Charles Richet could tell you. It’s easy to get distracted.
There I was, writing a short poem about my grandma, smoking (grandma was doing the smoking, I was doing the writing / let’s move on). There’s a bit where I describe how she confuses me with some long-dead relative, then takes a puff on her cigarette and releases the smoke upwards in a way that reminded me of old pictures I’d seen of mediums producing ectoplasm. Quite niche. Maybe not right. I thought I’d better look it up.
Wikipedia is a brilliant resource, but they should rename it. Wastipedia maybe. Procrastinatopedia. Okay, Wastipedia. Because what happens is you go to check up on one thing and inevitably end up on something else. Which is the natural way of things, I suppose, but not at all helpful when you’re trying to get stuff done.
In this case, I couldn’t resist clicking on a link to the guy who invented the word ectoplasm. Turns out he was an eminent French physician called Charles Richet. He won the Nobel Prize for his work on anaphylaxis. He invented a new analgesic drug, chloralose. In his spare time, he wrote books on history, sociology, philosophy, psychology, as well as plays and poetry. He did some useful work in the field of aviation. He was a notorious racist and eugenicist. Oh – and he was interested in the paranormal.
Sometimes it seems as if credulity is a switch you can opt to throw according to how you’re feeling, or how much fun you want to have. The ‘suspension of disbelief’ you employ when you sit down to watch a magic show.
Of course, I couldn’t resist looking up suspension of disbelief on Wikipedia. Turns out it was first used by Coleridge in 1817. Which is interesting, but not progressing this blog-post overly.
Anyway, Charles Richet doesn’t seem to have suspended his disbelief so much as hung it up in the hallway with his cloak and hat.
For example, in 1905 Wikipedia describes him attending a seance with a famous French medium of the time, Eva Carrière. In these seances Eva would invoke a 300 year old spirit guide called Bien Boa. Richet reported that Boa was breathing, and had ‘moved around the room and touched him.’ Unfortunately there was also a photographer present, who captured a cardboard cut-out, and a man dressed in a cloak, helmet and beard.
Now, I’m not great at discovering new forms of analgesia, and I’m certainly not high on the list of people you’d come to if you wanted to know how to get airborne. But I’m pretty confident I’d be able to tell the difference between a spirit guide and a cardboard cut-out, or a man in a helmet. Unless I decided beforehand that it’d be great if there were such things as spirit guides, in which case I might be able to ignore the strings hanging from the ceiling or the washing label in the hem of the spirit guide’s cloak.
The really confusing thing is that apparently Richet didn’t believe in the afterlife. He rejected it as ‘unscientific’. Instead he wrote about the sixth sense, which he saw as an ability to connect with:
‘[…] unknown vibrations emanating from reality – past reality, present reality, and even future reality […]’
which in itself sounds plausible, until a guy in a darkened room brushes past you wearing a helmet.
So what is ectoplasm?
There was a fashion for Victorian / Edwardian mediums who could produce floaty substances from their mouths and ears during trance states. The explanation was that this material was excreted by the medium so the summoned spirit could take on a physical shape. Sometimes these emanations carried a facial image of the spirit. Later on, when the whole thing was debunked, it transpired that the ectoplasm was actually cheesecloth, muslin or other light fabrics treated with egg white and so on, material that the medium swallowed beforehand, or stuffed up their sleeves, or their rectum, and then vomited when the time was right, or had dragged out by wires.
You have to love these photos, though. One of them is of the Scottish medium Helen Duncan, the last person convicted and sent to prison under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. She’s producing ectoplasm that even from here, seventy years later, you can tell is just a length of gauze and a rubber glove. (I think the Witchcraft Act was used as an expedient means of prosecution for fraudulent spiritual activity, but which may, unintentionally, have given some credence to her skills).
Richet certainly wasn’t alone in failing to see the truth of these things. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was another famous advocate of the paranormal, despite being the creator of one of the world’s most rational detectives. Doyle was friends with Houdini – for a while, at least. Doyle genuinely thought Houdini used magic instead of trickery, despite the fact Houdini would show him how it was done.
They fell out.
So, in conclusion, I spent half an hour idling / researching into ectoplasm, just for one glancing image in a poem.
I think that means it deserves a read – don’t you? Hmm? (He says, suddenly gripping the arms of his chair, leaning forwards, rolling his eyes, and a line of egg-stiffened cheesecloth flying out of his nose…)