By Christine Ferguson
Haunting the peripheries of Oliver Lodge’s classic spiritualist work Raymond, or Life and Death (1916) is the figure of Lieutenant Eric Fletcher, close wartime companion of the book’s eponymous spirit protagonist and early recipient of the then nascent diagnosis of shellshock.1 “He went off for a rest cure yesterday morning,” records Raymond Lodge in a letter from the front sent in late May, 1915. “He is my greatest friend in the Battalion, so I miss him very much and hope he won’t be long away. He will probably go back to England, however, as his nerves are all wrong. He is going the same way as Laws did and needs a complete rest” (39). Although Fletcher remained a regular presence in the young Lodge’s correspondence until the latter’s death later that year, he leaves little trace in the afterlife communications allegedly channeled by the spirit Raymond to his grieving father through the London mediums Mrs Gladys Leonard and Mr A. Vout Peters in the autumn of 1916. In my talk at the second Lodge workshop, I argued that the phenomena of shell shock nonetheless remains central to Raymond and Oliver Lodge’s spiritualist philosophy during the inter-war years, coming to serve as perfect analogue for the disembodied spirit as it struggled to communicate from, and adjust to, its newly disembodied state.
Raymond by no means represented Lodge’s first spiritualist publication — indeed, the wireless pioneer had been active in the continental psychical research scene since the eighteen-eighties — but when it appeared, it was immediately recognized as belonging to a different category than his earlier forays into the field such as The Proofs of Life After Death (1902) and The Survival of Man (1909).2 More personal than these, it struck a chord with the thousands of parents in Britain and around the world who had lost their own sons to the war effort, and quickly became one of the best-selling spiritualist books of all time. It also became the most recognizable example of a new sub-genre of spiritualist writing, namely, the spirit soldier biography, one that narrated the continuing adventures and sometimes sustained battle engagement of combatants on the other side. Including such works as War Letters from a Living Dead Man (1915), J.S.M. Ward’s Gone West (1917), and Wellesley Tudor-Pole’s Private Dowding (1917), the genre aimed to reconcile the unprecedented violence and devastation of modern technological warfare with spiritualism’s hopeful promise of universal human progress both on earth and in the afterlife.3 It also, to varying degrees, had to contend with the unruly and sometimes nonsensical nature of the séance messages it compiled as evidence, transforming what seemed like error or even gibberish on the part of the alleged communicants into logical and consistent evidence of post-life survival.
Raymond’s solution to the latter problem posed a significant threat to the meliorist spiritualist philosophy the book took as foundation. Lodge had clearly been reading medical and bio-evolutionary accounts of the conflict as he prepared the manuscript, and was particularly struck by leading British psychiatrist Sir Frederick Mott’s recent theories on shell shock.4 Sufferers of this seemingly new syndrome exhibited a strange set of often allied symptoms without apparent organic cause; they experienced unexplained amnesia, struggled to eat or sleep, had nightmares, headaches, and chronic panic, developed speech defects or lost the ability to speak altogether. An early pioneer of its treatment, Mott traced the condition to barely detectable nerve damage caused by proximity to high explosives or exposure to carbon monoxide and argued that it could be cured through rest and cheerfulness (Mott 70). In Raymond, Lodge quoted at length from what he viewed as the most electrifying, and spiritualistically relevant, passage of Mott’s recently published Lettsomian lectures on subject:
Why should those men, whose silent thoughts are perfect, be unable to speak? They comprehend all that is said to them unless they are deaf; but it is quite clear that in these cases their internal language is unaffected, for they are able to express their thoughts and judgments perfectly well by writing, even if they are deaf. The mutism is therefore not due to intellectual defect, nor is it due to volitional inhibition of language in silent thought. Hearing, the primary incitation to vocalization and speech, is usually unaffected, yet they are unable to speak; they cannot even whisper, cough, whistle, or laugh aloud. Many who are unable to speak voluntarily yet call out in their dreams expressions they have used in trench warfare and battle. (330)
In Mott’s shell shock victim, temporarily but not permanently impeded from communicating in a normative way, Lodge found an ideal and medically legitimate explanatory model for the messy and incomplete nature of séance speech. The dead soldier, like the shell shock victim, was disoriented by his new state of being and required the support of an adept practitioner who could provide fleshy, material support for his unvoiceable experience. “[I]t is through physical phenomena that normally we apprehend, here and now; and it is by aid of physical phenomena that we convey to others our wishes, our impression, our ideas, and our memories,” Lodge surmised. “Dislocate the physical from the psychical, and communication ceases. Restore the connection, in however imperfect a form, and once more incipient communication may become possible” (330).
Yet Raymond’s appropriation of trauma, and of war neuroses in particular, as explanatory device sat directly at odds with both the spiritualist movement’s optimistic cosmological schema and its insistence on the retention of personal identity, echoing, in fact, the challenge to patriotic and triumphalist approaches to the Great War posed by shell-shocked veterans in the secular sphere more broadly. The spirit solider biography insisted that the living-dead were still fit for service; the stuttering and often inaccurate messages sent from the Great Beyond suggested, on the contrary, that they were not. Similarly, the version of Raymond Lodge channeled by Mrs Leonard and Mr Peters is both eager to serve and yet doubtful of his ability to do so: “I almost wonder,” he reports through the spirit guide Feda, “shall I be fit and able to do [work]” (98). The spirit Raymond also appeared unable to recognize the ongoing effects of the fatal physical wounds on his new subtle body, ones that his medium could sense even if he could not. In her first sitting with Oliver Lodge, Mrs Leonard claimed that her spirit guide Feda could sense “ a string around her head; a tight feeling in the head, and also an empty sort of feeling in the chest, empty, as if sort of something gone . . . also a bursting sensation in the head . . . [Raymond] does not know he is giving this. . . [b]ut Feda gets it from him.” (127).
If the devastating injuries acquired during combat continued to effect identity after death and persisted in thwarting the attempts of dead soldiers to speak clearly to their bereaved loved ones, how could readers have faith in the progressive nature of afterlife existence? How, furthermore, could the public be sure that they would remain their identifiable, ‘true’ selves forever in light of the new evidence from the front lines, where established personality was being completely blown apart by the sustained effects of combat? Should returnees from the trenches, or indeed the afterlife, no longer be capable of recognising themselves or their families in a convincing way, or of using language coherently, it was almost impossible to argue, as the spiritualists did, that humans retained their personal identities after death. Lodge’s awareness of this conundrum perhaps explains his removal of the shell shock comparison from the subsequent shorter version of the text, Raymond Revised, he published in 1922. Nonetheless, Lodge’s preliminary attempt to authorize theories of spirit identity by synchronizing them with the latest findings from the new field of military psychiatry reveals him to have been as committed to experimentation and modernization in his spiritualist investigations as in his wireless experimentation.
For a fuller discussion of shell shock in Raymond, see my article in Viewpoint Magazine.
1 Oliver Lodge, Raymond; or Life and Death, With Examples of the Evidence for
Survival of Memory and Affection After Death (London: Methuen & Co., 1916). [back]
2 Oliver Lodge, The Proofs of Life after Death (Boston: Small, Maynard and Co., 1902) and The Survival of Man: A Study in Unrecognized Human Faculty (London: Methuen, 1909). [back]
3 Elsa Barker, War Letters from the Living Dead Man (London; William Rider & Son, 1915); J.S.M. Ward, Gone West: Three Narratives of After-Death Experiences (London: William Rider & Son, 1917); Wellesley Tudor-Pole, Private Dowding: A Plain Record of the After Death Experiences of a Soldier Killed in Battle (London: John M. Watkins, 1917). [back]
4 Frederick Mott, The Effects of High Explosives Upon the Central Nervous System (London: Harrison and Sons, 1916). [back]