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Reflections On An Italian Researcher

THE NAME Ernest Bozzano (1862-1943) sometimes pops up in the literature of psychical research, but to most of us means rather little. He was a prolific researcher and writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, publishing only in Italian. So while he was quite influential in continental Europe, at least during his lifetime – Charles Richet thought highly of him, for instance – he remains virtually unknown in the English-speaking world.

The historian and scholar Carlos Alvarado aims to change that, and has contributed a detailed entry for the Psi Encyclopedia, the latest of several articles he’s authored on Bozzano. It gives a good impression of the Italian’s interests and ideas. Independent means gave him abundant time to devote to the subject. Like Frederic Myers, he dabbled in experimental work, sitting with mediums like Eusapia Palladino, but was mainly interested in analysing examples of spontaneous phenomena, which he used to build a case.  Both men concluded that psychic phenomena were genuine, an effect of both living and deceased minds, and that survival of death was a reality.

But according to Alvarado, Bozzano differed from Myers in one major respect: he was could be quite dogmatic in his defence of spiritist explanations, and impatient with those who preferred alternatives, such as psi among the living. In 1926 he went so far as to publish an entire book to debunk a work by an erring rival. It was fair enough to dispute the man’s conclusions and theories, pointing to cases which he believed could only be explained in terms of spirit agency. But Bozzano went on to cast aspersions on his competence: ‘he can gather laurels dedicating himself to journalism, literature, theatre, but in the field of metapsychics he will only hamper the work of others, disorienting the research and  delaying the advent of Truth’.

Strong stuff, and it’s no surprise to find Bozzano could himself inspire distrust. Some thought he went further than the facts allowed, was often over-hasty in his conclusions, and too quick to claim a suggestive incident amounted to absolute proof. In a 1938 book review for the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Herbert Saltmarsh argued that he’d have made out a much stronger case if he hadn’t laboured to make it quite so strong: ‘Much of the book’s content is interesting and some is suggestive, but when it is claimed that the inferences drawn are rigorously logical deductions from the facts I feel bound to demur.’ (pp. 277-8)

This is an endemic problem in psychical research, knowing how far to go when making your case.  After gaining repeated exposure to psi phenomena a researcher can sometimes forget how deeply problematic a belief in it remains to others who haven’t encountered it in such depth – or even at all.  

William Crookes was startled that his reports on mediums were disbelieved by his scientific peers, when the genuineness of séance phenomena had become so plain to him. Wounded, Crookes nevertheless was resigned to the situation and dropped his researches. But other researchers, similarly scorned, kept up a lonely battle, shrilly denouncing the obtuseness of those who could not, or would not see the truth. I’m thinking of the French astronomer Camille Flammarion, whose work, when I dipped into it, I found almost unreadable for this reason, despite its other undoubted merits. I doubt, too, whether James Hyslop persuaded many with his frequent complaints about disbelievers, in stark contrast to William James, whose far more cautious arguments – of the kind that Hyslop was temperamentally opposed to – have surely been far more influential.

It’s understandable that advocates get frustrated with the naysayers, but showing it does no good. In this field, perhaps more than any other, researchers have to be more than good scientists, they have to be clever communicators, to know and be able to relate to their audience’s concerns and hesitations. So coming back to Ernesto Bozzano, I doubt whether, had he published in English, he’d have had the same sort of influence outside his native Italy as he clearly enjoyed there.

That said, anything that adds to the actual data of psi research – in terms of reports and case study collections – is greatly to be welcomed, and Bozzano’s work appears to offer a rich seam, if and when a translator can be found to turn some of it into English. That applies across the board – there must be all kinds of studies in other languages that would be fascinating to read, a source of insights that might lead to meaningful advances.  There’s a real need for competent translators with time on their hands, a service the Psi Encyclopedia will certainly try to profit from in the years to come. If anyone has any ideas, or would like to volunteer, please get in touch!