, surviving as incorporeal minds or acquiring new 'astral' or 'etheric' bodies, in each case retaining their previous memories and the ability to form and act on plans and intentions.
Along with these conceptions of survival there have been different conceptions of the world that people enter when they die. In one - a version of which can be found in Tibetan Buddhist beliefs about the intermediate state, or bardo, between each reincarnation - the after-world is a mental construction, different for each person. In another view the after-world is dreamt by an impersonal mind - a figment, like the world of the living, whose inhabitants are figures in the dream. In yet another version the post-mortem world is a fully developed environment where the dead persist as enhanced versions of their former selves. This was the kind of after-world most of the Victorian seekers wanted: a Summerland, as Spiritualists sometimescalled it, where the ugly defects of earthly life have been wiped away.
None of these versions of a future life ensures immortality for the person that has died. Whatever it is that survives might persist for a while, then fade away and vanish, or else mutate and turn into something else. Again, the world in which the surviving spirit or soul finds itself might have a finite lifetime, such as our own universe is thought to have. In that case something of humans might survive to find itself in another world, only for that world later to implode and collapse.
Even if an afterlife were a natural fact, it would not mean that human personality would endure for ever. If Darwinism is true, it is hard to see how such a thing could be possible. If there is no insuperable barrier between human minds and the minds of other animals, there seems no reason why the after-world should be populated only by humans. But if other animals also pass over into the after-world at death, do they survive as disembodied minds or do they acquire new bodies? Either way, was the after-world empty until life evolved and death appeared? A further question arises if scientific advance enables the creation of self-aware machines. Will the ghosts of these machines linger on, as some Spiritualists believe those of humans do after the death of the body?
None of these questions can be answered, and in truth Darwinism cannot be reconciled with any idea of a post-mortem world. In Darwin's scheme of things species are not fixed or everlasting; their boundaries are blurred andshifting. How then could only one species go on to a world beyond the grave? If all life was extinguished on the Earth, perhaps as a result of climate change caused by humans, would they look down from the heavens, alone, on the wasteland they had left beneath? Surely, in terms of the prospect of immortality, all sentient beings stand or fall together. But again, how could anyone imagine all the legions of the dead - not only the human generations that have come and gone, but the unnumbered animal species that are now extinct - living on, preserved in the ether, for ever?
Victorian seekers after evidence of survival often imagined evolution continuing into the after-world. But they always did so in a way that distorted Darwin's vision, injecting into evolution ideas of purpose and progress for which it has no place. As in Europe and Russia, where occultists and God-builders embraced Lamarck's theory, the true lesson of Darwinism was evaded.
The word evolution is the very formula and symbol of hope.
A classical scholar who wrote a short book on Wordsworth and some inimitably Victorian verse, Frederic Myers (1843 - 1901) was also the most gifted thinker produced by psychical research. At Cambridge, where he attended Trinity and was tutored by Sidgwick, he acquired a reputation for egocentricity and was involved in adamaging scandal when he was accused of plagiarism after a prize poem he had authored turned out to contain lines taken from published versions of prize poems in Oxford. Ambitious and flamboyant, it was not easy for him to find a career in which his complex gifts could flower. Eventually he settled into working as a school inspector, which he could combine with his lifelong vocation: the search for evidence of human immortality. Myers records how his revulsion against the science of his day led him to Spiritualism:
I had at first great repugnance to studying the phenomena alleged by Spiritualists; to re-entering by the scullery window the heavenly mansion out of which I had been kicked through the front door. It was not until the autumn of 1873 that I came across my first personal experience of forces unknown to science ... It must be remembered that this was the very floodtide of materialism, agnosticism - the mechanical theory of the Universe, the reduction of spiritual facts to physiological phenomena. We were all in the first flush of triumphant Darwinism, when terrene evolution had explained so much that men hardly cared to look beyond.
Myers entrusted his hopes in science. 'I believe,' he wrote, 'that Science is now succeeding in penetrating certain cosmical facts which she has not reached until now. The first, of course, is the fact of man's survival of death.' Science would do more than prove human survival. It would show that dying was an incident in 'a progressive moral evolution, no longer truncated by physical catastrophes,but moving continuously towards an infinitely distant goal', 'the cosmic aim, which helps the Universe in its passage and evolution into fuller and higher life'. Evolution was not confined to the 'terrene' world. Science would show that evolution never ceased: 'Spiritual evolution : that, then, is our destiny, in this and other worlds; - an evolution gradual and with many gradations, and rising to no assignable close.' Rather than the end of life, death was a phase in cosmic progress.
Myers believed he had discovered 'a secondary or subliminal self' alongside the one familiar in everyday life, and that this subliminal self had supernormal powers. Telepathy was one of those powers, and 'Telepathy is surely a step in evolution. To learn the thoughts of other minds without the mediation of the special senses manifestly indicates the possibility of a vast extension of psychical powers.'
Like many others then and later, Myers viewed the evolution of humans as evidence of progress. Leaving aside whether the human animal marks an advance on other forms of life - a difficult and delicate question - its existence can only be an accident, not the realization of any kind of 'cosmic aim', if Darwinism is accepted. The key fact about evolution as described by Darwin is that it has no aim. Sometimes natural selection produces complex organisms, at others it brings about their extinction. As Darwin put it, clearly and decisively, 'There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course in which the wind blows.'
Darwin was not always so clear-headed, however. On the very last page of On the Origin of Species, he wrote:
We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups within each class, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species ... we may be certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.
'Progress towards perfection' - as this formula demonstrates, Darwin never fully accepted the implications of his own theory of natural selection. He knew that evolution cares nothing for humans or their values - it moves, as he put it, like the wind - but he could not hold on to this truth, because it means evolution is a process without a goal. Progress implies a destination towards which one is travelling, whereas natural selection is simply drift.
The popular cult of evolution has always denied this truth, and in fact the most influential versions of evolution have never been Darwin's. One was that of Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903), the prophet of laissez-faire capitalism who invented the expression 'survival of the fittest'. In Spencer's version evolution was a teleological process - inother words, it had a goal: a universal state of complex equilibrium. Another version was developed by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 - 1829), who believed traits acquired during an organism's lifetime could be inherited by future generations. Like Darwin, who in the third edition of Origin of Species (1861) praised Lamarck's work for showing that all forms of life tend to progress, Lamarck viewed evolution as tending towards perfection. For Spencer and Lamarck, as at times for Darwin, evolution moved from lower to higher forms of life. There is nothing in the theory of natural selection to support this notion. Yet it has proved irresistibly appealing, for it has the effect of reinstating humans (supposedly the highest life-form) as the purpose of the universe.
One of many attracted to the idea that evolution was a progressive process, Myers believed the process continues after death. But there is nothing to be gained by positing that evolution goes on in some 'extra-terrene' world. The result would only be the same process of drift that is at work here below, together with its normal wastage - ageing and death.
For Edmund Gurney, three of whose sisters had died in an accident on the Nile, it was experiences of unbearable loss that impelled him into psychical research. Sidgwick might have been spurred by a need to resolve moral conflicts, and Myers by the prospect of posthumous progress. In Gurney's case it was sympathy for hopeless suffering that inspired his search for evidence of a future life:
If for the worst and permanent suffering there were no possible assuagement of hope, if I found in myself and all around me an absolute conviction that the individual existence ceased with the death of the body ... I should desire ... the immediate extinction of the race.
Gurney died unconvinced of post-mortem survival. Yet, like Sidgwick and Myers, he seems never to have doubted that survival would enable the sorrows of earthly life to be transcended. Reversing Darwin's observation that belief in human immortality makes the prospect of universal extinction more bearable, Gurney declared that if individual personality did not survive death it would be better that the human species should disappear.
Gurney believed that a world without humans was preferable to one in which humans died for ever. But even if humans lived on after death his hopes might not be realized. If a future life is just a natural fact there is no reason for thinking the discords of this world will be harmonized in the next. Human personality might survive in another realm, or a succession of other realms. The final extinction of the conscious individual might be indefinitely postponed. But the agony of bereavement, which led so many to seances, would not be left behind. It would be repeated again and again, as humans passed from world to world.
If the next life is an extension of this life, why should it not contain dilemmas as intractable as those with which we are painfully familiar? We might pass through the gate of death to find ourselves in a world as arbitrary, unjustand finally mysterious as the one we left behind. The afterlife might be only partly intelligible, just like life here below.
If we are to credit the texts claiming to come from him after he died, this was Sidgwick's experience:
We no more solve the riddle of death by dying than we solve the problem of living by being born. Take my own case - I was always a seeker, until it seemed to me at times as if the quest was more to me than the prize - Only the attainment of my search were generally like rainbow gold, always beyond and afar. It is not at all clear; I seek still - only with a confirmed optimism more perfect and beautiful than any we imagined before - I am not oppressed with the desire that animates some of us to share our knowledge or optimism with you all before the time ... The solution of the Great Problem I could not give you - I am still very far away from it and the abiding knowledge of the inherent truth and Beauty into which all the inevitable uglinesses of Existence finally resolve themselves will be yours in due time.
According to the scripts Sidgwick had found the evidence for which he had spent so much of his life searching - he knew from irrefutable experience that personal survival was a fact. But dying had failed to resolve his perplexities, any more than psychical research had done.
Am I not,
Myself, only half a figure of a sort,
A figure half seen, or seen for a moment, a man Of the mind, an apparition apparelled in
Apparels of such lightest look that a turn Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?
None of the anomalous experiences investigated by the psychical researchers demonstrated post-mortem survival. Phantasms of the Living (1886), a classic of psychical research, interpreted apparitions of the dead as hallucinations triggered by telepathic messages from the dying. Communications from mediums could be explained in the same way. If humans had powers that science had not yet recognized there was no reason to invoke communication from the dead. All these phenomena could be the work of the living.
One of the authors of Phantasms of the Living, Myers was passionately interested in any evidence that seemed to point in the direction of personal survival. Yet his researches led him in an entirely different direction. By giving the subliminal self the power of telepathy he allowed direct contact between individual minds. Going further, he speculated that there might be a cosmic record of everything that had ever occurred, perhaps of everything that would ever occur. The subliminal mind might be able to access this record, without the need for telepathy,by 'supernormal direct percipience'. In other words, humans could use extrasensory perception - super-psi, as it is called in the literature of parapsychology - to acquire information that had never been in any mind.
In suggesting this possibility Myers undercut any argument that information known to no one living could only have come from the dead. If there was ever to be compelling evidence for survival, it had to show human agency. It was this conclusion that led to the 'cross-correspondences' - the thousands of pages of automatic writings, transcribed over several decades, at times forbiddingly scholarly and at others so intimate and strange that their contents have only recently been disclosed, which purported to convey the posthumous communications of Sidgwick, Myers and others. The scripts form a vast palimpsest, in which different minds seemed to be presenting fragmentary clues while slowly giving intimations as to how the expanding collage could be deciphered.
There is something fantastical in the enterprise of demonstrating human survival in this way. Piecing together the many classical references in the scripts demands a kind of learning that few possessed when the scripts appeared, and fewer have today. But the problems in interpreting the cross-correspondences come only partly from their scholarly difficulty. Even those who had the required learning often failed to make sense of the scripts. When they did make sense of them it was only conceptual or symbolic connections that they found. The question of authorship was never resolved. Is survival of the kind these psychical researchers wanted evenimaginable, given their own findings? The maze of cross-references was the work of discarnate conscious minds, or so the scripts claimed. But the result of Myers' researches was to plant a question mark over the very idea of the conscious mind.
It was Myers who introduced the work of Freud to the English-speaking world, and like Freud, though in a very different way, he showed that human behaviour is only partly the result of anything that might be called conscious thought. Myers gave his account of Freud's work with Joseph Breuer on hysteria, only a few months after they published their first paper on the subject in Vienna in January 1893, at a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research. As Freud's official biographer Ernest Jones writes, 'The first writer to give an account of Breuer's and Freud's work was certainly F. W. H. Myers.'
The paper by the two Viennese clinicians was important for Myers, because it advanced the idea that much of what goes on in the mind is not accessible to consciousness. Hysteria, Breuer and Freud argued, is a symptom of repressed memories. Once these memories are brought into consciousness, hysterical symptoms disappear. This is, in effect, the start of psychoanalysis.
Freud knew something of Myers, noting in The Interpretation of Dreams that Myers had published 'a whole collection' of hypermnesic dreams - dreams that make use of memories not available to the waking self - in the SPR Proceedings. A corresponding member of the SPR, Freud also published a short paper in the SPR Proceedings , where he contrasted Myers' conception of thesubliminal self with his own theory of the unconscious.
Throughout his life Freud was anxious to dissociate psychoanalysis from anything that smacked of occultism. He speculated that telepathy might be 'the original, archaic method of communication between individuals'. At the same time he adamantly rejected Jung's belief that the unconscious could be understood with the help of ideas from mythology and alchemy. In a well-known conversation, he urged Jung:
'My dear Jung, promise me never to abandon the sexual theory. This is the most essential thing of all. You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark.' He said this to me with great emotion ... In some astonishment I asked him, 'A bulwark - against what?' To which he replied, 'Against the black tide of mud' - and here he hesitated for a moment - 'of occultism'.
Freud always recognized that there can be something mysterious in human relationships. Perhaps as a result, he never entirely cured himself of his fascination with telepathy. But he was insistent that the unconscious had to be understood in terms of repressed aspects of natural human development.
These different pictures of the unconscious would have a large impact on the development of psychoanalysis. Myers' view of subliminal creativity encouraged the use of hypnosis and crystal-gazing as therapeutic techniques, while the French psychologist Pierre Janet (1859 - 1947) advocated the practice of automatic writing as part of a'writing cure'. It was mainly as a result of Freud that psychoanalysis developed as a 'talking cure'. But the therapeutic role of automatic writing did not end with the rise of psychoanalysis. It continued in psychical research, above all in the cross-correspondences.
Myers and Freud had in common the insight that the life of the mind goes on mostly without conscious awareness, but there the similarity ends. Myers did not believe that the unconscious was made up chiefly of repressed experiences, as Freud did. Behind and beyond the conscious mind, there was the subliminal self, with capacities that the conscious mind - or as Myers liked to call it, the supraliminal self - lacked.
As Myers explained:
The idea of a threshold (limen, Schwelle) of consciousness; - of a level above which sensation or thought must rise before it can enter into our conscious life; - is a simple and familiar one. The word subliminal - meaning 'beneath that threshold' - has already been used to define those sensations which are too weak to be individually recognised. I propose to extend the meaning of the term, so as to cover all that takes place beneath the ordinary threshold, or say, if preferred, outside the ordinary margin of consciousness ... I feel bound to speak of a subliminal or ultra-marginal consciousness, - a consciousness which we shall see, for instance, uttering or writing sentences quite as complex and coherent as the supraliminal consciousness could make them.
The subliminal mind is at work in dreams, passing onmessages to the conscious personality, and it does the same through automatic writing. Both phenomena, Myers wrote, 'present themselves to us as messages communicated from one stratum to another stratum of the same personality'. In many cases the messages consisted of information acquired through the senses or by everyday contact with other people, which was then retrieved from unconscious memory. In other cases, Myers believed, the information is owed to the subliminal mind using abilities not normally available to the conscious personality, such as telepathy and clairvoyance.
Among the powers of the subliminal mind identified by Myers was a capacity for impersonation. From his studies of mediums Myers knew that many of their performances could be accounted for by an unconscious capacity for dramatization. The 'spirit controls' that appeared in seances would then be virtual persons spun off by the medium using the resources of the subliminal self. In a similar way, Myers argued, the personality of everyday life is an impersonation spun off by the subliminal self.
At this point a paradox appears in Myers' thinking. While he took up the study of the paranormal to show that human personality continued after death, the result of his inquiries was to undermine the idea that humans have a single personality when they are alive. Myers cherished the idea of 'the soul' - the individual unit of consciousness. Proving that the soul survived death was his life's work. Yet Myers' own researches had the effect of dissolving the unitary self whose survival he came to think he had shown. As a result of investigating paranormalphenomena, he became convinced of 'the multiplex and mutable character of that which we know as the Personality of Man'.
As Myers came to see it, ordinary consciousness is an episode in a much larger process that goes on unawares. The subliminal mind is the primary psychological reality, from which all mental life ultimately derives. In his later writings Myers went further, postulating an evolving cosmic self in which human personality would ultimately be absorbed. In this account 'the soul' was a vanishing speck in an emerging godhead. The idea that individual personality could survive death was a projection into the after-world of a human self-image that is deceptive even in the world of the living. Human personality was itself a kind of ghost, as systematically elusive as the apparitions that were the objects of Myers' many years of work in psychical research.
Sidgwick's work in ethics had a similar result. His 'dualism of practical reason' rested on the assumption that 'the Egoistic principle' was indisputably rational. Yet when he considered the possibility that the Ego may be a part of our self-image but not an ultimate fact, Sidgwick questioned this view. If each of us is no more than a bundle of sensations, egoism may be no more rational than universal benevolence. He writes:
I do not see why the Egoistic principle should pass unchallenged any more than the Universalistic. I do not see why the axiom of Prudence should not be questioned, when it conflicts with present inclination, on a ground similar to that on which the Egoistsrefuse to admit the axiom of Rational Benevolence. If the Utilitarian has to answer the question, 'Why should I sacrifice my own happiness for the greater happiness of another?', it must surely be possible to ask the Egoist, 'Why should I sacrifice a present pleasure for a greater one in future? Why should I concern myself about my own future feelings any more than about the feelings of other persons?' ... Grant that the Ego is merely a system of coherent phenomena, as Hume and his followers maintain; why, then, should one part of the series of feelings into which the Ego is resolved be concerned with another part of the same series, any more than with any other series?
Here Sidgwick shows himself at his most penetrating. Prudence - ensuring that one's future self is not harmed by acting on one's current desires - has always been seen as self-evidently reasonable. But if the Ego, or personality, is simply a series of continuities in memory and behaviour, some of them quite tenuous, why should we bother about our future selves? They may be as insignificant to us as the selves of others are for consistent egoists.
The implications of accepting that human personality is 'merely a system of coherent phenomena' were explored in a letter to Sidgwick from his friend Roden Noel:
if the individual is absolutely impermanent, a kind of illusion, a flash in the pan ... so is the race, so is the world, and finally (as some of our scientific men expressly teach us) so is the universe, for after all individuals make up the whole. I am to sacrifice myself - for what - a vast illusion, an impermanent flash in the pan, a mere congeries of phenomena, transitory, vain, non-substantial,unreal, like myself!!! Is it not absurd to talk of absolute good and evil on this supposition? Can there be any such thing? Nay, but if I am not real, permanent, eternal, true and absolute, and if you are not, how can there be any such thing at all?
The irony of Noel's letter is that, while Sidgwick turned to psychical research for evidence that personality was 'real, permanent, eternal, true and absolute', his work in ethics opened up the possibility that personal identity might be chimerical. From one point of view this might seem an advance. To the extent that the self turned out to be illusive the conflict between duty and self-interest disappeared, and one objection to morality was removed. But the black hole in ethics that Sidgwick had discovered had not disappeared. It had become larger. The rival principles were no longer self-interest and morality, but morality and acting on impulse - the promptings of one's present self. The alternative to morality was no longer self-interest, but simply desire - a prospect Sidgwick found extremely disquieting.
Unless personality survived death there was no reason why anyone should restrain their desires. That is why finding proof of survival was so important. The arrival of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in Cambridge seems to have been one of the episodes that led Sidgwick to conclude that proof might never be found.
Initially Sidgwick had welcomed Madame Blavatsky, a former circus equestrienne, entrepreneur (earlier in her career she founded an ink factory and an artificial flower shop, both of which failed) and sometime informant ofthe Tsarist secret police and nightclub singer who had taken up the profession of medium. Founding the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky published one of the canonical texts of Western occultism, Isis Unveiled. The earnest Cambridge philosopher found Blavatsky 'a genuine being, with a vigorous nature intellectual as well as emotional and a real desire for the good of mankind'. He seemed unfazed by her claim to be receiving letters of esoteric wisdom from mysterious Tibetan masters. It was only after a thoroughgoing SPR investigation that Sidgwick recognized that Blavatsky was a charlatan and an imposter.
After 'the collapse of Madame Blavatsky's so-called Theosophy', Myers reported, Sidgwick 'urged that all we had proved was consistent with eternal death. He thought it not improbable that this last effort to look beyond the grave would fail; that men would have to content themselves with agnosticism growing yearly more hopeless - and had best turn to daily duties and forget the blackness of the end.' But with religion ebbing away, Sidgwick could not help hoping against hope that some evidence of survival would at last emerge.
He had another reason for clinging to this hope. The post-mortem survival of which Sidgwick dreamt would put to rest any doubts about personal identity and confirm the integrity of his own personality. The discarnate Sidgwick would no longer be divided and fragmented. Desires that had been integral to his earthly life, though suppressed for most of it, would cease to trouble him. If survival as Sidgwick imagined it was a fact then the ideal image he had formed of himself could be made real.
The self-division of the earthly Sidgwick was partly a result of Victorian sexual ambiguity. All of Sidgwick's close friends were male, most of them gay or bisexual for much of their lives. He belonged in the generation of Apostles - members of the Cambridge Conversazione Society - that celebrated gay love, creating the culture from which John Maynard Keynes and the Bloomsbury group emerged. Sidgwick's diary records him wondering if he had found in Oscar Browning, the legendary Cambridge don and lifelong exponent of Greek love, 'the friend I seek', and commenting on the friends he had made already, 'Some are women to me, and to some I am a woman.' Happily married and at the same time a gay libertine who had himself photographed naked as the god Bacchus, Rodan Noel, who wrote to Sidgwick about the ephemeral quality of personal identity, was a lifelong friend. Another was John Addington Symonds, an admirer of Walt Whitman, author of a paper on 'A Problem in Greek Ethics' arguing for the value of 'paiderastia', and a writer of gay erotic verse, some of which was locked in a black tin box and thrown along with the key into the river Avon after Sidgwick warned of the danger it posed to Symonds' reputation. Believed by the philosopher C. D. Broad to have been bisexual, Myers may well have had 'Uranian' affinities, having been part of a circle around Symonds that included Sidgwick's gay brother, who was Myers' closest friend at Cambridge. Myers had read to Symonds from Walt Whitman's 'Calamus', verses celebrating love with young boys that were removed from later editions of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. When Edmund Gurney died in 1888,Myers wrote: 'For fifteen years we had been as intimate and as attached to each other as men can be; - every part of our respective natures found response by comprehension in the other. But I will not say more of that.' Myers confessed to a 'sensual' period in his life, which involved a number of young women but may also have included relationships with men, Henry Sidgwick among them. In one of his last letters, written when he was near the end of his final illness, Sidgwick told Myers their friendship had 'a great place in my life'.
That there was a gay element in Sidgwick's sexuality can scarcely be doubted. It is also beyond reasonable doubt that Sidgwick suppressed that part of his nature for most of his life. Of course we cannot know anything for sure. His papers appear to have been thoroughly weeded after his death (letters between Sidgwick and Addington Symonds seem to have been destroyed, for example). Yet it is hard to read Sidgwick's reflections on the 'chaos of Duty' without the suspicion that the chaos in question came from the threat of insistent desire. The core of duty, for Sidgwick, was the renunciation of self. If death was the end he would have rejected a part of himself for nothing.
The message Sidgwick placed in a sealed letter to be opened after his death, which was read by his wife, brother and others in February 1909, suggests he was aware of the risk of suppressing his desires and receiving nothing in return. Dated 16 May 1900 and headed 'For remembrance H Sidgwick', the message read:
I keep under my body and bring it into subjection. Shall we receive good at the Hands of the Lord and shall we not receive evil?
Sidgwick's friend Roden Noel makes an appearance in the scripts, in lines of poetry that resembled some Noel had published, then in blank verse that seemed to refer to the two men's friendship. Later scripts refer to Noel by name, and mention the date of his death. Some lines of the blank verse read:
All the air Was full of peace and twilight and we walked We who have trod such diverse way since then.
The lines of verse are followed by the question: 'Was I a drone - at least there was honey within my reach - even if I brought none to the hive?'
It is as if the suppression of his desires in life continued to disturb Sidgwick even after he died.
To be sure, a future life could not, as a matter of logic, give Sidgwick any reason for restraining his desires. If one's future self is no more important to one's present self than the selves of others are to a consistent egoist, this will still be true even if the future self in question has survived bodily death. In fact it is not clear why one should care about one's post-mortem self at all. There may be reason to care about a post-mortem self if thatself and one's present self are one and the same. There is less reason if personal identity is simply a matter of continuities, since on any view the discontinuity involved in dying is considerable. If the surviving self is unrecognizable as the self one has been, there seems no reason to care about it. Why concern oneself with the fate of someone with whom one has so little in common?
Rather than dispelling doubts about personal identity, survival of bodily death could only make these doubts more pressing. But for Sidgwick these doubts were not important in themselves. It was their implications for ethics that concerned him. As he wrote in a letter to Roden Noel:
I have never based my belief in immortality on our consciousness of the oneself of Self ... What I really base it on (apart from the evidence supplied by Spiritualism, and apart from religious grounds) is on Ethics ... in face of the conflict between Virtue & Happiness, my own voluntary life, and that of every other man constituted like me, i.e. I believe, of every normal man is reduced to hopeless anarchy ... The only way of avoiding this intolerable anarchy is by the Postulate of Immortality.
Sidgwick looked to post-mortem survival to resolve questions about morality, and about his own identity. The self that Sidgwick wanted to survive was not the self he had been in life. It was the self he had failed to be. If the automatic writing cited above is to be believed, however, even death did not make him whole.
Sidgwick was celebrated in his lifetime for his integrity, but that did not prevent him engaging in Victorianhypocrisy where sexual desire - in himself or his friends - was concerned. Instead his reputation for honesty made the practice of deception easier for him. Moreover, Sidgwick's proficiency in hypocrisy was not inconsistent with his philosophy. He had long argued the necessity for an 'esoteric morality' - a code of conduct that would sanction the practice of secrecy and deception for strictly ethical reasons. When, towards the end of The Methods of Ethics, he discusses the rules of ordinary morality, he is clear that these rules must be adhered to faithfully by ordinary people. But Utilitarian morality might give a special freedom from ordinary rules to special kinds of people:
on Utilitarian principles, it may be right to do, and privately recommend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate openly; it may be right to teach openly to one set of persons what it would be wrong to teach to others; it may be conceivably right to do, if it can be done with comparative secrecy, what it would be wrong to do in the face of the world; and even, if perfect secrecy can be reasonably expected, what it would be wrong to recommend by private advice or example ... Thus the Utilitarian conclusion, carefully stated, would seem to be this; that the opinion that secrecy may render an action right which would not otherwise be so should itself be kept comparatively secret; and similarly it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric.
Not only Sidgwick but also Myers applied this esoteric morality throughout his life. In the case of Myers it was an integral part of his engagement in psychical research.
He looked at us coldly And his eyes were dead and his hands on the oar Were black with obols and varicose veins Marbled his calves and he said to us coldly: If you want to die you will have to pay for it.
All the protagonists in the cross-correspondences practised Sidgwick's esoteric hypocrisy. His friend Myers kept secret throughout his life the circumstances that animated his search for evidence of survival. The quest was meant to be guided by the most rigorous scientific methods. But the motives were personal, intensely so.
Myers wrote of Annie Marshall, the married woman with whom he had fallen in love, only in an autobiographical essay, Fragments of Inner Life, first printed in 1938 and privately circulated during his lifetime and published, sixty years after his death, long after Myers' widow had weeded his papers and published a heavily censored version of the essay.
In a 'Prefatory Note' at the start of the Fragments, Myers wrote:
I desire that the following sketch should someday be published in its entirety; but it may probably be well to reserve at least part of it until some years after my death. To avert accidents, therefore, I now propose to get these pages privately printed, and to send a sealed copy to each of the following intimatefriends: Professor Henry Sidgwick, Cambridge; Professor William James, Harvard; Professor Oliver Lodge, Liverpool; Sir R. H. Collins, K. C. B., Claremont; Mr R. W. Raper, Oxford. I shall desire these friends to open the packet after my death ...
Twenty-five numbered copies are to be printed, of which six are to be sent to friends as aforsesaid, four are to be set apart for my Wife and children, and the rest are to remain for the present in my study ...
By entitling the pages that follow 'Fragments of Inner Life' I wish to make it clear that they do not constitute a complete autobiography, but dwell only on facts and feelings that may be of interest in a few special ways. I omit much that has been of deep importance to myself ...
As a later SPR president familiar with the case wrote in his own unpublished memoirs, describing Myers' Fragments:
Here he was, declaring to six friends, and requesting them to make known to the world, the fact that the great event of his life, the turning point in his spiritual development, was not his love for the woman who had been his wife for 20 years, had borne him three children, and had contributed largely to his social success, but a married woman who he had known for three years, and who had been dead for 25.
The suicide in 1876 of Annie - or 'Phyllis', as Myers calls her in the Fragments - shaped the rest of Myers' life. Suffering from nervous exhaustion after years of struggling to deal with her husband, a wealthy spendthrift whohad been confined in an asylum, Annie - the mother of five children - drowned herself after trying to cut her throat with a pair of scissors. Annie's death turned Myers' interest in finding evidence of survival into a passion. He began a long struggle to contact her through mediums, achieving some success, he thought, in 1877, but only being fully convinced over twenty years later: 'This year 1899 - after 23 years of such endeavour - has brought me certainty ... I have gained ... the conviction that a Spirit is near me who makes my religion and will make my heaven.'
The sealed envelope that Myers left with Sir Oliver Lodge reinforces the importance Myers attached to his encounter with Annie Marshall. On 13 July 1904, three years after Myers' death, Mrs Verrall received a message in automatic writing instructing that the letter be opened: 'I have long told you of the contents of the envelope. Myers' sealed envelope left with Lodge. You have not understood. It has in it words from the [Plato's] Symposium - about Love bridging the chasm.' Opened at a meeting of the SPR Council convened by Lodge on 13 December 1904, the letter proved to contain only the statement: 'If I can revisit any earthly scene, I should choose the Valley in the grounds of Hallsteads, Cumberland. ' Since the message contained no reference to Plato's Symposium, Lodge and his fellow psychical researchers concluded that the experiment had 'completely failed'.
Later events led some to think otherwise. In December 1903, some months before Mrs Verrall received the message about the sealed envelope, Eleanor Sidgwick found by accidenta copy of Myers' Fragments while rummaging through some of her late husband's papers in her college rooms. When this was shown to Mrs Verrall on 21 December 1904, she claimed to be able to decipher the message the letter had contained. Built by friends of Dorothy Wordsworth, Hallsteads was the house in which Myers had been raised. It was also the place where he had had his most formative meeting with Annie Marshall, after which he turned away from 'sensual' relations. The message that Myers had left in the sealed envelope, Mrs Verrall concluded, was linked with the reference to platonic love she had received in her scripts.
To those in the inner circle it seemed Myers had at last succeeded in communicating from beyond the grave. Whether Mrs Myers shared this view is not known. Myers had told her of his meetings with Annie Marshall at Hallsteads when they married, so for his widow there was nothing new in the sealed letter. But she may well have been surprised at the intensity of his feelings for the dead woman that the letter revealed, and waged a long campaign to keep the Fragments secret or have them destroyed.
Myers' love of Annie Marshall, which he celebrated in verses about 'Phyllis' in the Fragments, and the curtailment of that love by her suicide, transformed Myers' view of the world. Not only did he turn from 'sensuality' to platonic love. He became convinced that no materialist philosophy was tenable.
Myers' 'eagerness to go', observed by William James when Myers was dying, was an expression of this conviction.Myers had been told by a medium that he would soon die and find himself in Annie's arms, a prophecy he accepted, even though the date of his death that was predicted - Myers' birthday in 1902 - was clearly mistaken by the time of his final illness.
The last quarter of a century of Myers' life was driven by his need to contact a woman he could not acknowledge during his lifetime. The reverberations of his search included appearances in seances conducted by mediums in many parts of the world decades after he died. But the chasm between death and life was not bridged.
Myers' eldest son, Leo Myers, the editor of an abridged edition of Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death and author of the popular Indian historical romance The Root and The Flower (1935), was a troubled personality who had taken part in seances as a child. Not long after his father died in 1901 Leo travelled with his mother to the US, where a seance had been arranged in which his father was expected to communicate to them. Nothing transpired, and despite support from friends such as the science fiction author Olaf Stapledon Leo went on to a life in which he was persistently afflicted by depression. He committed suicide in 1944.
We have not merely stumbled on the truth in spite of error and illusion, which is odd, but because of error and illusion, which is even odder.
The search for evidence of survival that consumed so much of Myers' life was a response to unbearable grief at the tragic end of a secret relationship. A similar-seeming journey led Arthur Balfour to his involvement in the cross-correspondences. Heir to a great fortune - when he came into his inheritance in 1869, at the age of twenty-one, he had an estate of 180,000 acres and financial assets that together were worth about £4 million, amounting to around £250 million in today's terms, making him one of the richest young men in Britain - Balfour came from a family that brought together Scottish wealth and, through his mother, a member of the Cecil family, one of the English political dynasties. He went from Eton and Cambridge, where he came to know Myers and attended seminars led by Sidgwick, to a long career as a Conservative statesman. The nephew of the Marquess of Salisbury, the last member of the House of Lords to be prime minister, Balfour was secretary of state for Ireland (when he authored the punitive Perpetual Crimes Act to stamp out unrest in Ireland, leading to the tag 'Bloody Balfour'), foreign secretary, prime minister and then, in Lloyd George's administration during the First World War, foreign secretary again. In 1917, when he was foreign secretary, he wrote to Lord Rothschild a letter that came to be called 'the Balfour declaration', committing Britain to the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Later, in 1926, Balfour was responsible for granting autonomy to overseas British dominions, creating a 'British Commonwealth of Nations' within the framework of the Empire.
Though he occupied the highest offices of state, and showed he could discharge his duties effectively and where necessary ruthlessly, Balfour's political career is not usually seen as a success. Confronted with issues such as Irish Home Rule and the choice between free trade and imperial protection, he was unable to give his party clear leadership. His weakness as a politician has been seen as a result of his aloof personality. A saying attributed to him - 'Nothing matters very much, and most things not at all' - captures what seems to have been his attitude to life. Balfour's sceptical detachment did not make him a cynic, however. His scepticism only strengthened his religious faith, and allowed him towards the end of his life to entertain the possibility that he was in post-mortem contact with a woman he may once have loved.
In some ways Balfour stands on one side from the psychical researchers. A lifelong Christian, he was never concerned to prove human survival by scientific methods. Unlike Sidgwick, Balfour needed no proof. As he wrote in 1915:
For myself, I entertain no doubt whatever about a future life. I deem it at least as certain as any of the hundred-and-one truths of the framework of the world ... It is no mere theological accretion, which I am prepared to accept in some moods and reject in others. I am as sure that those I have loved and lost are living today, as I am that yesterday they were fighting heroically in the trenches.
Balfour was never tempted to surrender his faith because it seemed to conflict with science. But he shared Sidgwick's horror at the prospect of a godless universe, which he voiced with Victorian pathos:
Man, so far as natural science by itself is able to teach us, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the Heaven-descended heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident, his story a brief and transitory episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets. Of the combination of causes which first converted a dead organic compound into the living progenitors of humanity, science, indeed, as yet knows nothing. It is enough that from such beginnings famine, disease, and mutual slaughter, fit nurses for the future lords of creation, have gradually evolved, after infinite travail, a race with conscience enough to feel that it is vile, and intelligence enough to know that it is insignificant. We survey the past, and see that its history is of blood and tears, of helpless blundering, of wild revolt, of stupid acquiescence, of empty aspirations. We sound the future, and learn that after a period, long compared with the individual life, but short indeed compared with the divisions of time open to our investigation, the energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the Earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the universe, will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. 'Imperishable monuments' and 'immortal deeds', death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as though they had never been.
While Balfour shared the psychical researchers' resistance to scientific materialism he did not turn to science, as they did, to refute materialism. Instead, he questioned science itself.
Using doubt to affirm faith, Balfour argued that the empirical method, which scientists use to formulate universal laws of cause and effect, leads to thoroughly sceptical conclusions. The basis of the method is a belief in natural uniformity - if two events are regularly connected in our observations we can conclude that they obey a universal law. But this is not a conclusion we reach by observation. No amount of evidence can demonstrate the existence of laws of nature, since new experience can always overturn them. Science rests on the belief that the future will be like the past; but that belief is rationally groundless.
This is not a new line of thinking. David Hume argued that the expectation that the future will be like the past, which is the basis of induction, is a matter of habit. Hume wanted to show that since miracles transgress known laws of nature it was unreasonable to accept reports of them, in the Bible or anywhere else. But his arguments against induction showed that the laws of nature could not in fact be known, so events that seemed impossible could happen at any time. The upshot was that faith in miracles returned by the back door of sceptical doubt. Most likely Hume, who was far from friendly to religion, never imagined his scepticism would be used in the service of faith. But that is what happened, when religious thinkers inspired by Hume claimed God could make theimpossible happen. The German Counter-Enlightenment thinker J. G. Hamann, the nineteenth-century Danish Christian writer Søren Kierkegaard and the twentieth-century Russian Jewish fideist Leo Shestov all defended faith on the grounds of the most far-reaching doubt.
Balfour was in a long tradition of thinkers who have used sceptical doubt to whittle down the claims of reason. But he added a new argument for the limitations of science, which came from the theory of evolution. From a Darwinian point of view, human beliefs are adaptations to our part of the world. No doubt much of what we believe must be roughly accurate, or else we would not have survived. But the beliefs we have evolved might latch on to the world only enough to help us stumble our way through it, and then only for the time being. Human belief-systems could be useful illusions, appearing and disappearing as they prove to be more or less advantageous in the random walk of natural selection.
Might not evolution be one of these illusions? Scientific naturalism is the theory that human beliefs are evolutionary adaptations whose survival has nothing to do with their truth. But in that case scientific naturalism is self-defeating, since on its own premises scientific theories cannot be known to be true.
If Myers and the psychical researchers wanted to use science to undermine the existing scientific world-view, Balfour used science to put science in doubt. The problem of rational belief is not limited to religion. The basis of science is the empirical method, which uses the senses to build up a picture of the world; but science tells us thatour senses have evolved to help us get by, not to show us the world as it is. Science is only a systematic examination of our impressions, and in the end all each of us has left are our own sensations:
Man, or rather 'I', become not merely the centre of the world, but am the world. Beyond me and my ideas there is either nothing, or nothing that can be known. The problems about which we disquiet ourselves in vain, the origin of things and the modes of their development, the inner constitution of matter and its relations to mind, are questionings about nothing, interrogatories shouted into the void. The baseless fabric of the sciences, like the great globe itself, dissolves at the touch of theories like these, leaving not a wrack behind.
The end-result of the empirical method, then, is that each individual is left alone with their own experiences. We can escape this solitude, Balfour suggested, only if we accept that there is a divine mind.
Balfour's scepticism about science led him to keep a distance from the experimental side of psychical research. He no more accepted that survival of death could be scientifically proven than he accepted any of the other large claims made for science in his day. But it was this same scepticism, seemingly infused with the grief-stricken memory of an early love, which led him to accept the possibility that the dead could contact the living by means of automatic writing.
The 'Palm Sunday' scripts are so called because they began on Palm Sunday, 31 March 1912 and led to therecipients of the scripts coming to believe that Mary Lyttelton, who died of typhus aged twenty-four on Palm Sunday, 1875, was attempting to communicate with Arthur Balfour, with the aim of assuring him of her continuing love.
An attractive, vivacious woman, her family related by marriage to that of the young Liberal politician W. E. Gladstone, Mary Lyttelton had had two suitors, each of whom died before an engagement could be announced. According to one account, Balfour had been on the verge of proposing to her just before she died, and his relationship with Mary - or 'May', as she was known to her friends - was one of the most formative episodes of Balfour's life. On learning of Mary's death he asked her brother to place an emerald ring, which had belonged to his mother, in Mary's coffin. Later he would acquire a lock of Mary's hair from her sister, which he kept in a specially constructed silver box, lined in purple satin.
Around these events a Victorian legend was woven in which Balfour spent the rest of his life in inconsolable grief, devoting himself to public service while patiently waiting for death. The story was summarized in 1960 by Jean Balfour (Gerald Balfour's daughter-in-law, and like him a long-time student of the cross-correspondences). Writing of Arthur Balfour's relationship with Mary, she claimed:
even though he had not spoken his full mind, he had been living simply for her: the whole of existence had been enhanced for him through her, and he had asked little else of life during these years except the delight of her companionship ... he shared with others of his generation of Balfours a reticence and humility combined with indifferent health, and throughout his career he never hastened about anything that was really important. This was not because his feelings were weak, but because it all meant so much ... he was arriving at the conviction that never after left him, that death is not the end, and I believe that this conclusion was reached because (as in the case of F. W. H. Myers) the grief was spiritually so profound as to be intolerable without that hope.
His life, however, was not blighted ... He found the keenest pleasure in intellectual interests and in writing his books, and the activities of political life occupied his time and energy more and more ... For fifty-five years with but few breaks he visited his old friends, the Talbots (May's elder sister Lavinia had married the Reverend Edward Talbot, warden of Keble College, Oxford) at their home every Palm Sunday, and spent the day with them in retirement and contemplation.
In this version of Balfour's life, it was the loss of Mary Lyttelton that lay behind his decision to remain a lifelong bachelor. But the facts regarding Balfour's relationship with Mary are not at all clear. He may have felt something towards her for a time, but no letter has survived in which he expresses love for her, or an intention to marry her. Nor is there any letter from her showing she would be open to a proposal from him. Mary's diary tells of her love for one of her previous suitors, but not for Balfour. Near the end of his life, his brother Gerald Balfour (who knew and remembered Mary Lyttelton) described her as a woman'of an amorous disposition' who had had two love affairs before she died. In Gerald's view, Arthur had never realized 'what a passionate nature hers was', or understood that she 'had a strong need of physical demonstration'. As a result, Arthur 'managed his courtship very badly'.
Balfour's diffident courtship may have another explanation. His feelings may not have been as strong as has been supposed. The loss of Mary did not prevent him forming, a few years later, an intimate friendship with Mary Wyndham, later (after she married Hugo Charteris in 1883) Lady Elcho and Countess of Wemyss. The connection survived Balfour's rejection of any prospect of marriage, which Mary and her family clearly wanted, and Mary's affair with the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt, which led to a child her husband adopted as his own. It has often been assumed that the relationship between Balfour and Lady Elcho, which continued for around half a century, was platonic. But recently published letters record that the two engaged in sadomasochistic sex-play, for which each had a taste, for many years.
Though he declined to marry her, Balfour's feelings for Mary Wyndham seem to have run deep. Wilfred Scawen Blunt was in no doubt that Balfour had 'a grande passion' for her. In 1887, before leaving on a trip during which his life might be in danger (he was chief secretary for Ireland at the time), Balfour left a letter for his sister Frances, along with a leather pouch containing another letter, to be opened only in the event of his death. In the letter to his sister, 'relating to a matter with which only you can deal', he asked that if the worst were to happenshe 'tell her [Lady Elcho] that, in the end, if I was able to think at all, I thought of her'. Balfour survived the trip, and when the pouch was opened by Frances and Lady Elcho, over forty years later, after Balfour's death in 1930, it contained a diamond brooch.
Plainly Balfour could form enduring attachments with women. But perhaps he was not interested in conventional sex, or marriage, with Mary Lyttelton or anyone else. Writing to Mary Wyndham in 1892, he remarked bluntly, 'Whether I have time for Love or not, I certainly have no time for Matrimony.' His lifelong bachelorhood may have reflected these preferences. Balfour was not an easy man to read. By his own account and that of many others he was a pious Christian. Yet Scawen Blunt, who had initially seen Balfour as a 'tame cat', found him 'curiously hard and cynical', a man who used a 'pseudo-scientific' Darwinian philosophy to justify the Tories' 'aggressive racialism', and even suggested Balfour had 'turned Mary Wyndham into a pagan'.
Everything suggests Balfour was capable of showing different sides of his personality to different people, while keeping some concealed. In that case the tale that his heart had been broken by the death of Mary Lyttelton could be a carefully contrived deception, another example of the esoteric hypocrisy his Cambridge contemporary and brother-in-law Sidgwick had done so much to justify.
Still, Balfour found the possibility that the deceased Mary Lyttelton might be attempting to contact him through mediums worth exploring. He did not come to this view quickly. In 1912 the scripts had asked that Arthur's brotherGerald sit with the medium 'Mrs Willett' while she produced her automatic writings. It seems to have been at this point that the medium and Gerald Balfour concluded that scripts produced by three mediums, two in Britain and one in India, over a period of over ten years, contained intimations of Mary Lyttelton's personality and her love of Balfour.
It was only in 1916, however, that Arthur Balfour agreed (at the request, it was reported, of the scripts) to take part in the sittings. The scripts then began to mention Mary Lyttelton by name. According to Jean Balfour, it was only after a sitting at Balfour's London home that he told his brother, who had not known of the episode, about the box in which he had placed a lock of Mary Lyttelton's hair in 1875.
Jean Balfour interpreted the long period during which the scripts had omitted to mention Mary or Arthur Balfour in any explicit way as evidence of design on the part of the scripts' authors:
The investigators declared that it was clear to them from the study of the scripts that the 'communicators' preferred that the automatists should not know either the story that was being referred to, or whom the characters in it were, and especially should not perceive who the intended recipient of the message was; in fact the communicators frequently stated that this was their desire, and to use symbols was the only way to ensure it.
Looking back at them over a period of a decade, the interpreters of the scripts concluded that they containedunnoticed cross-correspondences, which referred to the relationship between Mary Lyttelton and Arthur Balfour. This was the evidence of intention from beyond the grave the need for which Sidgwick and Myers had recognized if survival was to be proved.
Jean Balfour concluded:
The scripts do really seem to build up in support of the claim made by the ostensible communicators that they were the work of a group in the Other World operating through a mediumistic group with the intention to obtain the scrutiny and understanding of yet another living group. Nothing like this has ever appeared before in the history of psychical occurrences.
Some psychical researchers have accepted this claim and maintain that the cross-correspondences provide the strongest evidence of survival that is likely ever to be found. Yet in this case as in others the cross-correspondences are a mix of literary allusions and family romance, and any interpretation is bound to be highly speculative.
As an example, an early script produced on 9 October 1902 contained the following passage:
Dreamers see most of the truth - in golden visions of the dawn. They can tell you that this is true ... Royal purple in samite scented when you somewhere see such things in a chest then believe and certain others also. Purple but not fine raiment lying in a chest it gleams and a scent is there. It is something laid aside with care that was once worn, It is far from you you never saw it but Arthur knows what I mean. He saw it worn ... Tothe dark tower came who? Ask him who? And where? The tower was dark and cold but we all loved it; he will remember.
Initially not understood, this passage was interpreted many years later as referring to Whittingehame Tower, an old portion of the Balfour family estate (the 'dark tower'), the 'royal purple' as a reference to Mary Lyttelton's lock of hair, the samite (silk fabric) as an allusion to Tennyson's poem 'Passing of Arthur', where the sword Excalibur is described as being clothed in white samite, an allusion that recurred in scripts eight years later, where a fuller quotation from Tennyson appeared referring to the 'Blessed Damozel', which was eventually interpreted to mean Mary Lyttelton.
It is an ingenious reading, to say the least. Arthur Balfour seems finally to have been convinced that the scripts might contain messages from Mary Lyttelton, but only near the end of his life. In 1926, in response to a message in the script claiming to come from Mary, he sent a script message to Mary of his own. Mary's message to him, he wrote:
in its essentials is understood by him and deeply valued ... Assuredly he does not need to be told that 'Death is not the end'. Yet there is in her message a note almost of pain which leaves him perplexed. She seems for the first time to find in him a change which though admittedly superficial she dwells on with intensity. He knows of none. Half a century and more have now passed. Births and deaths have followed each other in unceasing flow. The hour of reunion cannot be long delayed. During all this period he has had no access to her mind exceptthrough the intervention of others, no intuition of her presence, though he does not doubt its reality.
Through his complete deficiency in psychic gifts he has no intuition of that 'closeness beyond telling' of which the message speaks with such deep conviction, and which he conceives to be of infinite value. Further messages would greatly help.
Balfour may have come to accept that the scripts contained communications from Mary Lyttelton. Yet he gave no sign that he was aware of her posthumous presence, or endorsed the version of his life given in the Story. In October 1929, when he was dying, he was visited by 'Mrs Willett', who entered a trance state and passed on a final message from Mary Lyttelton: 'Tell him he gives me Joy.' It was reported that Balfour was 'profoundly impressed'. As his biographer R. J. Q. Adams comments, however, 'whether he believed the message or simply admired the performance will never be known'. It seems likely that Balfour preserved his scepticism to the end, together with his unyielding reserve.
Do they know me, whose former mind Was like an open plain where no foot falls, But now is as a gallery portrait-lined And scored with necrologic scrawls, Where feeble voices rise, once full-defined, From underground in curious calls?
The scripts were not only the channel for a Story. They were also the vehicle of a Plan, in which the central characters were 'Mrs Willett', known to the public as Mrs Winifred Coombe-Tennant, suffragist and British delegate at the League of Nations, and Arthur Balfour's brother Gerald. These two eminent public figures were channels for a secret scheme of world regeneration, transmitted through the cross-correspondences, in which they themselves played a vital role.
Like his brother Arthur, Gerald was a Conservative politician who became a Member of Parliament and served in some major offices of state, including secretary of state for Ireland. But he seems to have been less ambitious. A Fellow of Trinity and a classical scholar with an interest in philosophy, he retired from politics in the early 1900s. A president of the SPR, he gave much of the rest of his long life (he died in 1945) to psychical research, spending several decades studying the cross-correspondences in which he figured in a pivotal though long-hidden way.
Like other protagonists in the cross-correspondences Winifred Coombe-Tennant had suffered agonizing bereavement. Her second child Daphne died in 1908 before reaching the age of two, and her son Christopher was killed in the trenches, not yet twenty, in 1917. Her involvement in psychical research did not make her a medium in the ordinary sense of the term. Most of her activity in the field was via automatic writing, and she never surrendered her consciousness to any 'control'. Not mentioned in her Times obituary, her role in the cross-correspondenceswas revealed only after her death in 1956. She resumed automatic writing, which she had experimented with in her youth but given up as a response to the death of Daphne, after contacting Mrs Verrall to find out whether Daphne had appeared in the scripts. The scripts Mrs Coombe-Tennant then produced, which claimed to be authored by Myers, informed her that she was to be used in an important experiment.
A part of the experiment continued to be the attempt to demonstrate survival. In one script transcribed in March 1909, 'Myers' announced:
No effort to be of use will be spared from this side and if it were possible for me to fully convey what emotion and joy glows within me at the sound of your words of welcome I would attempt to express Myers express that which I feel. Let me say only that I believe I have at last succeeded in proving not only survival but identity that I am Myers and that I am in myself though enlarged yet in the main and in the real Ego identical with that Myers which sought to save his own soul.
The larger part of the experiment was the Plan, which the scripts described as an experiment in 'psychological eugenics'. Eugenics had a powerful influence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which Spiritualism reflected. Eugenicists aimed to rid the world of defective human beings, while Spiritualists believed that the body that awaits us in the afterlife would be purged of defects. Eugenics and Spiritualism were both of them progressive creeds, claiming that by using new knowledgehumankind could attain a level of development higher than anything achieved in the past.
The two systems of thought came together in the Plan. The scheme, which seems first to have appeared in the scripts in October 1910, was kept from the public for nearly a century. Placed in the safekeeping of Jean Balfour in 1930, it stayed with her until her death in 1981. After that it remained buried in the archives she had controlled. An outline of the scheme was given in 1948 in An Introduction to the Study of the Scripts, a privately printed volume by W. H. Salter, SPR president who married Helen Verrall, herself a practitioner of automatic writing. It was only in 2008 that Archie E. Roy, after being given access to the archives by Jean Balfour's daughter, Lady Alison Kremer, was able to give a full account of the Plan in his book The Eager Dead.
The Plan involved the birth to 'Mrs Willett' of a third child, one specially designed by members of the group that was supposedly communicating with her from beyond the grave. 'Myers' described the child as 'Gurney's child that is to come ... a great Incarnation of Divine Efulgence'. In another version of the Plan, which 'Mrs Willett' seems to have believed, it was to be the 'spiritual child' of Arthur Balfour and Mary Lyttelton (when informed of this on his death-bed Balfour dismissed the idea as fantastic).
Though the child would come as a messiah, it would appear in the world through the power of science. During the later years of his life Myers liked to observe that science had entered a phase of rapid advance in the after-world,just as it had on Earth. Addressing 'Mrs Willett' in the slightly garbled language of the scripts, 'Myers' writes: 'Let me ask first whether the use of the word Experiment has been fully grasped and admitted by you and secondly if you will admit it even as a M Myers a hypotheses'.
The plan demanded that 'Mrs Willett' become pregnant with a child that had been scientifically programmed with the capacities needed to shape the course of world events. In previous generations the dead lacked scientific expertise. With the advance of knowledge this was no longer true. The coming child would be designed by the deceased Cambridge biologist Francis Maitland Balfour, among others.
The child was not to be a virgin birth. It would be conceived in the normal fashion, and Augustus Henry Coombe-Tennant, the infant that was born in fulfilment of the Plan in 1913, was the fruit of a relationship, known to very few, between 'Mrs Willett' and the sitter in many of her seances, Gerald Balfour (who was also the child's godfather). The husband of the medium, Charles Coombe-Tennant, who was sixty when the birth occurred, may have suspected that Henry (as the child was known) was not his offspring. The possibility may have occurred to him that his wife, whom Jean Balfour described as 'a woman with a very strong predilection for maternity', had opted to have a child with a younger man. Whatever he may have thought, Charles Coombe-Tennant obeyed the code of his caste and said nothing. The other party in the affair, Gerald's wife Betty, suffered depression when he informed her he could no longer sleep with her. Thetwo were reconciled, when years later Betty was told the reasons for Gerald's decision.
The task of the 'spirit-child' was to deliver humanity from chaos. Scientifically programmed to perform its role, the child would develop into an extraordinary human being, who would bring peace and justice to the world.
It was not the only time in early twentieth-century England that messianic hopes were attached to a child. Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895 - 1986), the New Age advocate of 'spiritual revolution', began his career by being adopted by the leaders of the Theosophical Society as the world's next Saviour. The driving force behind the cult that surrounded Krishnamurti was Annie Besant, socialist, feminist and secularist, who had been converted to Theosophy by Madame Blavatsky. Another Theosophist closely involved with Krishnamurti was Lady Emily Lutyens, the granddaughter of the writer Edward Bulwer Lytton, from whose fantastic novel Zanoni (1842) much in Theosophy derives.
Lady Emily Lutyens was the wife of the architect Edwin Lutyens and also the sister-in-law of Gerald Balfour. Emily brought Krishnamurti to see the Balfours at their home in Fisher's Hill in Surrey. Jean Balfour left a record of the visit. Emily, she wrote,
was an ardent theosophist and the expectation of a new Messiah was perfectly familiar to the Balfour circle. I think it is true to say that all over the world at that period, a movement existed creating a mental atmosphere, in which some sort of spiritual intervention in the affairs of the world was tacitly assumed:and lots of people held the belief that a universal Saviour was about to arise.
Not long after I married (about 1927 I think) 'Aunt Emmie' brought the young Indian Krishnamurti - the hope of the Theosophist movement - to Fisher's Hill ... Krishnamurti was about 17 at the time, and one could not have met a more charming, gentle creature, full of wisdom and spiritual depth; but B.B. [Betty Balfour] told me afterwards that GWB [Gerald Balfour] was quite sure that Augustus Henry's prospects were quite superior.
In the years just before the First World War, and even more in the decades that followed, the belief in a coming messiah was part of a widespread sense of crisis. It is not surprising that this belief should have been prevalent in the circles in which Lutyens and Balfour moved. To be sure, nothing would come of their hopes. Neither Krishnamurti nor Augustus Henry Coombe-Tennant lived out the role expected of him.
In 1911 an 'Order of the Star in the East' was set up as a vehicle for Krishnamurti's mission, but it was not long before he began to feel doubts about the messianic role he had been given. In 1929 he renounced it entirely, dissolving the organization and declaring his conviction that leadership and authority of any kind were harmful to the life of the spirit. He spent the rest of his life preaching this antigospel to audiences of devoted disciples. However, after nearly sixty years of denying that he was in any sense a messiah, Krishnamurti announced in his last weeks that as long as he lived he would still be 'the World Teacher'.
The case of Henry Coombe-Tennant was less dramatic. He seems not to have been told anything of his expected future role until late in life, and then probably not the whole truth, and much in his career was what might be expected of someone of his background at the time. After Eton Henry went on to Trinity, where he read philosophy as the pupil of C. D. Broad and came into contact with Wittgenstein. After Cambridge he joined the Welsh Guards and served in the Second World War. Captured in France, he spent over two years in German prison camps, escaped and returned to Britain and active service. In 1948 he left the army for the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, where he worked with Kim Philby. During a spell of duty in Iraq he converted to Catholicism and in 1960 became a monk, spending the rest of his life at Downside. He died in 1989.
Though he failed to enact the part given him in the scripts, Henry was responsible for a kind of afterword to them. The correspondences ceased in 1932 at the request of their interpreters, who claimed to be overwhelmed by the mass of material. But the medium Geraldine Cummins published two books - The Road to Immortality (1932) and Beyond Human Personality (1935) - which claimed to contain continuing communications from Frederic Myers.
In 1957 Cummins, who had agreed to take part in an experiment with investigators of the SPR, began to receive scripts from a person she could not identify, but which she later identified as coming from Mrs Coombe-Tennant, who had died the previous year. The experiment was initiated by Henry, who wanted to see if contact could be made with his mother. According to Mrs Cummins, she did not know that Henry's mother was 'Mrs Willett' until her communicator, whom she knew as 'Win' or 'Winifred', insisted on being called 'Mrs Wills'. At this point Cummins, who had read of 'Mrs Willett' as a medium, made the connection and for three years she transcribed scripts from the Coombe-Tennant/Willett persona. Henry's father, Gerald Balfour, also made an appearance in the scripts, commenting on the difficulties of communication, noting in 'Myers'-like style: 'we seem to swim in the sea of the automatists' subliminal mind, and any strong current may sweep us away from the memory objectives we have in view.'
These later scripts appeared in a volume, Swan on a Black Sea, first published in 1965, with a foreword by Henry's tutor at Trinity, C. D. Broad. In many ways they are a relic of Victorian life. The human relationships they portrayed as continuing into the after-world are those of Victorian England, not as it may actually have been, but as those who lived in it may have imagined it to be.
The Story of Balfour and Mary Lyttelton is retold. At one point the communicator ('Mrs Willett') recounts meeting Mary, 'A.J.B.'s friend'. She repeats the version of the relationship between Balfour and Mary that had currency during Balfour's lifetime, describing their 'intrinsic inviolable unity', the decades of emptiness during which Balfour filled his life with work and the longing with which he looked forward to being reunited with her after his death:
So many years parted after their passing. An emptiness, a dissatisfaction continually then for him. No joy. He merely put in timewith hard and varied mental work. Such faithfulness, such patient waiting. Then at last, after sixty years or fifty by the clock, the meeting at the other side of death when his old age dropped from him like a ragged garment. But oh! It was well worth while to wait so long for that event ... she remained waiting, waiting at the border for him, returned from the higher level, at what a sacrifice! A world so tempting beckoning, but she ignored it. She put all that away from her so as to meet an old man's soul. Therefore it need hardly be said that she was the first to greet A.J.B. when he came home to her. A lonely man until then.
There can be no doubt that 'Mrs Willett' believed the Victorian romance of Balfour's bereaved love. If that romance does not square with what can now be known of Balfour's life, this means only that the Victorian world was always partly fictive. Facts that were inconvenient were repressed, as painful memories are consigned to the unconscious, only to return transmuted. Events that may have had no meaning became part of a consoling story. So it was that the legend of Balfour's undying love was wrapped in a shroud and displayed as the Story in the scripts.
In his foreword to Swan on a Black Sea, C. D. Broad comments:
If there be an after-world, the scripts must present an extremely narrow and peculiar corner of it. All the persons whom we meet in them are particularly cultured and intelligent members of the English upper or upper-middle classes, whose lives were lived in a certain brief period of English history. It is platitudinous, but not superfluous, to point out that most human beingsare not Victorian English ladies and gentlemen, and that a good many of them are savages. Even if we quite arbitrarily confine our attention to our contemporary fellow-countrymen, we must remember that a certain proportion of them are actual or potential criminals; that a much larger proportion are feeble-minded or neurotic or downright crazy; and that the vast majority of the rest are more or less amiable nit-wits, with no intellectual or cultural interests whatever. If all or most human beings survive the death of their bodies, there must presumably be, among the many mansions of their Father's house, places prepared for such as these. And they must be very unlike those gentlemanly and academic English apartments to which alone the scripts introduce us.
Broad's comment is comical in its antique hauteur, but the central thrust is sound. In all the scripts the after-world is composed from Victorian lives, stilled and brightly lit, with their surrounding shadows wiped away. Nothing is shown of the turmoil and labour in which most of human life has always been passed, or the painfully inconsequent ways in which it usually ends. In this twilit and yet reassuring after-world death could be beautified. It was not the last act in a losing struggle against poverty or sickness, or the ugly finale of crime or war. Dying was only a move from one wing of a great country-house to another, a shift in which nothing was lost.
One need not be a chamber to be haunted One need not be a house; The brain has corridors surpassing Material place.
According to those involved, the cross-correspondences were part of a scientific experiment. If science had revealed a universe without meaning, science could also show that meaning could yet be found - on the other side, in a world preserved from death but interacting with the living. This was the faith that inspired the psychical researchers and produced the scripts.
The scripts are not evidence that can be scientifically evaluated, however. They are texts that can be understood, if at all, only through a process of interpretation; but hermeneutics - the practice of interpretation - is an art, not a science. Aiming to devise a conclusive scientific experiment, the psychical researchers set in motion an inquiry that could never yield definitive results. The upshot was a mass of text that rivals the scriptures of revealed religions in its resistance to decipherment. Obscurely handed down and continuously reinterpreted, the cross-correspondences were texts of a new faith born of science.
Hermeneutics is a tricky business. In ordinary speech the relation between the sense of an utterance and the intent of the speaker is often obscure. Slips of the tongue are not without meaning - they tell the listener what the speaker is thinking, but against the speaker's will. Otherkinds of utterance seem to come from someone other than the speaker, and yet still seem to contain the speaker's thoughts. If the speech of the living is so equivocal, how could anyone understand the language of the dead?
One of the difficulties has to do with the identity of the speakers. The figures that appeared in the scripts - 'Sidgwick', 'Myers', 'Gurney', 'Mary Lyttelton' and others - were versions of people who did once exist. Yet convincing personae have been created by mediums when the original person was not in fact dead, or had never lived. 'Myers' spoke through diverse mediums over many decades; but these many iterations were the same individual only in the sense that there can be many versions of a single character in fiction.
The cross-correspondences were themselves a type of fiction, of a kind that would be impossible today. To an extent that is unimaginable in twenty-first-century Britain, the automatists and the SPR investigators were joined together in a common culture. Some had had a classical education, others had not, but for all of them the classical tags and literary allusions that fill the scripts were parts of a shared lexicon. Stories and phrases from ancient Greece and Rome, the King James Bible and Shakespeare, together with the poetry of Wordsworth, Browning and Tennyson, shaped how those who produced and read the scripts communicated with one another. Not only did they understand the allusions in the same way, they associated them with the same images. These signs and symbols were part of a collective unconscious of a kind that, in Britain at any rate, no longer exists.
Emerging over many years from a web of hidden relationships, the scripts need no author, living or dead. When, for example, in a script of April 1912, 'Edmund Gurney' was reported as 'wanting to say something to somebody - Seated upon a (pause) says You Donkey! And then they all laughed', it was interpreted as a reference to Palm Sunday (when Jesus, according to the biblical story, entered Jerusalem seated on an ass). But the claim that such a cross-reference must be the work of a conscious mind misses the fact that the links the interpreters found in the scripts were given by the culture they had in common with the automatists. A number of investigators have used randomizing techniques to see whether they produce anything similar. The results are disputed, but the dispute is beside the point. The cross-correspondences could not be replicated by any random process. The connections were encrypted in a way of life, which has since disappeared.
The notion that the cross-correspondences can only be an artefact of conscious intelligence underestimates the creativity of the subliminal mind. Not only fictive personalities but entire bodies of literature have appeared without any contribution from a conscious author.
One piece of literature that appeared in this way is W. B. Yeats' A Vision (1925). An elaborate system of occult philosophy and esoteric psychology, the book derives from automatic writings transcribed by the Irish poet and his wife over a period of several years, starting a few days after their marriage in October 1917. The scripts, which included some apparent cross-correspondences withother scripts being produced in Ireland at the time, were produced in 450 sittings and covered over 3,600 pages.
Yeats had no difficulty accepting that the texts were communications from discarnate minds. A former member of the Theosophical Society who had joined the pseudo-Rosicrucian Order of the Golden Dawn (to which Aleister Crowley also belonged), Yeats had a long-standing interest in occultism. Purporting to originate in a number of Controls, who communicated with the poet via his wife Georgie, much of the material concerns personal issues - in this case, Yeats' relations with other women. As in the case of 'Mrs Willett', secrets were revealed only in order that they could once more be concealed.
Generated by a method in which Yeats asked the scripts questions and his wife recorded the answers, 'The Automatic Script' - as Yeats called it - contained much of the hermetic belief-system that the poet set out in A Vision, and used in his verse. Yeats was familiar with the work of Myers, but it seems not to have occurred to him that the scripts were the work of the subliminal self - his own, but more importantly his wife's - weaving an esoteric romance around the tensions of their lives. While recognizing that he had sometimes been deceived by the texts, he seems never to have doubted that the Controls existed.
Myers recognized the role of the subliminal self in creating such romances:
it has sometimes been alleged that discarnate spirits may be concerned in the composition of such romances, on the hypothesisthat if they do operate on human minds they probably so act sometimes to amuse themselves, as well as to please or inform us ... a kind of literary impulse to write or act out romances, through the intermediacy of some human being, may be one form of this mystifying intervention. There is, however, no need to postulate the existence of tricky spirits when the phenomena can be adequately accounted for by the known tendencies of the subliminal self.
Containing information inaccessible to the conscious personality, the subliminal mind could assume control of behaviour when that personality was weak or absent. It could spin off new personalities, with complex and exciting histories. It could even invent a new language.
It was Myers' work that inspired his near-contemporary Theodore Flournoy to study the medium Helene Smith, who not only claimed to be the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette but also to be a regular visitor to Mars, whose language she claimed to speak. Never a Spiritualist, Flournoy interpreted Helene Smith's communications as demonstrating the power of the subliminal self. In effect she had subliminally invented what Flournoy's friend the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure recognized as a genuine (if childish) language. This was not an example of xenoglossy, which occurs when someone speaks a language hitherto not known to them. It was more like glossolalia - the 'speaking in tongues' in which religious devotees talk as angels are supposed to do, in a language unknown to humans. Unlike glossolalia, however, 'Martian' could be interpreted and understood.
As the founder of Surrealism André Breton wrote, Myers had invented a 'gothic psychology':
In spite of the regrettable fact that so many are unacquainted with the work of F. W. H. Myers, which antedated that of Freud, I think we owe more than is generally conceded to what William James called the gothic psychology of F. W. H. Myers which, in an entirely new and still more exciting world, led us to the admirable explorations of Theodore Flournoy.
The Surrealists had a strong interest in automatic writing. Breton even went so far as to define Surrealism in terms of 'a certain psychic automatism that corresponds rather well to the dream state', proclaiming, 'I have never lost my conviction that nothing said or done is worthwhile outside that magic dictation.'
The Surrealists did not follow Myers in his belief in Spiritualism any more than Flournoy did. They adopted Helene Smith as their muse without ever accepting her image of herself. For them automatic writing was not a route to another world but a method of tapping into the unconscious. The hidden powers it revealed might be preternatural but they were not paranormal. They were simply the subliminal self at work.
Myers was fully aware of the ability of the subliminal self to create personalities as convincing as those encountered in everyday dealings. He examined the subliminal manufacture of personality in the case of 'Clelia', who appeared in an experiment in automatic writing undertaken by 'Mr A', 'a friend of the writer'. In a passageentitled 'Clelia, or unconscious cerebration', Myers records the 'friend' as writing:
The following experiment will be regarded by some as a beautiful proof of unconscious cerebration; by others as indubitable proof of the existence of spirits. Others, again, will, like myself, remain halting between the two opinions, with a decided leaning to the scientifically more orthodox. I wished to know if I were myself an automatic writer, or so-called writing medium. The experiment was made Easter, 1883 ... On the first day I became seriously interested; on the second puzzled; on the third I seemed to be entering upon entirely novel experiences, half awful and half romantic; upon the fourth the sublime ended very painfully in the ridiculous.
On the third day of the four-day experiment a mysterious woman appeared to Myers' 'friend'. They conversed via automatic writing:
Q. Who art thou?
Q. Thou art a woman?
Q. Hast thou ever lived upon the earth?
Q. Wilt thou?
A. Six years.
On the next and last day of the experiment the following exchange took place:
Q. Wherefore dost thou speak with me?
A. Where dost thou answer me?
Q. Do I answer myself?
Q. Is Clelia here?
Q. Who is it, then, now here?
Q. Does Clelia exist?
Q. With whom did I speak yesterday?
A. No one.
On the third day, after the appearance of 'Clelia', Myers' 'friend' had written:
I am writing not a tale of Edgar Poe, but a scientific narration of fact. Therefore, nothing shall be said of my feelings and ideas upon this occasion. It was evident that I was in communication with a - beautiful? - spirit of romantic name, who in six years was to be born upon the earth. My snatches of sleep that night were few and far between.
After the end of the experiment Myers' 'friend' compared scientific and Spiritualistic explanations for the appearance of 'Clelia'. He concluded: 'Although as Ihave said, I incline strongly to the scientific explanation, that inclination does not rise to absolute belief.'
The 'friend' may have been Myers himself. The experiment took place in 1883, when he was already involved in his long attempt to contact his dead love, Annie Marshall. The elusive 'Clelia' epitomizes this quest. Her sudden disappearance can be read a message from Myers' subliminal self, warning him that his attempt to reach Annie Marshall is the pursuit of a figment.
Writing in a later paper, Myers analysed the case in these terms:
in 'Clelia' we saw produced, for the first time, perhaps, in psychophysical discussions, an instance of a sane and waking man holding a colloquy, so to speak, with his own dream; an instance, that is to say, where the unconscious cerebral action was not subordinated to the conscious, - did not depend for its manifestations on the direction of the conscious attention elsewhere, but presented itself as co-ordinate with the conscious action, and as able to force itself on the attention of the waking mind.
In the 'Clelia' case, Myers notes, 'the unconscious mentation flowed on concurrently with the conscious'. The result was 'that subjective certainty which the automatist soon feels, that his conscious mentation is not supplying the written answers that flow from his pen'. Commenting on the analysis presented in the earlier paper, Myers writes that he has 'pushed the phrase "unconscious cerebration" as far as it can go'.
The case of 'Clelia' is a compelling illustration of Myers' theory of the subliminal self. Automatic writing is a revelation of the normal state of affairs, in which the conscious personality is one of many impersonations. The ordinary process of writing has itself an occult aspect, with words emerging from nowhere on to the page. Much of Myers' work was a kind of automatic writing in which part of him theorized what his subliminal self was doing. His pursuit of 'Clelia' was a subliminal communication very like that which he wanted from the dead 'Annie Marshall'. But how could any such message resolve the perplexity Annie had left in him? As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written, 'Intimacy between people, like occult phenomena, is fundamentally bewildering.'
Myers recognized the creative power of the subliminal self in spinning romantic myths from human events. He failed to recognize it at work in his own life. He could not accept that 'Annie Marshall' - the ghostly figure he tirelessly sought and eventually believed he had found - was an invention of his subliminal self.
In another discussion of automatic writing Myers noted:
[It] is rather sanity which needs to be accounted for; since the moral and physical being of each of us is built up from incoordination and incoherence, and the microcosm of man is but a micro-chaos held in some semblance of order by a lax and swaying hand, the wild team in which a Phaeton is driving, and which must needs soon plunge into the sea.
In Greek myth Phaeton is the son of the sun-god Helios, who persuaded his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun for a day. Feeling a weak driver, the horses ran out of control, threatening to burn the Earth. Seeing the danger, Zeus killed Phaeton with a thunderbolt. Phaeton fell into a river, where he was mourned by nymphs whose tears turned to amber.
In his pursuit of evidence for survival Myers re-enacted the Phaeton story. He invoked the myth to illustrate the fragmentary quality of the conscious mind. He did not notice when the 'lax and swaying hand' of his own consciousness lost control. Driven in the last decades of his life to try to reach another 'Clelia', he became a medium for a ghost of his own creation.
If there were dreams to sell, What would you buy?
Thomas Lovell Beddoes
The psychical researchers were all of them characters in a subliminal romance. Science had called up the spectre of universal death - the annihilation of the individual, the extinction of the species and the death of the cosmos as it collapsed under the weight of entropy. The search for evidence for survival that followed was the quest for immortality adapted to the conditions of a scientific age. Science became a channel for stories of post-mortem love,while fractured personalities looked to a life beyond the grave in the hope of becoming whole.
The cross-correspondences added another element to the romance. The Plan may have been a fiction devised to enable a frustrated woman to have another child. But it was also the vehicle for an attempt to escape the terror of history - the spectre of chaos that gripped sections of the British elite in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Like messianic myths everywhere, the Plan allowed those who accepted it to see the events of their time as acts in a drama whose end would be redemptive. The chaos of history did not end, but for a time it was interrupted, at least for a small section of humanity, and replaced by a dream of salvation.
It was not long before events dispelled the dream. The cross-correspondences came to an end in the early 1930s, supposedly because they had become too unwieldy to be properly analysed. The scripts had hinted at the prospect of another war. They failed to anticipate the convulsion that was underway in Europe, or the horrors it would unleash.
Another seer witnessed events he could not have foreseen. P. D. Ouspensky, the one-time disciple of of the Russian occultist G. I. Gurdjieff, did not expect any new messiah to arrive and save the world. His occult philosophy was different: there was no plan of collective salvation, no turning point when the chaos of history ended. Instead each person was born and reborn at the same point in time, in the same place and the same circumstances, in a succession of recurrences.
Nietzsche invented the myth of eternal recurrence as a test of the vitality of the superior individual - if you can welcome reliving your life again and again, then you will live nobly and well. In contrast Ouspensky's variation on the idea of reincarnation promised a kind of progress. Using special psychological disciplines, individuals could remember their last recurrence and change the next. Eventually, if they persisted in their inner efforts, they could break out from the circle of recurrence and become immortal.
A writer during the last days of the Tsars, Ouspensky loathed the Bolsheviks and emigrated to the West. By the late 1930s, after some years lecturing in London to occultist groups that attracted writers and poets such as Aldous Huxley and T. S. Eliot, he was installed at Lyne Place, an eighteenth-century mansion in Virginia Water, around twenty miles from London. By 1940 Ouspensky's influence had waned, and he headed a small cult of devotees. In early September 1940, Ouspensky and some of his disciples were on the roof of the mansion at Lyne Place. The Blitz had started. London's docks were on fire, and twenty miles away the flames were clearly visible. Standing on the roof watching the fire-storm, Ouspensky seemed to be concentrating his spiritual forces on an inner struggle - an effort, a super-effort, to recall the scene as it had appeared in his last recurrence. After a while he was heard to murmur, 'This I cannot remember.'
Copyright © 2011 by John Gray
Meet the Author
John Gray is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including Black Mass, Straw Dogs, and Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern. A regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, he is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.
John Gray is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including Straw Dogs and Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern. A regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, he is a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics.
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