- The Invention of Telepathy, 1870–1901
The word "telepathy" was coined in an 1882 article in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research by the classical scholar, psychical researcher, and largely forgotten founder of modern psychology, F. W. H. Myers. One of the many pleasures of The Invention of Telepathy is its plethora of entertaining anecdotes about an absorbing cast of characters. When Myers died, after a life spent attending séances and conducting experiments in thought transference, it was hardly surprising that he would return from the dead via numerous trance mediums and automatic scripts. Perhaps more unexpected was his post- death announcement, through the famous Boston psychic Mrs. Piper, that he was planning on forming "a society on this side of life for the further pursuance of the... Psychical work" (254). One wonders what that Society's goal would be—proof of the continued existence of the living?
Recent work on the period has seen a growing interest in the Victorians' fascination with psychical research and the occult. Roger Luckhurst's engrossing study both elucidates the reasons for that interest and puts it into a much wider context. By doing a Foucauldian archaeology of one modern word, Luckhurst uncovers the prehistory of the term, the cultural conditions that allowed this concept to become so popular in such a short time, and some of the pathways telepathy has taken since its inception. He does so in a scholarly study that should be as valuable to historians of science as to literary critics. His larger claim, substantiated by his readings, is that telepathy can provide a wholly new take on the culture of fin-de-siècle England. Luckhurst takes issue with the recent ascendancy of Degeneration as the critical term of choice with which to characterize the 1890s. Myers, for instance, saw telepathy as a hopeful sign for mankind. He viewed telepathy as an evolutionarily ascendant sense, one that was bringing humanity closer to heavenly connections to God; prayer could be seen as the ultimate telepathic experience. His evolutionary optimism provides one way of thinking very differently about the zeitgeist of the fin de siècle.
Telepathy (or "thought transference," as it was most commonly known before the word was coined), began its life as a "mix of popular therapy, performances of music- hall thought-readers and a parlour game carried to somewhat obsessive lengths" (61). But through its investigation by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), telepathy soon became the respectable "scientific" relation to spiritualism. Luckhurst is especially good on telepathy's uneasy place within the institutions of science that were forming at the time. He rightly cautions against using a term such as "pseudo-science" to describe psychical research because it assumes an indisputable, noncontingent science in contrast to a false one, whereas the boundaries of science were then (as they arguably are now) very much in flux. The prestige and credibility of an organization such as the SPR—which [End Page 503] included many of the sharpest minds of the day—cannot be automatically assumed, but neither can psychical research simply be dismissed as a "fringe" interest.
As the SPR began to distance itself from the spiritualists who had originally been its allies, telepathy became the privileged, potentially scientifically verifiable form of the supernatural; a psychic force that was seen as parallel to, if not continuous with, other kinds of recently investigated yet inexplicable natural forces such as electricity and the elusive "ether." The rise of telepathy in the annals of the SPR is largely due to two con tricks: one perpetrated by the Creery sisters—daughters of a middle-class, respectable clergyman—whose surprising ability to guess cards correctly provided the initial evidence for a postulation of the existence of thought transference; the other carried out by two working-class Brighton men who went through numerous experiments transmitting thoughts under the auspices of SPR stalwart Edmund Gurney. Although the two case studies that carried telepathy into the realm of the nearly proven for the SPR...