Sir Francis Galton Worships Mr. Punch

In his 1909 book Memories of My Life, English polymath Sir Francis Galton reflected – in the language of his era, whose sentiments on civilization do not match our own in some regards – on several curious and creative experiments in poetic faith:

In the days of my youth I felt, at one time, a passionate desire to subjugate the body by the spirit, and among other disciplines determining that my will should replace automatism by hastening or retarding automatic acts. Every breath was submitted to this process with result that the normal power of breathing was dangerously interfered with. It seemed as though I should suffocate if I ceased to will. I had a terrible half-hour; at length, by slow and irregular steps the lost power returned…

A later experiment was to gain some idea of the commoner feelings in insanity. The method tried was to invest everything I met, whether human, animate or inanimate, with the imaginary attributes of a spy. Having arranged plans, I started on the morning’s walk from Rutland Gate, and found the experiment all too successful. By the time I had walked one and a half miles, and reached the cabstand in Piccadilly at the east end of the Green Park, every horse on the stand seemed to be watching me, either with pricked ears or disguising its espionage. Hours passed before this uncanny sensation wore off, and I feel that I could only too easily reestablish it.

The third and last experiment of which I will speak was to gain an insight into the abject feelings of barbarians and others concerning the power of images which they know to be of human handiwork. I had visited a large collection of idols gathered by missionaries from many lands, and wondered how each of those absurd and ill-made monstrosities could have obtained the hold over the imaginations of its worshippers. I wished if possible, to enter into those feelings.

It was difficult to find a suitable object for trial, because it ought to be in itself quite unfitted to arouse devout feelings. I fixed on a comic picture, it was that of Punch, and made believe in its possession of divine attributes. I addressed it with much quasi-reverence as possessing a mighty power to reward or punish the behaviour of men towards it, and found little difficulty in ignoring the possibilities of what I professed. The experiment gradually succeeded; I began to feel and long retained for the picture a large share of the feelings that a barbarian entertains towards his idol, and learned to appreciate the enormous potency they might have over him.

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