A Contribution To The Erbzine Library Project.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Science And Spiritualism
Camille Flammarion, Scientist and Spiritualist
by R.E. Prindle
The last story in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles is about the expulsion from Earth of the various supernatural or imaginary beings such as fairies, elves, the elementals, all those beings external to ourselves but projections of our minds on Nature, to Mars as a last resort and how they were all dieing as Mars became scientifically accessible leaving no place for them to exist.
On Earth the rejection of such supernatural beings began with the Enlightenment. When the smoke and fury of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic years settled and cleared it was a new world with a completely different understanding of the nature of the world. Science, that is, knowing, had displaced belief as a Weltanschauung.
The old does not give way so easily to the new. Even while knowing that fairies did not exist the short lived reaction of the Romantic Period with its wonderful stories and fictions followed the Napoleonic period.
Supernatural phenomena displaced from the very air we breathed reformed in the minds of Men as the ability of certain people called Mediums to communicate with spirits although the spirits were no longer called supernatural but paranormal. Thus the fairies morphed into dead ancestors, dead famous men, communicants from beyond the grave. Men and women merely combined science with fantasy. Science fiction, you see.
Spiritualism was made feasible by the rediscovery of hypnotism by Anton Mesmer in the years preceding the French Revolution. The first modern glimmerings of the sub- or unconscious began to take form. The unconscious was the arena of paranormal activity.
Hypnotism soon lost scientific credibility during the mid-century being abandoned to stage performers who then became the first real investigators of the unconscious as they practiced their art.
While the antecedents of spiritualism go back much further, the phenomena associated with it began to make their appearance in the 1840s. Because the unconscious was so little understood spiritualism was actually thought of as scientific. The investigators of the unconscious gave it incredible powers and attributes, what I would call supernatural but which became known as paranormal. Communicating with spirits, teleportation, telecommunications, all the stuff that later became the staples of science fiction.
Thus in 1882, Jean-Martin Charcot, a doctor working in the Salpetriere in Paris made hypnotism once again a legitimate academic study.
The question here is how much innovation could the nineteenth century take without losing its center or balance. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" presents the situation well. Freud, who was present at this particular creation, was to say that three discoveries shattered the confidence of Man; the first was the Galilean discovery that the Earth was not the center of the universe, the second revelation was Darwin’s announcement that Man was not unique in creation and the last was the discovery of the unconscious. Of these three the last two happened simultaneiously amidst a welter of scientific discoveries and technological applications that completely changed Man's relationship to the world. One imagines that these were the reasons for the astonishing literary creativity as Victorians grappled to deal with these new realities. There was a sea change in literary expression.
Key to understanding these intellectual developments is the need of Man for immortality. With God in his heaven, but disconnected from the world, supernatural explanations were no longer plausible. The longing for immortality remained so FWH Myers, a founder of the Society For Psychical Research, changed the word supernatural into paranormal. As the notion of the unconscious was now wedded to science and given, in effect, supernatural powers under the guise of the paranormal it was thought, or hoped, that by tapping these supernormal powers one could make contact with the departed hence spiritism or Spiritualism.
While from our present vantage point after a hundred or more years of acclimatizing ourselves to an understanding of science, the unconscious and a rejection of the supernatural, the combination of science and spiritualism seems ridiculous. Such was not the case at the time. Serious scientists embraced the notion that spirtualism was scientific.
Now, a debate in Burroughs' studies is whether and/or how much Burroughs was influenced by the esoteric. In my opinion and I believe that of Bibliophile David Adams, a great deal. David has done wonderful work in establishing the connection between the esotericism of L. Frank Baum and his Oz series of books and Burroughs while Dale Broadhurst has added much.
Beginning in the sixties of the nineteenth century a French writer who was to have a great influence on ERB, Camille Flammarion, began writing his scientific romances and astronomy books. Not only did Flammarion form ERB's ideas of the nature of Mars but this French writer was imbued with the notions of spiritualism that informed his science and astronomy. He and another astronomer, PercivalLowell, who is often associated with ERB, in fact, spent time with Flammarion exchanging Martian ideas. Flammarion and Lowell are associated.
So, in reading Flammarion ERB would have imbibed a good deal of spiritualistic, occult, or esoteric ideas. Flammarion actually ended his days as much more a spiritualist than astronomer. As a spiritualist he was associated with Conan Doyle.
Thus in the search for a new basis of immortality, while the notion of God became intenable, Flammarion and others began to search for immortality in outer space. There were even notions that spirits went to Mars to live after death somewhat in the manner of Bradbury's nixies and pixies. In his book Lumen Flammarion has his hero taking up residence on the star Capella in outer space after death. Such a book as Lumen must have left Burroughs breathless with wonderment. Lumen is some pretty far out stuff in more ways than one. After a hundred fifty years of science fiction these ideas have been endlessly explored becoming trite and even old hat but at the time they were excitingly new. Flammarion even put into Burroughs' mind that time itself had no independent existence. Mind boggling stuff.
I believe that by now Bibliophiles have assembled a library of books that Burroughs either did read or is likely to have read before 1911 that number at least two or three hundred. Of course, without radio, TV, or movies for all of Burroughs' childhood, youth and a major portion of his young manhood, although movies would have become a reality by the time he began writing, there was little entertainment except reading. Maybe a spot of croquet.
As far as reading goes I suspect that ERB spent a significant portion of his scantily employed late twenties and early thirties sitting in the Chicago Library sifting through the odd volume. It can't be a coincidence that Tarzan lounged for many an hour in the Paris library before he became a secret agent and left for North Africa.
I have come across a book by the English author CharlesHowardHinton entitled Scientific Romances of which one explores the notion of a fourth dimension. Hinton is said to have been an influence on H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. It seems certain that Burroughs read The Time Machine while he would have found many discussions of the fourth dimension as well as other scientific fantasies in the magazines and even newspapers as Hillman has so amply demonstrated on ERBzine. We also know that ERB had a subscription to Popular Mechanics while probably reading Popular Science on a regular basis. Popular Science was established in 1872.
It is clear that ERB was keenly interested in psychology and from references distributed throughout the corpus, reasonably well informed.
I wouldn't go so far as to maintain that ERB read the French psychologist Theodore Flournoy's From India To The Planet Mars but George T. McWhorter does list it as a volume in Vern Corriel's library of likely books read by Burroughs. The book was published in 1899 just as Burroughs was entering his very troubled period from 1900 to 1904-05 that included his bashing in Toronto with subsequent mental problems, a bout with typhoid fever and his and Emma's flight to Idaho and Salt Lake City. So that narrows the window down a bit.
However the book seems to describe the manner in which his mind worked so that it provides a possible or probable insight into the way his mind did work.
ERB's writing career was born in desperation. While he may say that he considered writing unmanly it is also true that he tried to write a lighthearted account of becoming a new father a couple years before he took up his pen in seriousness. Obviously he saw writing as a way out. His life had bitterly disappointed his exalted expectations, hence he would have fallen into a horrible depression probably with disastrous results if the success of his stories hadn't redeemed his opinion of himself.
Helene Smith, the Medium of Fluornoy's investigation into mediumship, was in the same situation. Her future, while secure enough in the material sense, as was Burroughs, fell far short of her hopes and expectations. Thus she turned to mediumship to realize herself much as Burroughs turned to literature. She enjoyed some success and notoriety attracting the attention of, among others, the psychologist Theodore Flournoy. Fournoy who enjoyed some prominence at the time, was one of those confusing spiritualism with science because of his misunderstanding of the unconscious. Thus as Miss Smith unfolded her conversations with the inhabitants of Mars it was taken with some plausibility.
If any readers I may have have also read my review of Du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson he or she will remember that Peter and Mary were restricted in their dream activities to only what they had done, seen and remembered or learned. As I have frequently said, you can only get out of a mind what has gone into it. In this sense Miss Smith was severely handicapped by an inadequate education and limited experience. While she was reasonably creative in the construction of her three worlds -- those of ancient India, Mars and the court of Marie Antoinette -- she was unable to be utterly convincing. In the end her resourcefulness gave out and the scientific types drifted away. She more or less descended into a deep depression as her expectations failed. Had she been more imagination she might have turned to writing as Burroughs did.
If Burroughs did read Flournoy, of which I am not convinced, he may have noted that Miss Smith's method was quite similar to his habit of trancelike daydreaming that fulfilled his own expectations of life in fantasy.
In Burroughs' case he had the inestimable advantage of having stuffed his mind with a large array of imaginative literature, a fairly good amateur's notions of science and technology, along with a very decent range of valuable experience. His younger days were actually quite exciting. He was also gifted with an amazing imagination and the ability to use it constructively.
Consider this possibility. I append a poem that he would have undoubtedly read -- "When You Were A Tadpole And I Was A Fish." Read this and then compare it to The Land That Time Forgot.
When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.
Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot lands heaved amain,
Til we caught our breath from the womb of death
And crept into light again.
We were Amphibians, scaled and tailed,
And drab as a dead man’s hand;
We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees
Or trailed through the mud and sand.
Croaking and blind, with out three-clawed feet
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.
Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
And happy we died once more;
Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
of a Neocomian shore.
The eons came and the eons fled
And the sleep that wrapped us fast
Was riven away in a newer day
And the night of death was past.
Then light and swift through the jungle trees
We swung in our airy flights,
Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
In the hush of the moonless nights;
And, oh! what beautiful years were there
When our hearts clung each to each;
When life was filled and our senses thrilled
In the first faint dawn of speech.
Thus life by life and love by love
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath and death by death
We followed the chain of change,
Till there came a time in the law of life
When over the nursing side
The shadows broke and the soul awoke
In a strange, dim dream of God.
I was thewed like Auroch bull
And tusked like the great cave bear;
And you, my sweet, from head to feet
Were gowned in your glorious hair,
Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
When the night fell o’er the plain
And the moon hung red o’er the river bed
We mumbled the bones of the slain.
I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
And shaped it with brutish craft;
I broke a shank from the woodland lank
And fitted it, head and haft;
Then I hid me close to the reedy tarn,
Where the mammoth came to drink;
Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
And slew him upon the brink.
Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin,
From west and east to the crimson feast
The clan came tramping in.
O’er joint and gristle and padded hoof
We fought and clawed and tore,
And cheek by jowl with many a growl
We talked the marvel o’er.
I carved that fight on a reindeer bone
With rude and hairy hand;
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That men might understand,
For we lived by blood and the right of might
Ere human laws were drawn,
And the age of sin did not begin
Till our brutal tush were gone.
And that was a million years ago
In a time that no man knows;
Yet here tonight in the mellow light
We sit at Delmonico’s.
Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
Your hair is dark as jet,
Your years are few, your life is new,
Your soul untried, and yet-
Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
And deep in the Coralline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?
God has wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
And furnished them wings to fly;
He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,
And I know that it shall not die,
Though cities have sprung above the graves
Where the crook-bone men make war
And the oxwain creaks o’er the buried caves
Where the mummied mammoths are.
Then as we linger at luncheon here
O’er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a tadpole and I was a fish.
With something like that stuffed into his subconscious what wonders might ensue. Obviously The Land That Time Forgot and The Eternal Lover.
As Miss Smith had turned to spiritualism and mediumship, Burroughs turned his talents to writing. According to himself he used essentially mediumistic techniques in hiswriting. He said that he entered a tracelike state, what one might almost call automatic writing to compose his stories. He certainly turned out three hundred well written pages in a remarkably short time with very few delays and interruptions. He was then able to immediately begin another story. This facility lasted from 1911 to 1914 when his reservoir of stored material was exhausted. His pace then slowed down as he had to originate stories and presumably work them out more rather than just spew them out.
Curiously like Miss Smith he created three main worlds with some deadends and solo works. Thus while Miss Smith created Indian, Martian and her 'Royal' identity Burroughs created an inner World, Tarzan and African world, and a Martian world.
Perhaps in both cases three worlds were necessary to give expression to the full range of their hopes and expectations. In Burroughs' case his worlds correspond to the equivalences of the subconscious in Pellucidar, the conscious in Tarzan and Africa and shall we say, the aspirational or spiritual of Mars. In point of fact Burroughs writing style varies in each of the three worlds, just as they did in Miss Smith's.
Having exhausted his early intellectual resources Burroughs read extensively and exhaustively to recharge his intellectual batteries. This would have been completely normal because it is quite easy to write oneself out. Indeed, he was warned about this by his editor, Metcalf. Having, as it were, gotten what was in your mind on paper what you had was used up and has to be augmented. One needs fresh experience and more knowledge. ERB was capable of achieving this from 1911 to about 1936 when his resources were essentially exhausted. Regardless of what one considers the quality of the later work it is a recap, a summation of his work rather than extension or innovatory into new territory. Once again, not at all unusual.
As a child of his times his work is a unique blend of science and spiritualism with the accent on science. One can only conjecture how he assimiliated Camille Flammarion's own unique blend of spiritualism and science but it would seem clear that Flammarion inflamed his imagination setting him on his career as perhaps the world's first true science-fiction writer as opposed to merely imaginative or fantasy fiction although he was no mean hand at all.
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