Sunday, September 25, 2005

Daniel Dunglas Home Deconstructed, Reconstructed

Oliver Kamm is a political scholar and columnist for the Times of London. In a recent article for that paper, "Knock, knock -- is there anyone there who believes this twaddle?" he stepped out of his normal realm. The piece was a diatribe against "popular irrationalism," under which he included everything from alternative medicine to The Da Vinci Code to "communication with the spirit realm."

What wound him up in particular was a newly published biography of Daniel Dunglas Home:
Spiritualism has ... suddenly and surprisingly found a serious chronicler. He is Peter Lamont, whose biography of the Victorian medium, Daniel Dunglas Home, The First Psychic, was published last week. This volume is respectful to its subject almost to the point of hagiography, in a field owing its very existence to admitted fraud. (The first mediums, Kate and Margaret Fox, of Buffalo, New York, produced mysterious rapping and knocks by trickery as a prank to frighten their mother, as Margaret confessed 40 years later in 1888.) In his lifetime, Home was credited among other gifts with the power of levitation: he was reported at one seance to have floated out of a third-floor window and returned by the same route. But his enduring memorial is to have been mercilessly satirised by Robert Browning in Mr Sludge, “The Medium”:
Now, don’t, sir! Don’t expose me!
Just this once! This was the first and only time, I’ll swear,
Look at me, — see, I kneel, — the only time,
I swear, I ever cheated.
Kamm is no fool. His political essays are thoughtful and lucid, displaying no small learning. Although a leftist and supporter of Britain's Labour Party, he will have no business with the anti-American, Israel-hating crackpots who dominate his side of the ideological spectrum today. If there were more like him, "liberal" would not be a curse word in the minds of so many.

It is hard to undertand, then, why he has taken on a subject about which he knows nothing and, apparently, wants to know nothing.

Daniel Dunglas Home (pronounced, incidentally, "Hume" in the Scottish fashion) was the most remarkable physical medium of all time, at least that we know of. The late Brian Inglis wrote of him:
[His] record as a psychic remains unparalled, not just for what he could do through his agency -- or, as he always insisted, what the spirit forces could do through his agency -- but for the way he did it, and for the extraordinary range of testimony about the things he did from America, Britain and may European countries. They were witnessed on hundreds of occasions by kings and conjurors, scientists and socialites, priests and policemen; and although among the witnesses there were many who would have been delighted to trip him -- often they came to seances with that very much in mind -- he was never [emphasis mine] detected in any trickery.
The testimony is such that if it described a skill of which man might be naturally capable, it could not for a moment be questioned. But in Home's case, what happened was often so weird, so unbelievable, that with few exceptions only those who were actually witnesses could bring themselves to believe it, and influential though they were, they could not establish its credibility. Yet on the 'as if' assumption -- that is, the assumption that such manifestations can occur -- the evidence for them provided the most comprehensive and convincing dossier there had ever been.
Mary Rose Barrington, in Psychical Research: A Guide to Its History, Principles & Practices (Ivor Grattan-Guiness, ed.; out of print; sorry, no link) wrote:
Unlike most physical mediums, and especially the fraudulent ones, Home preferred to demonstrate his powers in well-lit conditions, even though light had an attenuating effect. [Sir William] Crookes told how Home said: 'Take every precaution you can devise against me ... I know that the more carefully I am tested the more convinced everyone will be that these abnormal occurrences are not of my own doings'. ...

Addressing a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1894, Crookes recalled some of the dramas he had witnessed, starting with the 'fire test'. Crookes said: 'I once saw him go to a bright wood fire, and, taking a large piece of red-hot charcoal, put it in the hollow of one hand, and covering it with the other hand, blew into the extempore furnace till the coal was white hot and the flames licked around his fingers'. ... One one occasion, Crookes said: 'I was invited to come to him, when he rose 18 inches off the ground, and I passed my hands under his feet, round him, and over his head when he was in the air'. He recalled a sitting (on 30 July 1871) when a glass water bottle and a tumbler rose into the air and floated from one sitter to another, tapping out answers to questions. At this same sitting Home rose slowly six inches into the air and remained there about ten seconds, and the accordion played floating by itself in the air.
Kamm would presumably dismiss Sir William Crookes as a gullible, unscientific witness fallen prey to "popular irrationalism." Sir William, a chemist by training, discovered the element thallium in 1861 and cathode rays (without which, until recently, you could not have watched TV) in 1876. Renee Haynes, in a 1982 book on the SPR, published on its then-100th anniversary, added that Sir William "invented the radiometer and the spintharoscope (which counted the alpha rays emitted by radium) and was the first man to have his house lit by electricity -- he made the bulbs himself. ... Crookes described various tests he carried out -- electrical, mechanical and otherwise -- and said he had personally seen Home levitate three times, that there were many good witnesses to other instances, and stated categorically that certain occurrences such as the movement of material substances and the production of sounds resembling electrical discharges recur under circumstances in which they cannot be explained by any physical law at present known. 'I am certain. My whole scientific education has been one long lesson in exactness of observation.'" Sir William became the president of the Royal Society in 1913.

William Thackeray attended seances with Home in New York and in London. According to Inglis, "When some scientific men reproached him for printing [an article about mediumistic manifestations], Thackeray had replied, 'It is all very well for you, who have probably never seen any spiritual manifestations, to talk as you do; but had you seen what I have witnessed, you would hold a different opinion'; and he had gone on to describe how in circumstances where trickery was impossible he had seen a large and heavy dinner table, covered with decanters, glasses and dishes, rise two feet off the ground. Nobody who had read Vanity Fair or its successors could regard Thackeray as a man easily imposed upon; Home himself, at the end of his career, named him as the most sceptical man he had ever met."

Oliver Kamm dismisses all this, not to mention vast quantities of additional evidence gathered over more than a century of research in psychical phenomena. He writes, "On the only important question of Home’s life — were his feats genuine? — Lamont piles up artful caveats before concluding lamely that 'we do not always know what is going on . . . perhaps we will never know for certain'."

I have not read Lamont's book, and with no context supplied for the quotation, it is hard to know what to make of his remark. I suspect, though, that if the biography is at all fair-minded, he is not questioning the genuineness of the phenomena Home produced, but acknowledging that we don't understand how they occurred or what they mean.

It is quite true that, as Kamm says, the history of psychical research has revealed a great deal of fraud and humbug -- a fact that every serious psychical researcher acknowledges and deeply regrets. (Of course, there have never been any frauds among the political class; a good thing, or Kamm would have no legitimate matter for his essays.) But it is equally true that telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis and the like have been demonstrated hundreds of times under rigorous laboratory conditions, and that mediumship -- while somewhat more controversial, even among parapsychologists -- has been thoroughly investigated by scientifically qualified researchers who have been convinced that, even when all the dubious cases are ruled out, something real and paranormal is happening. (So much for Kamm's ridiculous claim that "Spiritualism [a word he uses wrongly in lieu of psychical phenomena] has ... suddenly and surprisingly found a serious chroncler." The "sudden" chronicling has been going on since the days of Kamm's great-grandfather. Check out some of the links at right under the "Psychic/Spiritual" heading to consider the evidence.)

As to Kamm, I surmise that, under the spell of his undoubtedly highly developed left-brain, cognitive ability, he -- like so many others who worship rationality -- cannot admit that there are other dimensions of consciousness. He equates the non-rational with the irrational. And he thus escapes what William James called "the greatest pain in the world, the pain of a new idea."

The world of pure rationality can be neatly categorized and verbalized, which makes it greatly appealing to so many of the modern intelligentsia who live and move and have their being in a sealed compartment where concepts define reality. But reason by itself is no more than a tool -- important in its own sphere -- that has many practical uses but is inadequate to experience or express the full extent of our being. Limiting the potential of mind to logical manipulation of words, such people are shut off from the sense of the numinous, the mystery of things, wonder. As Lama Anagarika Govinda wrote:
... Knowledge decreases or loses its importance if the sense of wonder has disappeared. People who have lost this faculty are empty and shallow, and their teachings are platitudes in spite of their scientific vocabulary and their pseudophilosophical detachment which sails under the flag of logic and objectivity. A philosophy or religion which tries to deprive man of his inborn sense of wonder by attempting to explain everything or by rejecting everything that cannot be explained, is nothing but an artificial construction of the intellect, and as such it will never be able to influence or to direct life, but will only impede it. It is a blind alley, a river that disappears into the sand. For it is not the business of philosophy, nor that of religion, to explain the world, but to give it depth and meaning and -- most important of all -- to clarify man's position in it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Under this link:
Story from the facts. Russian friend of Daniel Gunglas Home.
Text: english/finnish