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Thursday, 7 April 2011

“The Medium Went Through a Series of Facial Contortions, Most of Which Looked the Reverse of Pleasing” Or: An Evening With The Higher Spirits

In my first post regarding Victorian séances from two weeks ago, I mentioned a piece of Victorian journalism I had at home which I had only read a few pages of. The piece, entitled ‘Mystic London’ was written in 1875 by Charles Maurice Davies.
Davies was an Anglo-Catholic clergyman, who, along with five other such men founded the Society of the Holy Cross in the 1850’s.
In 1861 he left the church to become headmaster of the West London College, before eventually returning to the church where he was increasingly drawn into explorations of spiritualism and psychical research, producing a series of widely-read books, including ‘Mystic London’

Davies’ article on his attendance at a séance is far more analytical and critical that the somewhat dramatic and romanticised piece featured previously from the anonymous author in The Leisure Hour, but is still an interesting critique upon what was, and still is, a dubious practise, but was, at the time, gaining popularity.

I am sure I have seen somewhere that ‘Mystic London’ is to be released as a book in May this year, but, if you prefer, you can also read the whole piece for free on Project Gutenberg (at the time of writing, at least)

Here I have reproduced only the chapter in which he records his visit to a medium, a chapter entitled:

An Evening With The Higher Spirits:
At the head of social heresies, and rapidly beginning to take rank as a religious heresy as well, I have no hesitation in placing modern Spiritualism.

Those who associate this latest mystery only with gyrating articles of furniture, rapping tables, or simpering planchettes, are simply in the abyss of ignorance, and dangerously underrate the gravity of the subject. The later development of Spirit Faces and Spirit Forms, each of which I have examined thoroughly, and made the results of my observations public, fail to afford any adequate idea of the pitch to which the mania - if mania, it be - has attained.

To many persons Spiritualism forms the ultimatum, not only in science, but also in religion. Whatever the Spirits tell them they believe and do as devoutly as the Protestant obeys his Bible, the Catholic his Church, or the scientific man follows up the results of his demonstrations. That is, in fact, the position they assume. They claim to have attained in matters of religion to demonstration as clear and infallible as the philosopher does in pure science. They say no longer "We believe," but "We know." These people care little for the vagaries of Dark Circles, or even the doings of young ladies with "doubles." The flight of Mrs. Guppy through the air, the elongation of Mr. Home's braces, the insertion of live coals among the intricacies of Mr. S. C. Hall's exuberant locks, are but the A B C which have led them to their present advanced position.

These physical "manifestations" may do for the neophytes. They are the initiated. I am the initiated; or I ought to be, if patience and perseverance constitute serving an apprenticeship. I have devoted a good portion of my late life to the study. I have given up valuable evenings through several consecutive winters to dark séances; have had my hair pulled, my head thumped with paper tubes, and suffered other indignities at the hands of the "Invisibles;" and, worse than all, my friends have looked upon me as a lunatic for my pains, and if my enemies could have wrought their will they would have incarcerated me as non compos, or made an auto-da-fe of me as a heretic years ago.

Through sheer length of service, then, if on no other account, I had grown somewhat blasé with the ordinary run of manifestations. Spirit Faces no longer interest me; for I seek among them in vain the lineaments of my departed friends. Spirit Hands I shake as unconcernedly as I do those of my familiar acquaintances at the club or in the street. I have even cut off a portion of the veil of Miss Florence Maple, the Aberdeen Spirit, and gone away with it in my pocket: so that it was, at all events, a new sensation when I received an invitation to be present at a trance dance, where one of the Higher Spirits communicated to the assembled things undreamed of in mundane philosophy. The sitting was a strictly private one; so I must not mention names or localities; but this does not matter, as I have no marvels in the vulgar sense of the word to relate: only Higher Teachings, which will do just as well with asterisks or initials as with the names in full.

The scene, then, was an artist's studio at the West End of London, and the medium a magnetic lady with whom I had frequently sat before, though not for the "Higher" teachings. Her instruction had so far come in the shape of very vigorous raps, which ruined my knuckles to imitate them, and in levitation of a small and volatile chess table, which resisted all my efforts to keep it to the paths of propriety. This lady was not young; and I confess frankly this was, to my thinking, an advantage. When I once told a skeptical friend about Miss Florence Cook's dance, and added, triumphantly, "Why, she's a pretty little simple girl of sixteen," that clenched the doubts of this Thomas at once, for he rejoined, "What is there that a pretty little simple girl of sixteen won't do?" Miss Showers is sweet sixteen, too; and when "Peter" sings through her in a clear baritone voice, I cannot, despite myself, help the thought occasionally flitting across my mind, "Would that you were six-and-twenty, or, better still, six-and-thirty, instead of sixteen!"

Without specifying to which of the two latter classes our present medium belonged, one might venture to say she had safely passed the former. She was of that ripe and Rubens-like beauty to which we could well imagine some "Higher" spirit offering the golden apple of its approval, however the skittish Paris of the spheres might incline to sweet sixteen. I had a short time before sat infructuously with this lady, when a distressing contretemps occurred. We were going in for a dark séance then, and just as we fancied the revenants were about to justify the title, we were startled by a crash, and on my lighting up, all of the medium I could see were two ankles protruding from beneath the table. She had fainted "right off," as the ladies say, and it required something strong to bring her to. In fact, we all had a "refresher," I recollect, for sitting is generally found to be exhausting to the circle as well as to the medium.

On the present occasion, however, everything was, if not en plein jour, en plein gaz. There was a good deal of preliminary difficulty as to the choice of a chair for the medium. Our artist-friend had a lot of antique chairs in his studio, no two being alike, and I was glad to see the lady select a capacious one with arms to it, from which she would not be likely to topple off when the spirits took possession. The rest of us sat in a sort of irregular circle round the room, myself alone being accommodated with a small table, not for the purposes of turning (I am set down as ‘too physical’) but in order to report the utterances of the Higher Spirits. We were five “assistants” in all - our host, a young lady residing with him, another lady well known as a musical artiste, with her mamma and my unworthy self.

Installed in her comfortable chair, the medium went through a series of facial contortions, most of which looked the reverse of pleasing, though occasionally she smiled benignantly par parenthese. I was told - or I understood it so - that this represented her upward passage through different spheres. She was performing, in fact, a sort of spiritualistic "Excelsior." By way of assimilating our minds to the matter in hand, we discussed the Apocryphal Gospels, which happened to be lying on the table; and very soon, without any other process than the facial contortions having been gone through, the medium broke silence, and, in measured tones of considerable benignity, said: "Friends, we greet you in the name of our Lord and Master. Let us say the Lord's Prayer."

She then repeated the Lord's Prayer, with considerable alterations from the Authorized Version, especially, I noticed, inserting the Swedenborgian expressions, "the Heavens," "on earth;" but also altering the order of the clauses, and omitting one altogether. She then informed us that she was ready to answer questions on any subject, but that we were not bound to accept any teaching which she - or let us say they, for it was the spirits now speaking - might give us. "What did we wish to know?" I always notice that when this question is asked at a spirit circle everybody simultaneously shuts up, as though the desire for knowledge were dried at its source. Nobody spoke, and I myself was not prepared with a subject, but I had just been reviewing a Swedenborgian book, and I softly insinuated "Spiritual Marriage." It was graciously accepted; and our Sibyl thus delivered herself:-

Mankind, the higher Spirit or Spirits, said was originally created in pairs, and the soul was still dual. Somehow or other - my notes are not quite clear how - the parts had got mixed up, separated, or wrongly sorted. There were, however, some advantages in this wrong sorting, which was so frequent an accident of terrestrial marriage, since it was possible for people to be too much alike - an observation I fancied I had heard before, or at least not so profound a one as to need a ghost "Come from the dead to tell us that, Horatio!" When the right halves did get together on earth the good developed for good, the evil for evil, until they got to the heavens or the other places - they were all plurals. Swedenborgianism has an objection to the singular number; and I could not fail to identify the teaching of the Higher Spirit at once with that of the New Jerusalem Church.

Two preliminary facts were brought before us; the Higher Spirits were in theology Swedenborgian, and in medical practice homoeopaths. So was the Medium. Although there was no marriage in the spiritual world, in our sense of the term, there was not only this re-sorting and junction of the disunited bivalves, but there were actual "nuptials" celebrated. We were to be careful and understand that what terrestrials called marriage celestials named nuptials - it seemed to me rather a distinction without a difference. There was no need of any ceremony, but still a ceremony was pleasing and also significant. I asked if it was true, as I had read in the Swedenborgian book, that all adult angels were married. She replied, "Yes; they married from the age of 15 to 24, and the male was always a few years older than the female."

There was a tendency, which I continually had to check, on the part of the Medium to wander off from matrimonial to theological subjects; and the latter, though trite, were scarcely so heterodox as I expected. I had found most "spiritualistic" teaching to be purely Theistic. Love to God and man were declared to be the great essentials, and creeds to matter little. If a man loved truth, it was no matter how wild or absurd his ideas might be. The love of God might seem a merely abstract idea, but it was not so. To love goodness was to love God. The love of the neighbour, in the sense of loving all one's kind, might seem hard, too; but it was not really so. There were in the sphere where this Intelligence dwelt millions of angels, or good spirits, working for the salvation of men.

I ought to mention that this lady, in her normal condition, is singularly reticent, and that the "communications" I chronicle were delivered fluently in one unbroken chain of what often rose into real eloquence.
So Christ came for the good of man, and Christ was not the only Messiah who had appeared on earth. In the millions of ages that had passed over our globe, and in the other planets of our solar system, there had risen up "other men filled with the spirit of good, and so Sons of God." I here tried to get at the views of the Higher Spirits on the Divinity of Christ, but found considerable haziness; at one time it was roundly asserted, at another it seemed to me explained away by such expressions as I have quoted above.

Our planet, I was informed, had been made the subject of special care because we were more material, more "solid" than the inhabitants of any other orb. There was an essential difference between Christ and all other great teachers, such as Buddha; and there were no historical records of any other manifestation of the Messiah than that we possessed; but such manifestations had taken place.
The Spirit then gave us an account of its surroundings, which is, I believe, purely Swedenborgian. The "celestial" angels were devoted to truth, the "spiritual" angels to goodness; and so, too, there were the Homes of the Satans, where falsehoods prevailed, and of the Devils, where evils predominated. Spirits from each of these came to man and held him in equilibria; but gained power as his will inclined towards them. The will was not altogether free, because affected by inherited tendencies; but the "determination" was. I have no idea what the Higher Spirit meant by this; and I rather fancy the Higher Spirit was in some doubt itself. It rather put me in mind of the definition of metaphysics: "If you are talking to me of what you know nothing about, and I don't understand a word of what you are saying - that's metaphysics."

All can do good, continued the Sibyl. Evil cannot compel yon. Utter only such an aspiration as, "God help me," and it brings a crowd of angels round you. From those who came to them from this world, however, they (the Higher Spirits) found that teachers taught more about what we were to think than what we were to do. Goodness was so easy. A right belief made us happier; but right action was essential.

Pushed by our host, who was rather inclined to "badger" the Higher Spirit, as to irresistible tendencies, the Intelligence said they were not irresistible. When we arrived in the Spirit World we should find everything that had occurred in our lives photographed. You will condemn yourselves, it was added. You will not be "had up" before an angry God. You will decide, in reference to any wrong action, whether you could help it. Even in the act of doing it a man condemns himself; much more so there. The doctrine of the Atonement was summarily disposed of as a "damnable heresy." "Does the Great Spirit want one man to die? It hurts us even to think of it!"

I then questioned the Medium with regard to the resurrection of the body; and was told that man, as originally created, was a spiritual being, but had "super-induced" his present body of flesh - how he managed it I did not quite gather. As to possible sublimation of corporeal integument, the case of ghosts was mentioned. It was to no purpose I gently insinuated I had never seen a ghost, or had the existence of one properly authenticated. I was told that if I fired a pistol through a ghost only a small particle of dust would remain which could be swept up. I was not aware that even so much would remain. Fancy "sweeping up" a Higher Spirit!

I could not help once or twice pausing to look round on this strange preacher and congregation. The comfortable-looking lady propped in an armchair, and with an urbane smile discoursing on these tremendous topics, our little congregation of five, myself writing away for dear life, the young hostess nursing a weird-looking black cat; the other young lady continually harking back to "conjugal" subjects, which seemed to interest her; the mamma slightly flabbergastered at the rather revolutionary nature of the communications; and our host every now and then throwing in a rude or caustic remark. I dreaded to think what might have been the result of a domiciliary visit paid by a Commissioner in Lunacy to that particular studio!

Back, then, the musical young lady took us to conjugal pairs. It was very difficult to convey to us what this conjugal love was like. Was it Elective Affinity? I asked. Yes; something like that, but still not that. It was the spontaneous gravitation in the spheres, either to other, of the halves of the dual spirit dissociated on earth. Not at all - again in reply to me - like flirting in a corner. The two, when walking in the spheres, looked like one. This conjugal puzzle was too much for us. We "gave it up;" and with an eloquent peroration on the Dynamics of Prayer, the séance concluded.

The Lord's Prayer was again said, with even more varieties than before; a few extemporaneous supplications were added. The process of coming-to seemed even more disagreeable, if one may judge by facial expression, than going into the trance. Eventually, to get back quite to earth, our Sibyl had to be demesmerized by our host, and in a few minutes was partaking of a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee as though she had never been in nubibus at all.

What the psychological condition had been I leave for those more learned than myself to determine. That some exaltation of the faculties took place was clear. That the resulting intelligence was of deep practical import few, I fancy, would aver. Happily my mission is not to discuss, but to describe; and so I simply set down my experience in the same terms in which it was conveyed to me as "An Evening with the Higher Spirits."

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