Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Table-Rappers by Ronald Pearsall

The Table-Rappers is presented as a scholarly and exhaustive take on Spiritualism and other Victorian occult phenomena. It isn't that exactly, but it still makes interesting reading.

What the book really is, for the most part, is a sort of high-brow, skeptical version of the works of Charles Fort, or even the later books by Colin Wilson on the supernatural. In Table-Rappers, seemingly hundreds of individual cases and incidents are chronicled in an endless array of brief encounters.
Like Wilson's books, there are many fascinating stories buried somewhere within each chapter, though the 'filing' system seems rather odd (some of Wilson's stories stuck in my head for years, prompting much flipping through his strangely-edited chapters to find them years later). And as an Irish connection, I was delighted to learn that gangs of occultists wearing 'all-concealing black robes' were operating in Dublin during the late Victorian period!

Rather than attempting a chronological history of the subject, Pearsall has opted to separate his chapters based on the various types of phenomena- seances, spirit photography, etc. In a way, there is a loose chronology, as there were slightly overlapping 'waves' of interest in these subjects, but it's done at the expense of a more meaningful, interpretive take on the subject. And while many of the incidents alluded to are fascinating, shockingly short shrift is given to many of the most important spiritualists who shaped the movement: the Fox sisters, whose 1840's table-banging marked the beginnings of Spiritualism, D. D. Home, the only psychic who was never caught cheating, and the Davenport brothers. The book gives little hint about how the movement was perceived in the world at large, or how important these characters were during their lifetimes.

Most of the book is taken up with these brief accounts of Spiritualism, giving the feeling that the Victorian age must have been absolutely full of fraudulent mediums, all squabbling for their 15 minutes of fame and quick to besmirch one another's reputations. Pearsall's tone is skeptical throughout, assuming foul play and trickery in every case. It's true that most mediums were caught cheating at some point, but it's interesting to compare this book with Peter Lamont's The First Psychic, a book that's primarily a biography of D. D. Home, but which serves as a very effective commentary on the Spiritualist movement and the Victorian need to believe. Lamont never assumes that any mediums were cheating unless they were caught; he does eventually confess his own personal skepticism, but on an academic level his scrupulous fairness is impressive.

Later on in Table-Rappers, Pearsall includes a few chapters on other aspects of Victorian spookiness, including poltergeists and good old-fashioned haunted houses. For some reason I enjoyed this stuff better- perhaps because they're just stories, and he can neither prove nor disprove them with his slightly sarcastic prose. But because he was writing in the 70's, when the supernatural- sorry, the paranormal- was having a renaissance in credibility, he does let slip that although most Victorian 'mind-readers' were bogus, we of course now 'know' that there is definite evidence for telepathy (!). He cites some unspecified 20th-century research to prove this; I suspect that he's referring to the work of J. B. Rhine and the Duke University Parapsychology Lab, an interest subject in itself. (In fairness, Rhine seems to have been a serious, rational-minded scientist who worked extremely hard for decades, using only variants on the Zenner cards theme, to provide statistically significant evidence for telepathy without ever getting caught up in the silliness that often comes with the subject). There's also a fascinating chapter on the feud between the outrageous Madam Blavatsky (creator of the break-away movement 'Theosophy') and the mostly-rational Society for Psychical Research.

Late in the book, Pearsall does throw in a few chapter of analysis, but it's very 70's-type analysis that includes some of the odd ideas regarding the paranormal at that time. It's weird to find this skeptical author drawing a line between Spiritualism and manifestations, which he believes to be bogus, and clairvoyance and table-rapping, which he does not. It's still a worthwhile read, however, for the countless strange stories that characterized the 19th -century occult scene.

No comments:

Post a Comment