Unreadable spiritualist junk but with funny pictures
Interesting to compare European/American automatic writing with that of Chinese “Kong Pit”, or the descending of the pen. The two evolved completely separately but both arrived at nearly identical methods.
Several different instruments are described, a long Y shaped stick for two people (held in hands), a smaller T shape for one person (balanced on both hands), or a regular basket for two people (balanced on finger tips). The writing itself is done on a table covered with sand or flour.
The writers are professional mediums, sometimes described as illiterate, with an assistant who interprets the writing. Some mention is made of it being practiced at home by regular individuals but all the accounts are of professionals.
The written output is sometimes said to be in verse, but also in unreadable characters (ancient Chinese or mystic), only known by medium or assistant.
Questions, usually about the future, are written on a piece of paper, then burned (doesn’t say if medium is aware of question). The answers are given by the pen moving through the sand or flour.
The whole process is highly ritualized, with prayer invocation, offerings, etc. Special temples were also dedicated to this process, as was a spirit Sow Yoong Tai-Sien. This is usually described as being used mostly by the literate upper class.
Blackwood’s Magazine vol 93 jan – june 1863
This is best account, describes the ritual process of single writer.
It is sometimes had recourse to by mandarins and educated persons, as well as by the ignorant, for the purpose of gaining information as to the future intentions of Heaven, which are otherwise hid from human beings. One of the most frequent inquiries put is as to whether the questioner will have a number of male children, but all sorts of subjects are inquired into, both personal and political; and many volumes exist, both in prose and verse, alleged to have been written by spirits …. The Spirit – Writing is called by the Chinese Kong-pit, or ” Descending to the Pencil,” and the first step is to cut a bent twig from an apricot tree, affixing at the same time to the tree certain characters which notify that the twig or magic pencil is taken, because the spirit will descend in order to reveal hidden things. Having thus consoled the tree for its loss, the twig is cut into the shape of a Chinese pen, and one end is inserted at right angles into the middle, not the end, of a piece of bamboo, about a foot long and an inch thick, so that were this bamboo laid upon a man’s palms turned upwards, the twig might hang down and be moved over a piece of paper. In a temple, a schoolhouse, or an ancestral hall, chairs are then set apart for the spirit to be summoned, and for the god or saint of the temple or village under whose power the summoned spirit is supposed to be wandering. One table is covered with flowers, cakes, wine, and tea for the refreshment and delectation of the supernatural visitors, while another is covered with fine sand, in order that the spirit may there write its intimations. In order to add to the solemnity of the scene, proceedings are not commenced till after dark, and the spectators are expected to attend fasting, in full dress, and in a proper frame of mind.
The usual way of communicating in China with the higher supernatural powers is by writing supplications or thanksgivings on red or gold-tissue paper, and then burning the paper, the idea being that the characters upon it are thus conveyed into a spiritual form. In order to spirit-writing, a piece of paper is burnt containing some such prayer as this to the tutelary deity or saint of the place: “This night we have prepared wine and gifts, and we now beseech our great Patron to bring before us a cloud wandering spirit into this temple, in order that we may communicate with him.” After the saint has had sufficient time to find a spirit, two or three of the company go to the door to receive him, and the spirit is conducted to the seat set apart for him, with much honor, with many genuflections, and the burning of gold paper. The bamboo is then placed in the palms of a man, so that the apricot twig touches the smooth sand upon one of the tables; and it is usually preferred that the person in whose hands the magic pen is thus placed should be unable to write, as that gives some guarantee against collusion and deception. It is then asked if the spirit has arrived from the clouds; on which, if he is there, the spirit makes the bamboo shake in the hands of the individual who is holding it, so that the magic twig writes on the sand the character to, or ” arrived.” When it is thus known that the supernatural guest is present, both he and the tutelary deity are politely requested to seat themselves in the arm-chairs which have been provided, the latter, of course, being on the left, or in the post of honor according to Chinese ideas. They are then refreshed by the burning of more paper, and by the pouring out of wine, which they are thus supposed spiritually to drink; and those who wish to question the ghost are formally introduced to it, for nothing would be considered more shocking than for any one suddenly and rudely to intrude himself upon its notice. After these ceremonies, it is thought proper that the visitor from the clouds should communicate something about himself ; so inquiries are made as to his family and personal names, the period at which he lived, and the position which he occupied. The question as to time is usually made by asking what dynasty he belonged to, a few hundred years more or less not being thought anything of among this ancient people, and a ghost of at least a thousand years old being preferred to younger and consequently less experienced persons. The answers to these questions are given as before, the spirit, through the medium, tracing characters upon the sand.
After that, those who have been introduced to the invisible guest put their inquiries as to the future. The questions and the name of the questioner are written upon a piece of gold paper, as thus:—” Lee Tai is respectfully desirous to know whether he shall count many male children and grandchildren.” “Wohong would gladly know whether his son Apak will obtain a degree at the examination at Canton next month.” The paper with the question is then burned, and the spirit moves the magic pen until an answer, most frequently in verse, is traced upon the sand. If the bystanders cannot make out the answer, the ghostly interpreter will sometimes condescend to write it again, and to add the word ” right” when it is at last properly understood. After the sand on the table is all written over, it is again rolled smooth, and the kind spirit continues its work. When the answer is in verse, the bystanders often take to flattery, and say, ” The illustrious spirit has most distinguished poetical powers.” To which the illustrious spirit usually replies, in Chinese —” Hookey Walker !” Whenever a question is put, the paper is burned and wine is poured out; for Chinese ghosts appear to be thirsty souls, and are not above reprimanding those who neglect to give them wine, or do not regard their utterances with sufficient respect. It is believed that the man in whose hands the magic pen lies has nothing to do with its movements, and its motions can be easily seen, and cause some little noise, thumping down on the table.
John Henry Gray: China: A History 1878
Single writer, mentions names of spirits and temple.
Doolittle, Social Life of the Chinese 1876
Two person writing.
Epese Sargent, Planchette, or the Despair of Science 1869
quoting Dr. Mcgowen in North China Herald
Two person basket writing.
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research vol 17 1903
Tribute to FWH Myers by William James
Frederick Myers’s Service to Psychology
William James, one of the grand old men of psychology, wrote this tribute following the death of Myers. Very interesting in itself as a summary of Myers’s work and also of the man himself. You get a sense of why Myers appealed to those outside of academic science and conversely why he repelled those inside.
Source of two quotes from André Breton’s Le Message Automatique:
Myers’s Problem page 17
What is the precise constitution of the Subliminal —such is the problem which deserves to figure in our Science hereafter as the problem of Myers; and willy-nilly, inquiry must follow on the path which it has opened up. But Myers has not only propounded the problem definitely, he has also invented definite methods for its solution. Posthypnotic suggestion, crystal-gazing, automatic writing and trance-speech, the willing-game, etc., are now, thanks to him, instruments of research, reagents like litmus paper or the galvanometer, for revealing what would otherwise be hidden. These are so many ways of putting the Subliminal on tap.
gothic psychology page 14
James doesn’t actually use this term, instead refering to Myers as a romantic psychologist as opposed to classical-academic:
(referring to the sunlit terrace of classical-academic psychology)
But of late years the terrace has been overrun by romantic improvers, and to pass to their work is like going from classic to Gothic architecture, where few outlines are pure and where uncouth forms lurk in the shadows. A mass of mental phenomena are now seen in the shrubbery beyond the parapet. Fantastic, ignoble, hardly human, or frankly nonhuman are some of these new candidates for psychological description. The menagerie and the madhouse, the nursery, the prison, and the hospital, have been made to deliver up their material. The world of mind is shown as something infinitely more complex than was suspected ; and whatever beauties it may still possess, it has lost at any rate the beauty of academic neatness.
The American Journal of Psychology
Another experimental attempt to induces automatic writing. The experiments are similar to those of Solomons and Stein: person attempts to write while distracted by reading. Actual content of writing is from memory or from dictation. Pretty boring, only interesting part is that they come closer to automatic reading then writing; they reported lapses of conscience during act of reading and rarely during that of writing. Also it doesn’t seem that they are even using the right approach, instead of the writing coming from the subconscience they rely on conscience memory or external dictation. No champs magnétiques.
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research
volume 28 1915
Hysterical record of two automatic writing sessions with Mrs. Piper (channeling Sir Walter Scott) and Professor Newbold. Mrs. Piper was a very famous English medium, similar to Helene Smith in France. Newbold was professor of philosophy at Princeton, a determined investigator of the supernatural.
Newbold’s questions and Piper’s written responses are arraigned like some bizarre play, the combination of Sir Walter’s descriptions of life on the various planets and Newbold’s dead pan questioning is priceless.
From the sublime (describing Venus)…
The atmosphere warm, balmy, beautiful, too much so to put in words and express. Now we feel a slight breeze and we are wafted through the outer rim as it were into a perfect little heaven by itself. Nothing ever realized on earth could compare with this. Now we see no one, i. e. no living being so to speak, only these beautiful creatures the trees like wax, the flowers like the true soul as it were, they are so really beautiful, the fields are one mass of green, the flowers of various hues, yet we see not a man anywhere.
…to the absurd (describing the sun)
we find it very warm and deserted like a deserted island. We wish to find its inhabitants if there are any i.e. if it has any. Now we see what we term monkeys, dreadful looking creatures, black extremely black, very wild. We find they live in caves which are made in the sand or mud, clay etc.
Read on until at least page 444 for the ensuing monkey controversy and Newbold’s admiting to losing it.
Four articles by F.W.H Myers, whose “gothic psychiatry” is mentioned in Breton’s Le Message Automatique.
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research ii 1884
On a Telepathic Explanation of Some So-Called Spiritualistic Phenomena
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research iii 1885
Automatic Writing II
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research iv 1887
Automatic Writing III
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research v 1889
Automatic Writing IV The Daemon of Socrates
Myers was the grand old man of psychic research at the time who had almost free reign to publish in Proceedings. He would have been a better writer if he had an editor though, he gets very verbose and rambling. His 30 page article titled “The Daemon of Socrates” doesn’t mention Socrates until page 18, he never sticks to the topic on hand but goes on long nested tangents. Gothic indeed.
Myers completely ascribes automatic writing to the writer’s subconscious, with the catch that the subconscience can also receive telepathic messages from others.
In part 2 he developes a theory of right brain hemisphere being the source of automatic messages that comes close to that of Julian Jaynes, particularly in part 4 when he discusses “automatic hearing”, hearing voices and hallucination.
Very interesting reads but not always easy going.
Mysterious psychic forces
by Camille Flammarion 1909
In chapter II Flammarion discusses his participation with the Kardec group and his own experiences with automatic writing.
He describes the meetings of the Spiritists, the group participation and leadership of Kardec reminds me of surrealist meetings:
The members came together every Friday evening in the assembly room of the society, in the little passageway of Sainte Anne, which was placed under the protection of Saint Louis. The president opened the seance by an ” invocation to the good spirits.” It was admitted, as a principle, that invisible spirits were present there and revealed themselves. After this invocation a certain number of persons, seated at a large table, were besought to abandon themselves to their inspiration and to write. They were called ” writing mediums.” Their dissertations were afterwards read before an attentive audience. There were no physical experiments of table-turning, or tables moving or speaking. The president, Allan Kardec, said he attached no value to such things It seemed to him that the instructions communicated by the spirits ought to form the basis of a new doctrine, of a sort of religion.
His experience with automatic writing and skeptism about the results being from anything other then himself
I myself tried to see if I, too, could not write. By collecting and concentrating my powers and allowing my hand to be passive and unresistant, I soon found that, after it had traced certain dashes, and o’s, and sinuous lines more or less interlaced, very much as a four-year-old child learning to write might do, it finally did actually write words and phrases.
These astronomical pages taught me nothing. So I was not slow in concluding that they were only the echo of what I already knew, and that Galileo had no hand in them. When I wrote the pages, I was in a kind of waking dream. Besides, my band, stopped writing when I began to think of other subjects.
long quote from his The Worlds of Space (Les Terres du Ciel):
The writing medium is not put to sleep, nor is he magnetized or hypnotized in any way. One is simply received into a circle of determinate ideas. The brain acts (by the mediation of the nervous system) a little differently from what it does in its normal state. The difference is not so great as one might suppose. The chief difference may be described as follows:
In the normal state we think of what we are going to write before the act of writing begins. There is a direct action of the will in causing the pen, the hand, and the fore-arm to move over the paper. In the abnormal state, on the other hand, we do not think before writing; we do not move the hand, but let it remain inert, passive, free; we place it upon the paper, taking care merely that it shall meet with the least possible resistance; we think of a word, a figure, a stroke of the pen, and the hand of its own volition begins to write. But the writing medium must think of what he is doing, not beforehand, but continuously; otherwise the hand stops. For example, try to write the word ” ocean,” not voluntarily (the ordinary way), but by simply taking a lead-pencil, and letting the hand rest lightly and freely upon the paper, while you think of your word and observe carefully whether the hand will write. Very good; it does begin to move over the paper, writing first an o, then a c, and the rest.
In the mediumistic writing experiments it is very easy to deceive ourselves and to believe that the hand is under the influence of another mind than our own. The most probable conclusion regarding these experiences has been that the theory of the action of foreign spirits is not necessary for the explanation of such phenomena.
His final conclusion is very similar to the surrealist position on automatic writing as being a subconscience process without any spirits:
I came to the positive conclusion that not only are the signatures of these papers not authentic, but that the intervention of another mind from the spirit world is not proved at all, the fact being that we ourselves are the more or less conscious authors of the communications by some cerebral process which yet remains to be investigated.