Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Побег от смерти - от спиритизма до Ленина.

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The séance that Charles Darwin attended in January 1874 at the house of his brother Erasmus brought the pioneering biologist together with Francis Galton, eugenicist and one of the founders of modern psychology, and the novelist George Eliot. All three were anxious that the rise of spiritualism would block the advance of scientific materialism. They were unimpressed with what they witnessed – Darwin found the experience "hot and tiring" and left before sparks were seen and rapping heard – but they would have been seriously concerned had they known the future career of a fourth participant in the séance, the classical scholar and psychologist FWH Myers.

The inventor of the word "telepathy" and the writer who first introduced the work of Freud into Britain, Frederic Myers went on to become one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research. Supported by some of the leading figures of the day, including the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick and Arthur Balfour, president of the society and later prime minister, the psychical researchers believed human immortality might prove to be a scientifically demonstrable fact.

Their quest for an afterlife was partly driven by revulsion against materialism. Science had revealed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species. For nearly everyone the vision was intolerable. Not fully accepted by Darwin himself, it led the biologist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace – acknowledged by Darwin as the co-discoverer of natural selection – to become a convert to spiritualism. Wallace insisted he did not reject scientific method. Like Sidgwick and Myers, he was convinced science could show the materialist view of the world to be mistaken.

Very often these Victorian seekers also had other, more personal motives. Members of an elite that protected itself from scrutiny by keeping to a code of secrecy, leading psychical researchers used their investigations to reveal, and then again conceal, aspects of their lives that they or their culture could not or would not accept. For Myers the search for evidence of survival became a passion when a married woman for whom he had formed a deep attachment committed suicide, leading him to spend the remainder of his life trying to contact her through mediums. Sidgwick spent decades earnestly searching for proof of life after death because without this evidence, he believed, there is no reason for living a moral life. If the visible world is the only reality, he wrote at the end of Methods of Ethics (1874), morality is "reduced to chaos". He excised this passage from subsequent editions of the book, but never altered his view. Sidgwick feared the finality of death because it left no reason to restrain one's desires – a thought he must have found extremely troubling, since he seems to have spent much of his life suppressing a part of his sexuality.

Balfour was celebrated for his aloof detachment. Yet through his brother Gerald, a former Conservative minister who gave up politics to study the paranormal, the former prime minister entered into what purported to be a correspondence with a long-dead woman, whom many believed he had once loved. Balfour's ostensible correspondent communicated by automatic writing – texts produced without conscious awareness in which another mind seems to be guiding the pen, which became a vehicle for unresolved personal loss and secret love.

Starting early in the 20th century, tens of thousands of scripts were produced by different mediums in several countries over a period of more than 30 years. Known as the "cross-correspondences" because they seemed to be linked together, the scripts contained texts claiming to be messages from deceased psychical researchers, including Sidgwick and Myers, which together demonstrated the reality of life after death. As the flow of scripts continued an even larger claim emerged: the dead had taken on the task of saving the world of the living by means of a post-mortem experiment in eugenics. Scientists who had passed to "the other side" were fashioning an exceptional human being, a posthumously designed messiah-child who would deliver humankind from chaos and bring peace to the world.

A child was in fact born – the offspring of Balfour's brother and the medium who transcribed the scripts, the wife of a much older man who took up automatic writing under the cover of a pseudonym after her daughter died in infancy – but seems to have known nothing of the role he had been assigned until late in life, and then probably less than the whole truth. Featuring a spell in MI6 (where for a time he worked alongside Kim Philby) followed by life in a monastery, the career of the supposed messiah was certainly unusual. But he had no impact on the world at large, which continued its normal course of conflict and drift.

The idea of dead scientists engaging in an experiment in eugenics is incredible enough. Yet the most striking feature in this episode – only fully revealed more than 100 years after the scripts began to appear – is the power that is ascribed to science itself. While spiritualism evolved into a popular religion, complete with a heavenly "Summerland" where the dead lived free from care and sorrow, the intellectual elite of psychical researchers thought of their quest as a rigorously scientific inquiry. But if these Victorian seekers turned to science, it was to look for an exit from the world that science had revealed. Darwinism had disclosed a purposeless universe without human meaning; but purpose and meaning could be restored, if only science could show that the human mind carried on evolving after the death of the body. All of these seekers had abandoned any belief in traditional religion. Still, the human need for a meaning in life that religion once satisfied could not be denied, and fuelled the faith that scientific investigation would show that the human story continues after death. In effect, science was used against science, and became a channel for belief in magic.

Much of what the psychical researchers viewed as science we would now call pseudo science. But the boundaries of scientific knowledge are smudged and shifting, and seem clear only in hindsight. There is no pristine science untouched by the vagaries of faith. The psychical researchers used science not only to deal with private anguish but also to bolster their weakening belief in progress. Especially after the catastrophe of the first world war, the gradual improvement that most people expected would continue indefinitely appeared to be faltering. What had been achieved in the past seemed to be falling away. If the scripts were to be believed, however, there was no cause for anxiety or despair. The world might be sliding into anarchy, but progress continued on the other side.

Many of the psychical researchers believed they were doing no more than show that evolution continues in a post-mortem world. Like many others, then and now, they confused ...читать дальше

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