The Proffered Refuge

Further to kick-starting having some material here – here is the start of the current preface to my research.

I am, I say, convinced that these manifestations do not correspond to a false curiosity in us, but in fact indescribably concern us and (if one were to exclude them) would still be capable of making themselves repeatedly felt at some place. Why shouldn’t they, like everything not yet recognized or indeed recognizable, be an object of our effort, our amazement, our perturbation and reverence?

I was for a while inclined, as you now seem to be, to assume “external” influence at these experiments; I am no longer so to the same degree. Extensive as the “external” is, it scarcely bears comparison, for all its sidereal distances, with the dimensions, with the depth dimensions of our inner being, which does not even need the spaciousness of the universe to be in itself almost immeasurable. If then the dead, if then those to come are in need of an abode, what refuge should be more pleasant and more proffered to them than this imaginary space? – Rainer Maria Rilke ‘Letter to Countess Nora Purtscher-Wydenbruck’ August 11, 1924

Of all of the Copernican Revolutions that marked the 20th Century, evidence of one of the least discussed or acknowledged can be found in Rilke’s comments on séances in his letter to Countess Purtscher-Wydenbruck. While we might tend to associate the passion for spiritualism among the “respectable” classes with the 19th Century and figures such as Abraham Lincoln or Charles Dickens, the great popular flourishing of séances actually came in the wake of the Great War:

For the war stimulated a desire, almost a desperation, in the general public to know whether those who were absent, fighting, were alive or dead, and if dead, to establish contact with them again. (Maxwell-Stuart, 2006)

This was also a period when a series of scientific breakthroughs seemed to offer the possibility of a concrete method of communication with the spirit realm, one that not only bypassed the clergy but that was unrelated to any established religious perspective. From Thomas Edison to Guglielmo Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell to Logie Baird, almost all of the major innovators in the field of early telecommunications technology made attempts at extending the range of their capacity to receive and communicate pulses, sounds and images beyond spatial distance and into the realm of the dead.

With this great intensification of public interest came a parallel intensification in charlatanism, rapidly followed once the war was over by the field losing its scientific and theoretical legitimacy. Amongst philosophers, a group rarely slow to dismiss a popular craze, the two major schools of thought born during the post-war period firmly rejected such beliefs as either themes that philosophy had nothing to say about and that should be passed over in silence, or judged them as an inauthentic evasion of the finitude of the human condition. There was no equivalent bubble of interest in spiritualism during or following the Second World War.

Yet perhaps we can partially attribute the dwindling of serious interest in a concrete method of communication with “external” dead spirits to another source. As we have seen, Rilke maintained his interest in occult phenomena after the war, yet he suggested that rather than the dead persisting either in a spiritual space beyond the limits of physical space or within extended space as a subtle form of matter , the realm of the dead might rather be the “depth dimensions of our inner being”. Under such a hypothesis, such instruments as the pointer on a Ouija board might remain a legitimate instrument for receiving messages from the dead. However, rather than depending on the quasi-physical presence of an airy spirit blowing the pointer, the participant carrying the ghost within the vast compass of their inner space might, though various involuntary spasms, bring forward a message from “the dead within them” that was entirely inaccessible to their conscious mind.

To begin to understand Rilke’s inspiration, it suffices to remember his affair with the psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé and through this his friendship with Sigmund Freud. If ever more sensitive recording and telecommunication technology had suggested the possibility of contact with the “external” dead through Edisonian “Spirit Phones” , the emergence of psychoanalytic “technology” brought a similar promise of contact with the “internal” or rather “internalised” dead. Both might be seen as technologies of amplification: the Spirit Phone attempting to amplify the small physical motions of airy spirits to a noticeable scale; the psychoanalyst’s method drawing attention to apparently incidental details of dreams or slips of the tongue, things that would have previously been passed over unnoticed yet that now became a focus of serious interpretative attention.

While more traditional accounts of human psychology might have reduced any notion of the persistence of the dead within the living psyche to an archived series of inert, accessible and transparent memories of past times spent together; the psychoanalytic account of the unconscious and the return of the repressed suggested far more dynamic possibilities with regard to the deads’ “survival” within the living. For Freud himself, the dynamics first established in Ferenczi’s 1909 account of introjection led to a theorisation of Mourning and Melancholia that would eventually attain such centrality in Freud’s thought that, by 1923’s The Ego and the Id, a melancholic internalisation of an absent or dead other’s voice became the basis of moral conscience and with it civilization and its concomitant discontent. Not only the Super-Ego, ethics and politics, but even the Ego as the basic pole of conscious self-identity came to be seen as partially constructed through mourning lost objects of libidinal attachment.

To whatever extent Freud attempted to legitimise psychoanalysis as a serious medical discipline through an account of pathologies, symptoms and cures modelled on physiological disorders, it is difficult to avoid the thought that the real underlying schema for his account of mental psychic disturbances was the kind of spiritual, psychic disturbance found in ghost stories. A traumatic, unresolved event from the past returns after a period of latency as a symptom that “haunts” the living; it continually makes itself known in the present through uncanny, repetitive and apparently meaningless actions; through analysis, these actions reveal themselves as having a secret significance relating to the past event that is their origin and whose occurrences they have symbolically encoded; this significance might point towards a debt that demands resolution, often itself rooted in a thwarted desire held by one who is now absent or dead yet whose due continues to manifest through the living who have unknowingly inherited this debt, at times becoming a kind of intergenerational family curse that will continue down the generations until it is dealt with; and laying this “ghost” to rest will demand the painstaking investigation of a nocturnal and almost inaccessible realm, guided by an expert in such “hauntings” who through a combination of natural gifts, training and experience has learnt to hear and see things coming from this realm that others would simply fail to perceive.

3 thoughts on “The Proffered Refuge

  1. Beautifully written, my dear thanatosaur! Caroline and Chris have hit on the idea of going into business producing themed ouija boards – kabbalistic, chronographic etc. It seems a psychoanalytic one would be apropos. As a good Catholic, I won’t allow such demonic technology in the house of course, but I wish them well 😉

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