Farrago of Fraud and Fancy


An Essay
Robert Hugh Benson
The Dublin Review (1909)

Modern Spiritism.
By Godfrey Raupert. Sands & Co.

The Dangers of Modern Spiritualism. By the same.
The Unseen World. Lepicier. Kegan Paul.
Sermons on Modern Spiritualism. Miller. Kegan Paul.
Hypnotism and Spiritism. Lapponi. Chapman & Hall.

R-H-Benson-Oct-1912There are two courses of action open to those whose desire it is to combat a growing evil; the one is to ignore it, to silence its discussion, to refer to it, when reference is unavoidable, with terse condemnation, and all with the intention of starving or stifling even the common knowledge of the evil; the second, to pull it into the open, to invite discussion, to expose its deformities. Each has its disadvantages, each its advantages; the first method at least keeps the matter to some extent from the knowledge of the ignorant; the second makes plain its horrors: but the first permits the poison to spread without its antidote; and the second attracts the attention of some who might otherwise not even have had the temptation brought before them at all.

It is all, then, a matter of degree. No one wishes to discuss publicly, even with the best intentions, the morbid obscurities of nameless crimes; no one desires to stifle discussion—let us say—on disobedience to parents. Somewhere between two such extremities, therefore, comes the line (on which it is often exceedingly hard to decide) at which a growing evil can no more be ignored, but demands public inquiry and dissection, even at the risk of spreading the knowledge of its possibilities.

Now, until recently, in the opinion of many judges, spiritualism—emphatically an evil, of course, in the eyes of Catholics—was best treated with silence, if possible, or at the worst with a sharp word or two. The thing was comparatively unknown amongst Catholics—except to those who either by duty or chance became acquainted with it. And those—beyond the experts—who paid any attention to it at all, usually dismissed it as a farrago of fraud and fancy, with certain obscure dangers only half perceived. While such was the case probably silence was its best treatment.

But it is impossible for those who know anything of the state of affairs with regard to spiritualism at the present time to acquiesce any longer in an assumption that it is a negligible danger. Not only amongst non-Catholics is the subject coming more and more into notice, to such an extent that at the present day it is possible to reckon up without hesitation at least half a dozen names of eminent scientists who consider it worthy, at any rate, of serious consideration, and of more than one who accepts the spiritualistic theories; but even amongst certain kinds of ill-instructed Catholics, it is making amazing and even disastrous progress. Probably there are not many London priests—still fewer priests in one or two of the great northern towns—who have not to deplore losses to the Church among their own flocks, attributable almost wholly to this cause.

Another symptom of this growing feeling that the subject will have to be faced openly, lies in the number of books recently issued in England dealing with the matter, written by persons qualified to know, on whom can rest no sort of suspicion of sensationalism—persons who, writing as priests or Catholic experts, desire only to warn Catholics against what is becoming, more and more, every month that goes by, a real menace to faith. One such expert has stated on more than one occasion that in his opinion the enemy to be faced in the future is no longer the old materialism of twenty years ago, since that has been practically ousted by psychical research, but by one of the elements of that which has ousted it—spiritualism itself.

How then stands the matter at the present time?

First, it must honestly be stated that the society best known in this field of research—the Psychical Research Society—is not in the least officially convinced of the objective nature of the phenomena—convinced, that is to say, in the same sense in which it is convinced of the truth of telepathy. But when that has been stated it must, again, in fairness be added, that there are a good many qualifying things to be said, which diminish the force of this argument.

First, several of the most eminent of that Society are personally convinced that Spiritualistic research has made one fact at least, certain, viz., their objective external intelligences beyond those of the others are necessary to the explanation of certain undoubted phenomena.

Next, that the Society as a whole, has not yet relinquished research in this direction. Experiments are still in progress on the point.

Further, it must be remembered that if the spiritualistic explanation—or even the Catholic for that matter—is the true one, the methods employed by the Psychical Research Society are almost bound, unhappily, to defeat their own object. For it is said by Spiritualists that a certain passivity of mind, if not active faith, is necessary to the production of phenomena—a parallel up to a certain point to the Christian claim with regard to miracles. And it is humanly speaking impossible for severe-minded scientists to combine this attitude of passive readiness to believe with their attitude of impartial, unconvinced research, which is the very keynote of the scientific mind. It was pointed out to Professor Huxley some years ago, that his challenge to select two wards in a hospital, to pray for the patients in one and to omit prayer for the others, and thus to test the efficacy of prayer, was in direct contravention to the very conditions on which efficacious prayer professedly rests. It must be remembered, then, in justice to those who hold Spiritualistic views, that the conditions generally demanded by scientists are exactly those under which, on the Spiritualistic explanation, phenomena will not be forthcoming. Mr Chesterton, in a slightly different connexion, has drawn out this point with his usual vividness. If it is asked, he said, whether it be a scientific fact that angry persons see red, it is a little unreasonable to object to the evidence given by angry persons, on the ground that they were angry!

In our brief examination, then, of spiritualism at the present day it is necessary to understand, as sympathetically as possible, the attitude of those who support the movement, before proceeding to give the Catholic view of the matter.

First, then, let it be said that the emotion that has given rise to the movement is one with which every Christian, and, indeed, every man who believes in the immortality of the soul and the endurance of human love, is bound to be in sympathy. It is no less than the perfectly human and natural desire to be reassured that souls survive what is known as death, and to receive, if possible, revelations or at least spiritual teachings from those who ought to be best qualified to give them. And it must be added, that no one who has had the opportunity of talking with spiritualists can possibly doubt that in the vast majority of cases of those who embrace these practices and even persevere in them, there is no other motive than this, no insincerity, no conscious fraud, no sinister purpose at all.

And the claim of the spiritualist is that by the mercy of God this legitimate desire can be met; that under certain circumstances souls can revisit the earth, clothed even in the appearance of the bodily form that they wore on earth; and that those still “on this side” can satisfy themselves by the evidence of the senses, as well as by private and indisputable tests that those who thus communicate, whether visible or not, whether in their proper appearances, or manifesting themselves through other means, are the persons they profess to be. Further, they claim that, for the most part, if proper precautions are observed, the spiritual teachings received in this manner are of a high and ennobling character, that no injury is done to the seekers, moral, mental or physical, and that thousands of persons have had faith in immortality given back to them in this manner, and their lives spiritualized.

As to the spiritualistic explanation of the method by which this is accomplished, a few technical words are required.

There is, it is said, in human beings a certain substance known as “astral matter.” This astral matter, which all possess, but which some, known as “mediums,” can project with exceptional ease, is a substance midway between physical matter and spirit. It is of a highly etherealized nature, but can be, so to speak, condensed into visible and even tangible form. In the most advanced phenomena—known as “materialization”—the soul revisiting the earth, drawn there by the human attraction of its relatives, or by desire, or by chance, avails itself of this “astral matter,” drawn chiefly from the body of the medium, but partly also, occasionally, from all or some of those present, and moulds it into a replica of the body it wore on earth. It depends on certain psychical circumstances as to how far this “materialization” can go. Sometimes it is invisible to the eye, but visible to the photographic lens, just as are certain rays of light or immeasurably distant stars. Sometimes it is visible to the human eye as a faintly developed mist, or nebula; sometimes as a bodily form; sometimes it reaches such a degree of condensation as to be capable of being grasped and handled.

Of less sensational phenomena there are very many—the appearance of lights, sounds, the movement of physical objects; but the commonest of all is that of communications made either through the mouth of a “medium” while in a trance state, or through the writing of his hand by means of an instrument known as a planchette—a small, heart-shaped tablet on wheels, pierced by a pencil—or merely by a pencil placed in his fingers. The value of these communications, of course, is chiefly to be tested by their correspondence with knowledge known to the enquirers, unknown to the medium.

Round this group of beliefs there has gathered now what is practically a new religion, and, for the most part, a religion that is not Christian in the usual sense of the term. In the North of England, for example, the organization of spiritualism has reached such a point that buildings are set apart for spiritualistic worship, hymn-books are issued, and Sunday-schools developed. The name of “Christian” is, of course, claimed, as it is claimed also by many Unitarians; but no more is meant by it than that the name of Jesus Christ, is treated with respect as of one who was, perhaps, the greatest moral teacher and martyr ever known, and that His ethical code is on the whole considered the highest known to man. As to the manner in which His personality is interpreted it is, perhaps, enough to say that He is called by spiritualists one of the greatest mediums ever known, and that His appearances after the Resurrection are explained by the spiritualistic theory. The writer of this article was told, ten years ago, by a clergyman in Yorkshire, that the reason given by the young men of his parish for not attending church was that, “the spirits had told them that Jesus Christ was not God.”

Now the teaching of theologians on the subject of spiritualistic phenomena has been absolutely clear, for years before the movement had reached anything like the proportions to which it has since attained. And it is remarkable how this very teaching—up to the point, at any rate, of the possibility of physical phenomena emanating from discarnate personalities—though loudly derided not only by persons who delight to call themselves sensible, but by the scientists of thirty, or even twenty, years ago, now is fully endorsed by many representatives of science at the present day. It has always been taught by the Church, and by believers under the Old Law, that the spiritual world was so real and accessible a thing that communications from it, even in tangible form, were possible events. Further, that, by divine permission, discarnate personalities of that world could so enter into and possess inhabitants of this, that while the mouth that spoke was human and of this world, the intelligence behind it was neither.

It is a little lamentable, therefore, to hear, as one so often does hear, from Catholics, and even from priests, mere incredulity expressed whenever the subject of spiritualistic phenomena is mentioned. It is perfectly true that there have been numerous frauds in connexion with this movement, that in the portmanteau of an eminent medium or two strangely significant beards and muslin robes have been discovered, that fraud, in short, has been so common that even a careful writer like Mr H. G. Wells has been able to draw the figure of the medium “Chaffery” as typical of his class; that human credulity is almost unfathomable, that evidence of the identity of a spirit-form has been accepted which, in a matter of giving a salutation in the street, would be rejected as insufficient. Yet, all that multiplied a hundredfold, does not justify Catholics, whose belief in the reality of the spiritual world as well as its intercommunion with this is the very rock-bed of their faith, in dismissing as mere hysteria and nonsense that which not only materialistically inclined scientists consider important evidence, but which their own theologians take very seriously indeed.

The first point, then, of the Catholic view is this—that it is fully within the bounds of possibility—that is, of Divine permission—that discarnate intelligences from the spiritual world can, indeed, manifest themselves in exactly those ways in which spiritualists maintain that they do manifest themselves. We may or may not accept in this or that incident the evidence offered to us; but we have no a priori principle against the main fact at all. The New Testament, the Lives of the Saints, the tradition of the Church, the very Ritual she places in her priests’ hands, assert over and over again that some, at least, of the phenomena alleged by spiritualists not only can, but do, historically happen.

The second point, therefore, in the Catholic view, is that on which, the Church parts company with the spiritualists—the point, in fact, on which she bases her complete and final denunciation of those practices which at first sight appear so harmless and even edifying. That point concerns the identity and the nature of those personalities (who whether in this or that incident rightly or wrongly) are claimed as the agents of the phenomena. But before we come to that it is necessary to say a word or two as to the affair of the “astral matter.”

It is exceedingly difficult to say whether or no the mind of the Church is formed at all as to this point. It is possible, I think, to deduce arguments both for and against its possibility from the writings of theologians. It seems safe, however, to say that no Catholic could possibly fall under any censure for believing privately that such a substance as that indicated by this ridiculous title, is to be found in the human constitution, and is the matter by which those appearances are brought about. It is not, however, at all vital on either side. Catholics believe, at any rate, that it is within the power of discarnate personalities to affect and use physical matter in their work; it is the affair of psychical students rather than of theologians to decide as to the possibilities of the precise methods followed.

Now, as to the nature and identity of the personalities believed to communicate in these various ways, dogmatic theology is explicit. We are taught that, except in extraordinary instances where an adequate need is served by the revisit of a soul to earth, all such phenomena as those put forward in spiritualistic seances are to be attributed to the work of demons. This seems at first sight a startling conclusion. Let us examine its grounds.

The main reason, final, indeed, to all who accept historical Christianity as Divine Revelation, though quite beside the mark to those who do not, is the undoubted fact that spiritualism, sooner or later, so far as it touches upon dogma, leads to a denial of the fundamental clauses of the Christian creed. I say “sooner or later,” because it is perfectly true that enquirers are at first usually encouraged to persevere in the practice of their religion. (In fact it is this very thing that gives more reason to the Catholic for suspecting diabolical influence at work, since it is precisely the plan that would naturally be followed by any anti-Christian intelligence. Men very rarely lose their religion through direct assault and denial. They lose it far more commonly by a gradual process in which no considerable shock finds a place.) The experience of enquirers is practically unanimous; at the beginning none, or few, messages are received irreconcilable with Christianity: the seekers are bidden to pray, to sing hymns in the seance room itself, and to practise their religion outside of it. Then, little by little, what is called “higher light” is vouchsafed, Christian doctrines are slighted or “explained,” until, finally, only a kind of Theism of the vaguest sort remains—a Theism that has, in only too many cases, no bearing whatever even upon ordinary mortality.

This deterioration of morals is a second reason for suspecting the intelligences at work to be actually diabolical; and it is a reason that should appeal, not to Catholics only, but to all who believe in Christian morality at all. In this process the same method appears to be followed as that just described. It is exceedingly gradual and—a further point—it is, so to speak, influential rather than dogmatic. It is not, as a rule, that immoral tenets are taught, but that the character of the proselyte itself deteriorates, and this is a fact that occasionally even Spiritualists themselves admit with sorrow. Above all is this so with regard to the mediums themselves. I am aware that a general accusation of this kind ought not to be made without references; yet it is, of course, exactly one of those matters in which references cannot be given. But, I hasten to say that I do not mean for an instant that there are not many mediums and Spiritualists whose morals are above reproach; only that these happen to be persons whose characters are strong enough to resist the influence that undoubtedly is found at work in these surroundings.

For of the fact of this unhappy tendency there is, among those that have studied the phenomena at first hand, practically no doubt at all. Not only does this deterioration take place, unless extraordinary precautions and safeguards are preserved, but it reaches a point sometimes—if human evidence is worth anything—which is simply indescribable. Neither are these dangers merely mental in their action; it is common knowledge that certain phenomena take place, that suggestions are made, and that physical events occur, in extreme cases, which ought not, in detail, under any circumstances, to be given to the public. The writer of this article is acquainted with two cases at least which, while no directly moral evil was connected with the facts, yet present such revolting characteristics as to leave no doubt of the point of degradation to which such investigations were leading.

A third reason, closely akin probably to the preceding, is the bad effect upon the nervous constitutions and mental powers of those who engage in Spiritualistic practices. Some writers on this subject have gone so far as to say that it is the exception to find Spiritualists of long standing who have not suffered ill effects of this kind; and that actual insanity is very far from being an uncommon result sooner or later. Certainly these effects, so far as they exist, may be attributed by the incredulous to the evident and continuous strain upon the imagination demanded by such investigations; yet it is none the less true that the Catholic theory provides an equally adequate explanation. Certainly the argument goes far to show that, whether or no it is necessary to postulate discarnate intelligences at work, at least that such practices are unnatural and harmful.

A fourth reason is found in the enormous amount of fraud, both extrinsic and intrinsic, that seems so inevitably wedded to Spiritualism. There is first the extrinsic fraud—the actual deceptions used by mediums, whether consciously or unconsciously, in order to produce phenomena. It is not, perhaps, a very strong argument to remind those interested in the subject of the mechanical devices discovered in the possession of mediums, or of the deliberate tricks that have been exposed. It is more significant to remember that in very many instances, some of them quite recent and quite notorious, it was decided by experts that the medium, again and again, when phenomena were not forthcoming, used unconsciously—or, perhaps, it would be better to say, subconsciously—extreme muscular dexterity in order to simulate them.

But the cases of intrinsic fraud are more significant still—and by intrinsic fraud I mean deceptions used in cases where it was acknowledged by those present that discarnate intelligences were actually at work. For illustrations of this branch of fraud I cannot do better than refer those interested in the subject to some of the books named above; but, in brief, the characteristic of them is that the personality claiming to be identical with some deceased human individual has, at a certain point in his examination, utterly broken down in the tests offered, and has been shown to have got up the history of his model with considerable care, yet not with care enough. Certainly these facts may find their explanation in the deliberate fraud of the medium himself; yet once more, it is equally true that, granted the presence of discarnate intelligences, they cast a very lurid light upon the nature and aim of these beings.

A fifth reason is to be found in the amazingly foolish and spiteful tricks purporting to emanate from spiritualized beings, whose sole object, we are told, is the illumination and the ennobling of those who seek their aid. Here again the Spiritualists themselves confess the fact with lamentations. They tell us that sometimes, in spite of all precautions, intelligences of a lower order force their way in where they are not wanted; and they refer us with pride, as a counterbalance, to the noble sentiments uttered on other occasions. Yet when we turn to these “spiritual” teachings, even at their best, we find that they never transcend for a single moment, and, for the most part, seldom ever approach, for spirituality or ascetic knowledge, even the most trite maxims of recognized spiritual writers still “on this side.” Lapponi, indeed, states with the utmost deliberation that never, in the whole course of his spiritualistic studies, has he come across a single statement, spiritual, dogmatic, historical or scientific, of any value at all, beyond those that are within the reach of any ordinarily intelligent person. Indeed, his veiled challenge is a very strong one indeed. Let all the Spiritualists together, he says in effect, reveal to us through their heavenly helpers, one single scientific fact not yet known to us, yet capable of verification, and we will take their claim more seriously.

Sixthly, there are a number of further more directly theological reasons for the Church’s attitude on the matter on which I do not now propose to enter, for they would bear very little with those who, on other grounds, are convinced of the truth of the Spiritualistic claim. They are concerned rather with what we are taught of the spiritual world itself, and of the occupation of its inhabitants; but they can be summed up, more or less, in the statement that all the intelligent beings who inhabit that world—with the exception of one department—are better employed than in deceiving, or playing tricks or, at the best, echoing religious sentiments, round drawing-room tables.

So far we have discussed, very shortly, three theories in explanation of the phenomena known as Spiritualistic. The first is that usually professed by those who know nothing whatever about the subject—to the effect that the whole thing is a matter of fraud, hysteria and exaggeration. Their main ground for this is one which, as we have seen, is not open to Catholics—viz., that inhabitants of the spiritual world cannot possibly communicate with the inhabitants of this, neither by physical appearance nor by the obsession or possession of human personalities. The second and the third are respectively the beliefs held by Spiritualists and Catholics—the former, that the personalities that manifest themselves are human though discarnate, and, on the whole, benevolent and beneficent; the latter, that the personalities are objective indeed, and discarnate, but inhuman, diabolical and malevolent.

There remains a fourth theory which must be discussed, although very shortly and inadequately. It is to the effect that all the personal manifestations at present proved to have undoubtedly taken place, rise from certain powers in human nature of which, at present, we know very little; and that objective, extrinsic, discarnate personalities are not necessary to the explanation of such phenomena.

Very briefly the argument of those who hold this view, is as follows:

It is becoming increasingly clear, they say, that the science of psychology is still only in its infancy, yet in that infancy, what amazing powers have made themselves felt! A hundred years ago hypnotism itself stood very much in the same position as Spiritualism to-day. It was believed by some to be a matter of mere fraud and pretence, by some to savour of diabolical agencies. We know now that it is merely a perfectly natural effect of a perfectly natural power. Telepathy, again, has come to be established at last as a practically undoubted fact, and has shown itself to be within the reach not only of saints and experts, but of the most ordinary kind of person. So, too, they say, is the case with clairvoyance, clairaudience and the rest. If human nature, then, has only recently been found to contain powers, which it must have held ever since its origin—since phenomenon after phenomenon has gradually been brought within its scope, is it not exceedingly likely that these further phenomena, even to the production of lights, sounds and physical appearances, may also be classed with the rest? Certainly we cannot at present indicate exactly the powers which can produce these manifestations, yet that is no sort of argument against their existence—and, in the meantime, it is surely far more scientific to assume them hypothetically rather than to have recourse to diabolical or animistic theories, with all the rest of the nonsense dismissed, once for all, at the close of the Middle Ages.

Now it will be admitted that this argument has its attractions. It appears so reasonable, so patient, and so humbly agnostic in its best sense. Yet, if examined closely it will be found to rest, for practically all its weight, upon the dogmatic position that communication between this world and the next is not an established fact. Is it credible that anyone should hold it who was simultaneously convinced, as every Catholic is, of the fact that such communication can and does take place? Apart from actual revelation, the most scientific attitude in the presence of a problem with several possible solutions, is to select that solution, at least hypothetically, that most nearly meets all the facts. And it surely is beyond question that the Catholic solution does most nearly meet the facts.

For if the psychological solution is accepted there remains—to take but one difficulty—the question as to why directly immoral tendencies manifest themselves so perseveringly in spiritualistic seances. On the psychological side there appears no explanation of this—of why, for example, persons who, according to the theory, are merely exercising deeply-founded human faculties should so often develop such extraordinarily unpleasant tendencies towards obscenity or blasphemy. On the Catholic hypothesis the explanation is simplicity itself. And next, it must be remembered, that the psychological explanation for all its scientific appearance, rests really upon a simple child-like act of faith (I believe in man, the explanation of most things visible and of all things invisible) is the terse creed of the psychological materialist. Therefore if I meet, he continues, with any phenomenon which I cannot assign to any power in human nature known to me, I assign it unhesitatingly to a power in human nature unknown to me. His credulity on the severely scientific side can only be compared to the credulity of our uncritical forefathers, who assigned every new phenomenon beyond their comprehension to the direct action of a god. Whether or no these psychologists are partly right, at any rate, their explanation is anything but scientific in the usual sense of the term.

The evidence, then, it must be remembered, is (and quite rightly) of varying value, according to the creed of the person before whom it is laid. For the Catholic, who knows that the spiritual world is an objective reality, lying very close to this world, it is, probably, in the strictest sense, the most scientific thing he can do to accept his theologian’s treatment of the matter. Granted the existence of evil spirits whose object is the marring of human nature, whose powers are undoubted, whose patient malevolence is unending, it would appear almost inevitable that the agencies behind these phenomena—always supposing, of course, that he is convinced that such phenomena take place—are diabolical and evil. For the materialist probably the most scientific thing he can do is to accept the psychological theory, since, indeed, for a man who believes in no intelligence except that of man, there is simply no other alternative. If both psychologist and Catholic alike accept the reality of the phenomena, the dispute between them does not really lie as to which is the soundest theory as to the explanation of these particular phenomena, but as to which is the soundest theory of the universe. Neither has any right to accuse the other of folly, as to his particular interpretation of these facts; only as to his general interpretation of all facts.

So then, until further investigations have been made by persons qualified to make them, rests the case at the present day.

It is becoming increasingly certain that phenomena derided by the early Victorians, do, as a matter of cold history, take place, that things are done for which, up to the present, no explanation is forthcoming which takes into account only the action of human powers as at present known to us. Less and less is it becoming possible, at least for those who have in the slightest degree studied the subject, to dismiss the whole matter as sheer nonsense. There remains the theories by which the phenomena are to be explained; and these, in brief, resolve themselves into three.

There is, first, the theory of the Spiritualists themselves; next, the theory of the materialistic psychologists; and lastly, the teaching of the Catholic Church—teaching, it must be remembered, which has been in the field ever since the conflict first began, almost as far back as history gives us any record at all. It is these two old antagonists—the first and the third—who under other names and in all lands have faced one another so long as the conflict between religion and its bastard sister has formed part of history, and it seems as if it were between these same antagonists, and not with the help of any new-born science that the issue will ultimately be decided. Meantime, the peremptory instructions of the Church are clear enough for her own children, and the reasons she gives for those instructions should surely be enough for those who, if not her children, have at least sympathy with her moral aims. In brief, she tells us that this is not the road to truth, but to deception and error; while admitting the existence of evil spirits and the possibility of their manifesting themselves to souls still incarnate on earth, she points out the extraordinary dangers that menace those who attempt by any backstairs entrance to penetrate regions closed by the hand of God; and, as a proof of those dangers, she points to the uselessness of the information purporting to come through those channels, and the injuries to body, mind and soul sustained by those who persist in such attempts. There is nothing to be gained; there is all to be lost. She does not commit herself to any guarantee of the truth of this or that particular incident or claim; but she leaves us face to face with this dilemma. Either this or that affair is fraud, in which case its investigation is a waste of time, and a fruitful seed-bed of self-deception; or it is a reality, and in that case a sinister and perilous reality.

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