It was July 1926 when Geraldine Cummins took Frederick Bond to court. The reason? Through Cummins, a spirit had dictated an entire book, The Chronicle of Cleophas. Mr. Bond insisted the spirit sent the work as a message to him, therefore making him the owner. Ms. Cummins having been the one who penned an average of 2000 words an hour, believed it belonged to her fair and square.
So who owned the copyright? The medium Ms. Cummins, Mr. Bond, or the creative spirit that came up with the whole thing in the first place? The judge was forced to decide and his decision would forever affect the laws concerning intellectual property.
Dictated by Your Favorite Spirit
Automatic Writing can be loosely defined as the idea that souls of the dead are so utterly bored in the afterlife, they send creative inspiration to anyone willing to take up a pen and listen. The idea was popular among the Victorians with a resurgence after World War I.
The phenomenon wasn’t limited to writer wannabes either. In fact, William Butler Yeats, one of the most famous 20th-century poets, relied on help from the other side. In 1917 Yeats and his new bride were having a somewhat boring honeymoon. Yeats it seems was a bit preoccupied with a former love interest. Of course, Georgie, his new wife, wasn’t quite keen on that idea. Knowing of her husband’s interest in spiritualism, she came up with a clever way to divert his attention — automatic writing.
According to Yeats, “What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer.” And that dear ladies is how Georgie won her husband. Ta ta, old flame, said Yeats, as he waved goodbye to his melancholy. Yeats and George, as she was now called, spent hours together gleaning pages from the spirits. 450 sessions in the first three years produced 4,000 pages — all handwritten by George.
It’s elementary my dear Watson
Arthur Conan Doyle was another believer in Automatic writing. Like Yeats, he communicated with spirits through the aid of his wife, although he had communications of his own with his father.
“A week after my father’s funeral I was writing a business letter when something seemed to intervene between my hand and the motor centres of my brain, and the hand wrote at an amazing rate a letter, signed with my father’s signature and purporting to come from him. I was upset, and my right side and arm became cold and numb. For a year after this letters came frequently, and always at unexpected times. I never knew what they contained until I examined them with a magnifying-glass: they were microscopic. And they contained a vast amount of matter with which it was impossible for me to be acquainted.”
Doyle’s conversations were recorded in the book, Pheneas Speaks.
Popular living authors weren’t the only ones to take advantage of automatic writing, dead ones did as well. Oscar Wilde, who died at 46, evidently felt he had more to say. Twenty-six years after his death he penned a new book, Oscar Wilde from Purgatory: Psychic Messages. Oscar wrote the book with the aide of Hester Travers Smith, to whom it was dictated.
If Oscar chose to write from beyond the grave, he was in good company. Not only did Jesus and Budda take advantage of the method, Samuel Clemens got in on the act as well. Through Lola Hayes he penned the book Jap Herron, A Novel Written from the Ouija Board. It was apparently a gift to the struggling novelist Emily Hutchings, whom Sam privately described as an idiot. Despite his feelings, he became Hutchings mentor and close friend.
Automatic writing, Surrealist Style
Although not guided by an otherworldly spirit, the idea of automatic writing was used by artists as well. According to the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto published by Andre Breton, French writer and poet, Surrealism is the Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.
Surrealist painters started many of their canvases using automatism. The term, taken from psychology, describes bodily movements that are unconsciously controlled, like breathing. Sigmund Freud came up with the idea of combining free association and drawing. “Tell me about your mother,” he said, and the Surrealist came up with things like this:
Even if you’re not an art lover, you’ve probably seen The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. You know, the painting with clocks melting all over the place? Well, Dali created it using his own form of automatic writing. He called it an induced state of paranoia which mixedirrational thoughts and self-induced paranoia. I’d be paranoid too if I saw that mustache every time I looked in the mirror.
And now, in modern times many of us still use automatic writing, only we call it free writing. Anytime you write for 10 minutes, 500 words, or three pages without stopping your using the same techniques as the automatic writers and painters. Dali would be so proud. Try hard enough and you might even channel him. If anybody’s up for it certainly he’s your man.
And Cummins vs. Bond?
Well Justice Eve, the judge who tried the case, was quick to point out his jurisdiction was limited to England, and not the spirit realm. However, since there was no doubt the work was an operation of the brain and hand of Ms. Cummins, the copyright belonged to her. It was suggested by some that Cleophas be summoned to court. The idea was shot down.
After all, his trustworthiness was unknown — how would one punish a spirit in the case of perjury?
Copyright of Automatic Writing Virginia Law Review Vol. 13, №1 (Nov. 1926), pp. 22–26
The Paranormal and Popular Culture: A Postmodern Religious Landscape
edited by Darryl Caterine, John W. Morehead