- “Who Will Explain the Explanation?”: The Ambivalent Reception of Higher Dimensional Space in the British Spiritualist Press, 1875–1900
Underpinned by some of the most revolutionary speculations of the nineteenth century, the possibility that space extended to an imperceptible fourth dimension was disseminated and debated in a variety of Victorian publications targeted at both specialist and nonspecialist readerships. Disciplinary discourses, many of which emphasized philosophical concerns, are most evident from the 1860s, when new investigations and the advance of analytic methodologies began to suggest that mathematicians consider a generalized conception of geometry as well as a revised epistemological framework for its study. By the 1880s, however, the concept of higher dimensional space had found its way into illustrative texts promoting agendas that fell outside of the somewhat fluid disciplinary boundaries then associated with the purview of mathematics. Although occupying an undoubtedly more esoteric niche than other scientific and technological innovations, four-dimensional space became a distinctive element of the nineteenth century’s vocabulary – a conception that served a diverse set of ends.
As evidenced by contemporaneous sources and addressed in more recent works, the fourth dimension was appropriated as a means of advancing a variety of spiritual themes years before writers such as Rudyard Kipling and H. G. Wells adapted the idea to their literary designs.1 The satirical romance Flatland (1884), written by the Anglican cleric and theologian Edwin A. Abbott, represents the most enduring Victorian example of this trend, albeit in a strictly Christian context. Even so, the British Spiritualist press contains some of the earliest references to the hypothesis of the fourth dimension, and this fact [End Page 124] underpins numerous explorations of the cultural responses it engendered. Nineteenth-century commentators quickly drew attention to such reports; indeed, one went so far as to assert that the subject “did not reach the ears of cultured non-mathematicians” until Spiritualists brought it to their attention.2 Since the 1960s several popular accounts have revisited the intersection of geometric and spiritual discourses, elaborating on it by justifiably reminding readers that “there were many . . . who enthusiastically adopted the notion that heaven and hell, our souls, the angels, and God himself could be comfortably lodged in some higher dimension [of space].”3 By selectively emphasizing, and sometimes broadly characterizing, specific actors and texts these pieces reinforce the impression that the interest in exploring the possibility of higher dimensional space maintained by Spiritualists was comparable with, and perhaps even exceeded, that of mathematicians and scientists. This historiography persists owing to recent expositions on the Victorian fascination with the supernatural that continue to stress the commitment some Spiritualists made to communicating an appreciation of four-dimensional space. It is notable, however, that modern scholarship typically disregards the degree to which others queried or contested this concept.4
This paper surveys commentaries on the fourth dimension gleaned from British Spiritualist periodicals published during the period 1875–1900, including many of the most influential and widely circulated titles. In doing so it devotes primary attention to contextualizing their appearance and assessing their content. Furthermore, the analytic perspective adopted throughout pays particular attention to the ways by which Spiritualism was then distinguishable from both liberal trends within Christianity and the esoteric mysticism of Theosophy. When viewed collectively, these articles reveal that contributors to Spiritualist publications largely failed to embrace the notion of four-dimensional space as a means of either describing the nature of psychic phenomena or promoting the existence of a spirit world. Some confessed their ignorance in understanding exactly how such a space was to be understood in the context of Spiritualism; others expressed a clear reluctance to consider any explanatory value it might afford. Although no single, uncontestable rationale emerges from the extant notices, reviews, and testimonies that can be read in relation to higher dimensional theorizing, this essay examines a number of possible explanations that could account for the Spiritualists’ overwhelmingly ambivalent response to such ideas. Ultimately, it challenges longstanding and largely undifferentiated narratives by asserting a critical revision: while cognizant its existence could be adduced to promote [End Page 125] their convictions, British Spiritualists espoused a range of positions that typically included guarded optimism, apprehension, and skepticism...