Consciousness Occult

The Radical Séance: Spiritualism, Insect Imagos and Imaginal Evolution

When we think of the age of Spiritualism, we might conjure images in our minds of Séances illuminated by candlelight in Victorian parlors, a spectral dripping of ectoplasm, or the Ouija Boards and “spirit rappings” that synchronously mirrored the invention of Morse code and the dawning of electronic culture — messages sent from dimensions invisible and immeasurable. Catherine Crowe’s literary phenomenon, The Night Side of Nature, lit up the dark and ignited a passion for the paranormal in North American culture like nothing before. In 1848 it became a national sensation. “If I could only induce a few capable persons,” Crowe wrote, “instead of laughing at these things, to look at them, my object would be attained, and I should consider my time well spent.” Just a few years earlier, in 1844, the very first telegram was sent between Baltimore and Washington. The message: “What hath God wrought?” It was as if the new electromagnetism could flip the old Newtonian materialism – from Mesmer to the telegram to, eventually, Marconi’s invention of the radio in 1895 – humming and buzzing with phantasmagorical messages arriving from regions unseen. Murmurs from the dead.

“Radical Spirits”

Back in 1848, the Fox Sisters — marking the start of the Spiritualist era — encountered the mysterious rappings of a “Mr. Splitfoot” in their New England home in Hydesville, New York. It caught the attention of the nation. Mary Todd Lincoln would even famously hold séances at the White House, though, as occult historian Mitch Horowitz points out, integral to Mary Todd’s Spiritualism was her being a “protofeminist and religious radical whose points of view reveal an early and influential marriage of protest politics and occultism.” The spirits who would come through mediumship, often touting an elaborate metaphysics, were also radically countercultural. Religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal writes that, “these outlandish belief systems often encoded the most progressive and socially liberal visions of the time, visions that would only find realization decades later when broader culture in effect “caught up” with what the spirits had been seeing for quite some time.” He continues, 

“… the mysteries of postmortem sexuality and the practice of an earthly ethic of free love were not uncommon in Spiritual literature, and both the Spiritualist and especially later occult communities were filledwith heterodox sexual ideas, mystic-erotic practices, and alternative genders and sexualities.”

In her critical study of Spiritualism, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, historian Ann Braude demonstrated how the Spiritualist movement was also one of the significant forces behind the Women’s Rights Movement. Both enter history in 1848, and both, coincidentally, in New York (the Fox Sisters in Hydesville and the Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls). Unlike the sectarianism of Christian denominations, Spiritualism remained rhizomatic, “the movement had no orthodoxy because it had no governing body or power,” Braude writes, linking the Spiritualism of the 19thcentury with the rise of the New Age in the 20th. Spiritualism was, as Kripal describes, “a thoroughly domestic occultism, an often wild, but nevertheless quite real and very effective democracy of the Spirit.” There will be more connections between their time and our own, particularly in one classicist and investigator of the paranormal, Frederic W.H. Myers and his concept of the “imaginal” — but we’ll get to that shortly.

The Once and Future Human Potential

Albert Robida’s 1882 envisioning of a night at the opera in the year 2000.

The 19thcentury saw a such reshaping of the planet through the triad of scientific, technological, and social revolution, such a total re-working and eventually literal re-wiring, that by the time we reached the centennial – as Nicolai Tesla was already announcing a future wireless communication – it must have felt like anythingwas possible. It was in this spirit of limitless possibility that some adventurous scientists at the time were intuiting that the mysteries of consciousness — “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard  silences, this insubstantial country of the mind!” Julian Jaynes would write in 1973 — evidenced through psychic phenomena, demonstrated a limitlessness of human consciousness in equal measure.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (perhaps equally famous for his Spiritualism as he is for Sherlock Holmes novels) in his classic The History of Spiritualism, would affirm such a view of psychic phenomena when he wrote, “a fruitful field of study lies there for the Science of the future.”

“Hardly, as yet, has the surface of the facts called ‘psychic’ begun to be scratched for scientific purposes,” wrote one pioneering pragmatist and psychologist, echoing Doyle’s sentiment. “It is through following these facts, I am persuaded, that the greatest scientific conquests of the coming generations will be achieved.” That Harvard psychologist was none other than William James.

Many are familiar with the aesthetic effluvia of Spiritualism, but few know that James, in 1882, would become a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research (an offshoot of the original, British society, which survives to this day), or that the SPR (in the US andUK) would become something of a Victorian-era X-Files team. I’m hardly exaggerating. 

Of course, James himself would pen the now classical study of the mystical state, The Varieties of Religious Experience(1902). He was no stranger to the elusive entanglements of mind and matter,

“Our normal waking consciousness… is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

James believed that such psychic phenomena shouldn’t be dismissed outright but – perhaps as an extension of his notion of a “radical empiricism” which would not deny meaningful experience from an account of reality — instead should be investigated rigorously through the scientific method. In own his words, the aim of the ASPR was to bring, “science and the occult together in England and America.”

This spirit of potentialhidden in psychic phenomena, beyond and behind spirit rappings and séances, is precisely what interested Frederic W.H. Myers. In attempting to create a vision of this potential, Myers may have entangled his future science of the paranormal with the science fiction of our present.  

The “Wild Talents” of Telepathy and the Human-Alien Imago

Strieber’s iconic 1987 cover for supernatural classic Communion.

Charles Fort, from which we derive the informal adjective “Fortean,” i.e. “relating  to or denoting paranormal phenomena,” would describe phenomena like telepathy, clairvoyance, or precognition, as a form of “wild talent.” That is, a sporadic and uncontrolled potential that welled up in, or perhaps through, certain human beings. It was this wild talent that interested Frederic Myers, and that accounted for the subject of his sprawling study, the post-humous tome, Human Personality and its Survive of Bodily Death

Frederic W.H. Myers was a scholar, poet, and classicist who would become president of the British Psychical Research Society in 1900 (although he would pass away in 1902). Myers coined the word “telepathy” (literally “feeling at a distance”) in 1882. The visionary states associated with many of these psychic phenomena he described first as “veridical hallucinations.” In these rare cases — these wild talents — mere fantasy becomes enthralled with a “spiritual energy,” infusing the fleeting dreams and reveries of the “insubstantial country of the mind” with a momentary capacity to reach a larger domain of reality (one wonders if Myers, who loved the Romanticists, was borrowing from the poet Samuel Coleridge’s distinction between the Primary and Secondary Imagination). Mind is temporarily interposed with Aldous Huxley’s “Mind at Large.” New capacities are unleashed. We might receive a message from the dead, or experience a waking apparition of the recently departed. We might observe a crystalline vision of some imminent mortal danger, sensed beyond constricting occlusions of time and space. Kripal, in Super Natural, describes this capacity of subjective reflection in our interior states suddenly reaching out beyond as the “two-way mirror.” Sometimes, we’re not just looking at ourselves in the mirror. Sometimes, as Nietzsche says, the abyss stares back.

Myers tells us our capacity to imagine can become something more: it becomes “imaginal.” Kripal also points out that the word “imaginal” was not coined by Henry Corbin (Mundus Imaginalis, derived from his study of Islamic Mysticism) or C.G. Jung or even Theodore Flournoy (used in From India to the Planet Mars, 1900) but originates from Myers himself. Precisely in the context of the spiritualized “future function” of the imagination. 

Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Future science,” the latent, randomly achieved “wild talents” could, one day, proliferate and be mastered. The new normal would become (yet another coinage we can attribute to Myers) something more: “Supernormal.” This is where contemporary author and parapsychologist Dean Radin gets the word in his same-titled book, Supernormal,

“Classic yoga texts, such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, written about two thousand years ago, tell us in matter-of-fact terms that if you sit quietly, pay close attention to your mind, and practice this diligently, then you will gain supernormal powers. These advanced capacities are not regarded as magical; they’re ordinary capacities that everyone possesses. We’re just too distracted most of the time to able to access them reliably.” 

And drawing from Buddhist scholar B Alan Wallace, 

“In Buddhism, these are not miracles in the sense of being supernatural events… Such contemplatives claim to have realized the nature of potentials of consciousness far beyond anything known in contemporary science. What may appear supernatural to a scientist or a layperson may seem perfectly natural to an advanced contemplative, much as certain technological advances may appear miraculous to a contemplative.” 

This is also the meaning behind the title that Jeffrey Kripal and Whitley Strieber use: Super Natural. The idea is that latent these capacities form a part of nature—it’s our paradigm of what nature is that needs to change. They’re not supernatural, but super natural, and they are beyond the current scientific materialism, which would seek to reduce or dispel them.

Myers, in 1893, would write,

“…an immense, coherent process of evolution, in which Thought and Consciousness are not, as the materialists hold them, a mere epiphenomenon, an accidental and transitory accompaniment of more permanent energies, a light that flashes out from the furnace door but does none of the work,—but, on the other hand, are, and always have been, the central subject of the evolutionary process itself.” 

The description of this imaginalcapacity as a form of “permanent energy,” the “central subject of the evolutionary process itself” helps us to fully understand what imaginal really means. Myers borrows it directly from biology. Specifically, entomology: the study of insects

The Parable of the Cabbage and the Caterpillar

The imago is the final stage an insect attains in metamorphosis. As Myers writes it is, “a word used of characteristics belonging to the perfect insect or imago; —and thus opposed to larval;—metaphorically applied to transcendental faculties shown in rudiment in ordinary life.” Kripal echoes Myers, explaining that in “telepathic communications and precognitive dreams we are witnessing the early signs or buds of a still-evolving future super nature—ours. He meant the super natural.”

Myers uses the well-worn parable of the caterpillar and the cabbage to illustrate,

“Now, if this be the case, we should expect that our first intimation of the true extraterrene character of our evolution might be the accidental discovery of some faculty within us which was not traceable to the action of our terrene antecedents… The comparison of man as he is to the caterpillar, and of man as he may be after death to the butterfly, is a tolerably old one. Let us suppose some humble larvae are dissecting each other, and speculating as to their destinies. At first they find themselves precisely suited to life and death on a cabbage leaf. Then they begin to observe certain points in their construction which are useless to larval life. These are, in fact, what are called “imaginal characters” — points of structure which indicate that the larva has descended from imago, or perfect insect, and is destined in his turn to become one himself.”

These imaginal characteristics are therefore ignored as mere anomalies by their fellow cabbage inhabitants. But then, very suddenly,

“And now a butterfly settles for a moment on the cabbage-leaf. The caterpillar points triumphantly to the morphological identity of some of the butterfly’s conspicuous characters with some of his own latent characters; and while he is trying to persuade his fellow-caterpillars of this, the butterfly flies away… This is exactly what I hold to have happened in the history of human evolution.”

We find ourselves, strangely, back in the present: with our science fiction images of X-Men (mutant potentials and latent capacities activated), the iconic “bug-eyed” extra-terrestrial on the cover of Whitley Strieber’s Communion, or the uncanny dopplegangers (think, again about that two-way mirror) of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. In attempting to portray psychic phenomena as anticipatory — of a metamorphizing human imago — Myers seems to have imagined himself right into the future. He anticipated the human potential movement, which has since its inception in the 1960s and the heyday of Esalen Institute’s Big Sur, envisioned the evolutionary potential of humanity’s latent capacities (Michael Murphy’s classic book, The Future of the Body, is more than appropriately titled with this imago in mind). Timothy Leary’s 8-Circuit model of consciousness, for instance, considers us at the end of a “larval” stage of humanity (see the E&A article about that here). Grant Morrison’s visionary experience at Katmandu similarly depicts humanity and the Earth as a “larval god” (Supergods). 

Collage art by Kenny Smith

Yet, with these potentially inspiring – if at times terrifying – images of the evolutionary imago, the caterpillars have nearly devoured the cabbage. With the current climate change catastrophe potentially accelerating, now never felt like a greater time to initiate a planetary metamorphosis and grow humanity some wings. As mystic, feminist and activist Gloria Anzaldua often wrote about, the imagination is not only a faculty of personal and social transformation, it’s actually a capacity recreate reality — i.e. ontology, being itself. No wonder we’ve been imagining mutants and aliens so much in the “background radiation” of pop-culture and occulture. The demonstrable history of radical séance, and the proposed spiritual energy of the imaginal are both demonstrations of its world-changing power. Leary’s famous Starseed Transmission sums it up well with its cosmic injunction to “Mutate! Come home in glory.” It feels appropriate to conclude with the affirmation of human potential movement luminary, Jean Houston, when she writes about our precious evolutionary moment in Jump Time

“…as we move into the future, a cosmic humanism must enlighten our actions; our evolutionary jumps must be informed by the knowledge that we are acting on a global stage. As in Leonardo’s drawing of the universal man, we are inscribed within the square of our immediate time and place but also contained within the circle of our infinite relations.”

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