Physics of Mediumship / Hysterics of Realism
For a writer who was fascinated with the reliability of gesture, bodily signs, and physical circuits, such "scientific" theories—physical or physiological—for operations of the human psyche held a great deal of allure. The implications Twain saw for his own art in physical explanations of mediumship come out most tellingly in his essay
"Mental Telegraphy"—a piece begun in 1878, finished in 1881, and finally published (with an addition) only in 1891. Here, among various instances of thought transference, Mark Twain recounts a case directly pertinent to writing, a case, moreover, that reproduces and elaborates the (sexualized) model for artistic invention and representation implicit in John H. Day's example. One morning in the 1870s, Twain tells us, while he was "lying in bed, idly musing," "suddenly a red-hot new idea came whistling down into my camp, and exploded with such comprehensive effectiveness as to sweep the vicinity clean of rubbishy reflections" (379). The idea—that his Nevada friend Dan De Quille (William Wright) ought to author a book about the 1860s silver rush. Twain quickly outlined the book, but before he got a letter off to De Quille suggesting the project, he got a letter from De Quille proposing just such a book. The two letters were the same "in substance," though differently worded. De Quille, Mark Twain concluded, had "originated that succession of ideas," and "telegraphed" them to Twain's "receiver" (380–81), "fill[ing] my head with them, to the exclusion of every other interest" (383). Twain had then translated the ideas into his own words.
Twain favored telegraphy as the term for thought transference because he believed that "the something which conveys our thoughts through the air from brain to brain is a finer and subtler form of electricity," and therefore analogous to telegraphy (389). In his 1875 correspondence with De Quille about this instance of thought transference, Twain refers to this force as "mesmeric current," a physical fluid capable of establishing "mesmeric sympathies." Relatedly, in notes made in 1878 he mentions "dyllic" and "odic" auras, which apparently refer to the "od" or "odylic" force similarly thought to connect minds and spirits. De Quille described the "subtle fluid or force" that connected him to Twain as "some all-pervading element like electricity, but even more subtle, that circulates through all things." Especially telling for Twain's preferred terminology, however, is his reference in "Mental Telegraphy" to "Mr. Brown, the 'mind-reader'" (384), because it clearly refers to Jacob Randall Brown, who became nationally known in 1874 through well-publicized mind-reading performances, whose abilities were tested at Yale University and recounted in journals of neurology, and who, in a stunt that may have helped generate Twain's electric-telegraphic metaphor, once attached a Western Union wire to his head in order to read the mind of
another man similarly attached to a wire and sitting miles away in a telegraph office. Twain thought Brown's mind-reading might indeed be legitimate. However, he was convinced that this medium of thought was superior to electricity and its wires; hence, mental telegraphy would sometimes outrace a telegram, and one's addressee would respond by wire even before Western Union reached him; the message apparently went "straight from your brain to the man it was meant for, far outstripping the wire's slow electricity" (391). Now, Twain fantasizes, if someone would only invent a "phrenophone ; that is to say, a method whereby the communicating of mind with mind may be brought under command and reduced to certainty and system," just as electricity has been put to use in telegraphy (389).
Part of the reason for the fantasy of the phrenophone was to enable communication and representation whose fidelity was insured by the physical circuit. Embodied in the electricity like medium, De Quille's idea can travel pellucidly to Twain's brain, remaining the same "in substance." But when Twain puts the idea into words, it does not match De Quille's written description. While, Twain asserted, "I know now that mind can communicate with mind without the slow and clumsy vehicle of speech," in the absence of phrenophonic mastery of this physical medium, communication was relegated still to the faulty connection between referent and word, to the modes of translation and resemblance instead of physical transmission. Ultimately, Twain declared, "We must have the thought itself shot into our minds from a distance; then, if we need to put it into words, we can do that tedious work at our leisure"—though, in the conscious labor of words, the circuit of substances and the fidelity of representation go awry.
The distinction Twain makes between immediate, automatic, electrical transmission of thought and the mental labor of wording is fundamentally that between indexical signs and symbols, between reflexive gestures and calculated ones, between physical transmission and its break. Yet, while he has imported the familiar gap between word and referent into his account of mediumship, he has also fashioned a basis for crossing that gap. His materialist account of brains and physical force (rather than minds and spirit) participated in a late-nineteenth-century extension of the principle of conservation of energy (the first law of thermodynamics) and the "correlation of forces"—that not only were light, heat, mechanical energy, magne-
tism, and electricity correlated and convertible one to another, but "vital force," "nerve force," and mental energy in animals and human beings were part of the same economy of energy. By suggesting that the medium for thoughts was a finer form of electricity, Twain connects physical and mental events in a way that profoundly affects representation, opening a route to conceive the expression of thought and emotion as a physical circuit not unlike that of the index. If telegraphy and thought were thus of the same order—that is, if mental force was akin to electrical energy, and electricity was part of the physical world—then this scientific erasure of the distinction between spirit and matter pointed a new way toward understanding literary creation. The familiar problematic, in which artists tried to "realize" or "materialize" ideas—and always failed, to some degree, in giving material form to inner or spiritual significance—could be rethought as a matter of physics, as material transmission. The gap between idea and realization, or mind and body, or spirit and matter—all resonating with the gap between concept and representation—could be bridged on the continuum that joined mental force to substance.
Emerging theories of mental physiology provided Twain with conceptions that further blurred distinctions, not only between thoughts and their expression, but also between processes of thought transference and processes of unconscious creativity (or between interpsychic communications and intrapsychic communications). The disposition of scientists and popularizers of science to use the telegraphic metaphor to describe both telepathy and the human nervous system itself (the brain often acting as the central office, telegraphing electrical messages throughout the body) implies the common explanation. One of the most prominent of the mental physiologists, William Carpenter, made frequent use of the telegraphic metaphor as a way of grounding mental phenomena in the material world, and took spiritualist mediumship as a special object of study. He thought it possible that "Nerve-force as a special form of Physical energy" might be able to "exert itself from a distance, so as to bring the Brain of one person into direct dynamical communication with that of another, without the intermediation either of verbal language or of movements of expression." Despite this legitimation of Twain's type of mental telegraphy as a means of communication superior to words or gestures, Carpenter thought it more likely that mediums'
communications were "nothing else than products of their own automatic mental operations," internal flows of nerve force operating outside consciousness, as reflexive responses to stimuli, whose automatism made them feel like communications from another (303). Carpenter called such automatic operations "unconscious cerebration" to identify them as activity of the cerebrum (the physical brain) rather than the "mind."
Twain similarly linked, as cases of "unconscious plagiarism," both the "telegraphic" communication from De Quille (101–2) and the unconscious processes of memory and writing that made him unknowingly reproduce as a dedication in The Innocents Abroad Oliver Wendell Holmes's dedication to his Songs in Many Keys . That is to say, unconscious plagiarism (the "happy phrase" he borrowed from Holmes) blurred distinctions for Twain between subconscious communications from others and subconscious communications from memory. These phenomena were associated not only because both occurred outside of consciousness; Twain's idea of mental telegraphy as a matter of physics corresponds to Holmes's conception of unconscious plagiarism as a "mechanism of thought," a function of the physical brain. This coupling is important for two reasons: first, because it forwards mental telegraphy as a general model for literary creation, and second, because it subsumes a certain kind of "unconscious" writing within the physical model. Through avenues akin to Holmes's explanations of certain kinds of writing as emissions of the body, I would like to suggest, Twain found a way to certify some of his wording as immediate, like a gesture, like a reflex.
In Mechanism in Thought and Morals (1871), Holmes describes unconscious mentation as a material process. He writes of the "inscription" of memory "in the very substance of the brain tissue" (71), of the coursing of impulses along the nerves ("the telegraphic cords of the system" ), and of the development of an idea when one "is least conscious of it" through the organic alterations inevitably occurring to "an impression made on a living tissue" (57). Unconscious plagiarism, Holmes suggests, is an instance of "unconscious cerebration" or "reflex action of the brain"—terms he borrowed from the mental physiology of Carpenter and Thomas Laycock (33–37). But so, more generally, is the writing of poetry a process "automatic and imperceptible" (44), unwilled and passive, as if the poet were receiving "dictation ab extra " (51). Borrowing a figure central to those psy-
chophysiologists interested in establishing mental events as reflex phenomena—that of the hysterical woman whose mental condition was still thought by many to be an effect of uterine irritation or ovarian malfunction —Holmes characterized poetry as "hysterics of the intelligence," an emission "as automatic, involuntary, as entirely self-evolved by a hidden organic process, as are the changing moods of the laughing and crying woman" (51).
Carpenter similarly thought that the processes of artistic genius and invention were "essentially automatic ," especially when, as in the work of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Mozart, ideas flowed spontaneously and poems or sonatas seemed to be composing themselves (510–13). Such creation was so much like "the mysterious performances of a clairvoyante or a medium " that he pointedly wondered how parapsychological dictations ab extra "are related to those glorious creations, which have sprung from the legitimate exercise of the imaginative faculty in a Shakspere [sic ] or a Milton" (612). It is through this frame, which joins apparent dictation from outside with an internal reflex of uncontrolled cerebration, that we should grasp Mark Twain's familiar descriptions of his authorial passivity. He would write in 1884 to the Society for Psychical Research that he had often thought "that all my powerful impulses come to me from some-body else.... [I] feel like a mere amanuensis when I sit down to write.... I consider that that other person is supplying the thoughts to me, and that I am merely writing from dictation." But this is only an instance in his longer history of attributing his writing more generally to an unknown, upwelling force, which made it necessary only that he hold the pen while the writing "went by itself." Twain characterized himself repeatedly as an amanuensis, passively taking dictation ab extra , with "no cogitations, no attempts at intervention" (Mark Twain in Eruption , 243). And, he declared, "As long as the book would write itself, I was a faithful and interested amanuensis and my industry did not flag, but the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations, inventing its adventures, and conducting its conversations, I put it away and dropped it out of my mind" (196).
While these pronouncements invite association with contemporary investigations into psychic phenomena and the psychology associated with them, as Susan Gillman has shown, they ought also to be connected to mental physiology. The well-known story of how he
surmounted an impasse when Tom Sawyer shifted its writing to Twain's own contrivances securely relates authorial passivity to the reflex activity of the brain that so occupied Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Carpenter. When Twain reached page four hundred of the manuscript of Tom Sawyer , he claimed, "the story made a sudden and determined halt and refused to proceed another step.... I could not understand why I was not able to go on with it. The reason was very simple—my tank had run dry; it was empty." When this happens, "when the tank runs dry," Twain concludes, "you've only to leave it alone and it will fill up again, in time, while you are asleep—also while you are at work at other things, and are quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on" (Mark Twain in Eruption , 197). Elsewhere he referred to the "mill" of "unconscious cerebration," "whose helpful machinery never stands idle," and he testified that, whenever his tank had run dry, he could simply wait until "U. C." (his abbreviation of the familiar "unconscious cerebration") had refilled his creative reservoir.
Although Mark Twain's delight in his "U. C." seems focused on sheer production, it is a production grasped as an unconscious making, as an uninterrupted mechanical circuit, rather than the production of signifying products cut off from their signified causes. To an important extent, unconscious cerebration and physiological mechanism promised a guarantee for the realism Twain was pursuing. Although his medium here is that of words rather than expressive bodily gestures, because the writing has the character of reflex, avoiding both the contriving mind and will and the tedious labor of translating ideas into sentences, it attains the immediacy of index and gesture.
At the same time that the abyss between body and words is crossed by the physical bridge of these cerebral processes, I would argue, distinctions grasped in terms of masculinity and femininity are breached. To the extent that Mark Twain thought his ideas came from somebody else, he was penetrated and feminized; he functioned—as he did when, lying idly in bed, he caught De Quille's mental ejaculation—as a passive "receiver" for seminal ideas. To the extent that his writing was an internal dynamic of unconscious reflex, it amounted to "hysterics of the intelligence," and therefore to feminine spasms of bodily indiscipline. Mark Twain relaxes the masculine control and dissimulation that aimed to plug any truthful exposure through the cracks of protective armor. Its effect is the immediate
speaking of what amounts to a masculine-feminine body, a writing equivalent to hysterics, blush, or jabber that carried with its femininity a certification of the truthful and the real.
As a precaution against the threat of full feminization, I would suggest, Mark Twain theorizes a masculine-feminine intrapsychic economy that follows popular scientific accounts of the relation between physical and vital force. Late-nineteenth-century science, that is, posited body and mind as a relatively contained energy system, in which physical activity depleted mental reserves or, as G. J. Barker-Benfield characterizes the "spermatic economy," in which a limited reserve of seminal force could be expended in—or hoarded for—sexual activity, physical labor, or mental labor. Metaphors of the body as a battery, or galvanic cell, proliferated. In Mark Twain's version, apparently, unconscious cerebration amassed a reserve of creative force that sent telegrams to a passive consciousness. In much the same way that it took Twain a period of not-quite-conscious worrying about something to get his own mental telegrams "up in good shape" ("Mental Telegraphy," 377), he testified that it took periods of unconscious cerebration, sometimes lasting for years, to refill his creative tanks. Though giving up the masculine will and controlling awareness, this model celebrated masculinity in the form of seminalmental upwellings of energy from below (suppressing the associations of reflex with "female" hysteria). Twain enacted a kind of autoeroticism, became an actually procreative bachelor machine, his automatic, electrical cerebrations ejaculating telegrams to his passive consciousness. He transforms the interpsychic model, in which he is the feminine receiver for De Quille's mental force, into an intrapsychic model more akin to John H. Day's, in which he is both the source of seminally creative fluid and its passive conduit. This saved him from feminization, and yet annexed reflex action and passivity as guarantees of realism. But we must consider, quite clearly, that this ultimately narcissistic and masturbatory move aimed to efface the problematic connections among passivity, the body, and femininity. As I shall try to show in a moment, however, the gender troubles in analogizing mediumship and authorship far outstripped this solution of autoeroticism.
Twain managed to press the model of physically transmitted representation to limits that revealed its shortcomings as well—most pointedly, I think, in the play Colonel Sellers as a Scientist (1883), a
work that brings us back to the year Twain probably wrote "Clairvoyant," and back again quite explicitly to issues of mediumship and representation. Twain collaborated on the play with William Dean Howells, but the main character was Twain's (from The Gilded Age and Colonel Sellers ), and according to Howells it was Twain's idea to make Sellers a scientific inventor and "a spiritualist, whose specialty in the occult was materialization"—that is, the embodiment of departed spirits. Readers of the play have found the materialization theme simply ludicrous. In the context of the foregoing discussion, however, it will be obvious that Sellers as a Scientist is a reconsideration, albeit in a farcical way, of possibilities of representation, the spiritualist aim of bringing dead spirits back to life serving as a metaphor for art, reproduction, and realism.
Sellers promises an up-to-date electrical version of materialization. "No spiritualism about it," he says; "A purely scientific operation" (223) based on "natural forces," not the supernatural (226). His materialization contraption, a congeries of "poles and batteries" (220), somehow uses "stored electricity" (225) as a means for "absorbing and condensing the enormous waste of vital force with which our atmosphere is filled from the dissolution of the human race" (226). Thus gathered together, this "vital force"—also referred to as "unorganized matter"—gives substance to the spirits of the dead. Embodying an understanding of vital forces unmistakably modeled on thermodynamics, and particularly on the conservation and convertability of forces, Sellers's facetiously presented materializer echoes Twain's serious concerns about economies of energy and representation. Although the materializations Sellers plans may superficially sound like those of other popular spiritualist exhibitors, he claims they will not be like "ordinary mediumistic arms and feet and things that don't amount to anything—no substance in them—you strike a light or fetch in a skeptic, and pff! They disappear" (221); his materializations will be translated to the flesh through electricity and matter. Moreover, Sellers's aim is nothing "so paltry as an exhibition " (215). He will materialize spirits in the mass: "The spiritualists materialize one little pitiful spectre—or part of a spectre—a leg, or an arm! Or a forefinger, or a big toe!" He, on the other hand, will materialize the dead on a grand scale, hundreds of thousands of whole bodies a year, for the purpose of filling out the ranks of police, politicians, and public servants (215). Lafayette Hawkins, Sellers's auditor and admirer, ap-
provingly exclaims that Sellers's plans will be "a much bigger wonder than materializing a mere plaster of Paris leg in a dim light" (215).
The crucial distinction is that Sellers is a scientist rather than a spiritualist, stressing electricity and the substance of "vital force" as his means of materialization. But, if this resembles the transmigration of ideas in Twain's mental telegraphy, then the play nonetheless repudiates this model of artistic creation. Sellers himself discounts his own vaunted process. After a typically Twainian confusion of identities, an astonished Sellers concludes that he has actually materialized someone: Reginald De Bohun, the heir to the earldom of Dover and a man reported to have just died in a fire. Yet Sellers belittles this apparent success by declaring his belief that the man before him is without substance, that he is liable to float away or disappear (221). And when the prospect looms that this "materializee" might marry his daughter, Sellers strenuously objects that the man is a mere "simulacrum," a "spectre," a "miserable fraud of an apparition" (233), not the substantial, warm, living body that a husband must be. But the final blow to the entire undertaking of representation—whether it be through simulacra and facsimile or physical transmission—comes with the revelation that this materialization never took place after all. Sellers, as an artist and reproducer of reality, failed completely.
As echoes and analogues of Sellers's translation of the dead, the play introduces other media that promise the technofantasy of the reproduction of reality, notably a telephone and a phonograph—each of which raises questions about the reliability of physical transmission. As Nicholas Royle has persuasively suggested, telepathy in the nineteenth century was related to a more general "tele-culture" of communication through invisible channels—"in telegraphy, photography, the telephone and gramophone"; and if Alexander Graham Bell and, especially, Thomas A. Watson, the inventors of the telephone, joined their thinking about telephonic communication to spiritualism and occult forces, it should be no surprise that Twain links telephony and Sellers's materialization. But like the electrical medium for reproducing the dead, the electricity of the telephone misfires. It serves merely as an occasion for a long passage of mis-communication between Sellers and the "call-boy" of a hotel. The telephone finally fails to convey any information and elicits from Sellers a curse on "that deaf and dumb machine" (234).
Another medium that mechanically listens and mechanically reproduces what it hears, that translates the voice through a malleable
substance, is the phonograph, in this case "the Sellers Ship's phonograph for the application of stored Profanity to the working of Vessels during storms. Adapted to the use of Foremen in Boiler Manufactories and Large Press-Rooms" (223). When "loaded up" with "sailor profanity" by a hired "expert," this invention is supposed to aid first mates by relieving them of the responsibility of doing all the swearing at the sailors. Used as Sellers means it to be used, then, the phonograph would represent skillful swearing, but mainly for effect rather than for the purpose of realistic reproduction. However, "if you leave it open, and all set," the phonograph will also "eavesdrop, so to speak—that is to say, it will load itself up with any sounds that are made within six feet of it" (241). Akin to the mediumship of John H. Day, who in a sense reproduces eavesdroppings, the phonograph's registration and conveyance of the talk of unsuspecting people is even less satisfactory than Day's face, with its incomplete and puzzling representations. The physical and direct medium of the phonograph plays back fragments of language as collage or as burlesque. For example, a conversation recorded between Mary Sellers and Aunt Sally, a black servant, comes out as juxtaposed snippets of Mary's weeping over her lover and Sally's cursing him, and more generally as a sentimental language of love discomposed by blackface minstrel dialect (224). Later, when Colonel Sellers tries to demonstrate some profanity, he gets only a sentimental ballad by an unknown singer interrupted by cats wailing and "warming up towards a fight " (241). The phonograph simply cannot represent transparently. Its mediation rearranges reality into noise, nonsense, and burlesque.
Huckleberry Finn —which, because it was started a couple of years before "Mental Telegraphy" and finished in 1883, the year of "Clairvoyant" and Sellers as a Scientist , understandably echoes mediumistic concerns—reiterates the message that any medium for communication transmits but also impedes. Consider the fog, which makes Jim's panicked whoops indistinguishable from other raftsmen's and causes sounds to "dodge around" and "swap places," much as Sellers's phonograph does. As Huck concludes, you "couldn't tell nothing about voices in a fog" (100–101). Huck later juxtaposes the fog, in which confusedly disembodied voices sound "like spirits carrying on that way in the air," to clear atmosphere, in which you could easily see a raftsman at a distance chopping wood: "You'd see the axe flash, and come down—you don't hear nothing; you see that axe go up again, and by the time it's above the man's head, then you hear
the k'chunk! —it had took all that time to come over the water" (157). The effect of this observation, though, is to underscore the airy medium as both channel and impediment for distant reality. In Huck's superstitious world, similarly, leaves may try to rustle a mournful message, owls may whoo-whoo about a spirit, dogs and whippoorwills may cry about the dying, but all of these fall short of full communication, just like the wind, which tried "to whisper something to me," but with so much noise that "I couldn't make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me." The failure of communication itself causes terror and grief: "Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave and has to go about that way every night grieving" (4).
As if he were embodied fog, or a version of Sellers's profanity phonograph, Huck as a representation mechanism also works as both channel and impediment. When Huck goes on automatic, that is, and trusts to "instinct," as he puts it (279), or relies on "Providence" to put words in his mouth (277) (an important conflation, by the way, of scientific reflex action and spiritual mediumship), what comes out are "lies" that are worked-over versions of his experience. His lies to Judith Loftus, to the Grangerfords, to the duke and the king, to the Phelpses—which contain elements of his experience, such as being orphaned, being treated cruelly, rafting down the river, secretly traveling at night—all come off better than when he consciously has to fabricate stories, say about being an English "valley." As with Mark Twain, in other words, when the mental labor of storytelling is made a conscious task, it goes awry; but the automatism that might promise truth turns out to be bound to a mechanism whose corporeality, and circuitry, and sheer physiological functioning cancel the promise of a simple and direct conduit. Like the fog, Huck as a medium makes his realities dodge around and swap places. Like the profanity phonograph, Huck will register a variety of external stimulations through different channels, and his circuitry relays them back quite revised. Mechanical reproduction guaranteed by physical transmission is replaced by production as a reconstruction.
Even so, Huck has other, mediumistic qualities that help to authenticate his narration. In contrast to Jim, whose mediumistic prophesying through his hairball is transparently a money-making
hoax, and whose tale of being entranced and ridden by witches serves mainly a purpose of extravagant theater, Huck and his storytelling have that aura of general somnolence, absorption, and unselfconsciousness, a kind of feminization and passivity, and an association with the sincerity and intimacy of the domestic circle he fashions with Jim—all of which he reproduces in his intimate narration. These qualities situate him as a kind of amanuensis of reality, at least to the extent that he is removed from the realm of theater, hoax, and public performance. It is to these dimensions of mediumship in Twain's writing that I now turn.