Better Dead

The Silly World of the Spiritualists

Stephen Leacock November 1 1918

Better Dead

The Silly World of the Spiritualists

Stephen Leacock November 1 1918

Better Dead

The Silly World of the Spiritualists

Stephen Leacock

Author of “Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town,” etc.

IN old days—nor yet so very long ago— the dead slept quietly under the elm trees of the church yard. All about them was silence, broken only by the twittering of the birds. The morning sunlight fell undisturbed upon the long grass about their graves.

Of the hope of meeting with them again, upon this earth and through the medium of our poor senses, there was none. Only in the promise of a dim eternity where soul should meet again with soul, might the stricken heart of bereavement find its consolation.

All this is changed to-day, rudely and vociferously. The dead are all about us, wide awake, unseen, at our very sides. They rap on tables. They thump with chairs. They push a little ouija board obligingly to and fro. They ring bells. They wave luminous hands through darkened rooms. And from the pallid lips of an entranced medium, ghastly in her hysteria, come to us, so we are assured, the very words and thoughts of the departed.

The whole civilized world to-day (I leave out Germany and Turkey) seems to be passing through a wave of spiritualism —much as our globe is said to plunge every now and then through the nebulous tail of a lost comet. The thing is everywhere. It fills our magazines. It runs riot in our newspapers. We are back again, though we do not admit it, in the days of the astrologers. We keep away from the old words and the ancient terms. We speak of seances and mediums and psychic telepathy. We do not care to talk of witches and wizards. But it is all one and the same thing. We should see things in a better historical perspective if we applied the phrases and forms of the past. Instead of having an advertisement that reads: “Grand Opera

House, Tuesday Evening, Spiritualistic Seance“ and so forth, we should have the announcement, “GRAND OPERA, TUESDAY EVENING, GENTLEMAN POSSESSED OF THE DEVIL. WILL BE ON THE PLATFORM, accompanied by Miss X, CHILD OF BEELZEBUB, who will RAISE HELL FOR THE AUDIENCE.”

Will the reader kindly observe that I am speaking above in all plain seriousness, the statement being mere fact and neither for nor against spiritualism. A medium is a “witch.” A clairvoyant is an “astrologer.” Telepathy is the “Black Art.” A seance is “raising the dead.” Sir Oliver Lodge is a “wizard.” A ouija board that runs back and forward under the fingers of the assembled enquirers is “possessed by the devil.” A “psychic phenomenon” is nothing more or less than a “ghost.” •

All this, I repeat, is no argument whatever against spiritualism. It only shows that the whole business is a good deal older than many of its modern practitioners take it to be. The fact that “witches" and “ghosts” and “haunted houses” were ruled out of court a hundred years or so ago is neither here nor

They were ruled out and they have come back. That is all. So have many other things, both better and worse.

'"pHE fact is that spiritualism is quite as old as the human race, and probably older. The uncanny behaviour of certain of the higher animals in the presence of their dead, the strange fear that is said at times to seize upon dogs and horses—fear of no living visible things—■ these might suggest to the mind of the evolutionist a twilight form of spiritualistic beiief oider than man himself. But there is no need to probe far for a reason or basis for belief in spiritualism. Whether the belief is true or false it explains itself. The passionate desire for survival, the protest against the inexorable decree, the longing of an aching heart for the presence that is lost—these things in all ages have fostered, if not compelled, a belief in the reality of an Unseen World. And in our time the suffering, the sorrow and the bereavement of the war invest the subject with a poignant pathos that must at least command respect.

But the spiritualism of our own time has certain features which distinguish it sharply from all the different “spiritual-

isms” that have preceded it. For one thing it has called in to its aid the powerful support of modern science. This a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, seemed its worst enemy. Our modern science entered upon its pretentious career in the character of light dispelling darkness, of truth driving out falsehood, of hard fact bruising the head of superstition. Thomas Huxley gave the ghosts and the haunted houses but a short shrift. A ghost was a piece of phosphorus shining in a dim corner and a haunted house needed nothing but a dose of rat poison. Very solid and angular and consolatory it all seemed at the time. Modern science, based upon such firm concepts as solid matter, weight, motion and so on, explained everything to its own satisfaction. Such small mysteries as remained outside—little things like life, death, etc. —were left out of consideration. Huxley locked them up in a cupboard, wrote on the door of it, “I do not know,” and put the key in his pocket, satisfied.

DUT all this is changed now. Modern •*-* science, as the ultimate explanation of things, has gone bankrupt. Everybody who follows its progress, even at a respectful distance, is aware of the profound gulf that lies between the triumphant agnosticism of Huxley and the scientific attitude of such men, let us say, as Sir William Osier or Sir Ernest Rutherford. The new investigations in radio-activity and such have caused solid matter to dissolve into something as thin and impalpable and self-contradictory as the theories of the astrologers themselves. So much so that the modern scientist no more attempts, as a scientist, to give an ultimate explanation of the world about us than does a gardener or plumber or a hydraulic engineer. He takes things as they are. What they are, he does not know. The moment he begins to explain them he speaks no longer as a scientist, but as a Presbyterian, or a Plymouth Brother or a Unitarian, or a spiritualist or whatever else he may be.

Thus science, with no fixed basis left, becomes in a certain sense occult, or at any rate is unable any longer to contradict occultism flat in the mouth. If a telepathist asserts that he has been communicating with John Smith from Washington to Hong Kong, science feebly answers, “Perhaps he has.” If he says that he has called up John Smith from the dead, science can only answer, “He may have for all I know.”

This favors spiritualism enormously. Spiritualism seizes hold of all the practical apparatus of science, its electric wires and its chemicals, and uses them to magnify the intricacy and the mystery of its seances. It lays hold too of all its terms, fortified by a hundred years of materia! belief, and annexes the lot of them. It talks of its “experiments” and its “phenomena,” its “waves” and its

“currents.” Its spirits move on “planes” like the figures in Euclid. They answer to a “control” like the machinery of a power house.

Meantime the scientist merely sits and looks on, wringing his hands at the folly and superstition of mankind, or else, like Sir Oliver Lodge or Sir William Barrett, triumphantly announces himself a scientist and a spiritualist as well.

HERE then is one great difference between our spiritualism and that of the past. It can fortify itself from the vast arsenal prepared by the Huxleys and the Tyndalls for its own defeat. But there is another. Modern spiritualism falls heir to all the wonderful facilities afforded by modern commerce. It can preach itself, advertise itself, boom itself and in short “sell itself”—the supreme end and aim of the modern product, the Nirvana of Happiness towards which our every commercial effort is directed. Hence there has sprung up about us the vast babel of the commercial spritualists, giving readings and seances at one dollar for ten minutes, calling up for fifty cents the souls of little children to talk to their stricken parents. Even the spiritualists themselves—the men of probity, I mean, like Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—admit and deplore the fake and falsity of the great mass of these. The war has set them springing up like putrid funguses in rotten wood. Let them but go a little further, and outraged humanity will turn upon them, vengeful and fierce. The fate of the witches will be theirs.

But to come back. We are saying that in point of mere weight of authority we can no longer rule spiritualism out of court. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who has just published for us his New Revelation in spiritualism is not a fool. Sir Oliver Lodge knows more about physical science than I do; more than I want to. Sir William Barrett has a reputation that you and I cannot shake. So that we can no longer turn aside from the “messages” and “revelations” and “communications with the dead” as the mere product of ignorance.

I for one do not do so. But my quarrel with them lies on other grounds. If I take their revelations as they are and accept them, I stand appalled at the dreary and comfortless world which they open to us after death, peopled by enfeebled intellects, incapable of serious effort or purpose, devoid apparently of all power of sustained thought and of all real memory, and with no other visible purpose than a childish and inquisitive observation of the little happenings of our poor ephemeral world. So at least I see them. And I base my information not upon the babble of the fifty

cent fakirs but upon the “revelations” of Lodge and Doyle and Barrett and the voluminous talk of Mrs. Piper and Podmore and Myers and the other investigators whose good faith is commonly held to be beyond a doubt.

The spirits, so they tell us, live and move, all about us. They live in houses and they wear clothes just as we do—this last, about the clothes, being from Conan Doyle: though I forget, for the moment, who told it to him. They spend their time largely in listening to what we say and observing what we do. They know all about our politics and follow our elections with interest. They differ in opinion just as we do; some spirits are free traders and some are protectionists. Some believe in free silver; others stand firm for a currency built on a tangible gold standard as the proper basis of a banking reserve. Some spirits say that Canada should develop her internal resources with borrowed American capital and some say absolutely no. Some think that Henry Ford made a fool of himself and others point to the motor industry of Detroit and ask if a fool could do that. They differ, just as we do, about prohibition and woman suffrage, and they have the same bitter discussion of the Toronto Street Car question that we do. In fact some spirits object to the pay-as-you-enter car in any form. These things, or at least the equivalent of these, are what the spirits think and talk about.

I confess that I for one find it infinitely dreary. I do not deny for a moment that it may be true—there is so much authority behind it that I cannot do that—but I merely say that, if it is true, I am, deeply

and humbly, very sorry for it It is hard enough to have to take what is called an intelligent interest in these things during our little stay in the sunlight; if we must continue to prattle on about them in the long darkness, it is infinitely sad.

STILL more am I perplexed by the life of the spirits among themselves. If it is true that they have houses and food and clothes, then they must have housemakers and farmers and tailors and business and money. They must have office hours and offices, successes and failures, embezzlements and penetentiaries and the whole weary round of work and sorrow from which, we had thought, tired nature might at three score and ten lie down to rest. For there is no escape from the logic of it. Once you say “clothes” and mean “clothes,” all the rest follows. Ex pede Herculem, as our classical friends say, which being interpreted means that from any one item you can construct the rest.

Nor is there any refuge in saying that the whole thing is “on another plane.” “Clothes” either means “clothes” or it doesn’t. If we are told that “clothes” in the spirit plane are not made by tailors and do not wear out and do not imply a warehouse full of fall cheviots and a spring buyer being entertained by the salesmanager of a jobbing house, then the clothes become mere cobwebs and mean nothing in the way of a revelation whatever. I can understand wearing pants, but before I put on “astral pants” I want to know something about them.

But there are worse difficulties still. Perplexing as is the life of the spirit bodies it is as nothing compared to the peculiar state of their rriinds. They talk with a volubility that knows no stop. Lay but the medium on a chair and they will “babble” and divulge and communicate to your heart’s content. And with it all they say nothing, absolutely nothing. Their minds apparently have been so obliterated, so obfuscated by the conditions under which they dwell that there is nothing left of them. Take the meanest peasant that ever hoed a clod and shut him up in a dark cupboard and talk to him through the door and you will get some sense out of him. Take the brightest SDirit that ever talked from “the other side” and you get from him nothing but sheer vacuity. Let us suppose that a group of miners are b” an accident entombed in a tunnel. A party of rescuers are at work. They dig into the wall. At length the voices of the men within can be heard by those without: they speak back and forward. How clear and unmistakable is the communication and the identity. There is no doubt for a moment as to who they are and where they are. If anyone doubted the identity

of the speakers they could prove it in a moment.

“We’re in number three tunnel,” call the miners, or if they cannot call it they signal it, let us say, with taps, “There are six of us here. All in good shape except John Henry Smith. His foot was crushed when the roof fell. The air is bad but we can hang on all right. Be careful in digging to make an angle to the left.”

But if the miners were a group of departed spirits they would signal: “It

is all bright and beautiful in here. J.H.S. is with us. Tell his wife to go on living upwards. The best things are the things that come after. Life is all what we make it for ourselves. Virtue is its own reward.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Tell W. H.’s uncle to cheer up.”

I think it incontestable that, if the miners did talk that way, it would be held that they were all asphyxiated. Yet that is the way the spirits, more is the pity, talk to us. If they want to indentify themselves they never take a plain straightforward way of doing so. They ought to be able to name straight off a string of persons and things and places that would prove beyond all doubt who they are. But they won’t. Some perversity has come over them that shuts them off from the most obvious devices. A spirit conversation through a medium runs after this fashion.

“Is Clara there?”


“And is Henry there?”

“Yes, yes, Henry too.”

“And is William there?”

“William is.”

So far the spirit runs along like a streak. But note what happens if the form of the question is changed.

“And who else is there?”

A pause:

“Who else is there?” repeats the questioner.

Then the spirit answers: “I see a figure, but it’s dim, I can see it lift its arm. It’s not quite clear.”

“Is it Peter?”

“Yes, that’s it, Peter. It’s clear now.” “Tell Peter to speak.”

“All right, this is Peter speaking now.” Notice in this the strange mixture of dullness and of singular rapidity on the part of the spirits. Clara and William and Henry are all right on the spot in a moment. Speak? They’ll speak volumes. They’ll go on for ever saying how bright it all is, and telling everybody that virtue is its own reward. But do they, or rather will they, ever really say anything? No.

It is, as I gather it from a conscientious reading of all the best revelations, the melancholy truth that the soul of a dead mathematician cannot work out a proposition in Euclid; that the soul of a classical scholar cannot name the cities of ancient Greece; that the soul of a clergyman cannot name the books of the Old Testament; and the soul of a New York bartender cannot indicate the ingredients of a Manhattan cocktail. So much apparently does all that is best in us die with us.

THINKING it all over I cannot but regret that the spirits have come to life again. They were better dead. It is but an unkind service to plague them with the poor sorrows of our daily lives, our sufferings and our bereavements which they can share but not alleviate. They have had their lot of sorrow. It were better to let them go. They seem to me to make but mournful and pathetic figures, flitting about us in the dark, murmuring their trite inanities. We would sooner see them asleep in the churchyard and at peace.

My gi-andfather, as I remember him dimly, was a worthy man. He died full of years and honor and if he is now in the heaven where he thought to go, I am proud to think that he is there. But if. on the other hand, he is haunting round the summer cottage where I write this article, hiding behind the wainscot and rattling things in the summer-kitchen in the dead of night, I tell him straight that I do not want him. He may go. I give him warning through this magazine (which of course he reads) that some night I may mistake him for a rat and put his existence out of all doubt.

The Latest Contributor—Walt Mason

UNCLE WALT MASON, poet-philosopher, whose work is known whenever the English tongue is spoken, was born in Canada. His stay in this country was brief, but he carried away distinct impressions. These he has embodied in a bright article, appearing in our next (December) issue.