Appendix C: Fin de Siècle Epistemologies

The prevalence of scientific discourse increased following the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species in 1859. Combined with a weakening of traditional religious authority, this trend led to anxiety and pessimism in fin de siècle England. Victorians began to engage in a search for spiritual meaning in what was previously a solely Judeo-Christian society, spurring the rise in popularity of a variety of unconventional religious and pseudo-religious beliefs and practices. Many of these beliefs concerned the supernatural or the occult. Like many in the late Victorian era, Oscar Wilde dabbled in the occult, as did his wife, Constance. Consequently, it is not surprising that Wilde’s works contain direct or indirect references to these subjects.

I. Philosophical and (Pseudo-)Religious Perspectives

A. Spiritualism

[Alternatives to Christianity proliferated in fin de siècle England. Many of the core beliefs, though, originated earlier, outside of England. Mesmerism, also known as animal magnetism, originated with the experiments of German doctor Franz Anton Mesmer in the late eighteenth century, but experienced a resurgence of popularity in Victorian England. Mesmer claimed that powerful invisible forces, which he called "animal spirits," passed between people and that by entering into trances, these forces could be shared and harnessed for medical cures and future-telling, among others.

In addition, in 1848, the Fox Sisters from upstate New York were widely reported as having supernatural abilities. The sisters claimed to communicate with spirits via table rapping and claimed that through the use of a corresponding code, messages from the "spirit world" could be conveyed to the living. A media sensation followed, and eventually spread to England. The coverage of the sisters’ supposed abilities contributed to the development of Spiritualism, a loosely defined religious movement centered around the belief in spirits of the dead and their ability to communicate with the living, as well as to a flourishing industry of fortune-tellers, mediums, and palm readers. Often, proponents of Spiritualism (as with Cheirosophy, see Appendix II-A) cited biblical evidence for their beliefs, as in this excerpt.]

Reverend Samuel Watson , The Religion of Spiritualism, Its Phenomena and Philosophy (1880), 2nd edition, New York: Edward O. Jenkins, 1881. GoogleBooks.

          If a man die, shall he live again?" This is one of the most important questions ever propounded to man. It is one which has been very difficult to answer affirmatively. We stand around the dying couch of loved ones, and see them struggling with the monster, yielding at last to his power, and we say they are dead. We consign the quickly decaying body to the grave. Soon it moulders away and the gases return to their original elements. There is nothing to be seen that even indicates that it will ever germinate or return to life again. To believe that it will, on any facts that appear to be within our reach, is impossible. We see the form utterly dissipated without the slightest prospect of its restoration. Its occupant, if there be one, has gone like a flash, or passed out unobserved. We can neither see, hear, nor feel the vanishing spirit with our mortal eye. Thus it has ever been with the races of mankind. Through all the ages, the world has been waiting and watching to hear from the countless millions of earth who have thus passed away leaving crushed hearts to mourn, but no echo has come back; silence reigns -- oblivion triumphs over all blasted hopes. Such is life, as experience mournfully tells of the past, as seen from a strictly materialistic stand-point.

          As seen from its opposite, the clairvoyant beholds the loved ones around, waiting to welcome a new-born soul to the spirit-world, the real substantial mode of existence . . . .

          . . . . instead of trusting to blind, unreasoning faith, we can, if we will, obtain abundant positive evidence upon the subject, sufficient on the one hand to clear up all doubts which conceal the truths lying beneath the Bible narratives, and powerful enough to explode the metaphysical subtleties which have obscured this important subject . . . .

          Can any one conscientiously affirm that the Bible satisfies all our wants in this respect? We think not. Hence the sad and comfortless teachings we often hear from the pulpit and at funerals. There is a key that unlocks these mysteries in regard to immortality, and will afford ample comfort to the Bible student from the fact of its according in the main with his favorite authority. So far from its imperilling the Scriptures, it will add intensely to the interest of their perusal by spreading entirely a new light upon many Bible narratives that must have always appeared mysterious and inexplicable to those who have never known anything of communications from those who have passed the veil which separates the natural from the spirit world. This key then, which is to solve the problem of immortality, and once for all settle all speculations on the subject, is Spiritualism, with which the Bible abounds.

B. Hylo-Idealism

[Hylo-Idealism was an atheist or agnostic philosophy, theorized by Dr. Robert Lewins and Constance Naden, which posited that reality exists only through subjective consciousness, and, therefore, that mind and matter are indissoluble.

Wilde added “The Canterville Ghost”’s subtitle, "A Hylo-Idealist Romance," in 1891, two years after Constance Naden's death and the subsequent rise in awareness of what was hitherto a relatively minor philosophy. While Wilde had corresponded with Naden before her death, in order to solicit works for The Woman’s World, and positively reviewed her book of poetry in 1887, [1] no evidence exists that he was aware of Naden’s (mostly pseudonymous) philosophical writings, which were only publicized and credited to her posthumously.

Herbert Courtney was a proponent of Hylo-Idealism and peer of Lewins and Naden. Here, he sums up the philosophy’s beliefs in an issue of Our Corner -- the London-based Freethought magazine founded in 1833 by socialist and women's rights proponent Annie Wood Besant. [2] Freethinkers believed that the search for truth should be unencumbered by authority or tradition.]

Herbert Courtney, "Hylo-Idealism or Positive Agnosticism: Philosophy of Existence Based on the Phænomenality and Relativity of Mental Sensation." Our Corner , vol. 10, 1887, pp. 111-5; 148-52; 207-13. GoogleBooks.

          The word "infinity" has hitherto been regarded as one of great and dread import, and man has trembled to contemplate the great unknown space beyond his little world and to think of the still and silent infinite, uninhabited save by the creator of the universe. Yet he has bowed but to the idol of his own imagination, and now at length science has solved the riddle and unveiled the ghost. The "lucid interspace 'twixt world and world", supposed to be inhabited by spiritual and immaterial beings, exists not at all. All that we can see or think of, as far as eye or thought can reach, is "matter" pure and simple. Can we suppose a limit to the light, or think of an infinite, eternal darkness wherein never shone solitary ray of light to illumine the blackness or dissipate the gloom? That were eternal death indeed, and no abode of the creative spirit which must be synonymous with light and life. Yet where light is there must be matter also, and where no matter is, there can be no light. For light waves are but material vibrations, re-vibrated by every particle of matter ad infinitum. . . .We cannot see "outside" ourselves, and the image thrown on the retina of the eye, howsoever it be transmitted, is but reflexion pure and simple -- the virtual creation of the optic nerve. So that in very truth not only can we never get below phænomena to matter, but the very phænomena themselves are but our own mental creations, and "perception" depends not on any condition beyond self but simply upon the perceptive power of the perceiving subject . . . .

          The following comparison will make the matter quite clear: The Theist believes in a dual existence (i.e., two absolutes) and thinks that he can know both. Doubly wrong.

          The Materialist (so-called "Realist") believes in one absolute (right), but thinks that he can have objective knowledge of it (wrong).

          The Hylo-Idealist (Agnostic) in the same manner logically infers the existence of one absolute, which however he recognizes as being in itself (even phænomenally) unknowable, inasmuch as the ego, living on a purely relative plane, cannot transcend itself or reach the absolute beyond self.

II. (Pseudo-)Scientific Investigation and Methods

A. Cheirosophy

[Cheirosophy, the study of the human hand, has existed since ancient times, but became particularly popular with the rise of Spiritualism in Victorian England. Cheirosophy was divided into two branches, similar to phrenology and physiognomy [3]: cheirognomy and cheiromancy (also called palmistry or palm-reading). Proponents of cheirosophy, like proponents of other occult beliefs, sought to attribute both a scientific exactness and a religious foundation to the craft in order to validate the “science” and differentiate what they believed were its valid uses from less-reputable applications, like fortune-telling.

In this excerpt, well-known author, scientist, and palmist Edward Heron-Allen delineates the branches of cheirosophy and explains how certain lines of the hand can show information as grave as a predilection towards murder.]

Edward Heron-Allen, Practical Cheirosophy: A Synoptical Study of the Science of the Hand. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1887. GoogleBooks.

          There is, I think, no need for me to lay emphasis upon the paramount importance of the hand in the human economy. This has been acknowledged ever since Aristotle, in the fourth century before Christ, called it "the organ of the organs," the active agent of the passive powers of the entire human system; and we, in these latter days, shall hardly be prepared to controvert this statement, when we reflect that there exists no human action, and hardly any rite or ceremony, in which the hand is not, if not prime agent, at least an important actor. . . .

          . . . . The phrenologist may be deceived by the growth of the hair; the physiognomist may be led astray by a fixed and unnatural expression of the face: but the cheirosophist finds in the hand an unvarying and unalterable indication of the character, a mirror whose images the bearer is powerless to distort.

          The science of Cheirosophy is divided into two great branches, -- Cheirognomy, or the science of deducing the characteristics of man from the shape of his hands; and Cheiromancy, or the art of expounding to man the events of his life, and the inner shades of his character, by an inspection of his palms. The latter of these two branches is of incomparable antiquity, but has been reduced within reasonable bounds, and invested with all the attributes of an exact science, only within the last fifty years, by Adrien Desbarrolles. The former is a comparatively new science . . . .

          . . . . Cheirosophy aims at ascertaining the established conjunctions, which in their turn establish the order of the universe.

          They say it is impossible to predict a future malady or death. What is more reasonable to believe than that, of a future malady, the germ already lurks in the system, which must ultimately supervene, and may prove fatal? Such a germ as this must affect the universal nerve-fluid, the vital principle; and what is more likely than that this affection should be visible at the point where the nerves are most numerous and apparent, and that is -- in the palm of the hand?

          Then, so surely as the future exists already for us, let us minutely examine the present, which is forming and modifying and developing that future. Our thoughts are free, as Sir Richard Owen has said, to soar as far as any legitimate analogy may seem to guide them rightly across the boundless ocean of unknown truth!

          Cheirosophy is not fatalism. It never says what shall be, shall be: it merely warns us of what will happen if we pursue the course we are adopting. If we neglect the warning, as I have constantly known people to do, turning aside with a lofty smile, we have only ourselves to blame when the events, which we might easily have averted by an effort of will, supervene to our harm and annoyance.

. . . .

          The next line is the Line of Heart. It should extend clear, well traced, and of a good color from the mount of Jupiter to the base of that of Mercury. According to the length of the line we find stronger or weaker affections. If it goes right across the hand, from side to side, it indicates excessive affection, resulting in a morbid jealousy. If it is chained (c, Plate X.), the subject is an inveterate flirt; bright red, it denotes violence in affairs of the heart; pale and broad, on the contrary, it indicates a cold-blooded roué if not a worn-out libertine. Very, very thin and bare, it is a sign of murder.

Hand graphic

B. The Society for Psychical Research

[The Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882 and still active as of 2020, aims to investigate phenomena of a supernatural origin with the same precision as that of traditional scientific inquiry. Frederic W. H. Myers and Edmund Gurney were two of its earliest and most illustrious members. Along with Frank Podmore, the trio authored Phantasms of the Living, a two-volume examination of over 700 instances of supposed telepathic activity via a phantasm, or apparition of a living person. Myers believed in the concept of a "subliminal self," similar to the "animal spirit" of Mesmerism, which he hypothesized could communicate without the use of speech. He thus reasoned that these “selves” were responsible for not only the appearance of phantoms or ghosts, but also other supernatural occurrences such as automatic writing and precognitive dreams.

Here, Myers explains his definition of a "ghost" and delineates how apparitions differ from common belief and why they may be connected to specific physical places.]

Frederic W. H. Myers , "On Recognised Apparitions Occurring more than a Year after Death." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 6, 1889-90, pp. 13-35. GoogleBooks.

          The last Part of the Proceedings included an exposition, -- begun by the late Mr. Edmund Gurney and completed by myself, -- of the principal cases in our possession where an apparition occurring soon after the death of the person figured seems plausibly referable to some other than a merely subjective origin; -- seems, in fact, to have been telepathic or veridical, -- a real communication from some mind outside the percipient's own.[4] In choosing these cases a line was drawn at a year after death; -- a line partly arbitrary, but partly determined by the fact that after that lapse of time recognised apparitions with even a primâ facie claim to be classed as veridical, become exceedingly rare.

          They are rare, and they are in many ways perplexing; but it is none the less our duty to discuss them. Inconclusive when considered by themselves, they are full of instruction when we compare them with the larger groups which include apparitions at or shortly after death.

          The momentous step, of course, is already taken so soon as we consent to refer any post-mortem apparition, -- dating even from the morrow of the death, -- to the continued agency of the decedent. Few readers will question the assumption that in that unknown journeyce n'est que le premier pas qui coûte. [5]

           And since we are standing here on the threshold of new perplexities, let us pause for a moment and consider what is the phenomenon which we are looking for, -- what connotation we are to give to the word "ghost," -- a word which has embodied so many unfounded theories and causeless fears. It would be more satisfactory in the present state of our knowledge, simply to collect facts without offering speculative comment. But it seems safer to begin by briefly pointing out the manifest errors of the traditional view; since that tradition, if left unnoticed, would remain lodged in the background even of many minds which have never really accepted it.

          Briefly, then, the popular view regards a "ghost" as a deceased person permitted by Providence to hold communication with survivors . And this short definition contains, I think, at least three unwarrantable assumptions.

          In the first place, such words as permission and Providence are simply neither more nor less applicable to this phenomenon than to any other. We conceive that all phenomena alike take place in accordance with the laws of the universe: -- and consequently by permission of the Supreme Power in the universe. Undoubtedly the phenomena with which we are dealing are in this sense permitted to occur. But there is no à priori reason whatever for assuming that they are permitted in any especial sense of their own, or that they form exceptions to law, instead of being exemplifications of law. Nor is there any à posteriori reason for thus supposing, -- any such inference deducible from a study of the phenomena themselves. If we attempt to find in these phenomena any poetical justice, or manifest adaptation to human cravings, we shall be just as much disappointed as if we endeavoured to find a similar satisfaction in the ordinary course of terrene history.

          In the second place, we have no warrant for the assumption that the phantom seen, even though it be somehow caused by a deceased person, is that deceased person, in any ordinary sense of the word. Instead of appealing to the crude analogy of the living friend who, when he has walked into the room, is in the room, we shall find for the ghost a much closer parallel in those hallucinatory figures or phantasms which living persons can sometimes project at a distance. When Baron von Notzing, for instance, caused by an effort of will an apparition of himself to a waking percipient, out of sight, he was himself awake and conscious in the place where, not his phantom but his body stood. Whatever, then, that phantom was, -- however generated or conditioned, -- we cannot say that it was himself. And equally unjustifiable must be the common parlance which speaks of the ghost as though it were the decedent himself -- a revenant coming back amongst living men.

          All this, of course, will be already familiar to most of my readers, and only needs repetition here because experience shows that when -- as with these post-mortem phantoms -- the decedent has gone well out of sight or reach, there is a fresh tendency (so to say) to anthropomorphise the apparition; to suppose that, as the decedent is not provably anywhere else, he is probably here; and that the apparition is bound to behave accordingly. All such assumptions must be dismissed, and the phantom must be taken on its merits, -- as indicating merely a certain connection with the decedent, the precise nature of that connection being a part of the problem to be solved.

          And in the third place, just as we cease to say that the phantom is the decedent, so also must we cease to ascribe to the phantom the motives by which we imagine that the decedent might be swayed. We must therefore exclude from our definition of a ghost any words which assume its intention to communicate with the living. It may bear such a relation to the decedent that it can reflect or represent his presumed wish to communicate, or it may not. If, for instance its relation to his post-mortem life be like the relation of my dreams to my earthly life, it may represent little that is truly his, save such vague memories and instincts as give a dim individuality to each man's trivial dreams.

          Let us attempt, then, a truer definition. Instead of describing a "ghost" as a dead person permitted to communicate with the living, let us define it as a manifestation of persistent personal energy, -- or as an indication that some kind of force is being exercised after death which is in some way connected with a person previously known on earth. In this definition we have eliminated, as will be seen, a great mass of popular assumptions. Yet we must introduce a further proviso, lest our definition still seem to imply an assumption which we have no right to make. It is theoretically possible that this force or influence which, after a man's death, creates a phantasmal impression of him, may indicate no continuing action on his part, but may be some residue of the force or energy which he generated while yet alive. There may be veridical after-images: such as Mr. Gurney hints at (Proceedings, Vol. IV., p. 417), when in his comments on the recurring figure of an old woman; -- seen on the bed where she was murdered,-- he remarks that this figure suggests "not so much any continuing local action on the part of the deceased person, as the survival of a mere image, impressed, we cannot guess how, on we cannot guess what, by that person's physical organism, and perceptible at times to those endowed with some cognate form of sensitiveness."

            . . . . there is strong evidence for the recurrence of the same hallucinatory figures in the same localities, but weak evidence to indicate any purpose in most of these figures, or any connection with bygone individuals, or with such tragedies as are popularly supposed to start a ghost on its career. In some of these cases of frequent, meaningless recurrence of a figure in a given spot, we are driven to wonder whether it can be some decedent's past frequentation of that spot, rather than any fresh action of his after death, which has generated what I have termed the veridical after-image, -- veridical in the sense that it communicates information, previously unknown to the percipient, as to a former inhabitant of the haunted locality.

            Such are some of the questions which our evidence suggests. And I may point out that the very fact that such bizarre problems should present themselves at every turn does in a certain sense tend to show that these apparitions are not purely subjective things, -- do not originate merely in the percipient's imagination. For they are not like what any man would have imagined. What man's mind tends to fancy on such topics may be seen in the endless crop of fictitious ghost-stories; -- which furnish, indeed, a curious proof of the persistence of pre-conceived notions. For they go on being framed according to canons of their own, and deal with a set of imaginary phenomena quite different from those which actually occur. The actual phenomena, I may add, could scarcely be made romantic. One true "ghost-story" is apt to be very like another; -- and all to be fragmentary and apparently meaningless. Their meaning, that is to say, lies in their conformity, not to the mythopœic instinct of mankind, which fabricates and enjoys the fictitious tales, but to some unknown law, not based on human sentiment or convenience at all.

          And thus, absurdly enough, we sometimes hear men ridicule the phenomena which actually do happen, simply because those phenomena do not suit their preconceived notions of what ghostly phenomena ought to be; -- not perceiving that this very divergence, this very unexpectedness, is in itself no slight indication of an origin outside the minds which obviously were so far from anticipating anything of the kind.

          . . . . the narratives on which we shall now have to dwell are precisely those which do the most nearly correspond to the popular view of what a ghost should be. They are cases, at any rate, where the figure wasrecognised, and in some of which there was an apparent object in its appearance. It is, of course, not the emotional but the evidential value of these recognitions which interests us here. The identification of a figure previously unknown, or of a previously known figure under certain conditions, is naturally a point de rep è re[6] of first-rate evidential importance.

. . . .

          . . . . it will be well to arrange our cases in what may be called a descending scale of personality; -- beginning with those where there seems to be an intelligent purpose in the phantom; then giving those where there seems to be a purpose, but not in our sense an intelligent one; and lastly, taking those where no purpose is discernible, but the whole manifestation seems like a dead man's incoherent dream.

. . . .

          . . . we ought probably to place the appearances which seem to depend on locality alone. Whatever position the departed may hold towards space, -- whether they inhabit our space, or some other form of space, or are extra-spatial entities, -- we must suppose that their memory deals with the space-relations of the past. And if there be a memory of space, this is in itself a relation to space. If the decedent recollects scenes which he has known, then we may conceive that this recollection of his may become somehow perceptible to other minds.

          The notion that unembodied intelligences can have any relation to space may appear to some minds as unphilosophical. It seems to lead on to those primitive forms of materialism; those savage conceptions of the spirits of the dead, which modern Spiritualism undoubtedly reproduces under a new colour, but which philosophy has learnt to disdain. We can, however, form no real conception of a disembodied existence; and it is better not to assume as a matter of course either any resemblances or any differences from our own condition beyond what the actual evidence points to. And at any rate this conception of a dead man's dream, -- of a probably unconscious gravitation of some fraction of his disembodied entity towards his old associations; -- a flowing of some backwater of his being's current into channels familiar long ago; -- will serve to supply a fairly coherent conception of the meaning of those vague hauntings into which, as we have seen, our narratives of recognised post-mortem apparitions imperceptibly glide.

[1] “Miss Constance Naden's little volume, “A Modern Apostle, and other Poems” (Kegan, Paul, Trench & Co.), shows both culture and courage,” Wilde wrote in The Woman’s World.

[2] Besant herself subscribed to Theosophism, a religious ideology which taught a Western version of esoteric, traditionally Eastern beliefs like reincarnation. Coincidentally, Wilde’s wife, Constance, was also involved with Theosophism.

[3] Phrenology is the study of the shape of the skull, and physiognomy is the study of the features of the face along with other physical characteristics of the body. Both were touted as “sciences” while also being used in the booming Victorian fortune-telling industry.

[4] The percipient is the person viewing the apparition or occurrence.

[5] French for “the first step is the most difficult.”

[6] French for “point of reference.”