Robert Bell - Stranger than Fiction – 01 Introduction
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Robert Bell, 'Stranger than Fiction', Cornhill Magazine 2 (1860), 211-24.
Thackeray: As Editor of this magazine, I can vouch for the good faith and honourable character of our correspondent, a friend of 25 years standing; but as the writer of this astonishing narrative owns that he ‘would refuse to believe such things upon the evidence of other people’s eyes’ his readers are therefore free to give or withhold belief - Editor
“I have seen what I could not have believed on your testimony, and what I cannot, therefore, expect you to believe upon mine," was the reply of Dr. Treviranus to inquiries put to him by Coleridge as to the reality of certain magnetic phenomena which that distinguished savant was reported to have witnessed.
It appears to me that I cannot do better than adopt this answer as an introduction to the narrative of facts I am about to relate. It represents very clearly the condition of the mind before and after it has passed through experiences of things that are irreconcilable with known laws. I refuse to believe such things upon the evidence of other people's eyes ; and I may, possibly, go so far as to protest that I would not believe them even on the evidence of my own. When I have seen them, however, I am compelled to regard the subject from an entirely different point of view. It is no longer a question of mere credence or authority, but a question of fact.
Whatever conclusions, if any, I may have arrived at on this question of fact, I see distinctly that I have been projected into a better position for judging of it than I occupied before, and that what then appeared an imposition, or a delusion, now assumes a shape which demands investigation. But I cannot expect persons who have not witnessed these things, to take my word for them, because, under similar circumstances, I certainly should not have taken theirs.
What I do expect is, that they will admit as reasonable, and as being in strict accordance with the philosophical method of procedure, the mental progress I have indicated, from the total rejection of extraordinary phenomena upon the evidence of others, to the recognition of such phenomena, as matter of fact, upon our own direct observation. This recognition points the way to inquiry, which is precisely what I desire to promote.
Scepticism is one of the safe and cautious characteristics of the English people. Nothing is believed at first; and this habitual resistance to novelties might be applauded as a sound instinct, if it did not sometimes obstruct the progress of knowledge. The most important discoveries have passed through this habitual ordeal of derision and antagonism. Whatever has a tendency to disturb received notions, or to go beyond the precincts of our present intelligence, is denounced, without inquiry, and out of the shallowest of all kinds of conventionalism, as false, absurd, and dangerous.
Let us suffer ourselves to be rebuked in these exercises of intellectual pride by remembering that in Shakspeare's time the sun was believed to go round the earth ; that the laws of gravitation, and the circulation of the blood were found out only yesterday; this wonderful, wise world of ours being fearfully ignorant of both throughout the long ages upon ages of its previous existence ; and that it was only this morning we hit upon the uses of steam by land and sea, and ran our girdle of electricity round the loins of the globe. Who says we must stop here ? If we have lived for thousands of years in a state of absolute unconsciousness of the arterial system that was coursing through our bodies, who shall presume to say that there is nothing more to be learned in time to come ?