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The Drama of Love and Death Edward Carpenter

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The Drama of Love and Death

by Edward Carpenter

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Addendum to CHAPTER VIII

Mediumistic Trance Phenomena

It may seem rash or unbalanced to dwell, in the preceding chapters, on trance and mediumistic phenomena as much as I have done, considering that they are in some sense abnormal—that is, they are unusual, and comparatively few people have an opportunity of verifying them; also they may (it is said) be abnormal in the sense of being the products of conditions so special or even so morbid that conclusions drawn from them can have no general importance or value.

There is a certain fashion in such matters, and with large sections of the public and during a long period it has no doubt been the habit simply to dismiss all consideration of this subject, as for one reason or another unadvisable. But now these phenomena in general (or enough of them to constitute a solid body of observation) are so thoroughly corroborated that it would be mere affectation to pass them by; and the best science nowadays refuses to ignore exceptional happenings on account of their exceptionality—recognizing that these very happenings often afford the key to the explanation of more common events.

The phenomena connected with mediums and seances have been so amazing and unexpected that they have often produced a kind of fear and dismay. The religious people have been terrified at the prospect of having to acknowledge miracles not connected with the Church; or of having to confess to the resurrection of John Smith as well as of Jesus Christ. The scientific folk (in many or most quarters) being always just on the point of completing their pet scheme of the universe—whatever it may happen to be at the time—have naturally been in no mood to admit new facts which would totally 157 disarrange their systems; and have, therefore, with a few brilliant exceptions, consistently closed their eyes or looked another way. And the general public, not without reason, has feared to embark on a subject which might easily float it away from the dry land of practical life, into one knows not what sea of doubt or even delusion.

But these difficulties attend at all times the introduction of a new subject—or at least of one which is new to the generation concerned; and can of course not be allowed to interfere with the candid and impartial examination of the subject, or with the assimilation, as far as feasible, of its message. It should certainly, I think, be admitted that there are dangers attending the new science—or rather attending the hasty and careless investigation of it—just as there are attending any other science. There is no doubt that the phenomena connected with it are so astounding that they in some cases unhinge people’s minds, or at least for the time upset them; and what we have already said once or twice of the frequent bodily exhaustion of the Medium, not to mention the occasional exhaustion of the sitters, must convince us that the greatest care should be exercised in connection with trance-conditions, and that the whole subject should be studied with a view to discovering its proper and best handling. It is clear—whatever view is taken of the process—that a certain disintegration of the organism, and even of the personality of the medium, is liable to occur, one portion of the organism acting in a manner and under influences foreign to another portion, and that such disintegration oft repeated or long continued may be liable to produce a permanent degeneration of physique or even possibly demoralization of character. If there is a danger in this direction—and the extent of the danger should certainly be gauged—equally certainly it ought to be minimized or averted by the proper conditions. On the other hand, while noting this danger, we should not leave out of mind that 158 some evidence points in the other direction—namely, to the favorable effects and influences of trance when rightly conducted.[84] We may also in this connection allude to the changed attitude of the general mind to-day toward Hypnotism—a subject allied to that which we are considering. Fifty years ago the word had a sinister sound, and hypnotism and mesmerism were thought to be inventions of the devil and agencies of all evil. To-day they are recognized as a great power for good, and in at least two hospitals (in France) as the main instrument of healing. Naturally, when people are ignorant of a subject, or only in the first stages of knowledge with regard to it, they mishandle and misunderstand it. It may well happen therefore that with better understanding of mediumship and trance-conditions, some of their drawbacks or less favorable aspects may pass out of sight.

Mediums and trance-phenomena—prophecy, second sight, speaking in strange tongues, the appearance of flames and lights, and of figures apparently from the dead—are things that have been known all down history, and recognized almost as a matter of course, both among quite primitive peoples like the Kaffirs, or the Aleuts or the Mongolians, or among the more cultured like the Greeks, the Romans, the Hindus, Chinese, and so forth. The Bible teems with references to wizards and “necromancers” (note the meaning of the word); and the story of the Witch of Endor gives us a penetrating glimpse into what was evidently a common practice of “consultation.” These phenomena have never been so common as to break up and disorganize the routine of ordinary life, yet they have always been there, and recognized, as on the fringe or borderland—in somewhat the same way as the knowledge or recognition of Death does not interfere with daily life or prevent us making engagements; 159 though we know it may do so at any time. And beyond any direct uses that trance-communication and manifestations may have now, or may have had in the past (a matter on which no doubt there is a good deal of difference of opinion), we may fairly suppose that as examples of real things and of a real world lying just outside the sphere of our ordinary and actual experience they may be of immense value—both as delivering us from a cramped and petty belief that we have already fathomed the possibilities of the universe, and as giving us just a hint and a glimpse of directions in which we may fairly look for the future. That we should for the present be limited for the most part to a definite sphere of activity, or to a definite region of creation, seems only natural. “One world, please, at a time!” said Thoreau when on his deathbed he was plagued by some pious person about the future life; and if we in our daily life were entangled in the manifestations of two very different planes of existence it might be greatly baffling. At the same time, the occasional hint or message from another plane may be of the greatest help.

Condensations and manifestations (as of beings from such other plane) may be abnormal at present. They may be rare, they may occur under unexpected and even unhealthy conditions, they may cause dislocations of mind and of morals, they may be confused and confusing. All these things we should indeed in some degree expect; and yet it may not follow that these objections will continue. It is quite possible that in the future they will disappear. As I have had occasion to say many times, every new movement or manifestation of human activity, when unfamiliar to people’s minds, is sure to be misrepresented and misunderstood. It appears in humble guise, without backing or patronage, forcing its way to light in the most unlikely places, “to the Jews a stumbling-block, to the Greeks foolishness,” often distorted and out of shape owing to its very birth-struggles, and for the very same reason diffident at first and uncertain 160 of its own mission. Possibly a time is coming when Mediumship, instead of being left over (as not unfrequently now) to quite ignorant and uncultured specimens of humanity, and being exercised in haphazard, careless fashion, or for monetary gain, or personal vanity, will be looked upon as a sacred and responsible office, worthy of and requiring considerable preparation and instruction, demanding the respect of the public, yet thoroughly criticized, both in method and result, by intelligent examination and logic. Possibly a time is coming when messages and manifestations from another plane than that of our daily life will come to us under the most obviously healthy and sane conditions, and will be fully recognized as having value and even, in their way, authority.


For the present—allowing (as I do) the absolute genuineness of a great body of “spiritualistic” phenomena—there still is (owing to various causes already indicated) considerable doubt as to who or what the manifesting beings or forces are. I suppose the main theories on the subject may be gathered under the following heads: that the manifesting powers are (1) Images, more or less unconsciously projected from the Medium’s own mind; or, in case of raps, and so forth, emissions of force from the medium’s body; (2) that they are the same projected from the minds or bodies of other persons present; (3) that they are independent Beings, making use of the medium’s or other person’s organism for the purpose of expression; or (4) that there is a blending of these actions.

I think everyone who has studied the matter practically admits the first explanation in some degree; most people perhaps allow the second and fourth; but a good many—though not all—exclude the third. With regard, however, to this last theory (that there really are occasional messages or manifestations from the dead—or from “the other side”) there certainly seems to be a very 161 considerable residuum of evidence which, though not absolutely conclusive, is favorable to it; and there certainly are a considerable number of eminent and responsible men—like Myers, Lodge, Lombroso, and others—who, though not dogmatic, profess themselves inclined to accept the theory, on the evidence so far available. For myself—having so little personal and direct experience in this field—I do not feel in a position to form a definite opinion, and am content to leave the evidence to accumulate.

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