Orestes Brownson and the mesmeric universe.
An enigmatic and vigorous thinker, a polymath editor, a versatile essay writer and a most controversial priest, Orestes Augustus Brownson (16 Sept. 1803, Stockbridge, Vermont--17 April 1876, Detroit, Michigan) is in many ways the most radical and hardy among the American Transcendentalists. He is no doubt a fascinating personality in 19th century America who exerted a deep and long-lasting influence on his age. The present paper explores the human multi-faceted fascination for knowledge as reflected mainly in Brownson's novel The spirit rapper: an autobiography (1854), in the context of other fundamental works by him and taking into consideration the constellation of science and religion governing the age: the passage from the First to the Second Scientific Revolution, and from Enlightenment to romantic-transcendentalist ideology.
Because The spirit rapper is a novel that makes reference to many autobiographical elements, and so could not be properly understood without some knowledge of the author's biography, we shall proceed in our discussion by introducing a concise summary of Brownson's life and achievements.
I. From Methodism to Presbyterianism, Universalism and Unitarianism
His father, Sylvester Augustus Brownson, was a Presbyterian (a Calvinist Protestant), who died when Orestes was only three years old, leaving behind a family in financial dire straits. As a consequence, his mother, Relief Metcalf Brownson, who was a Universalist, had to send the young Orestes (aged six) to Royalton, Vermont, to a relative, where for the following ten years he lived in a Puritan-Calvinist environment in the company of farmers. In this period he experienced his first religious conversion: Methodism. In 1818 he joined his family in Balston Spa, New York, and received a modest education, while also working in the workshop of a printer. He now began to read not only sermons, but also texts by Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc. In 1822, after listening to a sermon delivered by a Presbyterian, he was converted to Presbyterianism. After only nine months he left the Presbyterian association and became a Universalist (Universalism asserts that eventually all mankind will be saved, cf. Origen's notion of apocatastasis). Brownson was thus educated at ordinary schools, but he did not get to study at a university, although he read much, especially religious literature. In 1823, when aged twenty, he left Balston Spa to search for a teaching position, first in Stillwater, New York, then in Detroit, where he remained for a year. By 1824, when he got back to New York, he was resolute to become a Universalist priest (cf. Carey 1997: 10).
Brownson's religious thought, his successive conversions, constitute as many stages of his life. After the experience of Methodism and Presbyterianism (Calvinism-Puritanism), Universalism attracted him most: in 1825 he left for Vermont to join the Universalist Association; he was anointed as a priest of this church. In 1826, at the age of twenty-three, he published his first work (a sermon given in front of a Universalist congregation in Vermont) in The Christian Repository (Vermont). Between 1826 and 1829 he served Universalist congregations in Ithaca, Geneva and Auburn, New York, and wrote for Universalist newspapers in New York (The Utica Magazine, The Cayuga Patriot). He edited and wrote articles for the Universalist theological review The Gospel Advocate and Impartial Investigator. In 1827 he married a former student, Sally Healy, at Elbridge, New York. In 1829 he left his position as Universalist preacher owing to disputes with his church colleagues and because all this time Brownson was increasingly more active as a democrat, eventually becoming too liberal for the Universalists: he moved closer and closer to the liberal thought of Frances Wright, he became an associate editor of The Free Enquirer and supported the foundation of the Workingmen's Party in New York. All these associations were considered by some Universalists as being heretical in nature.
Between 1829 and 1830, after leaving the Universalists, Brownson edited Genesee Republican and Herald of Reform, the official voice of the Workingmen's Party in New York, which embraced Robert Owen's and Frances Wright's theory of education, according to which children aged two had to already join the educational system organized and controlled by the state. Brownson supported the Owen-Wright theory, but at the same time expressed his concern regarding the possible result of such education, predicting in this sense the collapse of parental authority and the transformation of children into "well-trained animals." In this period he wrote articles for The Free Enquirer, and came to consider himself as being a social reformer who lost any hope in the contemporary capacity of Christianity to offer religious guaranties regarding the necessary economic and social reforms. Toward the end of 1830 he left Auburn and went to Ithaca, where he started to edit The Philanthropist, at that time the only Unitarian review of opinion in the north of New York. [Unitarianism rejects the idea of Trinity, doubts Christ's and the Holy Ghost's divinity and emphasizes freedom of faith].
In the first months of 1831 Brownson began again to state that, in order to succeed, any reform of society needed a religious foundation. Brownson's return to the idea of religiousness was accompanied by a return to his work as a pastor, this time a non-confessional, for a congregation in Ithaca, New York, where he served up to mid-1832, when, after reading a few of William Ellery Channing's essays on religious feeling, he became a Unitarian pastor and accepted an invitation to Walpole, New Hampshire, where he served until 1834, when he moved to Canton, Massachusetts, again as Unitarian pastor until 1836. Between 1832 and 1836 he wrote for several Unitarian reviews like The Christian Register, The Unitarian, The Christian Examiner, The Boston Observer and Religious Intelligencer. In 1836 George Ripley, a Unitarian colleague, invited Brownson to accept a position as Unitarian pastor for the workers in Boston. He thus moved with his family to Chelsea, outside of Boston, and from there he cared after the workers by agency of his own religious organization titled Society for Christian Union and Progress, founded by himself. Brownson's new church was maintained until 1842.
II. Matter versus spirit and transcendence: the hieroglyphic synthesis
In 1836 Brownson edited The Boston Reformer, a press organ of the workers in Boston. This same year (1836) Brownson became a member of the Transcendentalist Club, the main organization of the Transcendentalists. While in Boston, he published his first important book--New views of Christianity, society and the Church--, in which he objected Protestantism that it was "pure materialism," and Catholicism--that it was "pure spiritualism," while at the same time praising "the Church of the Future" as a synthesis between the two systems. By this notion, Brownson was in fact returning to the ideal of romanticism: to unite in a synthesis transcendental idealism with non-transcendental / immanent materialism--i.e. the two essential extremes of what we call the pendulum of history. This religious composite vision derives from Brownson's studying romanticism--especially the English and the German--, as well as from Transcendentalism's influence, the latter being initially a romantic rebellion against Unitarianism's "supernatural rationalism." Lastly, Brownson's worldview draws its essence from English and German Romanticism's doctrine of Nature as a hieroglyphic living mystery (i.e. a concept totally opposed to the Neoclassical and Newtonian notion of Nature as a clockwork mechanism), and romanticism's aspiration after an increasingly deeper knowledge of the infinitely deep truth of reality.
The notion of Nature as a hieroglyphic living mystery was in turn derived by the romantics from such probable sources as Denis Diderot's Lettre sur les sourdes et muets (1751) [Letter on the deaf and the dumb], in which Diderot observed that "each art of imitation has its hieroglyphic," poetic discourse itself being "a fabric of closely interwoven hieroglyphs." The term itself (hieroglyph) came to Diderot, via Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, from William Warburton's writings on Egyptian hieroglyphs, considered by the latter as being images that compress and express many meanings (cf. Beardsley 1966: 161-162, 201-202). In fact, romanticism was to "break out" shortly after this conceptualization by Diderot and was to adopt the "hieroglyphic theory," transforming it into one of the most important foundations of romantic thought, almost a "religion/science," obviously of Egyptian extraction: Nature itself was a divine "hieroglyphic," a codified "sacred text" (see also Preda 2005), which was infinitely deep and mysterious, and which had to be deciphered, the act of decyphering being itself the adventure and life of spirit revealing itself to itself. Without this necessary act of decyphering, man lived in uncertainties, like a deaf and dumb being, unable to communicate anything with the surrounding reality, unable to understand anything that is communicated by that surrounding reality--in many ways, without the "hieroglyphic ABC" that the romantics attempted to relearn, man was a stranger in this world, which, being devoid of apparent meanings, tended to be read as a mere absurdity, a meaningless illusion, the impenetrable veil of Maya. The sense of deep mystery between the two foundations of thought, namely science and religion, was to be inherited by Brownson and rendered most intensely, as shall be seen, in The spirit rapper, in which the rappings and tappings and knockings of spirits are their ways to communicate with humans.
III. Swing from radicalism to conservatism: final destination--Roman Catholicism
Coming back to Brownson's life, we should also mention that between 1837 and 1841 he held an administrative position at a hospital in Chelsea, all the while publishing articles in The Liberator (1838), an abolitionist newspaper. In 1838 he founded and edited the review titled The Boston Quarterly Review (1838-1842), containing mainly his own contributions, but also those of Transcendentalists such as Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and George Ripley; here were discussed the main contemporary events and ideas from the religious, political and social sphere. Brownson's literary, philosophical and political papers were also published in the review of the Transcendentalists entitled The Dial. With a few Transcendentalists Brownson partly participated in the experiment in community life / Utopian socialism known as Brook Farm.
Unlike most of the Transcendentalists, Brownson believed that people were sinners. In a few essays published in the Boston Quarterly Review Brownson revealed his harsh radicalism, and his increasing discontent towards the Democratic Party generated bitter criticism against him, so that in 1842 he had to eventually sell his review to John L. O'Sullivan. For instance, in the essay The laboring classes (July 1840), Brownson asked for the annihilation of all banks, the destruction of monopolies and of all privileges; the abolition of hereditary property as an imperatively necessary complement after the abolition of hereditary monarchy and of hereditary nobility. In short, Brownson was asking for the abolition of the whole system, because man could not simultaneously serve both God and Mammon. For these radical views A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., called Brownson "the most important American precursor of Marx," although Russel Kirk justly observed that, after his conversion to Catholicism, Brownson became the most convincing opponent of Marx, being the first writer who called Marxism a "Christian heresy" (cf. Richardson Jr. 1995: 248).
What followed were articles for O'Sullivan's United States Magazine and Democratic Review, but his views on democracy soon became so incompatible with those embraced by O'Sullivan, that at the end of 1842 he renounced his collaboration. His religious and political experience (for instance, he participated in the 1840 elections, when Van Buren lost a second presidency) and readings estranged Brownson from his "democratic illusions" and political liberalism, and pushed him towards religious and political conservatism--thus his evolution completing a full swing of the pendulum (of history), from total radicalism to total conservatism.
Between 1842 and 1844, Brownson drew increasingly closer to the ecclesiastic and sacramental thought of the Catholic Church, as can be noticed from the papers written for the Unitarian newspaper The Christian World in 1843, and, starting from 1844, from those written for his own periodical, The Brownson Quarterly Review. Towards the end of 1844, after receiving the Catholic teaching from the Catholic bishop of Boston, John Bernard Fitzpatrick, Brownson decided to move on, with his family, to Roman Catholicism. This was to be his final destination religionwise. From now on his review became the main vehicle for expressing the Catholic view on religion, philosophy, American literature and politics.
The Transcendentalists responded bitterly on learning about Brownson's conversion: for instance, in one of his sermons entitled Religious rest (preached at the Melodion, Boston, on April 2, 1848, and posthumously published in Sermons of religion, 1908), Theodore Parker (1908: 311) asserted about Brownson (without giving his name explicitly, but clearly referring to elements of Brownson's biography) that he had an "unbalanced mind, intellectual always, but spiritual never." Afterwards, for the Transcendentalists, as for many other intellectuals of some import in 19th century America, Brownson became a persona non grata, his "immense contribution" to American thought being thoroughly and shamefully ignored (cf. Miller 1950; 1957).
From now on Brownson dedicated himself to promoting religious and political conservatism, becoming one of the most important Catholics of 19th century America. However, he came into conflict with a few of his Catholic colleagues, too, owing to his "ultraisms" (his ferocious anti-Protestantism, his vision on exclusive salvation, his views on American nativism, his "liberal Catholicism," his ontologism, etc.), although, both as a Protestant and as a Catholic, he used to periodically change his point of view (hence the multi-faceted dimensions of his thought), depending on the evolution of religious criticism and events in the socio-political arena.
Between 1830 and 1870 he wrote about Calvinism, social work and reform, Transcendentalism, Roman Catholicism, the rights of the states, democracy, nativism and emancipation. During the Civil War he lost two sons. In 1864, towards the end of the Civil War, he suspended the publication of the review owing to the decrease in the number of subscribers and because of the opposition of a few catholics against his religious and political views.
In 1865 he published The American Republic, considered by many critics as his masterwork, containing his fundamental, theological-political philosophy of American government. It seems that after the publication of The American Republic Brownson intended to write a major work on the philosophy of religion; although he did not live to complete that project, many of the essays written after the Civil War (1861-1865), especially those on the refutation of atheism, unveil elements of what Brownson envisaged as an integral philosophy of religion.
He continued to write articles for various newspapers and constantly sent contributions for the Notre Dame University journal of religious thought and catholic piety entitled Ave Maria (1865-1872); for The Catholic World (1866-1872), edited by the Pauline priest Isaac Hecker; and for New York Tablet (1867-1872), a catholic newspaper of religious and political opinion.
In 1872, because he was not given sufficient editorial space and because he was censored, Brownson decided to resume the editing of his own review; in 1873 he manages to do that, but only up to 1875, when the editing was definitively stopped, because Brownson was physically exhausted and his health no longer allowed him such efforts. In 1876 he moved to Detroit together with his son Henry.
The last essay written by Brownson, Philosophy of the supernatural (January 1876) was published in American Catholic Quarterly Review, a periodical specially created to continue the tradition established by The Brownson Quarterly Review. On 17 April 1876 Brownson died in the house of his son, in Detroit, Michigan; he was buried in the Brownson Memorial Chapel from the Sacred Heart Church, Notre Dame University.
Brownson came to be known in philosophy as being initially (mainly between 1834 and 1844) an advocate of Coleridge's and Carlyle's ideas, then a moderate disciple of the positivism of Auguste Comte and of Victor Cousin's composite system. Through the latter's system, Brownson was initiated into the post-Enlightenment thorny, Romantic question of the reconciliation between subject and object, which so obsessed Romantics like Friedrich Holderlin, Novalis, or William Blake. Brownson concentrated on the principles of human knowledge and on the modes by which the objective and the subjective dimensions of thought and life could be synthesized. His philosophy evolved from Cousin's eclectic system, to Pierre Leroux' objective idealism, and up to Vincenzo Gioberti's ontologism, in his attempt to discover a Christian philosophy by agency of which knowledge should be established on objective grounds, so that a post-Enlightenment defense of Christian revelation should become possible.
Among the most characteristic writings by Brownson, the following are paramount: The spirit-rapper: an autobiography (1854); The convert (1857); The American Republic (1865). Because the fantastic novel The spirit-rapper contains in a condensed form Brownson's worldview in the live process of its making, we shall focus on its deep structure in the following pages.
The spirit rapper: a modern quest for truth
Although Brownson called The spirit rapper in the subtitle An autobiography (1854), we are dealing here with a semi-autobiographical novel, a romanticized fantastic narrative, organized as a roman a clef, of the life of a man who attempts to find a balance between religion and science, who experiments with mesmerism, spiritualism, pneumatism / pneumatology, and is aware of the fact that these constitute satanic influences and practices. In this roman a clef the characters that appear as themselves are the Fox sisters, Joe Smith, and Dr. Poyen (Brownson's friend); Emerson, Alcott, Parker, Fourier, Proudhon, Charles Newcomb, Garrison, Mazzini, Cabet and Frances (Fanny) Wright appear under transparent masks (cf. Schlesinger 1939: 225). The hero of the novel can be readily regarded as a modern descendant of a long line of fictional and mythological or real characters like Frankenstein, Faust, Prospero, Konrad Dippel, Paracelsus, Hermes Trismegistus / Mercurius Termaximus / Thoth / Ningishzida, etc.
The hero, i.e. the "spirit rapper," whose name is never disclosed, poses, among others, the question whether the chthonic / nocturnal forces at work in human society might not in fact be elemental forces of nature, physiological phenomena or the like, all the while bearing in mind the fact that Catholicism (as the last religious system embraced by Brownson) entirely acknowledged the existence of Satan, and most especially the latter's "power over the natural man, and even [over] material objects" (Brownson 1854: 155; 1884ix: 93; chap. XI).
The central idea explored here by Brownson, having devastating possible consequences for the religious and scientific establishment, was the following: if science--that is mesmerism or animal magnetism (having affinities with Baron Reichenbach's concept of the "od," or the doctrine regarding the "spirit of the world," very close to the Transcendentalist notion of the Oversoul, itself derived from Hinduism's idea of Atman or Mahatman / "Soul of the World," "Great Soul": Sanskr. mah = "great," "powerful"; "grown"; "old"; atman = "soul," "world soul," "being," "essence"; "self"; cf. Mylius 1975: 361, 63)--is to demonstrate that these nocturnal, satanic forces are explicable by agency of natural principles, as physiological forces, then Christianity might collapse, because it is grounded precisely in the belief that the chthonian, nocturnal, destructive forces exist and render necessary the restorative intercession of Christ, for the sake of salvaging man and the world. In effect, among others, medical science started trying, approximately from the 17th century onwards, to demonstrate that there is no devil:
Several attempts were made in the 17th century to discover an easy system that would guide the practice of medicine. A substratum of superstition still remained. Richard Wiseman, surgeon to Charles II, affirmed his belief in the "royal touch" as a cure for king's evil, or scrofula, while even the learned English physician Thomas Browne stated that witches really existed. There was, however, a general desire to discard the past and adopt new ideas. (cf. The Enlightenment: the futile search for an easy system, The New Encyclopedia Britannica)
For instance, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) influenced medical thought by his idea that the human body is a machine, functioning mechanically. Two groups came into existence to adopt the mechanical explanation of life:
1) The iatrophysicists, seeing life as physical process, such as Santorio Santorio (1561-1636) of Padua and Giovanni Borelli (1608-1679) of Pisa. Santorio Santorio made iatromechanical experiments and introduced the medical thermometer (cf Larousse 2001: 817). Giovanni Borelli founded iatromechanism, a medical system devised by him to reduce all life phenomena to mechanical action by using mathematics (cf. Larousse 2001: 187).
2) The iatrochemists, seeing life as chemical process, such as Jan Baptist van Helmont (1579-1644) of Brussels, Franciscus Sylvius (1614-1672) of Leiden (founder of iatrochemistry), or Thomas Willis (1621-1675) of Oxford and London. (Gr. iatros = "a physician"). Jan Baptist van Helmont discovered the gastric juice and realized its digestive function, he invented the thermometer, and studied magnetic medicine and mineral magnetism, being involved also mainly with alchemy (cf. Larousse 2001: 910).
Spectral apparitions were in this context explained as being mere hallucinations. Relevantly, Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology as a field in which many branches of knowledge converged (especially biology, physics, geography, archeology, linguistics and ethnology), spoke--toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th--about the fact that even though the vision quests of the American Indians were aimed at obtaining "guardian spirits" for the native Indian quester, what the latter actually obtained was only the sight of "hallucinations," owing to the practice of fasting that usually accompanied such enterprises, which everywhere in the American Indian society had the value of initiation rituals (cf. Boas 1989: 101). In connection to this, the demonstration of the fact that there is no devil was certainly a well-established purpose of the philosophers of Enlightenment such as Voltaire, who proclaimed that, if there was no Satan, then there was no Christianity either:
Sathan! c'est le Christianisme tout entier; pas de Sathan, pas de Sauveur. (The spirit rapper, chap. XI; Brownson 1854: 155; 1884ix: 93)
This proclamation caused violent reactions from convinced Christian Romantics such as William Blake, who came to see in Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke a satanic trinity. In this sense, Brownson saw in the 18th century an age of antiChristianity expressed in philosophy, physics and materialism:
[A] century of anti-Christian light, philosophy, physical science, and materialism. (The spirit rapper, chap. XI; Brownson 1854: 160; 1884ix: 96)
Thus, the French Revolution is here regarded as being a "mesmerisation" (a steeping into illusion) of France and of Europe: it was triggered and governed precisely by what Christianity called evil or Satan, or what mesmerism called a "primitive and elemental force" (The spirit rapper, chap. XI; Brownson 1854: 163; 1884ix: 97).
The spirit rapper is consequently a religious novel-treatise important by the vigor of the ideas advanced and by the obvious parallel with the evolution of the author's own thought. The "autobiographical" hero is constantly in the presence of priests belonging to the communities of Presbyterians, Universalists, Unitarians, Transcendentalists, Catholics, Swedenborgians, or Mormons, by which Brownson alludes to various stages of his cognitive-religious-philosophic life.
Mesmerism and the spiritual laboratory
The hero (the spirit rapper) is born in a little town in Western New York, in a family of agriculturists from Connecticut, descendants of the early colonists who had the reputation of being rigid Puritans (the Hartford colony). The first school he visits is in Batavia; then, at seventeen, he goes to attend courses at Union College, Schenectady, for four years. He has an early inclination towards mathematics, mechanics, physics and Auguste Comte's positive philosophy; chemistry--by its extremely subtle analyses--seems to him to provide him with an approach that allows him access to the "vital principle" (the "odic principle," the "mesmeric principle") and the "essences of things" (The spirit rapper, chap. I, XIX, XXV; Brownson 1854: 2, 276, 365; 1884ix: 3, 162, 212; see references to the "odic" force, "psychic" force, "odic" or "magnetic current," "odic emanations," "electric, magnetic, odic, astral" attractions, "odic condition," in Blavatsky 1877i: 67, 138, 169, 344, 394, 395).
By this latter element, Brownson's hero is indeed an American descendant of Frankenstein, Faust, Prospero, Paracelsus and Hermes. By his fervent desire to find the "essences of things" he is engaged in a quest in science that is similar to Brancusi's quest in art (sculpture): seeing through illusion and surfaces the deep and unfathomable truth (and beauty) of reality. Keats, as is well known, had engaged in a similar quest for truth and beauty.
Morals and the intellectual sciences appear to the spirit rapper "vague, uncertain and unprofitable" (The spirit rapper; Brownson 1854: 2; 1884ix: 3), while science promised to remove the veil of mysteries that nature drew over "her laboratory" (The spirit rapper, chap. IV; Brownson 1854: 44; 1884ix: 27), precisely as Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein thought. The miraculous had to thus become explainable not by recourse to supernatural agents, but by natural principles. So the main paradigm war in The spirit rapper is that between Nature and Supernature (two main poles of the pendulum of history), either of the two claiming supremacy. This is the main link between M. Shelley's Frankenstein and Brownson's spirit rapper:
But now a change came over me. I became restless, and had an intense longing to explore the secrets of things, and to look within the veil with which nature kindly shrouds her laboratory. (The spirit rapper, chap. IV; Brownson 1854: 44; 1884ix: 27)
Brownson conceives here of a convergence of science and religion in a closed, circular, paradoxical equation: science cannot be true if it does not come to a concordance with religion-theology, and vice-versa, theology cannot be true if it does not correspond to science, this state of affairs being in accord with the natural philosophy (Naturphilosophie) inherited from the romantics:
"If your theology is true, it can never be in conflict with science." "If your science be true, or really be science," retorted Mr. Cotton, "it can never be in conflict with theology." (The spirit rapper, chap. III; Brownson 1854: 28; 1884ix: 18)
In Religion and science (1874), Brownson explained this correspondence in clear terms:
There can be no discrepancy between religion and science, or between the teachings of nature and the teachings of revealed religion or Christianity, for the two not only proceed from the same author, but are simply two stages in one design, or two parts of one uniform whole. [...] Evidently there can be no discrepancy between science and faith, objectively considered; for as God is supreme Logic, Logic itself--the Logos--he must be always consistent or in accord with himself, and therefore all his works, taken as a whole, must be supremely dialectic, without any jar or discord. Whatever apparent discrepancy we may discover between religion and science, must necessarily be subjective, in our views or theories of the one or the other, or of both, and grows out of the incompleteness of our views or of our rendering of them. What needs to be reconciled is never nature and revelation, but our interpretations of them, which often conflict with one another, and with the objective reality. (Brownson 1883iii: 530, 531)
The miracle and the fairy-tale elements (such as Aladdin's Lamp) become thus real possible worlds and not necessarily mere illusions or figments of the imagination:
"What, if the tale of Aladdin's Lamp were true? Who dare say that the river and ocean gods, the Naiads, the Dryads, Hamadryads, Pan and his reed, Apollo and his lyre, Mercury and his wand, the supernal and infernal gods of classic poetry, were all mere creatures of the poetic imagination? Perhaps even the diablerie of modern German romance, of Hoffman, Baron de Fouque, and others, has more of reality than most readers suspect." (The spirit rapper, chap. V; Brownson 1854: 52; 1884ix: 32)
Mesmerism as a consequence becomes a doctrine explored as a possible explanation - on naturalistic grounds--of what man considers as being supernatural. In this philosophical-religious context, Brownson explains one of the religious fundaments of his thought, from which he starts from the very beginning, namely the titanic--or even unlimited--power of faith (together with the belief in this titanic power of faith, which constitutes a sort of "meta-belief," i.e. believing in believing).
IV. Faith and will: mesmerism versus mediumism
Faith is considered by Brownson (1854: 54) as being a true "thaumaturgic" or wonder-working force: "[f]aith is thaumaturgic, always a miracle-worker." Faith is the key of access to total freedom, which in the last analysis means the very subjection of the elements of nature (as Prospero proceeded in Shakespeare's The Tempest) by the human mind / will--as according to Christ's ideas regarding the practically unlimited power of pure faith: by sheer will, through faith, the mountains could be removed. Here are Helena Blavatsky's ideas on this matter pertaining to mesmerism (as an active practice) and the power of the will versus mediumism (as a passive practice):
The mesmerizer wills a thing, and if he is powerful enough, that thing is done. The medium, even if he had an honest purpose to succeed, may get no manifestations at all; the less he exercises his will, the better the phenomena: the more he feels anxious, the less he is likely to get anything; to mesmerize requires a positive nature, to be a medium a perfectly passive one. This is the Alphabet of Spiritualism, and no medium is ignorant of it. (Blavatsky 1877i: 109)
Thus, in mesmerism the active will power of the mesmerist is the crucial factor; while in mediumism what is essential is the degree of passiveness that the will can attain--the higher the degree, the better the results. In other words, in mesmerism the mesmerizer is the emission pole (the stronger the emission, the stronger the action that is exerted), while in mediumism the medium is the reception pole (the stronger the reception, the more accurate and abundant the information thus received).
Moreover, for the spirit rapper faith is the way of access towards the profoundest mysteries of reality, even towards the essence of the godhead that an artist like Brancusi strove to bring to light through the medium of sculpture. Crucial in this equation is, according to Brownson, man's not doubting in the act of faith. Brownson (like William Blake before him and like Brancusi after him) answered against R. Descartes, who set doubt at the very basis of his demonstration of man's existence. Essence and the belief in it, not doubt with all its illusive constellations, should be the foundation for an irrefutable demonstration of man's existence.
Contrary to Descartes, Brownson's hero was of the opinion that by unshakable, unfaltering faith man could accomplish anything. Preachers who uttered words all the while being possessed by such all-powerful faith would surely be overwhelmed by something like an "electric shock," and the auditors would surely resonate as if they together formed a "magnetic chain" (The spirit rapper, chap. V; Brownson 1854: 55; 1884ix: 34). Here we can see at work an "immaterial" correlative between the religious and scientific sphere: as magnetism was defined as a force of attraction or repulsion between bodies without there being any visible physical nexus, so spiritual force "exuding" from religious believers were similarly operating like invisible lines of force (Charles Richet called this spiritual emanation ectoplasm; see infra). There was already a strong precedent of this kind of invisible force acting from a distance, connected with the Scientific Revolution: Newton's universal gravity, operating at infinite distance with infinite speed. Underlying this notion was an almost "mystical" property of matter to generate invisible forces of attraction.
V. Mesmerism and magnetism: the rise of hypnosis
On the other hand, since back in 1850 electricity had already been connected to magnetism--as in the discovery of electro-magnetism by Hans Oersted in 1820--, Brownson here simply correlated the two phenomena. Namely, Oersted had observed that an electric current flowing in a wire near a magnetic compass visibly deflected the compass needle: so he deduced that the electric current generates a magnetic field: Brownson mentions the two phenomena here in this order: first the "electric shock," then the "magnetic chain," thus challengingly suggesting Oersted's discovery. Furthermore, in 1831 Michael Faraday had also demonstrated that the converse too was true: a magnetic field can generate an electric current (cf. Cruden 1994: 442).
To be sure, the physical phenomenon of magnetism had been associated with the religious sphere before, namely the ancient Chinese knew of the mysterious invisible magical power of lodestones (initially found near the ancient city of Magnesia) and they also came to invent the magnetic compass. The magnetic analogy was a particularly powerful one, because in the background, since 1600 at least, the idea that the entire Earth "acts as a huge magnet" existed, being published by William Gilbert in his now famous book De magnete (cf. Cruden 1994: 441-442; see Gilbert 1600 and 1893).
The planetary dimension of magnetism was asserted also by the very founder of "Animal Magnetism" (or "Mesmerism"), Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). In his medical PhD he researched the effects of the planets on man's behaviour; "animal gravitation" was according to him the force by which celestial bodies influenced man's actions. This was therefore the "mesmeric" equivalent of Newtonian universal gravity. Furthermore, while working with a female patient, Mesmer got the suggestion to use magnets in order to heal hysteria. He did so, and she miraculously recovered, after a short crisis state induced by applying the magnets to her soles. Since success followed in several cases, Mesmer published his theory, describing the "ebbs and flows" of magnetic forces inside the human body. Several commissions in Paris were established to verify the theory, and the conclusion was that it was worthless. But Mesmer had a strong supporter in Marquis de Puysegur, who learned how to induce the crisis state, but disproved of it because it was violent, thus searching for a milder method. It so happened that one day one of his patients entered a dream-like mild state, and did everything he was suggestively ordered to do, remembering nothing at all when exiting the trance-like state.
Puysegur's discovery was therefore that the change in man originated not with magnetism, but with this "somnambulist condition" or trance--which became the basis of all later research and therapy--during which man felt no pain. This phenomenon is known as "mesmeric anaesthesia," and it was later explored and used for instance by James Esdaile in order to diminish pain and improve chances of survival in his patients.
James Braid (1795-1860) was to call mesmerism "neuro-hypnotism" (i.e. "nervous sleep", cf. Neurypnology, 1843), and so the term "hypnotism" entered science (cf. Johnstone 1994: 466). In this connection, Braid disagreed with the popular idea that the capacity to induce hypnosis was linked with a "magical passage" of a flowing influence (Richet's "ectoplasm") from the mesmerizer to the patient. Instead, he believed that hypnosis (then still called mesmerism) was a sort of physiological "nervous sleep," triggered by tiredness owing to the intense concentration needed in operations such as insistently looking at a shiny object for some time without cease (cf. The New Encyclopedia Britannica).
Moreover, the first quantization of magnetism had already been accomplished by Charles Coulomb in 1785: he discovered that the force between two magnetized bodies was inversely proportional to the distance between them (cf. Cruden 1994: 442), so magnetism, even though invisible, was a materially-mathematically describable phenomenon, hence a further step had been made in connecting something that seems immaterial (in this case ordinary magnetism, but, by analogy, possibly also spiritual or psychic force, of the kind surely involved in the mesmeric "somnambulist condition") with the material, the natural.
The same "magnetic" phenomenon, according to Brownson, occured when you spoke with a friend in whom you entirely believed: "our souls seem to be melted into one," the wills become a single will, their forces combine into one, at which point takes place the ascent to "upper regions of truth," in which "Heaven opens to us" and the souls can "behold the hidden things of God" (The spirit rapper, chap. V; Brownson 1854: 55; 1884ix: 34). God in this mesmeric-hypnotic equation is regarded as the "Fountain of All Force" (Brownson 1854: 57; 1884ix: 35), the "infinite, universal intelligence" (The spirit rapper, chap. VI; Brownson 1854: 69; 1884ix: 42).
The same phenomenon could occur when man fell in love with Nature and so received her mild and re-sanctifying influences. Faith is thus equated, at different levels and from different perspectives, with love, sympathy and imagination (the latter is of romantic origin). Even if he did not believe in pantheism, this page in Brownson's novel reminds us of the romantic pantheistic mystique of Nature such as embraced for instance by Wordsworth with a view to understand the Book of Nature (Liber Naturae) and thus the whole of the cosmos and the one life flowing through the cosmos:
"There is more in this power of faith than received philosophy has fathomed. By it one's eyes are opened, and he seems to penetrate the profoundest mysteries of the universe, even to the essence of the Godhead. We may mark it in all our undertakings. Whatever we attempt, nothing doubting, we are almost sure to accomplish. Let me, as a public speaker, desire to produce a certain effect, and let me have full confidence that I shall succeed, and I am sure not to fail. Let me utter a sentiment, with my whole soul absorbed in it, confident that it is going right to the hearts of my hearers, and it goes there. Whenever I am conscious in what I am saying, of this calm, undoubting faith, I am sure of my audience. I no sooner open my lips than I have them under my control, and I can do with them as I please. When I have felt this faith in what I was about to utter, I have felt before uttering it, its effect upon the assembly, and my whole frame has been sensible of something like an electric shock, and it seemed that my audience and I were connected by a magnetic chain." (The spirit rapper; Brownson 1854: 54-55)
To be sure, the attitude of the one who, "nothing doubting," whatever he or she attempts, they "are almost sure to accomplish," reminds us of Blavatsky's (1877i: 109) remarks quoted above on the difference between the mesmerizer and the medium: the first, in order to be successful, had to have an indomitable will--much like the Prometheus figure in Byron's poem Prometheus or in P. B. Shelley's poem Prometheus unbound; while the latter (the medium) had only to be sensitively receptive in the extreme. The spirit rapper is thus clearly defined as belonging to the first kind, the mesmerizers / hypnotizers.
Here is how the spirit rapper as mesmerizer / hypnotizer describes his mystical will-induced feeling of the unity of being (unity with a friend, unity with nature; be it reminded that the unity of being had been the common goal of most romantics):
"In conversing with a friend, in whom I have full faith, and to whom I can speak with full confidence, I have felt the same. Our souls seem to be melted into one, to move with one and the same will, and each to be exalted and strengthened by the combined power of both. Then rise we into the upper regions of truth, far above the unaided flight of either. Heaven opens to us, and we behold the hidden things of God. Something the same is felt also when one goes forth in love with nature, and yields to her gentle and hallowing influences. We inhale power with her fragrant odors, become conscious of purer, loftier and holier thoughts and feelings, and form stronger and nobler resolutions." (The spirit rapper; Brownson 1854: 55)
VI. The universal formula: essence-ex-essence
In this connection, Brownson's religious philosophy identifies a universal and absolute formula by which "sensism [i.e. materialism], pantheism, and nullism" are refuted. This formula is a "primum philosophicum," and it was stated by Gioberti: "Ens creat existential' / "L' Ente crea l' esistenze" (or "l' esistente"), i.e. "Being [viz. God, essence] creates existences" (i.e. ex-essences, exo-ousias), which corresponds to the first line in Genesis:
"In principio, Deus creavit coelum et terram" / "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." (Vincenzo Gioberti (I), 1850; Brownson 1883ii: 126; Philosophy of the supernatural, 1876; Brownson 1883ii: 277ff)
In the order of second causes, this is decoded as follows:
The priesthood creates civilization. (Vincenzo Gioberti (I), 1850; Brownson 1883ii: 127)
This formula is considered by Brownson as being the essence of the entire science of reality, the essence of the philosophy of the natural and of the supernatural, i.e. the essence of the science of the initial (the finite natural which was created ab initio) and of the teleological (the infinite supernatural towards which the finite natural advances, the latter being profoundly dialectically connected with the supernatural-infinitude-completeness as a fulfillment of the natural-finitude-incompleteness).
The dominating materialism of the 19th century, according to Brownson, did nothing else but separate the two domains, of the natural and of the supernatural, considering that the latter is explicable in terms of natural laws (so that in fact it did not even truly exist per se, as supernatural). In essence, Brownson was thus profoundly interested in the nature of the deep relation between spirit (the supernatural-completeness) and matter (the natural-incompleteness)--which he regarded as being represented by Catholicism and Protestantism, respectively. He therefore explored the lawful modes in which spirit influences or even governs matter, while at the same time refuting pantheism as nothing but "a form of atheism" (Religion and science, 1874; Brownson 1883iii: 525), thus delimiting his thought system from that of romantics such as William Wordsworth or Samuel T. Coleridge which was founded in the pantheistic / cosmotheistic belief.
In sum, Brownson was interested in the two essential poles of the pendulum of history, namely idealism/spiritualism and materialism, and in the field of forces between them, the spiritual pole being the one that influenced or even determined the material one, perhaps in a quasi-magnetic manner: just as a magnetic forces, invisible though they are, shape the iron filings that enter their range of action, so spirit shapes matter, when matter enters spirit's horizon of action.
VII. The rise of world mesmerizers
Franz Anton Mesmer's doctrine and experiments were thus taken under analytical lenses in The spirit rapper (1854). Mesmerism, which had become "fashionable" around mid-19th century (later it developed into the science of hypnosis or hypnotism), promised to offer a method by which one could come to discover the law(s) governing the matter-spirit relationship; to discover the keys of access to the deep and living core of the processes of the pendulum of history (the swinging between materialism and idealism). By knowing this law/these laws man would be granted the possibility to find permanent methods by which to enter a condition of harmony between himself and the Power that created the Universe as a vehicle in which to perpetually become manifest (the Universe being precisely the "emanation" of infinite and universal intelligence). In other words, these methods enabled us humans to place ourselves in the "focal range" of that Power, and so make it possible that its rays concentrate on us (cf. The spirit rapper, chap. V; Brownson 1854: 57; 1884ix: 35).
In this equation, the American thinker critically (and hesitatingly, via his semi-fictional fantastic hero) analyzed the ultimate purpose of man, which Brownson (1854: 82) through the voice of the spirit rapper calls a "glorious secret" and which namely coincides with one of the fundaments of romantic doctrine: the eternal quest for happiness, eternal progress, eternal evolution / growth, in the paradoxical context of permanent postponement of the total "possession" of the final purpose--this is maybe the best definition of the golden ratio as the spiral number for ever pulsating in the rhythm of perpetually advancing life:
"That is the glorious secret, my dear friend. The end of man is not the possession, but the pursuit, of happiness, or rather eternal progress and growth. By the fact that the pain, the want, the aching void, remains eternally, there is and must be eternal activity, therefore eternal development and progress of humanity." (The spirit rapper, chap. VII; 1854: 82; 1884ix: 50)
By the fact that the purpose is never fully achieved, the pain remains eternal, and so "eternal activity" is generated, that is humankind's life and permanent evolution. Blake had had a similar idea when he observed that the world is formed of two universal types: the "Devourer" (the "aching void") and the "Prolific" ("eternal activity")--in a context in which "Without Contraries is no progression" (cf. The marriage of Heaven and Hell 3; Blake 1976: 149):
Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains; but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole. / But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, received the excess of his delights. / Some will say: "Is not God alone the Prolific?" I answer: "God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men." / These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies: whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence. / Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two. (The marriage of Heaven and Hell 3; Blake 1976: 155)
In Blake's equation above, the war between the Devourer and the Prolific must be eternal, otherwise human existence enters an extinction course; religion, by trying to reconcile the two types, favours the extinction of the human race. Thus, it follows that in Brownson's thought the aching void and the eternal activity are the two necessary dynamic, ontological poles of what we call the pendulum of history.
In this context, Brownson observed that tyranny, repression and constraint reign everywhere in human society: the Church tyrannizes the state; the state tyrannizes man and society; man and society tyrannize the woman, transforming her into a puppet / toy or into a slave. The solution suggested by the spirit rapper, which must be enforced by the world's reformers--whose purpose should be "unbounded liberty"--, is indeed among the most radical: the destruction of the vast system of tyranny by the emancipation of the State from the fetters of the Church (the separation of religion from politics: "divorcing religion from politics"), man's and society's emancipation from their bondage to the State (at this point Brownson draws quite close to H. D. Thoreau's essential thought), woman's emancipation from man's and society's domination (here one can identify in the spirit rapper's thought the germs of eco-critical, eco-feminist agenda). In short, the overthrow of all governments, which should accompany the process of "democratizing the church and society." It should be noted in this regard that Brownson mentioned that Christ was called "the first democrat," and Christianity--a "democracy" (The spirit rapper, chap. XIV; Brownson 1854: 215; 1884ix: 127), although it was initially only an "underground" movement.
Here are the detailed conniving thoughts of the spirit rapper on the total reformation of mankind from its deepest foundations--this reform, which in reality aspires to demolish the Christian Church, politics and civil society altogether, should (in the spirit rapper's plan) be attempted first by keeping the illusion that what is desired is only a separation of "religion from politics" and a democratization of church and society at large:
World-Reform, as I had sketched it to myself, had for its object unbounded liberty, and was to be accomplished, on the one hand, by the overthrow of all existing governments, and the complete disruption of all political and civil society; and on the other, by the total demolition of the Christian Church, and extirpation of the Christian religion. Of course it would not do to avow all this, for if I did, I should defeat my own purposes. Faith still lurked in many a heart; and the persuasion was very general, that some kind of government, some kind of political, civil, and even moral restraint was very generally entertained, even by those whom I must make my accomplices, and use as my tools. It was necessary to keep one's own counsel, or to confide it to the smallest number possible. To the world it would do to avow only the design of divorcing religion from politics, and of democratizing the church and society. This might be avowed without shocking the public at large. For this the public mind was in a measure prepared. A pious priest could be persuaded to advocate ecclesiastical democracy, as we have seen in the work of the excellent Rosmini, in the Five Wounds of the Church. (The spirit rapper, chap. XI; 1854: 168-169; 1884ix: 101)
In this sense, the French Revolution, with its "revolutionary madness," is presented by the spirit rapper as a mesmeric world-reform, in which vast invisible spirit forces and powerful mesmerists had been at work--it was Satan who seemed to have been unbound then, and not Prometheus, since all hell indeed broke loose:
Weishaupt, Mesmer, Saint-Martin, and Cagliostro, did far more to produce the revolutions and convulsions of European society at the close of that century, than was done by Voltaire, Rousseau, D'Alembert, Diderot, Mirabeau, and their associates. These men had no doubt a bad influence, but it was limited and feeble. It was not they who stirred up all classes, produced that revolutionary madness, that wild ungovernable fury of the people which we everywhere witnessed, and nowhere more than in Paris, the politest and most humane city in the world. The masses were possessed, they were whirled aloft, were driven hither and thither, and onward in the terrible work of demolition, by a mysterious power they did not comprehend, and by a force they were unable, having once yielded to it, to resist. You feel this in reading the history of those terrible events. It seems to you that Satan was unbound, and hell let loose. The historians of that old French Revolution, such as Mignet, Thiers, Lamartine, Carlyle, all feel that there was something fatal in it, and have been led, at least all except the last, to defend it on the ground of fatalism. The Royalist and Catholic historians, who oppose it, seem never to seize its spirit. (The spirit rapper, chap. XI; 1854: 160-161)
But the spirit rapper believes that the forces of evil were not the only ones active in that revolution; he implies that many virtuous people, seized by the great spiritual / mesmeric / hypnotic contagion, had been possessed by high spirits, being stirred aflame to fight for the right cause of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"--this is what happened in 1789, and something rather similar occurred in 1848:
Tell me not that all these revolutionists were incarnate devils; that they cooly, and deliberately, from ordinary human motives and influences, planned and carried out their revolutionary enterprise. There were in their ranks men of the highest intelligence, the purest virtue, and the humanest feelings; men, all of whose antecedents, whose tendencies, whose studies, professions, interests, and, I may say, convictions, placed them in the ranks of the conservatives, were carried away by an invisible force, and shouted out, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and hurled the brand of the incendiary at temple, palace, and castle, which sheltered them, as if it was not they who did it, but a spirit that possessed them. Men caught the infection, they knew not how, they knew not when, they knew not where. The revolutionary spirit seemed to float in the air, as it undoubtedly did. / Without Weishaupt, Mesmer, Saint-Martin, Cagliostro, you can never explain the revolution of 1789, and without me and my accomplices you can just as little explain those of 1848. There was at work in the former a power that the wits ridiculed, that science denied, philosophy disproved, and the clergy hardly dared assert. There was there the mighty power, whatever it be, which it is said once dared dispute the empire of heaven with the Omnipotent, and which all ages have called Satan, whether it is to be called evil with the Christian, or good with the philanthropist, a person with the believer, or a primitive and elemental force with the mesmerist. France, Europe was mesmerized. So was it again in 1848, though with less terrible external convulsions. (The spirit rapper, chap. XI; 1854: 162-163)
In reforming the world, Brownson emphasizes that a certain degree of constraint and governance should be maintained and this only in order to keep our appetite, passions and desires within natural limits, and in order to protect peace and orderliness in the community. In this regard, Brownson moves in the direction in which later Irving Babbitt was to move in matters of aesthetics, ethics and general philosophy. Virtue was thus for Brownson to be found in free action, not in non-action, the latter being the definition of death as atonement for sins. The curse of the world is therefore considered as being precisely the fact that human society was too much governed, when in fact the world cannot be reformed by the mediation of governments: the best governments are those that do not govern at all.
Brownson is thus one of the most radical American thinkers when he suggests, by agency of different voices in The spirit rapper, that mankind should get rid of any governments whatsoever, should destroy the Church and the State, should demolish religion and politics, should exterminate priests and politicians, and so bring back the state of affairs in old Judea (The spirit rapper, chap. VIII; 1854: 107; 1884ix: 65), in which Israel had no king and each man did what seemed right to him (this is a theme Brownson insistently mentions over and over). Monarchy must be overthrown because it supports religion (that kind of religion which attempted to reconcile the Devourer with the Prolific: such reconciliation, if it succeeded, would mean, from Blake's perspective, the certain extinction of the human race), and religion must be annihilated because it supports monarchy and so enforces constraints. Significantly, the radicalism of Brownson's battles against constraint and oppression reminds us of the radical-prophetic attitude of William Blake, who proclaimed among others also that "There is no Natural Religion."
Likewise, Brownson suggested the abolishment of all private hereditary properties and their equal distribution to the members of the community, the establishment of a "universal democracy" and of a "purely democratic religion" (The Spirit Rapper, chap. IX; Brownson 1854: 119; 1884ix: 71), as necessary stages for starting a "thoroughgoing democratic revolution" (The Spirit Rapper, chap. VIII; Brownson 1854: 107; 1884ix: 65). This was to inexorably lead to the outbreak of a "thorough and radical revolution in religion" (Brownson 1854: 108), both having the potential to function by a harmonious combination of negatory and positive ideas aimed at breaking the chains of tyranny ("Break the fetters which now bind the people, emancipate them from their present masters") and at "re-organiz[ing] society, religion, and politics" (Brownson 1854: 108).
In this context, a conclusion becomes imminent for Brownson: when people have no religion anymore, they find refuge in superstition, and when they cease adoring God, they begin to worship the devil, defined as "the father of ignorance, credulity, and superstition, no less than of false science, infidelity, and irreligion." (The spirit rapper, chap. XIX; Brownson 1854: 289; 1884ix: 170) In this sense, "irreligion" is related to skepticism. In other words, "there is a natural religiosity in man" (The spirit rapper, chap. XV; 1854: 227; 1884ix: 134), which is therefore innate, irresistible, inexorable, and which reminds us of Tertullian's crucial tenet according to which man's soul is "naturally Christian" (anima naturaliter christiana).
The hero in Brownson's novel tries to reform the world by the mediation of religion: namely, by establishing a new religion (just as at one point Brownson himself tried), based on mesmerism / spiritism (i.e. "evocation of spirits"; "necromancy" is a variant of spiritism; cf. Spiritism and spiritists, 1869; Brownson 1884ix: 334), by agency of which, for instance, the hero could send orders from a distance, mentally.
A similar idea was later to be embraced in the fantastic novel entitled Die andere Seite / The other side (1909), written by the "dark" romantic Alfred Kubin (1877-1959). In this regard, Brownson's hero is somewhat an anticipation of Kubin's Patera as a tyrant figure who, like Brownson's hero mesmerist, uses mental powers to subjugate people (for details on this topic, see Stroe 2007). On the reality of "spirital" phenomena, Brownson commented the following:
We have examined with some care the so-called spirit-manifestations which the spiritists relate, and we have come, according to our best reason, to the conclusion that much in them is trickery, mere jugglery; that much is explicable on natural principles, or is to be classed with well-known morbid or abnormal affections of human nature; but, after all abatements, that there is a residuum inexplicable without the recognition of a superhuman intelligence and force. (Spiritism and spiritists, 1869; Brownson 1884ix: 335)
He made reference to trickery, delusion, hallucination and the pathological with regard to spiritism also in the novel:
Received science rejects every thing of the sort, for it recognizes no invisible world, believes in neither angel nor spirit, and explains every thing on natural principles. Even theologians have to a great extent forgotten the terrible influence, in times past, of demonic agencies, and, if they do not absolutely reject the instances recorded in the Bible, they are disposed to treat all other cases as humbuggery, knavery, deception, or to class them with epilepsy, insanity, hallucination, and other diseases to which we are subject, and to dismiss them, when they cannot be denied, with the physicians, under the heads of mania, monomania, nymphomania, demonopathy, &c. (The spirit rapper; Brownson 1854: 136)
It is, however, quite clear, as is evident from the essay entitled Spiritism and spiritists (1869), that Brownson believed in the existence of a spiritual world and in the reality of superhuman agencies that humans are incapable of perceiving. Nevertheless, as in the novel, in this essay Brownson identifies the origin of spiritism in satanism, in addition he now stating that Mormonism and feminism are the two main branches of spiritism (see also Schlesinger 1939: 226):
Indeed, Mormonism is only one form and the most strictly organized form, of contemporary spiritism, and woman's-rightism is only another product of the same shop, though doubtless many of the women carried away by it are pure-minded and chaste. But the leaders are spiritists or intimately connected with them. The animus of the woman-movement is hostility to the marriage law, and the cares and drudgery of maternity and home life. It threatens to be not the least of the corrupting and dangerous forms of spiritism. (Spiritism and spiritists, 1869; Brownson 1884ix: 346)
To amplify in his readers a dread of contemporary spiritism, Brownson (1884ix: 346) quotes a passage in Miles Grant's Spiritualism unveiled, and shown to be the work of demons, in which the illusion-generating, hallucinatory nature of spiritism is attacked:
Thousands and millions are already his deluded victims, and, like a terrible tornado, he is sweeping with destruction on every side. Occasionally we hear a warning voice from one who has escaped from his power, like a mariner from the sinking wreck; but most, after they once get into the Spiritualist "circle," are like the boatman under the control of the terrible whirlpool on the coast of Norway,--destruction is sure. (Grant 1866: 37-38)
After offering a few more quotations, the American philosopher concludes that spiritism as a satanic doctrine (a "satanic invasion"; Brownson 1884ix: 100, 165, 178, 181, 190, 191, 192, 193, 196, 201, 211, 213, 214, 340, 342, 350, 351, 365) had its beginnings in 1847 with the Fox sisters:
[I]t is sufficient to prove to all, not under the delusion [of spiritism], that spiritism is of satanic origin, and to be eschewed by all who wish to remain morally sane, and to lead honest and upright lives. We are not disposed to be alarmists, and, like the majority of our countrymen, are more likely to err on the side of optimism than of pessimism; but we cannot contemplate the rapid spread of spiritism since 1847, when it began with the Fox girls, without feeling that a really great danger threatens the modern world, and that there is ample reason for all who do not wish to see demon-worship supplanting the worship of God throughout the land, to be on their guard. (Spiritism and spiritists, 1869; Brownson 1884ix: 348)
In this sense, significantly, the main protagonist in the famous X-Files series, Fox Mulder, no doubt takes his name from the Fox family, who really lived in Rochester (New York) during the 19th century.
Brownson next invokes again the authority of Miles Grant, in order to show that spiritism became a worldwide movement in a very short time (as in his novel), thus ending up by deeply pervading all walks of life:
Mr. Grant, who seems to be well informed on the subject, tells us that since that period [of the Fox girls], spiritism "has become worldwide in its influence, numbering among its ardent supporters many of the first men and women of both continents. Ministers, Doctors, Lawyers, Judges, Congressmen, Governors, Presidents, Queens, Kings, and Emperors, of all religions, are bowing to its influence, and showing their sympathy with its teachings." (Brownson 1884ix: 348-349; cf. Grant 1866: 1)
Grant reveals--in the statements that follow precisely those cited above by Brownson --the key reasons as to why spiritism had had such sweeping, strong and irresistible influence in the modern world--namely, it indiscriminately addresses all of mankind, announcing the universality of spirit and of man:
No other system of religion ever made so great progress in so short a time, or ever had a better prospect of bringing the whole world into its embrace. Its doors are open for Catholics and Protestants, Infidels and Atheists, the lewd and the virtuous, Mohammedans, Jews, and Pagans,--all are invited, all are welcome to this "broad church." / Scores of ministers have left their churches to preach this "new gospel of Spiritualism," as it is termed. (Grant 1866: 1-2)
To show how spiritism manages to have such a versatile nature, Brownson lays stress on Satan's vast powers to create illusions, masks, falsehoods, misrepresentations, himself being in darkness a master of disguise, but having no powers under light:
[T]he satanic origin and character of the so-called spirit-manifestations are widely suspected, and are beginning to be exposed. Satan is powerless in the open day. He is never dangerous when seen and known to be Satan. He must always disguise himself as an angel of light, and appear as the defender of some cause which, in its time and place, is good, but, mistimed and misplaced, is evil. He has done wonders in our day as a philanthropist, and met with marvellous success as a humanitarian, and will, perhaps, meet with more still as the champion of free love and women's rights. But he has no power over the elect, and, though he may besiege the virtuous and the holy, he can captivate only the children of disobedience, who are already the victims of their own pride, vanity, lust, or unbelief. (Spiritism and spiritists, 1869; Brownson 1884ix: 350)
There is in this connection no doubt that the "spirital" belief in invisible forces is the main concern in Brownson's novel. The spirit rapper thus starts his spiritistic revolution after a quite interesting event: one spirit tells him that he "was not a good medium" himself, because he "held the spirits in awe." In this sense, the explanation as to why the spirit rapper was not a good medium is quite simple: he was no medium at all, instead he was a mesmerizer. We remember that Blavatsky (1877i: 109) presented the ABC of spiritism as consisting of the rudimentary knowledge that there are two types of spirital practicians: the active mesmerists, and the passive mediums. The spirit concludes in his communication with the spirit rapper the following:
[Y]ou must find us other mediums; we cannot speak freely with you. (Brownson 1854: 135)
VIII. Enter the Fox sisters: Rappo-Mania unbound
This situation leads to the spirit rapper diverting the spirits to the Fox family, because he identifies or anticipates in the young Fox sisters potentially excellent mediums they thus soon become famous as the initiators of the new movement known as spiritism / mesmerism:
Close by me lived the Fox family. There were three sisters; one was married, and the other two were simple, honest-minded young girls, one fifteen, the other thirteen. As I passed by their house, I saw them in the yard. I greeted them, and offered them some flowers which I held in my hand. The youngest took them, thanked me with a smile, and I pursued my walk. These were the since world-renowned Misses Fox. In a short time afterwards they began to be startled by strange, mysterious knockings, which they could not account for, and which greatly annoyed them. It is not by any means my intention to follow these girls, in their course since, with whom I have had very little direct communication; but I owe it to them and to the public to say, that they were simple-minded, honest girls, utterly incapable of inventing any thing like these knockings, or of playing any trick upon the public. The knockings were and are as much a mystery for them as for others, and they honestly believe that through them actual communication is held with the spirits of the departed. (The spirit rapper; Brownson 1854: 135)
Brownson refers to the Fox sisters in his essay entitled Spiritism and spiritists (1869), emphasizing the extreme precariousness and incapacity of science when it comes to dealing with invisible realities whose genuine existence cannot be denied merely on whim or disbelief:
Contemporary science, indeed, or what passes for science, has shown great ineptness before the alleged spirit-manifestations; and its professors have, during the twenty years and over since the Fox girls began to attract public attention and curiosity, neither been able to disprove the alleged facts, nor to explain their origin and cause; but this is because contemporary science recognizes no invisible existences, and no intelligences above or separate from the human, and because it is not possible to explain their production or appearance by any of the unintelligible forces of nature. To deny their existence is, we think, impossible without discrediting all human testimony; to regard them as jugglery, or as the result of trickery practised by the mediums and those associated with them, seems to us equally impossible. (Brownson 1884ix: 333-334)
Arthur Conan Doyle (1926i) wrote a full chapter on the Fox sisters (Margaretta Fox-Kane, Kate Fox-Jencken and Leah Underhill), in which he described the impotant contribution to the new cult brought by them as "spiritual pioneers," emphasizing that the famous attack on spiritualism that Margaret Fox herself at one time launched (discarding the phenomenon as fraud and delusion; she later retracted, reasserting that spiritism is a genuine phenomenon) was caused mainly by Leah's attempts to separate Margaret (her sister) from her two children on account that "the mother's influence was not for good." (Doyle 1926i: 102) The reasons behind such an accusation were clear, as explained by Doyle (1926i: 87, 118, 309, 93): spiritualism caused in its proponents a "degeneration in mind and character," a "degeneration of the moral and psychic powers," mediumship being a "soul-destroying profession." According to Doyle, Kate Fox's mediumship comprized the following psychic abilities:
[R]aps [or rappings] (often of great power), spirit lights, direct writing, and the appearance of materialized hands. Full form materializations, which had been an occasional feature of her sittings in America, were rare with her in England. On a number of occasions objects in the seance-room were moved by spirit agency, and in some cases brought from another room. [...] [According to Professor William Crookes, during a seance with Kate Fox,] "[a] luminous hand came down from the upper part of the room, and after hovering near me for a few seconds, took the pencil from my hand, rapidly wrote on a sheet of paper, threw the pencil down, and then rose over our heads, gradually fading into darkness." (Doyle 1926i: 97-98)
Such accounts were the rage in the second half of the 19th century, and Brownson was so sensitive to them as to prompt him to write a whole novel. The psychic ability known as "raps" or "rappings"--which is the starting point in Brownson's novel--was explained by Charles Richet as being based on "ectoplasm," i.e. an invisible substance shaped by the medium into "rods" or "protrusions" from his own person which are emanated by pulsation and which "conduct energy in such a fashion as to make sounds and strike blows at a distance." (cf. Doyle 1926i: 113) The existence of ectoplasm Doyle (1926i: 113) hopes will be proved by "the science of the future"; just as lack of knowledge regarding the dangerous nature of X-rays led the "martyrs for science" to tragedies like "loss of fingers and hands," so too the spiritual pioneers "injured themselves in forcing the gates of knowledge." (Doyle 1926i: 117)
In this connection, Doyle (1926i: 111) quoted an important passage in Leah Underhill's book entitled The missing link in modern spiritualism (1885), which sheds light on the Fox sisters' story. For its crucial relevance as regards Brownson's novel, we cite it here more fully:
Let me here emphasize the fact that the general feeling of our family, of all of us, including Calvin Brown, who was virtually one of us, was strongly adverse to all this strange and uncanny thing. We regarded it as a great misfortune, as it was an affliction, which had fallen upon us; how, whence or why, we knew not. The influence of the surrounding opinion of neighbors, and the country round about, reacted upon us in conformation of our own natural and educational impressions, that the whole thing was of evil origin, unnatural, perplexing, and tormenting; while its unpopularity tended to cast a painful shadow upon us. We resisted it, struggled against it, and constantly and earnestly prayed for deliverance from it, even while a strange fascination attached to these marvellous manifestations thus forced upon us, against our will, by invisible agencies and agents whom we could neither resist, control, nor understand. If our will, earnest desires and prayers could have prevailed or availed, the whole thing would have ended then and there, and the world outside of our little neighborhood would never have heard more of the Rochester Rappings, or of the unfortunate Fox family. (Underhill 1885: 54-55)
Thus, just as in the real story of the Fox sisters who, through Leah, complained of "invisible agencies and agents whom [they] could neither resist, control, nor understand," the spirit rapper in Brownson's novel describes how the unsuspecting, naive and innocent Fox sisters, without their knowledge, become the instruments of his will, namely to unwittingly spread "Rappo-Mania" (see Leah's reference to "the Rochester Rappings") throughout the world, by the simple act of first handing over a bunch of flowers to the said sisters (as it were, this insignificant event triggers "butterfly effects" in a cascade), after which the spirits conversing with the spirit rapper are directed towards the Fox sisters, who become the world leaders of the new movement:
It is no wonder that no kind, considerate friend was found to take these poor Fox girls by the hand, and attempt to rescue them from their dangerous state. The great mass of those who could have done so, either paid no attention at all to the mysterious phenomena asserted, or looked upon the whole matter as mere humbug. It was easier to crack a joke at the expense of spirit-rappers, than it was to investigate the facts alleged, or to offer the true and proper explanation. I had foreseen that it would be so, or at least, had foreseen that they, whose duty it is to watch over the interests of religion and morals, were unprepared to meet the phenomena with success; that they would at first deny and laugh, and then vituperate and denounce, but would hardly understand and explain till too late, or till immense mischief had been done. (The spirit rapper; Brownson 1854: 137)
Here is how the spirit rapper proudly describes the spreading of the spiritistic movement like some infectious disease, by its swiftness and multi-narrative frame structure reminding us of the "mental" contagion--brilliantly depicted by Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy--that is triggered in the town of Strasbourg when a man with an unusually large nose arrives riding a puny mule:
Even now the first stage is hardly passed, and the movement I commenced by a present of flowers to these simple girls has extended over the whole Union, invaded Great Britain, penetrated France in all directions, carried captive all Scandinavia and a large part of Germany, and is finding its way into the Italian Peninsula. There are some three hundred circles or clubs in the city of Philadelphia alone, and the Spiritualists, as they call themselves, count nearly a million of believers in our own country. Table-turning, necromancy, divination becomes a religion with some, and an amusement with others. The infection seizes all classes, ministers of religion, lawyers, physicians, judges, comedians, rich and poor, learned and unlearned. The movement has its quarterly, monthly, and weekly journals, some of them conducted with great ability, and the spirits, through the writing mediums, have already furnished it a very considerable library,--yet hardly a serious effort has as yet been made in this country to comprehend or arrest it. It is making sad havoc with religion, breaking up churches, taking its victims from all denominations, with stern impartiality; and yet the great body of those not under its influence merely deny, laugh, or cry out, "humbug!" "delusion!" Delusion it is. (The spirit rapper; Brownson 1854: 138)
Here is Sterne at his best describing the force of fascination that the uncommon (in this case, an oversized nose) has over human beings anywhere in the world:
The stranger had not got half a league on his way towards Frankfort before all the city of Strasburg was in an uproar about his nose. The Compline bells were just ringing to call the Strasburghers to their devotions, and shut up the duties of the day in prayer:--no soul in all Strasburg heard 'em--the city was like a swarm of bees--men, women, and children, (the Compline bells tinkling all the time) flying here and there--in at one door, out at another-this way and that way--long ways and cross ways--up one street, down another street--in at this alley, out of that--did you see it? did you see it? did you see it? O! did you see it?--who saw it? who did see it? for mercy's sake, who saw it? / Alack o'day! I was at vespers!--I was washing, I was starching, I was scouring, I was quilting--God help me! I never saw it--I never touch'd it!--would I had been a centinel, a bandy-legg'd drummer, a trumpeter, a trumpeter's wife, was the general cry and lamentation in every street and corner in Strasburg. [...] Let it suffice to say, that the riot and disorder it occasioned in the Strasburgers' fantasies was so general--such an overpowering mastership had it got of all the faculties of the Strasburgers' minds--so many strange things, with equal confidence on all sides, & with equal eloquence in all places, were spoken and sworn to concerning it, that turned the whole stream of all discourse and wonder towards it--every soul, good and bad--rich and poor--learned and unlearned--doctor and student--mistress and maid--gentle and simple--nun's flesh and woman's flesh, in Strasburg spent their time in hearing tidings about it--every eye in Strasburg languished to see it--every finger--every thumb in Strasburg burned to touch it. (Tristram Shandy; Sterne 1991ii: 11-12, 15-16)
Just as in The spirit rapper spiritism, in Slawkenbergius's Tale the nose exerts a preternatural power of fascination, towards it all of human life gravitating as if towards a cosmic luminous massive body like the sun. Furthermore, the spirit rapper comments the following on the matter of "delusion," making it clear that he is the "magnetizing" master puppeteer behind the scenes, whose will is obeyed without an inkling from his "mental" victims--thus the spirit rapper is like a "dark" sun spreading the delusion or illusion of "Rappo-Mania":
Delusion it is. I know it now, but not in their sense. The public never suspected me of having had any hand in producing the Rappo-Mania; and the Fox girls, even to this day, suspect no connection between the flowers I gave them and the mysterious knockings which they heard; and nobody has supposed Andrew Jackson Davis, the most distinguished of the American mediums, of having any relations with me. He does not suspect it himself, yet he has been more than once magnetized by me, and it has been in obedience to my will that he has made his revelations. The public have never connected my name with the movement, and even Priscilla has never known my full share in it. I have had my instruments, blind instruments, in all civilized countries, with whom I have worked, and yet but few of them have known me, or seen me. (The spirit rapper; Brownson 1854: 138-139)
IX. Psycho-magnetism and the mental enslavement of mankind
Brownson's hero thus psychically enslaves many unsuspecting people, and especially a woman--Priscilla, who becomes indispensable for him and his plans. His final goal is to enslave mentally all of mankind. However, when he and Priscilla come back home from a long trip through Europe, he finds none of his family alive anymore (his mother and sister die while he is away). He falls into a deep depression, and as a consequence thereof decides to free Priscilla and so to allow her to turn back to her husband, who, wishing to protect his wife against the mesmeric spells generated by the spirit rapper, was to cause the latter an almost deadly wound. These two episodes (the loss of family and the wound) reveal the spirit rapper's all too human weaknesses: he is no god figure.
However, while in Europe, the hero (with Priscilla's assistance) establishes contact "knots" with "mesmerizable" or already "mesmerized" people, to whom he was thus to be able to mentally send his projects and plans of reforming the world. Thus, besides the Fox sisters, who are in charge with "spiritual communications," he selects also powerful mediums such as Andrew Jackson Davis--who is in charge with "mesmeric revelations"--in order to work out his schemes (cf. Brownson 1854: 139, 230; see also Schlesinger 1939: 224).
Models of world "mesmerizers" the hero sees in the following: 1) Mohammed, who was nevertheless wrong when founding his religion in the Koran as a sacred immutable text, because such a text could not adapt to the rhythm of society's evolution and progress; 2) Swedenborg; 3) Joe (Joseph) Smith. The latter two were, however, also both wrong in not taking sufficient measures for adapting their religion to "the progressiveness of the race" (The spirit rapper, chap. XV; Brownson 1854: 229; 1884ix: 136). Swedenborg, with his church of the New Jerusalem, is, notwithstanding, taken as a starting point in the elaboration of the model, all the while omitting the defects, among these the most important being the too strict and too rigid church organization.
Brownson's spirit rapper establishes a method of communication with the world of spirits, by "spiritual telegraphing" (The spirit rapper, chap. XV; Brownson 1854: 231; 1884ix: 137). As can be seen, itself the name of this "method" combines into a single notion a term characteristic for religion (spiritual) and one specifically referring to what--at the time when Brownson wrote his novel--was one of the newest inventions: the electric telegraph, developed in 1837 (the word "telegraph" was coined in 1792 from Greek: tele = "far"; and graphein = "to write"), and associated with the Second Scientific Revolution (ca. 1800-1950) and the First Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). In Arnold Toynbee's acceptation, the Industrial Revolution referred to Britain's industrial development between 1760-1840, but historians observed that there is evidence for the existence of a "New" (Second) Industrial Revolution later in the 19th century and in the 20th century, howsoever overlapping with the "Old" (First) Industrial Revolution (cf. The Industrial Revolution; The new Encyclopaedia Britannica). Brownson must have been fascinated by the rapid spread of the telegraph throughout the world, in this sense being well known that telegraph lines were rapidly established across North America and Europe during the 1840s, later these networks being extended to Africa, Asia and Australia to form by the end of the 19th century a world-wide crisscrossing web of communication, even traversing the Atlantic Ocean (cf. The new Encyclopaedia Britannica).
In our novel, the spirit rapper and his followers manage--in a period of two years--to found three hundred spiritual circles and clubs in Philadelphia, and over half a million of believers are converted throughout the United States. Here it is obvious that Brownson alluded to the Transcendental Club in Boston to whose foundation he contributed, but later lost interest and faith in its approaches.
The mesmeric "epidemic" (The spirit rapper, chap. XV; Brownson 1854: 231; 1884ix: 137) spreads rapidly towards the north of England and Wales, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the north and center of Germany, France and even Rome.
Two principles are essential for mesmerism: 1) The soul's immortality. 2) Faith in the invisible world of spirits. The first principle is different from the equivalent in Christian doctrine which states not exactly the soul's immortality--although this is implied--, but the death and resurrection of the body in a body-soul unity which is indivisible. The second principle is a foundation both of Swedenborgianism and of romanticism in Novalis's acceptation.
The initial purpose of the spirit rapper reminds us of Saul: suppressing Christianity (again, Brownson himself had demanded the demolishing of Christianity in an article published in Review, in 1840). Once the success of this epoch-making event was to be secured, a domino effect would set in: the fall of Christianity would be followed by the fall of the Church, then the collapse of monarchy, of aristocracy, of republicanism, of all the forms of civil government, and the effect would be the ascent of "universal freedom" (Brownson 1854: 238) and infinite "eternal progression" (The spirit rapper, chap. XV; Brownson 1854: 236, 238, 239, 241; 1884ix: 141).
The paradox emphasized by Brownson is the following: although the purpose of the hero (the spirit rapper) is the suppression of Christianity by the agency of mesmerism (animal magnetism), owing to the fact that the latter induces faith in the reality of the world of spirits, the rise of mesmerism will trigger the collapse of materialism (which dominated in the 19th century as an echo of the Enlightenment that promoted the First Scientific Revolution, having taken place by and large between 1600/1650-1800), this process being a crucial step precisely towards gaining an unshakable faith in Christ and Christian spirituality. Similarly, the tendency of modern science was to destroy any trace of religious belief, but, because the people devoid of any kind of religion necessarily relapsed into superstition, science, as a consequence, favored precisely the evil it desired to eliminate: superstition (defined as dread of--and belief in--the influence of the dead over the living: "a belief in, and a dread of, the influence of the departed on the living"; The spirit rapper, chap. XXII; Brownson 1854: 325; 1884ix: 190), which in turn undermined the foundations of science:
The tendency of modern science is to destroy all religious faith, and therefore to promote, indirectly, the very evil it proposes to cure [namely, superstition]. (The spirit rapper, chap. XXII; Brownson 1854: 327; 1884ix: 191)
X. Mark Twain's No. 44 or Mysterious Stranger: mirrors and illusions
In other words, caught in an absolute dualism, which is mutually negatory, being made up of the extremes of the pendulum of history which negate one another (spirit versus matter), man loses the foundations of knowledge, both the spiritual and the materialistic: namely, alternately, cyclically, ad infinitum (the case invoked by Brownson above); or, even more seriously, simultaneously. The latter case leads to dramas like the extreme post-modernism, which came to deny not only a spiritual basis of knowledge, but also a material basis: there is no truth, so that reality can have no basis whatsoever.
This boils down, practically, to stating that reality is just a dream, an illusion--just as Mark Twain had stated through his hero called No. 44 (Number 44, New Series 864,962), Forty-four, and Satan (or Quarante-quatre), in the famous novellas entitled No. 44, The mysterious stranger; Schoolhouse Hill and The chronicle of young Satan, respectively. These three characters in Mark Twain's works are no doubt one and the same, a kind of master alter ego of Twain himself. The enigma of Number 44 in The mysterious stranger series probably lies in the following interesting facts:
1) The name "Twain" means "two," the dyad, two of the same kind (1| 1), even though it is one, a unity (the person). This leads to the following paradoxical equation: (1) = (1|1) = (2). That is: the person that is one, in order to know itself, must be mirrored against itself. The real person knows itself for ever only in the guise of its mirrored image. In this sense, when he looks at himself in a mirror, man is privileged to recognize immediately that what he sees is a reflected image of himself. Cats and other animals seem to not possess that gift.
In the expression (1| 1), the second "1" is the mirrored image or "visible double" of the first "1." This "visible double" is present already in the one (the person) by the self-referential value of the name by which the person is designated: (1) = (2). So Twain contains in himself a mirrored "visible double" (a mirrored image) of himself. This seems to be what Twain understood by referring to his name as being "two."
2) Twain referred to his (invisible/spiritual) "double" (alter ego) as "Double-Twain":
(1|1) [|.sub.i] (1|1) = (2) [|.sub.i] (2) = (2)+(2) = 4.
Thus, in the expression (1| 1), the operator "|" signifies a physical mirror, while in the expression (1|1) [|.sub.i] (1| 1), the operator "[|.sub.i]" signifies an individual spiritual mirror, by whose agency the spiritual double of a person becomes visible. Here are Twain's remarks:
I am Twain, which is two, my Double is Double-Twain, which is four more; four and two are six; two from six leaves four. It is very sad. (A Mystery, 1868, letter addressed to "Eds. Herald"; cf. Twain 2005: 473)
Gibson (2005: 473) concluded that "in a punning non-mathematical sense, 44 might be Twain twice doubled." That may well be, in the sense of 44 being the "Double" of "Double-Twain." Thus, 44 seems to be a kind of "Master Double" of Twain, as it were.
Twain seems to have thus wanted to emphasize the double remove away from phenomenal reality of the transcendental reality of doubles. This means that Twain may have meant number 44 as number 4 ("Double-Twain" = the individual spiritual self of Twain) doubled again, i.e. mirrored again in another, perhaps deeper transcendental mirror, by whose agency he means to make observable the universal "Double" of the individual "Double-Twain" (= the transcendental universal self of Twain). Number 44 can thus be read as follows:
44 = 4 [|.sub.u] 4 = (2 X 2) [|.sub.u] (2 X 2) = (1|1) [|.sub.i] (1|1) [|.sub.u] (1|1) [|.sub.i] (1|1)
Twain seems therefore to have played here with the notion of unity and multiplicity, and with how the latter can be created from the initial unity by using first one mirror, then several mirrors of various natures (physical or spiritual, individual or universal, local or general). As a person, Twain saw in himself the unity needed for the creation of multiplicity; his name, given its meaning, was the perfect name for a person getting to know itself by looking into a mirror. However, Twain knew that to multiply unity into infinity one needed two mirrors at least. With number 44 this is precisely what he seems to have tried to do:
1) Twain = (1|1) = 2--one mirror, seeing oneself in a physical mirror.
2) Double-Twain = (111) [|.sub.i] (1|1) = 4--two mirrors, one physical, one individual spiritual: seeing oneself in a physical mirror: (1| 1); and seeing one's spiritual alter ego by looking in an individual spiritual mirror (the operator "[|.sub.i]"). Seeing one's soul as the double, the ghost: (1|1) [|.sub.i] (1|1).
3) Double(Double-Twain) = 44 = 4 [|.sub.u] 4 = (111) [|.sub.i] (111) [|.sub.u] (111) [|.sub.i] (111)--the same mirrors as before, to which is added a universal spiritual mirror (the operator "[|.sub.u]"): seeing the totality of [oneself and one's alter ego].
If this interpretation derived from Gibson (2005: 473) is correct, then through number 44 Twain may have alluded to the deep mystery of reality as an interplay of two faces with multiplex dimensions / levels / resolutions, all embedded in one another, and mirrored in each other, potentially ad infinitum:
1.1) Physical Individual Truth. 2.1) Mirrored Illusion of Physical Individual Truth. Physical mirror. Operator: |
1.2) Spiritual Individual Truth. 2.2) Mirrored Illusion of Spiritual Individual Truth. Spiritual individual mirror. Operator: [|.sub.i]
1.3) Spiritual Universal Truth. 2.3) Mirrored Illusion of Spiritual Universal Truth. Spiritual universal mirror. Operator: [|.sub.u]
It would appear that from this scheme of thought a function is revealed for illusion: it is the only reality that humans have access to in reality (the masks that Edward Harrison--1985, 2003--talks about; see infra), and this is so for a good reason, namely protecting reality from the powers of destruction. From this perspective, illusion thus seems to play the role of a buffer zone between the destructive agents and the reality targeted by their destructive actions.
What is needed for creation, on the other hand, is only one truth, one initial true universal unity (the matrix unity). Two mirrors will multiply it infinitely. The two orders of reality thus born (the universal and the particular) will resemble even indistinguishably each other, and yet they will definitely not be the same. Twain surely understood this.
The expression above, (4 [|.sub.u] 4), can be written as ([4.sub.1] [|.sub.u] [4.sub.2]) or ([4.sub.2] [|.sub.u] [4.sub.1]), as encoded in number /44/. Here, ([4.sub.1]) may be the expression of truth (the initial true universal transcendental unity), while ([4.sub.2]) may be the expression of the mirrored universal illusion (the universal phenomenal unity, the veil of Maya), or vice versa.
([4.sub.1] [|.sub.u] [4.sub.2]) or ([4.sub.2] [|.sub.u] [4.sub.1]) may thus express the universal mirroring relationship between the universal transcendental truth and the universal phenomenal truth, the first generating the latter: from the noumenon springs the phenomenon.
It is possible for Twain to have had in mind this kind of interplay when he played with the idea of "Double-Twain," realizing that his own name ("Twain") did embed in itself the notion of the "double" (the spiritual other self, the doppelganger).
Twain (2) and his double (2X2=4) give number 6, in Genesis the number of the day when man was created. If one then takes away 2 (i.e. Twain), what remains is number 4, the number of Double-Twain (which, being mirrored, is one remove away from Twain)--hence Twain's sadness. The role of art is to help man distinguish through illusion and see through the intricate labyrinth of mirrors, be they physical or spiritual, local (individual) or universal (matrix), into the core of truth.
That reality is just a dream is just another romantic trope connected with the fear of solipsism that many romantics lived under as a manifestation of extreme skepticism with regard to the human condition. Twain's equation of himself mentioned above makes reference precisely to this kind of solipsistic romantic fear. Number 2 is Twain, it is the reality of the person as manifest in the phenomenal world and getting to know itself by looking in a physical mirror: it is truth, essence, the ideal as manifest in the physical world, therefore as inextricably intertwined with illusion: /2/ thus points to truth-and-illusion fatefully linked together (matter-and-spirit). Number 4 is the double (Double-Twain), the spiritual self that becomes visible when we look in a spiritual mirror, as it were. Number 6 is the number of actual non-ideal reality: Twain and Double-Twain. Number 4 as subtraction of 2 (Twain) from 6 (imperfect reality) is the sad reality of Double-Twain without the real Twain, hence an illusion removed from essence by one or more mirrors.
The spirit rapper as Faustian hero: the natural and the supernatural
Returning to Brownson, lastly, the spirit rapper becomes visibly a Faustian hero as "mighty magician" (The spirit rapper, chap. XXVI; Brownson 1854: 400; 1884ix: 232), when in the end he asks himself the question of his own redemption: how could he be redeemed when by a calculated, cold, rational and conscious act, he willingly agreed to become associated with the nocturnal forces of evil; these refer to possession, to stealing mental freedom from unsuspecting victims--a sort of mental vampirism dealing in absorbing or sending ectoplasmic currents. The spirit rapper remains, however, a hero of romantic derivation: Shelleyan (Frankenstein), Byronian (Manfred), and even Marlovian (Fausus): his lack of fear in front of death, but his fear and doubt in front of what might happen after death. There is a note of optimism in this unfolding of huge religious forces that manifest themselves throughout the life of the hero: his life could become a sort of lighthouse:
My life can serve as a beacon. (The spirit rapper, chap. XXVI; Brownson 1854: 402; 1884ix: 233)
The spirit rapper's life can become an exemplum for spiritual questers, who must not be deceived by the traps and gins that the devils are surely to set in their paths. Namely, for the simplest of reasons: "good is greater than evil," and "love stronger than hell" (The spirit rapper, chap. XXVI; Brownson 1854: 402; 1884ix: 234), two conclusions ending the novel which in fact strengthen Brownson's fundamental conclusions about the Natural (which refers to the sphere of the partial, finitude, incompleteness) and the Supernatural (which refers to totality, infinitude, completeness): these two form an indissoluble complementary unity, in which therefore, from the very initial data of the problem, evil and hell has no way of winning, because it does not comprise completeness, which is contained only by God.
In this respect, Brownson explained the following:
Nature is initial in the Creator's design; and the Christian order, the palingenesia [regeneration / new birth], as St. Paul calls it, is teleological, and fulfills or completes the initial, or order of natural generation. (Religion and science, 1874; Brownson 1883iii: 530)
The consequence is that "there can be no discrepancy or antagonism, in re, between the two orders, and no opposition but that of the part to the whole, the initial to its fulfillment." (Brownson 1883iii: 530) Hence Brownson derives the idea that "[s]cience is what we can know of the two parts of this one whole by reason of our natural faculties," while "[f]aith is what we know analogically of them, in so far as they transcend the reach of reason or the powers we hold from the order of generation, through the medium of supernatural revelation preserved in the written and unwritten tradition of the Word of God handed down to us by the church." (Brownson 1883iii: 530) So, in Brownson's view it would be "a mistake to suppose that science is restricted to the natural order alone," as it would be a mistake "to identify the initial and teleological with the natural and supernatural" (Brownson 1883iii: 530-531), respectively. According to the American thinker, therefore, "Nature is supernatural in both its origin and end, and that it is so is scientifically demonstrable" (Brownson 1883iii: 531):
The supernatural then exists, founds nature herself, sustains it, and is absolutely independent of it, is at once its origin and end. [...] Hence revelation, miracles, the whole order of grace, are as provable, if facts, as any other class of facts, and are in their principle, included in the ideal judgment. (Essay in refutation of atheism, 1873-1874; Brownson 1883ii: 87, 88)
Brownson's point here is the following:
We can know by our natural faculties much that belongs to the supernatural, for the supernatural is to some extent intelligible, while we cannot know by our natural powers all that belongs to the natural order, no small part of which is not only supersensible, but superintelligible. (Religion and science, 1874; Brownson 1883iii: 531)
In other words, Brownson sees in reality--the natural and supernatural--two forms constituting an indissoluble complementary dialectic unity. Or, as he put it (in an interrogative form to be explored), the "so-called supernatural order" is "the distinctively Christian order," "the chief part" of "one grand whole, dialectically united with the natural universe and completing it." (Faith and reason, revelation and science, 1863; Brownson 1883iii: 573)
In this same respect, Brownson (1884ix: 256) drew attention to the fact that "though faith and science can never be in contradiction, yet much that passes for faith may be in contradiction with science, and much that passes for science may be in contradiction with faith." This means that, when we are incapable of drawing clear lines of demarcation "between what is faith and what is only theological opinion" and "between what is science and what is only the opinion or conjecture of scientific men," then a contextual contradiction between science and faith can appear, but this does not actually affect "what is really faith" nor "what is really science" (Brownson 1884ix: 256).
This situation of modern science has been emphatically observed in the 20th and 21st century by British astronomer Edward Harrison (1985, 2003), who symthesized the matter brilliantly by his notion of the "masks of the Universe": science has always produced only "masks," i.e. the scientific theories (opinions, hypotheses, conjectures), which are not to be mistaken for reality per se--the latter will for ever escape scientific description. However perfect the resemblance between the masks of the Universe and the Universe per se, the two (reality and the theory about reality) will never be one and the same thing: the masks (theories) will ever be only pale approximations of reality, they will always be something like images in a mirror. The belief that a theory is the same phenomenon as the reality to which the theory refers is thus pure illusion. To believe that theory and reality are one and the same thing would be equivalent to believing that there is no difference between a person and the image of that person in a mirror. Even if the similarity might be perfect, yet the two will always be distinct manifestations: while the person is the infinitely real manifestation, the mirrored image of the person--though containing many (visual, spatial, temporal, etc.) parallel coordinates originating from the person --will still be a finite illusion devoid of real life of the person; a mirrored image is something akin to what Daniel Boorstin (1961, 2012) called a "pseudo-event."
Furthermore, Brownson (1884ix: 256) justly observes that this situation created between faith and science "has the inevitable effect of creating, on the one side, a prejudice against science and, on the other, a prejudice against faith." In this very state of affairs Brownson identified the cause of "the modern world ha[ving] lapsed into unbelief, and remain[ing] outside of the church," being thus "bitterly prejudiced against her." (Science and the sciences, 1863; Brownson 1884ix: 257)
In other words, if we wish to reverse this process of de-spiritualization, we need to take into consideration the condition of our complex perspective, which by its very "nature" is both natural (material-physical) and supernatural (spiritual): a truthand-illusion equation from the very start. As Brownson (1884ix: 257) put it, this means that "[w]e must make ourselves masters of science, not simply as it was before the flood, or as it was in the ages of barbarism, but as it is now, as held by the recognized masters of today, and thus gain the ability to meet the scientific on their own ground." As a consequence, "[w]e must not, in order to save their faith, discourage our youth from cultivating either science or the sciences, or content ourselves with merely declaiming against them modern science as anti-Catholic, as infidel, and with refuting it with a condemnation pronounced by authority against it, or declaring it contra fidem"; "[w]e must go further, and meet scientifically, with superior science, and refute it, where it errs, on scientific principles, by scientific reasons." (Brownson 1884ix: 257) Salvation of faith comes thus "not by showing what the church did for civilization in the barbarous ages that followed the downfall of the Graeco-Roman civilization, but by proving practically that we are today the real friends of science" (Brownson 1884ix: 260). Moreover, "if we reject any of the alleged facts or conclusions of modern science," this must be done only "by a superior scientific knowledge, and for scientific reasons, which the scientific world must hear and respect." In short, faith will be restored and preserved only if we become the "more perfect masters of the sciences." (Brownson 1884ix: 260)
A first crucial conclusion that derives from this system of thought embraced by Brownson is the following: the science about the natural laws can be only incomplete, a state of affairs demonstrated by Kurt Godel in symbolic logic only in the first half of the 20th century; the same was shown by Edward Harrison (1985, 2003) in his notion of the masks of the Universe that science creates by its discoveries of physical laws. Knowing that complete knowledge of reality is never possible, man's desire to achieve that never-attainable completeness thus promises to be eternal, infinite, and ever-changing in degrees and intensity. Paradoxically, the very fact of knowing that our knowledge cannot be complete, and will ever be subject to illusions of all sorts, generates precisely a genuine protean--and very much romantically "hieroglyphic"--fascination with knowledge itself: from this new perspective, therefore, opened by the above-mentioned considerations on Brownson's system of thought, knowledge is revealed as being itself a "hieroglyphic"--in the sense of the romantics. E. A. Poe had intuited something of this nature of knowledge when he devised his concept of the Arabesque: we see through illusion and into the divine truth when we capture the Arabesque moment and perspective, i.e. the infinitesimal iridescence which--from the deep sea of the multi-coloured, multi-fragranced, multiplex appearances of the world--grants us access to essence.
Relevantly, the impossibility of science to reach systemic completeness demonstrated by Kurt Godel in symbolic logic in 1931 put to rest indeed almost a century of logicist and formalist attempts to find axioms on which to rigorously ground all mathematics: Hilbert's program, and the attempts of Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell in their famous Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, 1913) are of paramount importance in this regard. That the same phenomenon (the impossibility for science to be complete owing to its very ontological status as "natural" science, and as not "supernatural" science) is rigorously derivable from Brownson's system, as shown above, is itself quite remarkable. This fact points precisely to the convergence between science and religion which Brownson postulated as a sine qua non condition if science and religion are to be grounded in truth: religion (dealing with the relationship between the supernatural and the natural; spirit and matter; completeness and incompleteness; infinitude and finitude--all poles of what we call the pendulum of history) and science (dealing with the natural / matter) must be in mutual agreement with each other. Also, it should be noted that coupled with Werner Heisenberg's discovery of the principle of indeterminacy / uncertainty (1927), Godel's demonstration of the first incompleteness theorem (1931) came as a crucial culmination of the Second Scientific Revolution (ca. 1800-1950), which thus opened the way for the so called New Scientific Paradigm that kept on making headway in the second half of the 20th century, and thus could be considered as being the foundation of a veritable Third Scientific Revolution.
A second conclusion, no less relevant for Brownson's "modernity," is that the American philosopher embraced a theory of the unity of being, which, on the one hand, is characteristic for the English and German romantics, and, on the other, brilliantly anticipates the New Scientific Paradigm of a David Bohm (1980, 2005) and Ken Wilber (1995), for instance, according to which reality forms an indivisible totality that resembles not so much a Great Chain of Being--as the Enlightenment and the First Scientific Revolution (1600/1650-1800) would have us believe in, but rather a "Great Nest of Being," which is infinitely enfolded and enfolding: this is the paradigm suggested by many of the Second Scientific Revolution's ramifications into the New Scientific Paradigm of the latter half of the 20th century, which in effect keeps on unfolding its methods and revolutionary consequences well into the science of the 21st century and promises to fundamentally mould human knowledge for a long time to come. This unexpected connection between the modern (philosophy of) sciences and Orestes Brownson--who came to be seen by certain critics as being one of the greatest philosophers of the United States of America--recommends his works for a renewed analysis and evaluation at least from the perspective of the combined study of "the third culture" (a term coined by C. P. Snow to mean a field wherein literature and science interact; cf. Shaffer 1998) and religion. Such a convergent field of knowledge (literature and science and religion as a "fourth" culture) might gain the capacity to scrutinize more holistically not only the very roots, trunk and crown of human knowledge (the romantic infinitely deep "hieroglyphic" that we mentioned), but also mankind's mysterious fascination with the endless disclosures in the very processes ("journeys") of knowledge--at the eternal crossroads between the Natural and the Supernatural--by which illusions or appearances seem to be for ever increasingly more purified and sublimated towards higher and higher essential realities, in a process that seems to resemble, in the sciences, in the arts, and in the religions, the unveiling of the goddess Isis of the great ancient Egyptian tradition. At least one of her veils, that of mystery, will for ever be unreachable.
Acknowledgment The present paper is a modified and largely extended version of Stroe (2010): The protean fascination for human knowledge in Orestes Brownson's The spirit rapper. Discours et objects scientifiques dans l'imaginaire americain du XIXe siecle, pp 181-203. Ludot-Vlasak R, Maniez C, eds. Grenoble: Universite Stendhal.
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Mihai A. Stroe, PhD, DrHabil; Professor of English Literature, University of Bucharest, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, English Department; Bucharest, Romania; email@example.com
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|Author:||Stroe, Mihai A.|
|Publication:||Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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