For the past two days I’ve been at W.T. Stead: A Centenary Conference for a Newspaper Revolutionary. I find processing the intellectual grist of conferences takes more than 24 hours, so I’ll hold back on trying to put down any synthetic thoughts and will note, instead, what a joy it was to participate in and to thank the organisers, Laurel Brake, Jim Mussell (@jimmussell), Roger Luckhurst (@TheProfRog) and the British Library’s Ed King. Highlights included: being part of an occult-themed panel with Kate Cambell, Sarah Crofton and Will Tattersdill (@faceometer), in which the papers proved remarkably complementary (I guess we were all working in the shadowland sketched out by Roger Luckhurst’s account of Stead in The Invention of Telepathy) and after which I came away with avenues of research prompted by each of my co-panellists; meeting again Clare Gill and Beth Rodgers from Queens in Belfast,organisers of the first academic conference I ever attended and brilliant company; all the plenaries, but particularly John Durham Peters’s ‘Discourse Network 1912’, a Kittlerian take on Titanorackery; and also Gavin Weightman’s take-no-prisoners re-appraisal of ‘The Maiden Voyage’ and subsequent court case, a rare example of a paper critical of Stead that was all the more laudable for coming from a non-academic surrounded by tutting scholars. I blagged a copy of Gavin’s POD book and will respond to it in a future post.
I post the text of my paper below and will add a link to the slides when I get those up somewhere.
“Throughth”: W.T. Stead’s Higher Spatial Holiday
I’d like to open by going straight to the source. Buckle up and allow William Stead, in full visionary mode, to take you on a voyage to another dimension. This is from the Review of Reviews, April 1893, an essay entitled Throughth: Or, On the Eve of the Fourth Dimension:
We are now living in space of three dimensions. But there is evidently more beyond. We are now in the stage in which our second dimension ancestors were to be found when the light began to stream in upon them from above and below the narrow plan of two dimensions in which they lived. As the two dimensional creatures had to open their minds and recognise that there was a space of three dimensions full of immense possibilities but hitherto invisible, so we now have to open our eyes and admit that beyond the space of three dimensions in which we live there exists a space of four dimensions of which we catch glimpses now and then in those phenomena which are entirely unaccountable for by any law of three dimensional space.
An admirable little book, entitled “I Awoke,” written automatically and published by Simpkin and Co. Last month, defines the fourth dimension as that of motion through, or interpenetration. Clairvoyance, by which a man can see in London what is passing in New York; telepathy, by which the mind of a man in Edinburgh can impress itself upon the mind of a percipient in Dublin; telepathic automatic handwriting, by which the mind of a person whose body is in Germany can use the hand of a writer who is in England; crystal vision, by which events past, present and to come are portrayed before the eye of the gazer; psychometry, whereby the character of an individual can be divined from a touch of a hair of his head,-
all these things are so many rifts in the limits of our three dimensional space through which the light of four dimensional space is pouring in upon us. It is becoming more and more evident to those who observe and note the signs of the times that we are in very deed and truth on the eve of the fourth dimension […]
In the new world which opens up before life becomes infinitely more divine and miraculous than it has ever been conceived by the wildest flights of imagination of the poet. Many attributes which have hitherto been regarded as the exclusive possession of the Deity will be shared with His creatures. The past mingles with the present, and the future unfolds its secrets. Death loses its sting, and parting its sadness. The limitations of time and space – three-dimensional space, that is – furl up and disappear. Spirit is manifested through matter, and we enter into a new heaven and a new earth. This and much more than this is involved in the statement, “We are on the eve of the fourth dimension.”
This extract contains much to analyse. Most obviously, we have Stead’s interest in occult and psychical phenomena such as telepathy and automatic writing. By the time he wrote this Stead had been interested in psychical research for over a decade; he attended his first séance in 1881 and in 1884 he had hosted the thought-reader Stuart Cumberland at the offices of the Pall Mall Gazette. By 1893 he had been editing and publishing the Review of Reviews for three years and his absorption in spiritualism was increasingly evident to his readers, who encountered frequent articles and editorials on thought-reading, ghosts and the after-life. He had published Real Ghost Stories in November 1892, in which he aimed, in Roger Luckhurst’s phrase, to ‘democratise psychical research by appropriating the sober SPR ‘Census of Hallucinations’ Project’. He had become increasingly interested in automatic writing following the death of American journalist Julia Ames, and had in 1892 suggested that the readers of the Review of Reviews investigate the phenomenon, by which stage he was already collecting the automatic scripts which would later be published as Letters from Julia (1897). The following pages of Throughth gave an account of some of these experiments.
It also gives a sense of various aspects of Stead’s journalistic style. The synoptic function of Review of Reviews is indicated by that reference to ‘an admirable little book’, to which I’ll return. The visionary tone is a wee bit febrile in sections of this but it extends from the affective sensationalism Stead practiced in his journalism. We also have an indication of his internationalism – all those people in New York, Edinburgh, Germany, Dublin. And, of course, his focus on communication and mediation.
What has drawn me to this essay, though, is Stead’s engagement with the idea of the fourth dimension, which is the focus of my research. As far as I can discover this was Stead’s only sortie into higher space – if there are any Stead scholars in the audience who can direct me to other fourth dimensional references I’d be thrilled to hear from you. The section I’ve just read comes from the second page of the essay. In the first, he outlines some of the arguments current in 1893 for the existence of a fourth dimension.
What I would like to do with this paper is to describe the shape of Stead’s engagement with higher space. We won’t be staying in the lowly fourth dimension for long, but will be ascending to the fifth, sixth, seventh and beyond. In describing this background we’ll probe the aspects of Stead’s method I’ve just outlined before tarrying a while with automatism, and communication more broadly, in its spatial aspect.
Stead’s higher spatial holiday began, as far as I can tell, only a month earlier. In the Review of Reviews for March 1893, he recommended a cluster of books of interest to psychic researchers. These books were ‘the signs of the times’ to which he would refer.
Frederick Myers’s essay on the Subliminal Consciousness in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, was commended for explaining ‘so clearly and exhaustively the method by which the psychologist is learning to evolve a new science of the hitherto invisible and unknown world’. Myers’s essay will be known to scholars of both psychology and psychic research. It was a source for Freud, who was just about to begin publishing. We should note Stead’s description of the subliminal consciousness as the ‘invisible and unknown world’. Under this banner the workings of mind fall into the same category as electromagnetism and assorted physical phenomena.
A brief paragraph went on to suggest as complementary Arthur Willink’s The World of the Unseen: ‘Mr. Willink holds that the unseen world is of four dimensions, and into this space of four dimensions or Higher Space, as he calls it, the dead pass, and from which they can communicate with us.’
Willink’s book was the latest contribution to a canon that had dragged the ideas of n-dimensional geometry into occultist discourse. These texts used analogical arguments first rehearsed in a mathematical context to claim that there was by necessity a fourth dimension of space, that it too was in the invisible and unknown world by dint of the fact that it could not be accessed by sense perception, but claimed that evidence of it could be discerned in séance phenomena. These arguments hinged around the fact that projective geometry had suggested a key feature of a four dimensional space. That intelligences of a higher dimensionality would be able to access the interior of closed objects in a lower dimensionality – just as we three dimensional intelligences can access the inside of a two-dimensional square or circle.
Stead went on to review Do the Dead Return? A Record of Experience of Spiritualism by a Clergyman of the Church of England; Mr Carlyle Petersilea’s Discovered Country, ‘which is said to have been written automatically, describing life on the other side’; and Dreams of the Dead by Edward Stanton, of which he wrote:
‘It is very curious and more theosophical than Christian. The writer holds that we are on the advent of the sixth race. A new physical sense is developing in the nerve constitution of man. The time is at hand when a new civilisation will be founded by a select amalgam.’
It’s clear from this brief selection that Stead had synthesized the arguments of these books for his essay: Myers’s theorisation and early mapping of a psychological basis for psychic phenomena, Willink’s accessible description of the spiritualist hypothesis of the fourth dimension, the automatism of Petersilea’s book, the millennial sentiments of Stanton’s.
As far as I’m concerned these are all but mere morcels compared to I Awoke! Conditions of Life on the Other Side Communicated by Automatic Writing (1893), the final piece of the occult jigsaw Stead assembled in his essay.
I Awoke! sold at one shilling net and was popular enough to be reprinted and extended two years later. It offered a first-hand account of the conditions of the kind of higher dimensional afterlife argued for by Willink. It referred throughout to ‘the Master’, a Christ, of ‘a form which is in four dimensions, and which cannot be seen by ordinary earthly vision.’ An appendix described the conditions of the various dimensions in which the dead lived, and is notable for its embrace of a full range of higher dimensionalities.
The Appendix, ‘received’ in 1891, claimed that ‘there is a fourth dimension […] which represents what you might call the inter-penetrative sphere’. It continued: ‘This fourth dimension, only guessed at by you, is our first, the other three fall from us as crude and imperfect.’ The inhabitants of this dimension were capable of improbable feats of transportation:
This power, when perfected, would give man absolute power of progression in every direction and in every part of the universe. He could pass through the heart of mountains, or could rise into the atmosphere to any height by altering, as it were, his own density, and the density of his path; nothing would prove a hindrance.
Perhaps unnecessarily, the fifth dimension extended these capabilities to cosmic space:
‘Let us call the fourth dimension inter-progression, then the fifth might be called trans-progression. From sphere to sphere, from star to star, and from star to sun shall the children of men wander at free will.’ The less than complete understanding of astronomy demonstrated by the dictating intelligence did not deter further revelations. ‘As men rise from dimension to dimension their powers are changed and increased in many ways.’ The sixth dimension was the first ‘time-dimension’ in which linear time was infinitely malleable. In the seventh ‘time may be said to have no existence’: the past was as accessible as the present; only the future remained hidden. The powers of those who had access to dimensions beyond the seventh were vague: ‘After the time-dimensions come those that belong more directly to the human will, its powers and its limitations.’
Heady stuff, and tremendous fun. Okay. But what to make of it? And how to treat it? Any text that purports to be transmitted through automatic writing occupies a curious cultural position. To proponents of the practice the text’s very existence offers evidence of the phenomenon of automatism and legitimates content offering mediated access to the mysterious unseen. A more distanced analysis might observe merely that such texts reflect the conditions of their composition; regardless of their origin, the ‘medium’ through which they are channelled is inevitably embedded in an occult network. Such texts tend to synoptically appropriate (or confirm) current occultist or scientistic thought – certainly, this was true in the case of HP Blavatsky, whose Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled were both written automatically.
In terms of content, in I Awoke! we re-encounter the conceptual hinge of Stead’s essay, that horrible neologism – throughth. We should forgive Stead this, however. Higher dimensioned space is prepositionally confusing – in the period it was called variously hyper-space, meta-space and pro-space. In fact, it causes problems for language at a basic level by disturbing standard spatiality. We realise, as soon as directions such as up, down, above, below are taken away from us, how much of our romantic language is spatially grounded.
What I think is interesting is that Stead’s synthesis focused on inter-penetration – Stead wrote of the fourth dimension:
We however get glimpses of it in clairvoyance, in the phenomena of hypnotism, and in all the experiments which are known as telepathy, crystal-gazing, thought-reading, and all things in which we see, hear or communicate through things, which according to the known laws of third dimensional space, would render communication impossible.
Here was also recalling a section quoted from Myers the previous month: ‘The possible law of which I speak is that of the Interpenetration of Worlds.’ Stead was binding together different forms of interpenetration and his original contribution, appropriately enough for a radical journalist, was to focus on the communicative nature of the medium, the subjectivity through whom. Employing the speculated interpenetrative qualities of higher space Stead’s throughth was unhindered communication.
I would like to note here the parallel between automatism and creative writing. After Surrealism’s appropriation of automatic technique for artistic production, it’s perhaps an obvious link for us to make to compare automatic writing with any kind of creative artistic production, but while this is a parallel that 19th century practitioners would have rejected, it surely holds. We can’t quite read these texts directly as fiction but we can certainly apply the same critical armature we do with fiction. I’d like to say there now follows an analysis of the use of indirect free discourse in automatic texts, but I’m going to spare you that in favour of the rather more diffuse observation that this urge towards communicating through, a spatial elision of first and third person, is mirrored in Henry James’s fiction and theoretical writing of the same period. James spilt much ink over his concern with achieving the optimal perspective. He even used the idea of possession.
This is from the preface to the New York edition of The American:
For the interest of everything is all that it is his vision, his conception, his interpretation: at the window of his wide, quite sufficiently wide consciousness we are seated, from that admirable position we “assist”. He therefore supremely matters; all the rest matters only as he feels it, treats it, meets it. A beautiful infatuation this, always, I think, the intensity of the creative effort to get into the skin of the creature; the act of personal possession of one being by another at its completest – and with the high enhancement, ever, that it is, by the same stroke, the effort of the artist to preserve for his subject that unity, and for his use of it (in other words for the interest he desires to excite) that effect of a centre, which most economise its value.
What I hope to suggest by highlighting this parallel is that the spatial imaginary of the late nineteenth century had been altered by the ideas of higher space, that co-presence, the co-habitation of the same space by two different consciousnesses was very much in the air, and that this altered imaginary can be discerned in both the theorisation of fiction-writing technique and Stead’s utopian vision of technologised communication: ‘the human telephone’, as he called it elsewhere in his essay. The aim of affecting the reader is also continuous between James and Stead. Where Stead departs from that old snob James is in his democracy. Roger Luckhurst probes Stead’s ‘affective journalism’ in the context of his urge to democratise knowledge, his obsession with electrical technologies and the way these came together in his internationalism and vision of a technologically connected empire. We read all these in Throughth. Stead disagreed with Stanton that it would only be a select amalgam of spiritual artistocrats who would be able to communicate in this way. In Stead’s account, the new world was available to all.
Stead’s democratised fourth dimension did not last long, however. In the May issue of Review of Reviews he noted a paper by Professor Hermann Schubert published in The Monist, ‘The Fourth Dimension: Mathematical and Spiritualistic’. Prof Schubert was ‘very hostile to spiritualism’ and stressed the need for ‘slow, unceasing research’ rather than ‘the thoughtless employment of fanciful ideas’. Stead retreated from his previous enthusiasm in the fourth dimension with an unconvincing objection to an ‘unscientific’ line of argument. And poof! That was it.
This is something I encounter again and again in researching higher space: no sooner does a supernaturalist account of the dimensionality of ‘the other side’ appear to offer a millenarian vision of the future, than a hard-headed philosopher cuts down speculations. Little wonder that the general public frequently expressed confusion at the idea. Yet as is evidenced by Stead’s reading list, millennial visions were enjoying some currency in 1893,
and although many drew directly from Revelations, they managed to maintain optimism about the changes in store in the new century. Stead’s engagement with the fourth dimension constitutes a fascinating case study of the oscillatory cultural operation of higher space, bouncing between high and low culture, and its vagaries even within the field of psychical research. It gives some indication of the seemingly limitless properties of such a fugitive space and the difficulties and risks inherent in trying to contain it, particularly in a form accessible to a mass readership. Stead introduced the idea in a sensational mode typical of his journalistic practice, and accented its potential with the same obsessions and interests he brought to thought transference: technology, affective reach, empire.
Thank you for your time.