By Sofía Granados
Reprinted with permission from Backbone Flute.
By 1897, the London-born magician Adelaide Hermann had become a successful magician and even worked toward debunking a popular female spirit medium. But as a woman working in magic and refusing to take up the women’s sport of mediumship, Hermann was an exception to the rule. In one sense, women mediums may take pride in a genre rightfully theirs—claiming historical ownership over such figures as the Oracle of Delphi, and Macbeth’s gang of witches. Yet labelling spiritualism as a specifically female category also excludes women from the artistic practice of magic. This is a discrepancy still visible today. In Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal The Second Sex, de Beauvoir explores the figure of the “mystic,” a woman who loves a man with religious faith as if touched by divine mystery. Her analysis of how the mystic damages her own subjectivity by intertwining sexual and religious matters also illuminates why the spiritualist medium (as opposed to the magician or actor) often takes feminine form.
The Second Sex is a foundational text in Western Feminism. In it, de Beauvoir argues that women suffer from a double consciousness because her notion of self is refracted through men’s perception. For de Beauvoir the way to achieve transcendence — freedom to make her decisions and decide her own fate — is through labor, education and crucially, by taking responsibility for her own actions and ideas.
De Beauvoir also describes in the text the concept of the lover-as-mystic; that is, a woman who attaches herself to a deified lover. The mystic perceives her lover as an embodiment of god with supernatural, and often make-believe qualities. Like a loved apostle, she becomes a chosen one, and she worships her lover “because he was something other than himself in her eyes… she was groping for the supreme source of values” (De Beauvoir 711). While the mystic pretends to search for truth and transcendence in the man she loves, she actually strays from the truth by instilling in him a glory impossible for human beings. The mystic conflates religious divinity with erotic love and in ways that provoke a sense of inferiority in her.
De Beauvoir does not describe the mystic in terms of the spiritualist movement, but her commentary on why the mystic loses subjectivity helps explain the phenomena of the spiritual medium in the séance room. De Beauvoir writes that the mystic in her fits of inspiration annihilates herself. “Ecstasy bodily mimics this abolition of the self,” she writes. “The subject no longer sees or feels, he forgets his body, disavows it” (714). De Beauvoir sees the mystic, herself, as the subject. Her body is the object of her subjectivity that she controls through her own will. By convulsing and acting by divine inspiration, she also renounces her own subjectivity. It is God’s will — or her lover’s — that possesses her body. The same can be said for the medium in the séance room. She is literally possessed at times by the spirits so that every word she says and action she takes is not her own, but that of the spirits. Consider the case of the 19th century spirit writer Georgiana Houghton. While she accomplished fantastic abstract drawings and watercolors at least a half a century before her time, Houghton asserted that it was not her own accomplishment, but rather that of the spirits she summoned. She was not the subject, but a mere instrument for the spirits’ creativity.
Houghton’s case is troubling when viewed within De Beauvoir’s larger argument that women suffer from irresponsibility. De Beauvoir views the primary problem of women’s societal subservience in the fact that they are not permitted to own their actions. Women who have achieved transcendence, i.e., liberation from the structures in which men confine her, “wants to be active and prehensile and refuses the passivity the man attempts to impose on her” (754). Is not relegating one’s own creative achievements in the séance room a way of becoming passive? The spiritual medium shares women’s greater struggle of irresponsibility. Whatever volatile actions that occur in the séance room are not her fault, but that of the spirit who has possessed her. Likewise, whatever great achievement is not rightly hers either, but of greater personalities. In Houghton’s case these personalities were often canonized male artists such as Titian or Michelangelo.
The problem of responsibility may provide one explanation as to why spiritual mediums tend to be women while magicians men. Even if the woman-as-artist has agency to produce the effects she does in the séance, her guise as a spiritual Madame forces her to lose her agency if she wants her act to be convincing for the public. The medium’s goal is to convince the audience that the spirits have taken over her body and communicated messages to her. By contrast, the magician takes full responsibility for his actions. He is the one who says the magic incantations, possesses the magical ability, and pulls the rabbit out of the hat. The magician is in possession of his own magical powers and also of his subjectivity.
Perhaps looking at spiritualist through the lens of The Second Sex may be overly harsh, since there’s also a tradition of women spiritualists using the séance to promote women’s rights. In the 19th century, women mediums made political declarations, argued for women’s suffrage, engaged in illegal marriages and acted in ways unacceptable in society. They managed those actions by carrying the ethos of transcendent spiritual forces. The spiritual medium could claim that the declaration for women’s suffrage was the voice of God, not hers, and thus an utterance of pure truth. One widowed medium in 1913 turned her séance into a wedding with a retired banker, commenting that “it is a spiritual wedding … and is not to be judged by earthly unions” (“Seance Turns to Wedding”). By working within the possible societal structures to gain power, the spiritual medium did not solve the problem of female irresponsibility, raised be De Beauvoir, but she at least treats a symptom of female inequality.
Sofía Granados has worked both as a street psychic and séance facilitator. To read more essays by Ms. Granados, check out her Backbone Flute blog, found here.