The following article is not listed in Wesley Sweester’s A Bibliography of Arthur Machen. Therefore, it is a pleasure to bring forward this little-known piece. As usual, commentary and notes follow.
The Problem of Psychic Phenomena
July 16, 1917
What is certainty?
A few days ago a vast number of people were certain that we had got Ostend. I was buying a paper from my newsagent on the evening of that day. He said to me: “So we’ve got Ostend.” I said, “No.” I pointed out the paragraphs on the uppermost copy of the pile of Evening News on his counter. “There,” I said, “is what Haig, the Commander-in-Chief, says. We haven’t got Ostend. We’ve lost ground.”
He was unmoved. He said: “A gentleman who was in here just now told me he was in a position to know otherwise.”
So it was all over London; thousands of people, with the very despatch of General Haig in black and white before them, were certain that we had got Ostend.1
So other people a year or so ago were certain about those Russians who passed in their myriads through England, about those “Angels” who came to our assistance at Mons.2
So I agree with Dr. Mercier, author of “Spiritualism and Sir Oliver Lodge” (Mental Culture Enterprise) in one of his lines of argument.3 He is attacking the certainty of Sir Oliver Lodge4 with respect to communications supposed to have been received from the spirits of the dead; and he argues justly, I think, that we should examine our evidence very strictly before we can say that we are certain that this or that communication must have been delivered supernormally. Let him beware and consider whether his certitude have any surer foundation that the certitude of those who knew that Ostend was taken.
Dr. Mercier employs one line of argument that does not seem to me well-founded. He compares the wonders of Maskelyne and Devant with the wonders of the mediums, and says that the conjurers’ marvels are by far the more marvellous.5 But this comparison is not fair. Mr. Maskelyne worked on his own stage, confessedly with elaborate apparatus. The medium, I believe, will sometimes produce marvels—or apparent marvels—in a strange room, where he has never been before, where there are no trick cabinets, no cunning devices of mirrors. There were gentlemen of credit and honour who were “certain” that they saw Home the medium float out of one window of a room high in a Scottish castle and float in presently at another window.6 Probably they were mistaken, but the trick, if it were a trick, could not have been done by means of conjurers’ apparatus.
And here is another point on which, I think, Dr. Mercier has gone astray. So far as I understand, he discredits telepathy utterly and entirely. He holds it to be a swindle; he refuses to believe for a moment that one mind can communicate with another mind except by the ordinary material means. He is convinced that the telepathic experiments of the Society for Psychical Research were frauds, that various ingenious humbugs deceived the Researchers by means of pre-arranged codes.7
Well, Dr. Mercier may be right in the specific instances that he quotes, but are there not cases of telepathy on record where there was no pre-arranged experiment, no “agent” or “precipient” formally engaged no room for fraud of any kind?
It was only the other day that I was looking through Lockhart’s Life of Sir Walter Scott, and came upon a passage which, somehow, had escaped my notice on many previous readings.8
The case was this. Sir Walter was in the very height of his Abbotsford fever. He thought of nothing but the sham Gothic castle that he was building. His mind was full of the most trivial details about Abbotsford: the doors, the windows, the bell handles, the chairs, the tables, tablecloths. He ate, drank, thought and dreamed Abbotsford.
Well, Sir Walter, writing to his friend Terry the actor—a great helper and London agent in this mighty Abbotsford affair—laments the non-arrival of certain doors and windows, which a Mr. Bullock should have sent. He goes on to say:
The exposed state of my house has led to a mysterious disturbance. The night before last we were awaked by a violent noise, like drawing heavy boards along the new part of the house. I fancied something had fallen, and thought no more about it.
The noise was repeated on the following night. Mrs. Scott—this was before the baronetcy—was alarmed, and Mr. Scott says that he got up, but found nothing amiss.
And on the morning that Terry received the letter, he and another of the Scott circle were discussing the sudden death of George Bullock, which had occurred on the night, as nearly as could be ascertained, at the hour of the second disturbance at Abbotsford.
Here, then, is an astonishing thing. Bullock’s thoughts, like Sir Walter’s, were intent on these doors and windows for Abbotsford, which for some reason, had not been despatched. And, as it would seem, the thoughts of the sick and dying man about doors were translated and telephoned into the noise of the doors of the new house.
I confess I can make no theory out of the fact, but it does seem to me a fact that this extraordinary and supernormal transmission did take place. And in this case, it is clear, there was no room for any pre-arranged fraud, for any Morse code such as Dr. Mercier uses to explain all experiments in telepathy.
I have a doubt, indeed, whether Dr. Mercier is not himself subject to that vice of the mind with which he charges Sir Oliver Lodge and Spiritualists in general. The Spiritualist, he says, and I think with reason, enters into every investigation with the firm conviction that the table does move—that is, by a supernormal agency—and no demonstration will alter this conviction.
Very well: but it seems to me that Dr. Mercier goes into the debate with as strong a resolution that the table does not and cannot move by any supernormal agency, and, unless I am mistaken, no demonstration would alter his conviction.
This does not seem to me characteristic of the scientific—or, as I would say, the logical—habit of mind; and, with Dr. Mercier’s leave, his instances of the ancients and black swans is unfortunate for his cause. The ancients were wrong in denying the existence of black swans; and the root of their error lay in this, that they did not know the whole physical world. Australia was unknown to them. If Dr. Mercier will think of it, there may be psychic Australias, undiscovered continents of the soul.
I will write thus with the greater liberty, in that I am in cordial agreement with Dr. Mercier’s specific thesis: that the “revelations” and communications of “Raymond” are rubbish.9
Never one to miss a good debate, Arthur Machen inserts himself into quite an interesting topic for this article, first published in the Evening News. Skeptical of the claims and viewpoints of both parties, Machen delightfully takes shots at both Spiritualism and materialism by linking a common weakness. Yet, his contrariness is surprisingly fair to each.
For sure, Machen often made clear his opinion of seances and table-rapping. He stated in a volume of memoirs, The London Adventure (1924): “I have no belief in the art of necromancy; I do not think that the spirits of the dead can be conjured into a parlour by people sitting around a table in the dark—or in the light either.” However, he remained unimpressed with hardline rationalists such as our dear Dr. Mercier.
Ultimately, this article illustrates Machen’s interest in belief and its dependence upon certainty in the holder of that belief. A position of belief may be well-staked and defined by finely honed points, and therefore, masquerade as rational truth through the rubrics of logic. Or, it may have no other basis but hearsay abetting a listener’s deep wish fulfillment. And thus, we have Russians, Angels or a stunning victory in Ostend with no evidence, or in the last example, with evidence to the contrary.
Yet, curiously, Machen shows us the chink in his own armor. While he expertly wraps up the piece by weakening the psychologist’s front, his use of Sir Walter Scott and telepathy* seems to be of wild surmising, so therefore, it fails to convince. While admitting he has no theory, he hands us not proof, but a belief statement.
The subtitle of this article says it best. It is all a bit of a sticky wicket.
1 …we had got Ostend. For most of the Great War, Ostend, a Belgian coastal city, was held by the German military and used as a submarine base to the consternation of Great Britain. Field Marshal Douglas Haig (1861-1928) lead British forces in Europe for the last half of the conflict. His legacy as a commander is mixed among historians. Though there were Allied raids on Ostend, the Germans held it steadfastly until October 1918, the last month of the war.
2 Russians / Angels. During the first months of the war, rumors spread that a great Russian host had landed in Scotland to be transported south by rail through England with the intention to assist the British and French on the Western Front. According to Hayward: “From the outset the press treated the story with a degree of caution, and so the rumour was spread mostly by word of mouth.”** Machen often made mention of the discredited Russian legend when writing on the Angel of Mons affair in order to further insist on the latter’s status as an unproven myth. Machen believed that this later myth grew out the publication of his story The Bowmen (1914).
3 Dr. Charles Arthur Mercier (1851-1919). A distinguished British psychologist, Mercier did not believe in an afterlife, and became an outspoken critic of Spiritualist ideas. Among other books critical of the movement, he published Spiritualism and Sir Oliver Lodge (1917). Neither a Spiritualist nor a materialist, Machen uses this article as an opportunity to examine both perspectives.
4 Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge (1851-1940). Oliver Lodge developed a reputation as a great authority in the field of electromagnetism. Despite a hard scientific background, he owned a penchant for examining the claims of psychics and mediums. A believer, Lodge practiced as a Christian Spiritualist and wrote several volumes on the subject such as Survival of Man (1909). This brought him criticism from scientific circles, which accused Lodge of superstition. However, he enjoyed the support of a close friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For a time, Lodge served as president of the Society for Psychical Research.
5 Maskelyne / Devant. Stage magic runs in the Maskelyne clan for several generations, but likely, Machen is speaking of Nevil Maskelyne (1863-1924). David Devant (1868-1941) is considered by some to be the greatest English magician of the 20th Century. These two illusionists collaborated on a book together.
6 Home the medium… Scottish born Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886) became one of the most famous mediums of the 19th century and levitation was one of his big numbers. Machen cites an event which supposedly took place in 1867 with the following figures as witnesses: Windham Wyndham-Quin, 4th Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl; James Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford; and a certain Captain Wynne. It has been pointed out by at least one researcher that these three men’s versions of the event contain contradictions.
7 Society for Psychical Research. Established in 1882, the Society for Psychical Research remains the first and oldest active organization dedicated to studying paranormal phenomena. It has had many famous members such as William Crookes and Arthur Conan Doyle. Over the years, the SPR has received criticism from skeptics and believers alike for its research methods.
8 Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Most famous for being the author of Rob Roy (1817) and Ivanhoe (1819), Scott built a palatial home, Abbotsford, in his native Scotland. It is open to visitors.
9 Raymond. After losing a son to World War I, Lodge believed he had made contact with him, thanks to the assistance of mediums. He recorded the event in a bestseller, Raymond or Life and Death (1916). This would be his most famous contribution on the topic, but it failed to impress many figures… such as Mercier and Machen.
*Machen seemed to harbor a sympathy with the concept of telepathy, which this article reinforces. In The Terror (1917), a character states flatly: “Telepathy, you know, is well established; so is hypnotic suggestion.”
**Page 31: Myths & Legends of the First World War by James Hayward (Sutton Publishing, 2002).