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Interview With
Frederic W. H. Myers
Frederic W. H. MyersInterviewed by Michael E. Tymn

One of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Frederic William Henry Myers (1843-1901) is sometimes referred to as the “Father of Psychical Research.” His book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, published in 1903, two years after his death, is considered a seminal work in the field. Harvard professor William James wrote that Myers “will always be remembered in psychology as the pioneer who staked out a vast tract of mental wilderness and planted the flag of genuine science upon it.” Sir Oliver Lodge, the esteemed physicist and radio pioneer, stated that Myers had been “laying the foundation for a cosmic philosophy, a scheme of existence as large and comprehensive and well founded as any that have appeared.”

Although not educated as a psychologist, Myers has been credited with developing a systematic conception of the subliminal self as well as a theory holding that telepathy is one of the basic laws of life. In fact, it was Myers who coined the word “telepathy,” previously called “thought transference.”

In Human Personality, Myers explored disintegrations of personality, genius, sleep, hypnotism, sensory automatism, phantasms of the dead, motor automatism, trance, possession, and ecstasy. “In this great book Myers brought together an immense store of information about the always strange and often wonderful goings-on in the upper stories of a man’s soul-house,” wrote Aldous Huxley in the foreword to the 1961 republication of the book. “And this information he presents within a theoretical frame of reference that takes account not only of the rats and beetles in the cellarage, but also of those treasures, birds and angels so largely ignored by Freud and his followers.”

Huxley saw Myers as a classical scholar, a minor poet, a conscientious observer, and a platonic philosopher, someone who “was free to pay more attention to the positive aspects of the subliminal self than to its negative and destructive aspects,” as with Freud and the others involved in the study of the subconscious.

“If Myers was 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,” wrote Dr. Charles Richet, 1913 Nobel Prize winner in medicine.

Lodge recalled attending a lecture by Myers on the poet Crabbe, describing it as a “remarkable i>tour de force,” in which Myers had no notes. Lodge added that Myers had a portentous memory and knew Virgil’s Aeneid by heart.

University of Geneva psychology professor Theodor Flournoy opined that Myers name should be joined to those of Copernicus and Darwin, completing “the triad of geniuses” who have most profoundly revolutionized scientific thought.

The son of a clergyman, Myers graduated Trinity College, Cambridge in 1864, and then became a lecturer in the classics at Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity. By 1869, he had, like most of his Cambridge intellectuals, lost his faith and, concomitantly, his belief in the survival of consciousness at death. Myers wrote that his agnosticism or virtual materialism affected him like “a dull pain borne with joyless doggedness, sometimes…a shock of nightmare-panic amid the glaring dreariness of the day.” He felt that the hope of the world was vanishing, not his alone.

Sir, in your book, you referred to a “deep disquiet” of the time, a time that had been impacted by the “Age of Reason” and Darwinism. Would you please elaborate on the general mindset of the time?

“Never, perhaps, did man’s spiritual satisfaction bear a smaller proportion to his needs. The old-world sustenance, however earnestly administered, [was] too unsubstantial for the modern cravings. And thus through our civilized societies two conflicting currents [ran]. On the one hand, health, intelligence, morality – all such boons as the steady progress of planetary evolution can win for the man – [were] being achieved in increasing measure. On the other hand this very sanity, this very prosperity, [brought out] in stronger relief the underlying Weltschmerz, the decline of any real belief in the dignity, the meaning, the endlessness of life.

“There [were] many, of course, who readily [accepted] this limitation of view; who [were] willing to let earthly activities and pleasures gradually dissipate and obscure the larger hope. But others [could not] thus be easily satisfied. They rather resemble children who are growing too old for their games – whose amusement sinks into indifference and discontent for which the fitting remedy is an initiation into the serious work of men.

“A similar crisis [had] passed over Europe once before. There came a time when the joyful naïveté, the unquestioning impulse of the early world had passed away; when the worship of Greeks no more was beauty, nor the religion of Rome. Alexandrian decadence, Byzantine despair, found utterance in many an epigram which might have been written today. Then came a great uprush or incursion from the spiritual world, and with new races and new ideals Europe regained its youth.

“The unique effect of that great Christian impulse begins, perhaps, to wear away. But more grace may yet be attainable from the region whence that grace came. Our age’s restlessness, as I believe, [was] the restlessness not of senility but of adolescence.”

It is my understanding that you were instrumental in the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. How did that come about?

“In about 1873 – at the crest of perhaps the highest wave of materialism which has swept over these shores – it became the conviction of a small group of Cambridge friends that the deep questions thus at issue must be fought out in a way more thorough than the champions either of religion or of materialism had yet suggested. Our attitudes of mind were in some ways different; but to myself, at least, it seemed that no adequate attempt had been made to determine whether anything could be learnt as to an unseen world or no. I felt that if anything were knowable it must be discovered by simple experiment and observation, using precisely the same methods of deliberate, dispassionate, exact inquiry which have built up our actual knowledge about the world which we can touch and see.”

I know that Professor Williams Crookes was studying the mediumship of D. D. Home and Florence Cook between 1870 and 1873, so science had not completely ignored the subject before 1873.

“Among all the witnesses of Home’s marvels Sir William Crookes was almost the only man who made any attempt to treat them as reasonable men treat all the facts of nature. Most of the witnesses, though fully believing in the genuineness of the wonders, appear to have regarded them as a kind of uncanny diversion.

“Although I attribute much value to what evidence exists in the case of Home, it cannot but be deplored that the inestimable chance for experiment and record which this man afforded was almost entirely thrown away by the scientific world. Unfortunately the record is especially inadequate in reference to Home’s trances and the evidence for the personal identity of the communicating spirits. His name is known to the world chiefly in connection with the telekinetic phenomena which are said to have occurred in his presence, and the best account of which we owe to Sir William Crookes.”

I believe you are saying that Crookes was interested primarily in the physical phenomena and not digging deep enough on the survival issue.

“It is strictly true to say that man [had] never yet applied the methods of modern science to the problem which most profoundly concerns him – whether or not his personality involves any element which can survive bodily death. Nor [was] this strange omission due to any general belief that the problem is incapable of solution by any observation whatever which mankind could make. Although the resolutely agnostic view [was] no doubt held by many learned minds, it has never been the creed of the human race generally. In most civilized countries there has been for nearly two thousand years a distinct belief that survival has actually been proved by certain phenomena observed at a given date in Palestine. And beyond the Christian pale – whether through reason, instinct, or superstition – it has ever been commonly held that ghostly phenomena of one kind or another exist to testify to a life beyond the life we know.

“But nevertheless, neither those who believe on vague grounds nor those who believe on definite grounds that the question might possibly be solved by human observation of objective fact [had] made any serious attempt in this direction. They [had] not sought for fresh corroborative instances, for analogies, for explanations; rather they kept their convictions on these fundamental matters in a separate and sealed compartment of their minds, a compartment consecrated to religion or to superstition, but not to observation or experiment.”

By 1873, you had visited a few mediums, but, as your book suggests, it was after meeting the Rev. William Stainton Moses that you really got serious about the subject.

“[Yes,] it was on May 9, 1874 that Edmund Gurney and I met Stainton Moses for the first time, through the kindness of Lady Mount-Temple, who knew that we had become interested in psychical problems, and wished to introduce us to a man of honor who had recently experienced phenomena, due wholly to some gift of his own, which had profoundly changed his conception of life.

“That evening was epoch-making in Gurney’s life and mine. Standing as we were in the attitude natural at the commencement of such inquiries, under such conditions as were then attainable, an attitude of curiosity tempered by a vivid perception of difficulty and drawback, we now met a man of university education, of manifest sanity and probity, who vouched to us for a series of phenomena – occurring to himself, and with no doubtful or venal aid – which seemed to at least prove, in confusedly intermingled form, three main theses unknown to science. These were 1) the existence of the human spirit in hidden powers of insight and of communication; 2) the personal survival and near presence of the departed; and 3) interference, due to unknown agencies, with the ponderable world. He spoke frankly and fully; he showed his notebooks; he referred us to his friends; he inspired a belief which was at once sufficient, and which is still sufficient, to prompt to action.”

I recall reading somewhere that you were levitated in the presence of Rev. Moses.

“[Correct], a table, untouched by any hands, rose from the floor and touched my throat and chest three times, and then I was three times raised on to the table, and twice levitated in the corner of the room.”

Why did it take from 1873 until 1882 to get the SPR going?

“An attempt made, in 1875, by Serjeant Cox and a few others, including Stainton Moses and myself, to get these phenomena more seriously discussed in a ‘psychological society’ languished for want of suitable coadjutors, and on the death of Serjeant Cox, in 1879, the Society was dissolved. During those important years, therefore, while his experiences were fresh in Stainton Moses’ mind, and while they were to some extent still recurring, he had little encouragement to deal with them from a scientific point of view.”

How exactly did the SPR come about?

“When, in 1882, Professor [William] Barrett consulted [Stainton Moses] as to the possibility of founding a new society, under better auspices, he warmly welcomed the plan. Edmund Gurney and I were asked to join but made it a condition that the consent of Professor [Henry] Sidgwick, with whom we had already been working, to act as our President should first be obtained. Under his guidance, the Society for Psychical Research assumed a more cautious and critical attitude than was congenial to Stainton Moses’ warm heart, strong convictions, and impulsive temper, and in 1886 he left the Society, in consequence of the publication in the Proceedings of certain comments on phenomena occurring through the agency of the so-called ‘medium’ Eglinton.”

What prompted the conviction you mentioned as underlying the Society’s formation?

“In those early days we were more devoid of precedents, of guidance, even of criticism that went beyond mere expressions of contempt, than is now readily conceived. Seeking evidence as best we could, we were at last fortunate enough to discover a convergence of experimental and of spontaneous evidence upon one definite and important point. We were led to believe that there was truth in a thesis which at least since Swedenborg and the early mesmerists had been repeatedly but cursorily and ineffectually presented to mankind – the thesis that a communication can take place from mind to mind by some agency not that of the recognized organs of sense. We found that this agency, discernible even on trivial occasions by suitable experiment, seemed to connect itself with an agency more intense, or at any rate more recognizable, which operated at moments of crisis or at the hour of death.”

Why do you think religion so resisted scientific research?

“The Christian religion, the Christian Church, [had become] the accredited representative and guardian of all phenomena bearing upon the World Unseen. So long as Christianity stood dominant, all phenomena which seemed to transcend experience were absorbed in her realm – were accounted as minor indications of the activity of her angels or of her friends. And when Christianity was seriously attacked, these minor manifestations passed unconsidered. The priests thought it safest to defend their own traditions without going afield in search of independent evidence of a spiritual world. Their assailants kept their powder and shot for the orthodox ramparts, ignoring any isolated stronghold which formed no part of the main line of defense.”

You are credited with developing a theory of the subliminal self independent of Freud. What was the crux of your theory?

“We find that the subliminal uprushes – the impulses or communications which reach our emergent from our submerged selves – are often characteristically different in quality from any element known to our ordinary supraliminal life. They are different in a way which implies faculty of which we have had no previous knowledge, operating in an environment of which hitherto we have been wholly unaware. This broad statement is of course the purpose of my whole work to justify. Assuming its truth here for argument’s sake, we see at once that the problem of the hidden self entirely changes its aspect. Telepathy and clairvoyance – the perception of distant thoughts and of distant scenes without the agency of the recognized organs of sense – suggest either incalculable extension of our own mental powers, or else the influence upon us of minds freer and less trammeled than our own.

“Now there are those who would explain this supernormal phenomenon altogether as the agency of discarnate minds, or spirits. And if the subliminal faculties for which I argue are denied to man, some such hypothesis as this, of almost continuous spirit-intervention and spirit guidance, is at once rendered necessary.

“However, I explain this by the action of man’s own spirit, without invoking spirits external to himself. Yet the one view still gives support to the other. For these faculties of distant communication exist none the less, even though we should refer them to our own subliminal selves. We can affect each other at a distance, telepathically, and if our incarnate spirits can act thus in at least apparent independence of the fleshly body, the presumption is strong that other spirits may exist independently of the body, and may affect us in similar manner.”

As I read the record now, the Society was initially interested in telepathy between living minds, which included what we now refer to as out-of-body experiences.

“[True], there is one particular line of telepathic experiment and observation which seems to lead us by an almost continuous pathway across the hitherto impassable gulf. Among telepathic experiments, to begin with, none is more remarkable than the occasional power of some agent to project himself phantasmally; to make himself manifest, as though in actual presence, to some percipient at a distance. The mechanism of such projection is entirely unknown to the agent himself; nor is the act always preceded by any effort of the supraliminal will. But our records of such cases do assuredly suggest a quite novel disengagement of some informing spirit from the restraint of the organism; a form of distant operation in which we cannot say whether the body in its apparent passivity cooperates or no.”

Much of your early research had to do with apparitions or phantasms at the moment of death. Correct?

“We gradually discovered that the accounts of apparitions at the moment of death – testifying to a supersensory communication between the dying man and the friend who sees him – led on without perceptible break to apparitions occurring after the death of the person seen, but while that death was yet unknown to the percipient, and thus apparently not to mere brooding memory but to a continued action of that departed spirit. But after pursuing this task for some year I felt that in reality the step from the action of embodied to the action of disembodied spirits would still seem too sudden if taken in this direct way. So far, indeed, as the evidence from apparitions went, the series seemed continuous from phantasms of the living to phantasms of the dead. But the whole mass of evidence pointing to man’s survival was of a much more complex kind. It consisted largely, for example, in written or spoken utterances coming through the hand or voice of living men, but claiming to proceed from a disembodied source. To these utterances no satisfactory criterion had ever been applied.”

So the question was: Is there evidence showing that a phantasm can appear after a man’s death as well as at it? What did you conclude?

“To this direct question there can now be given a distinct and affirmative answer. There is evidence that the self-same living spirit is still operative, and it may be in the self-same way. And thus my general dogma receives its specific confirmation. Telepathy, I have said, looks like a law prevailing in the spiritual as well as the material world. And that it does so prevail, I now add, is proved by the fact that those who communicated with us telepathically in this world communicate with us telepathically from the other. As first, the mere observations of these phantasms does not seem as though it could lead us far. It is like the observation of shooting stars – of memory which appears without warning and vanish in a flash of fire. Yet systematic observation has learnt much as to these meteors; has learnt the point in the heaven from which they issue; their orbital relation to earth and sun. Somewhat similarly, continuous observation of these brief phantasmal appearances may tell us much of them at last; mush, for instance, as to their relative frequency at different epochs after death; something as to their apparent knowledge of what has happened on earth since they left us.”

You divided phenomena into two categories – sensory automatism and motor automatism, the former meaning products of inner audition, while the latter referred to messages conveyed by movement of limbs, hands, or tongue initiated by an inner motor impulse beyond the conscious will. Which do you feel offers stronger evidence?

“The sensory automatisms have proved to us, in my view, the connection of definite apparitions with individual men, both during bodily life and after bodily death. They have, in short, proved by logical reasoning the existence and the persistence of a spirit in man. But great as this achievement is, it opens out more problems than it solves; it leaves us even more eager than at first for a fuller insight into this new dim-lit world. We feel that, important though the facts of phantasmal appearance may be, we want to get deeper, to reach some psychological discussion not dependent on time-coincidences nor on the details of some evanescent observation. We instinctively seek, in short, just that knowledge which will now be in some measure afforded to us through the study of that wide range of phenomena which I have classed together as motor automatism.

“It must be, then, on the study of motor automatism that our general view of the spiritual world now opening to us must mainly be based. Those longer colloquies of automatic speech and script will introduce us to points of philosophy which fleeting apparitions cannot teach.”

In spite of the motor automatism produced through Rev. Moses, you still wondered about the source?

“[Yes,] even the phenomena of Mr. W. S. Moses left it possible to argue that the main ‘controls’ under which he wrote or spoke when entranced were self-suggestion of his own mind, or phases of his own deeper personality. I had not then had the opportunity, which the kindness of his executors after his death afforded to me, of studying the whole series of his original note books, and forming at first-hand my present conviction that spiritual agency was an actual and important element in that long sequence of communication. On the whole, I did not then anticipate that the theory of possession could be presented as more than a plausible speculation, or as a supplement of other lines of proof of man’s survival.”

What changed your views on that?

“The trance-phenomena of Mrs. [Leonora] Piper, and more recently other series of trance phenomena with other mediums have added materially to the evidence. The result broadly is that these phenomena of possession are now the most amply attested, as well as intrinsically the most advanced in our whole repertory.

“The claim, then, is that the automatist falls into a trance, during which his spirit partially ‘quits his body’; enters at any rate into a state in which the spiritual world is more or less open to its perception; and in which also – and this is the novelty – it so far ceases to occupy the organism as to leave room for an invading spirit to use it in somewhat the same fashion as its owner is accustomed to use it. The brain being thus temporarily and partially uncontrolled, a disembodied spirit sometimes, but not always, succeeds in occupying it; and occupies it with varying degrees of control. In some cases, like Mrs. Piper, two or more spirits may simultaneously control different portions of the same organism.

“The controlling spirit proves his identity mainly by reproducing, in speech or writing, facts which belong to his memory and not to the automatist’s memory. He may also give evidence of supernormal perception of other kinds.”

There was much confusion and misinterpretation in Mrs. Piper’s early trances, was there not?

“One touch of pathos, indeed – though not of tragedy – stands out to my recollection from the trances which I have watched – this is the thronging multitude of the departed pressing to the glimpse of light. Eager, but untrained, they interject their uncomprehended cries; vainly they call the names which no man answers; like birds that have beaten against a lighthouse, they pass in disappointment away. At first this confusion interfered with coherent messages, through Mrs. Piper, but during the second and third stages of her trances, under the care apparently of supervising spirits, it tended more and more to disappear.”

Those of us in the physical body seem to assume that spirits should be able to communicate fluently and at will. I believe you found this not to be the case.

“If, indeed, each one of us is a spirit that survives the death of the fleshly organism, there are certain suppositions that I think we may not unreasonably make concerning the ability of the discarnate spirit to communicate with those yet incarnate. Even under the best of conditions for communication – which I am supposing for the nonce to be possible – it may be that the aptitude for communicating clearly may be as rare as the gifts that make a great artist, or a great mathematician, or a great philosopher. Again, it may well be that, owing to the change connected with death itself, the spirit may at first be much confused, and such confusion may last for a long time; and even after the spirit has become accustomed to its new environment, it is not an unreasonable supposition that if it came into some such relation to another living human organism as it once maintained with its own former organism, it would find itself confused by that relation. The state might be like that of awakening from a prolonged period of unconsciousness into strange surroundings.

And researchers were slow in understanding this, to the point that it was often viewed as subconscious interference by the medium or as outright fraud. Correct?

“[Correct], I, at least, had not realized beforehand that the pressure from that side was likely to be more urgent than from this. Naturally, since often on this side something of inevitable doubt – of shuddering prejudice and causeless fear – curdles the stream of love; while for them the imperishable affection flows on unchecked and full. They yearn to tell of their bliss, to promise their welcome at the destined hour. A needless scruple, indeed, which dreads to call or to constrain them! We can bind them by no bond but love; they are more ready to hear than we to pray; of their own act and grace they visit our spirits in prison.”

Thank you, Mr. Myers. Do you have any parting thoughts?

“I do not venture to suppose that the evidence [so far gathered] will at once convince [people] that the momentous, the epoch-making discovery has already been made. Nay, I cannot even desire that my own belief should at once impose itself upon the world. Let men’s minds move in their wonted manner: great convictions are sounder and firmer when they are of gradual growth. But I do think that to the candid student it should by this time become manifest that the world-old problem can now in reality be hopefully attacked; that there is actual and imminent possibility that the all-important truth should at last become indisputably known; and therefore, that it befits all ‘men of goodwill’ to help toward this knowing with what zeal they may.

“Neither the religious nor the scientific [person] can longer afford to ignore the facts presented here, to pass them by. They must be met, they must be understood, unless Science and Religion alike are to sink into mere obscurantism. And the one and only way to understand them is to learn more of them; to collect more evidence, to try more experiments, to bring to bear on this study a far more potent effort of the human mind than the small group who have thus far been at work can possibly furnish. Judged by this standard, the needed help has still to come. Never was there a harvest so plenteous with laborers so few.

“It may be that for some generations to come the truest faith will lie in the patient attempt to unravel from confused phenomena some trace of the supernal world; to find thus at last ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’”

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