Studies in the Uncanny

Review of Very Peculiar People. By E. J. Dingwall, M.A., D.Sc., Ph.D. (Pp. 224; 11 half-tone plates. 18s.) London: Rider and Co.

British Medical Journal, 10 June 1950, p. 1353

   Dr. Dingwall has arranged for his readers five portrait studies, each of them with its own qualities of fascination and each entirely different from the others. In every story there is much to interest the medical man and the psychiatrist. Perhaps the most commonplace is that of Hadrian Beverland, a Dutch savant of the late seventeenth century, a man of extravagant character who by his heretical opinions on sex as well as theology called down persecution on his head and eventually lapsed into a characteristic paranoid schizophrenic psychosis. The case of Emanuel Swedenborg is in some ways similar. For the first fifty-five years of his life he was, though somewhat eccentric, an able engineer and an apparently normal man. About the age of 57 he began to have a series of hallucinatory experiences which led him to believe that he was in constant touch with spirits of the other world, and in course of time to formulate a new philosophy of a highly mystical kind. Stories are told which show, as some believe, that he came to develop supernormal powers. Dr. Dingwall's discussion is most learned and critical, and his acquaintance even with the large specifically psychiatric literature on Swedenborg is profound. Experts such as Gruhle have rejected the idea that Swedenborg was a schizophrenic; but the clinical material available for diagnosis is inadequate. His hallucinations bear resemblances to epileptic phenomena; but a symptomatic epilepsy based on organic disease seems unlikely, as Swedenborg lived to the age of 84 in apparently good health and with well-preserved intellect. In the case of Johann Jetzer, the figure of the man himself does not clearly emerge and the portrait is rather one of his deceivers and inquisitors, and of a monastic life in which even the most trivial daily occurrences might be the result of the direct intervention of the Virgin Mary or of the Devil.

   Two women are described. One of them, St. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi, is a textbook example of the hysterical personality, a woman of overweening egoism and determination in getting her own way whose chief delight was to get herself flogged or humiliated, and whose sanctity would seem suspect outside the mental environment of the Middle Ages. Eusapia Palladino, one of the most famous of all physical mediums, is almost as characteristic of this age as the saint was of hers. An unlettered woman of peasant extraction, she puzzled eminent scientists and psychical researchers by the extraordinary nature of the phenomena she could produce. Perhaps in times to come our methods of investigating such phenomena will seem as ill adapted as those of the ecclesiastics who investigated the visions of Johann Jetzer.

   The isolated case history can never entirely lose its value for the study of human personality, even though it be largely supplanted by investigations into groups and statistical methods. Apart from its great human interest, Dr. Dingwall's book has the scientific value of bringing to us portraits of very remarkable people described in the setting of their age; this setting often goes far to explain some of their most peculiar qualities.