Neat little holiday story, purportedly true, in which a skeptic learns the true meaning of Halloween - namely, that ghosts are real!
Neat little holiday story, purportedly true, in which a skeptic learns the true meaning of Halloween - namely, that ghosts are real!
In his 2009 book A New Science of the Paranormal, longtime parapsychologist Lawrence LeShan offers his thoughts on a variety of psi phenomena. I found the appendix particularly interesting. Titled "When is Uvani?", it addresses the thorny question of "spirit controls" in mediumship.
As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, a spirit control is said to be a discarnate entity that serves as a guide for the (usually entranced) medium. The control is an intermediary and a gatekeeper, who conveys messages from other spirits that are not able to come through on their own. The control also keeps out undesirable elements like low-level spirits who would disrupt the proceedings, and looks after the health and safety of the medium.
Controls have always been controversial. For one thing, many of them have proved unable to establish their earthly existence with any plausibility. As one example, efforts to find historical records relating to Mrs. Piper's control, Dr. Phinuit (pronounced fin-wee), were unsuccessful. Moreover, many of the controls seem to be rather bizarre and questionable characters. Gladys Osborne Leonard's control, Feda, was a young girl from India who spoke pidgin English. One of Mrs. Piper's early controls was an American Indian girl with the unlikely name of Chlorine. Indeed, a disproportionately high percentage of controls were American Indians with colorful names and stereotyped speech patterns.
From the beginning, serious researchers considered the possibility that the controls were expressions of the medium's unconscious -- personas created to facilitate the seance. Other investigators were convinced that the controls, for all their oddities, were discarnate spirits, just as they claimed to be.
One of the more famous controls was Uvani, used by medium Eileen Garrett, who was studied by researchers around the world. In his essay, LeShan notes that even Garrett, after a lifetime of testing, could not say whether Uvani was a distinct entity or a fragment of her own unconscious.
Because the usual approach to this problem has not gotten us very far, LeShan proposes coming at it in a new way. He writes,
Let us start with the fact that the spirit controls often demonstrate paranormal abilities and have information that they could not have acquired through normal channels of sense or by extrapolation from data so gathered. Who doubts that this is so simply has not read the relevant literature…
In all serious cases described as “paranormal,” the normal laws of space and time are violated. We have been unable to “explain” this, and that has been the central problem of psychical research. We know that these laws of space and time cannot be violated, that exceptions cannot occur. We also know and have clearly and scientifically demonstrated in the laboratory and elsewhere that they are sometimes broken.…
Is it fruitful to try to approach the paradox in a new way? Let us try and begin by asking, “Are there classes of things (entities) to which the normal laws and limitations of space and time apply and classes of things to which they do not?”
Looked at in this manner it becomes evident that there are two classes of things. The first class we might describe as structural entities. These are things with length, breadth, and thickness. They are always subject to the “normal” laws of space and time. Things of this sort cannot, for example, move faster than the speed of light. They have a definite physical existence during their duration [and] they go on with this existence whether or not they are at a particular moment in anyone's consciousness.…
The second class of things we might call functional entities. These do not have any length, breadth, or thickness. They cannot be detected by any form of instrumentation although their effects often can be. They are not bound by the “normal” laws of space and time and often can, for example, move faster than light. If I point a telescope at the star Aldebaran and then swing it to focus on the star Altair, something very “real,” the point of focus of the telescope, has moved faster than light.…
The existence of these entities also differs considerably from that of structural entities. They do not have a continuous existence whether or not they are being mentally conceptualized.... [T]hey exist only when they are held in a mind, only when being conceptualized, only when being considered to exist. There is no reality to a mathematical point unless it is being conceptualized as such. You cannot be affected by the focus of a telescope when no one is thinking of it. Put in a better way, a functional entity can have no effect on other entities (and so–for all intents and purposes–ceases to exist) unless it is being conceptualized as existing.…
Of this class of entities we cannot ask the question “What is it?” and expect a reasonable answer. We can, however, ask other questions such as “When is it?” and hope to obtain a satisfactory reply. (A mathematical point is when it is conceptualized as the intersection of two lines.)...
In essence we might say: A functional entity is what it does and when it does it. Further, it only is (does anything) when it is being conceptualized by a perceiving and conscious entity.
Let us pause for a moment and ask about “things” with no length, breadth, and thickness. Can they really exist? Are there really entities about which one cannot successfully ask “what” or sometimes “where,” but can, perhaps, ask “when” and “why” and which do not exist between perceptions of them. Mathematical points are all very fine, but are there others more meaningful to our lives?
To the obvious question “Can a functional entity affect a structural entity?” we must answer in the affirmative. A mathematical point has an effect on a surveyor and subsequently on a steam shovel and a railway line. One can be profoundly affected by the point of aim of a hidden person with a rifle!
The essential point of this formulation is that it presents us with two classes of entities, one of which is not bound by the “normal” laws of space and time (that is, it can behave “paranormally”) and can affect the other class of entities, which is bound by these laws.
Having come this far, LeShan turns his attention to spirit controls, specifically Garrett's Uvani. He notes that "we have never been able to detect any physical structure related to … Uvani," and that Uvani "has beyond a doubt shown the ability to behave paranormally, that is, to acquire information, the possession of which clearly violates the laws of space and time." He goes on,
Does Uvani exist between those times at which he is conceptualized as existing? If we take as a gauge of what we mean by “existing” the ability to influence other entities, then Uvani does not exist between conceptualizations….When in existence, Uvani can influence the behavior of structural entities such as the medium, the sitter, etc....
[P]sychiatrist Ira Progoff asked Uvani while Eileen Garrett was in trance, “How have you been since last we met?” Uvani, an otherwise invariably calm and self-possessed persona, became completely confused and unable to answer the question. In fact, he could not seem to understand it, although he asked Progoff on various other occasions how Progoff had been since last they met and was obviously capable of understanding both the implications of the questions and the answers…
I have elsewhere … described the state of consciousness during which paranormal processes occur, calling this the Clairvoyant Reality. This state of consciousness is particularly oriented to the perception of relationships rather than to the perception of structure. In it, and in the world-picture which it accepts as the valid metaphysical system, relationships are seen as primary and individual structures and the separateness of these structures is seen as secondary or illusory…
Seen in this light, the clairvoyant reality is primarily a way of perceiving functional entities.…
Uvani is “when” Eileen Garrett … moves into a particular state of consciousness in the presence of a perceived need of a sitter. When she conceptualizes the world in a particular way (the clairvoyant reality) and, in this world-picture, conceptualizes Uvani as existing, he exists. Further, he is conceptualized as having certain characteristics. Under these conditions, a functional entity with these characteristics comes into existence and functions according to them.
Clearly, it is not as simple as this. For a functional entity with certain characteristics to come into existence (to be able to affect structural entities), a highly coherent Weltbild, a world-picture permitting these characteristics, must be fully believed in by the perceiving structural entity.… Not only must the Weltbild be accepted, the functional entity itself must be clearly conceptualized as potentially and actually existing. However, given these conditions of acceptance of a proper Weltbild for it and the belief in the functional entity, it can come into existence.…
Certainly [this hypothesis] explains why we have never been able to devise even a theoretical method for satisfactorily determining “what” a spirit control is. And it explains why we have never been able to devise instrumentation that would detect a spirit control directly.…
In a curiously circular way, we explain Uvani's characteristics by saying that those are the characteristics he has. This procedure is invalid … when dealing with structural entities. It is the procedure we claim is valid when dealing with functional entities. The characteristics of “gravity” are those characteristics we get it when we wish to explain the tables of observations we make on solar phenomena. The functional entity “gravity” is a very useful one and enables us to explain old data and to predict new data, but its characteristics are explained by saying that those are its characteristics. To the question “what” is gravity we can only respond with a helpless shrug.
LeShan then discusses Conjuring Up Philip, by Iris Owen and Margaret Sparrow, “one of the most significant books published in the field of psychical research for many years. In effect, Owen's group has given us a guidebook on how to 'do' parapsychological research by designing the correct functional entities to accomplish those paranormal functions we wish to produce.” The Philip experiments recounted in the book began with a circle of sitters vividly imagining a supposedly historical figure named Philip, who they knew was actually a fictional invention. Despite the fact that there never was any Philip, the circle's concentrated attention on this fictitious persona eventually invoked an entity claiming to be Philip, which manifested itself with raps, table movements (sometimes quite violent), and other physical phenomena. The sittings were conducted in bright light and were witnessed by many people and even filmed. Later, other circles reproduced the experiment by "conjuring up" fictitious spirit entities of their own.
Though LeShan doesn't mention it, one of the more interesting moments in the Philip experiment came when a sitter openly expressed his disbelief in Philip, informing the spirit that there never was such a person and that the group had made him up. The phenomena abruptly fizzled out, and it took some time and effort (i.e., concentration and commitment to belief in Philip) to bring them back. Philip is an example of a functional entity par excellence, and may well be the "type" of spirit controls in general.
Since these functional entities are not independently real, and exist only in relation to the minds of mediums and sitters, they have a sort of deceptive pseudo-reality that leads to conceptual confusion, as investigators try to determine “where” they are located and what they are doing when they're not assisting the medium–meaningless questions, since they do not exist except in relation to the medium, and only when needed. The resulting confusion hamstrings psychical research, which treats these functional entities as if they were structural entities and hence can make no theoretical progress. That's the gist of LeShan's thesis.
I find his idea of spirit controls as functional entities intriguing, though as he himself says, it is only a suggestion and not a definitive answer. In what follows, I want to depart from his essay and offer some speculations of my own.
Belief, it seems, is critical -- belief in the spiritual entity itself, and in the world-picture that makes such an entity conceivable. In an atmosphere of intense belief, it is more likely that these functional entities will come into existence and be efficacious. So it seems to me that one reason for the greater prevalence of mediumistic phenomena in the Victorian Era was that more people were inclined to believe in the world-picture of Spiritualism, and that the most enthusiastic of these people were naturally the ones who attended seances. (As for the question of where the world-picture came from in the first place, I think much of it traces back to Emanuel Swedenborg.)
In today's world, such belief is harder to come by. In a sense, we are all materialists now. I don't mean that all of us consciously accept the philosophy of materialism, but rather that we are immersed in it and probably absorb many of its tenets without even thinking about it. The Spiritualist movement is much diminished from its heyday a hundred years ago, and is less likely to influence us on a conscious or subconscious level.
In the robust years of Spiritualism, a social atmosphere of intense excitement, coupled with a fairly clear belief system, allowed mediums and sitters to generate functional entities that provided the appearance of independently real individuals–“spirit controls.” We would expect these functional entities to reflect the biases, fears, and hopes of the mediums, sitters, and investigators -- and to a large extent, they do. In the late 19th century, reincarnation was an unpopular and alien idea in the West, and few mediums talked about it. A little later, owing mainly to the influence of Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists, reincarnation became trendy in occult circles. Not surprisingly, mediums started talking fluently about reincarnation.
These spirit controls, whose purpose is to facilitate the gathering of information by paranormal means and the exercise of paranormal talents like psychokinesis, really do seem to exist only when brought into being by the right state of attention and focus. Note Uvani's confusion when asked what he had been up to during his down-time. Similarly, Phinuit was known to become flustered when challenged on details of his earthly existence.
Anything that contributes to belief will aid in the generation of these functional entities. Thus, even fake mediums holding phony seances may add to the general atmosphere of excited belief which can produce genuine phenomena in another setting. The "mania" for Spiritualism would precipitate more phenomena than cool, dispassionate observation ever could.
Now we come to a question Lawrence LeShan does not raise, yet which seems highly relevant and important. Why should functional entities be limited to spirit controls? Why should we not classify at least some of the other spirit communicators this way? If Uvani, a functional entity with no independent existence, brings through my Uncle George to talk to me, how can I know that Uncle George is not also a functional entity with no independent existence?
In other words, to what extent are spirit communications in general the result of functional entities "conjured up" by the medium's (and sitter's) beliefs and mental focus? How many of the communicators purportedly coming through are actually functional entities that exist only in relation to medium and sitter?
Alan Gauld's excellent book Mediumship and Survival treats this basic issue, though he does not use LeShan's terminology. He finds that a great deal of mediumistic communication, though not all of it, can be explained in terms of a psychic connection between the medium and the sitter.
One data point that might be cited in support of this thesis is that some communicators have insisted that the spirit controls are every bit as real as they are. This of course can be taken two ways. Either both the communicators and the controls are structural entities and have their own independent reality ... or both are functional entities and lack independent reality.
There are exceptions. Gauld notes that cases of the "drop-in communicator" type seem to argue for the existence of a genuine discarnate spirit with its own agenda. The most famous drop-in communicator case, involving a rather demanding ghost who wanted his leg to receive a proper burial, is recounted here. Since the drop-in communicator serves no evident purpose in relation to the desires, interests, or needs of the medium and sitters, and gives every indication of having its own personal priorities, we may be justified in concluding that at least some of the communicators coming through mediums are not functional entities of the type LeShan describes.
But many of them may be. It's possible that a large part -- perhaps the greater part -- of mediumistic communication does not involve discarnate spirits at all, but functional entities that facilitate clairvoyance, telepathy, retrocognition, and PK.
This does not mean there are no spirits, but it does mean that we may be in touch with them less often than we think.
For a preliminary look at the possibility that reports of psychic phenomena can be influenced by emotional and psychological factors, I tracked down a paper co-authored by Richard Wiseman, Emma Greening, and Matthew Smith titled "Belief in the Paranormal and Suggestion in the Seance Room," published originally in the British Journal of Psychology, 94(3), 285-297. It is available online here (PDF).
Before going on, I should say that I have certain reservations about using this paper, because one of the authors, Richard Wiseman, has a dubious reputation in the field of parapsychology. Consider how he is characterized on the website Skeptical Investigations (which, despite its name, is actually an anti-skeptical site):
He has been at the centre of many controversies with researchers in parapsychology, and has often been accused of deliberately misrepresenting data.
In 1995, he replicated Rupert Sheldrake’s results with a dog that knows when its owner was coming home, and then claimed to have debunked the 'psychic pet' phenomenon....
He has been described by the President of the Parapsychology Association as motivated by "obvious self-interest", and by a desire "to support an a priori commitment to the notion that all positive psi results are spurious and all methods which seem to show the presence of psi are flawed".... In December 2000 he carried out what he described as the 'world’s biggest ESP experiment' which, like many of his activities, was widely publicised in the media. A skeptical observer of the experiment claimed that he had designed the experiment to fail and interfered with the procedure in such a way as to gain the non-significant result he expected.
In September 2004 he took part in a classic CSICOP debunking excercise, claiming that a young Russian girl who had seemingly psychic powers of diagnosis had failed a test he and his fellow skeptics designed. In fact the girl scored at a level well above chance. Prof Brian Josephson, FRS, a Nobel Laureate in physics, investigated Wiseman's claims about this test and found them to be seriously misleading....
By the autumn of 2004, after a series of other very questionable claims, widely publicized in the media, many of his peers in the parapsychology research community concluded that his behaviour was not consistent with commonly-accepted standards of scientific integrity, and he was voted off the main research forum in parapsychology by a large majority. In addition, for similar reasons, some members of the Society for Psychical Resaerch called for him to be expelled for the Society. He resigned. Despite his strong skeptical beliefs, in 2004 he applied for the newly-established chair of Parapsychology in Lund, Sweden, which was endowed to promote research in this field.
Obviously there are major controversies swirling around Wiseman. Nevertheless, I don't know of any other recent research that looks at the issue of suggestibility in the séance room. So with the caveat that Wiseman's conclusions may not be reliable, here's what he and his colleagues found.
The researchers put on a series of fake séances using an actor or, in a later series, Wiseman himself as the medium. The sessions were held in darkness, with various objects arranged on a table and glowing with luminous paint. During the course of the session, the medium would make suggestions to the sitters about the movement or lack of movement of these items. A hidden assistant would move some of the objects, using a long stick. The first series of experiments was videotaped using infrared photography.
The outcome of this initial series of tests was consistent with the idea that people in a dark séance room have a tendency to see things that didn't happen when these things are suggested to them by the medium. The most striking case involves the purported movement of a small table. Though the medium strongly suggested that the table was moving under the psychic influence of the group, the table actually remained stationary throughout the test. Nevertheless, 31% of participants later said that the table moved.
A second data point involves a small handbell, which also remained stationary throughout the test. In this case the medium told the group to focus their psychic powers on the handbell and make it move, but he did not suggest that their efforts had succeeded. In this case only 10% reported seeing the handbell move. This indicates that the medium's suggestion is an important factor in the way the session is remembered.
Moreover, people who expressed a prior belief in paranormal phenomena were significantly more likely to accept the medium's suggestions than those who expressed a prior disbelief.
The second series of tests yielded results that seem less conclusive. Still, there was a significant amount of misreporting. 11% said the stationary handbell moved. 10% said a stationary tambourine moved. 86% said that an actually moving slate remained stationary (the medium, Wiseman in this case, had strongly suggested that the slate wasn't responding to their psychic efforts, even though his assistant was in fact moving it). 9% said that a moving candlestick was actually stationary.
In addition to the above, many of the participants described feelings and sensations consistent with some kind of paranormal experience–the same kinds of feelings and sensations often reported by people who attended “genuine” séances.
In Experiment One, 20% of participants indicated that they had experienced these phenomena, with a significantly greater percentage of Believers (30%) than Disbelievers (8%) reporting such experiences (Chi square=6.36, df=4, p=.04). In Experiment Two, 21% of participants reported such experiences. In addition, the relationship between participants’ prior belief in the paranormal and the reporting of such experiences was in the same direction as Experiment One, and approached significance (Chi square=8.78, df=4, p=.07). The Questionnaire also asked participants to describe their experiences. Many people reported the type of quite dramatic phenomena often associated with ‘genuine’ seances, including being in an unusual psychological state (e.g., ‘Feeling of depersonification and elation when the objects moved’); changes in temperature (e.g., ‘Cold shivers running through my body when I concentrated hard on moving the objects’); an energetic presence (e.g., ‘A strong sense of energy flowing through the circle which increased’), and unusual smells (e.g., ‘A smell of hot plastic, combination of sweet and acrid smell’). Thus, the fake seances caused participants to report many of the experiences described by those attending ‘genuine’ seances, suggesting that such effects are the result of psychological processes (e.g., psychosomatic experiences brought about by participants’ heightened expectations or strong beliefs), rather than being caused by paranormal, psychic or mediumistic mechanisms.
Wiseman et al. sum up:
For over a century people have attended physical seances and reported witnessing seemingly inexplicable phenomena. Experiments conducted around the turn of the last century revealed that many of these accounts were unreliable. The experiments reported here have shown that modern day witnesses also produce inaccurate testimony of séance phenomena. In addition, these experiments represent the first attempt to systematically examine verbal suggestion within the context of the seance. They have demonstrated that such suggestions have the potential to cause sitters to incorrectly report that stationary objects were moving, and that moving objects were stationary. The studies have also produced strong evidence that within the context of a seance, Believers are significantly more susceptible to verbal suggestion than Disbelievers, but only when the suggestion is consistent with the existence of paranormal phenomena. Both experiments also revealed that during the fake seances many participants reported experiencing the type of unusual phenomena often associated with ‘genuine’ seances, including, for example, sudden changes in temperature, a sense of unusual energy and odd smells. Finally, results also showed that about a fifth of participants believed that the fake seance contained genuine paranormal phenomena, and that a significantly greater percentage of Believers than Disbelievers believed this to be the case.
Again, I don't want to put too much emphasis on this report because I do have doubts about Wiseman's credibility. It is worth mentioning, though, that the paper lists some prior research efforts that purportedly came to the same conclusions regarding inaccurate reporting of séance phenomena and (separately) the heightened suggestibility of believers in the paranormal. One of these papers dates back to 1887 and was co-authored by famed psychic researcher Richard Hodgson, best known for his work with Leonora Piper.
Hodgson and Davey (1887) held fake seances for unsuspecting sitters and asked them to write a description of the seance. They reported that many sitters omitted important events, recalled others in an incorrect order and often believed that they had witnessed genuine paranormal phenomena. In 1898, Lehmann (cited in Jahoda, 1969) conducted a similar experiment and again described how participants’ accounts of a fake séance were often wildly inaccurate. Besterman (1932) had sitters attend a mock seance and then answer questions relating to various phenomena that had occurred. Besterman reported that sitters had a tendency to underestimate the number of persons present in the seance room, failed to report major disturbances that took place (e.g., the experimenter leaving the seance room) and experienced the illusory movement of objects....
Haraldsson (1985) found a significant positive correlation between paranormal belief and the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale. Likewise, Dafinoiu (1995) reported a significant relationship between participants’ levels of paranormal belief and their scores on a suggestibility questionnaire, with people who believed in the paranormal exhibiting higher suggestibility scores than disbelievers....
Jones & Russell (1980) asked both Believers and Disbelievers to observe a staged demonstration of extra-sensory perception (ESP). In one condition the demonstration was successful (i.e., ESP appeared to occur) whilst in the other it was not. All participants were then asked to recall the demonstration. Believers who saw the unsuccessful demonstration distorted their memories of it and often stated that ESP had occurred. Disbelievers tended to correctly recall the demonstration, even if it appeared to support the existence of ESP.
If we can trust the Wiseman paper's summary of these various reports, it would seem likely that a fair amount of eyewitness testimony from séances in dark rooms is unreliable; that belief in the paranormal renders eyewitnesses more inclined to perceive these phenomena in response to the medium's suggestions; and that emotion and psychology play a large role in how séances are experienced and remembered.
In the Victorian era, when Spiritualism was all the rage, and may even have qualified as a kind of “mania,” these psychological and emotional factors could have been far more pronounced then they are in most people today. Perhaps this social atmosphere helps to explain the extraordinary prevalence of physical mediumistic phenomena in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, compared with their relative absence now.
Having said all this, I need to supply an important addendum. Some of the most convincing investigations of séances were not conducted in total darkness. For example, when Everard Feilding and his colleagues investigated Eusapia Palladino in Naples in 1908, they did so in conditions of dim but (reportedly) adequate light. They also took the precaution of examining the phenomena in detail whenever possible–for instance, crawling under a levitating table to ensure that all four legs were off the floor and that no part of Palladino's body was in contact with the table. These investigators were seasoned professionals who, among them, had exposed and debunked more than 100 physical mediums before encountering Palladino, whom they fully expected to debunk also. They hardly seem to have been carried away by irrational enthusiasm about mediumship, and given the lighting conditions and strenuous efforts to verify the phenomena, I don't think their results can be explained as hallucinations prompted by the power of suggestion (a possibility that the investigators themselves considered).
In short, the research done by Wiseman and his colleagues does seem relevant to a great deal of Victorian table-tipping and related physical mediumship when carried out in pitch darkness by excited amateurs or, in some cases, by overly credulous professionals. But I don't think it can disqualify the best and strongest cases from that era. It may, however, help to whittle down the number of good cases and to explain the extraordinary popularity of séances at that time. It may also explain why physical mediumship is so much rarer nowadays; perhaps people are simply not primed to accept it at face value as they once were.
In the comments thread of my last post, the subject of speculative bubbles came up. Of course we are all too familiar with such bubbles nowadays–the dot-com bubble, the real-estate bubble, the derivatives bubble. But the phenomenon has been well known since at least 1841, when Charles Mackay published his famous book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
In his book, Mackay deals with “manias” of all kinds. The book is best known for its discussion of economic manias, such as the famous tulip mania in 17th-century Holland, in which the prices of tulip bulbs were bid up to extraordinary levels before crashing. But Mackay focuses most of his attention on social and intellectual crazes. He devotes a great deal of space to alchemy, and he is fascinated by the dueling epidemic–a bizarre historical episode in which people were inexplicably quick to challenge each other to duels and consequently died by the hundreds.
Another famous social mania (not discussed by Mackay as far as I recall) was the revivalist craze that swept through the United States in the early 19th century. Revivalist preachers would travel around the country, hosting public events in which people were exhorted to confess their sins and be born again. Entire towns would convert to the old-time religion in a veritable orgy of righteousness, banning liquor and gambling and vowing to stay on the strait and narrow ever after. Within a few weeks, they naturally had backslid to their old ways, the preacher having long since moved on to a new community. But while the preacher was there, and for a little while afterward, almost everyone in the town was caught up in a fervid atmosphere of religious extremism.
A more famous historical example, and one that is treated by Mackay, is the notorious witch burnings. Gripped by mass hysteria, whole communities would become fanatically convinced that witches were working mischief among them. The number of so-called witches who died at the hands of these mobs is unknown, but the phenomenon continued for decades, springing up first here, then there, unpredictably, and almost always with fatal results.
In thinking about all this, I couldn't help but recall the history of Spiritualism in America and England. Spiritualism originated just a few years after Mackay's book was published (its origin is usually dated to 1848, the year when the "rappings" of the Fox sisters were heard) and spread like wildfire. Before long, ordinary middle-class people were spending their evenings table-tipping or playing with planchettes. People made assiduous efforts to develop their talents at automatic writing or to become trance mediums. Spiritualist churches sprang up in abundance, and in at least one case, a vocal critic of the movement converted to it after falling into a trance and producing channeled information himself! There were celebrity spiritualists like Arthur Conan Doyle, and there were distinguished scientists who backed at least some of the claims of the movement–people like William Crookes, Oliver Lodge, and Alfred Russel Wallace. Spiritualism even found its way to the White House during the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln's wife, a devotee of the movement, invited mediums to perform séances, some of which her husband attended, though his attitude about the whole thing is unclear. The movement had its ups and downs, but remained vigorous and influential at least until the 1920s, when repeated debunkings by Harry Houdini and enterprising journalists soured the public on the alleged phenomena.
Much of this fits the descriptions of public manias in Mackie's book. You have a social innovation that catches on with extraordinary rapidity and draws in people who, under ordinary circumstances, would have nothing to do with it. Just as nonviolent types somehow got caught up in the mania for dueling, and prudent investors somehow were drawn into the world of tulip bulbs, just as heavy drinkers became teetotalers and loving husbands joined a mob to burn their wives at the stake, so it seems that many otherwise cautious and sensible folks became committed to Spiritualism. Was this due to the high quality of the evidence they were receiving, or was it due to the social atmosphere of the times?
The question is important, I think, because a tremendous amount of the evidence for life after death was gathered during this very period. Even today, anyone with a serious interest in the subject of mediumship has to make reference to famous mediums of roughly a hundred years ago–people like Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborne Leonard. The study of these mediums was more sustained and methodical than any such study before or since, and the results obtained are among the most impressive and often-cited in the field.
The usual skeptical objection to these studies is that they happened so long ago, they can't be taken seriously. My usual reply is that there's no reason to discard evidence simply because it happened to be collected sometime in the past, as long as it was collected by competent researchers following adequate protocols. And I still think that's true, as far as it goes. But what if the researchers' competence and protocols were compromised by a general atmosphere of mania–an atmosphere of irrational excitement and wild enthusiasm, which prompted people to overlook obvious flaws and jump to unjustified conclusions?
Remember that a society (or a segment of society) in the grip of a mania cannot function rationally. The businessman who ordinarily would not think of investing in any venture unless he thoroughly understood its methods, objectives, and prospects may throw all of his prudence out the window when gripped by a mania, and start tossing money at any dot-com stock or condo development in sight. He will invent reasons to excuse his own behavior and justify his own irrationality. No matter how many warning signs flash in front of him, he will ignore them and keep his gaze fixed firmly on the imaginary but irresistible prize on the horizon. He will not come to his senses until the whole investment scheme comes crashing down, and he and all of his like-minded colleagues have suffered huge losses. Then, perhaps, he will look back in bewilderment, shaking his head and wondering how he could have allowed himself to be so woefully deluded.
When we consider the effect that manias can have on even the most intelligent and worldly-wise individuals, we have to ask ourselves if the credentials, competence, and general honesty of the early Spiritualist investigators are as clear-cut as we might like to believe. I have no doubt that most of these people were intelligent, educated, knowledgeable, and well-meaning. But probably so was our deluded businessman. His intelligence and other qualities did not prevent him from being taken to the cleaners, because those qualities were short-circuited by mania. Could a similar short-circuit have been at work in the minds of the investigators whose research forms the bedrock of the scientific exploration of Spiritualism?
At least in some instances, there is reason to answer yes. William Crookes' controversial experiments with the medium Florence Cook are a case in point. When not performing for Crookes, Florence was caught cheating on more than one occasion. For a while, she partnered with another medium, quaintly named Rosina Showers, who turned out to be a complete fraud. It seems unlikely that Florence could have been genuine when she was working hand in glove with a con artist. The materialized entity that supposedly emanated from Florence Cook while she was in a trance sometimes bore a remarkable resemblance to Florence herself, although at other times it did not. The conditions of absolute darkness and the seclusion of the medium in a curtained-off cabinet made fraud a very real possibility. And yet Crookes, a distinguished physicist who was eventually knighted for his work in that field, seems to have been completely convinced of Florence Cook's authenticity. He wrote passionately on the subject, producing a rather feverish essay about his final moments with the dematerializing spirit guide, with whom he shared a secret kiss.
The whole episode is strange on many levels, but it seems less strange if we think of it in the context of the extraordinary popular delusions–the manias–that Charles Mackay writes about. Absent mania, under what circumstances would a normally sober physicist surrender his objectivity so completely? Notice that Crookes did not give up on Florence even after he learned that Rosina was a fraud, though surely he should have grasped that if the one girl was faking, then the other girl–performing at her side–could hardly have been the real deal. But he found some way to rationalize that problem out of existence, just as he rationalized the occasional physical similarity between Florence and the materialized spirit guide as reflecting the mysterious properties of Florence's own ectoplasm.
I'm not saying that all the investigative work done by scientific researchers during the heyday of Spiritualism was of this same low quality. But perhaps a great deal more of it falls into this category than we would like to believe. Perhaps it is a mistake to rely too much on the professional reputations of the investigators involved, or even on their personal reputations for probity and good sense. All these things can vanish like smoke in the grip of mania.
At the very least, it might be worthwhile to revisit the major investigative work undertaken during the Spiritualist years in an attempt to see how the researchers' unconscious biases, assumptions, and hopes, fueled by an atmosphere of credulity and enthusiasm, may have sabotaged their results. Was even a researcher as well respected as Richard Hodgson immune to the siren call of the Spiritualist mania? Perhaps he was. Perhaps not. It is often pointed out that Oliver Lodge, another distinguished physicist and afterlife investigator, developed an interest in the subject even before his son Raymond died in the First World War and allegedly began communicating through mediums. The implication is that Lodge could not have been swayed by emotion in his initial investigations because he had no close personal loss to cope with. But suppose he was swayed by something more general than personal grief. Suppose he was swayed by the turbulent atmosphere of an ongoing social craze that swept up both the educated and uneducated alike.
It's worth thinking about, especially when we consider that much of our data not only about mediumship but also about crisis apparitions, deathbed visions, and hauntings stems from this era. If a great deal of this material is merely the result of an "extraordinary popular delusion," the case for life after death will look very much weaker.
Lately the Internet has been crowded with stories of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, in which hundreds of college-age or slightly older kids have assembled to air a vague but passionate collection of grievances. The demonstrations have spread beyond Wall Street, and in some cases have turned violent. I'm not going to comment here about the protesters' ideology, because I don't think they have much of one, and what little of substance they are saying doesn't interest me. What does interest me is their psychology, because I can relate to it, and because it carries implications for human nature in general.
I need to get autobiographical here. Thirty years ago I graduated from college, having earned a not-very-marketable degree in Film Studies. I set out for Los Angeles, expecting to take the movie industry by storm. I had been encouraged in this expectation by my teachers' praise, and by the fact that my life up to that point had been pretty easy–I'd never had to work very hard to get good grades, and though I'd held a few jobs to earn extra money, I'd never been in danger of missing a meal. I saw no reason why things should be any more difficult for me when I left the comfortable embrace of institutions of learning. I was in for a rude awakening.
Much to my surprise, I discovered that a film degree was nothing special in Los Angeles. Everybody had one, including the waiter serving me a cheeseburger at Bob's Big Boy. I also discovered that without connections or any particular talent at self-promotion, I wasn't likely to make inroads into the movie industry anytime soon. In fact, everything was a whole lot harder than I'd expected. I ended up taking a rather crummy job as a delivery person for a company that sold investments over the phone. My job was to drive around Los Angeles County delivering contracts. I put hundreds of miles on my car, a cheap little Chevrolet Chevette, which was, incidentally, one of the ugliest automobiles ever produced in America. I wrote a number of screenplays and tried hard to get an agent, but faced a wall of rejections and mounting frustration. I began to feel that I'd been badly misled. The easy path to success that I felt I'd been promised had not materialized–had, in fact, turned out to be a chimera, a mirage. My teachers had made it all sound so easy, and the constant self-esteem-building encouragement I'd received in my formative years had led me to believe that whatever I wanted was there for the taking. How wrong I was.
Beyond all this, I also felt alienated from mainstream society for ideological reasons. In college I'd become infatuated with the writings of Ayn Rand and had adopted a radical libertarian political perspective. The first presidential candidate I ever voted for, in 1980, was Ed Clark, nominee of the Libertarian Party. In 1984 I didn't vote for president at all, because I felt there was no difference–no difference?–between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. My view at the time was that all mainstream politics was hopelessly corrupt and that American society was hopelessly irrational and stupid and that we were all going to hell in a handbasket and deserved it.
And so, as a result of my personal frustrations and my ideological estrangement from society, I became a very angry guy. I mean, really, really angry. I spent a lot of my time just seething at the injustices and stupidities of the world. I was furious at American society and its economy and culture and leadership class and voting public–all of it–furious because it wasn't behaving the way I wanted it to, and it wasn't giving me the life I wanted to have.
It is probably fortunate that I had an outlet for my anger–namely, writing. In those days I cranked out a large amount of fiction, most of it garbage, but while the material may have been unpublishable dreck, at least it allowed me to vent my frustrations. The first novel I ever sold was a horror story in which a pack of attack dogs, having gone feral, proceed to terrorize a small town very similar to the one in which I'd grown up. The book is brutally violent and contains numerous scenes of innocent people being torn to shreds by the howling ravenous pack. The mutilations and maimings inflicted on these characters are described in voluptuous detail. I definitely had issues, and ripping the hell out of people in my fiction was my way of dealing with them.
There was a lot I didn't know at the time. I didn't know that the first steps are always the hardest, and that things do get easier as you go along. I didn't know that it takes time to build a career, especially in a field like filmmaking or novel-writing, where there is no clear path to success. I didn't know that I wasn't alone in my frustrations and failures–that millions of people my age were going through much the same thing, and that millions more had gone through it in the past. I didn't know that my assumptions about the way the world should work were fundamentally unrealistic, a product of dorm-room bull sessions and Ayn Rand's feverish fiction. I didn't know that most people really are doing the best they can, and that if society is unsatisfactory, it's because human nature is imperfect.
I also didn't know that it wasn't all about me.
That was really the main thing I didn't know. I was stuck in a stage of narcissistic development in which the only thing that mattered was my life, my ambition, my desires, my disappointments, my beliefs, my ego, myself. I couldn't see past my own problems and my own very limited perspective. I couldn't see that other people had far worse problems and were dealing with them without complaint. I couldn't see that my problems really didn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up world, as Rick in Casablanca would have said.
Narcissism is, I think, a perfectly normal stage of emotional development. It is actually healthy, because it allows young people to exhibit the self-confidence necessary to attract their mates. It is a biological adaptation that encourages or that promotes procreation. Undue self-regard, as obnoxious as it may be, is beneficial in terms of reproduction, just as the flamboyant feathers of the peacock are helpful in attracting the amorous peahen and ensuring new generations of peacocks.
The author Barbara Sher writes persuasively on this topic in her excellent self-help book It's Only Too Late If You Don't Start Now, which discusses the changes in personality that most of us go through as result of biological adaptation and social conditioning. Narcissism, grandiosity, and self-dramatizing self-obsession are hallmarks of adolescents and of the immediate post-adolescent years. Thus has it ever been and thus shall it ever be. And our indulgent and comfortable society only encourages this mindset and helps it to stick around a little longer than it needs to.
Even so, for most people, this stage of development is blessedly temporary. By their mid-twenties they are moving beyond narcissism, usually because they have started a family and must provide for their children, which requires sacrificing their own pleasure and convenience. But in the interval between the onset of adolescent narcissism and its gradual dissipation in light of adult responsibilities, there is an extended period akin to the terrible twos, which can be summed up in one word: me. Or more precisely: me, me, me, me, me!
Now we come back to the Wall Street protesters. Most of them are lodged securely in this demographic group. They are of college age or a little older, and they have not yet had children. They are taking their very first steps into the real world, away from the protection of academia and their parents. They are finding those first steps difficult–perhaps unusually difficult right now, because of the bad economy, but let's not kid ourselves; those first steps are always difficult, even in a good economy. And, like me thirty years ago, they are deeply frustrated, disappointed, and angry. Things are not working out the way they were supposed to. Implicit promises made by the system are not being kept. The easy path to success and happiness has vanished like a dream, replaced by a stony and winding uphill trail that leads to an uncertain destination. They feel lied to, and in a sense they have been. They have been coddled and therefore somewhat hobbled by those who, seeking to boost their self-esteem and make them feel good about themselves, have told him over and over again how special they are and how bright their future is. They feel betrayed. They feel cheated. They feel scared. They feel lonely. They feel helpless. They feel hopeless. They feel all the things I felt, and all the things that young people always feel when youthful dreams crash headlong into the brick wall of reality.
And so they occupy a park, march on Times Square for no particular reason, chant silly slogans, carry misspelled signs, and bang on drums–not because any of this will do them any good, but because they don't know what else to do. Incoherently they feel that if they just express their rage loudly enough, somehow the universe, like a loving and indulgent parent, will hear them and take pity on them and make everything all right again. And if it doesn't, then at least they can lash out and try to inflict hurt on this world that seems so intent on hurting them. I know all about that. When I was their age, I often felt like screaming and lashing out too. The emperor Nero famously said he wished humanity had a single throat so he could cut it. I used to wish humanity had a single face so I could punch it. These protesters feel the same way.
Are they idealists? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that they imagine there is some better system which, if implemented, will magically make the problems of adult life go away. It doesn't matter whether they imagine that system to be socialism, communism, anarchy, or–as in my case–libertarianism (radical laissez-faire capitalism). They are naïvely hopeful that human nature can be altered and perfected if only the right policies are implemented. This is a kind of idealism.
But it is also a kind of ignorance and stupidity. It is the ignorance and stupidity of the young, who simply don't know better, because they haven't experienced much of life, and because they're relying on information obtained in books and lectures safely removed from the real world. And it is a dangerous ignorance, a perilous stupidity, because it may lead some of them to do desperate things. In fact, it already has. Hundreds of these protesters have been arrested, and those arrests will remain on their records for the rest of their life, complicating their efforts to find employment. Some have committed acts of violence; an 82-year-old woman suffered a fractured skull in the Times Square riot on Saturday night. Some may become so frustrated and depressed when their movement inevitably fizzles out that they will turn to drugs, alcohol, even suicide.
So yes, I do understand these people. I understand their fears, their frustrations, and their rage. And I understand that since most of them have no creative outlet, they can find relief only in mob action, in screaming and running amok and acting like idiots. They're young; they're supposed to be idiots. That's what youth is for.
But they also need to be corralled, controlled, disciplined, and—in cases of lawbreaking—roundly punished. Because, you see, that's what adulthood is for.
And we all have to grow up sometime.
Here's the remainder of my excerpt from Louis J. Halle's 1981 book The Search for an Eternal Norm. (I have to admit that the title always makes me think of the barflies in Cheers shouting "Norm!")
In this passage, Halle reflects on how the "contemplative person," who is under some degree of strain because of the huge gap between his idealized view of the world and the corrupt reality, comes to see death as something less to be feared than to be accepted with relief. Again, comparison with Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy is helpful.
Halle's first paragraph on "the pure man of action" reminds me of John Wayne's dread of dying, which I discussed in an older post.
The pure man of action does not, ordinarily, allow his mind to dwell on the approach of death. When advancing years and the progressive impairment of his faculties do, at last, force him to think of it, he anticipates it with horror and hopes that he can continue to keep it far from the real present in which he still lives his life of action.
In all contemplative persons, by contrast, there is likely to be something like a love of death that develops as they grow older. I do not mean that they are in the hurry to end their lives. It is merely that they find solace in the thought:
That no man lives forever,
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
To one who does not find himself at home in the existential world his own passage through it may seem like that of a man crossing a chasm on a tightrope. Especially in youth, with his career ahead of him, he may doubt that he can ever make it to the other side; but he finds himself committed simply by the astonishing circumstance that here he is, having in his first consciousness found his feet already on the rope and the chasm open beneath him. As the years of his life pass, then, as his career takes its direction and lengthens out, he may feel an increasing self-confidence. Now he is halfway across the chasm, now two thirds across, within sight of the end–and now he feels some assurance that he can make it all the way. Having already gone so far, he has become experienced, he has acquired a knack, and he looks back with a certain pity at his first awkward steps in a past that has come to seem remote. At the same time, however, he is conscious of how the strain continues, never allowing him to relax from effort; he is conscious of continuing fear, based on the continuing danger exemplified by so many others who, at every stage of the crossing, fall into unexpected disaster; and he feels increasingly the weariness that accumulates in one's bones as one goes on through so many decades. Under the circumstances, the farther shore begins to seem like a haven. Here at last is the end of striving and the end of fear. Here at last is perfect sleep. When he thinks that this sleep may well be one from which he will never awaken he may be glad that it is not already upon him–but since it must come anyway, if not sooner than later, he is not offered a choice. The option of living and suffering forever in this existential world, with never any rest, never any surcease from anxiety, with griefs and disasters succeeding one another through eternity–this option, which might well be regarded as intolerable, does not present itself for his consideration. Either he will realize the full design, completing his life at the farther shore, or he will fall into the chasm before he gets there; and in either case there will be the same finality of eternal oblivion, if that is what death represents.…
This love of death is elemental in Hamlet, and it grows with his increasing maturity under the stress of circumstances. Death is constantly in his thoughts….
His acceptance of death is, in fact, what accounts for the marked change we see in him upon his return from England, when he stops to contemplate the spectacle of the gravedigger singing at his work. Already he is half in love with death as he muses over the skulls that the goodman delver tosses up with his spade. Death, as he here contemplates it, reduces the successes and failures of life to indifference… Eventually, in his increasingly objective vision, he and the usurping King and all will be reduced to skulls like these, “chapless, and knocked about the mazzard with a sexton's spade.”…
At last, when death is no longer more than minutes away, his feelings are almost but not quite unmixed. There is still, as there must be, a note of regret and misgiving. (“Thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart.”) It is only a note, however, lacking the mortal anguish of which his earlier self had been capable, when he had repeatedly confronted the prospect of death only to turn away from it. Now he can console himself that “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” In his last words to Horatio, as he lies dying, he calls upon him not to join him in death for the time being but, rather, to absent himself from “felicity” a while. By contrast with his agony of spirit in the first half of the play, the serenity that goes with this acceptance of death constitutes a happy ending to tragedy.
[from The Search for an Eternal Norm, 1981, Louis J. Halle]
Recently, while reading The Search for an Eternal Norm, by Louis J. Halle, I was struck by a long passage about Hamlet, which delves into the deeper issues of the play and, in so doing, explores some basic issues of life itself. Because the excerpt is lengthy, I'm dividing it into two posts.
Although Halle doesn't mention it, his ruminations can be profitably compared to Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy.
The first part of the passage, excerpted below, is relevant to the never-ending battle between outsiders and the defenders of orthodoxy in any field, including the militant skeptics who guard the halls of Science.
The second part, to be excerpted in my next post, deals with the issue of death, as it presents itself to a mind like Hamlet's — that is, to any sensitive, introspective nature.
Incidentally, Halle's British spelling has been Americanized by my voice-recognition program (I dictated the passage using Dragon Dictate for Mac, which works well).
Hamlet lives in the world we all know, the world of corruption satirized in Voltaire's Candide, the world epitomized in Hans Christian Andersen's story, The Emperor's New Clothes. The corruption consists of the pretenses of those who constitute society, whether at a Renaissance court or in the fashionable circles of our cities today.
Especially in the competitive upper ranges of society, the positions that people take on the issues that confront them, the attitudes they strike, are based, not on a concern for what is true, but on the objective of gaining credit for “right thinking.” In an elementary form this can be observed among young intellectuals in the lobbies of any concert-hall after a symphonic performance. Each in his comment tries to give an impression of critical appreciation, using a fashionable vocabulary to show that he is one of the initiated.…
I recall how shocked I was, when myself still a child, to read in Edward Bok's autobiography that, as drama critic for a New York newspaper, he sometimes did not bother to attend the performances of which he wrote his criticisms, relying on his native ingenuity to carry off the bluff. Most book-reviewers rarely do more than sample the books they review. They depend on a kind of bluff that becomes second nature to them, adopting the style of magisterial authority and indulging in little tricks of allusion and citation to suggest their mastery of the book's subject.
This universal pretense is no less prevalent in the councils of government, where the current fashion in right thinking quite overrides truth.…
In this corrupt world, anyone who seeks to emulate the child of the Anderson tale, and to make his career on that basis, will find himself facing barriers that are all but insurmountable. He will find himself intellectually isolated, standing in opposition to the common mind that governs the society in which he is trying to make his career. He will find that he has aroused, among the insiders who represent the common mind, the same atavistic instinct of hostility toward the outsider that is in evidence on any school playground.
The first barrier that he must face is that of confidence in his own faculties; for few of us have the self-assurance to believe even in the simple testimony of our own eyes when everyone around us is admiring the Emperor's new clothes. Many of us who have sat at the council-tables of government have had the experience of not daring to speak up when everyone else agreed on what appeared to be plainly untrue, fearing that we had missed some essential point in the argument or overlooked some factor evident to all the others–fearing that we would show ourselves unfit for our jobs.
The second barrier is in the power of those who represent the common mind to deny the outsider advancement in his career and opportunities for publication, or to discredit his work if it appears as a book for review. Where the standards of book-reviewing are pragmatic rather than principled, the first question to present itself to a reviewer is whether the author is “one of us,” and on the basis of the answer he decides whether the author should be honored or discredited.…
Again, if the man who thinks for himself wants a university appointment or hopes for promotion he is likely to find the way barred by those who represent the common academic mind.…
The pretenses to which I have referred are related to the process of forming the collective mind. The individual, as one member of a group that has to formulate its collective opinions on the issues to which it addresses itself, is involved in the politics of negotiation and compromise at the level of the common mind, which is never high. In these circumstances, the question is never one of truth but of what attitudes to strike; and the question of what attitudes to strike is a question of what will best promote the group's power in society, a power with which its members have identified themselves. This is what comes to constitute right thinking.
We take this kind of thing for granted in the behavior of political parties, but it has hardly been less true of French painters for generations past.…
Literary intellectuals, for their part, have belonged to categorically defined and recognized ideological groupings.…
The same inescapable corruption pervades and all pervades all professional and vocational circles. We take for granted the shoe-manufacturer's conviction that the general interests of society require a protective tariff against foreign shoes. But Plato, himself, was sure that philosophers should be kings. Anyone who suggests to a gathering of physical scientists that the world might not be better off if it were run only by people with their training and discipline will get a cold reception. Anyone who suggests to political scientists that they are not qualified, as such, to take over the decision-making functions of government will find that they regard him as unsound. There will be pursed lips and a shaking of heads.…
In all academic communities a distinction may be made between what everyone says and what is true. The former is, in a word, “correct.” Students at examinations, or in the papers they submit, may be well advised to aim at “correct” answers. The training they are undergoing is primarily in the orthodoxy that such answers represent. Again, wherever an ideological establishment rules the only question that arises is that of what is “correct,” and the very word “truth” disappears. So a sort of scholastic formalism develops the corrupts the intellectual enterprise of mankind. It has been so in all ages, in our own no less than in Galileo's.
The barriers to survival, in his career, of an individual who thinks for himself are not necessarily insurmountable. In exceptional circumstances, involving luck or the special providence referred to by Hamlet, he may at least be able to keep going for the normal duration of his career. But the barriers are so formidable and intimidating that, in all but extraordinary cases, there can be no question of not respecting them.
Every society is in constant danger of being finally overcome by the corruption I have described. That is why every society needs, in addition to the orthodox establishments that give it stability, a Socrates or a Voltaire for its constant purgation. I am not sure, however, that a Socrates or a Voltaire would have much chance of surviving in the highly organized mass-societies of our day, unless briefly and by virtue of an exceptional combination of circumstances. In a simpler age, Socrates did not need a publisher, a lecture-platform, an academic stipend, funds to support his studies; and although the difficulties and dangers that confronted Voltaire were in some respects even greater than those that would confront him today, they are different difficulties and dangers.…
What I have attempted to show above is the corruption that prevails at all the levels of power and influence in our world today, as in ancient Greece, in Rome, in Medieval and in Renaissance Europe, in ancient Persia, in Byzantium, in Confucian and in communist China. This corruption is always tending to engulf us, to become total. The saving grace, time and again, is that of the incorruptible individual who thinks for himself, is under an inner compulsion to utter what he thinks, and still survives long enough to be heard.…
Hamlet stands alone in opposition to his environment, unable to adjust himself to the existential world of corruption, unable to make the convenient thinking of others his own. His mind is dominated by a normative model of the world, a conception of what it was intended to be.…
The paradox of Hamlet's position was that, to realize the normative world in action, he would have had to embrace all the sordid devices of the existential world. He would have had to practice corruption to overcome corruption. He would have had to adopt a pragmatic means of conspiracy: secrecy, double dealing, hypocrisy, and violence. He would have had to give himself entirely to the struggle for personal power, thereby corrupting himself….
It is a standard dilemma of the world that has followed the expulsion from Paradise that one can hold to one's ideals, avoiding their betrayal in practice, only by withdrawal, by refusal to participate. Hamlet, moved by a revulsion against the corruption of the existential world, was consequently inhibited from embracing its devices even in the name of ushering in the ideal world.
Was this weakness?
Surely it was. I myself, living in a pragmatic post-paradisial world, have had to discipline myself all my life to acknowledge what is required to keep the world going, to maintain its essential function from year to year, from generation to generation–what is required simply to ward off chaos. I have had to discipline myself to reject the idealist's contempt for workability (for what he sometimes calls “expediency”), which he can maintain only so long as he, himself, remains aloof from direct responsibility for keeping the world going.… I can recognize Hamlet's misfortune in being born to such responsibility, but I cannot quite allow myself to commend him for his refusal to accept it. On the face of it, such a refusal is indeed weakness….
If, however, the question is not one of approval but of sympathy, then I must acknowledge myself on Hamlet's side. I, myself, have been increasingly free, as he was not, to follow Polonius's precept ["to thine own self be true"], and I have never had the slightest compunction at withdrawing, in the second half of my life, just as far as circumstances allowed me to.…
I question, moreover, whether the pure man of action represents the highest type of mankind. To me, the glory of our species is the human mind at the extremes of self-conscious awareness represented by a Socrates, a Montaigne, a Pascal, a Shakespeare–or Hamlet. To me Voltaire represents a higher type than Napoleon, and much as I admire Pericles I would set Thucydides above him. This is to say that I set Hamlet above Fortinbras, although it would have been better if Fortinbras have been born Prince of Denmark. It is not that mankind does not depend alike on its Fortinbras and its Hamlets; but it depends on the former for its present salvation, on the latter for its ultimate salvation. We must save the world from day to day, and for that we need our Fortinbras; but if we are ever to emerge from the tragic dilemmas of this post-paradisial age it will only be by that constant enlargement of our understanding for which we depend on the few thoughtful, introspective, and incorruptible minds that are able to work in something approaching the ideal of academic detachment. Hamlet's personal tragedy was that this, his true vocation, was denied him by inescapable circumstances.
[from The Search for an Eternal Norm, Louis J. Halle, 1981]