Robert Bell - Stranger than Fiction – 09 His voice was in the air above our heads. He had risen from his chair to a height of four or five feet from the ground
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Robert Bell, 'Stranger than Fiction', Cornhill Magazine 2 (1860), 211-24.
It is not my purpose to chronicle the whole phenomena of the evening, but merely to touch upon some of the most prominent; and that which follows, and which brought us to the conclusion of the seance, is distinguished from the rest by this peculiarity, that it takes us entirely out of that domain of the marvellous in which the media are inanimate objects.
Mr. Home was seated next to the window. Through the semi-darkness his head was dimly visible against the curtains, and his hands might be seen in a faint white heap before him. Presently, he said, in a quiet voice, " My chair is moving— I am off the ground—don't notice me — talk of something else," or words to that effect. It was very difficult to restrain the curiosity, not unmixed with a more serious feeling, which these few words awakened; but we talked, incoherently enough, upon some indifferent topic.
I was sitting nearly opposite to Mr. Home, and I saw his hands disappear from the table, and his head vanish into the deep shadow beyond. In a moment or two more he spoke again. This time his voice was in the air above our heads. He had risen from his chair to a height of four or five feet from the ground. As he ascended higher he described his position, which at first was perpendicular, and afterwards became horizontal. He said he felt as if he had been turned in the gentlest manner, as a child is turned in the arms of a nurse.
In a moment or two more, he told us that he was going to pass across the window, against the grey, silvery light of which he would be visible. We watched in profound stillness, and saw his figure pass from one side of the window to the other, feet foremost, lying horizontally in the air. He spoke to us as he passed, and told us that he would turn the reverse way, and recross the window ; which he did. His own tranquil confidence in the safety of what seemed from below a situation of the most novel peril, gave confidence to everybody else ; but, with the strongest nerves, it was impossible not to be conscious of a certain sensation of fear or awe. He hovered round the circle for several minutes, and passed, this time perpendicularly, over our heads. I heard his voice behind me in the air, and felt some thing lightly brush my chair. It was his foot, which he gave me leave to touch. Turning to the spot where it was on the top of the chair, I placed my hand gently upon it, when he uttered a cry of pain, and the foot was withdrawn quickly, with a palpable shudder. It was evidently not resting on the chair, but floating ; and it sprang from the touch as a bird would.
He now passed over to the farthest extremity of the room, and we could judge by his voice of the altitude and distance he had attained. He had reached the ceiling, upon which he made a slight mark, and soon afterwards descended and resumed his place at the table. An incident which occurred during this aerial passage, and imparted a strange solemnity to it, was that the accordion, which we supposed to be on the ground under the window close to us, played a strain of wild pathos in the air from the most distant corner of the room.
I give the driest and most literal account of these scenes, rather than run the risk of being carried away into descriptions which, however true, might look like exaggerations. But the reader can understand, without much assistance in the way of suggestion, that at such moments, when the room is in deep twilight, and strange things are taking place, the imagination is ready to surrender itself to the belief that the surrounding space is inhabited by supernatural presences. Then is heard the tread of spirits, with velvet steps, across the floor; then the ear catches the plaintive murmur of the departed child, whispering a tender cry of "Mother!" through the darkness; and then it is that forms of dusky vapour are seen in motion, and coloured atmospheres rise round the figures that form that circle of listeners and watchers.
I exclude all such sights and sounds because they do not admit of direct and satisfactory evidence, and because no sufficient answer can be made to the objection that they may be the unconscious work of the imagination.
Palpable facts witnessed by many people, stand on a widely different ground. If the proofs of their occurrence be perfectly legitimate, the nature of the facts themselves cannot be admitted as a valid reason for refusing to accept them as facts. Evidence, if it be otherwise trustworthy, is not invalidated by the unlikelihood of that which it attests. What is wanted here, then, is to treat facts as facts, and not to decide the question over the head of the evidence.
To say that certain phenomena are incredible, is merely to say that they are inconsistent with the present state of our knowledge; but, knowing how imperfect our knowledge is, we are not, therefore, justified in asserting that they are impossible. The " failures " which have occurred at seances are urged as proofs that the whole thing is a cheat. If such an argument be worth noticing, it is sufficient to say that ten thousand failures do not disprove a single fact. But it must be evident that as we do not know the conditions of " success," we cannot draw any argument from " failures." We often hear people say that they might believe such a thing, if such another thing were to happen; making assent to a particular fact, by an odd sort of logic, depend upon the occurrence of something else.
“I will believe," for example, says a philosopher of this stamp, "that a table has risen from the ground, when I see the lamp-posts dancing quadrilles. Then, tables? Why do these things happen to tables?"
Why, that is one of the very matters which it is desirable to investigate, but which we shall never know anything about so long as we ignore inquiry.
And, above all, of what use are these wonderful manifestations? What do they prove? What benefit have they conferred on the world?
Sir John Herschel has answered these questions with a weight of authority which is final.
"The question, Cui bono? to what practical end and advantage do your researches tend? — is one which the speculative philosopher, who loves knowledge for its own sake, and enjoys, as a rational being should enjoy, the mere contemplation of harmonious and mutually dependent truths, can seldom hear without a sense of humiliation. He feels that there is a lofty and disinterested pleasure in his speculations, which ought to exempt them from such questioning. But," adds Sir John, " if he can bring himself to descend from this high but fair ground, and justify himself, his pursuits, and his pleasures in the eyes of those around him, he has only to point to the history of all science, where speculations, apparently the most unprofitable, have almost invariably been those from which the greatest practicable applications have emanated.''*
The first thing to be done is to collect and verify facts. But this can never be done if we insist upon refusing to receive any facts, except such as shall appear to us likely to be true, according to the measure of our intelligence and knowledge. My object is to apply this truism to the case of the phenomena of which we have been speaking; an object which I hope will not be overlooked by any persons who may do me the honour to quote this narrative.
*Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, p. 10.