by Tom Ruffles
[ bookreviews ]
In his 1982 book on the early Society for Psychical Research (SPR), The Secularization of the Soul, John J Cerullo suggested that at some future point, "[Frederic] Myers himself may be a much more pivotal figure than he is now acknowledged to be." Cerullo's prediction was made at a time, the SPR's centenary year, when Myers (1843-1901) was largely forgotten outside a coterie of psychical researchers. But interest in him has grown in recent years, and now Trevor Hamilton has demonstrated his significance still further with this first full-length, and long overdue, biography. It will be essential for future historians of both Myers and the SPR, and of value to students of the period more generally.
Hamilton has combed Myers' prolific writings and those of his contemporaries, as well as the large secondary literature, and his clear presentation allows the reader to trace Myers' life and the development of his thought. Following a description of his childhood and youth, a chapter is devoted to his investigations of mediumship as a member of the Sidgwick Group prior to the foundation of the SPR. The greater portion of the book is devoted to an account of the SPR's activities in the 1880s and '90s, and its relationships with Spiritualists and the scientific community. The development of Myers' psychological understanding, the mediums (notably Mrs Piper and Eusapia Palladino) whom he investigated later, and Ada Goodrich Freer, maverick investigator and self-publicist, have chapters to themselves. Myer's role in the development of the SPR's scientific approach to the phenomena is examined, and a final chapter discusses his legacy: not just his writings - notably the posthumously published Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death - but also his alleged post-mortem role in the extensive body of mediumistic messages received by automatic writing known as the cross-correspondences, plus communications received by other mediums over a long period, which seemed to indicate that something of Myers had survived death.
Hamilton sheds light on late-Victorian elite culture - political, literary and scientific - by looking at Myers' extensive social networks. He also deals with Myers' career as an Inspector of Schools (Myers is often erroneously assumed to have been a lifelong Cambridge academic), a profession which allowed him ample time to pursue his own interests. In addition, Hamilton has tried to put straight a personal history made murky by earlier critics with an axe to grind. Writers like Trevor Hall (in The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney), and Archie Jarman, presented a biased image of Myers as a cad, taking his less likeable aspects and supplementing them with innuendo and unsubstantiated speculation. Some later writers, often with a cultural studies background, while doing a valuable job in promoting the subject's relevance among non-specialists, have lacked in-depth knowledge of psychical research, and so present a simplified version, or get the basic facts wrong.
Hamilton tries to counter these partial and distorted interpretations by depicting Myers' strengths and weaknesses, and exploring what is of value in his work. He discusses such controversial issues (ones which have been used to cast Myers in a negative light) as Myers' relationship with Annie Marshall, his cousin's wife who killed herself; the nature of his sexuality; and whether his colleague and close friend Edmund Gurney's death was accident or suicide. It is often not possible to come to a definite conclusion as the sources are no longer available, so Hamilton weighs the probabilities and shows clearly where the evidence runs out and informed speculation begins. He is not in thrall to his subject, and this is no hagiography. Myers is shown at times to be narcissistic, a snob with a keen sense of his status and worth, even at pains to stress that there was no reason to suppose his name had Jewish origins. Yet at the same time his loyalty and his warmth towards his family and intimate friends show through.
The bibliography alone indicates the range and depth of Myers's work. Clearly the most frequent contributor to the SPR's publications in its first two decades, his major strength was as a synthesiser and systematiser. Given that his background was in the Classics, Myers absorbed an enormous amount of psychology very quickly, and was able to debate with experts on equal terms. His writings cover a wide range of ostensibly paranormal phenomena, but his theoretical speculations often outstripped the empirical findings on which they were based. His language too was frequently obscure, a trait not helped by his shifting vocabulary, which can make it difficult at times to pin down his exact meaning. It is much to Hamilton's credit that he has managed to present the ideas in a clear and readable manner, at least as far as he is allowed to by the frequent opacity of his subject's style. Offsetting these weaknesses, Myers promoted the SPR energetically, by writing articles in periodicals aimed at the general reader as well as by his networking and attendance at international congresses of psychology. These conferences worked both ways, disseminating the ideas of the SPR abroad while helping to introduce new ideas in psychology into England.
Apart from coining the term 'telepathy', Myers' greatest achievement was his endeavour to map out a working definition of the subliminal self. This is not to be confused with Freud's Unconscious, as Hamilton brings out the essential optimism in Myers' theory building compared to Freud's gloomy view of human nature. In a period when Max Nordau's pessimistic 1892 Degeneration was influential among intellectuals, Myers took the opposite view, seeing the potential of the subliminal in evolutionary terms as a motor for human progress. Immortal Longings appears when there is increasing interest in Myers' ideas (and Freud's are on the wane). His insights are not just of antiquarian interest, they are once more being taken seriously as having relevance to modern psychology, as can be seen in the 2007 publication Irreducible Mind (Kelly et al), which examines in great detail what Myers has to offer modern theories of mind.
In addition to an account of the SPR's early years and Myers' contribution, Hamilton discusses more widely the problems the new organisation faced (in a field which hitherto had had few scientific standards) in attempting to pin down the slippery phenomena within its brief. The SPR's founders had to fight hard to justify their claims to scientific rigour, beginning with the thorny issue of whether there was anything there to study in the first place. They had to develop methodologies that were as objective as possible for collecting and analysing data, both in spontaneous cases and in the laboratory, plus criteria for evaluation, including safeguards against fraud. All this was done while trying to navigate a middle way between the over-sceptical and the credulous.
Myers and his colleagues were generally shrewd in applying what controls they could in difficult circumstances, formulating and testing hypotheses. When they got it wrong, they admitted it. Their masterstroke was not to have collective views, a situation which still pertains in the SPR. This enabled the Society to avoid becoming the vehicle for any single interest group, and although the policy alienated a number of Spiritualists who believed that the organisation lacked the courage of what should have been its convictions, it encouraged the membership of individuals with widely diverging views. On a pragmatic level, it allowed the SPR to dissociate itself from problems as its publications were the responsibility of the authors, not the organisation. Hamilton's verdict on the founders is that while their research practices could be criticised by today's standards, they were pioneering a new discipline rather than pursuing a developed one, and allowances need to be made.
Despite its length, this is not a complete presentation of Myers' various activities. For example, a sustained discussion of Myers' literary achievements as an essayist and poet (admittedly lesser accomplishments than the psychical research) falls outside his terms of reference as indicated by the book's subtitle. He does discuss the scandal at Cambridge in which Myers was guilty of plagiarism as it throws light on his over-confident personality, though even here, where Myers' critics saw only braggadocio, Hamilton outlines a subtler process in which Myers considered his re-use of others' lines to be a legitimate technique in a venerable tradition which stemmed from Virgil. It may be just as well that Hamilton leaves the poetry for others to asses, given his verdict on the "repetitive hypnotic frenzy" of Myers' poem St Paul, which he rather curiously says "bears the same relationship, perhaps, to genuine mystical experience, as masturbation does to a full sexual union." But Hamilton does indicate the wide span of Myers' non-psychical activities, and not only as litterateur, for example showing that he had a talent for political action, assisting brother-in-law Henry Morton Stanley in his, eventually successful, attempts to be elected an MP, as well as himself possessing a talent for oratory, and with a sincere interest in women's rights.
Whatever one's attitude towards the lasting value of Myers' and his fellow investigators' labours, it must be mixed with a sense of admiration at their productivity. Hamilton has emulated their energy in grappling with Myers' life. The result is a worthy addition to the small number of works which deal in a critical but fair way with the efforts of Myers and the other SPR pioneers as they sought to probe, not always successfully, but certainly sincerely and despite their personal frailties, the mysteries of the human soul.