22 April 2019

PARANORMAL CULTURE

Richard Reichbart. The Paranormal Surrounds Us, Psychic Phenomena in Literature, Culture and Psychoanalysis. McFarland, 2019.

I approach the word paranormal with a certain amount of apprehension. It conjures up psychics, clairvoyants, telepathy, precognition, telekinesis and ghosts. Now I am not a believer nor am I a total sceptic on these issues. There are unnatural phenomena in this world that cannot be explained by science. Or to put it another way there is something intrinsically mysteriously about how humans operate (or are maybe operated on?) that refutes a rational explanation.

Is this a mental space where we project our imagination and invent these phenomena? Or is there a force field (that we can’t see and comprehend) where some emanation of the strangeness of things, rather than actual other things themselves co-exists? Rather than facile explanations I would happily opt for an exploration of psi that treats this vast subject with seriousness and respect. So it was with great pleasure and intellectual excitement that I finished reading Richard Reichbart’s book.

The Paranormal Surrounds Us is a tag for a book that attempts to reach out to a wider audience than analysts and students. However its sub-title, Psychic Phenomena in Literature, Culture and Psychoanalysis seduced me – your average reader. And what are photographs of Shakespeare, Freud and Ingmar Bergman doing on the cover? They look a very odd parapsychological trio (Whilst inside the book they are joined by Tolstoy, James Joyce and E.M.Forster.) After the culture-makers Reichbart broadens his argument to include the resistance of psychoanalysts to consider psi as part of their working methods; the legal obstructions of the law to accept paranormal evidence; magic and magicians, Jung’s researches and Navajo Indian culture.

To his credit eclecticism is this book’s great strength for Reichbart is not out to neatly pin down psi with a populist theory or occult label. Nor is he absolutely certain about what is really happening between patient and analyst when they experience a telepathic communication. Even pre-cognition is recognised as a process to explore but not an excuse for him to write a detailed guide to dream interpretation. Time and time again he states that some form of energy, outside of our sense’s ability to grasp does appear to exist and can intensely materialise in the psychoanalytic encounter. Reichbart is a scrupulously honest and transparent writer carefully examining evidence in an open and non-judgemental way.

“…Of course, we do not understand the nature of our existence on this planet, or the nature of life and reality. Sometimes we move along as if we do; yet in psychoanalysis these issues can come up in compelling fashion and with searching questions. And parapyschological phenomena such as telepathy necessarily bring up such questions of how our reality is constructed and where 'mind' is in this entire fabric of our universe and lastly what happens when we die….I do not favour the concept of “spirit” in the way popularly meant, that is as an entity or some form surviving death, nor for that matter reincarnation…and I have little patience for the tendency to conflate the study of parapsychology and psychoanalysis with New Age or similarly amorphous or mystical concepts. But I do think that the super-telepathy hypothesis accounts for much of what passes for 'spirit' in paranormal events such as ghosts and hauntings.”

Chapter one has the intriguing title 'Hamlet: the Tragedy of a Parapsychologist.' Reichbart is disappointed that, throughout his reading of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s "insightful embrace of psi" has been ignored by commentators. For on the matter of Hamlet encountering his dead father’s ghost Reichbart believes that what is really happening is a form of unconscious telepathy. That the apparition is not a supernaturally engendered image nor a hallucination caused by Hamlet having gone ‘mad’. Reichbart asserts that 'super-telepathy' is taking place and not just with Hamlet’s father but Polonius who may be unconsciously communicating his guilt over the murder of the old king to Hamlet.

Precognition is investigated in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India. Here dreams are seen as anxious premonitions – Anna’s inevitable suicide under the approaching train and Mrs. Moore’s speculations on what she actually saw on the road before an accident. The compulsion of dream to reveal destiny and the Forster appearance of a “hairy ghost” are for Reichbart explicable as para-psychological happenings.

To complete the culture section of The Paranormal Surrounds Us are fascinating chapters on Joyce’s Ulysses, C.K.Chesterton and Ingmar Bergman. The last two are linked by Chesterton’s play Magic that Bergman directed onstage and later turned into the film The Magician. Here I felt Reichbart was less convincing in the area of magic, charlatanism, control and psychic phenomena; insightful about character motivation in the play and film but not so concerning the psychological power of magic – this also proves to be the case on a later general chapter on magic and magicians.

When we reach Reichbart writing on Freud we are in stronger territory. Here he’s illuminating concerning the twists and turns of Freud’s ambivalence over telepathy. Although sympathetic to this idea Freud remains guardedly enthusiastic, then cautious and finally apprehensive to the point of asking analysts not to get too involved. Although Freud doesn’t mind Jung (whom he broke off contact with) going along this path. Freud’s response to telepathy occurred early on in his career. And you suspect that he didn’t explore psychic phenomena more because it would have discredited his legitimacy when presenting his major theories to the psychoanalytic world he was then pioneering.

In the section devoted to psychoanalyses and the concerns of the legal profession (How can you seriously integrate psychic evidence in a court case?) antipathy is mixed with hostility to the paranormal. Reichbart is at his most pertinent and cogent. He builds up a powerful case against the analyst’s resistance to take a paranormal hypothesis on board or consider incorporating telepathy or precognition into their psychoanalytic practise.

“They jump reflexively to popular hypothesis that supposedly explain these phenomena rather than simply sitting with the phenomena themselves (and the intriguing fact that these phenomena are universally reported in various cultures). And then they proceed to reject the popular hypotheses, mistakenly believing they are the only explanations for the data, attributing the hypotheses to superstition, magical thinking, delusion, or – worse – psychosis.”

The Paranormal Surrounds Us is out to shake complacency and lazy thinking over psi and the inbuilt prejudices of psychoanalytic culture, and a layperson’s consciousness, in order to emphasise that we retain a state of wonder (Reichbart’s term and italics) in order to question “the free floating attention” dynamics between a patient and therapist. I agree with Reichbart that a psi hypothesis should at least be considered (and not only after being ‘scientifically verified’) encouraged and explored. Yet doing that is a hard task requiring openness, creative will, research and funding.

I still remain sceptical about much of what is perceived as the paranormal yet like Reichbart would welcome an attempt to rescue it from the periphery of our knowledge ‘normalise’ its study and begin to understand something that might just, at the very least, subtly redefine what it is that makes us human. – Alan Price.


17 April 2019

INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONES

Mike Jay. Stranger Than Fiction; Essays by Mike Jay. Daily Grail Publishing, 2018.

Mike Jay is someone who will be familiar to most Magonia readers as the author of books and magazine articles on the ‘twilight zones’ of the human mind, with titles which have covered the history of drugs and other mind-altering processes. The whole range of his interests is explored in this volume, which is a collection of essays from a variety of sources, with an emphasis on the role that drugs have played in the history of art and literature, but including many other remarkable topics.

He examines the role that ‘magic mushrooms’ may – or may not – have played in the creation of Alice’s Wonderland and other forms of Victorian fairy art, even perhaps the way in which the liberty-cap mushroom was ultimately responsible for the development of garden gnomes. He points out that Alice is full of “mushrooms and hallucinatory potions, mindbending and shapeshifting motifs” but there is no evidence that Charles Dodgson (‘Lewis Carroll’) had ever taken drugs - other than a moderate consumption of alcohol. However, a clever piece of sleuthing at the Bodleian Library reveals that he had probably read a chapter in a book on the use of fly-agaric mushrooms in Russia.

If Dodgson’s acquaintance with hallucinogenic substances was at second hand, many other nineteenth century literary figures were more deeply involved. Thomas de Quincy, in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater helped formulate the image of opium as a romantic and transgressive drug. The romantic, elitist image of the artistic opium taker was further promoted by the Club des Hachischins, which met for a few years in the 1840s. It was a sort of literary salon, which originally met at the Hotel Pimodan on the Isle St Louis in Paris. Members were invited with the promise that “you will have your share of a light dinner, and await the hallucination”.

Reports of the Club’s meeting became a sensation, and in retrospect it seems that it may have been created more as a satirical response to contemporary conspiracy theories of an ‘Order of Assassins’, allegedly responsible for revolutionary movements throughout history. Although the Club was rumoured to have elaborate rituals and ceremonies, with a hierarchy of officers, it is more likely that it was an informal group that gathered for just a few meetings over a period of three or four years. It claimed to have members amongst the intellectual elite of Paris, including figures such as Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Balzac and Delacroix, but it is unlikely that they ever attended more that one or two of the club's meetings, if any at all. Although many were probably glad to have their names associated with the salon, purely for notoriety.

Not all nineteenth-century drug experimentation took place amongst literary and artistic circles, however. We have the story of James Lee, who grew up far from the salons of Paris, and first worked as a draughtsman in the steelworks of Sheffield and Teesside. Tiring of that life, he applied for engineering jobs in the far east, ending up in Assam, where he first discovered, and used, a variety of drugs. He records his experiences in his memoir, published in 1935, splendidly entitled The Underworld of the East, Being Eighteen Years Actual Experiences of the Underworlds, Drug Haunts and Jungles of India, China and the Malay Archipelago, which really tells you all you need to know about the content of the book.

The significant difference between Lee’s account of his drug experiences and that of earlier writers is, in Jay’s words, “Lee’s mission, by contrast, is to separate the pleasures from the pains, to pass on to his readers the techniques that will allow them to do the same, and to put drugs aside painlessly when the time comes”. Lee’s account is straightforward and pragmatic, leaving aside the mystical overtones of the nineteenth century literary world, and avoiding the prejudice and racism of other writers of his era.

Detail from a satirical print from 1830 depicting Humphry Davy administering a dose of Laughing Gas to a woman 

Jay outlines the social history of one substance which, until very recently, had completely lost its reputation as a recreational drug: nitrous oxide, ‘laughing gas’. This starts with Humphrey Davy – the inventor of the miner's safety lamp and later President of the Royal Society – in a large sealed cabinet, and breathing in 20 quarts (22 litres) of nitrous oxide every five minutes. This was part of the activities of the Pneumatic Institute at the Hotwells Spa in Bristol, where its founder Thomas Beddoes experimented with a variety of gases in an attempt to find a treatment for consumption.

However, the side-effects of the gas proved to be more of a public attraction than its intended medical properties, and despite Davy’s and Beddoes’ best efforts, ‘laughing gas’ soon became an attraction at variety theatres and fairground sideshows such as 'The Court of Death', where for 25 cents participants were subjected to a slide-show depicting the evils of drink and the horrors of Hell while breathing the gas. I suppose if you like that sort of thing, that’s the sort of thing you’d like.

It was at one of these shows in Connecticut that a dentist noticed that one of the participants, despite hurting himself badly crashing against a wooden bench, apparently felt no pain. This gave him the inspiration to use the gas when treating his own patients. Very quickly this ‘painless dentistry’ spread across America and the world, and nitrous oxide moved from the variety theatre to the operating theatre. The circle now appears to have turned 180 degrees, and nitrous oxide, in the form of bulbs of the compressed gas, have created a new drug scare.

There is just too much fascinating material in this book to describe in any great detail. The use of hallucinogenic substances in various cultures, historical and contemporary; how the ‘John Frum’ cargo-cult has taken on a political dimension; how a patent application for a Time Machine influenced the development of the cinema and the idea of future human races; the rise and fall of surgical and chemical treatments for mental illnesses and the reality or otherwise of ‘brainwashing’; and importantly for students of the sorts of contemporary visions that we discuss in Magonia, an examination of ‘hallucinations of the sane’ and the remarkable ‘Charles Bonnet Syndrome’.

Other chapters present the life of Nicolas Roerich and his collaboration with Igor Stravinsky; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s investigation of ghosts; the rise and fall of cocaine as a virtual cure-all; the origins of Illuminati conspiracy theories; and closer to home the history of the riotous and raucous Lewes bonfire celebrations. Mike Jay covers an amazing range of human experience with insight and great readability, and demonstrates just how extraordinary the human mind is.

The book displays the usual high standards of Daily Grail production, well designed, with an extensive and eclectic selection of illustrations. My only complaint is the curiously waxy surface texture of the card covers, but that’s just me. This is a book that every Magonian should have on their bookshelves. – John Rimmer.


12 April 2019

THE WORM IN THE APPLE

Nick Kollerstrom. The Dark Side of Isaac Newton - Science's Greatest Fraud? Pen and Sword Books, 2018.

The question mark added to this book's subtitle gives an indication of the approach taken by its author, Nick Kollerstrom, in what amounts to a thorough deconstruction of the reputation of one of Britain's greatest icons. In any public poll of the 'greatest Britons who have ever lived' you will invariably find Sir Isaac Newton in the top ten, along with the other usual candidates, such as Sir Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin. 

It is one thing to accuse Newton of having a 'dark side', which would apply to most humans, famous or not, as it could merely suggest that which was hidden from public view. But to suggest that he was a fraud is another thing entirely, quite shocking, which arouses interest when first encountered. By presenting his book's main theme as a question, Kollerstrom wisely puts the onus on the reader to examine the evidence and come to an informed assessment of the man behind the myths.

There is nothing new or revolutionary in portraying Newton as a 'difficult' character. A pertinent quotation from the illustrious English writer Aldous Huxley receives prominence on the rear dust cover with the following brutal indictment: "If we evolved a race of Isaac Newtons, that would not be progress. For the price Newton had to pay for being a supreme intellect was that he was incapable of friendship, love, fatherhood, and many other desirable things. As a man he was a failure; as a monster he was superb."

Also on the rear cover is a modern photograph of Newton's family home, Woolsthorpe Manor, with its famous apple tree in the garden. The tree is estimated to be about 400 years old, on its third set of roots, and still producing apples every year. This is, of course, the site of probably the best-known scientific legend in all of history. The story we all know is that young Isaac was sitting under the tree when an apple happened to fall on his head, causing him to ponder why objects always fall straight down to earth. In this 'aha' moment, so we like to believe, he achieved his understanding of gravity. It seems perfectly feasible.

However, it appears that the apple story is a fanciful reconstruction and it gained common currency only after Newton's death, at the age of 84, in 1727. The story comes from William Stukeley, who wrote the first British biography of Newton, 'Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life', eventually published in 1752.

Stukeley described the occasion of Newton telling his apple story, during a visit he made to Newton in 1726: 'After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea, under the shade of some apple trees...he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his head. It was occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself...'

The enhanced memory that Newton was relating went back to 1666, when the 23-year old Newton was on extended leave at the family home of Woolsthorpe Manor owing to plague ravaging the country. Cambridge University had closed for this reason in August 1665 and encouraged its resident scholars to sojourn in the countryside. The University did not re-open until late 1666 when the plague had passed. So, sometime in 1666, during his leisure time, Newton saw an apple fall and started pondering, but did this lead to his breakthrough of understanding the force of gravity? Actually, no. Many years would pass before he began to grasp how gravity worked.

This debunking of the 'apple myth' is one point among many in Kollerstrom's case that Newton could be "devious, deceptive and duplicitous", and that some of his greatest 'discoveries' may not quite be what they seem either. He makes a valid point here: "If a man only mentions what he presents as the key event of his life sixty years after it has supposedly happened and one year before he dies, that does not establish its veracity but rather more the opposite."

Nowadays we take it as given that celestial bodies exert an attractive force between one another, although gravity itself is still very much a mystery to modern physics. In the 1660s, however, the prevailing theory, as proposed by Descartes, was that planets were carried around the Sun by a swirling vortex of invisible matter: "it all worked through pressure and not by attraction. Newton's notes [written in 1669] on his copy of Astronomia refer to the pressure of the solar vortex upon the terrestrial one; and they queried whether the Earth's 'endeavour of receding' from the Sun might affect the Moon's orbit, 'unless the Moon also shares in the same endeavour'".

Towards the end of the 1670s great scientific minds in Europe were grappling with 'the great unanswered question confronting natural philosophy, the derivation of Kepler's laws of planetary motion from the principles of dynamics. The author describes a meeting at the St Paul's coffee house where Edmond Halley, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren discussed these matters. Wren had been something of a polymath before becoming a great architect, and for some years was Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College and then Oxford University. "From a member of this group came the first formulation of the principle of universal gravitation: Robert Hooke."

As evidence, Kollerstrom quotes from a letter sent by Hooke to Newton in November 1679, saying that: "all Coelestial Bodies whatsoever, have an attraction or gravitating power towards their own centres... But that they do also attract all other Coelestial bodies that are within the sphere of their activity...". Then in his next letter of 9th January 1680, Hooke formulated the inverse law of attraction: "my supposition is that the Attraction is in a duplicate proportion to the distance from the Center Reciprocal." The first statement implies Hooke's realisation that all large celestial bodies are spherical because of their own internal gravity tending towards the centre.

Is it possible that he started to get a grasp of the true mechanics of gravity from Hooke, and then later began to convince himself that he had of course had that insight long before, even as far back as 1666 when he saw the apple fall?

In 1680 Newton was preoccupied and busy with his alchemical experiments and eagerly seeking to decode the Book of Revelation and determine the timing of the Apocalypse. Then, in autumn of that year, a great comet appeared which became one of the brightest ever seen over Europe and having a spectacularly long tail. "It disappeared into the sunrise in November and then reappeared in the sunset moving away from the Sun in December two weeks later, with its tail having swung around into the opposite direction, so it was visible in the evening sky instead of the morning sky."

John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, was of the opinion that the comet had gone up to the Sun, turned around and had then emerged back into view on the other side of the Earth. Newton wrote to Flamsteed, strongly disagreeing. Flamsteed had surmised that the Sun exercised a kind of magnetic pull. "This could hardly be the case, replied Newton in a long letter, concerning 'ye question of two Comets', for the Sun was hot, and heat destroyed magnetism, and therefore he thought it unlikely that any magnetic force could be pulling the comet round." So he did not accept Flamsteed's theory that the two comets seen in the sky two weeks apart were one and the same, nor obviously had he by this time acquired a theory of universal gravitation.

Newton changed his mind a few years later and provided a fold-out drawing of the comet in his great work, known as the Principia, published in 1687. Ironically, he used data provided by Flamsteed to prove Kepler's Law by the elliptical orbit of the comet, but without any acknowledgment, much to Flamsteed's dismay. Some years later, in the summer of 1694, he went to visit Flamsteed for the first time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. There he managed to persuade Flamsteed to give him 50 of his accurate observations of the Moon, with more to follow, promising to make Flamsteed famous for his contributions to the theory of the Moon and its motion that Newton was working on. Perhaps Flamsteed could have been more wary after past experience, but it all turned out very badly for him and he came to hate Newton. The feeling was quite mutual.

In October 1711 Flamsteed was summoned to a 'Council' of the Royal Society, with its President Newton in the chair and two secretaries. The Royal Observatory had, in the previous year, been placed under the supervision of the Royal Society who were now demanding "to know from him if his instruments were in order, and fit to carry on the necessary celestial observations." Not one of the instruments had been provided or paid for by the Royal Society. They were all his own property. A fierce row developed, with Newton in a towering rage shouting insults at Flamsteed, who responded that he had been robbed of the fruits of his labours, and so on.




The book has chapters devoted to each of the three most outstanding collaborators who became arch-enemies of Newton as a result of his inordinate pride and hypersensitivity to any kind of criticism or competition for praise: Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It was with Leibniz that Newton had his most celebrated feud, over which of them had first invented calculus, said to be the greatest advancement in mathematics since the invention of zero as a placeholder. The debate still continues. Nick Kollerstrom is the right man for the job of explaining the mathematics involved and the different notations used by Newton and Leibniz. He was a mathematics teacher for five years and has a great skill for making highly complex concepts understandable for the general reader. The chapter on this controversy is very detailed indeed and I am sure would be of great interest to anyone with a good knowledge of mathematics.

All that I would add to the story of Leibniz for the human interest is that the argument ultimately destroyed him. He might have had a good claim to priority, at least to having a published theory of calculus, and to a more advanced notation system which is still in use today. But Newton and his supporters had counter-arguments. Some said that Leibniz had gained access to certain earlier unpublished writings by Newton on 'fluxions', or infinitesimal quantities used in calculations. When the case was eventually heard by the Royal Society, with Sir Isaac Newton as its President, what was the outcome likely to be? Leibniz died a broken man in 1716.

A few thoughts remain to put Isaac Newton into some context. His coldness to others may have been influenced by being alone in early childhood. His father died before he was born, and when he was three his mother remarried and passed him to his grandmother to bring up. This sense of being an 'abandoned child' may have accounted for his persona of being a loner. A psychoanalytic study described the climate of his life as 'hostile and punitive'.

As a mathematics lecturer he could empty a hall. His assistant said 'oftentimes he did in a manner, for want of hearers, read to ye walls'. When he was a Member of Parliament for Cambridge, only one remark of his is recorded, the request that a window be closed. He had no interest in art, music or poetry. In the court of George II he had the opportunity of listening to Handel playing the harpsichord and at the end could only comment on Handel's 'elasticity of fingers'.

On only two or three occasions in his whole life was he known to have laughed. He never visited the seaside, despite the quotation attributed to him: 'I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I appear to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.'

He dined with William of Orange in 1688 a month before William was proclaimed the consort, as King William III, of England's new Queen Mary. In private Newton abhorred belief in the Trinity and longed for the pure original religion.



He was appointed Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696, the year of the Great Recoinage, as his personal gravitas and eminence was exactly what was needed at the time. There was a prevalence of coin clipping and counterfeiting, which was equivalent to High Treason and punishable by hanging, drawing and quartering. He personally cross-examined more than 100 witnesses, informers and suspects, often with a great degree of severity. Another major problem was that the bullion value of the coins could be more than their face value, so there was a lack of money supply. Too many of the new coins in circulation were being melted down by goldsmiths and sold as bullion in Paris and Amsterdam for profit.

The 1690s have been called the decade when Economics was invented. Paper money was starting to be used in England, and by 1699 £1 million in paper notes were in circulation. "In 1701 Newton wrote, 'But though paper credit be a sort of riches we must not use it immoderately. Like virtue it has its extremes. Too much may hurt us as well as too little." England was the only European nation to succeed in creating paper credit in the early eighteenth century. It produced around £15 million in paper banknotes when it owned no more than £12 million in bullion, i.e. gold and silver.

One wonders what Newton would have said about the present day financial system, where money can be created 'out of thin air' electronically, without even needing to be printed. In some ways it can be seen as analogous to alchemy, where scientific knowledge is necessary to understand one's materials but wisdom is most important for how to handle them. He himself became a very wealthy man, continuing as Master of the Mint from 1699 until his death in 1727, although he lost a large sum of money in the South Sea Bubble.

Reading this enthralling and informative book will undoubtedly change the way you perceive Isaac Newton, as a scientific demigod and as a deeply flawed human who was capable of deception and extreme callousness. My own conclusion, having read the book thoroughly over a few weeks and struggled to understand all of the contradictions within Newton, is this: He was a true genius with a suppressed monster (as Aldous Huxley perceived), within his psyche. That monster, or 'dark side' was liable to erupt at any challenge to his innate intellectual superiority. Maybe that was the fire that drove him to be such a high achiever and leading figure on the world stage. It is all endlessly fascinating, and there are always more questions than answers, aren't there? – Kevin Murphy.


6 April 2019

TAKEN TO EXTREMES

Peter Biskind. The Sky is Falling; How Vampires, Zombies, Androids and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism. Allen Lane, 2018.

Nearly all of us have enjoyed our guilty pleasures of watching films and TV shows that depict the fantastic and suspend belief to an extent that was not as normal a few decades ago. It is not just supernatural beings that are increasingly depicted, such as vampires, zombies and witches with powers so outré as to be superhumans themselves. Now there are aliens, genetically-modified humans, robots, cyborgs - in fact, if it can be modelled with computer graphics then it seems to be made into a TV series, mostly thanks to internet streaming companies and film studios seeking novel content for an increasingly sated audience.

Peter Biskind is an American cultural critic, film historian, journalist, and former executive editor of Premiere magazine from 1986 to 1996. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Paris Match, The Nation, The New York Times, The Times, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as in film journals such as Sight and Sound and Film Quarterly. He has had several books published.

Coming from viewing the world via the medium of film and television, his book looks at a viewpoint that is disseminated from Hollywood to an audience that is global, especially in the age of the ubiquitous internet. Here we see that Biskind examines the recent output of the American show business industry in order to find out just what it is that has led us to the USA’s contemporary political landscape. 'Made America Great' is the none-too-subtle pointer to what type of extremism the author has in mind. Having said that, he also considers the impact of media upon those on the fringes of the left. He concludes by suggesting that the centre is prevailing again after a period in the wilderness.
This volume examines the message of popular US TV shows and films, dividing them into right-wing and left-wing according to the 'message'. If the show is sympathetic to the military, for example, then it is right-wing. If it is on the side of the oppressed natives then it is left-wing. Both of these are, according to the author, less desirable than the centre, which seems to be something from the 1950s. A period when, although many evils were still abroad, seemed better because people were less knowledgeable and informed about social ills, there was reasonable employment, wages were able to support families and so on. A world war had ended within living memory which must have made the material wealth of the following decade seem that much more appealing and generous.

Whilst there is always going to be a certain argument in favour of life imitating art, there were influences abroad that shaped events. The author seems to have forgotten about Joe McCarthy and his anti-Communist ‘witch hunt’; something that deeply influenced Hollywood and still shapes Western politics to this day. His ‘centre’ is basically a short-lived phenomenon that happened for 30-40 years after World War II and was rapidly ditched when the likes of Milton Friedman taught what is now known by many titles such as Neoliberalism. The term ‘centre’ is also questionable as it still essentially bolsters a society where poverty, lack of affordable health care and homelessness are sizeable components. It also assumes that people’s reactions are shaped to a large extent by the bias in major feature films. There is also a somewhat breathless quality to Biskind’s narrative that makes reading it a little wearing. Having said that, his points made about the right-wing Christian media are interesting and apposite.

This book may appeal to some who consider social and media commentary to be important, although it is baffling in general who would benefit from reading what is, essentially, an overlong magazine opinion piece. There may be some merit in approaching opinion-forming media from a more scientific viewpoint, therefore subjecting it to a more rigorous examination that may also bear some fruit in the form of understanding just how people’s opinions are shaped by the putative tastemakers. -- Trevor Payne

4 April 2019

COMPLETING INTCAT

I have now put Peter Rogerson's INTCAT listings for 1981 to 1983 online, and you can read them here: 

These, and the following years' listings up to 1999 which I will place online later, were ones that Peter had been working on shortly before his tragic death just over a year ago, and they are not as complete as his listings for earlier years. However I have decided to go ahead and publish them as he left them, because they still contain a mass of information which will be of interest to researchers. I also want to place as much of Peter's work as possible into the public domain, as a tribute to all the valuable contribution he has made over the years in exploring the history of ufology and other anomalous phenomena, and making that work available to others.

If you are not familiar with Peter and all he has written for Magonia, please click on the 'Peter Rogerson' tab above.

30 March 2019

AMAZEMENT AND AMUSEMENT

Charlotte Higgins. Red Thread, On Mazes and Labyrinths. Jonathan Cape, 2018.

In 1969 I bought a second hand copy of a paperback called Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History and Description (Dover Children’s Books) by W. H. Matthews. I loved its line drawings and quaint 1920’s prose style. Simultaneously I wrote to Encounter magazine to ask for a photocopy of an article called 'Weary of Labyrinths, An interview with Jorge Luis Borges.' My Dover book has been long lost in the labyrinth of time – accidentally thrown into the dustbin. But I still have the fading article amongst the maze of books sitting my shelves. These two items were my first investigative moves into the subject. 15 years afterwards I was on holiday in Crete and toured the Palace of Minos at Knossos. I was impressed by the finds of Sir. Arthur Evans and on my return to London I visited the maze at Hampton Court.

This preamble is to make a parallel with the journey of author Charlotte Higgins. She also fell in love with the archaeology of Arthur Evans (though his research has proved to be controversial for historians.) And what we both have in common is that we overdosed on dreams of anxiety about being lost in complex paths and passages in order to bring back (when fully conscious) a dream perspective on the metaphorical ambiguity of the labyrinth. For some time this concept intensely coloured my own creative writing: yet never to the point that my immersion would produce a theses, study and ultimately a book. But Charlotte Higgins (Culture Editor of The Guardian) never let go of her dreams and obsession. And thankfully she produced Red Thread, On Mazes & Labyrinths.

“Like the creature (the minotaur) that inhabits it, the labyrinth has two natures. On the one hand it conveys beauty, pattern and order: on the other, chaos, fear and bewilderment. To contemplate the shape of a labyrinth is to stand back and allow the eye to enjoy the intricacy of line and design, to feel a sense of mastery and comprehension. But to be inside the labyrinth is something else: the body, not just the mind is implicated, and the experience is not cerebral and intellectual but physical.”

Early on we are made to be aware that Red Thread is not to be a history or guidebook but an intelligent speculation on the idea of the labyrinth. It covers labyrinths both real and imagined. For her argument Higgins draws not only on Greek Myth, Roman poetry and legends but authors such as Borges (A labyrinthine libraries obsessive), Freud (his essay 'Moses and Monotheism') Kubrick’s film The Shining (the maze outside the Overlook Hotel where Jack Nicholson goes mad) Henry James (the ambiguities in his story 'The Figure in the Carpet') Chartres cathedral (the labyrinth designed on the cathedral’s floor), the mappa mundi (a medieval map of the world in Hereford cathedral), Michelangelo, Picasso (Pablo’s erotic Minotaur etchings) Dante (the inevitable ‘in a dark wood’ mid-way of labyrinth uncertainty of direction) and even Mark Wallinger.



Mark Wallinger? Yes, he was the man who was commissioned in 2015 to make permanent artwork for the London Underground. He installed a plaque, depicting a labyrinth, in ticket halls, on platforms or in corridors. Higgins particularly draws our attention to the plaque affixed to a tiled wall near the top of Highbury and Islington station [above]. Red Thread has now placed me on the look-out: not as a train spotter but conscientious maze checker.

There are many pleasurable passages in this book. And many fine colour and black and white photographs - Red Thread is a beautiful produced effort. The Greek Myths are terrifically retold and not just literally paraphrased (Higgins is too good a writer) and her own autobiographical inserts function very effectively. Occasionally there are frustrations - Red Thread became a little too meandering and digressive during Higgins’s examination of paintings. Here I felt she drifted in her conjecture: fascinating, but to pun Ariadne, Higgins loses the thread of her argument – what exactly did some of the old masters have to do with labyrinths?

If you enjoy writers like W.G.Sebald and Alberto Manguel (fellow mythologists and journey makers) then Charlotte Higgins will appeal to you. Maybe she doesn’t have their depth but her enthusiasm is contagious. All Magonians who love a play of ideas should buy it. – Alan Price.


25 March 2019

CULTURAL LEADERS

Carl Abrahamsson, Occulture: The Unseen Forces that Drive Culture Forward, Park Street Press, 2018

Although coined back in the 1980s, in the last decade ‘occulture’ has emerged as something of a buzzword in the art world and among cultural commentators in academia. As Carl Abrahamsson – a self-proclaimed ‘cultural entrepreneur’ and founder and editor of the ‘annual occultural journal’ The Fenris Wolf - notes, it has almost entered the mainstream. (There’s even an annual international Ocultura festival held in Leon in Spain, at which Lynn Picknett and I were invited to speak in 2017, together with Gary Lachman, who has written the foreword to this book.)

‘Occulture’ means more than simply art, music and literature inspired by the occult or popular movies based on occult themes. In Lachman’s words, it describes ‘the strange interzone between creativity and ritual, the liminal space blending magic and art.’ It encompasses creative endeavours that spring from the same impulses as magic, whether or not the artist has an interest in, or even awareness of, esoterica; Abrahamsson includes in this work figures, such as the American expat novelist and composer Paul Bowles (1910-99), who weren’t part of any occult scene.

Abrahamsson doesn’t confine the influence of those impulses – the hidden forces of the subtitle - to the arts. As he writes, the occult ‘has also been the breeding ground for ideas and concepts that have later on been integrated in the natural sciences, religion, and psychology.’

It’s difficult to do justice in a review to this anthology of articles and lectures, 21 in all, that Abrahamsson has written or delivered over the last decade, as they cover such a wide range of subjects, themes and ideas: the Lebensreform movement in interwar Germany; the moon in magic, folklore and the space race; a comparison of the systems of Crowley and Steiner (both of whom attempted to combine esoteric disciplines with the scientific method); the magical innovations of Anton LaVey; the place of myth in the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung; the similarities between ritual magic and psychotherapy; Crowley’s views on gender; the importance of dreaming – and much more.

For Abrahamsson, the crucible of contemporary occultism (and his own entry into the subculture) was Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth – ‘a mix between a magical order, a think tank, an archive, an experiment in intentional art, and many other things’ – established in early 1980s Britain by Genesis P-Orridge (coiner of the term ‘occulture’), which had an instant appeal to ‘a DIY generation frustrated with lies, blunt propaganda, and mass-market ersatz commodities.’ From the 1990s that impulse was carried on via the Internet, cyberpunk and movie series such as The Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies and even, in Abrahamsson’s view, Harry Potter: ‘Bland mass-market expressions, yes, but still probably very indicative of a world in need of some serious re-enchantment.’

That need for re-enchantment is a major theme of the collection, as is the de-enchantment that has given rise to it.

Several pieces, naturally, present Abrahamsson’s views on the theory and practice of magic, which for him is a creative, personal endeavour, not the robotic performance of time-hallowed rituals using traditional symbols and formulae. It should, he maintains, spring from a desire for self-transformation and not be, as it is for many self-professed occultists, just a form of escapism. There is, consequently, a focus on the magical systems of Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey (who was himself heavily inspired by Crowley), both of which emphasise individualism and creativity.

Individualism - an ‘enlightened egoism’ based on self-knowledge and will in which one takes responsibility for one’s choices and actions - is at the heart of Abrahamsson’s thinking, not just about magic and art but living in general.




Abrahamsson sees art as an essentially magical act, springing from the same place as magic. Both are ‘protohuman endeavors’ – all ancient art was magical in nature – and he decries the devaluation of contemporary art into the superficial and mass-market, ‘an aestheticized, commodified world of forms filtered through desperate and petty egos and their external commanders,’ a world run by ‘self-serving academics.’ He reserves particular loathing for ‘the art-world subspecies phenomenon’ that is the curator.

There’s a similar trenchant deconstruction of other aspects of our times, which ‘denigrate individuals to utilitarian units inside a soulless collective’, all sharply observed and succinctly expressed, as in ‘Social order is maintained by ever-stricter control, either blatantly dictatorial or via diametrical manipulations (freedom of expression more monitored than ever, freedom of movement scrutinized by surveillance, freedom of thought made ill at ease by the doublespeak of political correctness).’ It’s hard to disagree.

Abrahamsson isn’t a great fan of technology either, considering that it’s led to an ‘intellectual depletion’. Not only is our thinking done for us, but so is our fantasising. Children – and for that matter adults – no longer create their own inner lives through play and fantasy; the fantasy is now provided via their iPhones and tablets. He aims particular ire at Pokémon Go: ‘The invasion of the private sphere has now apparently gone public. It’s a dissolution of human dignity and a fictional entrapment that I fear will not be temporary.’

Abrahamsson draws attention to the paradox that our culture decries magic, myth and intuition as irrational but ‘still happily provides them via demagogic proxies like fiction and entertainment.’ This has, he argues, led to a devaluation of myth: ‘The result is a kind of anti-Jungian abyss. Stress and existential anxiety increase and are not treated therapeutically, but pharmaceutically.’

It’s not all negative, though. There are some more upbeat contributions, seeing positive developments in spontaneous outpourings of the imagination: ‘I would say that the reemergence of transcendental mind frames, sympathetic magical thinking, and ritualistic behavior fully constitutes a re-enchantment of the human psyche and of culture.’ He sees particular hope in the upsurge of interest in occult themes by artists and in academic interest in the relationship between art and the occult – which has led to the popularisation of the term ‘occulture’.

Although dealing with some deep matters – occultism, art, philosophy – that are often the object of pretentious or bombastic writing, Occulture is pleasingly free of either. Despite the breadth of his knowledge and experience, Abrahamsson never talks high-handedly to his readers, delivering his thoughts and arguments clearly. There’s much in the book for readers with every level of knowledge of the subjects discussed – although it does assume a familiarity with, for example, the ideas of Crowley, LaVey and Jung - and much to reflect upon. – Clive Prince.

17 March 2019

SOLVING THE PROBLEM OF EXISTENCE

Jack Neave. The Surrender of Silence: The Memoirs of Ironfoot Jack, King of the Bohemians. Edited by Colin Stanley. Strange Attractor Press, 2018.

'Ironfoot Jack' earned his nickname from the metal frame that supported one leg, which through some accident, was several inches shorter than the other. According to Jack's own accounts this was the result of a brave attempt to save a boy from being run over by a car, an avalanche in Tibet, a tiger-hunting accident, or his foot being bitten off by a shark. As his foot was still visibly attached to the shortened leg, this was one explanation which could easily be dismissed.

Jack Neave was one of many Soho 'characters' of the first half of the twentieth century, but unlike most others who appear in hazy reminiscences of that era, he managed to avoid being drawn into the alcoholic condition of 'Sohoitis', and locations such as the French Pub and the Colony Room appear nowhere in these memoirs. Instead he inhabited a marginal world which lay somewhere between Aleister Crowley, 'Del Boy' Trotter, and Gypsy Petulengro of Blackpool's Golden Mile.

He arrived in England from Australia the age of ten, accompanied by his mother; his father having jumped ship in Marseilles. A year after his arrival his mother died, and Jack was put a Boys' Home in Walworth, from which he absconded. He soon worked his way into the travelling world of gypsies, fairgrounds and markets, at one point operating as an escapologist, until he was barred from Blackpool beach and in protest threw his chains and canvas sacks from the end of the pier.

Some sort of windfall allowed him to buy a caravan and pony, and re-invent himself as 'Professor Curio, Lecturer in Astrology, Evolution and the Occult Sciences' travelling with various pieces of equipment which allegedly gave astronomical and numerological readings. At the same time he was reading anything he could find which he thought would help him “solve the problem of existence”, which rather than discovering the secrets of Life, the Universe and Everything, meant simply finding enough money to allow a basic level of food and shelter.

It's difficult to work out how seriously he took his 'numerological' spiel, and his other occult-sounding activities – at one time he advertised himself as “England's Celebrated Physiognomist” - but his interest in the occult was serious enough for him to tackle Blavatsky and other noted occult writers.

By the nineteen twenties he was more or less settled in London, where his occult interests took a more serious turn. He established a club – or possibly a cult – called Children of the Sun – in a basement in Charlotte Street, which later became 'The School of Wisdom', where he met his wife Jinny.

This was the start of a whole string of mystic, occult-sounding, establishments in basements and attics across London's West End, which began to attract a range of other Bohemian and marginal characters. At the same time he continued with his fortune-telling spiel in markets and fairs. Much of the exotic décor for his clubs came from the Caledonian Market, where he would also buy odd pieces of furniture, books, cheap jewellery and 'clutter', which he would either sell on to other dealers, or use in various scams of his own.




The unconventional characters that his increasingly exotic clubs began to attract caused problems with the police, and in 1934 his Caravan Club in Covent Garden was raided and shut down. Jack was charged with running a club “for the purpose of exhibiting to any person willing to pay for admission to the said place, diverse lewd, scandalous, bawdy and obscene performances and practices to the manifest corruption of his Majesty's liege subjects”.

The subsequent trial, which itself at times took on the character of a fairground show, resulted in Jack serving twenty months hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs.

After his release he gave up the idea of opening any more clubs, esoteric or erotic, and moved to Oxford (his wife was now living in Scotland) where he lived in a semi-derelict caravan, and tried to solve the 'problem of existence' by buying and making cheap jewellery and ornaments which he sold in markets and to 'clutter shops'.

He lived for a while in Birmingham, where there was a second brush with the law, for allegedly handling stolen diamonds, resulting in another eight month in prison, this time in Reading. After an interlude in Glasgow where he rejoined his wife, he returned to London, again solving the 'problem of existence' by small-time dealing of antiques, ornaments and decorative jewellery which he made himself from silver wire and beads, at a table in a tiny French cafe on Old Compton Street.

Everything had changed after World War II, and the environment in which Jack had learned to survive was gone. In the end Jack was saved from destitution by the arrival of the Welfare State, which helped solve some at least some of his problems of existence

The story is told here in his own words, dictated into a tape recorder as he was having his portrait painted by the artist Timothy Whidborne, and his voice and character come over clearly in the text. He seems to have had no notes or diaries to refer to, and the editor Colin Stanley has done a good job of clarifying some of the vagueness in Jack's memory, while keeping his interventions to the minimum necessary – 'Ennemoser Levy' apparent translates as 'Eliphas Levi'. Some of these errors are probably due to transcription from the tape recording, but others reflect Jack's omnivorous, but rough and ready, reading habits.

A carbon-copy of the transcribed text eventually turned up amongst the papers of the late Colin Wilson, and is published here with some of Jack's correspondence to Wilson, and his four 'Advices for Life', which actually contain some surprisingly good advice.

There is an earlier biography of Jack, What Rough Beast, by Mark Benny, published in 1939 and now virtually unobtainable. But this present volume takes us directly into Jack's Bohemia of 'carnys', circus freak-shows (Jack exhibited 'Zenobia the Leopard Woman' at one point), street entertainers, hucksters, hawkers, con-men and the wilder fringes of occultism; as well as the world of dimly lit, exotically decorated clubs and 'Schools of Wisdom', in cellars and attics. It shows an alternative society – a 'Magonia' – that existed amongst the ordered city streets and small towns of the 1920s and 1930s. A fascinating journey into a forgotten world, with Ironfoot Jack as our eccentric guide – John Rimmer.