Confessions of an ex-spiritualist

“…the nearest simile I can find to express the difficulties of sending a message – is that I appear to be standing behind a sheet of frosted glass – which blurs sight and deadens sound – dictating feebly – to a reluctant and very obtuse secretary.’’

This is the classicist Frederick Myers (1843-1901) complaining to a Mrs. Holland about her inability to grasp the meaning of what he wants to convey. One can sympathise. After all, this was about 1907, and Myers had been dead for six years, a circumstance that was obviously cramping his style. Mrs. H. was a spiritualist medium, acting as his amanuensis. The quote forms part of the ‘Cross Correspondences’, the record of an experiment allegedly initiated by Myers after his death to demonstrate the survival of consciousness when the physical body has fallen away, and to eliminate the possibility that the medium was simply cleverly reading the sitter. The Cross Correspondences are records of messages supposedly communicated to mediums in different parts of the world who were unknown to each other. The individual messages are opaque, but are supposed to take on significance when matched up with a message from another communicator. These Cross Correspondences provide strong evidence for life after death – google them and see for yourself. Be warned that they are also brain-curdlingly tedious, which is why hardly anybody has read them. It is in this dull, dusty, disregarded stuff from the beginning of the last century where anything approaching proof of survival resides.


1990. Following the death in a car crash of a new friend and potential lover, I was very much into what I liked to think of as 'serious' spiritualism, centred on the writings of those early explorers who founded the Society for Psychical Research. I rather liked the idea of myself as researcher rather than believer. I saw about twenty mediums do their stuff in Cambridge that year, and although I think most were deluded, I don’t think I saw one instance of deliberate deception. Perhaps five were just possibly, just maybe, just perhaps, the real thing: channels for messages from people who we, quite mistakenly, think of as dead.

If they are dead, how do we seem to get messages from them? The explanation I was prepared to entertain was that just as the air is full of interpenetrating radio waves to which one can tune in with the right equipment, so the universe is full of similar waves of consciousness, and we are tuned into the wavelength of physical matter. The brain excludes information from other wavelengths, and when it dies, the individual consciousness does not die with it. If you drop your radio and smash it, it does not mean that John Humphreys is no more, just that you no longer have the equipment to receive him. Psychic development, then, means stilling the mind and attempting to broaden the range of wavelengths it can pick up. See? Simple!

I moved to Athens at the back end of 1990 to work as a teacher trainer. I was ecstatic to find an ad in an English language magazine for a psychic development circle. This was convened by a lady I’ll call Lynette, who was welcoming and talkative: more talker than listener, in fact, but humorous and friendly. When I could get a word in, I told her about Nicolas, my dead nearly-lover. Our first session was attended by three stylish German ladies, ex-fashion models turned photographers, and one Greek lady, and what we did has faded from memory. In the second session, which the Greek lady did not attend because her husband feared we were working for Satan, Lynette presented me with a single rose, bought for me, she said, at Nicolas’s request. I remember someone commented that I had gone very quiet.

‘He’s thinking about the rose’ Lynette said.

What I was not thinking at the time was that this was just a cheap trick to keep me coming. I was too needy, and certainly too self-absorbed, to entertain that idea. I wanted this rose to be a token from him. I was also probably thinking what a good story my rose from a dead boyfriend would make at dinner later on. So much then for the ‘researcher’ – I was more like a creationist looking for evidence for a set of beliefs I had already assented to.

The same evening the German ladies and I were asked to take part in a group meditation for the benefit of humanity, in which the five of us would all imagine we were floating above the earth and raining down rose petals to blanket the ground in pink, fragrant tenderness. Sitting in the candlelight pretending to shower rose petals onto the earth was mind-bendingly tedious for me. I wanted apports, ectoplasm and disembodied voices. I was restless and useless in all such meditations, especially a later one in which I had to focus positive energy on a trainee to whom I had taken an instant, visceral dislike. Far more satisfying, and true to my real feelings, was my usual daydream of working him over with an electric cattle prod.

I liked psychometry better. Here you are given an object to hold, and you just free-associate, relating whatever images come into your head. Fingering a military medal belonging to a relative of Lynette’s Greek husband, I saw an island, a house, a cuckoo clock and a jovial old man. Lynette said I was right in all details save one: the old man in question was a miserable git. I said I felt as if I were holding a shot, for the track and field event. She knew nothing of that, but said she would ask her husband. Sure enough, the following week I learned I had been right about the shot-putter as well. And sure enough, I took this as evidence of my growing psychic powers, not of Lynette’s exploitation of my gullibility.

I ran out of money and could no longer afford the sessions. By this time I had met crystal healers and past life counsellors, and lent my body to a reikki teacher for her students to practise on. Perhaps it was the sheer battiness of reikki that finally led me to see the whole racket. Five women had stood around me as I lay on a massage table, supposedly sending energies into my body. At the end, their teacher gently reproved them for forgetting to shake the energies off their hands. Sheepishly they all began to flick invisible droplets from their fingers, before depositing their five thousand drachma notes into the teacher's cashbox.

I met one of the German ladies by chance in the street a while later, and learned they too had packed it in. I dismissed Lynette as a fraud on the make, but to be very charitable, let us wonder if she really was consciously manipulative. Perhaps she believed in what she was doing. Perhaps her instincts led her to home in on what she sensed we wanted, and she supplied it. Mediums who fish for leads (‘can you give me an Edward in spirit? Or perhaps a George? Or is it Alfred?’) are not necessarily trying to fool you. They think their gropings and eventual homing in on the ‘right’ person are signs of their talent.

I did a bit of googling today to see if I could find what Lynette was up to eighteen years on. I found her website. She is still in Greece, where she prospers, aided by angels, divas, guides from the higher planes, and what-not. She has a page full of glowing testimonials, some from people I know, and she includes the phone numbers of their shops and tavernas, along with a plug, which might even be free. I wish her well, although with all that back-up from the higher plains, she hardly needs my endorsement. After all, I never managed to amass enough money to set myself up on one of the most expensive islands in the Aegean.

I HAVE received a letter from a gentleman who is very indignant at what he considers my flippancy in disregarding or degrading Spiritualism. I thought I was defending Spiritualism; but I am rather used to being accused of mocking the thing that I set out to justify. My fate in most controversies is rather pathetic. It is an almost invariable rule that the man with whom I don't agree thinks I am making a fool of myself, and the man with whom I do agree thinks I am making a fool of him. There seems to be some sort of idea that you are not treating a subject properly if you eulogise it with fantastic terms or defend it by grotesque examples. Yet a truth is equally solemn whatever figure or example its exponent adopts. It is an equally awful truth that four and four make eight, whether you reckon the thing out in eight onions or eight angels, or eight bricks or eight bishops, or eight minor poets or eight pigs. Similarly, if it be true that God made all things, that grave fact can be asserted by pointing at a star or by waving an umbrella. But the case is stronger than this. There is a distinct philosophical advantage in using grotesque terms in a serious discussion.

I think seriously, on the whole, that the more serious is the discussion the more grotesque should be the terms. For this, as I say, there is an evident reason. For a subject is really solemn and important in so far as it applies to the whole cosmos, or to some great spheres and cycles of experience at least. So far as a thing is universal it is serious. And so far as a thing is universal it is full of comic things. If you take a small thing, it may be entirely serious: Napoleon, for instance, was a small thing, and he was serious: the same applies to microbes. If you isolate a thing, you may get the pure essence of gravity. But if you take a large thing (such as the Solar System) it must be comic, at least in parts. The germs are serious, because they kill you. But the stars are funny, because they give birth to life, and life gives birth to fun. If you have, let us say, a theory about man, and if you can only prove it by talking about Plato and George Washington, your theory may be a quite frivolous thing. But if you can prove it by talking about the butler or the postman, then it is serious, because it is universal. So far from it being irreverent to use silly metaphors on serious questions, it is one's duty to use silly metaphors on serious questions. It is the test of one's seriousness. It is the test of a responsible religion or theory whether it can take examples from pots and pans and boots and butter-tubs. It is the test of a good philosophy whether you can defend it grotesquely. It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.

When I was a very young journalist I used to be irritated at a peculiar habit of printers, a habit which most persons of a tendency similar to mine have probably noticed also. It goes along with the fixed belief of printers that to be a Rationalist is the same thing as to be a Nationalist. I mean the printer's tendency to turn the word “cosmic” into the word “comic.” It annoyed me at the time. But since then I have come to the conclusion that the printers were right. The democracy is always right. Whatever is cosmic is comic.

Moreover, there is another reason that makes it almost inevitable that we should defend grotesquely what we believe seriously. It is that all grotesqueness is itself intimately related to seriousness. Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down. No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stops in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of the snow coming down. The fall of thunderbolts is treated with some gravity. The fall of roofs and high buildings is taken seriously. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.

The above, which occupies the great part of my article, is a parenthesis. It is time that I returned to my choleric correspondent who rebuked me for being too frivolous about the problem of Spiritualism. My correspondent, who is evidently an intelligent man, is very angry with me indeed. He uses the strongest language. He says I remind him of a brother of his; which seems to open an abyss or vista of infamy. The main substance of his attack resolves itself into two propositions. First, he asks me what right I have to talk about Spiritualism at all, as I admit I have never been to a séance. This is all very well, but there are a good many things to which I have never been, but I have not the smallest intention of leaving off talking about them. I refuse (for instance) to leave off talking about the Siege of Troy. I decline to be mute in the matter of the French Revolution. I will not be silenced on the late indefensible assassination of Julius Cæsar. If nobody has any right to judge of Spiritualism except a man who has been to a séance, the results, logically speaking, are rather serious: it would almost seem as if nobody had any right to judge of Christianity who had not been to the first meeting at Pentecost. Which would be dreadful. I conceive myself capable of forming my opinion of Spiritualism without seeing spirits, just as I form my opinion of the Japanese War without seeing the Japanese, or my opinion of American millionaires without (thank God) seeing an American millionaire. Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed: a passage which some have considered as a prophecy of modern journalism.

But my correspondent's second objection is more important. He charges me with actually ignoring the value of communication (if it exists) between this world and the next. I do not ignore it. But I do say this—That a different principle attaches to investigation in this spiritual field from investigation in any other. If a man baits a line for fish, the fish will come, even if he declares there are no such things as fishes. If a man limes a twig for birds, the birds will be caught, even if he thinks it superstitious to believe in birds at all. But a man cannot bait a line for souls. A man cannot lime a twig to catch gods. All wise schools have agreed that this latter capture depends to some extent on the faith of the capturer. So it comes to this: If you have no faith in the spirits your appeal is in vain; and if you have—is it needed? If you do not believe, you cannot. If you do—you will not.

That is the real distinction between investigation in this department and investigation in any other. The priest calls to the goddess, for the same reason that a man calls to his wife, because he knows she is there. If a man kept on shouting out very loud the single word “Maria,” merely with the object of discovering whether if he did it long enough some woman of that name would come and marry him, he would be more or less in the position of the modern spiritualist. The old religionist cried out for his God. The new religionist cries out for some god to be his. The whole point of religion as it has hitherto existed in the world was that you knew all about your gods, even before you saw them, if indeed you ever did. Spiritualism seems to me absolutely right on all its mystical side. The supernatural part of it seems to me quite natural. The incredible part of it seems to me obviously true. But I think it so far dangerous or unsatisfactory that it is in some degree scientific. It inquires whether its gods are worth inquiring into. A man (of a certain age) may look into the eyes of his lady-love to see that they are beautiful. But no normal lady will allow that young man to look into her eyes to see whether they are beautiful. The same vanity and idiosyncrasy has been generally observed in gods. Praise them; or leave them alone; but do not look for them unless you know they are there. Do not look for them unless you want them. It annoys them very much.

G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered, 1908

Spir"it*u*al*ism (?), n.


The quality or state of being spiritual.

2. Physiol.

The doctrine, in opposition to the materialists, that all which exists is spirit, or soul -- that what is called the external world is either a succession of notions impressed on the mind by the Deity, as maintained by Berkeley, or else the mere educt of the mind itself, as taught by Fichte.


A belief that departed spirits hold intercourse with mortals by means of physical phenomena, as by rappng, or during abnormal mental states, as in trances, or the like, commonly manifested through a person of special susceptibility, called a medium; spiritism; the doctrines and practices of spiritualists.

What is called spiritualism should, I think, be called a mental species of materialism. R. H. Hutton.


© Webster 1913.

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