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Friday, 3 October 2014

They Met the Man Who Wasn't There

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there.
       Antigonish, by Hughes Mearns (1899)
     You go to the city centre, or to the shopping complex, and you see hundreds of anonymous strangers passing by. You assume they are normal, flesh-and-blood people going about their normal, flesh-and-blood activities, just like you. Indeed, it would be a very strange world if it were not so. But it is a very strange world. So how do you know that every last one of those anonymous strangers is really, physically present?
     If you had read my last post, you will hopefully remember Mrs. V. A. Martin, who gave her socks to a barefooted old lady at a bus shelter, and then watched as she vanished in front of her eyes, taking her socks with her.
     However, my aim in this post is to return to the 1886 publication of the Society for Psychical Research entitled, Phastasms of the Living which, you may recall, can be read or downloaded here. The reason is that, towards the end of volume 1, after several hundred pages of detailed, if somewhat tedious, documentation of apparitions occurring near the time of death, we come to some accounts which are even weirder.

     (1) Let's take the experience of John Rouse of Croydon, England. In 1883 he explained how, during 1873, he used to attempt spiritualist séances in a private house, and one of the other attendees was a Mrs W. However, on one occasion when a séance was due, he was in Norwich on business, and since it was a bright, moonlit night, he decided to go for a walk. Soon, he noticed a woman coming down the middle of the road. Assuming she was a local woman, who might be afraid to meet a stranger under such circumstances, he moved to the side of the road. So did she. As they approached each other, he saw that she was a well-dressed woman in an evening gown, without a bonnet or shawl. He could see the rings on her fingers, the flowers in her hair, and gold bracelets on her arms, and could hear the rustle of her dress. If he changed position, she also moved in order to be in a direct line to him. Then he could see it was Mrs W, whom he assumed had also turned up unexpectedly in Norwich. When they were separated by only five feet, she held out her hand to him, and her lips moved as if she were about to speak. He was just about to take her hand, when the iron hurdles of the wire fence next to them rang out as if struck by a metal object. Startled, he spun around. When he turned back, she was gone.
     It was her ghost! he thought, and immediately went back to his room and wrote a letter to a mutual friend enquiring about her. The lady herself must have been amused when he showed it to her, because - and she confirmed this herself in writing to the editors of the book - at 11 pm on the night in question, dressed in the same outfit in which he saw her, she was at the séance. Then, although she was not herself the medium, she suddenly fell into a trance for the first time in her life. She remembered nothing of what happened during that period. [pp 566-7]
     This is the sort of experience which many unsophisticated uncivilised people, and quite a lot of civilised people who think themselves sophisticated, would explain by saying her soul had left her body. But once you pause to think about it, the explanation is meaningless. For a start, what is the soul? More importantly, how would you see it? After all, we see a person's body because it reflects the ambient light, after the molecules of the body have transformed it into their own wave lengths of colour. How do we see a person's soul - or "astral body", whatever that is? It is simpler just to say that, somehow, under the trance conditions, her mind produced some sort of psychic projection - which is not saying much. The book's editor commented that it would not be strange for an hallucinatory object to move so as to continue in the direct line of vision of the percipient. Nevertheless, I note that it apparently acted intelligently towards him, by reaching out her hand.

     (2) Now, let me quote an account by a Presbyterian minister, F. R. Harbaugh of New Jersey, USA.
     While a resident of the city of Philadelphia, I made an appointment to meet a personal friend. At the appointed hour I was at the designated place. My friend was tardy in his appearing. After a while, however, I saw him approaching (or thought I did). So assured was I of his advance that I advanced to meet him, when presently he disappeared entirely.
     The locality where I thought I saw his approach was open, and unobstructed by any object behind which he could have disappeared. Only by leaping a high brick wall (an enclosure of a burying-ground) could he have secreted himself. The hallucination was complete - so distinct as to lead me to advance to meet him without a thought of optical illusion.
     I immediately went to the office of my friend, and there learned from him that he had not been away from his desk for several hours. [p516]
     The Rev. Harbaugh added in later correspondence that, when he entered the office, his friend apologized and claimed he had forgotten the appointment. We therefore cannot say that he had been "there in spirit" all along. Had his friend's subconscious conscience  produced a psychic manifestation? Or perhaps the Rev. Harbaugh's eagerness to meet him induced an hallucination, or even a tulpa. More to the point, how often does this happen? (And can you use this as an excuse if your spouse or boss hears you've been sighted somewhere where you were not supposed to be?) In a more frequent setting, perhaps it does explain the one in six bereaved people who claim to have seen their late departed.

     (3) Mr. W. A. S. had never had a visual hallucination, but from the very start he never doubted that what he saw that April day in 1871 was anything but an apparition. It was about 2 p.m., and the sun was streaming in, when he noticed coming through the partly opened door opposite what he initially thought was dirty soapy water. He was about to get up and scold the housemaid, when he saw it was the train of a woman's dress. He immediately realised that it was an apparition, and he decided to watch it carefully.The lady glided in backwards, as if she were on a movable slide, without any disturbance to her pale blue evening dress. Her head was slightly turned over her shoulder, and her eyes also turned, so they appeared to be fixed on him. Only the tips of her nose, lips, and chin were hidden by the edge of the door. Instantly, he recognized her as a woman - and old friend, not a sweetheart - with whom he used to dance 25 years or so ago. He had since lost contact with her for 20 or more years, but she still bore the same long curls and bright eyes, although "perhaps something stouter and more matronly."
     His niece, in the same room, failed to see her, but he assured himself it was not a trick of the light. The lines of the figure and its colours were quite distinct from the background. Then his brother entered, passing straight through the figure, which rapidly faded, first the colours, and then the form.
     As he explained in his letter of January 1883, he often used to tell the story in society, and would add, in effect, that it couldn't have been a ghost, because she was still alive. Then one day, the lady of the house said, "She is not alive as you suppose, but she has been dead some years."
     What? They looked it up in the peerage, and found she had died in 1871. Further investigations revealed that her death occurred in November of that year i.e. seven months after he saw her apparition. But before that, he asked how she had died.
     "Poor thing, indeed," was the reply, "she died a wretched death; she died of cancer in the face."
     Then he recalled that the front of her face had always been hidden by the edge of the door. [pp 516-517]

     (4) In 1856 Dr Charles M. Smith of Franklin, Louisiana was going out to a visit a patient in the country, when along came a buggy owned by a Mr. Weeks. Both the buggy and the horses possessed certain peculiarities which made them easily distinguishable from all the others in the parish. And there was Mr. Weeks himself in the carriage, and next to him a woman whom he would have sworn was his sister, Mrs. P, except that the doctor knew she had perished in a hurricane two months before. Dr Smith bowed and called Mr Weeks by name, but was totally ignored. Once he had returned home an hour later, he made enquiries and discovered that no-one remotely resembling those people had been seen in the village, and it later transpired that Mr. Weeks had been at home 30 miles [50 km] away at the time. "The conclusion seemed inevitable," he added, "that whole affair was an optical delusion." [pp 499 -500]
     Or it could have been something even stranger. On the other hand, there is just the possibility that, despite all the evidence against it, that it was a case of mistaken identity. The same, however, cannot be said for the last example.

     (5) The narrator was "a distinguished Indian officer". He and some friends had just finished lunch at a mutual friend's place, and their host decided to take them around to see some alterations he was making to the grounds.While they in the process of doing so, a native servant approached the narrator and asked him to accompany him back to the house, as his hostess wanted to speak to him. He followed him back to the homestead, through the verandah, and into the dining room, where the servant left him. He waited. When nothing happened, he called his hostess by name several times. Still nobody came. Frustrated, he went back to verandah and asked the durzee (tailor) there for the whereabouts of the first servant.
     The durzee replied, 'Your Excellency, no one came with you.' 'But,' I said, 'the man lifted the chik' (the outside verandah blind) 'for me'. 'No, your Excellency, you lifted it yourself,' the durzee answered.
    How puzzling! He returned to his friends and told them. They both said that they had seen no servant.
     "Why, you don't mean to say I have not been in the house?' I replied. 'Oh, yes; you were in the midst of saying something about the alterations, when you suddenly stopped, and walked back to the house; we could not tell why,' they both said. I was in perfect health at the time of the occurrence, and continued to be so after it. [p 499]
     The interesting thing is, if he had been alone at the time, or if he hadn't spoken to the durzee or his friends about it, he would never have had any reason to believe the person who accosted him had not been flesh and blood.

     So what can we make of all this? Otherwise reliable people occasionally make up stories for no apparent reason. People who would be expected to be excellent witnesses occasionally make appallingly obvious errors of observation. A single case, in other words, no matter how believable, can always be written off. But when they start to accumulate, you start to wonder what's going on. It needs also to be pointed out that visual hallucinations are very rare (so far as we know!). Healthy people practically never have them, except under special circumstances, such as the influence of drugs or lack of sleep. Indeed, even the genuinely psychotic rarely suffer from them; they hear voices, rather than "see things". Furthermore, in the first two incidents at least, the person who wasn't there was coincidentally connected to  the same person elsewhere.
      There also exists a well attested, but little understood, phenomenon whereby a perfectly healthy person meets himself. It is called a doppelgänger or an autoscopic hallucination, depending on whether the source is assumed to be external or internal.
     Let us take it a bit further. Is the man who wasn't there always human? In the 1947 movie, The Bishop's Wife, the angel, Dudley, played by Cary Grant, says, in effect: you see strangers hurrying by all the time. Most of them are ordinary, flesh-and-blood people, but every so often one of them is an angel, going about his mission. Of course, this was fiction, but it would be nice to think it were true, wouldn't it? Well, the late Mickey Rooney was convinced that the golden haired busboy he encountered in a restaurant at Lake Tahoe was an incognito angel (scroll to 17.50; I remember in another interview he said the busboy appeared a second time in his hotel room). I've already reported on visitors from The Other Place.

PS: There is a post here to a well documented case of a Member of Parliament being present in spirit in the House.

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