Binding and Embodiment: Oliver Lodge, Physics, and the Book

[I’m giving a talk in the Science Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminar Series at the University of Oxford on 14 May 2019. Here’s what I’m going to be talking about.]

This paper considers the role of embodiment in the work of the physicist and spiritualist Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) through two very different books. The first is the visitor book from Mariemont, the Lodges’ house in Birmingham from 1901-1920; the second is Lodge’s book Raymond (1916), which details his ongoing relationship with his dead son, Raymond, killed the previous year at Ypres.  These two early twentieth-century books have much to tell us about how Lodge, then at the peak of his fame, began to seem increasingly Victorian.  They also reveal details of a social life that radically involved the living and the dead.

Best know for his work in wireless telegraphy in the 1890s , Lodge spent his career trying to understand the intangible and imponderable. An adherent of the ether, defending it until his death in 1941, Lodge was committed to a universe in which matter was nothing but etheric motion.  The ether provided an ontological basis for both psychical and physical phenomena as well the epistemological ground on which to reconcile science, spiritualism, and religion.  While Lodge’s philosophy proved remarkably popular in the first decades of the twentieth century, establishing him as not just a scientific authority but probably the best-known scientist of his day, it also made him seem curiously out of time.  In the years after the second world war Lodge’s popularity became a problem and Lodge himself a Victorian sage who lived too long.

The two books, in their different ways, are an attempt to document social relations by locating individuals in time and space.  The visitor book records the range of people the Lodges hosted at Mariemont, whether visiting dignitaries or the extended Lodge family, scientists or mediums.  Raymond, on the other hand, gives details of Raymond’s life before his death then transcripts of encounters with his spirit on the other side.  Whereas the visitor book’s list of names testifies to the intangible connections that constitute social life, Raymond desparately seeks to situate the personality of Raymond somewhere in the ether, surviving on with integrity in a medium that should not permit survival in such a form.  Whereas the pages of the visitor book consitute a chronological narrative as people come, go, and come again; Raymond offers the book itself as a surrogate body that could ensure he was close at hand.  Both books can help us understand Lodge’s reputation, at the time and afterwards.  Both books, too, can help us understand how Lodge recognised identity in a universe in which we were all always connected.

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