The Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Is Conan Doyle Mad?

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Is Conan Doyle Mad? is a book review written by James Douglas published in the Sunday Express #143, 25 september 1921.

This is a positive critic of Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Wanderings of a Spiritualist published on 2 september 1921.

Is Conan Doyle Mad?

Sunday Express #143 (p. 6)

By James Douglas

With an ironical smile on my lips I began to read "The Wanderings of a Spiritualist," by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Maunderings or wanderings? For years I have regarded his writings about the dead with benign contempt. In private talk with men of letters I have assumed that, on this subject he is mad. That is a very general assumption. One does not trouble to analyse the ravings of a madman. One shrugs one's shoulders, laughs, and forgets. But before I had read half the book I found myself in a quandary. Doyle, I reflected, is no fool. He is not only a novelist and historian: he is also a man of action. He is healthy in mind and body. He is direct and downright, prosaic and practical. He has plenty of vigorous common sense. If ever there were a well-balanced mind in a well-balanced body, it is his. He is also a medical man, and therefore not likely to fall a victim to hallucinations and neurotic delusions.


Moreover, his world-famous character, Sherlock Holmes, is a master of the science of induction and deduction. Doyle could not have created Sherlock Holmes if he had not been deeply versed in the laws of evidence. In many other respects, too, Doyle is a pioneer, for he sees further ahead than most of his contemporaries. He foresaw the nature of the submarine war. Many other predictions that he made have been fulfilled. As an imaginative realist he rivals Mr. Wells. It is not easy to reconcile these facts with the hypothesis that he is stark, staring mad on the subject of the dead. It is possible, I thought, that there may be method in his madness. He has established his right to be heard, and we may be wrong in refusing to hear him. There may be oceans of fraud and folly in Spiritualism, but there may be a grain of truth in it. It may be one of the great movements of the human mind, as yet in its early stage, but destined to struggle towards full and final victory.


After all, man is a creature of prejudice. He mocks at every new thing. He derides every fresh discovery. Wireless telegraphy and aviation were at one time scoffed at as absurdities. They are now commonplaces. It may be that Spiritualism will become an ordinary fact and factor in human life. The ancient barrier between the living and the dead may be crossed. Intercourse between the two separated portions of the human race may be made possible. The mourner may cease to mourn. The continuity of personality may be proved beyond doubt. It may be possible to know as well as to believe. How can I rule out this vision of hope and joy? I certainly cannot prove that it is impossible.

Science has wrought so many miracles in our time that it is stupid to set a limit to its march. The earth has been explored. The stars have been analysed, The one great unknown region is the mysterious land of the living dead. Is it not possible that the spiritual universe may be explored as successfully as the material universe? And Doyle may be one of the precursors. He may be groping and fumbling on the threshold of a miracle. His totterings and stumblings may seem comical to us, but they may be the first steps of the human infant. Reasoning thus, I grew ashamed of my cynical disdain. I opened my mind wide and sat down at the feet of Gamaliel in an attitude of respectful humility. I resolved to be critical without being contemptuous.

One thing this book proves — Doyle's intellectual honesty. He may be a dupe, but at least he strives to be fair and frank. He makes admissions which a rogue or a lunatic would not make. He deliberately weakens his own case by his exposition of its flaws. The working of his mind is candid. And he is a glorious evangelist. His fervour is splendid. After three years of polemical crusading in this country, during which he often spoke five times a week, and addressed 150,000 people, he set forth on his mission to Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania. There were difficulties. His wife and three children of tender age, a girl of seven, a boy of nine, and a boy of eleven, could not easily be left behind. A maid was necessary. A secretary was essential. A party of seven in all! A cheque for £1,600 was drawn for their return tickets, apart from outfit. At the end of the tour, after paying all expenses, Doyle handed the balance of £700 to the cause in Australia. A businesslike evangelist, surely!

The paradox pleases me. Doyle conducts his spiritualist campaign on sound business lines. His propaganda is hard-headed and matter-of-fact. He is a practical mystic, and there is nothing hectic in his altruism. He does not live on locusts and wild honey. He likes the good things of life. He can savour a glass of wine. This burly cricketer, with his robust frame, his interest in all phases of life, is no demented dervish or hysterical fakir. He is as solid and as serious as any man of business. He pounds away at his job as if he were batting for his side. And he does not often pull out the sentimental stop. He believes in his wares and he pushes them with all the energy and persuasiveness of a good salesman or commercial traveller. He is the drummer of the unseen.

He is not credulous. For example, he acutely analyses the mango-tree trick and explains it away. "My explanation is that by a miracle of packing the plant had been compressed into the little rag doll. I observed that the leaves were still rather crumpled, and that there were dark specks of fungi which would not be there if the plant were straight from nature's manufactory. That is Sherlock Holmes. I hesitate to suggest that our Sherlock Holmes does not honestly apply his unique powers of analysis to spiritualistic phenomena. It is only fair to assume that our Sherlock Holmes conscientiously exhausts every possibility of error before he accepts the evidence as conclusive proof.


"I asked for proofs," he says, "and spiritualism has given them to me. I have done with faith. It is a golden mist in which human beings wander in devious tracks, with many a collision. I need the white, clear light of knowledge." The age of faith, it seems, is dead. The war killed faith for many. There are few signs of its revival. Is it possible that the next great spiritual renascence of the soul of man may be wrought by an exploration of the other world? If the patient labours of these exploring moles can excavate evidence which will convince mankind that it survives death, surely the human race may be redeemed from the horrible materialism of despair.

Doyle says that he has seen and touched the mysterious stuff known as ectoplasm, psychoplasm, or ideoplasm. It is poured out of the medium's body. It can be built up into forms and shapes, first, flat, and finally rounded, by powers which are beyond our sciences. " It was about six inches long and as thick as a finger. I was allowed to touch it, and felt it shrink and contract under my hand." This strange stuff has been photographed. Men of science were present when it appeared! One theory regards its shapes as thought forms. Another theory suggests that "what we see is never the thing itself, but always the reflection of the thing which exists in another plane and is made visible in ours." Well, I think of wireless telegraphy, of radium, of electrons, and I wonder.


Doyle asserts that "the human race is on the very eve of a tremendous revolution of thought, marking a final revulsion from materialism." He predicts that it will "give religion a foundation of rock instead of quicksand." I humbly suspend my judgment. But I claim a fair hearing for Doyle. Let us investigate instead of sneering. Let us examine all the evidence, all the witnesses, all the "cross-correspondences," all the "book-tests," and all the photographs. Let us sift and clarify, weigh and measure. The progressive Press, at any rate, ought to be on the side of reverent research and honest exploration.

"The Wanderings of a Spiritualist." By Arthur Conan Doyle. (Hodder and Stoughton. 12s. 6d net.)