Into Thin Air

Marina Warner

  • 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[1] 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.[2]

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[1] Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, 208 pp., £37.50, 5 July 2001, 0 521 80168 0).

[2] Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches (2001), reviewed in the LRB by Hilary Mantel (10 May 2001).

[3] ‘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).

[4] Reviewed in the LRB by Terry Castle (23 May 1996).