‘LES MORTS n’écrivent point,’ said Madame de Maintenon, who lived in a day of tranquil finalities. If men’s passions and vanities were admittedly strong until the hour of dissolution, the finger of death obliterated all traces of them; and the supreme dignity of this obliteration sustained noble minds, and solaced the souls that believed. An age which produced the Oraisons Funèbres had an unquenchable reverence for the grave.
Echoes of Madame de Maintenon’s soothing conviction ring pleasantly through the intervening centuries. Book-making, which she knew only in its smiling infancy, had grown to ominous proportions when Mr. Andrew Lang, brooding over the fatality which had dipped the world in ink, comforted himself — and us — with the vision of an authorless future. ‘There were no books in Eden,’ he said meditatively, ‘and there will be none in Heaven; but between times it is different.’
For a Scotchman, more or less familiar with ghosts, Mr. Lang showed little foreknowledge of their dawning ambitions. If we may judge by the recent and determined intrusion of spirits into authorship, Heaven bids fair to be stacked with printing-presses. One of their number, indeed, the ‘Living Dead Man,’1 whose publishers have unhesitatingly revealed (or, I might say, announced) his identity, gives high praise to a ghostly library, well catalogued, and containing millions of books and records. With such resources at their command, with the universe for inspiration, and with the uncounted dead for readers, why should disembodied spirits force an entrance into our congested literary world, and compete with the living scribblers who ask their little day?
The suddenness of the attack, and its unprecedented nature, daunt and bewilder us. It is true that the apparitions who lend vivacity to the ordinary spiritualistic séance have from time to time written short themes, or dropped into friendly verse. Readers of that engaging volume, Report of the Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism, published in 1887, will remember that ‘Belle,’ who claimed to be the original proprietor of Yorick’s skull (long a ‘property’ of the Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, but at that time in the library of Dr. Horace Howard Furness), voiced her pretensions, and told her story, in ten carefully rhymed stanzas.
So you have all that’s left of me;
I come to greet you in white mull,
You that prizes my lonely skull.
But these effusions were desultory and amateurish. They were designed as personal communications, and were betrayed into publicity by their recipients. We cannot regard their authors — painstaking but simple-hearted ghosts — as advance guards of the army of occupation which is now storming the citadel of print.
It is passing strange that the dead who seek to communicate with the living should cling so closely to the alphabet as a connecting link. Dying is a primitive thing. Men died, and were wept and forgotten, for many, many ages before Cadmus sowed the dragon’s teeth. But letters are artificial and complicated. They belong to fettered humanity, which is perpetually devising ways and means. Shelley, whose impatient soul fretted against barriers, cried out despairingly that inspiration wanes when composition begins. We strive to follow Madame de Sévigné’s counsel, ‘Laissez trotter la plume’; but we know well how the little instrument halts and stumbles; and if a pen is too clumsy for the transmission of thought, what must be the effort to pick out letters with a ouija board, or with a tilting table? The spirit that invented table-rapping (which combines every possible disadvantage as a means of communication with every absurdity that can offend our taste) deserves to be penalized by its fellow spirits. Sir Oliver Lodge admits that the substitution of furniture for pen or pencil ‘has difficulties of its own.’
The frolicsome moods of the Lodge table must have been disconcerting, even to such a receptive and sympathetic circle. It performed little tricks, like lying down, or holding two feet in the air, apparently for its own simple diversion. One day, in emulation of Æsop’s affectionate ass, it ‘seemed to wish to get into Lady Lodge’s lap, and made caressing movements to and fro, as if it could not get close enough to her.’ On another occasion, when the piano was being played in the Mariemount drawing-room, the spirit of Raymond came to listen to the music. After applauding ‘distinctly and decidedly,’ the table ‘ was determined to edge itself close to the piano, though we said we must pull it back, and did so. But it would go there, and thumped Barbie, who was playing the piano, in time to the music. Alec took one of the black satin cushions, and held it against her as a buffer. The table continued to bang, and made a little hole in the cushion.’2 No wonder that several tables were broken ‘during the more exuberant period of these domestic sittings, before the power had got under ‘control’; and the family was compelled to provide a strong and heavy article which could stand the ‘skylarking’ (Sir Oliver’s word) of supernatural visitors.
The ouija board, though an improvement on the table, is mechanical and cumbersome. It is the chosen medium of that most prolific of spirit writers, Patience Worth; and a sympathizing disciple once ventured to ask her if there were no less laborious method by which she could compose her stories. To which Patience, who uses a language called by her editors ‘archaic,’ and who likes to ‘dock the smaller parts-o’-speech,’ replied formidably, —
‘The hand o’ her do I to put be the hand o’ her, and ’tis ascribe that setteth the one awither by eyes-fulls she taketh in.’
The disciple’s mind being thus set at rest, he inquired how Patience discovered this avenue of approach, and was told, —
‘I did to seek at crannies for to put; aye, an’t wer the her o’ her who tireth past the her o’ her, and slippeth to a naught o’ putting; and ’t wer the me o’ me at seek, aye, and find. Aye, and ’t wer so.’
The casual and inexpert reader is not always sure what Patience means to say; but to the initiated her cryptic and monosyllabic speech offers no difficulties. When asked if she were acquainted with the spirit of the late Dr. William James, she said darkly, —
‘I telled a one o’ the brothers and the neighbors o’ thy day, and he doth know.’
‘This,’ comments Mr. Yost, ‘wasconsidered as an affirmative reply,’3 and with it her questioners were content.
All fields of literature are open to Patience Worth, and she disports herself by turns in prose and verse, fiction and philosophy. Other spirits have their specialties. They write, as a rule, letters, didactic essays, vers libre, and an occasional story. But Patience writes six-act dramas which, we are assured, could, ‘with a little alteration,’ be produced upon the stage, short comedies ‘rich in humor,’ country tales, mystical tales, parables, aphorisms, volumes of verse, and historical novels. In three years and a half she dictated to Mrs. Curran, her patient ouija-board amanuensis, 900,000 words. It is my belief that she represents a spirit syndicate, and lends her name to a large coterie of literary wraiths. The most discouraging feature of her performance is the possibility of its indefinite extension. She is what Mr. Yost calls ‘a continuing phenomenon.’ Being dead already, she cannot die, and the natural and kindly limit which is set to mortal endeavor does not exist for her. ‘The larger literature is to come,’ says Mr. Yost ominously; and we fear he speaks the truth.
Now what do we gain by this lamentable intrusion of ghostly aspirants into the serried ranks of authorship? What is the value of their work, and what is its ethical significance? Perhaps because literary distinction is a rare quality, the editors and publishers of these revelations lay stress upon the spiritual insight, the finer wisdom, which may accrue to us from direct contact with liberated souls. They even hint at some great moral law which may be thus revealed for our betterment. But the law of Christ is as pure and lofty as any code our human intelligence can grasp. We do not live by it, because it makes no concession to the sickly qualities which cement our earthly natures; but we hold fast to it as an incomparable ideal. It is not law or light we need. It is the power of effort and resistance. ‘Toutes les bonnes maximes sont dans le monde; on ne manque que de les appliquer.’
The didacticism of spirit authors is, so far, their most striking characteristic. As Mr. Henry James would put it, they are ‘awkward writers, but yearning moralists.’ Free from any shadow of diffidence, they proffer a deal of counsel, but it is mostly of the kind which our next-door neighbor has at our command.
In the little volume called Letters from Harry and Helen,4 the dead children exhort their relatives continuously; and their exhortations, albeit of a somewhat intimate character, have been passed on to the public as ‘an inspiration to the life of brotherhood.’ Helen, for example, bids her mother and sister give away the clothes they do not need. ‘You had better send the pink dress to B. You won’t wear it. Lace and a few good bits of jewelry you can use, and these won’t hurt your progress.’ She also warns them not to take long motor rides with large parties. The car holds four comfortably; but if her sister will go all afternoon with five people packed into it, she is sure to be ill. This is sensible advice, but can it be needful that the dead should revisit earth to give it?
Harry, a hardy and boisterous spirit, with a fine contempt for precautions, favors a motor trip across the continent, gallantly assures his family that the project is ‘perfectly feasible,’tells his sister to ‘shoot some genuine food’ at her sick husband, who appears to have been kept on a low diet, and observes with pleasure that his mother is overcoming her aversion to tobacco. ‘ Mamma is learning,’ he comments patronizingly. ‘Some day she will arrive at the point where a smoker will fail to arouse a spark of criticism, or even of interest. When that day comes, she will have learned what she is living for this time.'
Here was a chance for a ghostly son to get even with the parent who had disparaged the harmless pleasures of his youth. Harry is not the kind of a spirit to miss such an opportunity. He finds a great deal to correct in his family, a great deal to blame in the world, and some things to criticize in the universe. ‘I suppose the Creator knows his own business best,’ he observes grudgingly; ‘but there have been moments when I felt I could suggest improvements. For instance, had I been running affairs, I should have been a little more open about this reincarnation plan of elevating the individual. Why let a soul boggle along blindly for numberless lives when just a friendly tip would have illuminated the whole situation, and enabled him to plan with far less waste?’
‘O eloquent, just and mighty death!’ Is it for this that we have pretended to break thy barriers, to force thy pregnant silence into speech, to make of thy majesty a vulgar farce, and of thy consolations, folly and self-righteousness?
The ‘Living Dead Man’ has also a little course of instructions to give, and a little list of warnings. He bids us drink plenty of water because water feeds our astral bodies, and to take plenty of rest because sleep fits us for work. He tells us not to lose our tempers, because, if we do, the malicious spirits about us fan the flame of our wrath; and not to look too long at gold coins, because avaricious spirits gloat with us over their shining. He is a gentle, garrulous ghost, full of little anecdotes about his new — and very dull — surroundings, and mild little stories of adventure. He calls himself an ‘astral Scheherazade,’ but no sultan would ever have listened to him for a thousand and one nights. He chants vers libre of a singularly uninspired order, and is particular about his quotations. ‘If you print these letters,’ he tells his medium, ‘ I wish you would insert here fragments from that wonderful poem of Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” ’ Then follow nineteen lines of this fairly familiar masterpiece. There is something rather droll in having our own printed poets quoted to us lengthily by cultivated and appreciative spirits.
Raymond, though he has been thrust before the public without pity and without reserve, shows no disposition to enter the arena of authorship. Through laborious and grotesque table-rappings, and through mediums controlled by — apparently — feeble-minded spirits, he has prattled to his family about the conditions which surround him: about the brick house he lives in; about the laboratories he visits, where ‘all sorts of things’ are manufactured out of ‘essences and ether and gases, ’ — rather like German war-products,— and about the lectures he attends. The subjects of the lectures are spirituality, concentration, and — alas! — ‘the projection of uplifting and helpful thoughts to those on the earth plane.’ In the lecture hall are windows of colored glass — red, blue, and orange. If any of the audience need more intellect, they stand in the orange light and absorb intellectuality; if they need to be affectionate, they stand in the ‘pinky-colored’ light and absorb loving thoughts; if they need ‘actual spiritual healing,’ they stand in the blue light and are healed. The simplicity of this laborsaving process is beyond praise, and Raymond’s ‘guide’ assures him that, in the years to come, human beings will study and understand the qualities of different colored lights. Such scraps of wisdom as are vouchsafed him he passes dutifully on to Iris parents. He tells his mother that on the spiritual plane ‘Rank does n’t count as a virtue. High rank comes by being virtuous.’
Also that ‘It is n’t always the parsons that go highest first,’ and that ‘It is n’t what you’ve professed; it’s what you’ve done.’ Something of this kind we have long suspected. Something of this kind has long been hinted from the plain pulpits of the world.
We are repeatedly told that the Great War stands responsible for our mental disturbance, and for the weakening of our moral judgment which has made possible these repeated assaults upon the taste and credulity of the world. Mr. Howells, observing rather sympathetically the ghostly stir and thrill which pervades literature, asks if it proceeds from the battlefields of Europe. ‘Is it because the dead are superabounding now beyond the ratio of all the past pestilences, and a most powerful people is dedicating itself, body and soul, to the destruction of human life in the most murderous war that ever was?’
But natural laws are not affected by numbers. A single dead man and a million of dead men stand in the same relation to the living. If ever there was a time when it was needful to hold on to our sanity with all our might and main, that time is now. If ever death was a holy and a glorious thing, it is holy and glorious to-day. Our men, French, British, and American, lay their lives down that the world may be a clean place for other men to live in. They go out bravely into the dark, and they do not deserve to have their names bandied about by ‘controls,’ or quoted to the world as talking bootless twaddle. Of course we think about them day and night. How could it be otherwise? There is, and there has always been, a sense of comradeship with the dead. It is a noble and a still comradeship, untarnished by illusions, unvulgarized by extravagant details. Newman has expressed it in ‘A Voice From Afar’; and recently Mr. Rowland Thirlmere has made it the theme of some very simple and touching verses called ‘Jimmy Doane.’ The elderly Englishman who has lost his friend, a young American aviator, — ‘generous, clever, and confident,’ — and who sits alone with his heart cold and sore, feels suddenly the welcome nearness of the dead. No table heaves its heavy legs to announce that silent presence, no alphabet is needed for his message. But the living man says simply to his friend, ‘My house is always open to you,’ and hopes they may sit quietly together when the dreams of both are realized, and the hour of deliverance comes.
The sinking of the Lusitania is, and will always be, a turning-point in history. Its novelty in warfare was not so much one of method as of design. It was a proclamation of Germany’s refusal to recognize the status of neutrals and non-combatants. It was her ‘I dare you!’ flung full in the face of the world. The tale will be told and retold, with other tales of cruelty and cowardice, as long as men stay men. But the sea holds its dead until the judgmentday. To the murderer comes the brand of Cain, to the murdered the peace of Abel. It is inconceivable that an American magazine should publish the fantastic and repulsive details of a spiritualistic séance, in which Lusitania ‘victims’ recounted the horrors of their drowning, or fatuously described a submarine as the devil-fish of the sea, or, worse than all, gasped, and moaned, and cried out, ‘Oh, Oh, I’m dead!’ ‘Oh, dear!’ ‘Oh, I feel so ill!’ ‘The boat is filling!’ while the medium made swimming motions in the air to the accompaniment of groans. And this shocking travesty of death is supposed to bring comfort to the living. The grossness of the process fails to offend; the puerility of the result fails to discourage. ‘There is a set of heads,’ wrote Sir Thomas Browne, ‘that can credit the relations of Mariners, yet question the Testimonies of St. Paul.’ We seem to have changed very little in the course of three hundred years.
Byron has recorded in a letter to Hoppner the profound impression made upon him by two concise epitaphs in the cemetery of Bologna.
Implora eterna quiete.
It seemed to the poet — himself in need of peace — that all the weariness of life, and all the gentle humility of the tired but trusting soul, were compressed into those lines. There is nothing calamitous in death.
And entail of four planks,
is the common heritage of mankind, and we accept it reverently. But to escape from time, only to enter upon a futile and platitudinous eternity, upon the manufacture of sham products, and the authorship of unreadable books — which of us has courage to front such direful possibilities!
It is strange that the spirits who are driven by the stress of these terrible years to communicate with a desolate world should be untouched by the source of our desolation. Raymond gave his young life for England; but, once dead, feels no further concern for her deliverance. Patience Worth, with the ruthless self-concentration of the author, is too busy dictating novels and plays to waste a thought upon our assaulted civilization. She is a trifle impatient of earthly authorship (potter hates potter, and poet hates poet), and she bids us know that truth is not to be found in ‘books of wordy filling’; but she adds without compunction 900,000 more words to our overflowing measure, and leaves untouched the problems we desperately face.
Harry and Helen express some calm regret that the lack of unselfish love should make war possible, and report that ‘Hughey’ — their brother-in-law’s brother — ‘ has gone to throw all he possesses of light into the dark struggle.’ Apparently his beams failed signally to illuminate the gloom, which is not surprising when we learn that ‘A selfish or ill-natured thought’ (say from a Bulgarian or a Turk) ’lowers the rate of vibration throughout the entire universe.’ They also join the ‘White Cross’ nurses, and are gratified that their knowledge of French enables them to receive and encourage the rapidly arriving French soldiers. Helen, being the better scholar of the two, is able to give first aid, while Harry brushes up his verbs. In the absence of French caretakers, who seem to have all gone elsewhere, the two young Americans are in much demand.
Apart from these crass absurdities (which have their readers and their believers), what is there of help in such a volume as The Invisible Guide,5 which purports to be an answer to the often asked question, ‘How may I enter into communion and fellowship with the departed?’ There is nothing grotesque in this little volume, which has some agreeable chapters. The dead soldier who is the Guide does not use table-legs, or ouija boards, or automatic writing, when he communicates with his friend, and he is always commendably brief. But his detachment from the great issues for which he died is absolute and a bit depressing; his neutrality is of that, thorough-going kind which was commended to Americans in the first year of the war, and his generalizations have neither pith nor marrow. It is not worth while for a disembodied spirit to come back to earth and say, ‘The test of religion is life.’ ‘Art is eternal if the artist is content with the joy of the working.’ ‘Understand that love is spiritual, and you understand all.’ These things have been said, and better said, by wise men the world over.
What strikes us most perceptibly about the Guide is that, in common with living pacifists, he seems less grieved by the great crimes and tragedies of the war than by the hostility they arouse. He has not a sigh to waste over desolated Belgium and Serbia. Air-raids and mangled women and children fail to disturb his serenity. But he cannot endure a picture called Mitrailleuse, which represents four French soldiers firing a machine-gun. When his friend the author so far forgets himself as to be angry at the insolence of some Germans whom he sees in a restaurant, — where they have no right to be, — the Guide, pained by such intolerance, refuses any communication; and when, in more cheerful mood, the author ventures to be a bit enthusiastic over the gallant feats of a young aviator, he murmurs faintly and reproachfully, ‘ It is the mothers that suffer.’
A more disheartening spirit to have about in war-time could not be conceived, or one less fitted for the austere rôle he has assigned himself to play.
The recent and most unjustifiable attempt to add Mark Twain to the list of ghostly authors and counselors was based on his alleged desire to help a ruined world. It was said that the spirit of the great humorist was ‘tortured’ because he could not give mankind a work which would ‘shed enlightenment where now there is only darkness and dismay.’ If this means that he has a formula for an invincible and uneludible submarine chaser, I hardly think that Mrs. Gabrilowitsch would deny it to her country. But if the projected volume is to be only another manual of vague philosophy, vapid admonitions, and fantastic statements, we can submit to its loss, and solace ourselves with a re-reading of Huckleberry Finn. Mr. Clemens did a full measure of work in his lifetime, and received his full measure of reward. The ‘merry star’ that danced above his cradle shone on him, fitfully but fairly, until he died. It were a sin and a shame to plunge him now into the murky fogs of spiritualistic revelations.
Granted that he was what his friends called him — ‘a mystic at heart’; that he believed, or fancied he believed, in thought-transference, and that he was capable of seeing something strange and mysterious in very ordinary occurrences: the finding of a lost article which had been searched for vainly while it lay close at hand, or the premonition of news contained in an unopened letter — this last a melancholy sort of guesswork which we have all of us practised at times. But a mystic at heart may be also an author by profession, with a sense of values, and a nice perception of the skill that goes into book-making. If anything could disturb Mark Twain’s spirit, and bring it stormily back to earth, it would be the linking of his name to the volume called Jap Herron.
So great a treason to the dead must seem incredible to healthy minds; but from every side come mad rumors of similar deceptions. O. Henry, it is whispered, is dictating tracts and allegories; Dickens may yet complete The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Washington Irving has loomed wistfully on the horizon of an aspiring medium: —
Reasoning in gibberish. Homer writing Greek
In naughts and crosses.
To be reintroduced to earth as the author of books as silly as they are dull is hard luck for the scholar and the wit.
Patience Worth is fortunate in so far that she has no earlier reputation at stake. In fact, we are assured that three of her stories are told in ‘a dialect which, taken as a whole, was probably never spoken, and certainly never written. Each seems to be a composite of dialect words and idioms of different periods and different localities.’ It is Mr. Yost’s opinion, however, that her long historical novel, The Sorry Tale, is composed ‘in a literary tongue somewhat resembling the language of the King James version of the Bible in form and style, but with the unmistakable verbal peculiarities of Patience Worth.’ ‘What bringeth thee asearch?’ and ‘Who hath the trod of the antelope?’ are doubtless verbal peculiarities; but for any resemblance to the noble and vigorous lucidity of the English Bible we may search in vain through the six hundred and forty closely printed pages of this confused, wandering, sensuous, and wholly unreadable narrative, which purports to tell the life-history of the penitent thief. I quote a single paragraph, snatched at random from the text, which may serve as a sample of the whole.
‘And within, upon the skins’-pack, sat Samuel, who listed him, and lo, the jaws of him hung ope. And Jacob wailed, and the Jew’s tongue of him sounded as the chatter of fowls, and he spake of the fool that plucked of his ass that he save of down. Yea, and walked him at the sea’s edge, and yet sought o’ pools. And he held aloft, unto the men who hung them o’er the bin’s place, handsful of brass and shammed precious stuffs, and cried him out.’
Six hundred and forty pages of this kind of writing defy a patient world. And we are threatened with ‘ the larger literature to come ’!
For some reason which has never been explained, Patience Worth drops her archaism (if it be archaism) when she writes verse, and becomes fairly intelligible. Mr. Yost, who is a partial critic, warns us that we ‘may search in vain’ through literature for anything resembling these poems. ‘They are alike in the essential features of all poetry, and yet they are unalike. There is something in them that is not in other poetry. In the profusion of their metaphor there is an etherealness that more closely resembles Shelley, perhaps, than any other poet; but the beauty of Shelley’s poems is almost wholly in their diction; there is in him no profundity of thought. In these poems there is both beauty and depth, — and something else.’
Whatever this ‘something else’ may be, it is certainly not rhyme or rhythm. The verses brook no bondage, but run loosely on with the perilous ease of enfranchisement. For the most part they are of the kind which used to be classified by compilers as ‘Poems of Nature,’ and ‘Poems of Sentiment and Reflection.’ Spring, summer, autumn, and winter are as inspirational for the dead as for the living.
Yea, and earth doth weep. The Winter cometh,
And he bears her jewels for the decking
Of his bride. A glittered crown
Shall fall ’pon earth, and sparkled drop
Shall stand like gem that flasheth
’Pon a nobled brow. Yea, the tears
Of earth shall freeze and drop
As pearls, the necklace o’ the earth.
’T is season’s parting. Yea,
The earth doth weep.
’T is Fall.
These simple statements might justifiably be printed without the capital letters which distinguish prose from verse; but we can understand them, and we are familiar with the phenomena they describe.
Patience Worth as a ‘psychic mystery’ has no significance for the reading public. With her ouija-board intimacies, and her ‘feminine tastes’; with the baby of ‘patrician mould’ whom she persuaded Mrs. Curran to adopt; and with the cat she asked for, but which dejectedly died when it learned its fate, we have no concern. It is only her incursions into the field of authorship which make her liable to criticism. It is only the literary ambitions — and disqualifications — of the spirit-world which disturb our serenity.
Ghosts there have always been since men began to die. They have played their part in disquieting the world since the world awoke to trouble. Vengeful, prophetic, fantastic, and invariably de troy, they have come down to us through the centuries, discredited, but feared. Now our old apprehensions, our old creeps and shivers, are exchanged for new and reasonable misgivings. Spirits soothing as syrup, didactic as dominies, prolific and platitudinous, are dictating books for the world’s betterment; and never a word which can add to our store of knowledge, or stand the ‘dry north light of intellect.’
We are told that once, when Patience Worth was spelling out the endless pages of The Sorry Tale, she came to a sudden stop, then wrote, ‘This be nuff,’ and knocked off for the night.
A blessed phrase, and, of a certainty, her finest inspiration. Would that all dead authors would adopt it as their motto; and with ouija boards, and table-legs, and automatic pencils, write as their farewell message to the world those three short, comely words, ‘This be nuff.’
- Letters from a Living Dead Man. Written down by ELSA BARKER. New York: Mitchell Kennerley.↩
- Raymond, or Life and Death. By SIR OLIVER J. LODGE. New York: George H. Doran Co.↩
- Patience Worth. A Psychic Mystery. By CASPAR S. YOST. New York: Henry Holt & Co.↩
- Letters from Harry and Helen. Written down by MAEY BLOUNT WHITE. New York: Mitchell Kennerley.↩
- The Invisible Guide. By C. LEWIS HIND. New York: John Lane Co↩