Victorian Studies 48.2 (2005) 233-239
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In 1868, psychic researcher Frederic Myers declared: "the best way to read other people's minds,—which we know very little about,—is not to set to work imagining what they are likely to feel, but to tell them what one feels oneself" (Books 5). What are the implications of Myers's reference to reading as the best analogy for psychic connection with another? "To read" primarily denoted a particular mode of discernment and comprehension—one that involved the perusal of words and characters, and the ability to decipher something written. Yet "to read" was a loaded term at the time—one whose significance was heatedly debated in periodicals from the mid-century onward. Myers's assertion of a link between reading and psychic force exemplifies the kind of comments that he put forth in articles for the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research and the periodical Mind. This statement, however, comes not from one of his many scientific publications, but from a lecture addressed to the "general reader" and given at the request of the Dublin Afternoon Lectures Committee (Books 7). Myers titled his speech "Books to Read: A Lecture," a piece later printed privately under the same title. It is in theorizing what it means to read that Myers first articulated the concept of telepathy that would subsequently revolutionize the ways philosophers and scientists conceived of consciousness.
Current scholarship on Myers examines his work as representative of studies exploring the frontiers of the mind.1 I'm interested in asking a related but divergent set of questions from those motivating these other studies: how might his work, and that of his colleagues, elucidate not only the scientific field of the psyche, but developments in the literary field of reading? What role might theories of consciousness have played in the production of discourses surrounding reading? How might these discourses have contributed to burgeoning ideas about consciousness?
The concept of mind reading emerged as one result of a fundamental change taking place in modes of apprehending consciousness. [End Page 233] This change made it possible to think about the reading subject in new ways. My paper will suggest that for Victorians, reading could provide the capacity to extend and redefine the boundaries of the self. Readers could extend their identity through sympathetic identification, which they understood as a form of mind reading. More significantly, though, they could expand their sense of self to include phenomena unavailable to waking consciousness. Reading was thus a means of rendering fluid and permeable the borders of individual consciousness and of exploring alternative and subliminal states. In this manner, reading was a psychic activity.
Myers's instructions on mind reading defined it not so much as the divination of another's thoughts and feelings but as an experience of one's own feelings—a means of producing one's subjectivity. Importantly, he developed his understanding of mind reading through his active and prolific membership in the Society for Psychical Research, for the concept of mind reading fell under the aegis of psychic force, the components of which, according to Edward Cox, included sympathetic intuition, influence exerted at a spatial and temporal distance, dream states and the suspension of will (309). Myers developed the idea of mind reading into the concept of telepathy, which he understood as a matter of "feeling at a distance," the result of a faculty of perception that transcended the recognized senses (Human Personality xxii). Of course, many writers, including Myers, used the term "telepathy" interchangeably with others, such as mind reading, "psychic sympathy," "sympathetic intuition," and "intense sympathy."2
Myers and his colleagues located this extraordinary faculty in the unconscious. This hidden stratum comprised thoughts and feelings that seldom emerged into the field of attention, habitually identified with the self. The exercise of these "supernormal" aspects through mind reading could evolve a "profounder consciousness," as William Barrett wrote (285). Ultimately Myers came to believe that reading other people's minds was a process of articulating one's own feelings, not only those of which the...