THE DANGERS INVOLVED IN LIFTING THE VEIL
In my earlier Posts my aim was to show that the practices associated with the Paranormal were attempts to explore the limits of Human Consciousness by lifting a number of Veils shrouding the Human Personality.
In this Post I shall examine how George Eliot explores the subject of revealing the potential of the Human Personality and the Human Mind in one of her lesser known stories, “The Lifted Veil” (1859). She does so in order to deliver A WARNING.
GEORGE ELIOT IN 1860. WHEN SHE WAS 41 YEARS OLD
George Eliot was well acquainted with each aspect of the Paranormal that I have discussed previously. She refers to PHRENOLOGY many times in her letters written between 1838 – 1840, to her friends Maria Lewis and Martha Jackson. More than that she became deeply involved in PHRENOLOGY especially after meeting the Coventry Ribbon Manufacturer, Charles Bray in 1841. She became a personal friend of Edmund Gurney (a member of the SPR) and of of George Combe (the disciple of Spurzheim), and no doubt under Combe’s influence began making PHRENOLOGICAL OBSERVATIONS of others, including Charles Dickens. She was rather disappointed at detecting nothing remarkable about this famous author.
CHARLES DICKENS IN 1867/8. GEORGE ELIOT NOTICED NOTHING REMARKABLE ABOUT HIM PHRENOLOGICALLY ,
As for MESMERISM, she was well acquainted with this also. In 1844 she was herself MESMERISED at a Dinner Party. In addition she became involved in SPIRITUALISM, as her letters between 1840 and 1870 reveal. However, she was at times intensely hostile to this Paranormal practice. In fact she refused to sit in the same room as D.D. Home. But here is the paradox. Despite her aversion to Spiritualism, she thought it worthy of investigation.
In 1873 we notice a shift in George Eliot’s attitude once she met Edmund Gurney. It is highly likely that George Eliot based the character of Daniel Deronda, to some extent, on Gurney. Finally, she admitted to George Cross that her best writing occurred when something seemed to be TAKING POSSESSION of her. When this took place she felt like a mere INSTRUMENT through whom some sort of SPIRIT was operating. But students of George Eliot detect A CERTAIN UNEASE concerning the Paranormal. The Novel, which we shall examine, makes that UNEASE apparent.
“The Lifted Veil” (1859) is a clear indication of that concern, and the background to the story reveals the fascination yet repulsion for the Paranormal on the author’s part. Although the story was written in 1859 it was only in 1873 that she allowed it to be included amongst her complete works. It appears that during this fourteen-year period her mind wavered as to its suitability.
OK let me outline the Story then you will not get lost. Don’t forget, though, there is no substitute for reading the Novel itself.
The story is narrated in the first person by a man named Latimer. He is gifted or cursed with the Paranormal ability to discern the future and read the thoughts of other people. Unfortunately, Latimer recoils from what he sees about the motivations of others. It must be said that none of his predictions work out exactly as he foresaw them. As the novel progresses, Latimer becomes entranced by his brother’s fiancée, Bertha, a cold- hearted flirtatious woman. She fascinates him because hers is the only mind he cannot read. When his brother dies Latimer marries Bertha. But the marriage disintegrates as Bertha’s manipulative and untrustworthy nature become apparent. In true Gothic style. Bertha’s maid dies and a blood transfusion is administered to save her. The maid comes back to life briefly and accuses Bertha of a plot to poison Latimer. When this is revealed Bertha flees and Latimer eventually dies as he had foretold at the start of the novel.
THIS PICTURE CAPTURES THE ALOOF NATURE OF BERTHA TOWARDS LATIMER. NOTICE THE EYES, THE MOUTH, AND THE STANCE
The opening paragraph of the story reveals George Eliot’s aversion to the Paranormal. Latimer foresees the time and manner of his own death:
“Just a month from this day … I shall be sitting in this chair, in this study …longing to die, weary of incessant INSIGHT and FORESIGHT … without hope “ (Ch. 1)
Latimer is completely broken in spirit. There is nothing positive in his statement at all. Everything is wearisome. Notice how he focuses on ‘INSIGHT’ and on ‘FORESIGHT’ as twin CURSES. The story goes on to show, that as the VEILS lift one by one from his Mind, Latimer eventually reaches this desperate state. One after the other George Eliot brings out certain Paranormal techniques or abilities and points out the dire consequences – AS SHE SEES IT.
A PHRENOLOGIST soon comes on the scene
GEORGE COMBE THE PHRENOLOGIST TYPICAL OF THE ONE LATIMER’S FATHER ENGAGED TO DIAGNOSE HIS SON
Latimer tells us that in his early youth his father engaged Mr Letherall, a PHRENOLOGIST, to advise him on Latimer’s future career. Look how Mr Letherall proceeds. He takes Latimer’s ‘small head between his large hands and pressed it here and there in an exploratory, suspicious manner’ Following this he places ‘each of his great thumbs on my temples’ and studies the CONTOURS of Latimer’s head.
After this examination Letherall launches into his interpretation and tells Latimer’s father what course of study the boy must undertake. The PHRENOLOGIST says, “the DEFICIENCY is there sir – there and here. Pointing to the alleged PHRENOLOGICAL CONTOURS he says, “here is the excess. That must be brought out, sir and this must be laid to sleep.’ Following this diagnosis his father engaged a range of private tutors because, ‘Natural History, Science, and the Modern Languages’ were the instruments for REORGANISING Latimer, mentally.
AN EXAMPLE OF VICTORIAN HOME SCHOOLING SIMILAR TO THAT ADVOCATED FOR LATIMER
As we read on we discover that this study programme is irksome to this sensitive, artistic boy. Because this regime initiates Latimer’s mental trouble, George Eliot ATTACKS IT at once. This episode unquestionably reflects the VICTORIAN ASSUMPTIONS that one’s potential is determined at birth and by using the so called Scientific Method – in this case PHRENOLOGY – the Veil which shrouded one’s full potential could be lifted.
There are other points that must also be made. The implication is that these latent abilities could be MODIFIED: some could be ENHANCED and others SUPPRESSED exactly as Combe believed. Also the stress on particular features of Latimer’s training programme line up with Victorian PHRENOLOGICAL views on education.
GENEVA AT THE TIME OF LATIMER’S ILLNESS
Latimer’s mental trouble begins when he is sixteen years old and living in Geneva. At this time he suffers a severe illness directly traceable to the PRESCRIBED educational regimen. To remedy the situation Latimer’s father arranges a trip through various European cities concluding with a visit to Prague.
LATIMER HAS A MESMERIC VISION OF PRAGUE
After Latimer’s father has outlined the plans for his son’s recovery his father leaves the room. At that point, Latimer experiences ‘a strange sense that a new and wondrous scene was breaking in upon me.’ He is engulfed by a MESMERIC TRANCE, in which he has a PREVISION of certain areas of Prague.
After Latimer comes out of the MESMERIC STATE, he questions ‘whether I had been sleeping. Was this a dream?’ He soon discounts this idea because he ‘remembered distinctly the gradual BREAKING IN of the VISION.’ He likens himself to a MESMERIC SUBJECT when he describes the ‘rapt passivity’ of the experience. (chap. I)
Now let us pause a moment or two and see what George Eliot is setting up. First she sets up the idea that the CLAIRVOYANT VISIONS seem fairly pleasant and harmless. After all, the VEIL lifts INVOLUNTARILY from Latimer’s mind; it enables minute CLAIRVOYANT details of Prague to be seen. When Latimer eventually visits the City the details of his vision are corroborated precisely. No, Latimer does not at this stage appear to experience any ill effects at all. In relation to his visit to Prague, George Eliot deliberately provides Latimer with a basis for CONFIDENCE in what he had seen CLAIRVOYANTLY. So far, so good!
Several days later the VEIL over Latimer’s Mind begins to lift again, shifting its emphasis from places to people. A MESMERIC VISION arises of a group of three people – none of whom are in the room. These include Latimer’s father, Mrs Filmore – note her dress – ‘a commonplace middle-aged woman in silk and cashmere’, and another lady ‘not more than twenty.’ She is a ‘tall, slim, willowy figure, with luxuriant blond hair, arranged in cunning braids and folds.’ The dominant imagery concerns her FACE and EYES. She is ‘thin-lipped .. the face had not a girlish expression: the features were sharp, the pale grey eyes at once acute, restless, and sarcastic.’ The eyes are ‘fixed on me in half-smiling curiosity.’
THE WOMAN IN THE VISION FIXES HER GAZE ON LATIMER
But then something strange occurs. Because of this woman’s physical appearance and the penetrating POWER OF HER EYES, Latimer feels, ‘a painful sensation as if a sharp wind were cutting me’ His father – in the vision – makes a final remark, “Well, Latimer, you thought me long.’ Once these words are uttered the VISION dissolves and Latimer remarks, “This strange new power had manifested itself again.’ Within a short time these people visit him, and the minute details of the VISION concerning their dress, physical features, their names, and the words spoken are fulfilled.
We need to notice that a number of PHRENOLOGICAL and MESMERIC ideas are woven into the text such as CLAIRVOYANCE, and PRESENTIMENT, which is an INTUITIVE feeling about the future, often unpleasant. As for the PHYSICAL APPEARANCE of the woman, her FEATURES would alert any Victorian reader familiar with PHRENOLOGY and PHYSIOGNOMY to the latent evil associated with her. Regarding her EYES fixed upon Latimer, this seems a reference to the method of TRANCE INDUCTION practiced by some MESMERISTS. Even Latimer’s sensation of pain acts like a PRESENTIMENT of some future unhappiness that his eventual marriage to her will bring. This latter sensation produced by the ‘sharp wind’ is akin to SPIRITUALIST terminology.
At this point George Eliot moves to make her view of the Paranormal clear. She uses Latimer as her mouth-piece to declare:
“Already I had begun to taste something of the HORROR that belongs to the lot of a human being whose nature is not adjusted to simple human conditions” (chap 1)
So, the picture is changing. Now we begin to see George Eliot’s dislike of the Paranormal take shape in the experiences that begin to befall Latimer.
At this point I am going to leave the discussion and continue in the next Post concerning the evidence George Eliot provides in the novel for her own attitude.
I hope the discussion thus far has been of interest.
I apologise that some of the pictures do not retain a better resolution when enlarged.
I apologise that some of the pictures do not retain a better resolution when enlarged.
Picture Credits Wikimedia Commons
All quotations in this and future Posts are from Eliot, G. ‘The Lifted Veil’ The Cabinet Edition Volume iii. (Edinburgh 1878)