In America, the spiritual seekers and do-it-yourselfers can claim as ancestors American transcendentalists like Emerson and Whitman. But there is also a distinctively English analogue of the late Victorian period. That is the subject of this new book, The New Prometheans: Faith, Science, and the Supernatural Mind in the Victorian fin de siècle (University of Chicago Press), by Courtenay Raia. [For the lines in the title of this post, and much more in the same high Romantic vein, see Lord Byron, “Prometheus”]
“The Society for Psychical Research was established in 1882 to further the scientific study of consciousness, but it arose in the surf of a larger cultural need. Victorians were on the hunt for self-understanding. Mesmerists, spiritualists, and other romantic seekers roamed sunken landscapes of entrancement, and when psychology was finally ready to confront these altered states, psychical research was adopted as an experimental vanguard. Far from a rejected science, it was a necessary heterodoxy, probing mysteries as diverse as telepathy, hypnosis, and even séance phenomena. Its investigators sought facts far afield of physical laws: evidence of a transcendent, irreducible mind.
The New Prometheans traces the evolution of psychical research through the intertwining biographies of four men: chemist Sir William Crookes, depth psychologist Frederic Myers, ether physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, and anthropologist Andrew Lang. All past presidents of the society, these men brought psychical research beyond academic circles and into the public square, making it part of a shared, far-reaching examination of science and society. By layering their papers, textbooks, and lectures with more intimate texts like diaries, letters, and literary compositions, Courtenay Raia returns us to a critical juncture in the history of secularization, the last great gesture of reconciliation between science and sacred truths.”