Writing With Spirit: Victorian Automatic Writing
At times like these, with all our desks heaped with the end of term papers, it is a great relief to let someone else do the writing for a change. So why not take a well earned break, and let someone who isn’t sick of all this writing give it a go. I speak of course of automatic writing, or spirit writing, which lies on the very cutting edge of Victorian occultism. Similar to what we saw in Kipling’s “Wireless,” automatic writing refers to a writing with that is “outside the consciousness of the subject” (Myers 511). Sometimes this writing is attributed to a lower consciousness, but more often then not, the Victorians believed spirits were the source of the writing.
In attempting to produce automatic writing, there’s very little required on your part to make this work. Well, in a sense you have to give up control of your body. One account by an automatic writer, a Mr. A–, describes it as “the very sensation of being possessed, — moved from within by some agency which overrules his volition” (Myers 550). Now, anything worth doing, is worth doing right. To properly engage in Victorian occult practices, one must adopt the Victorian state of mind in regards to the body. We must assume a dual nature body and soul, and understand that “the soul is an entity of a peculiar kind, entirely distinct from and independent of the body.” So in the process of automatic writing, one soul usurps another’s body to facilitate communication. This viewpoint sees the body as something mechanical, functioning merely as a tool of the soul. As Professor Newbold puts it, “the body is a martial machine, and does not essentially differ from the machines made by man.” But during the process of automatic writing, “the body is a machine out of gear, it is no longer controlled by the indwelling soul, and is constantly executing movements on its own account” (Newbold 508).
So to partake in this act of automatic writing, the first task must be finding someone sensitive enough to facilitate the communication with the spirit realm. The test requires that the would-be automatic writer must sit “for half an hour on a dozen evenings, amid quiet surrounds and in an expectant frame of mind, with his hand on pencil or planchette, he will begin to write words which he has not consciously thought of” (Myers 550). Now, according to different sources, you’re either to be almost surely successful, or almost certain to fail. One source claims automatic writing is “an exceedingly common phenomenon” (Newbold 509), whereas another states that “perhaps one person in a hundred possesses this tendency” (Myers 550).
But if, against the odds, an automatic writer is found, there are still potential pitfalls. Myers warns that “if he sees the words as he writes them he will unavoidably guess at what is coming, and spoil the spontaneous flow.” Perhaps it’s not at all as easy as it seemed, but if you want to engage in automatic writing, there are a few tricks that may help, and that the automatic writer “can avoid this by reading a book while they write, and so keeping eyes and thoughts away from the message. Still others have relied upon ancient rings, or having one’s arm and hand mesmerized. Here’s how a Mr. B– goes about producing his automatic writing:
“I take a pencil and place my hand upon a sheet of paper. After the lapse of a few minutes I feel a tingling sensation in my arm and fingers; this is followed by a stiffening of the arm and by convulsive movements. After scrawling for a while, it will make a mark which suggests to me the beginning of a letter, and usually the letter will be clearly written almost before the thought enters my mind. It is then followed by some word beginning with that letter, and that by other words, constituting a ‘communication’ from some ‘spirit.’” (Newbold 514).
Well, in trying ourselves, if we are as lucky as Mr. B–, some sort of writing should have emerged. Now, is it legible? Be aware, that sometimes automatic writing takes the form of “imaginary words” or “anagrams” (Myers 549,551). Here’s one example I came across:
The best I can make out is something like: “weboue Uret; jst I’ll aectifv Uisrel.” Perhaps I’m just not sensitive enough to decipher that one.
Okay, so the pencil didn’t work. Perhaps it is time to try with something called a planchette. A planchette, as Professor Newbold informs us, is a “tiny three-legged table,” made so that the “spirits” could lift them during sessions of table-turning – ordinary tables often proving too heavy for the apparently puny spirits. In this way, this sort of spirit writing took originated from table turning. Eventually, “the device was hit upon of attaching a pencil to one leg and placing a sheet of paper beneath to record the movements of the leg” (Newbold 509). (Double crown printing paper is the best). Two or three people are to place their hands on the planchette, and like we did with the pencil, allow yourself to enter a state of complete passivity. If you do not have a planchette, see the following advertisement. G. Stormont has options available for every price range: four shilling, four pence for the full size model, two shilling, six pence for the second size, and a mere one shilling, nine pence for the small, single-hand model. Please see your local “Fancy Dealer.”
The planchette has a couple advantages, as Myers identifies, “a slighter impulse will start it, and that it is easier to write without seeing or feeling what you are writing” (Myers 550). Newbold also champions the use of the planchette, stating that “the chances of finding an automatist among two or three people is obviously greater than n the case of one; furthermore… since all expect the planchette to move, the slightest tendency to automatism on the part of any one is likely to be magnified by the unconscious cooperation of the others, and is less likely to be check by the writer himself, since each ascribes the movement to anyone by himself” (Newbold 509).With any luck, there’ll be some movement, which will translate into some written communication from the spirits at large.
One must be cautious when allowing the spirits to write through our hand. Newbold relates the case of one automatic writing practitioner, in fact our friend Mr. B–, as describing how the spirit would “twist violently about, pound on the table, bruise my fingers, break my pencils, and show every sign of the greatest excitement, while I, the spectator, survey it with the coolest and most skeptical curiosity… Apparently, as is the case with the material world, the spirit world has its share of bullies and assholes. This same Mr. B– reported that “my hand sometimes abuses me, especially for my skepticism, and sometimes reproves my faults in a very embarrassing manner. It has frequently urged me, upon very plausible grounds, to do things which I would not dream of doing” (Newbold 515). Oh evil hand — what I wouldn’t give to know the details of that tumultuous relationship!
Now, perhaps our little experiments yield lacklustre results, so for some examples of the truly spectacular possibilities of automatic writing, we must turn to the productions of others. Perhaps one of my favourite finds in researching this subject was a poem apparently written by the spirits through a medium, in an apparently unknown language:
“Ede pelute kondo nadode
Igla tepete Compto Pele
Impe odode inguru lalele
Omdo resene okoro pododo
Igme odkondo nefulu kelala
Nene odkondo nefulu kelala
Nene pokonto ce folodelu
Impete la la feme olele
Igdepe Kindo raog japate
Relepo oddo og cene lumano”
But, the spirits must have anticipated our problems with comprehension, and thus had the courtesy to provide us with a translation:
“The coming of man from the roar of the ages
Has been like the seas in the breath of the storm;
His heart has been torn and his soul has been riven,
His joy has been short and his curse has been long.
But the bow of my promise still spreads in the heavens;
I have not destroyed the great sign of my love.
I stand at the door of the ark of creation,
And take in thy world like a storm-beaten dove,
And press to my bosom the world that I love” (Newbold 519)
Well, the best advice for the would-be poet, be they spiritual or corporeal, is to keep at it, practice makes perfect!
Occasionally the products of automatic writing are in a bizarre script, and here is the most bizarre I came across. This writing here purports to be “an account written by a spirit from the planet Saturn” (Newbold 515):
One of the more curious works I stumbled across was Life Beyond the Grave, an entire book purported to have been written by the spirits, that provides an extremely in depth account of the spirit realm and the afterlife. The book itself, authored by the anonymous Writing Medium, is quite an oddity, but the preface, also written by the spirits, is truly a gem, which I can’t resist reproducing here in full:
By the Communicating Spirits
In presenting the following pages to the notice of the public we, the inspiring intelligences, disclaim, on the part of the writer of the communications herein contained, all the responsibility for their contents. He has himself explained how they came to be written, and what his share in their production has been. We have simply used him as our medium for conveying to the world some information on topics that are of vast importance to mankind, and of which they cannot, by ordinary channels of information, acquire any knowledge. That they contain statements which may be disputed or doubted, even by spiritualists and spirits also, is quite possible, since all men do not think alike and neither do they see alike; and there are many men in the spirit world who do not understand the conditions by which they are surrounded, and the laws which govern their own state. We do not claim infallibility ourselves, and if we have set down anything which is not clear or intelligible, we shall be happy to answer any questions that may be sent to the writer, through whom we have been able to express ourselves.
It’s good to see the spirits have the foresight of offering a disclaimer before their work, and making themselves available to address the reader’s concerns. After all, no one wants to get sued.
The Victorian attitudes toward the body are manifested in their fascination in the occult and activities like automatic writing. The tendencies to see the body as a machine, a tool, and a knowable, measurable quantity, lead to anxiety when faced with a direct interaction with that which is essentially unknown – in which case, the body itself becomes an unknown quantity, as Dickens would have it. But in practicing automatic writing, the unknown can be made known. As is evident in the existence of works like Life Beyond the Grave, there is a desire to know that which cannot be known, and seek explanations by any and all means available to us. The body “is the medium through which material realities external to it are communicated to the soul” (Newbold 508). Thus, the body, though potentially a source of anxiety in regards to unknown quantities, can also be a mechanism by which unknown quantities are eliminated, and thereby new horizons of human potentiality are made visible.