restricted access The Invention of Telepathy (review)
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Modernism/modernity 10.4 (2003) 766-767



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The Invention of Telepathy . Roger Luckhurst. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. 324. $49.95 (cloth).

Roger Luckhurst prefaces The Invention of Telepathy with the usual catechism of thanks to assorted colleagues, students, archivists, and pets, winding up with a heartfelt dedication to his partner:

Over the past six years Julie has listened to 10,537 allegedly interesting facts about telepathy. This is about 10,412 more facts than any human being (who is not an academic) needs to know, particularly when usually delivered in an over-excited way during supper. That she was only sarcastic about this a quarter of the time is testament to her sublime patience.

This paean to domestic fortitude foreshadows with remarkable accuracy both the considerable strengths and the flaws of Luckhurst's ambitious study. The Invention of Telepathy is indeed crammed with interesting facts, some marshaled in the service of incisive analysis, others searching for an argument about which to assemble. While the cover blurb optimistically describes Luckhurst's book as "exciting and accessible," his partner's sometime sarcasm is likely to prove a more accurate barometer of its appeal to non-academics. (Any author who starts out by earnestly explaining, "I use 'terrains' in a Foucauldian sense to analyse the discursive constellations through which telepathy becomes an object of knowledge" (11) automatically flunks the accessibility test). Yet for readers willing to negotiate Luckhurst's dense Foucault-and-Latour-laden prose and to navigate the varied terrains (Foucauldian or otherwise) of his dense cultural history, The Invention of Telepathy offers ample rewards. And yes, Luckhurst enlivens the journey with the same understated humor that marks his dedication to Julie, even while he treats his potentially risible subject matter with respectful seriousness.

That seriousness, after all, is crucial to the project that Luckhurst has set for himself: to write a history of telepathy "that does not prejudge" (1). Coined in 1882 by F. W. H. Myers, one of the founding members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), from the Greek words tele (distant) and pathos (feeling), telepathy distinguished itself from other "fin-de-siècle quasi-scientific concepts like mattoids, gemmules, urnings, [and] vortex atoms" (1) by swiftly entering the realm of everyday speech, where it remains firmly ensconced to this day. Luckhurst proposes to treat telepathy "as if it were a possible formulation" (2) (the italics hint at his own not-entirely-repressed skepticism) and to portray its Victorian proponents as rational scientific investigators rather than the deluded crackpots they are sometimes taken to have been. But it is not the disinterestedness of Luckhurst's approach so much as its interdisciplinarity that renders The Invention of Telepathy such an impressive and valuable book, despite its occasional disjointedness and its lack of an overarching thesis. Luckhurst explores telepathy from a range of historical and theoretical perspectives, devoting individual chapters to (among other things) Victorian science, fin-de-siècle psychology, the New Journalism, British imperialism, gothic tropes, and the politics of gender, race, and class. His elegant readings of a number of literary texts—most notably his splendid explication of Bram Stoker's Dracula—prove him an adept literary critic as well as an astute cultural historian.

For anyone already well acquainted with the copiously documented history of psychical research in late-nineteenth-century Britain, The Invention of Telepathy contains many familiar [End Page 766] vignettes: Charles Darwin's half-skeptical, half-hopeful attendance at a seance that also included George Eliot, George Lewes, and F. W. H. Myers; journalist W. T. Stead's foundation of "Julia's Bureau," a sort of otherworldly telegraph office dedicated to facilitating communications from the dead; Rudyard Kipling's sister's participation in the famous "cross-correspondence" experiments conducted by the SPR, in which the spirit of Myers supposedly relayed fragmentary messages, like puzzle pieces requiring reassembly on a single table, to several writing mediums spread across vast geographic distances. What distinguishes Luckhurst's book from other accounts of these same incidents is both his meticulous attention to detail (whether textual, archival, or biographical) and his...


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