I'm reading an advance copy of Michael Tymn's new book Resurrecting Leonora Piper, which I'm enjoying quite a lot. (I'll post a review when I've finished it. By the way, although the official publication date is January 14, it looks like Amazon is selling the book now, in both print and Kindle editions.)
The book is not a biography of Mrs. Piper, but a detailed examination of her mediumship, with an emphasis on the most impressive communications. Tymn acknowledges that there was a great deal of nonsense produced throughout the decades-long course of Mrs. Piper's trance sessions, and there were times when she drew a blank for a particular sitter or made too many errors to be credible. But there were other sessions - quite a lot of them - when she would produce copious quantities of verifiable information, some of it unknown to anyone present, and much of it impossible to obtain by research or guesswork.
Still, doubts persisted. One such doubt was the often-repeated objection that the communications were too trivial to be taken seriously. Tymn quotes William James:
The prima facie theory, which is that of spirit-control, is hard to reconcile with the extreme triviality of most of the communications. What real spirit, at last able to revisit his wife on this earth, but would find something better to say than that she had changed the place of his photograph? And yet that is the sort of remark to which the spirits introduced by the mysterious Phinuit are apt to confine themselves.
James goes on to concede that occasionally Mrs. Piper's spirit control, Phinuit, did give "long lectures to us about our inward defects and outward shortcomings, which were very earnest, as well as subtle morally and psychologically, and impressive in a high degree," and that these monologues were "probably superior to anything that the medium could produce in her natural state."
Still, the "triviality" issue remained a sticking point. For some people, it is a sticking point to this day.
I must admit, I've never quite understood this objection. To me, it seems obvious that a discarnate spirit seeking to establish its identity would have to rely on trivialities - minor details that only a few people would know. In fact, the more trivial and obscure the details, the better. How else could the spirit provide proof that it is who it claims to be? What could be more convincing than to hear the medium make reference to a little-known fact that only the sitter and a few close family members were aware of?
As it happens, at the moment I'm also reading Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. One of the most dramatic scenes involves the ex-convict Jean Valjean identifying himself to the authorities in a courtroom. Valjean has been wanted for petty theft for several years, but has thoroughly remade himself, becoming a wealthy and respected factory owner and the mayor of a thriving town. Circumstances compel him to come clean before the court and subject himself to arrest and imprisonment again.
But first he must convince the court that he really is who he says he is. No one will believe him. They think the mayor has gone mad. Such a highly esteemed public figure cannot possibly be the lowly and despised ex-convict.
Valjean, however, knows how to prove his case. Three men in the courtroom served their prison sentences with him.
He turned to the three convicts, and said:—
"Well, I recognize you; do you remember, Brevet?"
He paused, hesitated for an instant, and said:—
"Do you remember the knitted suspenders with a checked pattern which you wore in the galleys?"
Brevet gave a start of surprise, and surveyed him from head to foot with a frightened air. He continued:—
"Chenildieu, you who conferred on yourself the name of 'Jenie-Dieu,' your whole right shoulder bears a deep burn, because you one day laid your shoulder against the chafing-dish full of coals, in order to efface the three letters T. F. P., which are still visible, nevertheless; answer, is this true?"
"It is true," said Chenildieu.
He addressed himself to Cochepaille:—
"Cochepaille, you have, near the bend in your left arm, a date stamped in blue letters with burnt powder; the date is that of the landing of the Emperor at Cannes, March 1, 1815; pull up your sleeve!"
Cochepaille pushed up his sleeve; all eyes were focused on him and on his bare arm.
A gendarme held a light close to it; there was the date.
The unhappy man turned to the spectators and the judges with a smile which still rends the hearts of all who saw it whenever they think of it. It was a smile of triumph; it was also a smile of despair.
"You see plainly," he said, "that I am Jean Valjean."
The demonstration suffices, and Valjean is again condemned to prison.
Notice that all of his proofs are trivialities. Knitted suspenders ... a burn mark ... a tattoo ... Nothing heavy, deep, or philosophical about that. Yet it's the most effective way he could possibly establish his own identity.
Why would otherwise intelligent people have trouble grasping this simple point? Perhaps it's an indication of how hard the ego-mind works to avoid dealing with the implications of mediumship.