The invention of telepathy

Roger Luckhurst, The Invention of Telepathy, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Roger Luckhurst’s study traces the development of the idea of telepathy in the context of fin de siecle culture. He argues that the development of psychical research was strongly influenced by the development of scientific modernity which crystallised around 1870, and which was replacing the old theistic world view. Two groups of people were attracted to psychical research; on the one hand were scientists like Alfred Wallace, William Crookes, Oliver Lodge and William Barrett who were representative of the rising new forces of provincial science and technology; on the other hand were the Cambridge classicists such as Myers, Sidgwick, Gurney and the Balfours.

For the scientists telepathy and allied phenomena were part and parcel of the seemingly endless supply of hardly understood forces and energies that Victorian science seemed to be revealing. Telepathy was part of what Luckhurst calls the tele-technologies, the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, etc. In this context it is hardly surprising that the plural of medium is media, or that the pioneers of the new tele-technologies such as Edison, Bell, Tesla and Marconi showed an interest in spiritualism. In this atmosphere the paranormal tele-technologies attracted a wide intellectual audience; at a seance you might encounter such luminaries as George Eliot or Charles Darwin.

Darwin was a prime candidate for spiritualist conversion, conflicted between his scientific beliefs and religious upbringing and deeply grieving for his favourite daughter, Annie. His rejection of the claims of mediums might be seen to mark a closing off of growing scientific interest.  Instead psychical research became dominated by the Anglican, Tory, classicists of the Cambridge circle of the SPR, who represented precisely those groups who were in the process of being displaced by the new culture of science. Their agenda was seen as essentially old fashioned, even reactionary in their own time; for example in their association of hypnosis with “magnetism” or harking back to the 1840s research of Baron Reichenbach on “odic force”.  Luckhurst then proceeds to examine the connection between psychical research and aspects of society and culture, ranging from imperialism to the "new woman", and its impact on literature, anthropology and psychology. He draws attention to works such as Phantasms of the Living as sources for Victorian social attitudes and experience ranging from colonial exile to the role of servants.

Today of course the new tele-technology of the mobile phone has replaced telepathy and the crisis apparition as destroyer of distance and bringer of last messages from the dying.  In limiting his attention to Britain perhaps Luckhurst loses some perspective, for example not tracing the ruling class's domestication of spiritualism, from its early association with radical dissent and progressive causes including free love, to establishment respectability, the apogee of which might have been the expulsion of the lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall and her lover Una Trowbridge from the council of the SPR for sexual deviation.

The SPR's main concern through much of its life was the exclusion of the “lower orders" through high membership fees (little has changed in 120 years). In the closing chapter Luckhurst traces the threads through to the twentieth century; for example he looks at the famous SPR cross correspondence as anticipating radical deconstructionist trends in art and science, a sort of literary collage of hidden allusions and meanings.  This not always an easy book and at times falls into “literary studies” jargon, and the price is clearly as off putting as an SPR subscription, but worth making the effort, whether you agree with the author or not. -- Review by Peter Rogerson from Magonia Supplement 46, March 2003

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