Thursday, February 10, 2011

Boo: Mediums and Mysteries

What wonders hath science begot! Men on the moon! Horseless carriages! The telephone! The photograph! Drugs that eradicate all infection! The mystery of the building blocks of life itself solved! Weapons powerful enough to destroy an entire city!

Oh. Wait.

One of the odder things that came into being in the 19th century was the nearly one-hundred year long craze for spiritualism. Begun during the Second Great Awakening in New York State, the Fox sisters claimed they could communicate with those who had "passed over" to the other side. They conducted seances in which (supposed) loved ones of those present communicated by banging and rapping and moving objects and speaking through one of the ladies who acted as a Medium.

I don't think Spiritualism could have come into being without the concurrent advances in science - proponents of the movement weren't conservative - quite the contrary - they were more likely to be abolitionists and believers in women's suffrage. That is to say: Progressives. If germs suddenly existed, if the images of the world around us could be captured forever by using light and glass, why not the spirits of the dead? Why not indeed? How different would that be from that wonder we call the telephone?

Unfortunately, many (I'm being kind. More likely "most", or even "all") Mediums were frauds, and often cruel ones, praying on the grief stricken who would do or pay anything to speak once again with their dead children or spouses or parents. Probably the most famous debunker of faking Mediums was legendary escape artist Harry Houdini. A couple of months ago, Inamorato, his delightful spawn and I, all trekked up to The Jewish Museum to see their wonderful Houdini Exhibit (through March 27), and they had some of his interesting anti-Spiritualist material on display including his faked Spirit Pictures.

As with almost everything else, my first introduction to Mediums and Spritualism was through the writing of Agatha Christie. One of the first books of hers I read was The Tuesday Club Murders, a series of Miss Marple short stories connected via a framing device. It's always been one of my favorites. One of the stories, "Motive vs. Opportunity" stars what may be my first literary medium, Euridyce Spragg. It's not a murder mystery, but a question of a will (in fact, the book was first published under the title The Thirteen Problems). Miss Spragg has wormed her way into the home of the old and vulnerable (and extremely rich) Simon Clode, by conducting a series of seances in which he can hear the voice of his beloved daughter who died when she was a child.

Christie paints Miss Sprague as a complete fraud. One thing that seems pretty consistant in the portrayals of mediums in the popular fiction of the 20th century (and I've read a lot of it) is that they are viewed as a bunch of crass, avaricious social climbers. Issues of class in Christie's books are always extremely dicey for the modern reader as her views aren't exactly progressive. But she really doesn't like Spiritualists and paints them as being cruel parasites who prey upon the bereaved and alienate their affections for their (living) family members - who in Christie's defense, she also paints as being greedy.

Which is interesting only in that Christie also leaves room for the mystical in her writing. She was a devout Christian and I think the idea that some random person could find the key to the infinite via something so silly as a séance was something she found ludicrous. In other books and stories the other group of people who believe in seances are silly old people with too much time on their hands. In one case (as so little in a Christie mystery goes to waste) supposed ectoplasm coming out of someone's mouth was a major clue. It was a pretty common Christie trick to have the most important information be offered by the silliest and most unreliable of her characters.

Also written in the 1920s, E.F. Benson's book, Lucia in London, the fraudulent medium is mostly played for laughs. The residents of Riceholme become avid fans of "automatic writing", assisted by a spirit guide named Abfou, and get duped and taken by Olga, a very competent con artist. In an earlier book they were all taken in by a guru who turned out to be a curry cook. Benson will be featured in a later post, but he was a great popular writer who has fallen into an unjust obscurity. His Lucia books make fun of the gullible leisure class and are completely hilarious, but he is also one of the greatest writers of ghost stories.

It's interesting to note how after a solid few decades of pure reason, ghosts and the spirit world are one again in vogue, and once again the pathway to the infinite is forged by the trappings of science (as opposed to, like, actual science). Any watcher of basic cable knows the popularity of ghost oriented shows. In Ghost Hunters, a group of young "experts" walk around the haunted tourist destination of the week, recording ambient sound and taking night vision pictures and jumping at noises. TV is full of these shows and they're all incredibly entertaining, but no more real than the ladies in their drawing rooms with clackers taped to their thighs.

Please take a look at the January edition of the Agatha Christie Blog Carnival.


FilmGabwithWerth&Wise said...

One of the big figures in the pro-spiritualist movement was none other than Arthur Conan Doyle. Miss Marple and Holmes could have had a seance throwdown

Caviglia said...

Yes, I knew that, actually. So was Andrew Lang - he and Doyle were friends, I believe.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I always find late 19th/early 20th century spiritualism just, like, mesmerizingly (ha!) weird. The sudden emergence of what's basically shamanism in the midst of progressive circles, complete with elaborate Guignol stagecraft makes the relatively recent past seem so profoundly far away.

Not that it really is, of course. Did you read Hilary Mantel's "Beyond Black"? About a modern spiritualist, but because it's a Hilary Mantel book, she really is in touch with spirits of the dead, just not the ones she claims to speak for. Rather than audience members loved ones, they're the pack of horrible brutish louts who surrounded the protagonist in childhood, and are spending their afterlife being as mean, lazy, stupid, boring, cruel and drunk as they were in life.