In the early part of the last century, when this book was written, Spiritualism was much more popular and generally taken more seriously than it is today. It is tempting to suggest that works such as this, by stretching the reader's credulity to the limit, may in part be responsible for its decline.
Watson, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and a poet who wrote the words to Canada's national hymn, claims his book is an accurate record of visitations from beyond the grave through the mediumship of one Louis Benjamin, whom Watson grandiosely calls “The Instrument”.
Benjamin, described as “a commercial man, thirty-six years of age”, was evidently a distinctly superior Instrument, one very well-connected in afterlife society, as Watson describes how a succession of great names lined up to speak through him - amongst them Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Tennyson, Shelley, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Plato, and, slightly incongruously, Watson's late mother. The glorious dead were, we are asked to believe, queueing up to manifest themselves at No. 10 Euclid Avenue, Toronto, in order to deliver mimsy homilies about the loveliness of the next world, such as this one from Louis Agassiz:
If your scene was lit by an eternal sky of pink amid which was a clustering of gold and green, if your air was the distilled essence of astral flower perfume, and if your eyes saw more than is in all the physical universe, then you would be only on the fringe of the love-lap of nature in which we bask...
On the Other Side there seems to be a general tendency to speak in a manner reminiscent of Fotherington-Thomas crossed with Madame Blavatsky (“Hello astral trees! Hello eternal sky!”). This extends to William Shakespeare, whose literary genius has dimmed a little:
Behold a temple set in a valley, whose opaline sides, as if with jewels were dissolved, then kissed by Sappho and polished to reflect the gorgeous splendor of exalted nature. Hear the bell in yonder church tower. The walk to this edifice is like pearls. The trees are all swaying in rhythmical harmony of pulsations of ether. The people are all moving with steps of princes newly ordained to a higher throne; and all is lit with the close resemblance of the pale pink of sea-shells.
This same Shakespeare, asked to nominate something of merit in Canadian drama, picks Tecumseh by Charles Mair, an inexplicably forgotten work whose quality you may judge from a short extract to be found online.
In order to move “with steps of princes” - as Shakespeare puts it in the passage quoted above - the dead require sustenance - or at least the ingestion of “chemicals”. (What happens if they go without? Do they die again?) Their ghastly diet is described by Watson's mother in tandem with Coleridge:
Is there any farming on the astral planes?
“No; the chemicals come without our effort. We have other important things to do.”
Do you know what the chemicals are?
“Coleridge will tell you” (Coleridge speaks.)
Coleridge:- “Proteins. The liquid juice of a rice product. A beef extract made of a synthetic meat product. A saccharine - sugar like your own. We have phosphates. Fats too are made here synthetically. All the equivalents of your richest foods. These constitute our dietary.
“The distinction between our food and yours is one of vibration.”
Vibrating synthetic fats? Yum. But there is also the food of love, music, as William Morris tells us:
[Robert Louis] Stevenson, when he left the Islands of Hawaii to come to this plane, brought with him the ukelele. He brought also with him the native song of the isle but improved it, and often we hear him when alone. His tonal pictures pierce us to the quick.
Actually, strange as it may seem, Stevenson was an aficionado of the uke, at least if this page is to be believed. In the absence of any recording of the author of Treasure Island's piercing “tonal pictures”, perhaps this one from 1917 of E K Rose singing “Aloha Oe” will give an idea of what astral music may be like.
Another significant figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, though one less well-known these days than Morris, was Elbert Hubbard, founder of the Roycrofters. Hubbard went down with the Lusitania in 1915 but seemingly reappeared in Toronto in order to furnish Watson's circle with its “war expert”. In life he was a self-educated man with a folksy way of expressing himself, but his spirit seems to be laying on the idiosyncrasy with a steam-shovel:
Say, my pal of pals, in the silence of this vale of voice, tell me to tell you that non compos mentis is the word to apply to one who with a shrug of the shoulder, a wink of the eye, a snap of the jaw, settles the finalities of all worlds, the problems that are debatable on all planes.
While he was still on this plane, Hubbard once said “Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped”, which seems a fitting comment on the case in hand.
Another writer whose shade graces the proceedings is Edgar Allan Poe. Like Shakespeare he has turned into a poor-quality caricature of himself (perhaps dying is not good for one?). To be read after the manner of the great Boris Karloff, I think:
“Now, my friends, I greet you. I am Edgar. Do you love the monster who created weird things of gloomy fancy?”
[... One of the party asks:] Did the raven become a permanent thing?
The raven is forevermore, and oh, the lost Lenore, she is here too. The raven is the imprisoned soul of myself. I am here. See the significance? I relapse often into the valley, see now?
Relapse may be the right word. There always has to be one who overdoes it at a party, doesn't there? If Poe is the embarrassing drunk, then there is One who is The Very Special Guest. (Naturally, He appears fashionably late, at the end of the book.) Perhaps The Instrument felt some pressure to up his game, as after channelling Spinoza, Plato and Socrates, up pops ... Jesus:
“Brothers, lovers, all:- If I were permitted to add a line to the Sermon on the Mount, I should add this: Be calm. That is the lesson of the planes to all the ages.
“The birds are serene. The ocean subsides to solemn stillness as it adores its Maker. The winds cry not. Night comes on all planes and soothes the soul to rest. The stars are noiseless. The greatest force of all space is often not heard even by ears attuned to hear the language of flowers.
But the souls of earth plane mortals rattle to destruction. Your souls alone clatter over the rocks of unfinished character. Alone do those of earth plane spill blood while monster machines tear the air with their roar to an endless chaos.
“Be calm in prayer, in thought, in purpose, in character, and your calmness will be the ship of life that shall reach all ports of experience, and then throw out the anchor; safe home at last.”
In being prepared to improve on the New Testament to a circle of believers one must admire the sheer chutzpah of Mr Benjamin while boggling at the seemingly bottomless gullibility of his audience, one of whom, a Professor Abbott apparently lost his career through taking Benjamin too seriously, and later had a nervous breakdown.
The Twentieth Plane is discussed in Anatomy of a Seance by Stan McMullin (McGill Queens University Press, 2004). McMullin says that Professor James Mavor, an eminent economic historian, was prompted by the public sensation around Watson's work to carry out an investigation of his own, including a test seance with Louis Benjamin at Mavor's home. As a result, Mavor concluded that the proceedings reported by Watson were valueless and that Benjamin was a phony who got his knowledge of the famous dead he impersonated from the Encyclopedia Britannica.
My friend Nancy Beiman, whom I must thank for first telling me about The Twentieth Plane, has also read Watson's follow-up book Birth Through Death, which she says provides evidence that Watson - like his colleague Abbott - became a little unhinged. Perhaps this is not surprising: if I believed in this vision of the afterlife as a roseate Fairyland where everyone degenerates into a bleating ninny, I think I'd go mad as well.