Automatic Writing: Aspasia in Gerontion and the Maiden

Pearl Curran (Feb. 15, 1883 – Dec.4, 1937) Medium for Patience Worth Writings

By automatic writing I mean messages a channeler receives from a spirit and records in writing or dictates to a transcriber.  This definition distinguishes it from simple stream of consciousness techniques or trance-like states writers may induce to inspire creativity. I was introduced to the subject in 1972 when my neighbor, an older woman, gave me the book Singer in the Shadows,  the story of a St. Louis housewife, Pearl Curran, who received during the period from 1913-1937 proverbs, poetry, plays, and novels from the spirit of Patience Worth, a New England housewife of the 1600s.  Although many theories have been advanced, there is no satisfactory explanation for how Mrs. Curran, who had an eighth grade education and was not widely read, could have composed the writings in archaic English and with historical details of the period. Five of Patience Worth’s poems were anthologized in 1917 along with the respected poetry of Amy Lowell, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters.

Reputable authors have dabbled in automatic writing. Among them are James Merrill and W.B. Yeats. Merrill claimed that his poetry collection The Changing Light at Sandover resulted from messages through a Ouija board. Although Pearl Curran’s first contacted Patience Worth when she and a friend were playing with a Ouija board, Pearl eventually abandoned its use when the communications came too quickly.  The September 2010 Smithsonian Magazine contains an excellent article on Pearl Curran.  More recently, Jane Roberts received messages from the entity named Seth that she recorded in her Seth books.

Helen Schucman (July 14, 1909 – Feb. 9, 1981)

Helen Schucman, a Columbia University psychologist, scribed  A Course in Miracles  through what she called a “Voice” over the course of seven years from 1965-1972.  An atheist and a skeptic, Schucman could not scientifically explain her dictation that reached in excess of 1000 pages of metaphysical thought.

The experience of reading Pearl Curran’s story remained with me until in the late 1980s when I came to write my novel centering around the young, ambitious Felicia Mendive who marries Augustus Walsingham, a wealthy man old enough to not just be her father but her grandfather. I set my novel in St. Louis, in middle America to suggest the balance, the golden mean, that fine equilibrium between reason and passion, which is Felicia’s quandary. Felicia and her three women friends visit a channeler who receives messages from the spirit of Aspasia, an actual woman of ancient Greece.

Marble sculpture with Aspasia inscribed on the base found in Rome now in Vatican Museum

Aspasia, a learned courtesan and skilled rhetorician, associated with Socrates and other philosophers in ancient Greece, became the mistress of the Athenian statesman Pericles. Central to my theme was a May-December marriage and conveniently Aspasia and Pericles represent a pairing of a young woman with a prominent old man.  I use the phenomena of channeling to advance the theme that some truths are unseen, that the spirit needs nourishment as well as the body. Living in affluence, wary of giving way to emotion, Felicia cannot realize happiness.  Likewise, Mrs. Curran had all the comforts of a middle-class life in 1913, yet still was drawn into a supersensible realm.

St. Louis is also the birthplace of T.S. Eliot.  To evoke his memory, I wanted Aspasia to speak her messages in blank verse.  After all, Gerontion (a pseudonym for Augustus Walsingham) is the title of  Eliot’s poem in the persona of an old man.  The etymology of the word is from the Greek geront meaning old age. Not until the end of the novel does Aspasia switch to prose when she speaks directly to Felicia, but always Aspasia’s tone is elevated.  Here is a taste of Aspasia’s poetic lines:

She shall not grieve the lost of taste or touch

or stop the cough in an old man’s cracked throat

with cushions or coins stacked in palace halls

but bend her mind to the young body’s will,

nor shall she rue aught in a dry season

when ambrosia brewed of Zeus she’s sucked.

Socrates Seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia, 1861 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Great entry Olivia! I’ve long been fascinated by the topic. Over the last few years through Daniel I’ve come to know poet/translator Richard Howard, who was close with James Merrill. Merrill’s “Lost in Translation” is dedicated to Richard. Merrill was also friends with our old favorite Joseph Campbell as well as experimental film-maker Maya Deren (among many others). Maya’s spirit shows up in some of the Sandover pieces. Thank you for including the exquisite Gerome painting- it was new to me. I have owned Yeats’ mystic text “A Vision” for years but have not yet had the time to focus properly on its dense prose. I love that you echoed the ancient “May-December” romance in your novel. Neoclassicism is so much a part of American art, architecture and culture- how perfect that the “reincarnations” of Greek figures should come to the midwest in your work. The connection of modernity and the occult is a fast-expanding topic in the academic history realm. You’ve touched on so many of its facets including the reclamation of female power via the cultural experience of spiritualism and channeled texts.

    Reply

    • I am happy to hear that you as fascinated about this subject as I am. I want to read Merrill’s complete works. The number of contacts you have in the art world never ceases to amaze me. In reference to experimental films, last night I watched an intriguing avant-garde (maybe not so avant-garde because it was made in 1986) film that baffled me. Have you seen or heard of Caravaggio directed by Derek Jarman? If so, what do you think of the film?

      Reply

      • Oh dear another connection: Daniel was Jarman’s studio assistant in London for a short while in the early 1970’s. He disliked Jarman’s films- but really liked his sculpture (Jarman made sculpture before films). Daniel recently told me that Jarman threw the BEST parties- where high and low mingled in a wonderful way. I haven’t seen Caravaggio in a while and don’t really know Jarman’s work well. I saw Edward II about 10 years ago and enjoyed it- mostly because of Tilda Swinton I expect 🙂 who Jarman sort of put on the cinema map. I’ll revisit the film! Caravaggio is one my favorite artists ever.

  2. I found your site on Google and read a few of your other entires. Nice Stuff. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

    Reply

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