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  • Mourning and Mysticism in First World War Literature and Beyond: Grappling with Ghosts by George M. Johnson
  • Kathy J. Phillips (bio)
George M. Johnson. Mourning and Mysticism in First World War Literature and Beyond: Grappling with Ghosts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, xiv + 256 pp. ISBN 978-1137332028, $90.00.

In Mourning and Mysticism, George Johnson examines British researchers and philosophers of psychic phenomena (Frederic Myers, Oliver Lodge, Conan Doyle, and Aldous Huxley) plus writers of creative literature (J. M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, May Sinclair, Virginia Woolf, and Wilfred Owen). Johnson credits all these figures with using their writing as a way of bravely working through a pattern of "avoidant" attachment developed self-protectively against losses in childhood and re-suffered in war losses (10). He calls the writers "wounded healers" of both themselves and a collectively war-traumatized society (7).

Johnson helpfully shows how widespread the appeal of psychic research was in Victorian and Edwardian England, continuing through and after World War I. He is careful to point out the interest of scientists in the Society for Psychical Research and to detail the organization's efforts to remain grounded in evidence, investigate mediums, and, if finding frauds, expose them. If the evidence was striking, the researchers recorded it and let the interpretation—as thought-transference, clairvoyance, or survival of personality after death—remain as open as possible. He notes the exponential growth of affiliates of the Spiritualists' National Union and the proliferation of "as many as 100,000 home séance circles" during and after the war (22). Against the unease of established churches in the face of these developments, Johnson finds the ferment more independent and probing.

Hence, when Johnson argues that interest in mysticism is not necessarily "delusional" but sometimes "therapeutic," "ethical" (3), and conducive to a "renewal of engagement in life" (17), I am initially drawn to this thesis. However, to my taste, he applies "object relations theory" and "attachment theories" from psychology too obsessively. More importantly, he uses the word "ethical" much too narrowly. All accomplishments and ethics to him remain on a personal level, leaving out the insights of several of his authors (Woolf, Owen, and a briefly mentioned Sassoon), who went on to investigate and articulate larger social ideologies and to identify them as specific contributors [End Page 420] to war, thus taking the ethical route of trying to prevent future wars, beyond seeking personal comfort.

For me, Johnson frames his subjects too exclusively, using "object relations" psychological rubrics and dwelling too much on childhood. Nor is he always consistent in what he means by "avoidance." He reproaches authors for avoiding war scenes, yet when Sinclair describes a character who has gone through the Boer War, seen a corpse with a head "like rotten fruit, and the bone like a cup you've broken and stuck together without any seccotine," and comes back himself looking like "a thing of battered, sodden flesh hanging loose on brittle bone, a rickety prop for the irreproachable summer suit bought with Anthony's money," Johnson disdains Sinclair for "dehumaniz[ing]" the soldiers, when actually she is satirizing an uncomprehending family and blaming the war as the dehumanizer, whose damage she has not hushed up (176). Similarly, when Kipling "bolted home" from "the Jollifications of the first day of peace" and instead sought "my dark hour alone," Johnson can only spy yet another "avoidant-resistant response to loss," when it seems Kipling is at that moment attempting to face, not avoid, his grief for the death of his son in the war (227).

Johnson does perceptively read Owen's use of "ghosts" in his poems as representing a "transitional" space, "neither here nor there, known or unknown"; Johnson recognizes that the poet may well be connecting that state to the unrecognized and unallowed status imposed on homosexuals by the dominant society (194). I do think, however, that Owen's poetry shows less "guilt" and more defiance and brave claiming of his sexual orientation for a whole segment of society than Johnson gives him credit for (Phillips, Manipulating 52–55).

Finally, I would like to thank Johnson for granting his authors and researchers an "ethical" rather than "pathological" stance...


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