For two years during the early part of his long exile from France, Victor Hugo engaged in regular séances using a planchette – a forerunner of the Ouija board, which worked by tapping out words one letter at a time. Two small tables were employed, a three-legged table perched atop a four-legged one. The tilting of the tables produced the taps. Hugo and his family and friends, exiled to the Isle of Jersey (and later the Isle of Guernsey) would gather in the evenings and coax messages from the Beyond. Hundreds of messages were received, and the material appears to have had a profound effect on Hugo's thinking and on the writing of Les Miserables, in which he was presently engaged.
This intriguing corner of the great novelist's life is exceptionally well documented in Victor Hugo's Conversations with the Spirit World, by John Chambers. Chambers, the first person to translate the séance transcripts into English (in an earlier edition of this book), does a fine job of evoking the atmosphere of the exiles' home away from home, their bitter homesickness and burgeoning fascination with the occult. His book is unusually well written for a study of this kind, laced with keen character sketches and absorbing sidelights on William Blake, James Merrill, and Kabbalah. He presents the facts without undue speculation and lets his readers draw their own conclusions.
The first question to ask is, naturally: Were these phenomena really paranormal? Nearly always, Victor's elder son Charles – who seemed to have the most natural mediumistic ability – would be one of the two persons operating the planchette. Charles' constant participation has led some critics to suggest that he unconsciously fabricated the messages to please his domineering father. But some of the messages were tapped out in languages of which Charles was ignorant – Hungarian and English, for instance. And in some cases (e.g. the January 22, 1854 séance, described on p. 113 of Chambers' book), Charles did not operate the planchette.
Other apparently paranormal events that took place in conjunction with the séances cast additional doubt on the skeptical view. When dogs throughout the area began barking in the night, the planchette told them sternly to shut their mouths – and they did. Strange singing was heard in different parts of the house when Hugo's son was ill. A communicator calling itself the Lady in White arranged for a rendezvous at three AM; no one was bold enough to keep the date, but at three AM the Hugos' doorbell inexplicably rang.
Some of the spirits' statements are intriguing and possibly prescient. Distance, we are told, is illusory, and the entire universe can be found in – and reconstructed from – its smallest part. These ideas remind John Chambers of Michael Talbot's book The Holographic Universe, which explores the cosmology of David Bohm.
But for the most part, the communications are rather banal. Nothing of evidential value was produced, and the sitters don’t appear to have pressed the spirits for proof of identity. When the spirits did make factual claims about their earthly lives, these claims were often wrong. The great Carthaginian general Hannibal, purportedly speaking through the planchette, described the city of Carthage as a vast expanse of six thousand temples on streets three hundred feet wide. This grandiose portrayal does not tally with any historical or archaeological findings. (On the other hand, when "Shakespeare" insisted that he had not died on April 23, 1616, we might wonder if it was the shade of Edward De Vere that the sitters were hearing from ... But the channeled Shakespearean drama produced by the sitters, though highly interesting and creative, does not bear any resemblance to the earthly Bard's work.)
Then there is the case of the Lion of Androcles. At times the sitters heard from the spirit of this beast, famous in folklore for having spared Androcles in the arena. It is, of course, quite unlikely that this folktale was based on fact, and even more unlikely that the noted lion was communicating with the Jersey exiles from beyond the grave. But what makes the Lion especially relevant is an incident that occurred on April 25, 1854. The Lion-persona, tapping out a lengthy poem, suddenly stopped after writing the lines
They raise against the saints their sacrilegious paw
And bury their blood-stained claws in the liv–.
A pause followed after which the Lion rewrote the last two lines, which apparently dissatisfied him. But in the interim, Victor Hugo wrote his own ending to the stanza, and showed his work only to one person (who, like Hugo, was not operating the planchette). Hugo's lines read:
They ripped open the saints dying in the mire
And their hideous claws enlarged the wound
In the side of Jesus Christ.
We are told that "almost immediately" after Hugo had written these words, the tapping recommenced, and the planchette spelled out
Their paws ripped open the martyrs here and there in the mire
And Jesus Christ slipped their claws into his wounds,
For a gift of nails to the gibbet.
The close similarity of the two verses suggests that the planchette operators – or the planchette itself – picked up the imagery from Hugo's own mind. But since the planchette operators had not seen Hugo's lines, the message must have been communicated via telepathy or via some even more mysteriously influence.
In the final analysis, if we view the sessions as spirit communications, they are unconvincing and unsatisfying. But if we view them as Consciousness interacting with itself – Consciousness creating a kind of feedback loop between the sitters on the one hand and the planchette on the other – then things get more interesting. To read excerpts from the transcripts is like reading an inner dialogue carried out at the unconscious level between Hugo and himself (with occasional contributions from other members of the party). The sessions perhaps can be best understood as the externalization of the unconscious, a breakdown of the seemingly solid barrier between objective and subjective experience. The stream of consciousness running through the deeper channels of Hugo's mind seems to have been objectified, brought out into the open. In a deep sense, Hugo was talking to himself.
No wonder, then, that the tables mostly told him what he wanted to hear. The tables reported that Hugo's archenemy Napoleon III would die in two years – when actually the dictator lived another two decades. The discarnate Shakespeare opined that French was superior to English. Other spirits verified Hugo's theory of a cycle of reincarnation that proceeds through the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms, and his idea of the universe as a vast darkness, with only the shining stars retaining God's pure light.
The strengths and weaknesses of the communicators matched Hugo's own talents. The spirits were good at improvising poetry and long, eloquent monologues; so was Hugo. The spirits were useless at composing music, even when Mozart himself ostensibly spoke through the planchette. Hugo had no musical training.
The appearance of so many famous names among the spirits – Aeschylus, Plato, Galileo, Shakespeare, even Jesus – also makes sense in terms of Hugo's psychology. No one ever accused Victor Hugo of being humble. His self-regard bordered on megalomania. Who would seek him out, if not the spirits of world-historical heroes like himself? Nothing less would do.
And what of the more abstract or surreal entities, such as Civilization, Death, and Idea, or Balaam's Ass and the Lion of Androcles? In the highly intellectual atmosphere of Hugo's salon, large abstract concepts and mythological or folkloric imagery must have been part of everyday conversation. It was how these people talked, part of their mental furniture. And Hugo had a particular fascination – part sentimental, part mystical – with the idea that animals are ensouled, and was especially fond of the Lion of Androcles tale.
How about the most consistent, overarching motif to appear in the communications – that the earth is a prison, a penal colony for wayward souls? It matches up quite closely with the gloomy outlook of the dispirited, homesick exiles, persecuted by a dictator, stranded among fellow outcasts on a tiny outcrop of rock. All the more reason to believe that the tilting tables were reflecting the sitters' own ideas and feelings back at them. Perhaps the isolation of their exile, and the intense emotions it stirred up, actually made it easier for the sitters to access the unconscious mind, or universal consciousness itself.
Whatever the explanation, Victor Hugo's Conversations with the Spirit World is a superb contribution to literary history and to the study of the paranormal. I recommend it highly.
Here's something I'm just noodling on. I don't know if it has any validity. Much of what follows isn't very polished - it's just a slightly cleaned up version of some notes I scribbled to myself. As such, it's repetitious and disorganized. But maybe it will strike a chord with someone.
I was thinking about a series of séances in which Victor Hugo participated while he was exiled on the Isle of Jersey. The subject came up because I'm in the middle of reading a very interesting book about these séances, Victor Hugo's Conversations with the Spirit World, by John Chambers. Despite the title, the book does not insist that these communications really came from spirits. They may have been mental projections of the sitters, especially of Hugo himself. Little evidential material was obtained, and when tests were applied, the spirits usually failed. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the séances were the result of conscious fraud. They continued over two years, during which time a variety of people handled the planchette (a precursor of the Ouija board), obtaining many messages. No money was involved, and only friends and family participated.
The séances, then, seem to have been on the up-and-up ... but how to account for the bizarre messages that came through, many of them from historical figures liker Hannibal and Shakespeare, or from entities calling themselves "Death" or "Civilization"? Was it all some kind of psychic projection on the part of the sitters? Were real spirits involved sporadically? Mischievous entities? How to make sense of all this?
Musing on this question, I found myself thinking of some excerpts I'd just read from the book Consciousness Is All, by Peter Francis Dziuban. It occurred to me that the problem might be easier to address if I adopted, at least provisionally, the idea that consciousness is the ground of being - that ultimately there is only one consciousness, and that everything that is specific and individual, whether trees and houses and mountains or thoughts and personalities, is ultimately an expression or manifestation of this great consciousness.
Now, in this case, hard-and-fast distinctions perhaps become more difficult to maintain. After all, the ultimate hard-and-fast distinction is that between consciousness and external reality. But if there is no clearcut line of demarcation between consciousness and external reality - if external reality emerges from consciousness - then not only is that fundamental distinction blurred, but many other distinctions may be blurred, as well.
The idea that ultimately there is only one consciousness may get some support from science. According to most interpretations of quantum physics, the observer affects the quantum phenomenon that is observed. But no two observers of the same event ever get different results; their observations always agree. Why is this? Perhaps the simplest explanation is that, in reality, there are not two observers, but only one. One consciousness, one observation, and therefore no possibility of disagreement.
In other words, if there is only one consciousness, then its division into separate minds is an illusion - or at least not the final truth.
Getting back to the séances, perhaps we can say that if there is only one consciousness, then Hugo and the spirits are all one. The spirits can be real or can be projections of Hugo's own mind - it makes no difference, or at most it makes only a superficial difference, of secondary importance.
To put it another way, suppose there is a vast field of consciousness that can produce innumerable varieties of manifestations. We cannot discriminate as finely as we might like among these manifestations. So we mix up real spirits with mental projections, and we mix up objective phenomena with subjective. We are hampered by the belief that hard-and-fast distinctions can be drawn, when the actual nature of reality is more like a sliding scale. We believe in hard-and-fast distinctions because we start with the fundamental hard-and-fast distinction between physical reality and consciousness. All our other discriminations follow this pattern.
If we start by saying "consciousness is all," then we can still draw distinctions, but they are more shaded. Since everything is ultimately one, we expect the lines of discrimination to be blurred. We do not expect hard-and-fast distinctions, but subtle shadings.
Instead of the Aristotelian duality of A or non-A, we have a range of possibilities, a spectrum in which each possible state of being blurs into the next, as colors on the color spectrum blur into one another. It is still possible to discriminate, but the categories cannot be so neat.
So we can say Hugo's spirits are mostly mental projections, while Leonora Piper's "control" George Pelham is mostly real (in the sense of apparently having more of an independent existence), and her later "control" Imperator might be somewhere in between. Imperator is more abstract than Pelham, but more independent than Hugo's spirits. Of course this independence is merely relative. All these entities are ultimately manifestations of the one and only consciousness, as is Hugo himself, and Piper, and all the sitters, and all the rest of us.
Similarly, poltergeists may be mental projections in some cases, spirits in others, and a combination in still others. Ditto for apparitions, which may be telepathically received or seen with the senses, and may be astral shells or memory patterns or actual spirits or mere hallucinations. Ditto again for electronic voice phenomena, which may exist on a continuum ranging from imagination to hallucination to psychic projection to spirit contact.
The key advantage of seeing consciousness as the ground of being is that it frees us from the supposition that absolute, hard-and-fast, black-and-white distinctions are normal and inevitable. It gives us the flexibility to say that different phenomena may overlap, and that there is a sliding scale rather than a sharp division. Dualism invites and requires two-sided, bifurcated thinking. Monism or Idealism allows for subtle shading. A particle can be a wave. A spirit communication can be, in the same sitting, a genuine message and a case of mental projection.
If "consciousness is all," one would actually expect the sitter or the medium to contribute to the phenomena. After all, there is no clearcut dividing line between the consciousness of the sitter and the consciousness of the medium or of the spirit. There are no clearcut dividing lines, period.
And how about synchronicities? Aren't they simply cases where the dividing line between objective and subjective is more obviously blurred than usual? I think of something, and a moment later it appears in my "external" world. But really it appears in my consciousness, just like the thought itself.
Again, this is not to say no distinctions are possible. We can still distinguish between thoughts and objects, and so forth. But the distinctions are gentle, not severe; relative, not absolute; provisional, not final; there is room for ambiguity.
Perhaps the difficulty we encounter in studying the paranormal lies precisely in our habit of thinking dualistically and thereby missing the fine gradations that take us subtly but inexorably from "objective" to "subjective," from "real" to "unreal." Perhaps the scientific method, which is rooted in Aristotelian logic, is not the best way to approach these phenomena or to establish their legitimacy. Perhaps what is needed is a new way of thinking.
Or perhaps not. I'm not sure!
I just watched No Country for Old Men. This thing won Best Picture?
I don't get it. I mean, I really don't get it. The story was disjointed and ultimately pointless, the characters were shallow, and the nihilistic tone and slow pace quickly became tedious. The ending, if you can call it an ending, didn't work on any level. In fact, the entire last half hour didn't work.
Pretentious twaddle, though nicely photographed, I will admit.
The only other 2007 Oscar nominee I've seen, Michael Clayton, is far superior in every respect.
Oh, and while we're at it, how the heck did Javier Bardem win a Best Supporting Actor statuette for his one-note, by-the-book performance as an emotionless sociopath?
Is this where we are now, culturally? Have we gone so far down the path of philosophical materialism that we can respond only to empty characters populating an empty landscape and reciting empty dialogue in a film about emptiness? Has the very idea of meaning become such an anathema to the modern soul that we now celebrate only movies that revel in the utter meaninglessness of it all?
Here's an interesting commentary on ethanol production and how it may relate to global food shortages.
I'm no expert on biofuels, but from what I understand, it takes 400 pounds of corn to produce just 25 gallons of ethanol. It also requires several gallons of water to make just one gallon of ethanol. And ethanol, though it burns cleaner than gasoline, is less efficient, so you need more of it to travel the same distance. This would seem to nullify most, if not all, of its ecological advantages.
In short, it looks to me like a boondoggle, and one with dangerous consequences for hungry people in the Third World.
After putting up my last post, on Arthur Conan Doyle's championship of the Cottingley fairies, I happened to come across a copy of Daniel Stashower's outstanding biography of Doyle, Teller of Tales, which I read a couple of years ago. Though plainly skeptical, Stashower does his best to present the Doyle's fascination with the paranormal in a sympathetic and positive light - but the Cottingley case proves too much for him.
The book as a whole is well worth reading, and Stashower's insights into the Cottingley episode provide a useful bookend to our earlier discussion. (All of the following quotes are from Chapter 25 of Teller of Tales, titled "Away with the Fairies.")
Stashower notes that a debate with a prominent skeptic in March of 1920 "had reinforced [Doyle's] reputation for plain speaking and common sense." But, he goes on, "[t]hat reputation evaporated in December, when the first of Conan Doyle's pronouncements on fairies appeared in The Strand [magazine]. Overnight, Conan Doyle became the spiritualist movement's greatest liability. 'Poor Sherlock Holmes,' ran one headline, 'Hopelessly Crazy?'"
Doyle, of course, was not crazy. He was however badly deluded, and Stashower presents several possible motives for his need to believe in the dubious photos. For one thing, Doyle
refused to entertain any possibility of deception on the part of the two young girls, as the very idea offended his notions of chivalry. This attitude was typical of him, as his son Adrian once learned to his sorrow. Asked by his brother Denis if he found a certain woman attractive, Adrian replied, "No, she's ugly." The statement drew a slap across the face from his father, who informed him that "no woman is ugly." One hesitates to offer criticism of such a gallant sentiment, but it could be argued, in the age of the suffragette movement, that Conan Doyle's views were naïve, if agreeably courtly. Where woman were concerned, he was blind to the possibility of deception, or indeed any base motive.
But, as Stashower notes, "Conan Doyle's actions in the Cottingley affair point to more than a gentleman's instincts.... There are two possible explanations. First, Conan Doyle had become deeply interested in the practice of spirit photography ..."
His commitment to photographs purporting to show deceased loved ones may have made him even more anxious to defend the Cottingley photos. Certainly he took the issue of spirit photography quite personally; he had quarreled vociferously with the psychic researcher Harry Price, after Price's investigation discredited spirit photographer William Hope.
"Price respected Conan Doyle's great integrity," Stashower observes,
but thought him something of a fool in psychic matters. "Setting aside for the moment his extraordinary and most lovable personal qualities," Price wrote, "the chief qualification that he possessed for the role of the investigator was his crusading zeal. Among all the notable persons attracted to spiritualism, he was perhaps the most uncritical. His extreme credulity, indeed, was the despair of his colleagues, all of whom, however, held him in the highest respect for his complete honesty. Poor, dear, lovable, credulous Doyle! He was a giant in stature with the heart of the child."
A second, far more personal motivation may also have guided Conan Doyle's actions. His own childhood had been especially rich in fairy lore. Conan Doyle's Celtic heritage was rife with tales of fairy midwives, leprechauns, brownies, and other sprites....
Conan Doyle's own family took a keen interest in fairies. His uncle Richard had been famous as an illustrator of children's books, many of which featured playful renderings of fairies. Conan Doyle's unhappy father [Charles Doyle] also drew fairies...
Charles Doyle's sketchbook offers additional evidence of his fascination with such creatures. Its pages are filled with fairies, goblins, and elves who crouch under toadstools, play upon pipes, and whisper into the ears of innocent children... On another page, Charles Doyle has scrawled: "I have known such a creature."
We are left to conclude that Charles Doyle, a man widely held to be insane, may well have believed in fairies. In some small measure, then, it is possible that his famous son regarded the Cottingley crusade as an act of redemption. If the existence of fairies could be proven, Charles Doyle could be seen as something of a visionary, rather than a broken-down drunkard.
The elder sister involved in the prank, Elsie, eventually admitted to the fraud -- but only when she was 81 years old. At that time she suggested yet another possible motive on Doyle's part.
According to Elsie, the two girls agreed to keep silent because they were "feeling sad" for Conan Doyle. "He had lost his son recently in the war," Elsie wrote..., "and I think the poor man was trying to comfort himself in these things, so I said to Frances, we are a lot younger than Conan Doyle and Mr. Gardner, so we will wait till they die of old age and then we will tell."
Edward Gardner [a Theosophist who first brought the fairies to Doyle's attention] lived to be one hundred years old, leaving the girls to maintain their silence well into their declining years.
Whatever unconscious motives may have driven him, Doyle paid a considerable price for his credulousness. Stashower reports that Doyle's book The Coming of the Fairies, first published in 1922 (and "surely one of the most remarkable volumes ever written," he notes dryly), received mostly negative reviews studded with terms like "easily duped" and "sad spectacle." But the ridicule extended far beyond the newspaper pages.
A popular wisecrack suggested that at the crisis of the play Peter Pan, when Peter exhorts the audience to revive the dying Tinkerbell, the loudest shouts of "I do believe in fairies!" would be Conan Doyle's.
All but a few of his spiritualist allies deserted him. Conan Doyle had hoped that the episode would invite belief in spiritualism. But if anything it seemed to have the opposite result....
In time, the flood of scorn would subside, but Conan Doyle never lost hope that his faith in the two girls would one day be borne out.... In an addendum to his autobiography, written shortly before his death, he expressed a hope that the incident would "be recognized some day as opening a new vista of knowledge for the human race."
Needless to say, that new vista has yet to open, and the fairy episode has done more than any other to annihilate whatever reputation Conan Doyle might have had as a sober-minded investigator into the unknown.
More than 80 years after the publication of The Coming of the Fairies, Doyle's self-inflicted damage to his reputation has yet to be repaired.
Since I've written two recent posts on Arthur Conan Doyle, I thought I should take up the most notorious incident in his career as a paranormal investigator - the case of the Cottingley Fairies. The story is pretty well known and needs no retelling here; those who are interested can read the essentials in Doyle's own book on the subject, The Coming of the Fairies. The complete text is available online, along with all the photos that featured in the controversy. A much shorter version of the story, with some photos, is found at Wikipedia; unlike some Wiki articles on the paranormal, this one seems to be accurate, at least at the present time.
Probably the most famous criticism of the Cottingley case was presented by James Randi. In his well-known book Flim-Flam!, Randi devotes all of Chapter 2 to an in-depth analysis of the controversy, which includes original research making use of the then-new technique of computer scanning.
I must admit that when I read Doyle's book, I was hoping to find his presentation of the facts more convincing - and hence less damaging to his reputation - than I'd been led to expect. Not that I harbored any doubts about the photos; they are obvious fakes, and their artificiality is immediately apparent to any modern viewer, though people in Doyle's era were considerably less sophisticated in regard to trick photography. What strikes us as clear fakery apparently looked pretty convincing to some people - even presumed photographic "experts" - of that day.
So yes, the photos are undoubtedly fakes; nothing can alter that fact. But if Doyle had presented his case with appropriate qualifying remarks, he might have escaped much of the opprobrium he later suffered. Sadly, he did not. Though he sounds a few notes of caution, the overall attitude of his book is that of a true believer, doggedly certain that these five photos are the beginning of a new era for humanity, a time when the mystical creatures previously seen only by clairvoyants would become visible to us all. No wonder he described the Cottingley photos as "epoch-making."
In his book, elaborate and highly doubtful claims are made on behalf of the photos. It is claimed that the fairies are clearly in motion in the stills, when actually there is little if any blur on the figures - understandably, since they were cutouts. It is claimed that only a photographic genius with the full resources of a studio at his disposal could have attempted such fakes; in reality, the shots were easily done by placing the cutouts in front of a human subject. It is claimed that innocent little girls never lie; well, not all girls are so innocent.
Though I'm not normally a fan of Randi, I must admit that in Flim-Flam! he makes mincemeat of the fairies - and, with his typically unsparing sarcasm, of Doyle as well. According to Randi, Doyle was "convinced of many irrationalities ... a man who needed such evidence desperately to bolster his own delusions... [and who] spent some L250,000 in pursuit of this nonsense [i.e., spiritualism]."
Doyle himself begins his book with the earnest hope that his arguments for the validity of the photos, even if rejected by the reader, will not prejudice anyone against the idea of life after death, which is to him a separate issue. In this he was surely naive. His exposure as disappointingly gullible in one area of paranormal investigation inevitably colored all subsequent perception of his efforts in other areas. If he could be taken in by two girls playing a childish prank, how can we trust his judgment regarding séances conducted by professional mediums?
Although the photos have been thoroughly debunked, interest in the fairies continues. This Web page, part of a site devoted to the Cottingley area, offers some useful information and links. The Museum of Hoaxes covers the topic and includes all five photos. Joe Cooper, who wrote a book on the subject, presents the essentials of the case here. The Cottingley Network goes all-out with a multi-page presentation. An essay rather sympathetic to Doyle was put out by the Arthur Conan Doyle Society; it makes the point that the original prints were not as clear as the more modern ones (see the comparison at the very bottom of the page).
I have not found anyone who still believes the fairies were real.
For those who are interested, Box Office Mojo offers a brief but revealing interview with Vadim Perelman, slated to direct the feature film version of Atlas Shrugged. (The link takes you to p. 2 of the interview and the start of the discussion of Atlas.)
Perelman comes across as a thoughtful, perceptive guy, aware of the novel's flaws as well as its strengths. His background growing up in Soviet Russia also gives him a useful perspective on the book's themes.
Perhaps this movie will not be the debacle I've been expecting. Time will tell. But if they cast Brad Pitt as John Galt, all bets are off. Obviously the correct choice for the role is Kevin McKidd.