THE OCCULT IN FICTION. article in the Theosophical Outlook 1917
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The supernatural is an ever-present force in literature, says Dr. Dorothy Scarborough, Ph. D., of Columbia University, in her preface to "The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction," just published by G. P. Putnam's Sons. It colors our poetry, shapes our epics and dramas, and fashions our prose till we are so wonted to it that we lose sense of its wonder and magic.
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The work is a remarkable one both for its scope and its sympathy. There seem to be no omissions, and it is with a sense almost of surprise that we realize to what an extent the novelist has called upon the occult and the extent to which it has received the approbation of readers. But it in the preface that Dr. Scarborough reveals her own commendable standpoint. There is a popular demand, she says, for the occult literature, and it must have some basis in human psychosis:
"The night side of the soul attracts us all. The spirit feeds on mystery. It lives, not by fact alone, but by the unknowable, and there is no highest mystery without the supernatural. Man loves the frozen touch of fear, and realizes pure terror only when touched by the unmortal. The hint of spectral sounds or presences quickens the imagination as no other suggestion can do, and no human shapes of fear can awe the soul as those from beyond the grave. Man's varying moods create heaven, hell, and faery wonder lands for him, and people them with strange beings."
Man loves the supernatural because it dignifies him, because it raises him beyond the limitations of his personal self. By it the universe becomes his companion and its unseen denizens his servants:
"Literature, always a little ahead of life, has formed our beliefs for us, made us free with spirits, and given us entrance to immortal countries. The sense of the unearthly is ever with us, even in the most commonplace situations—and there is nothing so natural to us as the supernatural. Our imagination, colored by our reading, reveals and transforms the world we live in. We are aware of unbodied emotions about us, of discarnate moods that mock or invite us. We go aghosting now in public places, and a spectre may glide up to give us an apologia pro sua vita any day in Grand Central, or on Main Street of Our Town. . . . We may pass at will the guardian of the narrow gate and traverse the regions of the underworld. True, the materialist may argue that the actual is more marvelous than the imagined, that the aeroplane is more a thing of wonder than was the hippogriff, that the ferry is really the enchanted boat, after all, and that Dante could write a new Inferno if he could see the subway at the rush hour, but that is another issue."
We might have more psychical experiences than we do, says the author, if we would only keep our eyes open, but most of us do have more than we admit to our neighbors. We have an early-Victorian reticence concerning ghostly things as if it were scandalous to be associated with them.
Contrary to usual assurances that the mists of "superstition" have been cleared away by the sun of science, the author tells us that she has devoted more space to the supernatural in the last thirty years or so, because there has been much more of it in that time than before:
There is now more interest in the occult, more literature produced dealing with psychal powers than ever before in our history. It is apparent in poetry, in the drama, the novel, and the short story. . . . Much of our material of the weird has been rationalized, yet without losing its effect of wonder for us in fact or in fiction. If now we study a science where once men believed blindly in a Black Art, is the result really less mysterious?
"There is scarcely any great author in European literature, old or new, who has not distinguished himself in his treatment of the supernatural. In English literature I believe there is no exception from the time of the Anglo-Saxon poets to Shakespeare, and from Shakespeare to our own day. And this introduces us to the consideration of a general and remarkable fact, a fact that I do not remember to have seen in any books, but which is of very great philosophical importance: there is something ghostly in all great art, whether of literature, music, sculpture, or architecture. It touches something within us that relates to infinity." ~ Interpretations of Literature by Lafcadio Hearn 1915
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