Creative Aging Poems Fare for “Last Sunday”; Spiritualism as an Escape from Expected Norms

Sunday, for the Memorial Day Holiday Weekend, brought something new to the Bloomington Writers Guild’s normal “Last Sunday Poetry Reading.”  This one, also the last for the season as the Guild goes on its summer haitus, combined with a local Creative Aging Festival in conjunction with National Older Americans Month (so many things, so many goings on!), brought numerous guests for what amounted to an all-open mike session.  Most poets were also, therefore, on the elderly side themselves, though many of us in the Writers Guild seem to be so anyway.  But as for another difference from expected practice, even though I was invited to, I begged off from reading a poem myself on the grounds that I — who do not age creatively — didn’t have anything that seemed appropriate.

But what of “after-aging,” one might ask?  Poems on death, as on creatures undead, might not have been proper, but what should greet me afterward when I stopped by the library on the way home to look at email (their equipment being faster than the cave computer) but, via DIRGEMAG.COM, “The Victorian Séance:  The Ultimate Feminist Death Party” by Patricia Lundy.  The gist is that seancespiritualism offered an opportunity for women in a strictly defined male-dominated society to find a niche where they, themselves, were a center of power, however limited.  But spiritualism had become quite popular among men as well as women so, even if specialized, an ambitious practitioner could escape at least for a time her expected role.  As a medium conducting a séance, a woman had more status and opportunity than she did anywhere else in society.  Victorian society demanded that a woman satisfied her husband sexually whenever he wished, had no property or voting rights, and did not have the power to divorce her husband or even gain custody of her children if he divorced her.  Spiritualism offered her a way to fight the patriarchy — by communicating with the dead.  Although male mediums existed, female mediums were preferred because they were thought to have more spiritual faculties than their male counterparts:  “A female medium was often considered a better communicator than a male medium because she had allegedly a better predisposition to spiritual perfectibility.”(2)   Thus death with social history as well!

The article as a whole, though, is just a taste, the quote above covering much of Ms. Lundy’s ground in itself, but footnote “2” to which the quotation within the quote is attributed offers more depth for those who wish to delve.  This takes you to THE VICTORIAN WEB and Dr. Andrzej Diniejko, D. Litt. on “Victorian Spiritualism” (and which also has its own short set of bibliographical notes).  Dr. Diniejko’s piece can be found by pressing here, while Ms. Lundy’s piece is available here.

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  1. Enjoyed your bloggie on this subject. Personally, I think it’s rather a bunch of bunk. But not everything about spiritual visits is necessarily bunk. It’s just when you’re in the game of making people pay to think they have communed with their loved ones–that’s a bit too much for me.

  2. I did a little looking up of Florence Cook and the spirit Katie King, mentioned toward the end of Diniejko’s article. Among other things she became friends with the scientist Sir William Crookes who tested her claims several times and maintained that she was genuine. Also (as Diniejko mentions too) that there were, um, extra attractions to some of her seances. One interesting article, “Florence Cook and the Enigmatic Katie King,” on PRARIEGHOSTS.COM by Troy Taylor gives some details on how these sessions worked (with apparent room for trickery and some seemingly obvious lacks of precautions by Sir William Crookes) — the url (to whatever extent it comes through) is http://www.prairieghosts.com/florence.html

    The moral may be that if you’re inclined to be a believer, you can believe some appalling things. And it’s not just stupid people — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a firm believer in spiritualism, as well as fairies as I recall, though one might imagine Sherlock Holmes would be more of a skeptic.

  3. Is there a bit of truthful irony that the man who confirms Florence Cook’s “talents” for (paid) contact with the spirit world–his name is “Crooke”. Hmmmm. Yes, Holmes would have been skeptical of his author’s beliefs in fairies. Ha!

  4. Oops, that should be “Crookes” (plural?) not “Crooke” — my typo (since corrected). It is known that he had poor eyesight (and declined to wear glasses until he was much older) and some have speculated that he may have been having an affair with Ms. Cook. Beyond that, however, he was (and is) a very respected scientist. Here’s a bit from the Wikipedia entry on him, this just covering his middle years:

    “In 1861, Crookes discovered a previously unknown element with a bright green emission line in its spectrum and named the element thallium, from the Greek thallos, a green shoot. Crookes wrote a standard treatise on Select Methods in Chemical Analysis in 1871. Crookes was effective in experimentation. The method of spectral analysis, introduced by Bunsen and Kirchhoff, was received by Crookes with great enthusiasm and to great effect. His first important discovery was that of the element thallium, announced in 1861, and made with the help of spectroscopy. By this work his reputation became firmly established, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1863.

    “He developed the Crookes tubes,[2] investigating cathode rays. He published numerous papers on spectroscopy and conducted research on a variety of minor subjects. In his investigations of the conduction of electricity in low pressure gases, he discovered that as the pressure was lowered, the negative electrode (cathode) appeared to emit rays (the so-called ‘cathode rays’, now known to be a stream of free electrons, and used in cathode ray display devices). As these examples indicate, he was a pioneer in the construction and use of vacuum tubes for the study of physical phenomena.[3] He was, as a consequence, one of the first scientists to investigate what is now called a plasma and identified it as the fourth state of matter in 1879.[4] He also devised one of the first instruments for the studying nuclear radioactivity, the ‘spinthariscope’.”

  5. Oh, and for whatever it’s worth, Cook (and apparently some, although not all, other mediums at the time) actually didn’t charge money. I don’t know if they sometimes received gifts on the side or, if married women, their husbands made enough at their work that they didn’t have to. Apparently though the attention and “fame” were enough (sort of like for us writers in a way, come to think of it, though that’s not necessarily how we’d planned it 🙂 )

  6. Wonderfully interesting follow-up. Perhaps Mr. Crooke was short sighted, and thus could be duped into thinking Ms. Cook’s spirits were really happening or he might have been “blinded by passion” –but in any event, he was a great boon to science!




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