Dictation from the dead
The posthumous career of Lord Rochester in the Brazilian spirit worldBy John Ryle • 22 April 1988 • The Times Literary Supplement (“Dictation from the Dead”) • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 4,421 words
In São Paulo, on the first smog-free morning of spring, I was lingering by the news kiosks in the Praça da Republica—enigmatic cuboids of aluminium that blossom each morning into cornucopias of city maps and magazines and shrink-wrapped soft porn—when I noticed one of them, more modest of aspect, at a distance from the rest, that displayed a sign announcing it as a Livraria Espírita, a spiritist bookstore.
The stallholder was a young man wearing a cap and a blue necktie. As he unfolded the shutters and screens and awnings on his quiosque he turned and caught my gaze. Perhaps it was hypnotic suggestion—a mesmeric technique he’d learned from one of the Rosicrucian handbooks he sold—or the prompting of an invisible spirit guide. In any event I felt my feet move across the op-art tessellations of the square, past the travestís dozing on park benches after their exertions of the night, past the outstretched hands of the mendicants on the sidewalk, towards the spiritists’ book-lined cubicle.
On its packed shelves the works of the theosophist Madame Blavatsky stood cheek-by-jowl with those of the nineteenth-century French mystic Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail—known by his pen name, Allan Kardec. Kardec was the founding father, posthumously, of the Brazilian spiritist movement. Alongside the works of these pioneers were shelves filled with psicografia, spirit-written books and pamphlets, many of them bearing the name of the doyen of Brazilian mediums, Chico Xavier.
Psychodactylographers and spirit guides
Chico Xavier is celebrated as a medium, yet he is not, from the spiritist point of view, the author of the texts that bear his name. He and other writing mediums are scribes, conduits for otherworldly voices, ghostwriters taking dictation from the dead. On the covers of their books the name of a supernatural entity, or spirit guide, is placed in the authorial position, followed by the formula “dictated to” or “received by” the medium in question.
Two such spirit guides—named Emanuel and André Luiz—are the leaders in the field in Brazil. And there is a surprising third contender, as I was about to learn: John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, the seventeenth-century English poet and rake, who died of syphilis in 1680 aged 33, but who has enjoyed a lengthy posthumous career on the astral plane.
A medium, I had gathered from earlier conversations with adherents of Brazilian spiritism, may be visited by more than one spirit. Chico Xavier, for example, (who is old and frail but still living and working, as of the mid-1990s, with his dog and various dependents, in Minas Gerais, the heartland of Brazil) has a number of spirit guides besides Emanuel and André Luiz. Between them the medium and his spirits have produced hundreds of books: homiletic tracts, some sensational fiction, a good deal of poetry and several works on the architecture of the heavenly city.
Such psychographic mediums—there are many others—are prolific. Their books are written in a disconcertingly short time, sometimes in a single trance session. Some write left-handed, or ambidextrously—or backwards. Or they type—such mediums should perhaps be called psychodactylographers—with unwavering fluency and without pause, sometimes completing entire books in one session. It is automatic writing in overdrive. (In Brazilian spiritist thinking a distinction is sometimes made between automatic writing and psicografia—the former from the subconscious, the latter from the spirit world.)
What writer could fail to be intrigued by this awesome facility? The answer, frankly, is anyone who has tried to read one. Interest falls off all too rapidly once you get beyond the first page (as it does, after a short while, when listening to the utterances of astral beings consulted via a ouija board in a seance). At least this is the case when the texts are in your native language. In a foreign tongue banality and bad style are slower to reveal themselves. And Brazil is a special case. In Brazil such things are ordered differently. Spirits carry more weight; they are central to the national religious imagination. Trance and mediumship—and spirit-guided paramedical treatment—figure large in a wider discourse of supernatural belief, one that incorporates elements of Amerindian and West African religious systems, as well as occult currents from European thought and strands of new age thinking. In Brazil, communication with the Beyond never went out of fashion. Despite a recent surge in evangelical Protestantism the country remains the global centre of the spiritist movement, with millions of devotees. The language of spirits and mediums is Brazil’s supernatural lingua franca.
Journey to the Interior
It seemed that I was the first customer at the spiritist bookstall that day. The stall-holder waited patiently, fingering his necktie, waiting to see if I wanted to buy anything. An almanac perhaps? Or a copy of the Jornal Espirita?
“Procuro algo para ler numa viagem para o interior,” I was looking for a book for a trip to Bauru, I told him, in the distant interior of the state.
He gave me a questioning look.
“O senhor é Brasileiro?” he asked.
“Não sou,” I said. “Sou da Inglaterra.”
“Está de férias?”
No, I replied, I wasn’t on holiday.
“I’m a writer,” I added.
“Oh, I see,” he said. “What do you write?”
“Escrevo romances,” I said, off the top of my head, though writing a novel was an aspiration on my part, rather than an accomplishment.
“Then you know O Conde de Rochester?”
“Acho que não,” No, I said. I supposed this was the name of one of the spirit writers who were the stock-in-trade of the bookstall.
“But he is a great English writer,” the stallholder said. “A great spirit. O Conde. The Count—you must know him.”
“Oh,” I said. “You mean Lord Rochester—the poet?”
“He was a poet too?” said the stall-holder.
“He was an important poet,” I said, “in his way.”
“He was a great novelist,” said the stall-holder. “After his death, of course.”
“O Conde wrote many novels,” he continued. “A dozen at least. They’re what you need, I think. With one of these your journey will pass quickly—muito rápido.”