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An Act of Memory

Psychical Research


Walking Into an Act of Memory


In 1901, two women--hardly more than acquaintences--wandered through the parks at Versailles. Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain were specifically interested in the parks and hamlets of Marie Antoinette called Petit Trianon. As they walked around Petit Trianon, they both felt (though did not share with one another) a remarkable ill-feeling, a feeling that would cause Charlotte to later ask Eleanor, "Do you think that Petit Trianon is haunted?"

Both women had come to the same conclusion of feeling something "uncanny" about Petit Trianon and so they decided to speak no more of it until they had written down their own accounts of the day. Over the next ten years, the women researched their experiences and "wondered whether [they] had inadvertently entered within an act of the Queen's memory when alive." Publishing their account and evidence pseudonymously (as Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont) as "An Adventure," the two women recount their meeting with oddly dressed men and women (wearing 18th century costumes), uncanny feelings, and a man appearing as if from nowhere.

That they should claim, though, to have entered into an "act of memory" stands out as being quite odd. They believed that they walked into Marie Antoinette's memory as the Queen--imprisoned in Bastille--thought back to living at Versailles before the revolution. Psychical researchers calls this phenomena "retrocognition" or "time slippage."

Surely this is a hoax. Over the next few decades, what became known as the Moberly-Jourdain Incident sparked an incredible amount of debate. Critics offered counter theories (it was just a costume party or a tableau vivant as well as questioned the women's sanity (and sexuality). That both Moberly and Jourdain were both prominent academics and from very good families did not matter. Somewhat recently Terry Castle took up the issue to examine the impossible project of proving or disproving the women's accounts. She concludes that the process of trying to deal with the accounts becomes its own sort of mania (see "Contagious Folly: An Adventure and its Skeptics").


Psychical Research


"Surely you don't believe this?" I get this question quite a bit when I try to explain my research. Most often, I answer, "Why does it matter?" It is the job of some to figure out how the world works. It is the job of others to figure out what it means regardless of how. However, this is not a satisfactory answer. A story such as "An Adventure" cannot give us a satisfactory answer of "Is it true?" What it can give us is a way to think about what it tells us regardless of whether or not it is true. Does what we take away from "Hamlet" change if we discover it was a true story?

More importantly, research societies such as the Society for Psychical Research (William James founded the American counter-part) flourished at the turn of the 20th century. Their research into such concepts as retrocognition have vastly influenced contemporary thought. In philosophy, the works of Henri Bergson and William James (both heads of different psychical research societies) have shaped the century of thinking to follow. In psychology, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were both interested in psychical research (Freud wrote two speeches about "telepathy"). And all of these researches have created their own ways of conceiving of just how we understand time.

Time, hopefully it's clear, is not a static "thing." Our conscious and unconscious minds do not experience time in the same way and neither experiences it in anything like what we call "Atomic time." Contemporary research has shown that our feelings (unconscious and autonymic feelings called affect) come before our conscious reactions. Our feelings are, then, out of sync with our minds.

And these bizarre (some of them are really quite bizarre; others quite banal) researches into psychical phenomena offer new theories of time and help explain our existing theories of time. The Moberly-Jourdain Incident, for example, thinks of time as carrying affect. Mobery and Jourdain both account for their uncanny feelings as those of Marie Antoinette overtaking their own (because they entered into the Queen's memory). They also think of memory as being untethered from body, space, and time. How does that even work? Does it resemble our other theories about time that involve ghosts (souls who return and haunt)?




What does this have to do with literature (that is what you study isn't it)? I get this quite a lot. This one takes more time and I'll have to defer and say, if you really want to know you'll have to be one of the seven people to read my dissertation. However, in brief...

The stories we tell offer theories of time just like Moberly and Jourdain. Think of all those apocalyptic movies--good or bad (mostly bad). They all create a sense of time that presents history as moving toward a great crisis and then offers a promise of return and rebirth. Do people, generally speaking, experience their lives in this way? Of course not, but we do tend to act as if we do. This is a theory of time. Novels offer these all the time; narrators tell stories buried within their own theories of time.

The literature I'm interested isn't necessarily haunted or even that exotic, but it conveys the phenomenal interaction that humans have with nature.