Into Thin Air
- The Invention of Telepathy by Roger Luckhurst
Oxford, 334 pp, £35.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 19 924962 8
Eva C., one of the most sensational ‘materialising’ mediums of the early 20th century, was much photographed in the act of producing spirits in the form of ectoplasmic structures, or ‘pseudo-pods’. These long viscous skeins of white stuff, which sometimes passed as if miraculously through a gauzy gag tied over Eva C.’s face, were thought to be ‘ideoplasts’ – projections of the medium’s mind. The photographer and impresario of these séances was Mme Juliette Bisson, a rich widow, and the patron of a physician turned psychologist, Baron Albert von Schrenck-Notzing; Eva C.’s séances were staged in his native city, Munich. The Baron later published exhaustive minutes of the proceedings, in books with such titles as Phenomena of Materialisation (1913, translated into English in 1920), and his lurid commingling of female physical display, scientific language and forensic, evidentiary process brings to a prurient culmination the labours of psychical investigators during the last three decades of the 19th century, the period dealt with in Roger Luckhurst’s study.
Photography was of inestimable importance in disseminating the performance of the mediums, as well as offering a deep metaphor for the relation between external matter and immaterial thought. While the interplay between psychology and new technologies forms one of Luckhurst’s themes, another aspect of the case of Eva C. connects more resonantly to his telepathic plots. Her career as a medium had begun on ‘the imperial margin’, in the French colony of Algeria. Luckhurst’s densely worked argument picks up and knots the trailing threads in a carpet where figures of imperialist fantasy, technological terror and scientific speculation can be glimpsed side by side. Eva C. was the pseudonym of Marthe Béraud, who first came to attention when she contacted the other world in Algiers in 1905, to console her fiancé’s parents after the death of their son. The séances were so successful that her fiancé’s father, a French general, invited Charles Richet, a professor of physiology at the Sorbonne who was well known for his interest in psychic matters, to attend them; Richet soon declared himself fully persuaded that Béraud was genuine.
Not long afterwards, Marthe Béraud confessed to trickery. She had little option: a newspaper had found the servant who’d played the spirit she summoned – that of Bien Boa, a courtly and richly moustachioed 16th-century Brahmin. Not for the first time, Richet refused to admit that what he had witnessed was a trick, and the medium, once she had changed her name, continued to practise.
The support of scientists such as Richet and, earlier, the pioneering physicist and Fellow of the Royal Society William Crookes, who in the 1870s had speculated about a fourth, ‘radiant’, state of matter, lent authority to the cause of English psychic research. When Dr Richet held séances in his villa on the island of Roubaud in the South of France in the summer of 1895, he invited the eminent philosophers and scientists who, in 1882, had founded the Society for Psychical Research. They included the philosopher Frederic Myers; the progressive thinkers Henry Sidgwick, the founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, and his wife, Eleanor Balfour, sister of the future Prime Minister; and Oliver Lodge, a brilliant younger scientist who continued to defend ectoplasm well into the Einsteinian era. Richet had enlisted the Italian medium Eusapia Palladino, another adept at setting objects flying through the air, tumbling the furniture about, forming ectoplasm and making absent people very much present. After the Roubaud séances, she moved back to Britain with Myers and the Sidgwicks to continue the experiments in Cambridge.
There’s something ghastly and shameful, as well as inadvertently hilarious, about these high-minded and progressive luminaries taking part in such shenanigans; it’s also a source of profound embarrassment for those who believe in intellectual effort that thoughtful men and women should have colluded with such deceptions and, albeit unconsciously, brought about a spiral of duplicity with mediums who were for the most part female, and invariably of a lower social status than the psychic investigators. All this has meant that serious attention has only recently been paid to the extent and influence of the psychic enterprise, to the legitimate contexts in which it arose, the resonance of the questions it put, and the effect it had on ideas of the self in psychology and literature. Pamela Thurschwell’s fine study of Henry James, Oscar Wilde and George du Maurier showed how profoundly the developments in ‘magical thinking’ reverberated in fiction and its portrayal of character and perception; and Malcolm Gaskill recently tackled, with amused brio, the life and times of the last of the materialising mediums, Helen Duncan, who was imprisoned for her activities and died only in 1956.
In this lucid and richly layered study, Luckhurst echoes Terry Castle’s ‘the invention of the uncanny’ (from The Female Thermometer), to tell the story of telepathy. Castle described the internalisation of spectres, hauntings, terrors and the rise of the phantasmal at the end of the 18th century, while Luckhurst tracks a contrary yearning a hundred years later for a stable, external explanation, moored in science. Developments in the natural sciences and psychology offered places for ghosts to rise up: in ‘radiant matter’, in vibrations of the ether, in the organic sparking of synapses – not in the turbulent, subjective and inexplicable fantasies of individual persons. Luckhurst is eager to counter the emphasis on decline and degeneration at the close of the Victorian era, wanting to redescribe the epoch as one invigorated by contact with new thinking from an ever increasing number of new disciplines.
Telepathy embraced phenomena such as spirit summonings, ectoplasmic manifestations, ghosts and hauntings, according to the Society for Psychical Research and its assiduous committees of investigation, because all of them constituted action at a distance produced by mind over matter. The word itself was invented by Frederic Myers in 1882 – the prefix tele- gave rise to a number of compounds during this period that reflect the fluctuating and excited climate of discovery: telegraph, telephone, telekinesis, teleportation (television, manifestly still of this world, followed later). Myers wanted to replace ‘thought transference’, the phrase then current, in part no doubt because he wanted to strike a lofty and learned tone; but also because he wanted a word that would mean not merely mind-reading but ‘the communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independently of the recognised channels of sense’. The new word would be able to embrace materialisations at séances: these ranged from the filmy skin (paraffin wax) shed by spirit visitors, to ghost thumbprints, cool lifting breezes, various sound effects, and, of course, spirit apparitions and ectoplasm.
The Society for Psychical Research sought to exclude supernatural explanations, and their materialist scepticism caused a rift with the Spiritualists. It’s a forgotten paradox that, unlike witch-hunters, ghost-busters were fervent doubters, and tricksters and conjurors such as Houdini rationalists to their fingertips. However, several of the thinkers in the SPR wavered in their allegiance to scientific naturalism: for example, Myers, in his magnum opus, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, thought up the notion of ‘subliminal consciousness’, a model in which the mind is never entirely present to itself, but constantly impelled by inaccessible memory layers. This was a material conception, not an idea of the soul. But, at the same time, he made a pact with friends that after his death he would return to speak to them – if this were possible – in order to settle the question of bodily survival.
Myers died in 1901, after being treated at a clinic in Rome where William James was also a patient, and where Axel Munthe looked after them both. Munthe went on to write the dream-laden and spooked bestseller, The Story of San Michele. As for Myers, he did indeed return: he became a loquacious revenant, dictating many messages in languages ancient and modern to automatic writers far and wide; he had agreed a code before his death, secured by several double blinds, so that researchers would know his ghost. In returning to haunt the living, Myers undercut his own argument that telepathy involved effluvia or waves which communicated between the living, and that apparitions, ghosts of departed loved ones and other spectral experiences existed in the mind and nowhere else. In the late Victorian and Edwardian ages, the spectral was never properly assimilated to the telepathic, and, after the First World War, psychic studies had pretty much given way to spiritualism. Like the many bereaved who saw their loved ones again in spirit photographs, the vehicles of Myers’s communicating spirit preferred to think he had indeed come back from the dead to speak to them.
Luckhurst discusses the association of pathos and touch, and finds an oxymoron in the term ‘remote touch, distant contact’. But the dominant meaning of pathe is ‘sensation’, in the sense of emotion, suffering, or feeling with someone or something, as in sympathy, the ‘Pathetic Fallacy’ or, in the coinage of Vernon Lee which Luckhurst discusses, empathy. Myers saw love as the basis of all telepathy, and his own life-story, complicated by disavowed bisexuality, melancholia and even unacknowledged fraudulence (including plagiarism), constantly raises the matter of prohibited relations. Yet touch, handling – epaphe – became central to the activities of the psychic researchers, who in imitation of the laboratory, did not want to rely on the evidence of their eyes alone. They wanted telepathic effects to be evident in ways other than the visual: hence the darkness of séances, the inventive panoply of raps, notes and other noises, the floating trumpets that emitted disincarnate spirit voices, the teleported flowers and phantasmal slaps and pinches, the gooey, smelly, haptic qualities of ectoplasm. The psychic moment involved, on the one hand, an ideal of enhanced sensitivity of perception between people and, on the other, a commitment to impersonal evidence, unaffected by the subjectivity of witnesses.
Luckhurst vividly describes William Barrett, a doctor active in the Society for Psychical Research, assisting John Tyndall, a leading scientific naturalist, when Tyndall was demonstrating the effects of sound on light at the Royal Institution in the 1860s. Shaking a bunch of keys, or chirruping, or clapping loudly from a distance, Tyndall showed that he could quell the flame of a Bunsen burner or make it swell and roar. Extrapolating to telepathic effects, Barrett later said that the flames reacted like a ‘sensitive, nervous person uneasily starting and twitching at every little noise’. The connection of vibrating harmonies across space flowered easily into figures of interpersonal contact, and we now ordinarily speak of ‘being on the same wavelength’, ‘having a brain wave’, ‘tuning in’, ‘switching on’. Oliver Lodge invoked tuning forks reverberating to each other’s frequency and wrote that ‘the sensory consciousness of a person, though apparently located in the brain, may also be conceived of as also existing like a faint echo in space, or in other brains.’ Such finely calibrated sensors between sensitive souls, such tremulous, responsive, imponderably harmonised bodies, appear in the writings of Henry James, Virginia Woolf (The Waves) and even Rudyard Kipling, as well as those of others mentioned by Luckhurst, such as Arthur Machen, Vernon Lee and Grant Allen.
The concept of telepathy continually threatened to collapse distinctions between the literal and the figural, and the psychological and the metaphysical. As Luckhurst remarks, Henry James ‘always ensures the screw will bite with a further turn, the figural and the literal kept maddeningly proximate’. The status of ghostliness had preoccupied the Fathers of the Church for much the same reason: were apparitions illusions emanating from the devil? Or were they hooked up to a truth in the objective world, whose creator ensured their existence? Joan of Arc’s trial returned obsessively to this problem: were the voices in her mind, in which case they might have been conjured by the arch deceiver, Satan? Or were they ghosts of the sort who often appeared to warn sinners to reform – no diabolical tricks there.
Until Freud, dreams were in the main proleptic, prophetic; they also, as we know from Homer and from Julius Caesar, contained secret knowledge of what had transpired but was still hidden from view: they were not fantastic, nor were they subjective. Classical and medieval ghosts enflesh – so to speak – concealed knowledge; it is easy to see why ghosts later became metaphors for the Freudian unconscious. Playing Hamlet recently, Sam West delivered his soliloquies in the midst of company on stage, thus conveying clearly that these were his inner thoughts, which we in the audience were overhearing: in other words, we were in telepathic communication with his inner self. In Hamlet and Macbeth, the status of ghosts is full of tense ambiguities: the guards, as well as Horatio, seem to have seen the ghost on the battlements, but Gertrude later grieves that Hamlet is staring at thin air, and Macbeth alone sees Banquo shaking his hoary locks.
Discussing Freud’s captivation in the 1920s by the possibility of thought transference, Jacques Derrida remarks that it is ‘difficult to imagine a theory of what they still call the unconscious without a theory of telepathy’. Derrida also allows himself to wonder, as most of us have done, how it is that someone rings us at the very moment we’ve put our hand on the receiver to ring them. Modern media, he suggests, do not simply move the self in the form of the voice and image over distance, but give the eerie feeling of replicating the movement of thought itself. In his writing, telepathy keeps threatening to break its confines and become the condition of thought, of literature, of language.
The chainlink fence around telepathy has been patrolled, usually more vigilantly than by Derrida, because the occult poses such a threat to legitimacy: the eminent figures in the SPR were keen not to be thought cranks. Even worse, the occult has tended to leak into the fascist, and distemper its adherents (think of Pound, Yeats, Jung). Luckhurst tracks Freud’s struggle to keep psychoanalysis at a healthy distance from the psychic and the occult, and to define the unconscious against Myers’s telepathic, ‘subliminal’ model. In Freud’s conception, the unconscious belongs to an individual, differentiated and particular person: each to his or her own unconscious. Myers’s subliminal and irreducible – even immortal – subconscious disintegrates into the material world, deriving its being from the Pythagorean or Hindu concepts of vital energy and essences flowing through creation. Myers had absorbed doctrines of the world soul and of metempsychosis from his own background as a classicist and philosopher as well as from his wide-ranging and esoteric reading. (He wasn’t alone, of course: theosophy was forged through contact with Indian thought.) In other territories of empire – West Africa and the Caribbean especially – colonists, too, became acquainted with models of self that dethroned uniqueness, and offered up the individual to possession by external spirits: the self became a haunted house, or a house ever apt to become haunted. In its acceptance of the medium’s capacity to fall into trance and take on another’s thoughts, to become the habitation of a ‘spirit control’, to speak in another’s voice, to produce someone else’s ectoplasmic matter from inside her own body, telepathy profoundly undermines the integrated body-mind/ body-spirit/outside-inside model of the Judaeo-Christian self, and, indeed, the Freudian psyche. Luckhurst refers to the contrary idea of a ‘je anonyme’ – an ego which is not I.
The medium in trance, herself ghosting the presence of another, is haunted by the oracles of ancient Greece, and by the shamans and behiques of Africa and the Caribbean, whose magical powers over souls had been noted in the earliest ethnography to come out of these regions. Marthe Béraud’s Bien Boa belongs to a large congeries of exotic phantoms born of the encounter with different cultures. Telepathy became a way of absorbing strangeness, of neutralising its power through contact but also, in a metaphor of pharmacological magic, of revitalising the self through its energy. Hélène Smith, a young Genevan medium who starred in Dr Théodore Flournoy’s bestseller From India to the Planet Mars (1899), spoke in many tongues, including Martian. Her multiple selves included Marie Antoinette, a 15th-century Hindu princess called Simandini, and a reincarnation as the Martian overlord Astané. Flournoy’s account of their séances and Smith’s prodigious feats of channelling went through edition after edition – and it’s not improbable that Marthe Béraud had come across it. Astané travelled by means of a flying machine – a hand-held flame-thrower which looked like a combination between a loud hailer and a child’s toy girouette or windmill. This psychic Orientalism persisted: Yeats was able to break his block thanks to the mediumship of a succession of women, who between them established a spirit control for the poet in the shape of Leo Africanus, a Spanish-Arab scholar, traveller and poet celebrated in 16th-century Italy.
The far-flung fantastic spectres of the Fin-de-Siècle séance aren’t simply ornamental: there to produce a frisson of the unfamiliar. They embody, as Luckhurst points out, the collapse of the distant into the proximate brought about by empire. Imperial Gothic – the infusion of exotic spooks into the literature of hauntings – grew in step with modern communications: Luckhurst shows how submarine cables, carrying the telegraph between Britain’s colonial possessions, reproduced the spiritual web that put the past in touch with the present, bringing the unimaginably remote home to the parlour. The first transatlantic cable joined two British territories – Ireland and Newfoundland – in 1866; India was connected to Gibraltar four years later, allowing communication between Europe and the Subcontinent in five hours; the last link was laid in 1903 between Canada and New Zealand. These were ‘the nerves of empire’. The most important early theorist of psychic phenomena, William Crookes, was introduced to spiritualism after his brother died of a fever in Cuba, where he was laying a cable.
At the same time as Myers and his colleagues in the SPR were amassing evidence from all over the world of out-of-body experiences and ghostly apparitions, the anthropologist James Frazer was conducting an investigation, also by post, into customs and beliefs throughout the Empire. From 1887 onwards, Frazer sent his questionnaire throughout the world as he saw it, and this world coincided, pretty much, with the British Empire: he asked missionaries, colonial administrators, teachers, explorers and botanists to inquire of their native informants the ‘Manners, Customs, Religion, Superstitions, etc of Uncivilised or Semi-Civilised Peoples’. He was excited by other peoples’ ideas about spirits, about ways of summoning them or controlling them, about their migration into the body of animals, and the adventures of wandering souls – although he despised the researches of the SPR, he was willy-nilly wound into their telepathic plots. One of his informants was Mary Kingsley, who had explored the West Coast of Africa; according to Luckhurst, Mary Kingsley declared that she could ‘think black’, and he relates this novel and proud claim to the value accorded by psychic researchers to the sensitivity of empathetic or telepathic exchanges.
The Invention of Telepathy traces the way in which magical thinking about the mind unsettled notions of the unique, integrated self, yet simultaneously made subjectivity the only locus of experience. On the basis of this riven notion of person and personhood, writers have invented haunted plots, unreliable memoirs, ghost stories and gothic romances. The 19th-century concept of telepathy continues to animate alter egos, multiple personalities, ideas of possession and altered states in work by writers from Margaret Atwood to Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King. The alliance of entertainment media with magic, telepathy and possession grows ever stronger, in writing for children, in television programmes – even the Teletubbies are psychic channellers – and, of course, in the X-Files, horror films and video nasties. The latest twist to the challenge posed by telepathy to the idea of the integrated self reconfigures in atomic terms the telepathic ‘Not-I’, who can take on the impression of others’ presence. The particles of an element are identical, and through this identicality, excite a hallucinatory sensation, to the non-scientific mind, of personal uniqueness vanishing into thin air: your DNA may be uniquely yours, but its carbon content, well, that’s another matter. The ‘I’ as an enigmatic atomic cluster, traversed by invisible waves and rays, so very like every other and yet not like any other, has become the new frontier of psychological inquiry.
 Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, 208 pp., £37.50, 5 July 2001, 0 521 80168 0).
 Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches (2001), reviewed in the LRB by Hilary Mantel (10 May 2001).
 ‘Telepathy’ (translated by Nicholas Royle) was published in the Oxford Literary Review (1988). Roger Luckhurst has written on the same subject in ‘Something Tremendous, Something Elemental: The Ghostly Origins of Psychoanalysis’ in Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History, edited by Peter Buse and Andrew Stott (1999).
 Reviewed in the LRB by Terry Castle (23 May 1996).