THE SPIRITUALISTS: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries by Ruth Brandon
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THE SPIRITUALISTS: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

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KIRKUS REVIEW

What is it? What is this compulsion? Why are people so desperate to believe in the supernatural that, even in the most extreme circumstances, the benefit of the doubt is always given?"" Brandon clearly does not savor the spiritualists the way she did the outrageous Isaac Singer, in A Capitalist Romance, or the American heiresses married to titled Europeans, in The Dollar Princesses. And so her history of the ""modern spiritualist movement"" (not occultism-in-general)--from the childish pranks of the Fox sisters in upstate Hydensville N.Y. in 1848, to Houdini's exposure of ""Margery,"" the last prominent physical medium--is not, like its predecessors, robust social history. But there is plenty to learn in studying such figures as D. D. Home, Florence Cook, Mrs. Guppy, and Charlotte the ""Magnetic Girl."" In limited ways, the field changed over time: the phenomena became more exciting, and innocent Victorian hand-squeezing gave way to the ""altogether less innocent,"" even pathological character of Edwardian sÉances. (Brandon is particularly good on the relatively obscure Eva C., whose specialty was producing revolting spirit emanations from various parts of her body.) But on the whole, as Brandon points out, part of the subject's fascination is that, to this day, the forms of spirit communication remain 1850-ish in character--complete to Red Indian spirit guides with improbable names (Pocha, Feds, Chlorine) and mawkish mid-Victorian pieties from the Dear Departed. The arguments pro and con also bear the hallmarks of the Darwin vs. religion upheaval; there is the same disproportion between the grandeur of spiritualist claims and the triviality of the phenomena. And, still, the exposure of fraud has no effect. This is Brandon's biggest and most original topic, energized by her own incredulity. Part of the answer lies in the peculiar conventions that governed spiritualist circles: mediums controlled the sittings, held in darkness under conditions that made the crudest parlor tricks seem awesome. And supporters developed a unique body of arguments, ""a kind of mad logic"": a medium's confession of fraud could be discounted--she was simply lying (or forced by external pressures to misremember); proven cases of cheating needn't count either--the cause might be ""unconscious somnabulism"" in the medium, or an emanation from skeptics in the audience. In any case, exposure of a medium was bad form, ""a breach of sÉance manners."" Brandon herself is not entirely free of special pleading (her hostility to Home, for instance, leads her to accept some improbable stories to his discredit); but the book presents a good deal of unusual material to considerable effect--with an emphasis, certainly, on points seldom made in the field. The audience, too, will probably incline more toward the skeptical than the susceptible.

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 1983
Publisher: Knopf