The current edition (Vol.77, No. 912) of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research includes a generally positive review of Michael Tymn's book Resurrecting Leonora Piper – a book I liked a lot. The reviewer, Alan Gauld, is best known for his meticulous study Mediumship and Survival, which takes a close look at some of the best documented mediums and examines the competing theories of spirit communication and super-psi (or super-ESP).
Although Gauld likes Tymn's book in many respects, he does object that it doesn't deal with the "the quite numerous cases in which one of the best-evidenced and most plausible communicators claims to have met with one of the most implausible ones and to be much impressed by him, thus tying the genuineness or otherwise of the two together."
As an example, he tells the story of Dean Bridgman Connor, a young man who was reported to have died in Mexico. After his father dreamed that Dean was still alive, Mrs. Piper was brought into the case, "with the result that for a good part of 1896 agents of the family were guided by Phinuit and G.P. [two of Mrs. Piper's spirit guides] from hospital to hospital and prison to prison in the south of Mexico seeking but always supposedly just missing the elusive Dean. Other spirits were co-opted into the search. Meanwhile the Piper controls in Boston repeatedly assured Dean's relatives that he was still alive. This story unfolded over many sittings, mostly still unpublished. But the following year an enterprising and level-headed journalist who took up the case was able to prove conclusively that Dean had died as originally reported …"
Not only was the entire chase a waste of time, but some of the spirits who allegedly participated lacked all credibility. One of them was announced to be Julius Caesar, still clad in his "helmet, armor and sword," though spelling his name Caezar in written communications. Gauld asks, "Under such circumstances could any of these interlinked communicators possibly be supposed 'genuine'?" If "Caezar" was a fictional persona of Mrs. Piper's subconscious, couldn't G.P. (George Pellew) be equally fictional? Yet Pellew is often cited as one of the best-attested discarnate figures to come through Mrs. Piper's mediumship.
It's a fair point. On the face of it, the whole story certainly does sound like an absurd confabulation, or, at best, like super-psi run amok. And the same could be true of many of the personalities that crop up in mediumship - especially the spirit controls used by trance mediums. Many of them do seem "preposterous" (Gauld's description of Mrs. Piper's "Imperator") and silly - like Mrs. Piper's early spirit control "Chlorine," supposedly an American Indian girl, or Mrs. Leonard's flighty spirit control "Feda," or the innumerable Indian chiefs, buccaneers, and notable historical figures who appear in the record.
All of them could be no more than false personas created by the medium's subconscious. But in light of some of the things we've been discussing recently on this blog, another possibility presents itself.
If we assume that the self consists of pure awareness that is in some way entangled with a particular information matrix, then there seems to be no reason why Imperator or any of the others could not begin as an idea – a sort of thought-form – and then acquire autonomy as awareness became attached to that thought-form. This notion, by the way, is consistent with the channeled material attributed to Jane Roberts's Seth. (I believe it has also been suggested by Matt Rouge in some of his comments here.)
In other words, the line of demarcation between an authentic "spirit" and a "subpersonality" of the medium may not be as clear-cut as we would like to think. The subpersonality, given sufficient substance by the accretion of detail, and serving as a point of attraction for the I-thought of pure awareness, might possibly become a "spirit" in its own right.
Perhaps something like this happened in the famous case of Philip, "the imaginary ghost." As recounted by Owen and Sparrow in Conjuring Up Philip, a group of Canadian experimenters invented a wholly imaginary historical figure named Philip, then sat in séances until an entity purporting to be Philip showed up, announcing himself by raps and table movements. The phenomena were reported over a number of sessions and were documented by multiple witnesses. At one point, one of the sitters rather recklessly informed Philip (with whom the sitters were communicating via a system of raps) that he was merely a fictional persona; the raps abruptly ceased, and it took a sustained effort to get them started again.
Adherents of the super-psi theory naturally cite the Philip case as good evidence that so-called spirits may be only manifestations of the collective unconscious of the sitters. Spiritualists counter that the entity calling itself Philip may have been a low-level, earthbound spirit attracted to the séances, just as mischievous spirits are said to be drawn to Ouija boards.
The thought-form idea offers another explanation. Perhaps Philip began as a thought-form generated by the collective minds of the sitters, but at some point acquired a degree of autonomy as the I-thought was attracted to it. In this case, Philip was both a thought-form and a spirit, or perhaps he inhabited a borderland between the two states.
The same might be true not only of Imperator, Rector, and the other rather high-flown spirit controls who dominated Mrs. Piper's later séances, but also of the enigmatic Dr. Phinuit, whose earthly existence could never be verified despite a search of the historical records. Perhaps other spirit controls, such as Chlorine and Feda also began as thought-forms and acquired reality as they developed.
It's interesting in this connection to note some early communications purportedly from the deceased F.W.H. Myers, as described by physicist and psychical investigator Oliver Lodge in his 1909 book The Survival of Man. Lodge quotes "Myers" as complaining about some earlier seances:
I could not say it, but they were translating like a schoolboy does his first lines of Virgil - so terribly confused and inaccurate. But somehow I could not help it. It was not me communicating, yet I saw it going on ...
The medium's spirit control then explained to Lodge:
He [Myers] said it was not he, but neither was it fraud. He does not want you to stop the phenomenon, he wants to study it. You are not to say it was wrong and get it stopped. He likes to watch the somnambulistic thing at work. It is not he that is doing it, and yet he is looking on. He does not see how it is worked, but he finds this more interesting than the genuine communications. He did not rattle the curtains either ... but it was not cheating, and he does not want you to make them think that they are cheats. He does not know how it is worked, but he is studying and he thinks it will help a great deal if he can understand how the cheating things that are not cheats are done ...
He says he is finding out how honest non-phenomena are to be accounted for. Apparently dishonest phenomena are phenomena of extreme [interest] apart from the spirit which purports to be communicating. [Emphases added.]
Is it possible that Myers, who was well known to the investigators and mediums, existed in part as a thought-form in their minds, and that this thought-form acquired a degree of autonomy, thus "becoming" a sort of pseudo-Myers or Myers doppelgänger, while the real Myers looked on in helpless fascination?
Perhaps there's no truth to any of this. It certainly could sound like special pleading - a far-fetched notion intended to explain away discrepancies in mediumistic communications. Still, there's a certain imaginative appeal (at least) in the notion that we can spin off our subpersonalities into autonomous children, who then go out into the world and leave us, their parents, behind.
And of course, it all raises the question: Are we the same kind of spin-offs? Did we ourselves begin as thought-forms, and acquire a personal identity only when we had achieved a certain level of reality?
It's enough to make us think that Shakespeare's Prospero was right:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.