15.7.17

Social Histories of Spiritualism

Beth A. Robertson. Science of the Seance. UBC Press. (1 July 2017)

Beth A. Robertson resurrects the story of a group of men and women who sought to transform the seance into a laboratory of the spirits and a transnational empirical project. Her findings cast new light on how science, metaphysics, and the senses collided to inform gendered norms in the 1920s and '30s. She reveals a world inhabited, on one side, by psychical researchers who represented themselves as masters of the senses, untainted by the effeminized subjectivity of the body and, on the other, by mediums and ghostly subjects who could and did challenge the researchers' exclusive claims to scientific expertise and authority.

Stefan Bechtel. Through a Glass, Darkly. St. Martin's Press (13 July 2017)

After the American Civil War, while bodies still littered battlefields, the movement known as Spiritualism began to sweep across America as thousands of people, mostly from shock and grief, tried to make contact with the recently departed. The movement captivated Europe as well, especially England in the aftermath of the Great War and Great Influenza Epidemic. Prominent figures such as Charles Dickens, W.B. Yeats, and Queen Victoria were mesmerised. The movement's most famous spokesman was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Known to the world as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle underwent what many people at the time considered an enigmatic transformation, turning his back on the hyper-rational Holmes and plunging into the supernatural. 

What was it that convinced a brilliant man like Doyle, the creator of the great exemplar of cold, objective thought, that there was a reality beyond the reality? Why did professors, philosophers, statesmen and men of science like the great evolutionist Alfred Russell Wallace, the Novel-Laureate physiologist Charles Richet, and the distinguished chemist Sir William Crookes also become Spiritualists? Using the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a lens, Bechtel probes this largely unexplored movement, a movement rife with fraud but also full of genuine evidence that is difficult to dismiss. Expertly written and peppered with engaging anecdotes, Through a Glass, Darkly is a terrifically fun read.