If the Spirit Moves You

It is commonly assumed that authors’ characters are, in one way or another, reflections of themselves, but Arthur Conan Doyle’s own worldview diverged strikingly from that held by his most beloved creation. In the report he makes to Holmes after arriving at Baskerville Hall, Dr. Watson imagines what type of people once inhabited the area, then observes:

All this, however, is foreign to the mission on which you sent me and will probably be very uninteresting to your severely practical mind. I can still remember your complete indifference as to whether the sun moved round the earth or the earth round the sun.

In many stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles among them, Holmes sets out to turn skepticism into certainty, to overthrow, as it were, even the possibility of a supernatural element intruding on the cases he’s been asked to solve. Doyle’s own mindset, however, drew less on his training as a physician and more on the metaphysical longings of his particular time; over the course of his life, he became increasingly devoted to spiritualism and one of its more famous champions in the aftermath of the First World War.

He shared this enthusiasm with no less eminent of figures than William James, the noted Harvard psychologist (and brother to novelist Henry James), sometimes called the father of American psychology, and his Swiss counterpart Carl Jung, who attended many a séance in the late 1890s. In his book, A Most Dangerous Method, psychologist John Kerr chronicles another compelling male friendship, that between Jung and Sigmund Freud, and, in the following passage, he sums up the challenge that such ideas posed to the modern worldview taking shape at the dawn of the 20th century:

…this was the age that first accepted scientific materialism as its dominant worldview. It was now commonly assumed that science had decisively triumphed over religion and metaphysics and that a complete materialistic account of the external world was nearly at hand. But then how was man to conceptualize that other pole of experience – the self? There seemed no place in the material world, with its endlessly antecedent causes, for the thinking, feeling, willing agency of the self. The paradox was apparent to all. There was as yet no agreed upon way of resolving it…It ought not to surprise us, therefore, to learn that medical men who occupied themselves with nervous patients also regularly tried their hand at philosophy. Nor that the phenomenology of nervous disorders was closely linked in the popular mind with all that seemed exceptional and marvelous, with séances, genius, telepathy, and the like – with all the places where there still seemed to be cracks in the materialist world order.

Image: Arthur Conan Doyle, his second wife and, between them, a “luminous manifestation,” circa 1920s.

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