Enrico Morselli

Enrico Morselli

1852-1929. Eminent Professor of Psychiatry at Genoa University from 1889 (previously at the University of Turin). A bitter sceptic of psychic phenomena until Eusapia Palladino in 30 sittings, completely convinced him of their reality. However, he was equally convinced that the phenomena could be explained by forces connected with the human organism and were not necessarily related to spirit agencies as Spiritualists believed. Morselli also concluded that "John King", Eusapia's spirit guide or control, was not a real entity.

An Interview with Enrico Morselli on Mediumistic Researchers

- I. M. Palmarini -

          I DID not know Enrico Morselli personally. I do not know why, but my fancy had pictured him as of imposing stature, thin, with a grey beard, and an ironical smile playing about his mouth. I found him, however, simple, courteous and calm, quite different from the popular conception of him. In his eye, though quick and penetrating, there were kindly glances which encouraged confidence; on his white, broad forehead high thoughts must play, which he certainly did not express to me, but which I read, and which seemed to attain to the most exalted idealism. His study at Genoa - where he received me with every courtesy - is a pleasing mixture of the doctor's consulting-room and the sanctum of the student.

As soon as I had told him that I had come to ask his opinion on the movement which was taking place in so-called spiritism, to know whether at the present juncture he had anything to say on this terrible subject, he carried his hand to his hair with an unaffected gesture.

"For mercy's sake, Palmarini, what do you want me to tell you? I have determined to answer nothing more to anybody; it is all so much time lost! Look here" - and he rose and pulled out of a glass case a great bundle of papers, which he opened and allowed me to examine - "this is my book on Spiritism,[1] which I have only to hand to the printer; it is all ready! This will be my final word on this thorny subject. See, then, whether I have occupied myself with it or am still doing so!"

[1] Psicologia e Spiritismo. By E. Morselli. Publishers, Bocca, Turin.

Enrico Morselli"Very good, and I hope that I shall soon read your opinions, which will certainly be of extraordinary importance. But, meanwhile, tell me at least whether you believe that mediumistic researches have recently passed from the field of vulgar empiricism and assumed something of a scientific character."

"Scientific? Psychical researches? How and when have they assumed a scientific character? For the present, I can assert that we are still in the most absolute, gross, bestial - really bestial - empiricism. If we think of the manner in which sťances are carried on, the toys, the puerilities which render possible or otherwise the manifestation of these phenomena, we, who are accustomed to the severity of scientific research, cannot but be disdainful of this state of affairs. Mind, I do not deny the existence of the phenomena, and I believe them to be real, not only because they are reported by persons worthy of credence, even by scientists, but because I also have experimented."

"Without suspicion of trickery?" I interrupted.

"No; I, at least, think not, and would almost guarantee that trickery was impossible; but mathematical certainty cannot be obtained. Certainly, if these phenomena were effected by trickery, it would be a more extraordinary phenomenon still."

"Then, Professor?"

"I said that the phenomena were real, but they are so capricious, so irreducible, so unequal and so refractory to all experimental determination, that it is most natural that a scientist like myself should rebel and distrust them. But that is not all; even admitting a spiritual origin for these phenomena, it is repugnant, as Gaetano Negri well said, it is repugnant to our thought to unite this sublime world with the bestially coarse practices of spiritistic sťances. I, for instance, at one sitting saw a phantasm which presented itself as my mother. Well, do you wonder that the thought that one so dear to me should be drawn there by the convulsive exclamations of any medium, while I, her son, cannot see her for myself, causes me a natural repugnance and a reasonable distrust?"

"But then, Professor, the dearest person in life to me, if she wished to come to me on a pathless mountain, would have to avail herself of the back of a common mule, not being able to make use of the convenient and aristocratic speed of a motor car or a Wagon-lit."

"Certainly, certainly," replied the illustrious scientist; "even the soap-bubble that gleams with so many brilliant colours is formed of water and common soap. But, you understand, everything requires to be demonstrated; it must be subjected to some method, to scientific determination. It is no use; all these phenomena, of whatever sort, must be subject to laws! I do not claim to subject them to one law rather than to another, even if it were proved that in order to have phenomena we must have mediums, dark cabinets, red lamps, chains, etc., but we must verify them, we must establish an organised principle for these practices, we must do away with all indeterminateness."

"But, excuse me: do you not think that if we do not yet know the nature of these phenomena, we cannot pretend to fix laws for them? And what if these laws do not exist, at least in the determinate form which we claim?"

"It is not so. The experimental method is too categorical and at the same time too free to allow any kind of phenomena to escape it. Given a cause, we do not say that it must produce a certain given effect, but that it must produce a constant effect; now, if cause A produces effect B, I ought to be able to find that cause A always produces effect B. It is a fact that there is a series of phenomena which take place; if they take place they must obey laws; I do not ask whether they are moral or material, spiritual or psychical laws, I only say that if these facts occur, I, as a scientist, ought to find out the nature of their occurrence, after having assured myself as to their truth and import."

"So that you are indifferent as to their origin, spiritual or physical; you would not consider an extra-human explanation repugnant?"

"Not in the least. I am and always shall be an unprejudiced positivist. If my experiments led me to conclude that these phenomena were really produced by beings who have survived death, I should make no difficulty about publishing my conclusions and equally so if I arrived at the contrary conclusion."

"You have experimented with Paladino, Professor?"

"Yes, and not once only; I have been present at extraordinary occurrences, but - do we know what forces come into play in these sťances? The rigorous control that would be necessary to put all doubts out of the question is not possible. The only man who has commenced a series of experiments of a scientific character is Crookes, but that is now an old affair."

"And those of Richet?"

"Richet believes too much, and is too prejudiced. Now, to conduct strict experiments one must rid one's self of all tendency, either in favour or against. The least dangerous is, to believe little."

"What do you think of the hypothesis which explains the phenomena by collective hallucinations?"

"I cannot altogether accept it, not only because hallucinatory states are accompanied by other pathological conditions, which I have not found either in myself or in others who were present at the sittings, but also on account of a fact sufficiently evidential. We saw a luminous half-phantom, and those who were in front had a front view of it, those at the side saw it in profile. Now, it might be said that the hallucination was such that it could create that difference in perspective, but you will agree that this would be a phenomenon still more strange."

Then I related a series of researches made by me at some sťances held by our Society for Psychical Studies at Florence to decide this precise point of the likelihood of this hypothesis of hallucination, researches carried on upon the senses of sight, smell, touch and hearing, and which were absolutely negative in result, and the illustrious professor acknowledged that these were in part conclusive.

"So that, in conclusion, Professor, according to you we are still completely in the dark?"

"In my opinion, yes, absolutely so. Until it shall be possible to have powerful mediums, constant and docile, with whom we can carry on a definite series of experiments in the cabinet, with all those instruments of physiological and psychological science which have been invented with so much pains and ingenuity, we shall never be able to speak of scientific researches on spiritism. Perhaps from that farrago, of empiric facts in which, for all we know, a few great truths are mingled with a multitude of superstitions, deceptions and imbecilities, there will issue a new science, as astronomy came from astrology, and chemistry from alchemy; but at present, it seems to me, we are not yet even at the state of alchemy, but rather at the pre-alchemistic stage."

"Do you believe that there is a psychical correlation between the hypnotic and mediumistic states?"

"I have not experimented on the subject, and, therefore, cannot answer; but I believe that there must certainly be a relation, and it would be important to institute experiments on the subject."

"At any rate, Professor, without claiming a categoric reply, and taking all your reservations into account, I wish to know this: Given the objectivity of the phenomena, which you do not deny, do you hold to the anthropodynamic explanation rather than to any other of supreme importance?"

"Yes; with all reserves as to the nature and, the genuineness of the facts, I incline to the anthropodynamic explanation: there are forces which proceed from us - at least until the contrary be proved."

The illustrious scientist, who had said that he could not speak to me for more than half an hour, became aware that our conversation had lasted an hour and a half. I rose, thanking him very gratefully for his courtesy; and Morselli, pointing out some beautiful engravings elegantly framed and hanging on the wall, said, with a jocular air:

"They say that I do not believe in spiritism; yet look at that beautiful photograph of a spirit hand; that other, as you know, is Miss Katie King, the phantom personage of Crookes."

His noble and expressive countenance bore at that moment an air - I might even say an aura - of high poetic feeling, and I said with a smile, as I took my leave:

"Ah, Professor, you may call yourself a positivist, but at the bottom, like all men of high mentality, you are an idealist."


The Annals of Psychical Science, Vol. VII, No. 46, October, 1908.

Related Article

Mediumship and Conjuring (in Connection with Eusapia Paladino) by Enrico Morselli

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