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The Self, the Psychological, and the Supernatural, 1850-1950

Founded in London in 1882, the Society for Psychical Research, which investigates cases of alleged paranormal activity with a scientific approach and an open mind, attracted such members as Lewis Carroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, W.B. Yeats, and Carl Jung in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. As the popularity of the SPR and the wide-ranging beliefs of its members attest, the fin-de-siècle is marked by intense investigations into the boundaries of the knowable. Innovations in technology and the social sciences fueled the sense that access to what either was or merely seemed to defy our comprehension — ghosts, prophetic dreams, telepathic transmissions — was close at hand. Writers of all stripes considered these ideas and their significations for the self and society. In this course, we will read works that delve into these murky waters before the formation of the SPR, during the turn-of-the-century spiritualist frenzy, and into the years of modernist introspection and post-war paranoia. Some of these texts are inspired by technological advances; some propose theories of the mind; and some focus intently on the interpersonal. Readings will include fiction by George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell as well as critical or theoretical works by Freud, Jung, and several more recent scholars.

Marvelous feats in mind reading. Poster print, lithograph, 1900.Library of Congress via WikiMedia Commons
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