The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Sunday, 17 February 2008

3. A realm where nothing is fixed

Two weeks ago, after watching the finale of HBO's Rome, I lifted down the Index and the couple of volumes it directed me to in order to try and educate the impressions I had received from the very enjoyable TV series. I was much taken with what the Britannica's authors had to say regarding the personalities in that soap opera. Today I pulled down Volume II (Ana.-Ath.) looking to re-read the damning portrait of Mark Anthony which had so amused me, in order to share some of the salient points here, but in scanning the contents page and finding no entry, was led astray by the will-o-the-wisp fairy lights of the subject of "Apparitions".

"Apparitions" was written by Andrew Lang, M.A. The article has been transcribed and uploaded to and is well worth reading in full. The author begins by expounding a careful and logical hypothesis explaining the origin of the belief in spirits in primitive, ancient and modern societies. "[T]he further we go back in the history of civilisation, as in the works of nature, the simpler, the more identical, the more widely diffused are all its productions. The earliest implements for lighting fires, the earliest weapons, are not more alike than the earliest guesses of speculation and the earliest efforts of fancy. These oldest fancies dream of apparitions of the dead, and are preserved below the level of advancing culture, and insinuated into the ideas of the cultivated classes by the classes which are unprogressive, unaffected on the whole by religious or social changes." To illustrate the influence of what, post Jung, we may term the author's description of the collective unconsciousness, he cites the near identical practices of "the Scotch witch...the Kaffir witch...[the] Parisian sorceress... [and the] Finnish wise-woman."

So Mr Lang sets out to test his hypothesis with the following provision: "In entering the cloudland of folk-lore, it is impossible to advance too cautiously. This is a realm where nothing is fixed and definite ; where all is vague, floating, confused. He who would call up and try the spirits here must not place himself within too narrow a magic circle, but extend his view as far as possible to the beliefs of the most alien and distant races."

The margins of the Encyclopaedia Britannica have subject headings in a smaller font which assist the reader scanning an article to find the particular points of interest to themselves - in "Apparitions" Primitive beliefs, Fairies, Brownies, and Second sight lead us to ground familiar from our reading of "Torture", Apparitions in witchcraft.

Lang discusses the various factors which contributed to widespread belief, even amongst such persons as Henry More and John Wesley, in the veracity of the accusations made in witch trials relating the most grotesque and fantastical of happenings. The author notes that supposed witness accounts and confesions of the witch's compact with Satan resembled "[t]he same revolting ceremonies and travesties of the church service... as were attributed to the Templars... after which there ensued a licentious revel." He makes a plausible suggestion to explain the common characteristics of these supposed happenings: folk-memories of "those vast nocturnal gatherings, with their revival of pagan rights, their mockery of the church, their unnatural licentiousness, in which the popular misery of the 14th century found relief and expression." I must confess myself ignorant of the gatherings referred to, and hope that the 9th will shed further light on this matter some time in the future, as they sound rather fun.

Lang observes that Isobel Gowdie was burned as a witch in Nairn, Scotland in 1622 for "telling tales which would nowadays make her invaluable to the collector of [folklore]" He wryly adds that "modern believers in spiritualism claim the witches as martyrs of their own faith[...]." Of course 130 years later, in the age of superconductors, genomes, string theory etc, we have Wiccans to claim the witches as martyrs, as spiritualism is generally considered to be quite old-fashioned and silly.

Next, the subject of Ghosts gets the thorough treatment it deserves. Lang begins on a skeptical note, acknowledging that much evidence given of ghosts is "of the hearsay class ; it is almost as rare to find a witness who has seen a ghost as to encounter a person who does not know someone who has had this experience." After a comprehensive dissection of a range of learned scientific and philosophical thinking on the matter, the author rather surprisingly pitches in with a piece of hearsay of his own, recounting an example of a "genuine ghost story as contrasted with a hallucination:- It happened to a lady, a distant relative of the writer..." She is visited in Edinburgh by an apparition of her father - who was currently stationed in India - suffering from some pain in his side . She relates the event to a clergyman "with whom she was residing" (what is wrong with the world today that one can no longer provide such bonafides?) who made a note of the date and time of this uncanny occurrence. News later arrived from India that dat!dat!dah! her father had been injured! In his side! At the very time and date that the good lady's clerical acquaintance had faithfully recorded! Zounds!

There's something touching about the naive faith with which the author presents this dubious and unremarkable tale. If the testimony of a distant female relative and a clergyman have not already blown your mind, then prepare yourself for Mr Lang's very own experience.

"The writer once met, as he believed, a well-known and learned member of an English university who was really dying at a place more than a hundred miles distant from that in which he was seen."

He offers us no speculation as to the cause of this meeting nor any other details of the meeting itself - did they have tea and discuss Swedenborg? or merely raise hats and say good-day? - it must surely go without saying that our author would have had the good taste to refrain from enquiring after the distinguished gentleman's health.

The eminently pragmatic and thoughtful analysis of spiritualism that concludes the essay does nothing to dispel for me the impression given by these two short anecdotes that if ghosts of Christmas past, faerie kings, black dogs, headless highwaymen and their ilk were not popping up at every strike of midnight in the days of steam, then our forebears were nonetheless astrally projecting and behaving in strictly non-linear relations to the physical world, in a manner more fitting to the aesthetics of a David Lynch film than my notion of Victorian common sense and rationality would previously have suggested. For this I am very grateful.

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