Conan Doyle, Spiritualist, on Tour
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Conan Doyle, Spiritualist, on Tour
The Wanderings of a Spiritualist. By Arthur Conan Doyle. New York: George H. Doran Company.
The charitable treatment of this mission would be that of silence; and this the author would resent as an unwarranted condescension. A disrespectful critic, sampling the pages, put the book down with the comment, "Maunderings of a spiritualist." How ever ready to take the challenge of the volumes seriously, the responsible critic returns to it again and again as a pathetic human document. It is not the author's conviction of the return of the departed, revealed through the questionable performances of mediums, that forms the stumbling block to the respectful attention that one would extend to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, M. D., but the puerile (or is it senile?) credulity that pervades the pages, and a curious combination of personal vanity and provincial prepossession. This it is that betrays the ineptness of his mind in the affairs of logic and psychology. The volume tells the story of the strange case of Conan Doyle.
The temper in which the propagandist pilgrimage to Australia was under taken appears in the ceremony of a visit to a medium just before sailing. "I had the joy of a few last words with my arisen son, who blessed me on my mission and assured me that I would indeed bring solace to bruised hearts. The words he uttered were a quotation from my London speech at which Powell [the medium] had not been present, nor had the verbatim account of it appeared anywhere at that time. It was one more sign of how closely our words and actions are noted from the other side."
The tour through Australia is described as a triumphant enterprise, with crowded audiences, enthusiastic receptions, and acceptable box-office receipts, all devoted to the "cause." One doubts neither the sincerity nor the ability of the gifted advocate; but the ardor of a zealot, being so largely an emotional attitude, weakens the keen ness of perception, alike of logic and fact. Sir Arthur was aware of the prevalent attitude which his state ments aroused, but listened mainly to the approving words of his fellow believers.
"I was welcome enough as an individual, but by no means so as an emissary, and both the Churches and the Materialists, in most unnatural combination, had done their best to make the soil stony for me." The Argus of Melbourne regarded the distinguished visitor as representing "a force which we believe to be purely evil"; another reported "the one thing clear is that Sir Conan Doyle's mission to Australia was a mournful and complete failure, and it has left him in a very exasperated state of mind."
"My psychic photographs, which are the most wonderful collection ever shown in the world, were received in absolute silence by the whole press, though it is notorious that if I had come there with a comic opera or bedroom comedy instead of with the evidence of a series of miracles, I should have had a column." The papers "timid as rabbits," were put down as examples of "reactionary intolerance."
What anyone in Sir Arthur's frame of mind — it matters little whether the mind is trained or untrained, with distinguished achievements or without them — persistently fails to understand is that his "miracles" are tainted with the suspicion of gross fraud in some instances, subtle delusion in others, logical misinterpretation in still others, and intensive prepossession through out. What the critical reader or auditor looks for and listens for is the logical temper of the propagandist. He learns it by noting that Sir Arthur is as ready to credit discredited mediums as those sincerely contributing their personal revelations. A versatile medium by name of Bailey produces "spirit hands," and from the same spiritual source birds and birds' eggs and birds' nests, Assyrian tablets, and what not. Sir Arthur admits that "there was a disturbing suggestion of cuffs about those luminous hands"; that the Assyrian tablets were forgeries, and that Bailey lied. But we are asked to remember that "to the transporting agency it is at least possible that the forgery, steeped in recent human magnetisms, is more capable of being handled than the original taken from a mound"; that "physical mediumship has no connection one way or the other with personal character, any more than the gift of poetry"; and that despite the exposures Sir Arthur "cannot doubt that he (Bailey) has been a great apport medium," who has a record of bringing from the "beyond" "eighty-seven ancient coins (mostly of Ptolemy), eight live birds, eighteen precious stones... seven inscribed Babylonian tablets, one Egyptian scarabaeus, an Arabic newspaper, a leopard skin, four nests," and many other things, including a "young live shark." It seems to Sir Arthur "perfect nonsense to talk about these things being the result of trickery," just as it seems quite as perfect non sense to the rest of us to talk about them as being anything else.
Sir Arthur's credulity is staggering. He still believes that the fairies whose photographs (showing the marks of the shears) he published are as "genuine" as his other psychic photographs forming the protocol of the "Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures"; he believes that by their "clairvoyant gifts" mediums can see as much as is revealed to merely medical eyes by X-rays and laryngoscopes, he believes that when restless and sleepless a special providence sent "a very distinct pungent smell of ether, coming in waves from outside" to calm his excited nerves; he believes that a similar miracle war performed in his behalf upon mosquitoes. "I prayed that my face would be spared" and "though my hands were like boxing-gloves and my neck all swollen, there was not a mark upon my face." He believes that a "psychic" dog had all the prodigious mathematical gifts attributed to him, "though age and excitement had now impaired them," and showed a knowing excitement in meeting so distinguished a fellow "psychic"; he believes in "ectoplasm," materialization, voices and usages from the beyond, and regards critical investigations as "fantastic precautions." To such a frame of mind ordinary argument loses its meaning; but the question of the defensive logic of prepossession remains.
Reliance is placed on photographs described as "almost too overwhelming for immediate propaganda purposes," which only when maturely considered bring the sense of "final proof... which no one with the least sense for evidence could reject. But the sense for evidence is not, also, a universal human quality." Unfortunately, true. But until the conditions under which these photographs were taken are minutely examined their "evidential" value of the thesis which they are made to support is precisely that of the proof that John Smith committed a murder, for here is a photograph of the place in which he did it; and photo graphs do not lie. They do not; but what truth they tell is not easily determined. On the other hand it is not the interpretation of evidence alone but the reliance upon fallacies that riddles the argument. "One positive result must always outweigh a hundred negative ones." It only needs one single case of spirit return to be established, and there is no more to be said. "How absurd is the position of those wise acres who say 'nine-tenths of the phenomena are fraud.' Can they not see that if they grant us one-tenth, they grant us our whole contention?" Arguments of this kind are submitted to sophomores in courses on logic to cut their logical teeth on. In ordinary affairs of witness and evidence when 90 per cent, is perjury, few juries trouble about the rest. But whether such supports function as real props to faith or as Freudian compensations, one cannot say.
For here we return to the pith of the problem. The spirit belief as advocated by Conan Doyle is a religious consolation; as such one would show it the respect of silence. But when the author of "The New Revelation" points to ectoplasm on the screen in one address and offers messages to the be reaved in another, the critic is at a loss to know what his duty in the matter may be. He must interpret it by his individual sense of responsibility. At the moment when Sir Arthur is bringing the same message to the United States and Canada, and is again speaking to crowded houses, it seems necessary to set forth in plain language the nature of the man and his message under the critical scrutiny of a scientific logic and a modern psychology.