Losing the Spirit

Ruth Brandon. The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1883.



The reader who buys this book looking for a serious analysis of nineteenth century Spiritualism and its social and intellectual background will be disappointed. It is in fact a work of polemical scepticism as over-simplistic and misleading in its own way as Brian lnglis's credulous Natural and Supernatural is in its way.

Ruth Brandon's central thesis is that those who took alleged paranormal phenomena seriously were acting from religious motives. but this point is never expanded properly, and there is no detailed discussion as to why religious doubts attracted people towards spiritualism. The attraction which psychic research had for 'anti-materialist' intellectuals in the l880s was very different from the attractions of table-tilting in the 1850s. Indeed, early spiritualists saw themselves as part of a progressive movement, a 'scientific' investigation into areas previously reserved for religion.

Indeed, Ruth Brandon's thesis breaks down very rapidly because the truly massive credulities of psychic research the 'materialisation' phenomena were not championed by survivalists. Richet and Schrenck-Notzing for example were vehement materialists, as are two of the most important of today's champ ions of materialisation, George Zorab and Manfred Cassirier. Anyone reading either the original, or Miss Brandon's very amusing account of Bien Boa or the Miroir faces, can see that what took these investigators over the top was their pursuit of the scientific methods into areas where it was totally inapplicable, along with that common failing of sophisticated psychic researchers (and ufologists), a deep conviction that none of the lower orders could put anything over on the 'great professor'!
Unfortunately, Miss Brandon's distaste for her subject leads her into a number of factual errors (for example claiming that Leonora Piper the medium [left] died in 1919, when in fact she died in 1950!), and a tendency to wrench events and comments out of context. Coupled with the very heavy editorialising, and a tendency to 'guilt by association', these attitudes gradually begin to erode confidence in what she is saying. One example might suffice, returning to Mrs Piper, the most celebrated of the nineteenth century mental mediums.

During, the course of an interview with the New York Herald Piper indicated that she had no real idea of the source of her information, but preferred telepathy as an explanation, to spirits. The Herald ran a rather sensational headline, and Mrs P. later had an article in the Boston Advertiser, clarifying her position. This might seem to indicate an admirable open-mindedness, but Miss Brandon uses the word 'confession', and includes the story in a context of fraudulent mediums escaping through windows and the like. Significantly, both the context, and the contentious use of the word 'confession' come from Joseph Rinn's Searchlight on Psychical Research, a wildly inaccurate book published in 1953 by an earlier version of James Randi.

However, to Miss Brandon and other 'sceptics' the claims of magicians are as sacrosanct as the claims of a medium is to the true believers. Perish the thought that magicians might embellish their achievements as 'the man who fooled the physicists', or attempt to jump on publicity bandwagons.

The dialogues between Brian Inglis and Ruth Brandon which have appeared in New Scientist and elsewhere have generated as much heat and as little light as a dialogue between Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher. Inglis knows that it is all true and only vicious sceptics blinded by gross materialism, could deny it. Brandon knows it is all nonsense, and that only religious monomaniacs and credulous fools could accept it. Neither is prepared to concede that nothing is as simple as that. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 15, April 1984.

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