The New Prometheans

Faith, Science, and the Supernatural Mind in the Victorian Fin de Siècle

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Courtenay Raia
  • Chicago: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , December
     440 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The New Prometheans: Faith, Science, and the Supernatural Mind in the Victorian Fin de Siècle, a densely packed, methodologically sophisticated, and interpretively challenging work on the rise of psychical research and its premier institutional expression, the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and its key figures, Courtenay Raia has made a major contribution. To carry forth her argument, Raia establishes firm ground in her introduction and first chapter entitled “The Culture of Proof and the Crisis of Faith.” In this section she incisively and effortlessly dispatches the perennial dichotomies of faith versus reason, science versus religion, and other variations of such facile, unidimensional arguments. Instead, she offers a solidly grounded, well-articulated call for reexamining the efforts of a group of Victorians to create a fusion of these disparate perspectives in the form of a new and unifying understanding of reality and the potential for the extension of human consciousness.

The rest of the bulk of the book is taken up with an extensive series of case studies of four distinguished members of the Society for Psychical Research who were also members of the respectable elite, a point that Raia underscores as a significant factor in the reception of their claims among their peers. The four are William Crookes, Frederic Myers, Oliver Lodge, and Andrew Lang, all of whom are not in need of introduction to any student of the subject of psychical research. What Raia adds, and significantly so, is a detailed examination of their contributions rooted as they were in their social and educational formation, respectability, and the need for their views to be given a fair hearing even by those in dissent or outright opposition. This created a very different dynamic and trickle-down influence in society at large and pushed the “borderlands” between science and the supernatural as well attracted other interested parties beyond the social milieu of the British establishment. Even the skeptical Sigmund Freud felt under an obligation to become a member of the SPR!

Of the four selected candidates for study, each had a part to play in the ambitious goal of the SPR to probe the nature of reality, pose questions to the universe, and coopt the best of current scientific theory and practice in the service of attaining answers that would push the threshold of the possible into seemingly embracing the impossible. While Crookes was the distinguished scientist of the bunch, Myers was the creative thinker who formulated a theory of the subliminal self, Lodge served as the éminence grise (confidential agent), and Lang, a protégé of E.B. Tylor, indulged in extending the findings into re-examining the origins of religion in experiential terms. This was the grand vision they were all committed to and if in the end it was deemed an equally grand failure, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The one surprising absence of mention are the explorations and psychological theories of the Swiss psychiatrist, C.G. Jung, whose own experiments with séances and mediums offers a striking parallel to the activities of his older British contemporaries. Nor have the ambitions of the founders of SPR completely subsided or died out as the contemporary resurgence of interest in altered states, near-death experiences, yogic siddhas, and meditational practices, many tracked by the available neuroscience hardware and software and the subject of study by Edward Kelley and his collaborators and colleagues at University of Virginia.

This and other matters are part of the commentary Raia adds in her final chapter entitled “Psychical Modernism: Science, Subjectivity, and the Unsalvageable Self.” The lucidity of Raia’s prose, mastery of the sources, and persuasive power of her arguments can only be appreciated in a careful reading and not adequately outlined in this brief review. This is a work to be read and worthy of being reread so rich are its offerings.

About the Reviewer(s): 

F.X. Charet is the coordinator of the Consciousness studies concentration and chair of the Goddard Graduate Institute, Goddard College.

Date of Review: 
August 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Courtenay Raia is a member of the humanities faculty at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. She is a recipient of the JHBS John C. Burnham Early Career Award, and her online lecture series at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been recognized for excellence by Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program.


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