Among the founders of the British Society for Psychical Research in 1882 were psychologist Edmund Gurney
(1847-1888), philosopher Henry Sidgwick
(1838-1900) and classicist Frederic W. H. Myers
It was hoped, not unreasonably, that these learned and dedicated pioneers in the field of parapsychology might make some concerted attempt to "come through" after their deaths, given their sustained interest in the question of some kind of survival of bodily dissolution.
Myers' immense tome Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death
was published posthumously, in 1903. He
certainly believed that he had provided in its pages both strong evidence for survival and for the existence of a soul.
The strange phenomenon of the "cross-correspondences" (so-called) which unfolded over two decades, beginning with some automatic writing scripts by Cambridge Classics lecturer Margaret Verrall
in 1901, is therefore either the strongest - albeit, also, one of the strangest - chains of evidence for human survival of bodily death, or else a colossal piece of delusion and self-deception afflicting some of the acutest minds of the time.
Essentially, by choosing your authority, you choose the view you will be encouraged to take of the story. If, for instance, you read Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death
(2006), you will be left with a lingering sense of mystery and doubt surrounding the whole business.
If, however, you read Ruth Brandon's trenchant The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
(1983), you may be left wondering why anyone could ever take seriously so bizarre a congerie of frauds and misfits?
The essence of the cross-correspondences was that it involved different mediums, on different continents, who separately received obscure and apparently nonsensical scripts which - when pieced together
- produced more-or-less complete statements from (allegedly) specific individuals on "the other side."
The three principal conduits for these scripts were Mrs. Verrall (mentioned above), together with her daughter Helen; Mrs. Winifred Tennant
(disguised under her professional name "Mrs. Willett"); and Mrs Alice Fleming
, sister of Rudyard Kipling
(who practised under the name of "Mrs Holland", thanks mainly to family disapproval).
As well as these, there was also some involvement from William James's favourite medium Leonora Piper
in America. This geographical range from the United States to India has undoubtedly contributed something to the continuing fascination that still surrounds this psychic cause célèbre
. And yet, what do these supposed "correspondences" actually amount to?
One of the earliest instances was noted by Alice Johnson
, research officer of the Society for Psychical Research. While sorting through some of the papers held at their office in London, she noted some strange similarities between them:
in one case, Mrs. Forbes' script, purporting to come from her son, Talbot, stated that he must now leave her, since he was looking for a sensitive who wrote automatically, in order that he might obtain corroboration of her own writing. Mrs. Verrall, on the same day, wrote of a fir-tree planted in a garden, and the script was signed with a sword and a suspended bugle. The latter was part of the badge of the regiment to which Talbot Forbes had belonged, and Mrs. Forbes had in her garden some fir-trees, grown from seed sent to her by her son. These facts were unknown to Mrs. Verrall.
Taken alone, this might easily pass for coincidence, especially since, as she went on to say: "We have reason to believe that the idea of making a statement in one script complementary of a statement in another had not occurred to Mr. Myers in his lifetime — for there is no reference to it in any of his written utterances on the subject that I have been able to discover." However, in aggregate, she found the phenomenon less easy to dismiss:
Neither did those who have been investigating automatic script since his death invent this plan, if plan it be. It was not the automatists themselves that detected it, but a student of their scripts; it has every appearance of being an element imported from outside; it suggests an independent invention, an active intelligence constantly at work in the present, not a mere echo or remnant of individualities of the past.
Another frequently mentioned example was the famous (or infamous) “Hope, Star, and Browning
” correspondence. In this case three mediums made independent allusions to the poetry of Robert Browning. As Jill Galvan describes it:
First, Margaret Verrall wrote a script mentioning “anagram” and containing the phrases “rats star stars” and “tears stare,” along with a second script with the word “Aster,” which is both Greek for star and another anagram for tears and stare. Additionally, this second script contained a phrase beginning with the Greek word for passion and continuing, “the hope that leaves the earth for sky — Abt Vogler for earth too hard that found itself or lost itself — in the sky.” The investigators took the phrase to be an allusion to Browning’s “Abt Vogler” (1864), specifically to line 78, “The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky”; the script substitutes Browning’s original skyward “passion” with “hope.” Then, a couple of weeks later, a script by Piper asked if Margaret Verrall had gotten the message about “Hope Star and Browning.” Around the same time, Helen Verrall received a couple of scripts that each mentioned “star” and featured a drawing of one, as well as [alluding] to Browning’s “Pied Piper of Hamelin” (1842), and one of these scripts also offered anagrams for star in “arts” and “rats.”
This is the case which so impressed occult investigator Colin Wilson
. And it does, on the face of it, seem difficult to interpret except as a series of allusions to essentially the same matter. Though precisely what
was meant to be conveyed remains unclear.
One explanation for this, however, may be supplied by the sheer difficulty of transmission of ideas when one has left the earthly plain. Or so the defunct Frederic Myers
explained at a séance with fellow psychical researcher Sir Oliver Lodge:
Lodge, it is not as easy as I thought in my impatience ... Gurney says I am getting on first rate. But I am short of breath ... I am more stupid than some of those I deal with ... It is funny to hear myself talking when it is not myself talking. It is not my whole self talking. When I am awake I know where I am.
He stated further:
We communicate an impression through the inner mind of the medium. It receives the impression in a curious way. It has to contribute to the body of the message; we furnish the spirit of it ... In other words, we send the thoughts and the words usually in which they must be framed, but the actual letters or spelling of the words is drawn from the medium’s memory. Sometimes we only send the thoughts and the medium’s unconscious mind clothes them in words.
Another explanation of the process came from another psychic researcher, Dr. Richard Hodgson, via American medium Leonora Piper:
I find now difficulties such as a blind man would experience in trying to find his hat, and I am not wholly conscious of my own utterances because they come out automatically, impressed upon the machine [the medium’s body] … I impress my thoughts on the machine which registers them at random, and which are at times doubtless difficult to understand. I understand so much better the modus operandi than I did when I was in your world.
The last word, though, must remain with Myers
Oh, if I could only leave you the proof that I continue. Yet another attempt to run the blockade - to strive to get a message through. How can I make your hand docile enough - how can I convince them? I am trying, amid unspeakable difficulties. It is impossible for me to know how much of what I send reaches you. I feel as if I had presented my credentials - reiterated the proofs of my identity in a wearisomely repetitive manner. The nearest simile I can find to express the difficulty of sending a message is that I appear to be standing behind a sheet of frosted glass, which blurs sight and deadens sound, dictating feebly to a reluctant and somewhat obtuse secretary. A feeling of terrible impotence burdens me. Oh it is a dark road.
On April 24, 1907, while in trance in the United States, ... Mrs [Leonora] Piper three times uttered the word Thanatos, a Greek word meaning "death," despite the fact that she had no knowledge of Greek. Such repetitions were often a signal that cross-correspondences were about to begin. But it had begun already. About a week earlier, in India, Mrs Holland [ie: Alice Kipling] had done some automatic writing, and in that script the following enigmatic communication had appeared: "Mors [Latin for death]. And with that the shadow of death fell upon his limbs." On April 29th, in England, Mrs Verrall, writing automatically, produced the words: "Warmed both hands before the fire of life. It fades and I am ready to depart." This is a quotation from a poem by nineteenth-century English poet, Walter [Savage] Landor. Mrs Verrall next drew a triangle. This could be Delta, the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. She had always considered it a symbol of death. She then wrote: "Manibus date lilia plenis" [give lilies with full hands]. This is a quotation from Virgil's Aeneid, in which an early death is foretold. This was followed by the statement: "Come away, come away, Pallida mors [Latin for pale death]," and, finally, an explicit statement from the communicator: "You have got the word plainly written all along in your writing. Look back." The "word," or "theme," was quite obvious when these fragments, given in the same month to three mediums thousands of miles apart, were put together and scrutinized. And in view of the lifelong interest of the communicator, it was certainly an appropriate theme. Death.
Rudyard and John Lockwood Kipling (c.1880)
When asked whether there was any basis to spiritualism,
Kipling replied “There is; I know. Have nothing to do with it.”
- George M. Johnson. Mourning and Mysticism in First World War Literature and Beyond: Grappling with Ghosts
. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Kipling's famous poem "En-dor" (1919) warns sternly of the dangers of false comfort from spirits - or, rather, their dubious lieutenants, mediums:
The road to En-dor is easy to tread
For Mother or yearning Wife.
There, it is sure, we shall meet our Dead
As they were even in life.
Earth has not dreamed of the blessing in store
For desolate hearts on the road to En-dor.
He was himself no stranger to the subject. The death of his son John in combat at the Battle of Loos in 1915 was a blow he never really recovered from. It was made worse by the fact that he had had to exert all his special influence to ensure that John would be allowed to serve. He had already been rejected for active service due to his poor eyesight.
His poem "My Boy Jack
," though ostensibly about the drowned dead of the Battle of Jutland, seems to refer obliquely to his own grief, also:
“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
There's an almost Modernist fragmentedness about the gradual breakdown of the ballad form in this poem: a grief too great for the traditional forms Kipling had hitherto been sedulous in preserving.
If you want some sense of the contemporary atmosphere of a kind of half-life lived in the shadow of these immense crowds of thronging war dead, Charles Sturridge's 1997 film FairyTale
- about the strange saga of the Cottingley Fairies
- does a wonderful job of conveying it. Virtually all the literature of the time, the immediate post-war era - not simply such obvious examples as Eliot's Waste Land
or Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" - should be read with this in mind.
Kipling's own short stories and poems chart his own steadily less unavailing attempts to come to term with his own intolerable loss. From the harsh "Mary Postgate
" (1915) he moved through the healing mechanisms of "A Madonna of the Trenches
" and "The Janeites
" (both 1924) to his most emotional and heartbreaking story of all, "The Gardener
John Radcliffe & John McGivering's 2011 notes on “En-dor” (on the Kipling Society
website) record the history of Kipling's engagements with spiritualism and the occult in general:
This ranges from his early story "The Sending of Dana Da" (Plain Tales from the Hills
, 1888) - inspired by his father's scepticism about the claims of Madame Blavatsky, one of whose séances he attended in 1880 - to "They" (1904), whose unnamed narrator suggests that the company of the dead may be permitted to those who have not known them in life, but not to those who (like himself) are searching for a particular dead child. This story appears to have been inspired by the death from pneumonia of his elder daughter Josephine, or "Josie" (1892-1899).
Kipling was, it seems, only too aware of the presence in himself of something resembling the "second sight" common among the MacDonalds, on his mother's side of the family. He wrote sceptically of this ability in his autobiography, Something of Myself
(1937), but is careful - if one reads between the lines - not so much to deny its existence as to disavow its usefulness to the living:
... there is a type of mind that dives after what it calls ‘psychical experiences.’ And I am in no way ‘psychic.’ Dealing as I have done with large, superficial areas of incident and occasion, one is bound to make a few lucky hits or happy deductions. But there is no need to drag in the ‘clairvoyance,’ or the rest of the modern jargon. I have seen too much evil and sorrow and wreck of good minds on the road to Endor to take one step along that perilous track.
Any unbiassed reader of his work will find it difficult to ignore the obvious fascination with telepathy, precognition, and other paranormal gifts which lies behind such stories as "Wireless
" (1902), "The Wish House
" (1924) and (perhaps most autobiographical of all) "The House Surgeon
Nor would it be true to say that the perils of the "Road to En-dor" were more apparent to him after the First World War than before it. His simultaneous attraction-repulsion towards the occult seems to date from all stages of his career as a writer.
There are no reliable accounts of his own return from beyond the grave to answer any of the many questions raised by his works. His own comment on that is unequivocal. His late poem "The Appeal" - first published in 1939 - reads as follows:
It I have given you delight
By aught that I have done,
Let me lie quiet in that night
Which shall be yours anon:
And for the little, little, span
The dead are born in mind,
Seek not to question other than
The books I leave behind.
The fear of such "unknown forces" was certainly great in Rudyard Kipling, but the temptation to write about them was evidently greater.
His younger sister Alice
, known to the family as "Trix," who shared with him the appalling experiences of child-abuse and neglect - recorded in his classic story "Baa Baa Black Sheep
" (1888) - which occurred when they were sent "home" to England from India in 1870, and who showed almost equal literary promise in her youth, took a rather different approach.
On her return to India at the age of 16, she married British army officer John Fleming, and, in 1893, "initially experimented with automatic writing." Her biography in the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology
remarks somewhat euphemistically:
After a long illness she returned to England in 1902 and in the following year read the classic study Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, by F. W. H. Myers. As a result she contacted the secretary of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), London, regarding her own automatic writing.
This "long illness" is presumably the "recurrent mental illness" referred to in Radcliffe & McGivering's notes
on her brother's poem "En-dor" (quoted above), which overtook her in "her thirtieth year":
Trix's family linked her madness with her psychic interests. When asked whether he thought there was anything in spiritualism, Rudyard Kipling replied "with a shudder": "There is; I know. Have nothing to do with it." He is presumed to have been thinking of his sister.
The Society for Psychical Research appears to have treated her abilities equally seriously, but rather more analytically, as is evidenced by a series of papers on the "cross-correspondences" controversy published by their research officer Alice Johnson in the Society's Proceedings
- "On the Automatic Writing of Mrs. Holland." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 21 (1908).
- "Second Report on Mrs. Holland's Script." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 24 (1910).
- "Supplementary Notes on Mrs. Holland's Scripts." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 22 (1909).
- "Third Report on Mrs. Holland's Scripts." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 25 (1911).
Then (as now) we are left with a stark choice: either to follow the hints, the half-stated truths "known to nobody else", and the endlessly frustrating lack of definitive, convincing evidence of "survival" - or else to reject the whole business as cruel deception on the part of "sensitives" together with wish-fulfilment on the part of the client. Dr Johnson perhaps summed it up best, when remarking of ghosts:
It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
And yet, and yet ... thirty years before, in Rasselas
(1759) he had commented with almost equal cogency:
That the dead are seen no more ... I will not undertake to maintain, against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages and all nations. There is no people, rude or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which perhaps prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth; those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible. That it is doubted by single cavillers can very little weaken the general evidence; and some who deny it with their tongues confess it by their fears.
"Some who deny it with their tongues, confess it by their fears." Kipling was very
afraid of mental disturbances in the late 1890s, in the middle of a devastating quarrel with one of his wife's brothers (the "unstable" Beatty Balestier) which threatened to undermine his and Carrie's experiment of living in the United States.
His sister's mental illness, followed swiftly by the death of the Kiplings' daughter Josie, must have constituted a great temptation to give in to what Sigmund Freud
, in 1910, referred to as "the black tide of mud of occultism." That temptation is already achingly strong in the story "They," and after John's avoidable death ten years later at the Battle of Loos, it may have seemed almost overwhelming.
The poem "En-Dor
," then, is simply one instalment in that ongoing struggle with himself and with circumstances. For all the cogency of its description of spiritualism, one can't avoid the fact that - unlike Robert Browning, whose "Mr. Sludge, 'The Medium'
" (1864) comes from a place of total non-belief - Kipling's resistance to communication with the dead seems to arise more from his conviction of its dangers to the living than from any inherent improbability in its claims:
Whispers shall comfort us out of the dark —
Hands — ah, God! — that we knew!
Visions and voices — look and hark! —
Shall prove that the tale is true,
And that those who have passed to the further shore
May be hailed — at a price — on the road to En-dor.
But they are so deep in their new eclipse
Nothing they say can reach,
Unless it be uttered by alien lips
And framed in a stranger's speech.
The son must send word to the mother that bore,
Through an hireling's mouth. 'Tis the rule of En-dor.
And what better summary of the cross-correspondences themselves can be found than the one contained in the following stanza?
Even so, we have need of faith
And patience to follow the clue.
Often, at first, what the dear one saith
Is babble, or jest, or untrue.
(Lying spirits perplex us sore
Till our loves — and their lives — are well-known at En-dor)....
"All argument is against it; but all belief is for it." Quite so. There are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying has it. It's not that the question is - or, it seems, ever can be - definitively settled. But I think Ursula Le Guin
was right to say, in the third book of her "Earthsea" series, The Farthest Shore
The counsel of the dead is not profitable to the living.
Rudyard Kipling, I suspect, would have agreed with her wholeheartedly.