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Modern Diabolism by By Henry James


ONE would like to know something of the author of this grim book before he became a “medium”; for generally the medium, so far as I have been able to observe, appears to fall below the intellectual and moral average of his species, and Mr. Williamson, morally, at least, makes an excellent show. The man who is beleaguered night and day for long and dreary years by a herd of famished vampires, burrowing in his physical organization and fattening upon his nervous substance, scourging him often with direful pangs and occasionally choking him by way of emphasizing the urgency of their appetite,—-and who yet neither goes mad nor seeks a vain refuge in suicide, may sorely claim a measure of moral force very unusual among men.

Modern Diabolism, commonly called Modern Spiritualism, with new Theories of Light, Heat, Electricity, and Sound. By M. J. Williamson. New York: James Miller. 1873.

Mr. Williamson's book is made up of a detailed narrative of the infestations he endured (and indeed had previously invited) from “the other world”; of an attempt to explain them by means of a science also imported thence; and of certain theories of light, heat, etc., having the same origin. Of these theories, all that one feels called upon to say is, that they do not on their face invite your assent, while they exhibit the author in a more ambitious rôle than he is intellectually qualified to sustain. He is a good hand at a ghost; but Professor Tyndall is too solid a body to resent the shock of his contact. Mr. Williamson schooled himself into mediumship by patiently sitting at his table, pen in hand, and solicitously wooing any chance inspiration which might have power to move it; his purpose being to ascertain whether the facts of spiritualism, so called, were “caused by beings of another world,” and also, “whether we continue to exist after the death of the present body.” And he soon succeeded apparently in attracting the attention of several super- or rather sub-mundane persons, one especially who called herself Ellen Macauley, and whose communications were “excessively vulgar.” Ellen “admitted that she had lived a depraved life in our world, that she was the same kind of woman now, and had no intention nor desire to reform.” This ingenuous lady interfered, however, with communications coming from other persons, and the medium was induced by them to discourage her advances; soon after which he felt two or three painful “electric shocks,” said to have been caused by Ellen on account of his refusing to let her write. Naturally, the author felt apprehensive and uneasy, but the shocks were not repeated.

About this time he had attained to open speech with his new friends, and had, moreover, fallen ill. And now he proceeds: “I was awakened one night by feeling a hand grasping my throat and trying to choke me. As soon as I awoke, Ellen said she was the one performing this, and that she intended to choke me to death. I soon perceived, however, that she could not affect my breathing, and aside from the annoyance, cared little about it. The attempt was renewed during the two or three succeeding nights, and was an annoyance, as it prevented me from sleeping soundly.” The italics are not the author's. “A short time after I awoke in the middle of the night with a violent palpitation of the heart, and feeling that my limbs were partially paralysed. Ellen said, as soon as I awoke, that she had been operating upon the action of my heart while I was asleep, and that if she had had one hour more—-that is, before I awoke—-she would have stopped its beating forever. This I confess frightened me.” The frank, unscrupulous wretch herself, however, was not at all dismayed. “On the two succeeding nights when I went to bed, Ellen said she should renew her operations as soon as I fell asleep. On the fourth morning Mrs. Arnold” (another communicator) “said that if I would sit up awhile, she would bring my father and other male friends, and that if Ellen did not then leave they would kill her. In a short time I was told she had brought my father and a former male acquaintance, and I was directed to fix my mind intently upon the former. It was the warmest night of an unusually warm summer, and I should not have slept much if I had gone to bed. I did not intend, however, to sit up very late, but I dozed in the chair, and it was daylight when I went to bed. I was then told that Ellen had been killed. Although too sleepy to think much about it, I noticed that her talking had ceased, and I never afterwards heard anything purporting to be spoken by her.”

And so forth; for all this indicates with sufficient amplitude the style of fact Mr. Williamson's narrative indulges in, and so leaves us free to consider what he says in explanation of the facts. He explains them by saying that this “other world” of his is a material world like ours, only of a more attenuate quality of matter, everything here being duplicated by something there precisely corresponding with it, but yet of so much subtler a nature as to be able to “permeate” the former. Every mountain, every river, every ocean of this world is “permeated" by a mountain, a river, an ocean of that. Curiously enough too, the law holds good, not only of natural, but also of artificial existence. “Thus when we build a house, we build double; for the walls, and floors, and all parts of the building are permeated by matter of the other world: this fact being due to the attraction which the matter of our world exerts upon the matter of the other.” But the attraction is not reciprocal, our world exerting a much grosser magnetism upon the other than it exerts upon ours. And the reason of this is obvious, since the “other world,” compared with this, is nearly though not entirely “devoid of gravity.” And this may be the reason, also, though the author does not hint it, why the pretensions of that world are so apt to be treated with levity by the denizens of this. But that is not all. It would seem from the author's report, that the people of the “other world” compare as poorly in moral substance with us as they do in physical. We almost all of us, when we go into the “other world,” become enormously vitiated. The author finds it hard to do justice to his conception of the measure of the change, especially in the direction of wanton and senseless lying, the great bulk of our emigration, not only reprobate but respectable, “becoming lying fools in passing into the other world.” The author, however, discovers one “comforting fact” connected with this condition of things: transmundane persons, as compared with mundane, “have but little power to injure others.”

Such being the normal tie between our own sane world and our author's insane one, he proceeds to show that the so-called spiritualistic phenomena are due to a certain “affinity” of an electrical character between the medium and the party of the other part. Table-tipping, hand-seeing, and all the rest of it, are shown from his point of view to be a mere magical product of these relations of electrical affinity between medium and principal; and the modus operandi, in order to produce the effect, is detailed with earnest good faith. I have not space to follow the author any further, but I am sure it can harm no one interested in spiritualism attentively to consider what he has to say. Incontestably his book is not a pleasant one to read; but I see no reason why it should not be a profitable one to every person who conceives the current facts of “spiritualism” to be credibly avouched, and is yet uncertain as to their philosophic worth. It seems to me wanton prejudice to deny all reality to many of these alleged facts of experience; and there is nothing in the circumstance that the communications are generally of so purely personal and sentimental a cast to discredit their foreign origin. This circumstance is no doubt fatal to the veracity of the communications as coming from any spiritually wise or good man now departed. For we cannot conceive of spiritual existence as contradistinguished from material save in having absolutely nothing whatever to do with time, space, or person. And clearly no one can have become a denizen of the spiritual world, properly so called,—-a world fashioned upon this strictly immaterial and impersonal spirit,—-who could even for a moment consent to associate himself with the odious drizzle of personality, the abject treacle of sentimentality, with which our spiritualist circles are dripping.

It cannot but seem intensely absurd to every one familiar with Swedenborg, that any one cognizant of his fame should ever venture seriously to discuss the facts and problems of spiritual physiology without an honest effort at least to master his intellectual principles. So it is nevertheless. The author of this book, for example, boastfully disclaims all understanding of Swedenborg, and yet permits himself to pronounce him “a learned lunatic.” It is as if a starving beggar should despise the opulent hand which is outstretched to enrich him. For that modest philosopher has not only by anticipation accounted for Mr. Williamson's own muddled and senseless experience under the ghostly visitation he so freely provoked,—-in showing it to hinge upon the profanation he was guilty of, or violation of his own self-respect, in attempting to build up an inward or spiritual edifice of faith upon an outward or sensible basis of authority,—-but he has also supplied him and all similarly bewildered persons, if they care for help, with a thoroughly competent doctrine of the spiritual world itself, and of its relation to the natural world,—-a doctrine so entirely philosophic—-in perfectly co-ordinating as it does the hardest, most mineral, and remorseless instincts of the religious conscience with the ever-shifting and expanding horizons of scientific thought—-as to make immortality a present or conscious possession of the mind, and so reduce spirit and angel from a final to a purely provisional significance in the evolution of human destiny.

Swedenborg's general doctrine of the relation between spirit and nature, in so far as it is applicable to the unhandsome phenomena now in question, may be thus stated. That doctrine imports that even as the atmospheric world, the world of unrest, the home of the cloud and the mist and the tempest, separates between sun and earth, tempering the light and heat of the former to the necessities of the latter, so an analogous moral atmosphere surrounds humanity, tempering the rays of the creative love and wisdom in their approximation to it, and housing for a period that vast mass of crude, unannealed existence—-too good for banning, too bad for blessing—-which honest nature perpetually sloughs off, and which yet is far too gross for spirit to assimilate. Swedenborg call this purgatorial or transitional realm of existence, in which the good man gradually works off his hereditary or acquired naughtiness, and the evil man his hereditary or affected goodness, the “world of spirits,” to discriminate it from the “spiritual world" proper, which is the realm of heaven and hell; that is, of perfectly separated or sifted human wheat and chaff. He represents this “world of spirits” as answering in spiritual physiology to the stomach in natural, and reducing the most inveterate moral material after a while to the softest, most fluid chyle, here fit to be taken up into the spiritual circulation, and assimilated to the body of humanity; there ready to be cast out into its spiritual waste places, its still unredeemed Saharas and Siberias.

Now, it is to an altogether morbid or preternatural condition of this “world of spirits” that we are to look for the philosophy of the current infestations. For, if the world of spirits occupy the position and discharge the function in spiritual physiology which the stomach does in animal physiology, namely, that of mediating between the merely outward or supposititious life of man, and his inward or real life, then obviously the “world of spirits,” or cosmical stomach, is equally liable with the natural stomach to become overloaded at times, to grow dyspeptic, and to reject its food undigested. And all signs show that we have just now one of these crises upon us. By all men's confession, Christendom is at this time undergoing a rational and moral purgation, more deep-rooted and wide-spread in its origin, and more revolutionary in its issues than has ever before menaced our existing civilization. Old dogmas have utterly lost, as a general thing, their vital hold upon the reason of the race and institutions once most venerable have become so onerous and costly in proportion to any really human uses they promote, that they, too, have providentially forfeited their traditional hold upon men's imagination; so that our intellectual skies have suddenly grown so dark above our heads, and our once solid moral earth is quaking and gaping to such an extent under our feet, that we are all of us more or less filled with forebodings of impending doom. Only conceive, then, what augmented hordes of human beings are daily pouring into the “world of spirits,” in this state of things, not only vastated of their hereditary Christian faith and hope, but indifferent to all religious faith and hope whatever: men of orderly lives, no doubt, for the most part, but unaffectedly dubious, if not utterly scornful, of spiritual substance; wholly sceptical of the Divine existence at least, if they do not frankly deny his being; devotees to sheer naturalism, in a word, who ask you with triumphant derision to show them a soul; and who perpetually revert to nature accordingly as manure reverts to the soil out of which it originally came. What a plethora, consequently, of absolutely raw, uncooked, unprepared food—-food utterly incapable, in fact, of digestion—-the world's great stomach must now be undergoing! And how impossible, therefore, to wonder at any of these current manifestations of helpless malaise and eructation, whereby it seeks to relieve itself!

Such is my diagnosis of the prevalent malady, based upon Swedenborg's intellectual data. Do those data enable us to form any equally reliable prognosis of it? I think so. They supply, indeed, the most satisfactory and inspiring solution conceivable to all the threatening problems of our decaying civilization. But I have not the space to go into that inquiry here, and must defer it, therefore, with the reader's permission, to some future occasion. I should like, besides, to occupy what brief space remains with a word or two in memory of a friend who endured the same sort of infestation, though not so stupidly trivial in import, as that described by Mr. Williamson, and at last succumbed to it.

My friend was the most highly gifted man I have ever known; beautiful in person, sociable in disposition, graceful in manners, skilled in mechanical invention, a proficient in music, a subtle metaphysician, deeply versed in the history of philosophy, familiar with science, an enthusiast in medicine, which was his profession. Such were his gifts and his acquisitions; but I doubt not the enumeration will seem scant and lifeless to many of his friends, especially to those who had a familiar professional acquaintance with him, and felt his exquisite personal magnetism. He may be said, indeed, to have been little less than life-giving to his patients; and when he entered the sick-room, modest and graceful and sensitive, yet serene with power, radiant with knowledge, sagacious with observation, the demons of disease and despair, which possessed the imagination a moment before, incontinently folded their murky banners, and let in the sunlight of peace and hope. How pleasant it is to remember him, even in his overborne and tragical latter days, now that he is at rest in the eternal arms, and his unquenchable thirst of knowledge is slaked at its source!

Unlike Mr. Williamson, my friend did not invite the cadaverous crew that chased him to a premature grave. They came upon him by stealth, muffled at first in the familiar voices of nature and the cheerful sounds of industry, while he was prostrate under a long and painful affection of the optical nerve, which robbed him of his physical strength, but left his intellect and will unimpaired. Gradually they separated their voices from the sounds of art and nature, and addressed him directly, soliciting him to become the medium or instrument of a great society of illuminati in the other world, composed of the noblest and best of mankind, who really though invisibly guided the course of human history, and furnished the backbone of its various priesthoods and governments. My friend's intellectual curiosity was piqued by this extraordinary visitation, no doubt, and he gave himself up to its active scrutiny; but that for a long time was all, and I shall never forget the grim pleasantry with which he used to wrestle down any too urgent assault, and laugh the faulty logic of his tormentors to scorn. But there they were all the same, forever prating of this sublime brotherhood beyond the grave, which, they declared, had even disciplined and nourished Christ himself to the dimensions of his majestic manhood, and proffering my friend, if he would become their unreserved and confiding subject, a career upon earth and a righteous fame among men second only to Christ's. Nor will I conceal that my friend, sitting there deprived of the light and air of heaven, and exposed month in and month out to these degrading solicitations, did at length so far forget the reverence he owed to the divine name as to lend a charmed attention to them.

In fact, my friend, with all his uncommon gifts, had one great defect both of nature and of culture, which, when the crisis came, vitiated them all, and that was that he had neither inherited nor been bred to any habit of reverence, so that when this infestation befell him, his natural pride of personality had undergone no abatement, and he was accordingly left without those ordinary resources of humility which less exceptional natures are apt to cherish, wherewith to combat it. It became thus a contest for strictly personal supremacy between him and his envenomed foes, the one party backed by the total force of falsehood known to the human will, the other inspirited by no adequate light of truth divine, harvested by the human understanding. Unequal however as the combat was on these terms, it proves what an enormous force of personal sanity my friend enjoyed, that he succumbed to his great temptation but for a moment. He gave his enemies an hour of grace, so to speak, in which, if they could, to justify their insane pretensions; and when he discovered, as he could not fail almost instantly to do, that these pretensions were purely magical, depending for their prosperity upon a debased self-respect or superstitious regard to sense in the votary, he at once rejected them with a picturesque energy of good-will which gave an added lustre even to his own always lustrous personality. But at the same time, whenever his acute disease again prevailed, and he found himself condemned anew to solitude and darkness, his busy demons were at hand to poison his mental peace; and fatigued at last beyond measure with the sordid conflict, he put a voluntary end to his life. He had told me more than once, in his poignant way, how loathsome existence was made to him at such times by this infernal practice, and how he longed to leap the gulf of death in order to chase the obscene vermin who haunted him to their source, and stifle them in their holes. I had of course no dogmatic considerations to offer of a nature to assuage an anguish so unrelenting, or to combat a resolve so powerfully constrained; but I at least never failed to tell him that I should have much more faith in the power of his little finger here, armed with the strength of divine truth, than in that of his entire personality there, unarmed by that strength. But he was insensible to the force of such dissuasives, even if they had been more acutely pressed; and so erelong, in a flush of passionate resentment, he plunged headlong into his grave.

And now, after all, my space is exhausted before I have half done justice to my theme. My treatment of it could hardly help at best being brief and perfunctory; but it is particularly unsatisfying in this respect, that I should have attempted to account for the phenomena popularly clubbed under the name of Spiritualism, by a morbid condition of the “world of spirits,” or its refusal any longer to function, without having previously accounted to my reader's apprehension for the existence of this “world of spirits” itself, as a necessary middle term between nature and spirit. But it is too late to think of supplementing that deficiency now, as it could not be done short of a general statement of Swedenborg's intellectual system, which differs from every other system of thought chiefly in the superb emphasis it puts upon the truth of creation. If I should ever be able to regain my reader's ear upon this subject, I doubt not that I should also be quite able to obviate his present reasonable complaint.


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