Wednesday, January 10, 2007

William James and ghosts

Yesterday's book on William James was a serious intellectual biography, tracing his ideas and his life through dense--but fascinating--paragraphs woven thickly with quotations from his writings, letters, and diaries. Today's James book, Ghost Hunters: WIlliam James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death (2006) on the other hand, has a much smaller scope and, written by a journalist, Deborah Blum, it's a comparatively much easier, quicker read.

The late nineteenth century witnessed the birth of the spiritualist movement, as mediums, sensitives, and hauntings of all sorts made news (and lots of money) throughout the United States and Europe. James--who, as I wrote yesterday, was never one to close off the possibility of finding truth in unexpected places--was an early champion of scientific exploration into the possibility of spirit communication, and Deborah Blum ably details his efforts with allies of various levels of scientific integrity and credulousness to establish proof of paranormal phenomena.

From the vantage point of this more skeptical age, it's hard to believe just how worked up the public and the scientific community got over the work of mediums who almost all seem to have been utter fakes--and not very good ones at that. Yet Blum makes clear that James and company were risking their reputations with every foray into the spirit world, however carefully controlled and documented; the very fact that they deigned to investigate these disreputable performers was enough to raise significant ire on the part of many of their fellow scientists. James, however, with his characteristic openness, believed that it was just as unscientific to declare there is no chance of spirit communication as it would have been to blindly accept the word of any believer off the street.

So he and his colleagues devised experiments, some truly rigorous and others fairly suspect, and tested medium after medium. And, to no contemporary reader's surprise, they caught nearly all of them cheating: lifting tables with their feet, calling forth gauzy ghosts from curtains with hidden strings, steaming open envelopes, sneaking hands free in order to rap the table. Some of the researchers were gladdened by these results, because they were at heart debunkers. But many of them essentially wanted to believe--they only wanted some proof, both to back up that belief and to convince others--so Blum's book is, for the most part, a litany of disappointment.

But then there's Leonora Piper, a medium who once made, said William's brother Henry
an allusion to a matter known (so personal is it to myself) to no other individual in the world but me--not possibly either to the medium or to my sister-in-law, and an allusion so pertinent and initiated and tender and helpful, and yet so unhelped by any actual earthly knowledge on any one's part, that it quite astounds as well as deeply touches me.
And Henry wasn't the only one; despite never being caught employing any sort of detective tricks, Piper is recorded as having delivered intimate messages to a wide variety of investigators and ordinary sitters. Here's the account of another investigator:
The professor had brought a single circle of gold, one that once belonged to his dead mother. The ring had been one of two, a set that he and his mother had exchanged on Christmas.

Each ring had been engraved with the first word of the recipient's favorite proverb. Long ago, he'd lost the one she'd given him. But the previous year, when his mother died, the ring he'd given to her had been returned to him.

The professor was holding that ring in his hand during the sitting, hiding the word as he inquired, "What was written in Mamma's ring."

"I had hardly got the words from my mouth till she slapped down the word on the other ring--the one Mamma had given me, and which had been lost years ago.

"As the word was a peculiar one, doubtfully ever written in any ring before, an as she wrote it in such a flash, it was surely curious."

How much credence to lend to these accounts after more than a century is, of course, difficult to know--after all, science's ability to test and measure has advanced tremendously, and we still have no data suggesting that paranormal phenomena are real. But Leonora Piper's readings were enough, at the time, for William James to begin to believe that there might be spirit communication. As he put it, "To upset the conclusion that all crows are black, there is no need to seek demonstration that no crow is black; it is sufficient to produce one white crow; a single one is sufficient." Miss Piper was his white crow, and even now, reading Blum's account of her sittings can bring chills.

And that brings me to the real reason I picked up this book, after I'd just read more than 500 pages about William James: the ghost stories. Ghost Hunters is chock-full of them, from a series of spell-binding accounts of death-visitations to psychic detection to some truly spine-tingling accounts of seances. Blum tells them well, allowing them space to be themselves, true in the telling, and only after they're finished allowing scientists and reality to begin to intrude. What more can you ask than a book that marries the spooky pleasures of ghost stories and the excitement of scientific discovery?

On that note, just for fun, I'll end with one of the accounts of a death-visitation collected by researchers for the Society for Psychical Research (of whose U.S. branch William James was head) and published in a book called Phantasms of the Living. You might check under the bed before you begin reading:
A British clergyman was taking a summer evening walk over the downs near Marlcombe Hill. He was composing in his head a congratulatory letter to a good friend whose birthday would be two days later, on August 20, 1874.

He had barely begun when a voice spoke sharply in his ear: "What, write to a dead man; write to a dead man?"

The clergyman turned hastily around, expecting to see someone behind him. There was only the fading light lazing the grasses with gold. "Treating the matter as an illusion, I went on with my composition." the same voice spoke again, this time louder and with some impatience: "What, write to a dead man; write to a dead man?"

Again, he turned around. Again, there was no one there. But now he was afraid that it wasn't an illusion.

After hurrying home, he wrote the letter and sent it anyway. "In reply [I] received from Mrs. W. the sad, but to me not unexpected, intelligence that her husband was dead."

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