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Arthur Conan Doyle and Spiritualism

  1. Jan 5, 2012 #1
    It came out on an episode of Decoded that aired tonight that Arthur Conan Doyle was a staunch believer in spiritualism. Apparently he was astonishingly gullible about it, which is very surprising for the man who created Sherlock Holmes.


    http://www.siracd.com/life_spirit.shtml [Broken]


    The Fox sisters, who started the whole spiritualism movement by hoaxing noises from spirits, later confessed to the hoax and demonstrated how they accomplished it. The movement had gained such momentum that some of their followers refused to believe the confession:

    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
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  3. Jan 5, 2012 #2


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    It doesn't surprise me, I remember studying in school how much Doyle hated Holmes. IIRC he only started it for some money and didn't anticipate how popular it would become, then he resolved to kill Holmes off so that he would never have to write about him again. But this didn't last because the paper that published it kept offering him more money and pleading with him so eventually he wrote more set before Holmes death thinking that this would be enough. It wasn't and so eventually he had to write more explaining that Holmes had faked his death.
  4. Jan 5, 2012 #3
    Yes, I recall reading he was sick of the character and wanted to dispense with him. Despite perpetuating the character "under duress", so to speak, he still convincingly characterizes the attitude of the rationalist, Holmes. Doyle seems to understand that attitude too well to also be so uncritically accepting of fairy photographs.

    Holmes was largely based on Doyle's teacher, Bell:

    http://www.sherlockandwatson.com/the real sherlock holmes.html

    and Bell said of Doyle:

    So, I experience a definite cognitive dissonance in finding out Doyle was readily sucked into spiritualism.

    It causes me to speculate on the possibility of a "personality type" (unnofficially speaking) that could be characterized as 'spongey'. This was the premise of the obscure Woody Allen movie Zelig. The main character, Zelig, was an involuntary human sponge, or perhaps, chameleon: without particularly intending to, he soaked up all the attitudes and trappings of whatever crowd he happened to become entangled with; thrown in with jazz musicians, he absorbed their jargon, learned the clarinet, and was soon a member of the band. The same for each new crowd he enters, even becoming a member of the Nazi party just by accidental exposure to them for a time.

    I have to wonder if Doyle, Zelig-like, merely 'absorbed' the rational/scientific attitude Bell projected, 'absorbed' the trappings and abilities of an author, and finally 'absorbed' the beliefs of a spiritualist from heavy exposure to his spiritualist wife. Diagnostic skills are essentially scientific. How could they run only skin deep in a person who was apparently very good at it?

    However, I'm sure there are alternate possible explanations.
  5. Jan 5, 2012 #4


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    Hmm cognitive dissonance is an absolutely bizarre phenomenon. I have met many people who hold two entirely different (i.e. mutually exclusive) ways of thinking/acting and it boggles my mind.
  6. Jan 5, 2012 #5
    There's usually some comprehensible train of thinking behind it, and basically I'm wondering what it would be in this case.
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2012
  7. Jan 5, 2012 #6
    From wiki (YMMV) :
    "... Following the death of his wife Louisa in 1906, the death of his son Kingsley just before the end of World War I, and the deaths of his brother Innes, his two brothers-in-law (one of whom was E. W. Hornung, creator of the literary character Raffles) and his two nephews shortly after the war, Conan Doyle sank into depression. He found solace supporting spiritualism and its attempts to find proof of existence beyond the grave..."

    Put politely, the poor sod lost it...
  8. Jan 5, 2012 #7

    Thing is, though, his interest preceded all that:

    -From my second link.

    I can see how all the personal loss would have made it worse, but it doesn't seem to be what precipitated it. It does help explain his acceptance of the fairy photographs, which appeared circa 1917. Before all the deaths and depression, we can suppose he might have been more skeptical of those.
  9. Feb 17, 2012 #8


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    my own view of Conan Doyle is that he is very much like the television character House, who is (by the producers' own admission) based on Doyle's creation, Holmes.

    House is profoundly rational, perhaps even obsessively so, and yet often displays a profound understanding of religion in particular, moreso than the patently (and thus superficially) religious Dr. Chase, that could only be borne of spiritual understanding.

    also, he's bat-**** insane.

    (perhaps a more reasonable explanation is that it was quite common in the Victorian era for people to behave quite differently depending on their surroundings...no doubt this led to a high degree of "compartmentalization" for many people).
  10. Feb 18, 2012 #9
    In what sense do you think House profoundly understands religion? I recall the episode where it was revealed his father was some sort of theologian, but it seemed Houses' attitude toward that was as cynical as his attitude toward everything. Conan Doyle, on the other hand, would strike me as the furthest thing from cynical on this count. It's been a long time since I read all the Holmes stories, but I don't recall any implied religious cynicism on Holmes' part.
  11. Feb 18, 2012 #10


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    It might be just a feature of the times. I don't know much about Conan Doyle, but there are many other rationalists of the time who also seemed swayed by spiritualism, such as William James.

    It could be that the belief in spirits or telepathy were encouraged by scientific advance in fact - once you start seeing a material/mechanical base to everything, then this makes ideas about ectoplasm, a spirtual plane or whatever, a "more rational" belief than some immaterial idea of soul.

    If you want to believe in religious teachings, then a rationalist would want to find a substantial explanation. It may seem kooky from our modern standpoint, but it would have been the more scientific view in Victorian times - if you were taking the arch-materialist position of the reductionist thinker.

    Exactly the same dynamic still operates today when it comes to things like quantum approaches to consciousness. People are looking for a substantial explanation of something they feel needs a properly material answer.
  12. Feb 18, 2012 #11
    Excellent point and well put. Your second paragraph puts me in mind of everyone from Galileo to Newton (including all Newton's contemporaries) who felt the discoveries of Physics had revealed something remarkable about the creator: "God was a mathematician!" I can see Doyle as viewing rationalism and spiritualism as mutually supportive.
  13. Feb 18, 2012 #12


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    I just happen to be reading Gleick's biography of Newton and almost mentioned those parallels. His "embarrassing" interest in alchemy, theology, etc. :smile:
  14. Feb 18, 2012 #13
    I haven't read that one. Most of my sense of this comes from a book called "The Clockwork Universe", which I highly recommend. It claims on the cover to be about Newton and the Royal Society but it is mostly about the times themselves. When it veers back to Newton you appreciate so much more, now understanding the context.

    I suppose a similar book could be written about Doyle's times. (He looks pretty silly from here, but surely couldn't have been as bad back then.)
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