First Love, by Ivan Turgenev

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Ivan Turgenev’s 1860 novella charts the course of a 16-year old boy’s infatuation with the princess next door in the summer of 1833, while on holiday at the family dacha just outside Moscow.  What could have been trite, in Turgenev’s hands achieves universal significance as he depicts the powerful emotions experienced by someone who is leaving childhood behind and entering the world of adult relationships, with all their joys and heartbreaks.  The title suggests a light summer romance of the ‘old enough to know better, young enough not to care’ variety, but Turgenev instead delivers a powerful dissection of the infatuations of youth.

The story is told by the 40-year old Vladimir Petrovich to a couple of friends, casting his mind back a quarter of a century.  For some reason the three men have decided to swap accounts of their first loves, but Vladimir insists on writing his down in order to capture the subtle nuances.  He now has the distance to be able to look back on his youth with the dispassion that comes from worldly wisdom, and the bulk of the narrative takes the form of his first-person account of that fateful summer.

At their holiday home Vladimir and his wealthy parents find they have new neighbours, a rather slovenly princess who is always getting into financial scrapes and her lovely 21-year old daughter Zinaida Alexandrovna.  Thanks to the deceased husband’s feckless ways they live in straitened circumstances in a run-down cottage.  However, Zinaida has collected a circle of devoted admirers each of whom wishes to be more.  In the evenings they gather at her house to play games and discuss literature, but mainly to play games.  The mother encourages it, and it transpires she is not above using her daughter’s beauty and vivacity to her own ends.

Vladimir initially sees Zinaida and her friends in the garden and instantly becomes infatuated with her.  Supposedly studying for his university entrance exams, he has been finding it hard to buckle down, and he soon becomes the youngest of the followers mooning over her, joining them as they jockey for position.  He hopes to find favour but is constantly aware of his inexperience compared to the maturity of his rivals, which he envies even while Zinaida is alternately warm and cool, happy to have them around, but with a hint of contempt at their enthusiasm.

He sees much of her, but finds that, while she is not coquettish, she seems to be ambivalent to him, warm at times and keen to draw him into the circle, indifferent at others.  Her inconsistency causes him agonies.  She calls him Woldemar, a sign of affection, but with a patronising undercurrent.  Her house has a seediness to it, but is a refreshing contrast to the constrained stuffiness of his own home.  His father, whom he idolises, is changeable, warm at times, indifferent at others, and his mother generally neglects him.  He yearns to be treated as an adult but his mother insists on treating him in a way commensurate with his age.  He finds himself spending more and more time next door, despite his mother’s disapproval.

After a while Zinaida seems depressed, the small group of admirers aware of the change in her, and it becomes apparent to Vladimir the reason for Zinaida’s change is that she is in love.  He looks around the group desperately trying to work out which one it is, but she has not marked out any particular individual for her favour.  Meanwhile Vladimir notices friction at home between his parents.  One day one of the group, who has guessed the truth, suggests Vladimir hide in the garden where he might see something enlightening.  He does, and learns with whom Zinaida is in love: it is his own father.  The quarrels are explained, as is an early scene where the neighbours dine together and Zinaida ignores Vladimir’s father.  Unsurprisingly Vladimir’s mother decides to return to town, and eventually the family removes to St Petersburg.

Finding out his father is Zinaida’s lover astounds Vladimir, but strangely he feels his father has grown in his estimation.  Even so, there is a scene late in the story when father and son go riding together and, told to wait at the end of a street, Vladimir sees his father talking to Zinaida at a window.  Vladimir overhears him say ‘Vous devez vous séparer de cette’ and then witnesses him strike her heavily with his riding crop before bursting into the house.  Vladimir is appalled by the incident.  What could have been melodrama takes on a profoundly melancholic air.  Shortly afterwards Vladimir’s father dies suddenly of a stroke, following which his mother sends a large sum of money to Moscow, the implication presumably being that Zinaida had a child as a result of the liaison.  Several years later, Zinaida, who has married, dies in childbirth.

Through this first attachment Vladimir is introduced to the complexities of adult behaviour, not least loss and betrayal.  Yet it helps him to mature and cope with such feelings, put them aside and enter into the activities of manhood.  Early infatuations tend to end unsatisfactorily, but they aid our growth as individuals.  Turgenev evokes the confusion teenage boys at least experience, when hormones are raging and desire and despair are intertwined.  The lesson he gives is that the only thing worse than being in love is not being in love.  Further, Turgenev shows we can never fully know each other, however intimate we are.  As for the title, it turns out both Vladimir and Zinaida experience first love, though not with each other.


The Chinese Orange Mystery, by Ellery Queen

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Ellery Queen’s 1934 novel The Chinese Orange Mystery is set in the upmarket Chancellor Hotel in New York.  Donald Kirk and his family occupy a suite, and Don has an office on the same floor where he discusses matters of a sensitive nature as publisher of the Mandarin Press, and engages in transactions relating to his passions for stamps and gems.  A softly-spoken gentleman calls one afternoon to see him, refusing to give his name or state his business, and is put by Don’s assistant Ozzy into a waiting room next to his office.  Various people come into the office and later Don himself arrives with Ellery Queen in tow as a dinner guest – well, that’s handy.  Ozzy remembers the visitor but they find the bolt drawn on the other side of the communicating door.

When they go round to another door they find the man dead on the floor, his skull broken.  If that wasn’t startling enough the corpse’s clothes have been taken off and put back on but reversed, and long spears which had been wall decorations pushed up his clothing from the bottom of his trousers past his shoulders.  Bowls have been inverted, paintings turned to the wall and the furniture pulled out into the room.  Naturally Ellery, in conjunction with his police inspector father Richard, is soon on the case.  Their task is made more difficult by the fact that nobody recognises the body, and even after extensive enquiries his identity is still unknown.

Backwardness is the key here, and Ellery finds more examples wherever he looks.  China, a land full of things that are inscrutably backwards to the western mind, not least its writing, figures large.  Don and his business partner Felix have a guest, Jo, who has lived most of her life in China and is touting a book based on her experiences, and she and Don are clearly attracted to each other.  When the dead man’s valise is recovered, the Chinese links are found to be stronger still. Are these various examples of backwardness Ellery encounters connected, or coincidences?

Meanwhile, Don and his sister seem to be harbouring a few secrets of their own, though they are not the only ones with opportunity.  Also in the mix is a mysterious English woman called Llewes, and it doesn’t take an Einstein to work out this broad’s real name is actually Sewell.  It’s up to Ellery to sort out what’s relevant and piece the solution together.  This he does after much cogitation and a little experimentation, not to mention prodigious quantities of cigarettes.  Towards the end, after a brief interlude in which the reader, now in possession of all the clues, is invited to produce a solution, all the suspects are gathered together and Ellery gives a speech outlining the motive, the rationale for the peculiar crime scene, and, naturally, names the murderer.

The explanation is mind-boggling overcomplicated and it would be a batty murderer who would rely on a mechanism of such complexity with a great deal of potential to go wrong.  There must have been a high probability, considering how many people were floating around during the afternoon, that someone would come in while the furniture shifting operation was in progress.  Who cares, we can marvel at the ingenuity, the writing is witty and entertaining from first to last, and thankfully the Limey butler isn’t the guilty party.  There is a hint at the end from Ellery that if ‘he’ (the authors actually being Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) writes up the case, he will call it The Chinese Orange Mystery.  He must have done for us to have just read it, even though he writes of himself in the third person.  The title is clever, too.  While tangerines (Chinese oranges) feature in the plot, the title is a nice play, also referring to a rather valuable stamp from China known by its colour which is of course orange, something that only becomes clear at the end.

Lotte in Weimar, by Thomas Mann

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In his 1939 novel Lotte in Weimar, Thomas Mann uses Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as a case study to explore the effect charismatic individuals have on those around them.  Lotte was the heroine of Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, written when he was 24.  She was based on a real person, Charlotte Kestner, née Buff; she and Goethe had been two-thirds of a romantic triangle, the other third being Lotte’s fiancé, whom she later married.  Goethe rendered the events in fictional form in a novel of unrequited love that made his name, in the process making Lotte herself famous.

Mann’s novel imagines the events that occurred during her return to Weimar in 1816 for a three-week stay, after a gap of over 40 years.  Now a widow, this is ostensibly to visit family but in reality to see the man who has had such a profound impact on her life.  The reader of Lotte in Weimar is seeing her refracted through two layers: the real Lotte as seen by Goethe as seen by Mann.  Where Goethe filtered Lotte through his sensibility, Mann attempts to redress the balance, giving us an entry into Goethe’s inner life, but foregrounding Lotte as subject rather than object.

Lotte’s motivations for the visit are mixed.  She wishes to see how Goethe has changed over the decades since they knew each other, time in which his reputation has grown enormously, and what her feelings will be now about someone she cared deeply for as she ponders paths not taken; but also as a protest at the way in which she and her intimate dealings had been appropriated for his novel without her permission, seeking some form of acknowledgement that a wrong had been done.

Yet the meeting is endlessly postponed, eventually it seems permanently, as Lotte struggles to leave her room at the inn while a variety of visitors arrive, all keen to see the model for the character in the master’s book, one of them the sister of a young chap who is sure to make a name for himself, Arthur Schopenhauer (two years away from The World as Will and Representation), and Goethe’s son August.  Together the perspectives cohere to provide a portrait of the great man and his work, but they also indicate the unwanted weight of expectation laid on Lotte by interlocutors for whom the fictional character is more real than the real one.

There is little action until the final section of the novel.  The first part is taken up by dialogues between Lotte and her visitors, with Goethe, the reason for their fascination with Lotte, always hovering at the margins.  The second is Goethe’s internal monologue and conversation with his valet in which we see that mighty engine at work from the inside.  The meeting does finally occur, but it is formal, at a dinner given to a number of Goethe’s friends as well as Lotte and her daughter, and Goethe holds forth to the company in a self-regarding display of his genius.

Thus Lotte finds herself in a sycophantic circle of hangers-on and it looks like a snub to be treated as one of Goethe’s circle rather than his oldest friend.  Yet, while harbouring feelings of disdain towards them, she is always keen to emphasise the length of her association with him, which predates theirs.  She too is not immune from the effects of celebrity, and feels intimidated in the master’s presence.  As it happens he turns out to be a windbag and something of a self-absorbed bore even as Mann clearly admires him and his omnivorous spirit of enquiry combining thought and action in a rounded human being.

Only right at the end do the pair meet privately for a heartfelt conversation.  Goethe invites Lotte to use his carriage for a trip to the theatre where she is offered the use of his box, but he makes it clear he is not able to join her.  She enjoys the play, though finds it not without its weaknesses, and to her surprise, as she gets into the carriage for the return journey she finds Goethe sitting in the corner.  The conversation they have is so stylised it raises the possibility that she is dreaming.  She is able to have a frank discussion which he takes good-naturedly, and he makes the point in his defence that while he may be a candle around which moths flutter, there is loss involved in being a candle burning for others.

Lotte has her consolations.  She has left her youth behind and is beset by a shaking head, though she is still sharp, but she is forever frozen as a character in Goethe’s book.  She will die, but the character lives on forever.  Lotte cares about this legacy, fretting that while Goethe’s depiction is to her mind generally accurate, he gives the wrong eye colour.  She exults when talking to Goethe alone that it is she who is associated with his name, even above his wife.  When the carriage stops at her hotel Mager, the head waiter, opens the door cheerily: ‘… to help Werther’s Lotte out of Goethe’s carriage, that is an experience that – what shall I call it?  It ought to be put down.’  So Mann did, but for Mager, and posterity, she is forever Werther’s (i.e. Goethe’s) Lotte rather than the historical ‘Frau Councillor Charlotte Kestner, née Buff, from Hanover’, as she signed the hotel register.

It is obvious that there is more going on here than a recreation of provincial Weimar and Goethe’s intellectual dominance.  Werther is critical of the tyranny of his times in Goethe’s novel and this can be seen as a metaphor for Mann’s view of the tyranny in his.  Bearing in mind when it was published (in Sweden), it would be surprising if Mann did not draw parallels between Goethe and another certain charismatic German-speaker famous for his table talk.  Ironically, during the dinner, Goethe expounds on the Jews and, foreshadowing future events, he discusses a pogrom that had occurred in Eger in terms contemptuous of the town’s authorities, and he celebrates the remarkable contributions Jews have made to civilisation.  He also warns against the dangers of Prussian militarism.  Mann would surely have been an advocate of the European Union as a bulwark against the dangers of aggressive nationalism.

One reason for reading Lotte in Weimar was because I recently visited that beautiful city.  During the tour I went on, Goethe’s name naturally came up a number of times, and the guide showed his distaste for the great man, comparing him unfavourably with Schiller and emphasising the poor way he treated his wife and son.  One place we stopped at on our walk was an inn called The Elephant, which I photographed, having an interest in elephants.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mann has Lotte put up there in the novel.  On his many visits to Weimar Hitler always stayed there, a fact of which Mann was surely aware when making it Lotte’s temporary home.

We took the opportunity to visit Buchenwald one afternoon, surprisingly close to Weimer but a place as far away from Romantic and Enlightenment values as one can imagine.  Our Weimar guide said that the local authority tries to pretend that Buchenwald does not exist, and one can see why they would prefer to promote the likes of Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Wieland, a rather more positive expression of human values, and not the town’s less savoury past.  Through the lens of the barbarous times in which he lived one can see more clearly why Mann considered harking back to a more civilised Weimar so important.  There is much more going on in Lotte in Weimar than people making polite conversation.

Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, by Andrew Lycett

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London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2007.  527 pp.

[This review first appeared on the nthposition website, December 2007.  Reprinted in shorter form as ‘The Campaigning Celeb’, Fortean Times, No. 231, January 2008, p. 61.]


We think we know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  He brilliantly created the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and himself combined the cerebral with the man of action. But he suffered a decline in his old age to the intellectual level of Nigel Bruce’s version of John H Watson, lost in the supernatural.  Andrew Lycett’s marvellous biography, following works on Dylan Thomas, Rudyard Kipling and Ian Fleming, shows that there was more to him than the man of two halves this popular image suggests.

The achievements are singular.  Conan Doyle was a workaholic who wrote about a wide range of subjects at a prodigious rate.  At various times he practised as a doctor, did a stint as a ship’s surgeon on a whaler, later served as a surgeon in the Boer War and wrote a history of the conflict; wrote a multi-volume history of the First World War (and briefly visited the front which he bizarrely characterised as ‘the most wonderful spot in the world – the front firing trench’); travelled extensively; threw his considerable weight behind efforts to rectify miscarriages of justice in the George Edalji and Oscar Slater cases; stood for Parliament; campaigned tirelessly for spiritualism; played a lot of cricket, golf and football; was an early adopter of skiing and motoring; and acted the all-round celebrity.

But Lycett does not shrink from depicting his subject’s less pleasant aspects.  His treatment of his first wife Louise does him no credit, taking a mistress and absenting himself from home for long periods as Louise became increasing ill with TB.  Lycett points out the sad truth that she came only third in his affections, after Jean Leckie, whom he met in early 1897 and married a year after Louise’s death in 1906, and his mother.  Conan Doyle’s words to his mother after his bereavement, that he had tried to avoid giving Louise a moment’s unhappiness but rather had wanted to give her every attention and comfort she wanted, Lycett describes as disingenuous.  They are that, but more strongly they smack of hypocrisy, as Conan Doyle had made little effort to disguise his relationship with Jean during Louise’s lifetime, and tended to prefer his London flat to the sickroom.  The verdict Conan Doyle reaches about whether he provided said attention and comfort – ‘Did I succeed?  I think so.  God knows I hope so’ – is pious humbug.  After Louise’s death there was an effort to airbrush her out of the family history, a campaign against which his eldest child Mary fought a rearguard action.

Conan Doyle was prone to using emotional blackmail on Louise’s children to get his own way, and would ludicrously complain about how tight his finances were when they asked him for help.  They were sidelined after their father’s remarriage, particularly Mary.  She and her brother Kingsley became extremely close to each other as a result, which must have made it especially difficult for her when Kingsley died just a fortnight before the end of the First World War.  She was left with an indifferent, and at times callous, father (at one point he told her he would not continue to pay for her singing course in Dresden on the grounds her voice was flat and she lacked a good ear, though he eventually relented).  He was far more interested in her step-siblings than in her, to the extent she said he had become a hard man in the two years since her mother died.  She only seems to have achieved a rapprochement later, when working with him in his psychic bookshop, and she was still excluded from his literary estate.

Balancing this warty portrait, the fervent belief in spiritualism, which it would be easy to mock, is treated sympathetically, as are the rather blimpish politics.  Lycett does not address in detail the Cottingley fairies episode that so damaged Conan Doyle’s credibility, but he does point out that Conan Doyle came from a family immersed in fairy lore (he was preparing an article on the subject before he saw the photographs), and, ever-conscious of the possible hereditary effects of his father’s insanity, thought that proof of the existence of fairies would indicate his father had an ability to communicate with spiritual beings.  In all these areas Lycett juggles the threads of a busy and varied life with a light touch, providing enough context to make sense of Conan Doyle’s attitudes without burdening the reader with unnecessary detail.

For a man who professed to be bluff and straightforward, Conan Doyle was extremely complex, and Lycett draws out the development of his religious and political ideas, showing how these had their roots in his family background.  The curious relationship between his mother and her ‘lodger’ Bryan Waller is dealt with dispassionately, and Lycett discounts a sexual relationship between them (despite her youngest child being given the unlikely, and suggestive, moniker ‘Bryan Mary Josephine’ – no wonder she was known as Dodo), but their closeness, especially as Mary’s husband was still alive for the first seventeen years of their relationship, strikes one as most un-Victorian.

In a fascinating coda to Conan Doyle’s life Lycett charts the series of unfortunate events that befell the archives after his death.  The boys from his second marriage in particular were clearly an unpleasant pair who had inherited no sense of their father’s capacity for hard work, but rather used the revenue derived from the estate to indulge their hedonistic lifestyles.  The convoluted story of Conan Doyle’s papers is a sad one of selfishness and greed, and their resulting dispersal has made the job of scholars harder than it should have been.  An example of this difficulty, seventy-seven years after Conan Doyle’s death, was the refusal by Conan Doyle’s estate to allow the reproduction of a large number of quotations, which at the last minute Lycett was obliged to paraphrase.  Even after three quarters of a century there are still undercurrents of self-interest and control at work with respect to Conan Doyle’s legacy.  However, Lycett has been fortunate in being able to consult hitherto inaccessible collections of papers, making this by far the most comprehensive biography of Conan Doyle to date.

Lycett has juggled the threads of a busy and varied life and produced an absorbing portrait of a national institution.  The intricacy of his task is indicated by the number of acknowledgments, leaving aside the lack of cooperation from some archive controllers.  That he is up to date is indicated by references from 2007 in the bibliography.  The narrative could have been cluttered by the number of people in it, many with similar names, and a useful family tree indicates how large the family was (though oddly his daughter Mary is called the wrong name and has the wrong year of birth).

One point I would take issue with is Lycett’s contention that Conan Doyle straddled ‘the fault line in the British psyche between rationality and superstition’.  He believes Conan Doyle retained a sense of the numinous which was perhaps a relic of his discarded Catholicism.  This caused him to resist ‘the juggernaut of materialism’ and led him to use his scientific training to try to prove life after death.  But Conan Doyle considered his spiritualist quest to be rational and not numinous, definitely not superstitious, and nothing to do with the faith that Catholicism required.  The irony (a word Lycett frequently uses) is that while professing a rationalist outlook in examining life after death, Conan Doyle fell so short in applying canons of evidence.  His problem was not that he tried to combine rational and irrational, but that his enthusiasm for a cause led him to gloss over uncritically weaknesses in the evidence for it.

The subtitle of the book is perhaps surprising, given Conan Doyle’s range of interests, but I think it is clear that if Conan Doyle had not created Holmes he would have been a very minor footnote in literary history, whereas the Holmes stories, with their endless opportunities for reinterpretation, make him a giant.  Conan Doyle himself rated his historical novels more highly, which shows his poor judgement about his work.  At one point Lycett compares Holmes to Cutcliffe Hyne’s unintentionally camp creation Captain Kettle.  But Captain Kettle bears no similarity to Holmes.  If he resembles any Conan Doyle character it has to be Sir Nigel, both ridiculous confections taken far too seriously by their creators.  Conan Doyle wrote some interesting books over and above the Holmes output, but it is those stories that ensure his immortality.

Early Flying Machines, by Henry Dale

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Henry Dale’s 1992 Early Flying Machines is one of a number of volumes in the British Library’s ‘Discoveries and Inventions’ series charting the impact technology has had on everyday life.  Dale’s non-technical text is based around out-of-copyright images drawn from the BL’s extensive collections and the main attraction is certainly the illustrations, but his examination of our various endeavours through history to get into the sky for sustained periods without death resulting is clearly set out and informative.

The book is divided into a number of sections, each looking at a specific type of approach: ‘Ancient dreams’, dealing with the earliest musings about the conquest of the air and mythological narratives dealing with flight; lighter-than-air balloons utilising hot air or gas; airships, offering a degree of control over direction lacking in balloons; the parachute, a handy adjunct to reaching a significant height; ornithopters (aeroplanes employing wings modelled on those of birds but proving a dead end); and fixed wing machines, culminating in the Wright brothers’ successful flight in December 1903.

The attempts to crack the problem of sustained controlled flight in a heavier-than-air machine is the major interest and biographical portraits of a number of significant pioneers chart the ways in which the theoretical problem was given practical expression.  Some of these were eccentric, others sound.  Not a few individuals came to grief through lack of understanding of basic principles, substituting gut feelings and enthusiasm for careful analysis.  Not all of the designs included made it off the drawing board, which must have saved quite a few lives.

Those who were rigorously scientific, studied the efforts of their predecessors – discarding what had not worked – and put their findings into practice with care, were more likely to succeed.  We can talk of the ‘romance of flight’, but only if based on careful calculations and experimentation.  The Wrights are lauded, and with justice, but in the construction of the Wright Flyer they were able to utilise a considerable body of work built up by others’ trials and errors.

What comes across vividly is the obsessiveness, ingenuity and sheer guts the quest to be able to soar into the sky and look down on the earth with a god’s-eye view required.  There must have been a transcendental impulse in some who endeavoured to ascend into the heavens mixed with the more prosaic desire for fame and fortune.  Nobody here could have foreseen the way that air travel would mutate into a mode of transport akin to taking a bus, without a scintilla of glamour.  From brave men who risked their lives in flimsy constructions of often impractical design to EasyJet.  There must be a metaphor for our civilisation in that.  As far as the aeroplane is concerned, it does seem romance is dead.

Technologies of Magic: A Cultural Study of Ghosts, Machines and the Uncanny, by John Potts and Edward Scheer (eds.)


Sydney: Power Publications, 2006. 163+xix pp.

[This review first appeared on the nthposition website, June 2007.  Reprinted in shorter form as ‘Shazzam!’, Fortean Times, No. 226, August 2007, p. 63.]


Examining the relationship between technology and magic is potentially stimulating, and there is much of interest in this volume.  Unfortunately in general the essays in it read like a compilation put together after a conference, with the editors’ introduction suggesting a consistency not apparent when struggling through the academic prose in the majority of them.  The most significant factor uniting them seems to be that all the authors bar one work in Australia, mostly Sydney.  Ten papers are grouped into three parts: The Persistence of Magic in Modernity; Ghosts and Their Machines; and New Technologies and Their Doubles, headings that are suitably vague to accommodate the disparate contributions.

The editors begin their introduction with the question: ‘Why is it that many technologies, particularly media technologies, continue to be shrouded in a mystique, preserving forms of magical belief within rationally ordered societies?’  They go on to claim that the Enlightenment was supposed to sweep away mysticism and order in a rational system of thought, despite which mystical belief clung on and even prospered by attaching itself to technological developments.

It is a provocative start, but a sweeping one that claims too much, not least by neglecting a consideration of non-technological mystical belief.  The Enlightenment certainly swept away much western superstition but it could not do so completely, though it made the job of anti-rational forces harder.  As the development of Christian apologetics suggests, it obliged them to accommodate to rationalism by arguing that their beliefs have scientific underpinnings (Creationism is a good example), even if they bent the principles of scientific procedure in the process.  A glance at a newspaper will reveal that forces of mysticism are active in many fields around the world, often with deleterious social consequences.

The editors then quote Wittgenstein making the point that when Sir James Frazer uses the word ‘ghost’ he understands the ‘superstition’ it represents; ‘mythology is deposited in our language.’  That words with mystical connotations persist is not surprising, and their existence clearly reflects a continued understanding of what they represent, whether the things they denote are real or not.  But we cannot assume that the word is used in the same way across all cultures at all times, that Frazer sitting in his study at Trinity College, Cambridge, possessed the same understanding of ghosts that a non-literate tribe might.  For a book that is so concerned about nuances of cultural difference this represents a flattening of meanings into a homogeneous concept when in reality those meanings will change according to a society’s attitudes to the afterlife and its relationship with the dead.  Co-editor John Potts’s reference to Chinese hungry ghosts, ‘an inflection of the ghost-idea not found in contemporary Western cultures’, is a case in point.

The notion of ‘magic’ is a slippery one and can encourage waffle when it is not pinned down sufficiently, a common fault on display here.  Among the best efforts are Scott McQuire, on Victorian – the period, not the place – electrification tapping into feelings of modernity, in particular the way the environment was perceived in a new light (literally), while generating more primal sensations of awe; and Potts on ghosts as ‘an idea that does cultural work’, by which he means the ways in which the idea of the ghost satisfies social needs.  Potts’s assessment of the way in which ghost groups have promoted themselves and their ideas on the internet is interesting, but overall his chapter picks up themes that have been covered more fully in Houran and Lange’s edited collection Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (McFarland, 2001).  It is also surprising to find no reference to Technopagans, a subculture mentioned by Emily D. Edwards in Metaphysical Media: The Occult Experience in Popular Culture (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), anywhere in the book.

Patricia Pringle’s chapter is a fascinating examination of stage magic and how it betrays nineteenth-century preoccupations with transformations and with the ways in which space was used and time perceived.  Andrew Murphie too is concerned with transformation, magic as performance with practical effects that meld technology and magic, particularly regarding cognitive science (though I wouldn’t fancy experiencing ‘the exfoliation of the brain in space’).  Chris Chesher reworks invocation, using an occult term in a technological context.  He contends this ‘call to power’ transcends domains and still has relevance in secular as well as religious situations.  Annette Hamilton’s Freudian meander finds an uncanny component to our relationship with our possessions.  She must have seen my CD collection.

Stephen Muecke on ‘new ethnography’ emphasises contingency, in the sense of hidden and multiple causes, in looking at different cultures.  His relativism is a useful counter to colonialist-inflected anthropology, but what he does not consider, in his attempt to move away from a ‘colonialist story of historical seriality’ is why for example some aboriginal hunters are happy to drive 4×4 vehicles and American Indians make vast profits running casinos on reservation land rather than maintaining a traditional way of life.  Is this a process of ideological hegemony at work (in the sense that the ruling ideology is the ideology of the ruling classes) or is it people evaluating contrasting ways of life and finding aspects of one preferable to the other?  They are willing to subscribe to values other than those originating from their own customs, and to claim that all aspects of all cultures are equal is patronising, at its worst excusing injustices (clitoridectomy, suttee and ‘honour’ killing to name a few).

The ways in which conventional science can struggle with phenomena that fall outside its narrow range is looked at by Anne Cranny-Francis.  She describes what she calls the ‘modest witness’, the archetypal scientist following the tenets of the institutionally-recognised scientific method and reaching valid conclusions as a result.  She shows what happens when someone who subscribes to this definition of modesty is put in the uncomfortable position of encountering a ghost, in this case a biologist who meets a phantom motorcyclist while driving along an Essex road.  Suffering what is clearly cognitive dissonance, the witness eventually claims that she never saw the ghost, even though her travelling companion could see that she had been shaken by the event, a result that the latter finds irrational.  In effect the scientist edits her reality for political reasons, because the paranormal is deemed unacceptable by science, and to acknowledge the reality of the encounter would render her unfit as a modest witness.  Unfortunately a promising start moves on to discuss ‘subaltern practices and multiple knowledges’ and ‘science and technology: territorializing discourse vs embodied practice’, while having a pop at Englishness en route, as if Englishness, particularly of the middle-class, middle-aged white male variety that Cranny-Francis so disparages, was an insensitive monolithic entity in stark opposition to what she romantically sees as the openness of marginalised (i.e. oppressed) groups to such ‘immodest’ experiences.

Rachel Moore’s paper contains a range of film examples to demonstrate how the cinematic experience of watching people in love can engender a mythic quality.    But her claim that ‘Touch of Evil is the raunchiest film Orson Welles, or perhaps anyone else, ever made’ begs for Moore to actually define what she means by raunch, and which bits she thinks are raunchy – surely not Welles himself, or Dietrich, or Heston’s moustache.  In an ambience that is overwhelmingly, if exhilaratingly, sleazy it is hard to fathom what Moore has in mind.  The final piece in the book, by Edward Scheer, looks at Stelarc, an Australian performance artist who combines technology and ritual in ever-more elaborate choreography.  Here is someone – along with, it should be added, white, male, middle-class, middle-aged Englishman Kevin ‘Captain Cyborg’ Warwick, though he does it in a less flamboyant way – prepared to explore the implications of our technological future and push at the boundaries of what it is to be human.

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by Deborah Blum

Blum Ghost Huners cvr

New York: The Penguin Press, 2006. 370 pp.

[This review first appeared on the nthposition website, May 2007.  Reprinted in shorter form as ‘It’s a Matter of Life and Death’, Fortean Times, No. 223, June 2007, p. 59.]


Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters has been gathering general acclaim, but while it is readable, it has a few problems.  To begin with, the title gives a misleading impression of what the book is about.  The protagonists of Deborah Blum’s story – scientists and scholars of the calibre of Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, Oliver Lodge and William James – were, by and large, concerned with investigating the possibility of life after death, but ‘ghost hunter’ conjures up a particular image of vigils and technology which is far from how they went about it.  It is however a catchy title and should encourage purchasers.

Despite the author’s science Pulitzer it is not a scholarly book, but within the terms she sets for herself she succeeds in depicting something of the personalities of the first generation of scientific psychical researchers and the issues they had to navigate in their attempt to put the new discipline on a firm footing.  Unfortunately her approach to the complex field of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century psychical research betrays a lack of familiarity with the literature.  Her sources are by and large secondary, and not particularly new.  Primary ones are largely confined to the American Society for Psychical Research and the Houghton Collection of James’s correspondence at Harvard.  She does not seem to have visited the Society for Psychical Research’s extensive archive at Cambridge University Library, though she acknowledges the Wren library at Trinity College.

She has been selective in her sources for no apparent reason: for further information on French hypnotism, for example, she refers the reader to a few pages from Brian Inglis’s Natural and Supernatural, Gordon Epperson’s The Mind of Edmund Gurney and Charles Richet’s Thirty Years of Psychical Research, but not Eric Dingwall’s encyclopaedic Abnormal Hypnotic Phenomena: A Survey of Nineteenth Century Cases, an entire volume of which is devoted to France, nor Alan Gauld’s A History of Hypnotism.  Her treatment of the field is sketchy in any case: Jean Charcot warrants a paragraph, Pierre Janet little more, and she gives no indication of their massive influence.

There is no bibliography, forcing the reader to wade through endnotes to find the first reference to a publication.  Blum is not always scrupulous in providing references in any case.  For example she says simply (p129) that “Perhaps the most publicised attack in England [on Phantasms of the Living] appeared in the magazine Nineteenth Century in August 1887, in a lengthy article devoted to discrediting the documentation Gurney and his co-authors had used to establish their ghost stories” but does not give the author’s name or the article’s title, A. Taylor Innes and Where Are the Letters?: A Cross-Examination of Certain Phantasms respectively.  Nor does she acknowledge the robust defence Gurney mounted in the same publication in October 1887, Letter on Phantasms: A Reply.  She refers the reader to a number of articles by William Crookes first printed in science journals in the 1870s, not mentioning that they were collected together in a handy form in Crookes’s Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism.

There are odd little lapses indicating haste.  Blum suggests that Kinetoscope films were playing in New York in 1893, whereas the first presentation was on 14 April 1894; Catherine Crowe, author of The Night Side of Nature, was not Scottish but from Kent; the governess in The Turn of the Screw is not engaged by the children’s father, who is dead, but by their uncle.  Cambridge (England, the reader occasionally has to disentangle whether we are in Massachusetts or East Anglia as it is not always made clear) does not have a single campus, but 31 colleges dotted around the city.  Edward VII’s style was “By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India”, not what Blum says, which is briefer but not correct. More seriously she invariably calls the SPR the British Society for Psychical Research, as if that is its official title, whereas it needs no modifier, as it was first in the field.  Unforgivably it is listed in the index under B as “British Society for Psychical Research (SPR)”.

Perhaps the strangest lapse comes on pages 89-90 when she describes an experiment conducted by Gurney “on two young men, identified only as A, who was put in a hypnotic trance, and B.”  The experiment involved the transference of the sense of taste.  Blum ‘quotes’ Gurney:  “I suddenly and silently gave [B] some salt, motioned to him to put it in his mouth.  He did so; and [A] instantly and loudly exclaimed ‘What’s this salt stuff?’”  Blum continues that Gurney then provided sugar and finally salt again, and records B’s responses.  Why she cast the test in this form is a mystery.  No reference is given but the experiment can be found on pages 205-6 of the second volume of SPR Proceedings, from 1884: An Account of Some Experiments in Mesmerism, in the section entitled Community of Sensation.  There it can easily be seen who the participants were as Gurney names them:  “…the agent being Mr G. A. Smith, and the ‘subject’ a very intelligent young cabinet-maker, named Conway…”  Gurney writes, “Standing at some distance behind him [i.e. Conway], I suddenly and silently gave Mr. Smith some salt, motioned to him to put it into his mouth.  He did so; and Conway instantly and loudly…etc.”  Blum quotes Conway’s responses correctly but omits the fact that Gurney gave Smith a number of substances to transmit, of which salt and sugar were only two, and recorded all of Conway’s responses in a table.  As a description of Gurney’s report Blum’s account is inadequate.

Considering her book is about the growth of organised psychical research and how it fared while William James was alive, i.e. until 1910, the formation of the SPR itself in 1882 is very sketchily handled.  In talking about its personnel a certain false matiness is on display: Frederic Myers is usually Fred, his wife Eveleen is Evie, and Eleanor Sidgwick is always Nora.  Blum calls Florence Cook a “street medium”, a peculiar description which inevitably conjures up associations with prostitution but is meaningless.  She is perhaps groping for the distinction between public and private Alex Owen discusses in The Darkened Room, to distinguish between those mediums who performed for the general public and those who operated within closed circles from which the public was excluded.

Although Blum has used Trevor Hall’s hatchet job The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney as a source, she has thankfully soft-pedalled on Hall’s theory that Gurney committed suicide after allegedly discovering his secretary George Albert Smith (he of the taste experiments above) was still engaged in fraudulent practices when he had given an assurance he would no longer do so.  In an endnote Blum comes down on the side of suicide as opposed to accident, though she does not say why, yet is also in the camp that maintains Gurney had neuralgia, which undermines the suicide theory because an accidental overdose is a possibility.  However she does cite Epperson’s The Mind of Edmund Gurney and Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research which both contradict Hall’s view that Gurney’s death was unambiguously suicide.

Joe Nickell’s review of Ghost Hunters in The Skeptic (November/December 2006) takes Blum to task for not having read Martin Gardner’s analysis of Mrs Piper, who was the medium William James knew best.  Gardner’s contention is that scientists who know nothing of magic techniques are the easiest to fool.  It is a sweeping generalisation, and ignores the fact that the psychical researcher most closely associated with Mrs Piper was not William James but Richard Hodgson.  Hodgson had originally been a fierce sceptic: he had subjected Madame Blavatsky to a devastating critique, and collaborated with conjuror S. J. Davy on a series of fake séances resulting in an article, the very title of which – The Possibilities of Malobservation and Lapse of Memory from a Practical Point of View – published in Volume Four of the SPR Proceedings in 1887, indicates the level-headed nature of the early SPR investigations.

Hodgson became convinced that Mrs Piper was genuine, but his previous record makes his conversion all the more interesting, and it cannot be shrugged off by the likes of Gardner and Nickell as Hodgson falling prey to simple cold reading.  To agree with Gardner that “Because believers in Mrs Piper were convinced she could recall nothing of what was said during a séance, it never occurred to them that Mrs Piper might be lying…” is to assume a degree of stupidity out of keeping with the intelligence informing the investigations made by the psychical research community at that time, nor their successes in debunking fake mediums.  In any case, Blum certainly points out that during her career, but especially towards the end of it, Mrs Piper would fish for information and make erroneous statements, and this was recognised by those who came into contact with her.  To her credit Blum is even-handed in her assessment of the material and cannot be faulted for not having written the sort of book that would have made Joe Nickell happy.

Blum skilfully, if selectively, weaves together the various strands of activity on both sides of the Atlantic.  The result is an entertaining read that brings to life the characters who pursued psychical research against ferocious opposition, and with a single-mindedness and energy which put the current generation to shame.  Although William James is supposed to be the focus it becomes clear, though it is never made explicit, that actually he was not central to the development of the subject, which was largely going on in Europe.  Blum covers a great deal more than James’s contribution, but it would have been even better if she had delved more deeply and widely in the archives.

A final puzzle is the jacket illustration, a photograph taken by Albert von Schrenck-Notzing of Eva C (Marthe Béraud) on 17 May 1912, well after William James’s death.  Neither Schrenck-Notzing nor Eva C is featured in the text so what connection this image has to it is unclear, even if it is a fascinating picture in its own right.

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