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The Spiritual Seance by Mark Twain


There was a seance in town a few nights since. As I was making for it, in company with the reporter of an evening paper, he said he had seen a gambler named Gus Graham shot down in a town in Illinois years ago, by a mob, and as he was probably the only person in San Francisco who knew of the circumstance, he thought he would “give the spirits Graham to chaw on awhile.” [N.B. – This young creature is a Democrat, and speaks with the native strength and inelegance of his tribe.] In the course of the show he wrote his old pal’s name on a slip of paper and folded it up tightly and put it in a hat which was passed around, and which already had about five hundred similar documents in it. The pile was dumped on the table and the medium began to take them up one by one and lay them aside, asking: “Is this spirit present? – or this? – or this?” About one in fifty would rap, and the person who sent up the name would rise in his place and question the defunct. At last a spirit seized the medium’s hand and wrote “Gus Graham ” backwards. Then the medium went skirmishing through the papers for the corresponding name. And that old sport knew his card by the back! When the medium came to it, after picking up fifty others, he rapped! A committeeman unfolded the paper and it was the right one. I sent for it and got it. It was all right. However, I suppose all those Democrats are on sociable terms with the devil. The young man got up and asked:

“Did you die in ’51? – ’52? – 53? – ’54? -”

Ghost – “Rap, rap, rap.”

“Did you die of cholera? – diarrhea? – dysentery? – dog bite? – small-pox? – violent death?

“Rap, rap, rap.”

“Were you hanged? – drowned? – stabbed? – shot? ”

“Rap, rap, rap.”

“Did you die in Mississippi? – Kentucky? – New York? – Sandwich Islands? – Texas? – Illinois? – ”

“Rap, rap, rap.”

“In Adams county? – Madison? – Randolph? –

“Rap, rap, rap.”

It was no use trying to catch the departed gambler. He knew his hand and played it like a Major.

About this time a couple of Germans stepped forward, an elderly man and a spry young fellow, cocked and primed for a sensation. They wrote some names. Then young Ohlendorff said something which sounded like –

“Ist ein geist hieraus?” [Bursts of laughter from the audience.]

Three raps – signifying that there was a geist hieraus.

“Vollen sie schreihen?” [More laughter.]

Three raps.

“Finzig stollen, linsowfterowlickterhairowfterfrowleinerwhackfolderol?”

Incredible as it may seem, the spirit cheerfully answered Yes to that astonishing proposition.

The audience grew more and more boisterously mirthful with every fresh question, and they were informed that the performance could not go on in the midst of so much levity. They became quiet.

The German ghost didn’t appear to know anything at all – couldn’t answer the simplest questions. Young Ohlendorff finally stated some numbers, and tried to get at the time of the spirit’s death; it appeared to be considerably mixed as to whether it died in 1811 or 1812, which was reasonable enough, as it had been so long ago. At last it wrote “12.”

Tableau! Young Ohlendorff sprang to his feet in a state of consuming excitement. He exclaimed:

“Laties und shentlemen! I wride de name fon a man vot lifs! Speerit-rabbing dells me he ties in yahr eighte-n hoondert und dwelf, but he yoos as live und helty as – ”

The Medium – “Sit down, sir!”

Ohlendorff – “But I vant to ”

Medium – “You are not here to make speeches, sir – sit down!” [Mr. O. had squared himself for an oration.]

Mr. O. – “But de speerit cheat! – dere is no such speer it ” [All this time applause and laughter by turns from the audience.]

Medium – “Take your seat, sir, and I will explain this matter.”

And she explained. And in that explanation she let off a blast which was so terrific that I half expected to see young Ohlendorff shot up through the roof. She said he had come up there with fraud and deceit and cheating in his heart, and a kindred spirit had come from the land of shadows to commune with him! She was terribly bitter. She said in substance, though not in words, that perdition was full of just such fellows as Ohlendorff, and they were ready on the slightest pretext to rush in and assume anybody’s name, and rap, and write, and lie, and swindle with a perfect looseness whenever they could rope in a living affinity like poor Ohlendorff to communicate with! [Great applause and laughter.]

Ohlendorff stood his ground with good pluck, and was going to open his batteries again, when a storm of cries arose all over the house, “Get down! Go on! Clear out! Speak on – we’ll hear you! Climb down from that platform! Stay where you are! Vamose! Stick to your post – say your say!”

The medium rose up and said if Ohlendorff remained, she would not. She recognized no one’s right to come there and insult her by practicing a deception upon her and attempting to bring ridicule upon so solemn a thing as her religious belief.

The audience then became quiet, and the subjugated Ohlendorff retired from the platform.

The other German raised a spirit, questioned it at some length in his own language, and said the answers were correct. The medium claims to be entirely unacquainted with the German language.

Just then a gentleman called me to the edge of the platform and asked me if I were a Spiritualist. I said I was not. He asked me if I were prejudiced. I said not more than any other unbeliever; but I could not believe in a thing which I could not understand, and I had not seen anything yet that I could by any possibility cipher out. He said, then, that he didn’t think I was the cause of the diffidence shown by the spirits, but he knew there was an antagonistic influence around that table somewhere; he had noticed it from the first; there was a painful negative current passing to his sensitive organization from that direction constantly. I told him I guessed it was that other fellow; and I said, Blame a man who was all the time shedding these infernal negative currents! This appeared to satisfy the mind of the inquiring fanatic, and he sat down.

I had a very dear friend, who, I had heard, had gone to the spirit land, or perdition, or some of those places, and I desired to know something concerning him. There was something so awful, though, about talking with living, sinful lips to the ghostly dead, that I could hardly bring myself to rise and speak. But at last I got tremblingly up and said with low and reverent voice:

“Is the spirit of John Smith present?” [You never can depend on these Smiths; you call for one and the whole tribe will come clattering out of hell to answer you.]

“Whack! whack! whack! whack!”

Bless me! I believe all the dead and damned John Smiths between San Francisco and perdition boarded that poor little table at once! I was considerably set back – stunned, I may say. The audience urged me to go on, however, and I said:

“What did you die of?”

The Smiths answered to every disease and casualty that man can die of.

“Where did you die?”

They answered Yes to every locality I could name while n geography held out.

“Are you happy where you are?”

There was a vigorous and unanimous “No!” from the late Smiths.

“Is it warm there?”

An educated Smith seized the medium’s hand and wrote:

“It’s no name for it.”

“Did you leave any Smiths in that place when you came away?”

“Dead loads of them.”

I fancied I heard the shadowy Smiths chuckle at this feeble joke – the rare joke that there could be live loads of Smiths where all are dead.

“How many Smiths are present?”

“Eighteen millions – the procession now reaches from here to the other side of China.”

“Then there are many Smiths in the kingdom of the lost?”

“The Prince Apollyon calls all newcomers Smith on general principles; and continues to do so until he is corrected, if he chances to be mistaken ”

“What do lost spirits call their dread abode?”

“They call it the Smithsonian Institute.”

I got hold of the right Smith at last – the particular Smith I was after – my dear, lost, lamented friend – and learned that he died a violent death. I feared as much. He said his wife talked him to death. Poor wretch!

By and by up started another Smith. A gentleman in the audience said that that was his Smith. So he questioned him, and this Smith said he too died by violence; he had been a teacher; not a school-teacher, but (after some hesitation) a teacher of religion; he had been a good deal tangled in his religious belief, and was a sort of a cross between a Universalist and a Unitarian; has got straightened out and changed his opinions since he left here; said he was perfectly happy. We proceeded to question this talkative and frolicsome old parson. Among spirits, I judge he is the gayest of the gay. He said he had no tangible body; a bullet could pass through him and never make a hole; rain could pass through him as through vapor and not discommode him in the least (wherefore I suppose he don’t know enough to come in when it rains – or don’t care enough;) says heaven and hell are simply mental conditions – spirits in the former have happy and contented minds, and those in the latter are torn by remorse of conscience; says as far as he is concerned, he is all right – he is happy; would not say whether he was a very good or a very bad man on earth (the shrewd old water-proof nonentity! – I asked the question so that I might average my own chances for his luck in the other world, but he saw my drift;) says he has an occupation there – puts in his time teaching and being taught; says there are spheres – grades of excellence – he is making pretty good progress – has been promoted a sphere or so since his matriculation; (I said mentally, “Go slow, old man, go slow – you have got all eternity before you” – and he replied not;) he don’t know how many spheres there are (but I suppose there must be millions, because if a man goes galloping through them at the rate this old Universalist is doing, he will get through an infinitude of them by the time he has been there as long as old Sesostris and those ancient mummies; and there is no estimating how high he will get in even the infancy of eternity – I am afraid the old man is scouring along rather too fast for the style of his surroundings, and the length of time he has got on his hands); says spirits cannot feel heat or cold (which militates somewhat against all my notions of orthodox damnation – fire and brimstone); says spirits commune with each other by thought – they have no language; says the distinctions of sex are preserved there – and so forth and so on.

The old parson wrote and talked for an hour, and showed by his quick, shrewd, intelligent replies, that he had not been sitting up nights in the other world for nothing; he had been prying into everything worth knowing, and finding out even thing he possibly could – as he said himself – when he did not understand a thing he hunted up a spirit who could explain it; consequently he is pretty thoroughly posted; and for his accommodating conduct and his uniform courtesy to me, I sincerely hope he will continue to progress at his present velocity until he lands on the very roof of the highest sphere of all, and thus achieves perfection.

Originally appeared as AMONG THE SPIRITUALISTS in
Territorial Enterprise, January, 1866


¿Y el teléfono, que transmite la palabra, no por ondas sonoras, sino por un movimiento eléctrico? Si pudiéramos hablar por un tubo entre París y Marsella, nuestra voz emplearía tres minutos y medio para llegar a su destino, de modo que la respuesta tardaría siete minutos. No pensamos en ello, pero el teléfono es tan absurdo como los rayos X desde el punto de vista de nuestro concepto de las cosas anterior a esos descubrimientos.

Camille Flammarion

Camille Flammarion

Se ha hablado de las cinco puertas de nuestros conocimientos: la vista, el oído, el olfato, el gusto y el tacto. Estas cinco puertas no nos dan más que muy poco acceso al mundo exterior, sobre todo las tres últimas. La vista y el oído van bastante lejos, pero en la realidad es la luz casi sola la que pone nuestro espíritu en comunicación con el universo. Ahora bien, ¿qué es la luz? Un modo de vibración del éter excesivamente rápida. La sensación de luz es producida en nuestra retina por vibraciones que van desde 400 trillones por segundo (extremo rojo del espectro luminoso) hasta 756 trillones (extremo violeta). Estas vibraciones han sido medidas con precisión hace mucho tiempo. Antes y después de estos números hay otras vibraciones del éter no perceptibles a nuestros ojos. Más allá del rojo son vibraciones caloríficas obscuras. Más allá del violeta, son vibraciones químicas, actínicas, fotografiables e igualmente obscuras. Hay otras muchas que permanecen desconocidas. Á estos datos añadiré una comparación, hecha recientemente por sir William Crookes, a propósito de la continuidad probable de los fenómenos del universo y de las lagunas que nuestra organización terrestre sufre en esa continuidad.

Los fenómenos naturales que se verifican constantemente al rededor nuestro, se realizan bajo la acción de fuerzas invisibles. El vapor de agua cuya obra es tan considerable en la climatología, es invisible. También lo es el calor. También la electricidad. También son invisibles los rayos químicos. EI espectro solar, que se presenta el conjunto de los rayos luminosos sensibles a la retina humana, los rayos visibles, es hoy conocido de todo el mundo. Si se hace pasar un rayo de sol a través de un prisma se obtiene a la salida una faja coloreada que va del rojo al violeta, atravesada por gran número de rayos, que son líneas de absorción producidas por las substancias que arden en la atmósfera solar y por el vapor de agua de la atmósfera terrestre. Si se pasa un termómetro por la izquierda del espectro visible, más allá del rojo, se le ve elevarse y se observa que hay aquí rayos caloríficos invisibles para nosotros. Si se coloca una placa fotográfica a la de derecha, más allá del violeta, se la ve impresionarse, lo que prueba la presencia de rayos químicos muy activos invisibles para nosotros. Observación muy importante: hay cuerpos invisibles que pueden convertirse en visibles; así el uranio y el sulfato de quinina se hacen visibles en la oscuridad bajo las radiaciones ultravioletas. Hoy se definen todos esos rayos por su longitud de onda, que es el espacio recorrido por la onda durante un período vibratorio. Aunque las longitudes de onda de las radiaciones sean de una extremada pequeñez, se llega, gracias al empleo de enrejados de difracción, a determinarlas muy exactamente.

Vivimos en un espacio de tres dimensiones; los seres que vivieran en un espacio de dos dimensiones; en la superficie de un círculo, por ejemplo, no conocerían más que la geometría de dos dimensiones, no podrían pasar más allá de la línea que limita un círculo un cuadrado y estarían presos en una circunferencia, sin poder salir de ella. Dadles la tercera dimensión con la facultad de moverse en ella y pasarán sencillamente por encima de la línea, sin romperla y hasta sin tocarla. Las seis superficies de una habitación cerrada (cuatro paredes, suelo y techo) nos aprisionan, pero supongamos una cuarta dimensión y dotémonos de la facultad de vivir en ella, y saldremos de nuestra prisión tan fácilmente como un hombre pasa sobre una línea trazada en el suelo. No podemos concebir ese hiperespacio, como un ser construido para moverse sólo en un plano no podría concebir el espacio cúbico, pero no estamos autorizados para declarar que no existe. Hay en la vida terrestre ciertas facultades que no se explica el hombre, ciertos sentidos ignorados. ¿Cómo encuentran sus nidos el pichón viajero y la golondrina? ¿Cómo vuelve el perro a su casa desde muchos cientos de kilómetros y por un camino que no ha recorrido? ¿Cómo una víbora hace bajar un pájaro hasta su boca y cómo atrae el lagarto a la mariposa fascinada? En otra parte he demostrado que los habitantes de otros mundos deben estar dotados de sentidos muy diferentes de los nuestros.

No conocemos nada ABSOLUTO. Todos nuestros juicios son relativos y por consecuencia imperfectos e incompletos. La cordura científica consiste, pues, en ser muy reservados en nuestras negaciones. Tenemos el deber de ser modestos. «La duda es una prueba de modestia, diremos con Arago, y es raro que haya estorbado al progreso de las ciencias. No se puede decir lo mismo de la incredulidad. Existe todavía un gran número de hechos no explicados que pertenecen al dominio de lo desconocido, Los fenómenos de que vamos a tratar están en ese número. La telepatía, o sensación a distancia; las apariciones o las manifestaciones de moribundos; la transmisión del pensamiento; la vista en sueños o en sonambulismo, sin el auxilio de los ojos, de paisajes, de ciudades, de monumentos; la presciencia o premonición de un suceso próximo; la previsión del porvenir, los presentimientos; algunos casos magnéticos extraordinarios; la escritura al dictado por golpes dados en las mesas; ciertos ruidos inexplicados; las casas encantadas; los movimientos de objetos contrarios a las leyes de la gravedad; los efectos que parecen materializaciones de fuerzas (lo que es absurdo); las manifestaciones, aparentes o reales, de almas separadas del cuerpo o de espíritus de cualquier orden, y otros muchos fenómenos raros y no explicados actualmente, merecen nuestra curiosidad y nuestra atención científica. Estemos por otra parte, convencidos de que todo lo que podamos observar y estudiar es natural y de que debemos examinar los hechos tranquila y científicamente, sin preocupación de misterio, sin turbación y sin misticismo, como cuando se trata de astronomía, de física o de fisiología. Todo está en la naturaleza, lo desconocido como lo conocido: lo sobrenatural no existe y es una palabra vacía de sentido. Los eclipses, los cometas, las estrellas temporales, fueron mirados como sobrenaturales y como señales de la cólera divina antes de que se conociesen las leyes de esos fenómenos. Se llama sobrenatural a lo que es maravilloso, extraordinario o inexplicado. Se debe decir sencillamente desconocido. Los críticos que vean en esta obra una vuelta a los tiempos de la superstición, padecerán un grosero error.

Se trata, al contrario, de análisis y de examen. Los que dicen: «¿Yo, creer en cosas imposibles? ¡Jamás! No creo más que en las leyes de la naturaleza y éstas son conocidas», se parecen a los antiguos geógrafos inocentes que escribían en sus mapamundis en las columnas de Hércules (estrecho de Gibraltar): HIC DEFICIT ORBIS, aquí acaba el mundo, sin sospechar que en aquel espacio occidental desconocido y vacío, hay dos veces más tierras de las que aquellos buenos geógrafos conocían. Todos los conocimientos humanos pueden ser representados simbólicamente por un islote pequeño y minúsculo rodeado por un océano sin límites. Nos queda todavía mucho, muchísimo que aprender.