"STRANGER THAN FICTION." "STRANGER THAN FICTION."
A NEW witness to the phenomena classed with table-turning comes forward in the Cornhill Magazine, and although we find comparatively little that is novel in his account, it is by far the best that we have seen. The character of the writer and the man- ner in which he executes his task, greatly enhance the value of the statements. The editor of the Magazine vouches for his good
faith and honourable character. The reporter speaks after many and evidently elaborate experiments on the phenomenon, but his judgment is chiefly shown in the strictness with which he limits himself to a statement of facts : he does not give us the result of his fancies or his construction, but simply tells us what he saw, heard, and observed. That is marvellous enough. That intelligence is conveyed through the alphabet by means of
raps, or that tables are moved under an impulse conveyed by the hands of sitters, is a slight matter ; although the writer tells us, and in a way which inolines us to believe him, that the impulse was not given by the muscular contraction of those who were touching the table. We have incidents far more surprising than anything of that sort. Indeed we have never yet witnessed any of the rap- ping answers which might not be very plausibly construed as in- dicating nothing more than a reflection of the thoughts of the person who evoked the rapping. We might have guessed that a man having certain thoughts, and placing himself spontaneously in certain electric relations to a piece of furniture, might get from that piece of furniture vibrations crepitations, and raps in response to his own thoughts. But al that is guess work ; it does not help our curiosity ; it cannot apply to the events related in the Cornhill Magazine. Here we read of a table throwing it- self gently down on its side, gliding along the floor followed by the persons who had touched it, slowly mounting on the top of another table, and then descending. We read of a table tilted from the perpendicular with a number of loose articles upon it— table ornaments, the vases containing flowers—the whole remaining in as firm cohesion as if the table were upright. We are told that after this mobile table had slanted to an angle of 45` in obe- dience to the wishes of the people present, it slanted still further, and showed the same skill in holding firmly every article that had been placed upon it. Afterwards we are told of scenes like those that have been witnessed elsewhere—the lights extinguished, the window-blinds drawn down by invisible means, hands made visi- ble by their own effulgence in the dim nocturnal light, and of Mr. Home lifted from the ground and carried about the room, some- times in a perpendicular and sometimes in a recumbent posture. All this happened, we are assured, in a house where the room and furniture could not have been prepared ; and we are also assured that inatead of claiming any supernatural power, Mr. Home disclaims -for,‘ himself any comprehension of the phenomena, in which he is simply passive. The witnesses to these- appearances are now rising in character as well as number, and they are claiming our attention by the modest and restricted form in which they make their report. Either the juggle which they describe, is the most perfect that ever
i has been exhibited, or there s more in. the case than juggle. The obviously crude and idle reports upon the subject which have pre- viously been issued are not , in themselves evidence that the phe- nomena to which they refer are false. Many a true event has been very absurdly and falsely reported ; and the facts, if they are facts, cannot be held answerable for the idle writing which has appeared in spirit-rapping journals on either side of the Atlantic. The futility of the statements ascribed to "the spirits" by no means proves that the manifestations are fraudulent. "The
Duke of Sussex" may respond to the appeals of Robert Owen sus- piciously in accordance with the memory of the ingenuous Ro- bert; the " Lord Byron " of the spirit world may show a total lack of the genius and wit that distinguished the man we knew ; and we may be left without an answer to our request that the spirit-rappers should disclose to us the correspondence of the sunken India mail ; but none of these negative facts prove that there have been no rappings, or that the rappings are the result of legerdemain. They do not prove that we perfectly compre- hend the causes of the phenomena, and they do not even prove that the phenomena are without relation to other existences than our own. " To say," says the writer in the Corn/lilt Magazine, " that certain phenomena are incredible is merely to say that they are inconsistent with the present state of our knowledge ; but, knowing how imperfect our knowledge is, we are not, there- fore, justified in asserting that they are impossible- " The • failures ' which have occurred at seances are urged as proofs that the whole thing is a cheat. If such an argument be worth noticing, it is sufficient to say that ten thousand failures do not disprove a single fact. But it must be evident that as we do not know the conditions of success,' we cannot draw any argument from failures.' We often hear people say that they might believe such a thing, if such another thing were to happen ; making assent to a particular fact, by an odd sort of logic, depend upon the occurence of something else. 'I will believe,' for example, says a philo- sopher of this stamp, ' that a table has risen from the ground, when I Bee the lamp-posts dancing quadrilles. Then, tables ? Why do these things happen to tables ?' Why, that in one of the very matters which it is desirable to investigate, but which we shall never know anything about so long as we ignore inquiry. And, above all, of what use are these wonderful manifest- ations? What do they prove ? What benefit have they conferred on the world ? Sir John Herschel has answered these questions with a weight of authority which is final. 'The question, Cui bono ? to what practical end and advantage do your researches tend ?—is one which the speculative phi- losopher, who loves knowledge for its own sake, and enjoys, as a rational being should enjoy, the mere contemplation of harmonious and mutually dependent truths, can seldom hear without a sense of humiliation. He feels that there is a lofty and disinterested pleasure in his speculations, which ought to exempt them from such questioning. But,' adds Sir John, if he can bring himself to descend from this high but fair ground, and justify himself, his pursuits, and his pleasures in the eyes of those around him, he has only to point to the history of all science, where speculations, apparently the most unprofitable, have almost invariably been those from which the greatest practicable applications have emanated.' (Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, p 10.) "The first thing to be done is to collect and verify facts. But this can never be done if we insist upon refusing to receive any facts, except such as shall appear to us likely to be true, according to the measure of our intelli- gence and knowledge.'
This is very just. No man has more powerfully contributed to bring'philosophical inquiry within its own proper discipline than Sir John Herschel. His works are an evidence of the change made in his own mind, from that of an accomplished man re- ceiving certain conclusions as established, to that of a simple in- quirer willing to see whatever nature could disclose to him, and to wait for the conclusion until he should arrive at it patiently. Another philosopher of the present day, Oliver Wendell Holmes, is already claiming for spiritualism tremendous results—nothing less than the total destruction of orthodoxy of every kind what- soever, a tabula rasa of traditional ideas- " You don't know what plague has fallen on the practitioners of theology ? I will tell you' then. It is spiritualim. While some are crying out against it as a delusion of the Devil, and some are laughing at it as an hysteric folly, and some are getting angry with it as a mere trick of inte- rested or mischievous persons, spiritualism is quietly undermining the tra- ditional ideas of the future state which have been and are still accepted,— not merely in those who believe in it, but in the general sentiment of the community, to a larger extent than most good people seem to be aware of. It needn't be true, to do this, any more than homceopathy need, to do its work."
The writer in the Cornhill Magazine, however, indicates more precisely than Holmes,—who is indeed not speaking didactically,— the manner in which we have to investigate. And to a certain extent, the writer in the Magazine removes from us the idea of
responsibility suggested by the intimation of the American Pro- fessor that spiritualism is to have such desperate iconnoclastio effects in the world. If Spiritualism may rebuke some pure superstitions, it may also rebuke the negative assumption of half philosophy. Certain of the incidents recorded at these seances remind us of things related in old times, such as the stories of witches who confessed that they were lifted off the ground and upheld in mid air, themselves unconscious of the agency by which they were supported. Dogmatism at that age assumed that the women had been tampering with the Devil, and it burned the poor creatures, even when they were young and handsome as well as old. At a later date, philosophy has assumed that the witches were the victims only of hysterical delusion ; but now, men of trained mind, with a guard upon their own observation, looking simply to facts for the purpose of recording them, tell us that they have seen what philosophers pronounced impossible, and what priests pronounced to be the work of the Devil. In our time, indeed, we have grown familiar with works which a century or two back, or even less, would by one set be declared the work of magic, and by another simply of fraud. We are carried across land and water by no power but the elasticity of steam ; Queen Victoria received in London, the other day, the news of her grandchild's birth in Berlin, at an hour indicated by the clock earlier than that of the event ; every working youth that keeps company with the "fairest girl in the world' has her portrait taken in the twinkling of an eye for "only sixpence frame and
glass included," the reflection of the mirror being Led at his
bidding on payment of the fee aforesaid. But we who have grown familiar with the ineredibilities of no very distant past, still scout the notion of any phenomenon whose promoting cause does not come within the range of our encycloprediacal knowledge, as an imposture, a fraud, or a dream. There is one very simple lesson which with all the wisdom of centuries, mankind has not yet learned,-it is, that nothing ever happens until the first time. We never can know anything until we have perceived it, either through our own senses, or through credible reports. There are more things in the heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. We are constantly quoting the passage retro- spectively; but it never occurs to us to give it its true prospective application.
We have never yet seen any report which gets over the real difficulty in the case. We are quite prepared to receive the account of the Cornhill Magazine as written in good faith ; we perceive from the internal evidence that the writer is a dis- criminating man; but we have no data by which to estimate his judgment in noticing all the collateral circumstances and ad- juncts of the scene by which its genuine character would be tested. Is he a scene, he an upholsterer,-who could guarantee that neither house nor furniture had been prepared for tricks excelling those of Bosco or Houdin ? He does not give us the name of the person to whom the house belongs, nor report any previous examination of the chamber and of everything it con- tained. Before any scientific experiment is made, the experi- menter tests everything he uses,--every vessel, every ingredient; and without such previous examination, he knows that the report upon the result would be inconclusive. This is what we want.
V en we to have a repetition of experiments like these, con- du before competent persons, in a chamber previously ax- ed, with nothing in the room that had not undergone the e scrutiny ; Mr. Homes himself, before he shall have en- ed the place, being examined as rigorously as a fine lady in a rench Customhouse ?