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Random Dictionary of the Damned

Psychics, occult chemistry and remote viewing

Clairvoyance - besant

Theosophist and occult chemist Annie Besant.
Getty Images/Herbert Barraud


If telepathy involves passing information from one person to another through direct mind-to-mind contact, and precognition is an extra-sensory apprehension of a future event, then clairvoyance is the ability to be aware – usually through a mental image – of something occurring elsewhere, at the time it is occurring, without a second mind acting as an intermediary. As we noted in the previous entry, it is often diffi­cult to disentangle these three aspects of extra-sensory perception (ESP); once having assumed ESP is at work, it’s not always possible to decide which one is at work in any particular case.

But here is what seems to be a clear-cut example of clairvoyance, reported by John Fairley and Simon Welfare in Arthur C Clarke’s World of Mysterious Powers (Collins 1984, p128). The English poet and cleric John Donne (1572–1631) was not, perhaps, an ordinary man, but a genius for poetry does not necessarily imply any predispos­ition toward psychic talents. Fairley and Welfare note that Donne’s biographer Sir Izaak Walton recounts that in 1610 or so the poet (who was also a courtier) was sent to France on a diplomatic mission; his wife, who was pregnant, remained at home. When Sir Robert Drury, the English amabassador in Paris, went to meet Donne, he found him “so altered as to his looks as amazed Sir Robert to behold him”.

Donne finally managed to account for his condition: “I have seen a dreadful vision,” he explained. “I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms.”

Drury thought Donne had had “some melancholy dream” but agreed to send a messenger to England to discover what, if anything, was ailing Donne’s wife. Twelve days later, the man returned to report that he had found Mrs Donne, as Walton put it, “very sad, and sick in her bed; and that after a long and dangerous labour, she had been delivered of a dead child. And, upon examination, the abortion proved to be the same day, and about the very hour, that Mr Donne affirmed he saw her pass by him in his chamber.”

Fairley and Welfare also describe another instance of spousal psychic sympathy (p129), but no ‘vision’ or mental imagery was involved – only sensations, specifically of extreme pain. In 1947, Leslie Boughey was stationed with the RAF at El-Firdan in Egypt. His wife was in England, working in a factory near Stoke-on-Trent. The couple wrote to each other every day. He wrote to her one day telling how he had woken up in the night with “the most excruciating pain” in one hand, and particularly in one finger. “There was no mark on my finger, no swelling, inflammation, or anything, yet I just wanted to hold it and scream,” Boughey told the researchers. After a few hours of sweating and suffering, “the pain eased and eventually disapp­eared, with no after-effects except the memory of the worst pain I had ever experienced.”

Boughey’s letter telling his wife about this mysterious attack crossed in the mail with a letter from her. At work, she said, a fragment of brass swarf had penetrated her finger, and the wound had turned septic. She had gone to the doctor, who had lanced the infected part. “The extraordinary thing was,” said Boughey, “the time of her operation coincided exactly with my painful experi­ence: the same hand, even the same finger.”

This experience, albeit apparently an ‘extra-sensory’ (!) perception of some kind, falls between various stools of strict definition. Was Mrs Boughie ‘sending’ her pain telepathically? Or was the clearly devoted Mr Boughie picking it up clairvoyantly? Another curiosity, given the couple’s closeness, is that he had no indic­ation that his wife was in any way associated with his pain. In direct contrast is the experience of the Swiss-German playwright Johann Heinrich Zschokke (1771–1848), who would spasmodically divine the entire lives of complete strangers. As he listened to them speak, details of these people’s existences would “come across me like a dream, but distinctly, entirely involuntarily and unsought, occupying in duration a few minutes”.

In his autobiography, Zschokke describes one particular episode in detail: “On a certain fair-day I went into the town of Waldshut accompanied by two young foresters, who are still alive. It was evening, and, tired with our walk, we went into an inn called The Vine. We took our supper with a numerous company at the public table, when it happened that they made themselves merry over the peculiarities and simplicity of the Swiss in connection with the belief in mesmerism, Lavater’s physiognomical system and the like. One of my companions, whose national pride was touched by their raillery, begged me to make some reply, particularly in answer to a young man of super­ior appearance who sat opposite, and had indulged in unrestrained ridicule.

“It happened that the events of this person’s life had just previously passed before my mind. I turned to him with the question whether he would reply to me with truth and candour if I narrated to him the most secret passages of his history, he being as little known to me as I to him? That would, I suggested, go something beyond Lavater’s physiog­nomical skill. He promised if I told the truth to admit it openly. Then I narrated the events with which my dream vision had furn­ished me, and the stable learnt the history of the young tradesman’s life of his school years, his peccadilloes, and finally, of a little act of roguery comm­itted by him on the strongbox of his employer. I described the uninhabited room with its white walls, where to the right of the brown door there had stood upon the table the small black money-chest, etc. The man, much struck, admitted the correctness of each circumstance – even, which I could not expect, of the last.”

The psychologist CG Jung claimed to have had a similar unintended insight once, when a guest at a wedding. To substantiate a point about criminal psychology, he made up the life-story of a fictional criminal in detail, on the spot. When he had finished, he was horrified to discover that he had just outlined “the story of the man opposite to me, exactly and in all its details”.


Zschokke’s account is quoted by theo­sophist, renegade churchman and probable pædophile Charles W Leadbeater (1847–1932) in his 1899 book Clairvoyance. In 1895, Leadbeater himself was involved in one of the more startling forays into group clairvoyance, an attempt to psychic­ally discern the structure of individual atoms. The sessions were conducted away from “malevolent thought-forms” among the leafy glades of Box Hill, Surrey, and Hampstead Heath, London. His fellow investigator, the redoubtable Mrs Annie Besant (1847–1933), wrote up the venture in Occult Chemistry: A series of Clairvoyant Observ­ations on the Chemical Elements (1909): our results, she said, “cannot be regarded as established, by the outside world, until others have corroborated them; and we put them forward in the hope of stimulating work along this line, and of thus bringing to science, when its instruments fail it, the old, old instrument of enlarged human vision.

“We… took various substances – common salt, etc… fragments of metals, as iron, tin, zinc, silver, gold… pieces of ore, mineral waters, etc., etc., and, for the rarest substances, Mr Leadbeater visited a miner­alogical museum, a few miles off. In all, 57 chemical elements were examined, out of the 78 recognised by modern chemistry.” The more obvious difficulties were overcome thus: the observer’s “conception of himself can be so minimised that objects which normally are small appear to him as large”, while “a special form of will-power” was employed on the rapidly spinning atom “so as to make its movement slow enough to observe the details”.

Leadbeater and Besant went one better than that, and observed within the atom what they call anu, fundamental particles whose name and concept they borrowed from Jain metaphysics. They also, it appears, borrowed their idea of the shape of the anu from an 1878 drawing of an atom, by Edwin D Babbitt, which he believed would explain bonding, heat, electricity, light, colour, friction, psychic power – et cetera – in his modestly titled work The Principles of LIGHT AND COLOR: including among other things the Harmonic Laws of the Universe, the Etherio-Atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Forces, Together with numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications (Babbitt & Co, New York). Anu were found in male (positive) and female (negative) forms, which “are alike in everything save the direction of their whorls and of the force which pours through them. In the one case force pours in from the ‘outside’, from the fourth-dimensional space, and passing through the atom, pours into the physical world. In the second, it pours in from the physical world, and out through the atom into the ‘outside’ again, i.e., vanishes from the physical world.” Such are the esoteric terms of occult science.

The pair also deployed their clairvoyant powers to delve into the shape and structure of various mole­cules. In light of some of the half-baked criticism this unimpeachable Dictionary sometimes attracts, we feel obliged to state that Leadbeater and Besant’s journeys in the atomic and subatomic world went somewhat astray from the facts as now known. As Yale University chemistry pro­fessor J Michael McBride drily observes: “Experimental X-ray diffraction and spectroscopy, and quantum mechan­ical calculations which have been amply justified by cross-checking with a great variety of experimental techniques, have yielded a consistent picture of the atom that is completely different from that of the Occult Chemists.” McBride suspects that they were deliberately trying to match the number of anu (divided by 18) that they ‘perceived’, with the known atomic weights of elem­ents; unfortunately, they were working from an outdated table – see Prof. McBride’s long essay 'Serious Scientific Lessons from Direct Observation of Atoms through Clairvoyance' for much entertainment and the full skinny – and had to adjust their findings in later edit­ions of their work. The implic­ation of skulduggery is clear, although we suspect that no small measure of self-delusion was involved as well. The “old, old instrument of enlarged human vision” had failed again to enlarge human knowledge.

Conceptually, it’s not such a leap from peering into the invisible world of atomic structures to peering psychically over the horizon at equally invisible distant events, to see what is going on. “Remote viewing” is the term for this, coined by physicist Hal Puthoff to make “clairvoyance” sound more respectable. This was somewhat imperative at the time – the early 1970s – as the CIA had just invested an initial 50,000 dollars in his research at Stanford Research Institute in California. Some millions of dollars were to follow. What did not follow was any indication that people – not even alleged adepts – could “remotely view” anything, in even remotely appropriate detail, or with any consistency, that might be remotely useful to anyone, let alone an intelligence agency. When this finally became apparent to the CIA in the late 1970s, the US Defense Intelligence Agency obligingly poured a few more of the taxpayers’ millions into the project – now called Stargate – for another decade and a half before admitting the CIA had a point.

In view of the consistent failure of academic researchers to establish the existence of ESP beyond doubt, this prodigious outflow of treasure may look like the desperation of hope over experience. In fact, it seems to have been the triumph of paranoia over everything. Apparently, the Defense Inteligence Agency (DIA) had become transfixed by Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder’s tome Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain (Bantam 1971), and in 1972, John D Lamothe of the DIA issued an internal report, Controlled Offens­ive Behavior—USSR, which bristled with febrile speculation that Soviet psychics might one day be able to read their adversaries’ secret documents, as well as spy on troop and ship movements and winkle out the workings of secret installations. The Reds might find means to “mould the thoughts” of American leaders, or even to “cause the instant death of any US official at a distance” or psychically wreck “US military equipment of all types, including spacecraft”. This was heady stuff, and good ol’ American know-how had to find a way to counter or outstrip it. It seems not to have crossed agent Lamothe’s mind that Ostrander and Schroeder may have been useful idiots, spoonfed a bunch of sensational yarns by wily, and very likely giggling, Russian disinformationists. And so the spending began – inspired not by any hard science, but an anthology of anecdotes.

Opinions differ as to the relative success of Stargate: see for instance the largely opposed views of the two experts, Prof. Jessica Utts and Prof. Ray Hyman, who were appointed by the American Institutes for Research to evaluate the project’s findings. The dispute here centres partly on statistics and partly on method, leading to different estimates of whether psi can be said to have played a part in the results. These arguments somehow overlook the rather large – and rather white – elephant in the corner of Stargate’s room. For there is no indication in either treatment that any of the Stargate adepts could do anything seriously handy for a gang of spies – such as ‘remotely’ peep over Leonid Brezhnev’s shoulder and read his diary, or discover the names of all the KGB moles in the State Department and the Department of Defense, or read the blueprints for Soviet rocket engines. And even that is still some leagues from the psychokinetic nightmares that the DIA thought the Soviet mind-benders were preparing to unleash.

A similar lack of specificity – and predictable repeatability – dogs the academic research into clairvoyance, and is likewise ignored in the continuing rumblings over statistical analysis and flaws (or not) in the methodology. The anecdotal evidence, on the other hand, overflows with specificity, but is also marked by spontaneity and unpredictability. Such ambiguity causes mainstream science to avert its gaze, while remaining meat and drink to forteans.


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Clairvoyance - donne

John Donne.
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

  Clairvoyance - Zschokke

Johann Zschokke.

  Clairvoyance - sodium

Besant and Leadbeater's sodium atom.

Clairvoyance - psychic discoveries

How powerful were Soviet psychics?



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