Sir William Barrett

Sir William Barrett FRS

Professor of Physics at the Royal College of Science for Dublin from 1873-1910 and one of the distinguished early psychical researchers. In fact, it was Barrett who first initiated the founding of both the American and British Society for Psychical Research.

Automatic Writing and Survival After Death

 - William Barrett -

          INVALUABLE THOUGH it is, were no evidence forthcoming other than such mosaics of messages [i.e., the cross-correspondences], with their cryptic language and allusions studiously veiled, until the disclosure of some missing word or phrase shall piece them together into an intelligible whole, we might indeed receive a discouraging and utterly erroneous impression that the manufacture of puzzles and enigmas is the sole faculty and employment of discarnate spirits. But we have, of course, much other evidence, which, though attaining less completely to the rigorous standard demanded by Psychical Research, is quite strong enough to be considered by many unimpeachable, except on the hypothesis of terrene telepathy pushed to its very farthest limits.

This evidence forms a most useful, in fact an indispensable supplement to that which aims primarily at elaborating conclusive proofs. It is given in communications of various kinds, professing to come from some discarnate spirit, and by their characteristic matter and manner creating an impression that they really do so. The well-authenticated cases of such communications that have occurred during the last few years are far too numerous for recital here, even in the form of the barest catalogue. If we consider only the one particular little group of friends and colleagues who have so swiftly reassembled on the other side, we find instances many and impressive. Those who, like the present writer, were intimate with them have recognized repeatedly the familiar traits, material and trivial, habits of thought, and tricks of speech, that betoken a personality, or its vraisemblance still existing, though contending with obstacles which forbid more than an incomplete expression. Such changes as are noted might spring naturally from the changed conditions of the communicators. Thus we learn that Frederic Myers has lost nothing of his intense concern about his comrades on their homeward way, but that what he now most eagerly desires is to assure them how "immortality, instead of being a beautiful dream, is the one, the only reality, the strong golden thread on which all the illusions of all the lives are strung." And, again, that Henry Sidgwick retains his propensity for awaiting results with scrupulous patience, though he has now, as well he may, added to patience a confident hope. A short account may be given here of an incident from which this appears, the rather as it involves two cross-correspondences of a not unmanageably complicated type.

In Cambridge on February 9, 1906, Mrs. Verrall's automatic writing informed her that in Professor Henry Sidgwick's Memoir, which was shortly to be published, she would find two clues to the meaning of certain passages in her earlier script. The Memoir was published on February 27, and on the following day she found one of these clues, but noticed some inconsistencies whence she inferred a mistake in the passage concerned, the writer of which had purported to be Professor Sidgwick. She at once mentioned this to Mrs. Eleanor Sidgwick, and at the same time Mrs. Holland, away in the country, and unaware of what had happened, wrote automatically: "Henry (i.e. Professor Sidgwick) was not mistaken."

Soon afterwards Mrs. Verrall found the second clue in a letter from Henry Sidgwick on the subject of immortality, in which he says: "On moral grounds, hope rather than certainty is fit for us in this earthly existence." The letter was addressed to his friend, Roden Noel, with whom neither Mrs. Verrall nor Mrs. Holland had been acquainted. Yet in her next automatic script, a few days afterwards, Mrs. Holland wrote, under the "control" of Henry Sidgwick, the date of Roden Noel's death, twelve years before, and added the following passage, in which the sentiments strongly resemble, with some appropriate modifications, those of the letter to him wherein Mrs. Verrall had just found her clue: "We no more solve the riddle of death by dying than we solve the problem of life by being born. Take my own case - I was always a seeker, until it seemed to me at times as if the quest was more to me than the prize. Only the attainments of my search were generally like rainbow gold, always beyond and afar. It is not all clear; I seek still, only with a confirmed optimism more perfect and beautiful than any we imagined before. I am not oppressed with the desire that animates some of us to share our knowledge or optimism with you all before the time. You know who feels like that; but I am content that you should wait. The solution of the Great Problem I could not give you - I am still very far away from it. And the abiding knowledge of the inherent truth and beauty into which all the inevitable uglinesses of existence finally resolve themselves will be yours in due time."

Moreover, at this time Mrs. Verrall's as well as Mrs. Holland's script produced appropriate references to Roden Noel and his poems, while each almost simultaneously wrote a description of the, to them, unknown poet which intimate friends of his pronounced to be very characteristic.

Much has been said by these controls about the difficulties which beset them in their endeavours to communicate; and we may ourselves reasonably infer and conjecture much more, without supposing that we have by any means fully realized the magnitude of the obstacles which they encounter, or even, in many respects, the nature of them. Amongst those which lie to some extent within the ken of our imagination, the most formidable may perhaps be; (1) the impossibility of securing the complete passivity of the mind of the medium whom the communicator is using as an instrument, and therefore of excluding its influence on the working of his own; (2) the all but total impossibility of transcending the limits imposed by the medium's mental apparatus and intellectual equipment.

The effects of this first difficulty are obvious to anybody who studies the phenomena occurring in different automatists under what is, or purports to be, the same control, and an exceptionally favourable opportunity for making such observations is afforded by the above-mentioned allied group of automatists and controls. If the variations noticeable, from medium to medium, in each controlling spirit were eliminated, leaving only the features common to all its manifestation we should no doubt discover that the characteristics which it had really possessed in earth-life formed this residuum. But the emerging personality would often seem a thing of shreds and patches, so closely had it been interwoven with that of the medium through which it made its way. For, as Sir Oliver Lodge remarks: "The process of communication is sophisticated by many influences, so that it is very difficult, perhaps at present, impossible, to disentangle and exhibit clearly the part that each plays."

This difficulty is a difficulty indeed. In the case of an entranced medium, whose spirit is supposed to withdraw temporarily from the organism, of which another spirit takes possession, the situation has some resemblance to that of a stream, with its main current deflected, and another stream turned into its channel. The new stream will of course be bounded by the old channel, and its waters tinged by the pools which lie in its bed, and the deposits over which it flows. But when the medium is not entranced, the analogy points rather to those fresh-water springs which sometimes rise in the sea. Here the separateness of the waters is generally sure to be far more transient and less complete. Only when the spring wells up with unwonted force and copiousness does it reach the surface free from briny admixture. And, in fact, something about the manner in which the more characteristic of the communications often come, does suggest a sudden uprush of this kind through an always resisting and encroaching element.

Then, as for the second great difficulty which confronts the communicator, entailed upon him by the limitations of the automatist, we may imagine some faint resemblance between his plight and that of a writer constrained to compose an abstruse treatise in words of three letters, or in those occurring on some chance scrap of print. The smaller and sillier the scrap, the more fatal will he find his, restrictions, just as the control's power of expressing himself is diminished by the illiteracy and unintelligence of the medium. We must allow likewise for the possibility, if not probability, of other still more baffling impediments, unimaginable by us in our ignorance of what the conditions are in the spirit-world. Thus, there is reason to believe that an intelligent communicator is sometimes, when communicating, in a more or less dazed and drowsy condition, which gives his message the character merely of a fantastic dream.

Curious glimpses, by the way, may sometimes be gained from the confused and incoherent, but often very interesting utterances of Mrs. Piper, as she begins to waken half-dazed from her trance. She always represents herself as returning most reluctantly from surroundings compared with which her earthly abode appears dark and dismal, and shared by inhabitants who are decidedly unprepossessing. They seem to her, she says, like black people. On one occasion, indeed, she addressed her sitters with a quaint and uncompromising frankness: "I don't want you - I want the other place - you look funny... You are ugly, to say the least. I never! I wouldn't look like you... Are you alive?" she added; "there are others more alive than you are up there." More significantly, she often speaks of being surrounded on her departure by those who are endeavouring to communicate with this world, and who seize the opportunity of impressing upon her some brief message, which she has at times been able to deliver, as a valuable bit of evidence, before the fleeting recollection of her trance-experiences has faded.

Dr. Richard Hodgson began his investigation of Mrs. Piper's trance-utterances as a thorough sceptic, but after many years of unremitting and critical investigation, testing one hypothesis after another, he was finally driven to the conclusion "that the chief 'communicators' are veritably the personalities that they claim to be, and that they have survived the change we call death." Though some of us may be unable fully to share Dr. Hodgson's conviction, we must remember that his experience and knowledge was larger than ours, and at any rate we may dismiss the futile criticism of those who have not spent as many minutes as he spent years in the study of this subject. Dr. Hodgson's opinion, it may be added, is now shared by many other able inquirers, who have made a searching and impartial investigation of the evidence which has accumulated since his death.

Moreover, when appraising the most recent testimony in favour of life after death, we should remember that the evidence is being constantly strengthened, not by accumulation merely, but by increased cogency and purposefulness. If we review the past ten years, we cannot fail to be struck by the steadily growing clearness of attempts on the part of those who have passed over to improve and multiply methods of communication. These efforts are seconded on our side with admirable industry, patience and tact, alike by automatists and students of psychical phenomena, and the results come daily to light. At the present time, the Society for Psychical Research has just published the details of some very remarkable incidents which took place in the course of 1910. Writing of these, Sir Oliver Lodge says: "He [the scientific explorer] feels secure and happy in his advance only when one and the same hypothesis will amount for everything - both old and new - which he encounters. The one hypothesis which seems to me most nearly to satisfy that condition in this case, is that we are in indirect touch with some part of the surviving personality of a scholar, and that scholar F. W. H. Myers."

All things considered, it seems a not wholly extravagant conjecture that another ten years may put us in possession of more knowledge about the means whereby these supernormal messages are conveyed to us, and therefore in more favourable circumstances for receiving them. Hitherto our experiences on the subject have certainly tended to correct the popular notion of a ghost as a being whose coming and going is very much a matter of its own casual caprice, barred by nothing, except, perhaps, some form of exorcism. And they have heightened our appreciation of the insight shown by Wordsworth in making his afflicted Margaret say

"I look for ghosts, but none will force
Their way to me,"

little disposed as we may be to draw her despairing conclusion -

"'Tis falsely said
That there was over intercourse
Between the living and the dead,"

Certainly, for our own part, we believe there is some active intelligence at work behind, and apart from, the automatist, an intelligence which is more like the deceased person it professes to be than that of any other we can imagine. And though the intelligence is provokingly irritating in the way it evades simple direct replies to questions, yet it is difficult to find any other solution to the problem of these scripts and cross-correspondences than that, there is an attempt at intelligent co-operation between certain disembodied minds and our own.

But does the evidence afford us proof of immortality? Obviously it cannot; nor can any investigations yield scientific proof of that larger, higher, and enduring life which we desire and mean by immortality. Some of the evidence, indeed, seems rather to indicate a more or less truncated personality, a fragment of earthly memories, partly roused by, and mainly connected with, those through and to whom the communications come; to picture, in fact, a dim, wraith-like survival such as that imagined by Homer when he made Achilles in the underworld declare that he would rather serve as a hireling among the living than reign a king among the dead. The intelligent and characteristic messages, however, suggest that the vague ones are due to the fading and dissolving of earthly memories and ties, as the departed become more absorbed in their new life, the very nature of which we are in our present state incapable of conceiving. Our own limitations, in fact, make it impossible for the evidence to convey the assurance that we are communicating with what is best and noblest in those who have passed into the unseen.

In fine, psychical research, though it may strengthen the foundations, cannot take the place of religion, using in its widest sense that much-abused word. For, after all, it deals with the external, though it be in an unseen world; and its chief value lies in the fulfilment of its work, whereby it reveals to us the inadequacy of the external, either here or hereafter, to satisfy the life of the soul. The psychical order is not the spiritual order, but a stepping-stone in the ascent of the soul to its own self-apprehension, its conscious sharing in the eternal divine life, of which Frederic Myers thus foretells:

"And from thee, o'er some lucid ocean-rim,
The phantom Past shall as a shadow flee;
And thou be in the Spirit, and everything
Born in the God that shall be born in thee."


The article above was taken from William Barrett's "Psychical Research" (London: Williams & Norgate, 1911).

Other articles by William Barrett

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