Thursday, May 21, 2009

"No ghosts need apply"

"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible,
whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"
Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of the Four

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous character in detective fiction, who as the quotation above illustrates was presented as unemotionally rational, became a believer in and promoter of Spiritualism. From The Economist:
.... [Conan Doyle's] support for spiritualism lent credence to some of the more outrageous frauds perpetrated on people desperately trying to get in touch with loved ones lost in the first world war. In his desire to prove the existence of spirits, he notoriously promoted two Yorkshire girls who, for a lark, claimed they had photographed the Cottingley Fairies.

On one level, his was the story of a lapsed Roman Catholic troubled by an alcoholic father and never quite able to cast off his sense of the supernatural. On another it was the intellectual journey of an inquisitive man, dissatisfied with Victorian materialism but intent on using its tools to examine alternative forms of consciousness. This was also a time when orthodox religion was giving way to Darwin and science.

As a doctor Conan Doyle was fascinated by early experiments in thought transference and healing through mesmerism and hypnotism. These were given an occult twist by early spiritualists, such as the Fox sisters from upstate New York, who won acclaim in the 1840s for their apparent ability to communicate with the dead through table-rapping (though they later confessed to fraud). ....

After holding séances with his wife Jean to get in touch with members of their family killed in the first world war, Conan Doyle came out as a spiritualist. He claimed to converse with the spirits of the dead. Virtually abandoning Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle churned out books on spiritualism and addressed vast audiences around the world on the subject. ....

For all his commitment to spiritualism, Conan Doyle, who would have been 150 on May 22nd, was canny enough not to compromise Sherlock Holmes’s credibility with it. Presented with evidence of the supernatural in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire", the great detective says, "This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply." [more]

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