“The Psychic in Literature” by Dorothy Scarborough, PhD, 1920

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The Psychic in Literature

Dorothy Scarborough, PhD

War, that relentless disturber of boundaries and of traditions in a spiritual as well as a material sense, has brought a tremendous revival of interest in the life after death and the possibility of communication between the living and the dead. As France became nearer to millions over here because our soldiers lived there for a few months, as French soil will forever be holy ground because our dead rest there, so the far country of the soul likewise seems nearer because of those young adventurers. The conflict which changed the map of Europe has in the minds of many effaced the boundaries between this world and the world beyond. Winifred Kirkland, in her book, The New Death, discusses the new concept of death, and the change in our standards that it is making. “We are used to speaking of this or that friend’s philosophy of life; the time has now come when every one of us who is to live at peace with his own brain must possess also a philosophy of death.” This New Death, she says, is so far mainly an immense yearning receptivity, an unprecedented humility of brain and of heart toward all implications of survival. She believes that it is an influence which is entering the lives of the people as a whole, not a movement of the intellectuals, nor the result of psychical research propaganda, but arising from the simple, elemental emotions of the soul, from human love and longing for reassurance of continued life.

“If a man die, shall he live again?” has been propounded ever since Job’s agonized inquiry. Now numbers are asking in addition, “Can we have communication with the dead?” Science, long derisive, is sympathetic to the questioning, and while many believe and many doubt, the subject is one that interests more people than ever before. Professor James Hyslop, Secretary of the American Society for Psychical Research, believes that the war has had great influence in arousing new interest in psychical subjects and that tremendous spiritual discoveries may come from it.

Literature, always a little ahead of life, or at least in advance of general thinking, has in the more recent years been acutely conscious of this new influence. Poetry, the drama, the novel, the short story, have given affirmative answer to the question of the soul’s survival after death. No other element has so largely entered into the tissue of recent literature as has the supernatural, which now we meet in all forms in the writings of all lands. And no aspect of the ghostly art is more impressive or more widely used than the introduction of the spirit of the dead seeking to manifest itself to the living. No thoughtful person can fail to be interested in a theme which has so affected literature as has the ghostly, even though he may disbelieve what the Psychical Researchers hold to be established.

Man’s love for the supernatural, which is one of the most natural things about him, was never more marked than now. Man’s imagination, ever vaster than his environment, overleaps the barriers of time and space and claims all worlds as eminent domain, so that literature, which he has the power to create, as he cannot create his material surroundings, possesses a dramatic intensity and an epic sweep unknown in actuality. Literature shows what humanity really is and longs to be. Man, feeling belittled by his petty round of uninspiring days, longs for a larger life. He yearns for traffic with immortal beings that can augment his wisdom, that can bring comfort to his soul dismayed and bewildered by life. He reaches out for a power beyond his puny strength. Aware how relentlessly time ticks away his little hour, he craves companionship with the eternal spirits. Ignorant of what lies before him in the life to which he speeds so fast, he would take counsel of those who know, would ask about the customs of the country where presently he will be a citizen. He feels so terribly alone that he cries out like a child in the dark for supermortal companionship.

Literature, which is both a cause and an effect of man’s interest in the supernatural as in anything else, reflects his longings and records his cries. And when we read the imaginings of the different generations, we find that the spirit of the dead is represented almost everywhere. Before poetry and fiction were recorded, there were singers and story-tellers by the fire to give to their listeners the thrill that comes from art. And what thrill is comparable to that which comes from contact with the supermortal? The earliest literature relates the appearance of the spirits of those who have died as coming back to comfort or to take vengeance on the living, but always as sentient, intelligent, and with an interest in the earth they have left. All through the centuries the wraith has survived in literature, has flitted pallidly across the pages of poetry, story and play, with a sad wistfulness, a forlorn dignity.

A double relation exists between the literature and the records of the Psychical Research Society. Lacy Collison-Morley, in his Greek and Roman Ghost Stories, speaks of the similarity between ancient tales of spirits and records of recent instances. “There are in the Fourth Book of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues a number of stories of the passing of souls which are curiously like some of those collected by the Psychical Research Society,” he says. Possibly human personality is much the same in all lands and all times.

Conversely, some of the best examples of ghostly literature have had their inspiration in the records of the society, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw being a notable example. Algernon Blackwood, that extraordinary adapter of psychic material to fiction, makes frequent mention of the Psychical Research Society, and uses many aspects of the psychical in his fiction. Innumerable stories, novels, plays and poems have been written to show the nearness of the dead to the living, and the thinness of the veil that separates the two worlds. There is deep pathos in the concept of the longing felt by the dead and living alike to speak with each other, to rend the dividing veil, which adds a poignancy to literature, even for readers incredulous of the possibility of such communication. There are many who are unconvinced of the reality of the messages in Raymond, for instance,—yet who could fail to be touched by the delicate art with which Barrie suggests the dead son’s return in his play, The Well-Remembered Voice? While one may be repelled by what he feels is fraud and trickery in some of the psychic records, it is impossible not to be moved by such an impressive piece of symbolism as Granville Barker’s Souls on Fifth, where the lonely, futile spirits of the dead are represented as hovering near the place they knew the best, seeking piteously to win some recognition from the living. The repulsive aspects of spirit manifestations have been treated many times and with power, as in Joseph Hergesheimer’s The Meeker Ritual, to give one very recent example. The subject has interested the minds of many writers who have dealt with it satirically or sympathetically, or with a curious mixture of scoffing and respect, as did Browning in Sludge, the Medium. Even such pronounced realists as William Dean Howells and Hamlin Garland have written novels dealing with attempts at spirit communication.

Any subject that has won so incontestable a place in our literature as this has, possesses a right to our thought, whatever be our attitude of acceptance or rejection of its claims to actuality. No person wishes to be ignorant of what the world is thinking with reference to a matter so important as the spirit. Hence this volume, The Best Psychic Stories, in presenting these studies in the occult, will have interest for a wide range of readers, and Mr. French, the editor, has shown critical discrimination and extensive knowledge of the subject. Many who are already interested in psychic phenomena will be glad to be informed concerning recent and startling manifestations recounted by special investigators. The sincerity of a man like W. T. Stead, well known and respected on both sides of the Atlantic, cannot be doubted, so that his article on Photographing Invisible Beings will have unusual weight. Hereward Carrington, author of various books on psychic subjects, and considered an authority in his field, gives in The Phantom Armies Seen in France a report of occult phenomena widely believed in during the war.

Helena Blavatsky, author of A Witch’s Den, will be remembered as the sensational medium who mystified experimenters in various lands a few years ago. While most of us can be content not to touch a ghost, we may find subject for surprise and wonder in Gambier Bolton’s Ghosts in Solid Form, describing spirits that can be weighed and put to material tests, while Dr. Walter H. Prince, well known as a psychic investigator, relates remarkable experiments of famous persons, that challenge explanation on purely physical bases. These accounts show that modern scientific investigation of spiritual manifestations can be made as enthralling as fiction or drama. Hamlin Garland remarks in a recent article, The Spirit-World on Trial, “When the medium consented to enter the laboratory of the physicist, a new era in the study of psychic phenomena began.”

Even those who refuse credence to spirit manifestations in fact, but who appreciate the art with which they are shown in literature, should read with interest the stories given here. The genius of Edgar Allan Poe was never more impressive than in his studies of the supernatural, and Ligeia has a dramatic art unsurpassed even by Poe. The tense economy with which Ambrose Bierce could evoke a dreadful spirit is evident in The Eyes of the Panther, and the haunting symbolism of Fiona Macleod’s The Sin-Eater is unforgetable. Lafcadio Hearn, author of A Ghost, held the belief that there was no great artist in any land, and certainly no Anglo-Saxon writer, who had not distinguished himself in his use of the supernatural. The subject of the soul’s survival after death and its attempts to reveal itself to those still in the folding flesh is of interest to every rational person, whether as a matter of scientific concern or merely as an aspect of literary art. And the possibilities for further use of the psychic in literature are as alluring as they are illimitable.

– Dorothy Scarborough, PhD, Lecturer in English, Columbia University. New York City March 29, 1920, Introduction to The Best Psychic Stories, ed. by Joseph Lewis French, Boni & Liveright, 1920)

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