29 October 2010


Shane McCorristine. Spectres of the Self: Thinking About Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Spectres of the Self traces the development of ideas surrounding hallucination from the 18th and 19th century rationalist critique of secular paranormal experience (such authors such as Manchester physician John Ferriar always being careful to explain that they were not trespassing in any way into the realm of religion and theology), to the challenge mounted by the Society for Psychical Research.
McCorristine shows how the Protestant rejection of the ideas of purgatory and communion of the living and dead made ghost experiences, already problematical in the 16th and 17th centuries, even more so; and paved the way for physiological explanations of hallucination. Discussions surrounding hallucination centred around the notion of the 'waking dream' as a source of experience. In a sense ghosts were already exiled from the centre of the community, where they did things like reveal buried treasure or demand justice for their murder, to the liminal zone between waking and sleeping. It these liminal spectral figures which were to haunt the Victorian imagination and become the focus for the classic Society for Psychical Research ghost.

The popular notion of ghosts as spirits of the dead walking were challenged by sceptical writers like the illustrator George Cruickshank, who raised the question of why or how ghosts wore clothes, a debate that was to continue to rage, but which impelled even those psychical researchers favourable towards the idea of survival of bodily death to share the rationalist view of ghosts as hallucinations. They were, however to introduce the notion of telepathic or veridical hallucinations.

McCorristine treats the development of these ideas through the production of the book Phantasms of the Living, mainly written by Edmund Gurney, and the debates which raged (and still rage) around it. McCorristine looks at this work as indicating the general death anxiety of the age, an anxiety perhaps most manifest in those who had relatives scattered around the world, particularly in the less wholesome spots in the British Empire. One can actually gain more insight from Phantasms than is often realised, it is an excellent source of anecdotes which hint at the repressions of the age (the lost lovers or would-be lovers exiled to colonial sink-holes who return to their beloved in dreams and spectral encounters for example).

I think that McCorristine could have made more of this material, by examining individual stories to see what they reveal about the Victorian psyche and its repressed, haunted other side.

In a sense the SPR itself, like the ghosts and phantasms it studied, is in an ambiguous haunted twilight zone between the world of scientific rationalism and the world of spiritualism, and, as is often the case, was unable to really gain the trust of either side. Rationalists regarded it as the 'Spookical Society' and laughed at it, while Spiritualists regarded it as a bunch of materialist debunkers. With the death of Gurney and the ascendancy of Myers, spiritualistic and religious side began to predominate. McCorristine briefly tracks the beginning of its decline, although much of its future lies outside his time period. Today it is not hard to think of the SPR itself as an essentially ghostly organisation, a piece of history which will not lie down, and which spectrally dreams of its mortal days at the centre of European intellectual life.

Though this book is not without its faults, chiefly its descent from time to time into nearly incomprehensible jargon and the obligatory and not altogether relevant citations of Derrida, Marx and other social science/cultural studies luminaries, this is a book which should be of interest to all students of the history of psychical research. - Peter Rogerson.

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