on 13 June 2009
The latter part of the 19th Century was a time of despair and hopelessness for many. "We were all in the first flush of triumphant Darwinism, when terrene evolution had explained so much that men hardly cared to look beyond," wrote Frederic W. H. Myers, a Cambridge classical scholar and poet before becoming a pioneering psychical researcher.
As with so many other educated people, Myers, the son of a minister, had lost his faith, and life had become a march toward an abyss into nothingness. He recognized that there were many who were "willing to let earthly activities and pleasures gradually dissipate and obscure the larger hope" during life's death march, but, perhaps because he was a deep thinker, Myers was unable to effectively use the defense mechanism called repression to overcome his death anxiety and the concomitant fear of extinction.
Subtitled "FWH Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death," this book details the efforts of Myers and several of his colleagues to make sense out of various paranormal phenomena which seemed to suggest that the world is not totally mechanistic and that consciousness does survive physical death.
Although Professor William Barrett, a physicist, is recognized as the prime mover in setting up the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1882, he relinquished the leadership roles to Myers and his two Cambridge friends, Edmund Gurney, and Professor Henry Sidgwick. Their objective was to scientifically study the phenomena, including hypnotism, telepathy, multiple personalities, and mediumship, to see if they offered any evidence that mind was not totally dependent on brain and that there is something beyond the five sense. But they had to do it discreetly, cautiously, and indirectly. "To admit the literal reality of the ghost was to move back to the dark ages," author Trevor Hamilton explains their dilemma. There were simply too many "newly enlightened" people in the upper echelons of society who could not make a distinction between matters of the spirit and the superstitions of the church they had left behind and now scoffed at.
"It is too simple to represent Victorian England as a pious, fundamentalist land shaken by the advances of a materialistic and iconoclastic science," Hamilton states, pointing out that the census of 1851 revealed that well over five million people did not attend church on Sunday, March 30, 1851. However, it was clear, Hamilton adds, that the educated middle classes and upper-middle classes were emancipating themselves from their evangelical roots as a result of the scientific and scholarly advances. Darwinism might have been the crowning blow, but this emancipation had begun well before Darwin, during the "Age of Reason."
Drawing from Myers' diary, short autobiography written only for his friends, and other references, Hamilton explores Myers' early life and the influences which shaped his beliefs and disbeliefs. He acquaints us with his days at Cambridge, when he was called, "Myers the superb," and then discusses his conflicting love interests as well as other trials and tribulations. He tells how Myers hooked up with Gurney and Sidgwick and how the three intellectuals complemented each other in various ways - Myers often brash and assertive, Sidgwick reserved and cautious, Gurney meticulous and somewhere in between Myers and Sidgwick in his enthusiasm for their mission.
The SPR exposed many fraudulent mediums, although there is controversy over some of the exposures, including that of Madame Blavatsky. The mediumship of Eusapia Palladino was also very controversial, some members of the SPR convinced that she was a charlatan and other that she was a genuine medium, whereas the truth seems to be that she was a "mixed" medium - producing genuine phenomena at times and faking some at those times when her powers failed her. Theosophists, in the case of Blavatsky, and Spiritualists, in the case of various other mediums, argued that the researchers simply didn't understand the phenomena and were applying terrestrial science to celestial matters which they didn't understand.
As Hamilton sees it, Myers was caught in a Victorian dilemma. "One set of desires, the yearning for the immortal, spiritual universe, was opposed by another set, which was the wish for privacy and the hiding of any evidence that breached the unimpeachable façade of familial and moral behaviour," he writes. "His need to prove and even preach survival was counterbalanced by his reticence over intimate evidence."
That "intimate evidence" involved a number of evidential messages coming to him through different mediums from Annie Marshall, his great love of the early 1870s (although apparently a platonic affair because of her marriage to Myers' cousin). When Annie killed herself because of her many frustrations, Myers grieved deeply. When he later married the beautiful and wealthy Eveleen Tennant, their marriage was troubled somewhat because of Annie's communications with Myers from beyond the veil - communications which Myers kept private and were destroyed by his wife after his death in 1901.
Although not educated as a psychologist, Myers has been credited with developing a systematic conception of the subliminal self as well as a theory holding that telepathy is one of the basic laws of life. In fact, it was Myers who coined the word "telepathy," previously called "thought transference." As Hamilton points out, Myers seems to have been ahead of Freud in exploring the subconscious (which Myers preferred to call the subliminal), although their theories bore little resemblance to each other. When Freud joined the SPR in 1911, he wrote an article making it clear that Myers' "subliminal" was not the same as his "unconscious." Hamilton quotes Aldous Huxley as saying that Myers' "unconscious" was superior to Freud's in that it was more comprehensive and truer to the data of experience. How much Myers influenced Freud is not clear, but there is little doubt that Myers' ideas significantly influenced pioneering psychiatrist William James. And yet, because Myers dared see a soul hidden in the physical shell, he is hardly remembered in psychology circles today as the prevailing paradigm remains the Wundtian approach, which holds that the only things that make sense are those which can be scientifically measured and quantified.
Myers died in 1901, a victim of Bright's disease. William James wrote that "his serenity, in fact, his eagerness to go, and his extraordinary intellectual vitality up to the very time the death agony began, and even in the midst of it, were a superb spectacle and deeply impressed the doctors, as well as ourselves."
After Myers death in 1901, various mediums began receiving messages purportedly coming from him. Some of these messages were very fragmented and made no sense until they were collected and pieced together to make complete ideas. "The whole process seemed at times like a giant Victorian word game (anagrams, cryptic puzzles, strange puns and rhymes), of which, in fact, Myers and his colleagues...were inordinately fond," Hamilton explains These so-called "cross-correspondences" were interpreted by other researchers as attempts by Myers, as well as by Gurney and Sidgwick, both of whom preceded him in death, to overcome some of the objections to mediumship, including fraud and telepathy. "[They suggested] a high level of collective design and purpose, implying character, intention and personality," Hamilton states.
One message for Sidgwick's widow, Eleanor, who had been very active in the SPR, read, "Now, dear Mrs. Sidgwick, in future have no doubt or fear of so called death, as there is none."
Hamilton concludes the book by asking if Myers' quest had been successful. "In personal terms it was," he opines. ""He became convinced, on the basis of the intimate sittings he had with both Mrs. Piper and Mrs. Thompson, that he had communicated with human beings (however different their nature and post-mortem existence) who had survived bodily death. This belief was underpinned by his wide ranging reading and research in paranormal and abnormal activity across Europe and in the United States. It led to him bearing the onset of death with a kind of joyous resilience, almost even insouciance..."
On the other hand, Myers obviously failed in his wider hope of establishing immortality for the spiritually-challenged masses. While the search for immortality continues today, more than a hundred years later, the foundation established by Myers and his colleagues seems to be slowly but increasingly appreciated.
Hamilton offers us a very interesting, intriguing, informative, in-depth, and even inspirational look at one of history's most overlooked and unappreciated contributors.