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The Scientific Spirit and the Spiritual Scientist: Moving in the Right Circles Elisabeth Wadge My subtitle is shamelessly stolen from an article in the popular Victorian periodical Every Saturday, entitled "Spirit Circles, and How to Move inThem." The article lightheartedly satirizes a situation many readers would have known, either through personal experience or through report - that ofthe seance-room. The writer invites readers to share in hisjoke against the spiritualists found in such seances: through the credulity of their audiences, ambitious mediums gain entrance to thedrawing-roomsofthe undiscriminating, andthus afootholdin polite society. Spiritualism was popular with writers of all kinds in the late nineteenth century, finding its way into fictional as well as journalistic representations. It lent itself to dramatic plot devices and unlikely revelations; its more elevated manifestations allowed metaphysical speculation on themes ofidentity, truth, faith, and reporting. Both of these strands are present in one ofthe best examples ofthis trend, Bram Stoker's 1897 DracuLĀ·, which we will examine later in this essay. From its beginnings in a small town outside New York in 1848, spiritualism crossed continents and oceans to become a wide-ranging cultural and intellectual phenomenon.1 It encompassed all levels of society, from the drab parlours ofindustrial towns to thegrandsalons of England's stateliest homes; it appeared in different contexts, acceptable in familycircles and in public theatres. Estimates concerning the number ofspiritualism's adherentsvaried from thousands to millions, and articles on the topic appearedwith startlingfrequencyin the national press until well into the twentieth century (see Poole). Inevitably, some of this volume 26 number 1 scrutiny came from unsympathetic groups predisposed to dismiss it as faddish orfraudulent, such criticism beingparticularlyprevalentwithin contemporary scientific circles. From a modern perspective, Victorian science can give the impression of being monolithic and unproblematic, a triumphant narrativeofinexorable progress towardsknowledgeandexperience. This impression is ofcourse entirely wrong. A truer picture of the state of Victorian sciencewould be much more opaque and uncertain. Scientific inquiry being inherently an investigative process, itwas and is based on constant revision ofideas. We see this quite clearly in accounts ofthe Devonian controversy and evolutionary debates that rocked scientific (and lay) minds during the century, asEdmund Gosse's autobiographical Father and Son recounts. Given the constantly changing nature ofthe discipline, it proveddifficult to separate areas oflegitimate investigation from those regarded as more dubious. Throughout the nineteenthcentury , the assumption that orthodoxy and unorthodoxycould be kept apart was increasingly under attack. It is useful to evoke here Mary Douglas's anthropological work Purity andDanger, which explores the nature ofboundaries in societies seeking to separate certain areas of life from others. Generally, such societies relate perceived benefit to the allowable and good, and keep potential sources of "pollution" outside the parameters of orthodoxy. Douglas's research also indicates that boundaries between good and bad are themselves problematic, since they are the sites where certainties are blurred. While defining and separating categories, the boundary is the region ofgreatest turmoil.2 We can see that this model holds in relation to Victorian science. Diagram Oneillustrates thecommonlyheldviewofthestatusofscientific investigative fields towards the end ofVictoria's reign.The "holy trinity" ofchemistry, biology, and physics held an unassailable position within the sphere ofscientific orthodoxy. The professional basis ofmedicine gave it an equallyassured place. The newer discipline ofpsychologywas also welcomed into the fold, because ofa sufficiently close relationship with current medical research. After all, how unorthodox a field could psychologybewhenWilliamJames heldhisprofessorialchairatHarvard, Victorian Review (2000)25 E. Wadge or when Charcot, Breuer, and Freud worked in major European universities and hospitals?This was not true ofhypnotism, located near the boundary between science and superstition. A tool ofinvestigation rather than a field in itself, hypnotism is interesting because of its borderline status. It is depicted in Diagram Oneasjustwithin the realms ofacceptability, tolerated by the scientificcommunity, unlike the earlier mesmeric movement from which it emerged. An unusual and often disputed treatment, itwas nevertheless often used in clinical practice by Charcot, James, and Breuer. Hypnotism shared its equivocal status with psychical research, in which it played a major role from the 1880s onwards. Researchers into psychical phenomena such as dual consciousness and mediumshipwere capitalizingon its abilityto unlock the subliminal levels ofthe mind, using a mysterious tool to investigate the mystery ofconsciousness. Diagram One...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 24-42
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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