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soul searching

The complex relationship between science and the spirit – and how to represent it by Mark Pilkington

‘Soul is the ring around your bathtub’ sings George Clinton on Funkadelic’s eponymous 1970 debut album. Funkadelic’s concept of soul is perhaps more intuitive than, say, Aristotle’s, but the image of the ring around your bathtub – a dirty halo as an emission of the physical self – perfectly reflects the idea that an individual consists of a physical body, and something else that is intangible but integral: the soul, self or spirit, a life force that both animates the body and makes us who we are.  


Separating the self from our fleshy containers has always been a complex operation and, 5,000 years after the Egyptians began to think about it, we still don’t know where we are. While we tend to consider the brain to be the seat of the self, other cultures have pointed to the heart or the liver. It may turn out that all these guesses are correct and the components of the self are diffused throughout the body. 

A few years ago a dense nerve bundle, described as a ‘second brain’ containing more nerve cells than the spinal cord, was discovered in the stomach. Actually, it was first found in the 19th century, then forgotten about, but its re-discovery has identified it as a possible seat of emotional and instinctual behaviors – those gut feelings we all get. Getting weirder, a handful of transplant patients claim to have taken on distinct new personality traits and dreamed of being someone else after receiving major organs from anonymous donors. It’s reported that, on seeking out their replacement parts’ original owners, they realized that their new character tics also once belonged to the organs’ donors. A possible physical explanation for this comes from Dr Candace Pert, a pharmacologist at Georgetown University, who suggests that some of the elements that make up our selves, including emotions and memories, are carried around the body by neuropeptides, chemical communicators between the major organs and the brain.  

These new discoveries bring modern scientific concepts of the self closer to the ancient models described by the Egyptians and Greeks, but the frontiers of the mind may never be as thrilling as they were in the late 19th century when, in search of the self, pioneers such as William James, Sigmund Freud and the early Society for Psychical Research (spr) climbed into their bathyspheres and sank deep into the darkness of the newly-emerging unconscious mind. While revolutionary in many ways, these explorations formed a continuum with the past. The universal notion that the soul had form segued strangely into the body horror of Freud’s libido, while the spirit realm, familiar from most religions and was then being scientized by the spr, shared its borders with the emerging landscapes of the unconscious. 

This uneasy, temporary alliance between science and spirit produced some curious experiments. In 1907, Dr Duncan MacDougall, a Massachusetts surgeon, weighed six people and 15 dogs as they crossed the threshold from life to death. The first patient lost three quarters of an ounce (21 grammes) which MacDougall hastily declared to be the weight of the soul, ignoring the ambiguous results presented by the other five subjects. Stamping the seal of science onto the already over-exposed art of spirit photography, MacDougall attempted next to capture the departing soul on camera, as did a Chicago-based photographer, Patrick O’Donnell, using plates developed by a technician at St Thomas’ Hospital, London. It’s in these strange interstitial spaces that some of the most fully-developed collisions of art, science and spirit took place, driven by the sense that, like heroic big game hunters, explorers of these invisible territories could bring something back. And if camera traps weren’t the answer, then perhaps more subtle tools were required – like paintbrushes and a powerful imagination.

In 1901, theosophists Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant produced their remarkable book, Thoughtforms. It illustrated, through form and colour, a polyphony of human senses, emotions and experiences, seen through the lens of Helena Blavatsky’s encyclopaedic vision of a spiritualized science. Looking backwards, the book’s iconographic depictions of thoughts and feelings as things by artists John Varley, ‘Mr Prince’ and a ‘Miss Macfarlane’, resonated with the vibratory sound forms made visible by Ernst Chladni in the late 18th century and, looking forwards, would directly inspire Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky and other abstract artists. 

Theosophy also inspired South Londoner Austin Osman Spare, who drew on spiritualism, popular psychology and evolutionary ideas that owe more to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who saw physical form evolving as a result of biological necessity, than to Darwin’s happy accidents. Born in 1886, by his late teens and early 20s Spare had developed a mystical philosophy surrounding the concept of the Zos – akin to the self, incorporating the body and soul – and the Kia, a term he borrowed from Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888) and described by Spare’s biographer Phil Baker as ‘the fertile void behind existence’. We might also think of the Ein Soph of Jewish mysticism, the Chinese Tao or indeed the eternal moment before the Big Bang. 

In his Book of Pleasure (1913), Spare wrote that ‘soul is the ancestral animals’. He was a 20th-century animist, seeing the Zos of all living things, and all life as intrinsically connected, often representing the idea visually as an ectoplasmic string of human and animals features emerging from a smoky, aetheric void. Spare also recognized the unconscious as a rich vein of imagery, and developed automatic drawing techniques for exploring it some years before the French Surrealists began their own researches.

Spare’s ugly ecstasies, his depictions of luminous spirit and the uneasy meeting points of the physical and phantom worlds, are considerably darker and more grotesque than those of more traditional spiritualist visionaries. One only need compare his paintings to those of Ethel Le Rossignol who, guided by voices, began painting remarkably consistent, kaleidoscopic visions of the spirit world in the 1920s. Very little is known about Le Rossignol, whose beautiful, vividly detailed work depicts a radiant, ecstatic realm populated by flying human sylphs, base demons and bejewelled animals.  

We can see in Le Rossignol’s paintings colourful echoes of those by the late Pablo Ameringo and other South American artists whose vibrant imagined worlds swarm with Amazonian flora and fauna, and their spirit world equivalents. Ameringo’s passport to the otherworld was the potent hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca and his work, along with that of contemporary, psychedelically inspired artists such as Fred Tomaselli and Alex Grey, maintains that vital bridge between science and spirit built by his predecessors. 

With an inevitable circularity, the 21st century’s invisible world of microbes and subatomic particles reflects the inhabited realms of Besant and Leadbeater, Spare, Le Rossignol and Ameringo. The science that developed alongside their paintings tells us that, at the moment of universal conception, energy and matter – the stuff of which we are composed – were spat from the void at incredible speed, and yet they’re not going anywhere. Every soul and everything that has ever been, from the Sun to the ring around your bathtub, is still here in some shape or form, and there will always be artists to see them. 

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