Summoning the Spirits

The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult

Catalog of the exhibitionby Clément Chéroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem, and Sophie Schmit
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 27–December 31, 2005.
Yale University Press, 288 pp., $65.00

In March 1848, the two Fox sisters, of Hydesville, New York, demonstrated that disembodied knocks and raps, presumably emanating from the beyond, occurred in rooms in which they happened to be present. Their mother soon displayed the same talent, and the three became a sensation, passing from local interest to international fame in what was, for the time, extreme speed. Although a neighbor reported that one of the Foxes had told her they were merely cracking their double-jointed knuckles, this had little effect on their reputation. Around the same time a young Scot, Daniel Dunglas Home, who claimed that his rappings predated the Foxes’ by two years, and who possessed a much wider repertoire of effects, including abilities to levitate and float, alter his height, handle fire, and physically manifest spirits, in addition to a degree of personal charisma not apparently enjoyed by the Foxes, became the first true star of the nascent belief system known as spiritualism.

That spirits of the dead could cross into the material realm and show themselves and even communicate with the living was an idea that took the Western world by storm in the late nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, its popular appeal was cemented in the wake of the Civil and Franco-Prussian Wars, when large numbers of the bereaved sought to make contact with the untimely departed. But spiritualism also achieved, for a time, considerable intellectual respectability, enlisting prominent adherents in all countries. Victor Hugo and his family spent years regularly consulting what would later be called the Ouija board, at first trying to reach their dead daughter Léopoldine and eventually conducting dialogues with, among others, Dante, Shakespeare, the Ocean, and Death itself. The astronomer Camille Flammarion, a major scientist of unquestioned integrity, became the de facto leader of the movement in France. William James and Henri Bergson were both sympathetically inclined, if not actually enlisted in the ranks. For more than half a century the matter was taken seriously, if not necessarily endorsed, by almost everybody who had any sort of belief in posthumous existence.

That the phenomenon began suddenly did not trouble anyone, presumably since similar things had been reported by mystics and seers through the ages. That the physical manifestations were subject to continual upgrades does not seem to have aroused much skepticism at first, either. The spirits who modestly rapped on tables soon began to rotate those tables, tilt them from side to side, lift them into the air. Then spirits began to speak through a human intermediary, called a “medium,” and rattle chains, ring bells, blow trumpets, perhaps manifest their faces or even their robe-shrouded discarnate bodies. The mediums additionally might while in a trance state produce dribbles or streams of a substance called “ectoplasm,” a spectral goo somewhere between mucus and mozzarella on the viscosity index, allegedly manufactured by immaterial forces from the mediums’ own material fatty deposits. Sometimes the ethereal fluid even assembled itself into little rudimentary body parts.

That the manifestation of spirits would eventually be recorded …

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Letters

William James and the Spiritualists April 6, 2006