Eliminating the Impossible

American spiritualism and British spiritualism were closely aligned in principles and practices, and shared many of the same actors—seekers, investigators, believers, mediums, and lecturers—who crossed the Atlantic back and forth during the second half of the nineteenth century, trading methods and revelations.  One of the things they shared was an interest in theatrics.

Improvising an Identity

Under the control of spirits at “circles,” Connecticut medium and healer Semantha Mettler would sometimes be guided to dance, do pantomime, or impromptu and improvised dramatic scenes akin to other kinds of Victorian tableaux vivant carrying some “great moral or spiritual truth,” and often describing the transition of the soul at death into the wonders of the next life.  Others present also participated, in trance, and thus transfigured into representations of spirits and angels. In the linguistic usage of the day, in terms reversed from our present-day usage, the spirits would “impersonate” them—meaning they would take possession of their human mediums, replacing their personalities with their own. Of Mrs. Mettler’s performances, her biographer explained, “as there is no programme of the performances, and therefore the spectators do not know what is coming till it is nearly or quite past, and at the same time the actors, themselves, do not remember any thing of what has happened, when they return to the normal state, these representations seem to go by with a kind of meteoric splendor, which arrests the attention, and thrills the heart for a little while; and then it is extremely difficult to give any thing of a definite idea of what has passed.” [Frances Harriet Greene, Biography of Mrs. Semantha Mettler, the Clairvoyant.  New York: The Harmonial Association, 1853:103-104]

Several aspects of these performances were important for spiritualism:  First, they were improvised and seemingly unpremeditated, and that quality seemed to point to the truth of their other-worldly origin, for they did not appear to be the result of the actors’ volition.  Some other consciousness “inhabited” them—how else were they to explain trance impersonation?  But where did the actors’ own personalities go when they vacated their bodies and merged with those of the otherworldly visitants, or when the actors vacated their bodies altogether and left them entirely to the will of the spirits?  Impersonation, proved through an impromptu replacement of personalities, allowed the actors to borrow the authority of elevated spirits and the freedom that results from bursting the bonds of social restraint that ordinarily confined them.  Spiritualism and theatrics fit together like hand and glove.  They both required a certain suspension of disbelief.

Séances were, in some sense, theatrical pieces, performance art, psychodramas, religious rituals, and artistic representations—unintended parodies, perhaps—of the scientific method.  Pushed in certain ways, spiritualist phenomena evolved into stage magic and mentalism.  In any event, however, their success depended on aesthetic considerations, as did other dramatic or stage productions.

A Dramatic Dialogue for Four Spiritualist Children

The Age’s Romanticism devalued rational calculation and elevated the “natural,” unplanned, and spontaneous as a truer path to the Divine.  Seeing a trance speaker “moved by a spirit” was reckoned more valuable than being lectured to.  Ironically, the children taking part in the little play linked above would have to memorize a kind of spiritualist catechism and repeat it by rote, even though the characters being impersonated extol the virtues of improvisational, extemporaneous speaking.

More Children’s Performances

Trance impersonation seemed to prove the objective existence of spirits because the consciousness manifesting itself was so different from the entranced person’s ordinary consciousness, and the power of the mind to break out of its conventional limits and traverse time and space seemed so palpable.  No better illustration of this exists than in the practice of psychometry, in which the trance practitioner would essentially look beyond the ordinary, apparent personality, and delineate the true character hidden away behind it—see the real character behind the public impersonation.

E. V. Wilson Provides Psychometric Character Delineations

Do Wilson’s two little dramas of character delineation sound familiar?  They read as if they were passages from Sherlock Holmes stories, but turned on their heads.  In the first psychometric performance, Wilson makes a list of personal characteristics of the writer of a letter, and so eventually deduces who wrote it—just as Holmes might—but in Wilson’s case, the characteristics appear not from ordinary empirical observation but from his power of psychic observation, penetrating into the letter, as it were, and reading the occult residue of its writer.  The second psychometric performance also provides a telling contrast.  Holmes might give a character reading, but the object of his close observation would find it wonderful and almost miraculous, even while the detective protested that it was nothing wonderful after all.  Wilson, however, gives a wonderful character reading, while the object of his attentions protests unconvincingly that it is nothing wonderful, but only what an ordinary observer could have deduced.

Deductive Logic and the Art of Persuasion

The most famous public spiritualist convert was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose beliefs were all the more surprising to some people because Doyle was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, that master of deductive logic and detection.

If Conan Doyle, as Stephen Philip Jones quotes Doyle’s wife as saying, “was” Sherlock Holmes, how does one understand the “contradiction” between the hard-headed detective Holmes and the “soft-headed” spiritualist Doyle?

Was it just a lapse on Doyle’s part when he turned to spiritualism?  Or was there a way in which the deductive method resembles the procedures of a spiritualist medium or investigator?

One explanation that theorists sometimes offered for the changes in consciousness that accompanied mesmeric or spiritualist trance was that more than one “mind” existed in the person, and that during trance, a consciousness different from the ordinary one surfaced and replaced it.  In our Post-Freudian world, this might seem quite reasonable, but in the mid-nineteenth century, this hypothesis seemed bizarre.  Thinking something without being conscious of it seemed incredible, and the idea that there could be “two minds” in a single person seemed like a more far-fetched explanation for trance phenomena than the explanation that other intelligences—spirits—were speaking through a medium.

A common argument that spiritualists used to persuade others of the truth of spiritualism, took this form (although not always quite so baldly):  I say I perceive spirits.  I am a gentleman (and therefore I do not lie).  I am sane (and therefore my senses and reasoning are not impaired).  Thus, as improbable as it may seem to you, since there is no other possibility, spirits do exist and have manifested themselves to me.  This has the form of a deductive argument.  Its persuasive power comes, not just from its logical form, but from the validity of its premises.  They are valid in a world where gentlemen do, in fact, never lie, and where insanity is always a simple malfunctioning of the sensory apparatus or the brain, which damages all thinking processes.

There is some resemblance, in the Sherlockian estimate of the strong powers of deductive logic and the strong powers attributed to deduction by spiritualists of the time.  Or—one might say—a similarity in the metaphysics of the logician Sherlock Holmes and of the spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle.  That metaphysics is apparent as the basis for the assumption that one can come to a certain knowledge of the objective universe by deducing what is not yet known from what is already known. And the correlative assumption that universal statements about entire classes can be reliably made.  Holmes called it “eliminating the impossible” in order to see, through deduction, what remains (but which had, until then, been hidden from view).

But eliminating the impossible is itself impossible except in a finite universe—and not just finite in the formal sense, but in a universe where a human mind can encompass all the categories of objects, and review all the instances of those categories or classes.  Holmes makes a careful study of cigar and cigarette ashes, and, since the types of cigars and cigarettes are finite, he is able to deduce the identity of an ash from examining its characteristics.  E. V. Wilson, too, deduces the identity of the letter writer by compiling and sorting through the personal characteristics he finds.  The universe of tobacco is small enough in the Holmesian world that he can master it.  Many aspects of the Holmesian world are similarly finite—it is a world of strict, well-defined class distinctions and careers, a world in which stonemasons, for example, always carry the same specific marks of their trade on their bodies (calluses on certain places on their thumbs, powdered stone under their fingernails, bulging triceps) and wear the same kind of clothing.  It is a world which, in its finitude, is like the world that E. V. Wilson keeps in his head, a world in which there is only instance of a person who has a certain set of seven or eight characteristics—and the identity of that person, he can therefore deduce.

Holmes’ feats of reading the characters and histories of people, on the model of Doyle’s teacher Joseph Bell, would have been read by spiritualists as akin to what psychometrists did.  Bell demonstrated his deductive powers in a kind of theatrical setting, in a classroom amphitheater, where he diagnosed diseases by observing the evidence of patients’ symptoms and appearances.  In a sense, he meant it to appear as if it were a mentalist performance, the “trick” of which he would then explain.  An objector may say that the point of the Holmesian character readings was exactly the opposite of the point of the psychometer’s readings—although Holmes’ readings seemed miraculous or preternatural, he shows that they were not, but were the result of a rigorously scientific method.  However, this was also the point of spiritualists’ investigations, too, as they saw them:  They did not regard the exercise of their psychometric and mediumistic powers as miraculous but as quite the opposite—as the exercise of natural powers that could register psychic residue or evidence that had not been noticed or investigated before.  Without knowing the trick of the magician, pulling a rabbit out of a hat seems wonderful, but after knowing how it is done, it does not seem miraculous.  But so it is with spirit contact, according to spiritualists.  Since science cannot yet comprehend how humans and spirits make contact, and how psychic powers work, it seems wonderful, but, spiritualists believed, after it had been investigated and explained by science, it would seem neither impossible nor even highly improbable, but natural and matter-of-fact.

A Locked Room Mystery

Imagine a “locked room mystery,” in which something occurs in a room or a locale, access to which seems to have been impossible.  Now imagine the Victorian universe as a comfy locked room, where everything was uniquely explainable and therefore reasonable, even if it was not “yet” fully understood—such as the reason for keeping one’s tobacco, as Holmes did,  in the toe of one’s slipper, or the truth behind the yet-undisclosed story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra:  The Universe itself might be deduced from what was already known; the solution to the mystery might be deduced from the evidence already at hand, but as yet unrecognized.  The mental act that solved the mystery reproduced the original act:  In the mental process that solved the mystery, passage in and out of the locked room occurred through a deduction, allowing one to see what was really there inside the walls of the mystery, although hidden until that moment. Such a powerful deduction seemed to resemble the psychometric passage of the mind through ordinarily uncrossable obstacles of time and space.  This was the universe so palpably described in Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes.

British Spiritualist Listings During the Age of Sherlock Holmes

British Spiritualist Mediums and Speakers, 1887-1889

British Spiritualist Societies and Lyceums, 1888-1889

Reading the records of the spiritualist groups from the time that the first Sherlock Holmes stories were being published, makes it clear that Doyle had plenty of examples of the practice of psychometric delineation that he could have witnessed.  Sherlock Holmes, with all his delight in demonstrating his character readings for people who cannot see and reason as he can, does resemble a spiritualist medium, exercising psychometric powers, making conscious what was unconscious, revealing what was hidden.

Now imagine the Victorian self as existing within a psyche that resembled a solitary locked room, an attic room, perhaps—in a house that could be examined in all its details.  When it was closely examined, the hidden “impersonator” could be found, and the method he or she used to pass in and out of the room, by switching identifying characteristics, could be deduced and then revealed to all.

Spirit and Matter, a spiritualist play from 1880, in which characters are transformed into liberated spirits in a locked room” and reveal their true natures.

For spiritualist mediums, the process was done through a kind of trance role-playing often so vivid and complete that their identities disappeared for a time.


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