The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 by a circle of serious minded Victorian intellectuals who wanted to explore the curious range of phenomena that had manifested across the West (in particular) since about the 1850s. It was an attempt (which still goes on!) to find some order in all those tantalising phenomena that seemed to suggest an invisible world of ghosts, seances, ESP, predictions, reincarnation and all manner of weirdness that hovers the border between science, superstition and mental illness.
Among the founders were the philosopher and fellow at Trinity College Cambridge, Henry Sidgwick, the Classical scholar F W H Myers, who both asserted that when they passed over they'd try and get back in touch. The first part of The Imortalisation Commission tells the story of this pursuit of reliable evidence of an afterlife.
What I found most fascinating about this book was Gray's consideration why the participants of this story might have been attracted to the idea of an afterlife. Sidgwick adhered to a form of moral philosophy that required an outside agency for validation. Traditionally, this had been God, but the after Darwin and Nietzsche he had lost his faith in the biblical account and was looking elsewhere for evidence that we were held accountable for our actions at some stage.
Without this authority, Sidgwick felt that there was no reason to do right. However he tried to reason it out, he couldn't convince himself that that a man might behave correctly as an end in itself. Gray ties this to Sidgwick's homosexuality: put rather crudely (it's a more nuanced argument from John Gray!) Sidgwick needed a reason not to act act on his desires, and the threat of post-mortem had provided him that reason to abstain. However, without that there was no reason for him not to follow his desires.
Myers had come to believe, via Freud, in a subconscious self that was responsible for a great deal of our behaviour. He felt that it acted on information not available to the conscious mind, such as certain memories but also telepathic senses not accessible by the conscious mind. By the time the SPR was founded, he was looking for evidence that this subconscious mind was an expression of a larger spiritual entity that survived death, growing and evolving into a perfected being as it passes through stages of life, of which the material world is just one.
Myers also lost an early love, a married woman – Annie Marshall – who killed herself while suffering mental exhaustion from coping with her spendthrift husband. After his death it was revealed that Myers had pined for Marshall throughout his life. After her death he rejected “sensual matters” and pursued spiritual enlightenment over the material world.
I've read a lot about this era of psychical research before, most of it fairly dry and factual, but this little book – this essay, really – provided a bit of insight into the characters of the people that set it up, the inner conflicts that expressed themselves, indirectly, perhaps, in the search for the afterlife. Both men were seeking a perfected state, away from the uncertainties of the flesh, perfected and united with one's missing parts, and Gray implies that these motives coloured, at the very least, the development of paranormal thought over the following decades.
Myers died in 1901, and there began a series of experiments in automatic writing that attempted to make contact. A handful of mediums were engaged – a few professionals and some society ladies with an interest – to produce the automatic texts, which the SPR researchers examined for what they called “cross correspondences”, consistent messages or clues that would confirm that it was a single voice that was speaking through each writer.
These experiments went on for decades and produced reams of text. A definitive moment came in 1912 on Palm Sunday, when messages were received that claimed to be from a certain Mary Lyttleton. Lyttleton was a real person who had been courted by the Conservative politician Arthur Balfour in the 1870s. Balfour was a former prime minister and was still active politically and had a life long interest in psychical matters. Balfour himself only partially accepted the validity of the contact, and then only at the very end of his life. For others, though, it was proof of an afterlife.
In 1912, the true authors of the scripts – identifying as Myers – instructed one of the sitters that she was to be mother to a messiah for a new age. This was all part of Myer's plan to keep improving the human soul by interveing from beyond the grave, the texts said. So, Winnifred Coombe Tennant – suffragette, delegate to the League of Nations and mediumistic psychographer – duly carried the child she created with Arthur Balfour's brother Gerald. The resulting child, Henry Coombe Tennant, wasn't told of his special role in life until well into adulthood, by which time perhaps the participants were feeling a little sheepish about it all. In between he served in World War II and in MI6 after the war. He died in 1989, having been a Roman catholic monk since 1960.
It all looks like a classic mix of cult and group madness. There doesn't seem to be anything that human beings can't encourage each other to believe, with the right motivations, hot house atmosphere and peer pressure. The intellectual prominence of the individuals involved with it all brings to mind the line from Orwell, “There are some ideas so wrong that only an intelligent person could believe them.”
There's always more to the search for eternal life than evidence and science, there's always a bit of faith and wishing thinking involved. The rest of the book pursues a similar theme. The second essay in The Immortalisation Commission concerns attempts to preserve the corpse of Lenin with an eye on later resurrection, while a shorter final essay discusses the philosophical and psychological impulses that drive the crop of transhumanist immortality hopefuls.
Of course, most of us don't of us don't have the time or the pressing need to explore the nature of the world beyond. We've got our hands full with this one and we're happy to take it all on trust, be that a promise of extinction or eternal paradise.
I don't have any faith in the idea of an afterlife myself. I find that liberating, really: there's only this life to work for, this is all the reward we get. It makes me value what I have today more than I would if I thought that this was just the green room for an eternity on the heavenly stage. Whatever one believes, though, the traffic between the here-and-now and the hereafter appears to be entirely one way.