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Frederic W. H. Myers: 1843-1901

A LEADING mind in psychical research, founder of a cosmic philosophy which may yet revolutionise scientific thought, a profound scholar, a poet of distinction and a brilliant psychologist. For thirty years he filled the post of an inspector of schools at Cambridge. Here his resolve to pursue psychical investigation was born in 1869 after a starlight walk and talk with Henry Sidgwick.

His starting point was that if a spiritual world ever manifested to man, it must manifest now, and that, in consequence, a serious investigation must end by discovering some unmistakable signs of it. For “if all attempts to verify scientifically the intervention of another world should be definitely proved futile, this would be a terrible blow, a mortal blow, to all our hopes of another life, as well as of traditional religion” for “it would thenceforth be very difficult for men to be persuaded, in our age of clear thinking, that what is now found to be illusion and trickery was in the past thought to be truth and revelation.”

He had in mind the same methods of deliberate, dispassionate and exact inquiry which built up our actual knowledge of the visible world. It was in this spirit that the SPR of which he was a fellow-founder came to be established in 1882. He devoted all his energies to its work and concentrated with a deep grasp of science on the psychological side. Of the sixteen volumes of Proceedings published while he lived there is not one without an important contribution from his pen. In Phantasms of the Living the system of classification was entirely his idea. The words telepathy, supernormal and veridical and many others less in use were coined by him. He played a large part in organising the International Congress of Psychology and acted as secretary to the one held in London in 1892. In the SPR he filled the post of honorary secretary. In 1900 he was elected to the presidential chair, a post which only distinguished scientists had filled before. To periodicals such as the Fortnightly Review, the Nineteenth Century, he contributed many articles. They were collected and published, in 1893, under the title Science and a Future Life, and Other Essays.
His chef d’oeuvre, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, was posthumously published. The University of Madras adopted it as a text book for its courses on lectures on psychology at the faculty of philosophy and letters. It is an exposition of the potential powers of the subliminal self which he pictured as the real ego, a vast psychic organism of which the ordinary consciousness is but an accidental fraction, the life of the soul, not bound up with the life of the body, of which the so-called supernormal faculties are the ordinary channels of perception. It is a theory of tremendous implications. It is an attack on the spiritualist position that all, or most, of the supernormal phenomena were due to the spirits of the dead. Myers contended that by far the largest proportion was due to the action of the still embodied spirit of the agent or of the percipient himself. The theory has brought order into a chaotic mass of psychical phenomena. On the other hand, it greatly enhanced the probability of survival. As the powers which he claimed for the subliminal self did not degenerate during the course of evolution and serve no purpose in this life they are obviously destined for a future existence. Why, for instance, should the subconscious so carefully preserve all thoughts and memories if there will be no use for them? William James suggested that the problems of the subliminal mind should be called “the problem of Myers.” “Whatever the judgment of the future may be on Mr. Myers’ speculation”, he said, “the credit will always remain to them of being the first attempt in any language to consider the phenomena of hallucination, automatism, double personality, and mediumship as connected parts of one whole subject.”

“If future discoveries confirm his thesis of the intervention of the discarnate, in the web and the woof of our mental and physical world,” writes Theodore Flournoy, “then his name will be inscribed in the golden book of the initiated, and, joined to those of Copernicus and Darwin, he will complete the triad of geniuses who have the most profoundly revolutionised scientific thought, in the order, Cosmological, Biological and Psychological.”

The same author, a profound psychologist himself, considered Myers “one of the most remarkable personalities of our time in the realm of mental science.” Dr. Leaf compares him to Ruskin and considers him in some respects his peer. According to Charles Richet “if Myers were not a mystic, he had all the faith of a mystic and the ardour of an apostle, in conjunction with the sagacity and precision of a savant.”

“I never knew a man so hopeful concerning his ultimate destiny,” writes Oliver Lodge in memoriam. “He once asked me whether I would barter - if it were possible - my unknown destiny, whatever it might be, for as many aeons of unmitigated and wise terrestrial happiness as might last till the secular fading of the sun, and then an end. He would not.”

He was so convinced of survival that his friends often heard him say, “I am counting the days until the holidays.”

In Human Personality physical phenomena receive but little consideration. Myers believes in the occurrence of telekinetic phenomena but in spite of the experiments of William Crookes and his own, their genuine occurrence, from the viewpoint of the public, did not appear to him sufficiently believable to justify their discussion in his book. Nevertheless, in dealing with possession he suggested an ingenious explanation, i.e., that the possessing spirit may use the organism more skilfully than its owner and may emit some energy which can visibly move ponderable objects not actually in contact with the flesh. Of his own investigations between 1872-76 he said that they were “tiresome and distasteful enough.”

On May 9, 1874, in the company of Edmund Gurney, he made the acquaintance of Stainton Moses. The acquaintance led to friendship. When Moses died on September 5, 1892, his notebooks were handed to Myers for study. His articles in Proceedings, SPR, Vol. IX and Vol. XI contain the best accounts of this remarkable mediumship, but his conclusions were not based on personal experiences with Moses. When he had some startling ones with Miss Wood and Miss Fairlamb in 1878 he kept strangely silent. Alfred Russel Wallace seen his notes on the séances held under the auspices of the SPR with the two mediums at Cambridge in Henry Sidgwick’s rooms. They state that the medium’s wrists were securely tied with tapes and the ends were tacked down to the floor and sealed. Many forms came out of the cabinet, both adults and children. The seals were found untampered. The colour of the tape and the scaling wax was varied at each séance, the medium was put into a hammock which was connected with pulleys to a weighing machine, nevertheless the phenomena occurred as before without the least suspicious cause.

In 1894 on the Ile Roubaud he was the guest of Charles Richet and participated with Oliver Lodge and Julien Ochorowitz in the experiments conducted with Eusapia Palladino. He could not refrain from expressing an opinion and admitted that the phenomena were genuine. The Cambridge exposure shook his belief and he wrote:

“I had no doubt that systematic trickery had been used from the first to last, and that there was no adequate ground for attributing any of the phenomena occurring at these sittings to a supernormal cause.”

Later, however, he participated in another series of sittings with Eusapia in Paris and at the solemn adjuration of Richet he declared himself convinced that both telekinesis and ectoplasm are genuine phenomena. He sat with Mrs. Everitt, Mme. d’Esperance, and David Duguid, he had the strange experience of seeing objective pictures in a crystal ball and he investigated the haunted Ballechin House in Perthshire, Scotland. As a result he published two papers in Proceedings: “On Alleged Movements of Objects without Contact, occurring not in the Presence of a Paid Medium” (Vol VII, Parts XIX-XX., 1891-92). Still, he was not enthusiastic for physical phenomena. It was owing to his discouragement that Mrs. Thompson ceased to sit for physical demonstrations and developed chiefly as a trance medium for the SPR. He had his reward. The communication received through Mrs. Thompson finally confirmed his belief in survival. Before the International Psychological Congress in 1900 he read a paper on his experiences.

Attention to some remarkable omissions in Myers’ great work was called by James Robertson in an address printed in Light, May 30, 1903. He objects that Andrew Jackson Davis is passed by a single remark and says that “a clear, unbiased examination of the life and writings of this extraordinary man would have given him more than all he has gathered together in these long drawn out statements as to disintegration of personality, hypnotism, trance, possession, etc.”

After Myers’ death a flood of communications was put down to his spirit by many mediums. The most important ones were those received through Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Verrall and Mrs. Holland. As regards the latter, Frank Podmore and Miss Alice Johnson agree that the Myers control is a subconscious creation of the medium. The views there expressed are alien to the mentality of the living Myers. Mrs. Verrall obtained the contents of a sealed letter which Myers had written in 1891 and left in the care of Oliver Lodge for such a test. However, when the letter was opened in 1904 the contents were found to be entirely different. In 1907, Eleanor Sidgwick obtained good identity proofs through Mrs. Piper. On her behalf Mrs. Verrall asked some questions to which she did not know the answer and received correct replies as regards the contents of the last conversation that had taken place between Mrs. Sidgwick and Myers.

Many other impressive indications of his surviving self were found in cross-correspondences, especially during Mrs. Piper’s second visit to Britain in 1906-07. The whole system of cross-correspondences appears to have been elaborated by him and the wealth of classical knowledge displayed in the connected fragments, given by several mediums, raises a strong presumption that they have emanated from Myers’ mind. The most striking evidence of this nature was obtained after Mrs. Piper’s return to America by Mr. G. B. Dorr in 1908. Podmore considers it “perhaps the strongest evidence yet obtained for the identity of any communicator.” In The Road to Immortality which was automatically produced by Geraldine Cummins a stupendous vista is opened up by F. W. H. Myers of the soul’s progression through the after-death states. As regards the authorship of the book, Oliver Lodge received independent testimony through Mrs. Leonard from Myers of his communications through Miss Cummins. Oliver Lodge sees no reason to dissent from the view that the remarkable accounts of the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh state “are the kind of ideas which F. W. H. Myers may by this time (1932) have been able to form.”

Source: Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor.

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