restricted access Bridging the Chasm: The Medium, the Mystic, and Religion as Mediation in the Work of William James
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Bridging the Chasm:
The Medium, the Mystic, and Religion as Mediation in the Work of William James

William James’s interest in psychical research is often treated as something of an anomaly. The fact that James took “that large group of debatable phenomena designated by such terms as ‘mesmeric,’ ‘psychical,’ and ‘spiritualistic,’” seriously as a legitimate area of scientific inquiry seems slightly bemusing to our contemporary jaded ears.1 As a result, his writings collected in Essays in Psychical Research tend to be marginalized, even ignored by most serious James scholars.2 But American pragmatist communication theorist John Durham Peters, in his innovative philosophical and cultural history of communication, Speaking into the Air, provides the key to a new appreciation of this oft-neglected work by asserting that, for James, “the question of communication was one of our time’s questions of faith.”3 By this Peters means that James’s investigations were not simply about whether communication with the dead via mediums was scientifically possible but also and more fundamentally about the desire for authentic person-to-person or soul-to-soul connection across distances. As Peters reads James, the question of communication is fundamentally a religious one, involving issues of hope, trust, faith, and interpretation; James’s “concern was never to rule out the possibility of contact with the inhuman—beast or God.”4 Why? Because of the difference that it made, the effects that it had. To not “gambl[e] on the possibility of junction” as James did would be to [End Page 129] give up hope, to “renounce not only open inquiry but also the perhaps equally crucial attempt to enter fellowship with intelligences radically different from our own.”5 So it is this hope, this desire for and openness to communication with others that James was concerned to preserve, in Peters’s interpretation, and that is a stance of faith as much as anything else.

In this essay I argue that religion and mediation are inextricably linked in James’s work, not just in his psychical research, but also in his treatment of religion in the Varieties of Religious Experience. By the term mediation, I mean to invoke the broad sense of transmission between two (or more) parties, one process of communication. My approach to mediation is in line with more recent theoretical work in religion and media studies that understands religion as fundamentally about mediation. Earlier approaches to the study of religion and media tended to view them as two separate realms, religion concerned with meaning and values and media with technology and communication. On this view, religion, understood as direct and unmediated experience, stands opposed to mediated communication, which invariably distorts and alters the original message.6 But more recent work, including that of Birgit Meyer and others, seeks to analyze religion as media, or religion as “a practice of mediation”: “religion as both positing, and attempting to bridge, a distance between human beings and a transcendental or spiritual force that cannot be known as such.”7 I argue that it is mediation in precisely this sense, of using communication to bridge the chasm between humans and unseen forces via liminal figures like the religious mystic and the spiritualist medium, that connects James’s work on religion and psychical research.

This understanding of mediation also corresponds with the scientific meaning of the word “medium” as a material in which something propagates or [End Page 130] through which something is transmitted. The spiritualist tradition took shape in the nineteenth century in the context of rapidly changing scientific understandings and the development of new communicative technologies such as the telegraph. The medium, as a kind of “spiritual telegraph,” as Jeremy Stolow has argued, enabled “the immaterial and the material to communicate properly.”8 When properly attuned, the medium is a conduit for the transmission of messages between the living and the dead. We can read James’s portrayal of the mystic in Varieties in a similar way, as a figure who connects the seen and unseen by transmitting knowledge or insight received in mystical states of consciousness to others.

In what follows I undertake a comparative analysis of Varieties and Essays in...