27 January 2020

DAMNED FINE RESEARCH

Martin Shough with Wim Van Utrecht. Redemption of the Damned, A Centennial Re-Evaluation of Charles Fort's 'Book of The Damned'. Anomalist Books, 2019.

I suppose the first thing to ask about this book is why has it taken a hundred years for the data in Charles Fort's Book of the Damned to be re-evaluated?

I think the main reason is that Fort makes it clear on the opening pages of the Book of the Damned that he does not want them re-evaluated, for what he is dealing with is not data, which would be subject to evaluation, but rather a theatrical display, a carnival of entertainment and astonishment, to draw forth gasps of wonder and cries of delight or fear at the parade of “corpses, skeletons, mummies, twitching, tottering … Here and there will flit little harlots … There are things that are theorems and things that are rags … There are pale stenches and gaunt superstitions and mere shadows and lively malices; whims and amiabilities.”

And to make it absolutely clear, “The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science.” With capital letters! Dogmatic Science, he tells us, 'excludes' such things; if it cannot fit any of this anomalous data into one of its pigeon holes, then it is cast out and damned.

So from the start we are warned that if we try to explain any of these harlots or stenches we are doing the work of Dogmatic Science, and this has been more or less the attitude taken by Fort's readers and followers since the book's publication in 1920. Read it, enjoy it, marvel at it, but do not ever try to explain it, it's just not the done thing.

Fortunately here are a couple of Fortean iconoclasts who have set out to violate the First Law of Forteanism. They have decided to test whether or not the 'little harlots' and 'pale stenches' are quite as damned as Fort claimed. In this very substantial volume they have looked at the reports Fort recorded which seemed to suggest anomalous objects and phenomena within the earth's atmosphere, or in the immediate surroundings of the planet – mostly between the earth and the moon. They have found 82 such references in Book of the Damned.

Fort was usually meticulous in giving details of his sources, which were generally from scientific books and journals, and this gives the authors a good starting point for their investigations. I was going to write 're-investigations', but that would be incorrect, as Fort simply noted the original accounts and developed a volume of speculation from them, but was in no position to investigate the reports as such. Now we are in such a position, with the whole range of the modern Internet as our resource, which Shough and van Utrecht have exploited to its limits.

The cases reviewed are taken in chronological order, starting with the French astronomer Charles Messier’s observation of a large number of “small globules” crossing the disc of the sun in 1777; and concluding with an account from West Virginia in 1916.

The Messier account is particularly interesting because in retelling this and many other similar incidents, Fort “whimsically supposes them to be ‘super voyagers’ in space” and that this has provided a grounding to much post-1947 speculation on UFOs.

Although this particular case seems almost a throwaway remark by Fort, just two lines in a list of similar incidents, Shough and van Utrecht take ten pages of this large format book to discuss it in detail, and this is typical of the depth of their research in the other cases they examine.

Fort gives just the brief note ‘Arago, Oeuvres, 9-38’. The authors have found Messier’s original report in the Mémoires de l’Acadamie Royal, and reproduce ten pages from the journal, which includes an original illustration based on Messier’s drawing, along with detailed calculations attempting to determine the distance of the objects from the observer.

Shough and van Utrecht [henceforth 'S and vU'] look at the possibility that Messier was actually observing a flight of migrating birds and that his expressions of certainty that the objects were circular ‘globules’ to be an artifact of the focusing of his telescope, considering at the likelihood hat Messier adjusted the focus of his instrument at some time during his observation, allowing for irregularly shaped objects close to the lens, such as air-borne seeds or ‘ballooning’ spiders, to appear more perfectly circular in the eyepiece. 

Messier appears to have been meticulous in recording his observation, and the authors have been equally meticulous in analysing his report. Messier concluded that what he had seen were “more probably small meteorites”, but in 1777 that word could mean virtually any atmospheric phenomenon, and certainly did not mean the stony, extraterrestrial object that we use the term for today.

However, this report, in Fort’s truncated version became a staple of ufological history from the 1950s. It reached its height with the publication in 1954 of Flying Saucers from Mars, allegedly by ‘Cedric Allingham’ but in reality by the famous TV astronomer Patrick Moore. He spins the story, saying that Messier reported “they were large and swift, and they were like ships and yet like bells”. ‘Allingham’ claims to have read this in “one of Messier’s diaries.”

S and vU conclude their analysis of the case by commenting “Today this mutated canard – unattributed - is all over the Internet. The fable has grown on its own, but arguably Charles Fort is to blame.”

Of course Charles Fort was to blame for a lot more as well.

One of the cases that the authors look at is a curious sighting from Bermuda, first reported in the island’s Royal Gazette for September 8, 1885. A Mrs Bassett reported “a strange object in the clouds, coming from the north”. It was triangular, with chains suspended from it which descended close to the ground, but when going out over the sea it ascended until out of sight." I don't see anything in this account to suggest that it is anything other than a balloon.

Fort, as we would expect, finds this unlikely, “I don’t think much myself of the notion that it was an escaped balloon, partly deflated." A correspondent to Nature, J H Lefroy, make this suggestion, but Fort takes him to task accusing him of “correlating with Exclusionism,” in accordance with his theory that Science is ‘excluding’ topics that do not fit – the 'Damned'. His suggestion, presumably not meant literally, is “a super-dragnet – that something was trawling overhead?” This is where we get the famous speculation, “I think that we’re fished for. It may be that we’re highly esteemed by super-epicures somewhere.”

He is, probably rightly, dismissive of the suggestion that the Bermudan object was an escaped balloon from a display in Paris, but from the description, a balloon of some sort does seem a reasonable – even if Exclusionist – explanation.

S and vU run with the balloon hypothesis, and look at further details, published in Nature after Lefroy’s initial letter. Lefroy was General Sir John Henry Lefroy, KCMG, CB, FRS, who had been a scientist and a colonial administrator, and was in no doubt that the object was a balloon, moving as it did in accordance with the winds recorded at the time. The main objection to the balloon theory is the difficulty in determining the source of the object, and how it sailed so far out into the Atlantic. However, there had been two tropical storms in the area shortly before the sighting, and S and vU suggest that a balloon from the east coast of the USA may have been taken up to a high altitude in the storm updraught, floated around in the higher atmosphere for several days, then descended over the island. The have discovered that just such a fate overtook an American airship 25 years later.

They conclude saying “It seems plausible that a similar this happened in 1885, although the likelihood of proving it is vanishingly small.”

And of course this is the problem with almost any re-examination of Fortean accounts from this era, and probably any account of strange phenomenon at any era. We were not there, we do not have direct access to the witnesses, everything we know about such incidents is usually mediated through two, three or even more intermediate sources.




The great value of this book is that it strips away most, even if not all, of the intermediaries. One of the best examples is the case of mysterious lights seen in 1893 in the straits between Japan and Korea, north of the city of Nagasaki. S and vU take 28 pages exploring every detail of the accounts of this phenomenon. Their research included digitally scouring the files of newspapers from Singapore to Sydney; examining the structure of a dormant volcano; determining seasonal wind and weather patterns; looking at accounts of possible mirages; a detailed examination of the local squid-fishing industry, and even an excursion into eighteenth century Japanese woodcuts and fire-festivals.

On this occasion the authors are able to be pretty certain that they have unearthed the correct explanation, asking “What is the probability … that images resembling fires on boats were not fires on boats in a part of the world where fleets of boats with smoky fires on them did operate in the late nineteenth century? Clearly a lot less that p=1.0!”

It would be tedious to go through every individual Fortean report analysed in this book, but in the overwhelming majority of cases the explanation offered by the authors is detailed enough, and backed by sufficient documentation to be almost certainly the correct one. Obviously, there are a number of cases where there is insufficient evidence for such certainty, but in these instances the explanations suggested are very plausible, and just ‘smell right’, although the authors are honest enough to admit that there are still one or two cases which left them scratching their heads, and that there may be “in a very few [cases] hints of information relevant to marginal new science in the areas of, for example, upper atmospheric physics, meteorites or thunderstorm electricity."

Each case is a model of how historical Fortean investigation should be done. The authors take us to the source quoted by Fort, showing us reproductions of the documents quoted, and then go beyond that to related material, scientific papers, newspapers, and other contemporary sources. There is a wealth of illustrations showing phenomena similar to those described in the reports, and in many cases maps and views of the locations involved. They have used modern online tools such as Google maps and Streetview to guide us to the places themselves.

This is a remarkable achievement of not just Fortean study, but more general historical study, and I am eager to see their next title, which will look at anomalous reports from the sea and from space.

But finally, one important question is answered. The authors conclude that the reports that they have studied in such detail do not support Fort’s claim that this data has been ‘excluded’ or suppressed by a scientific establishment, or that anything in them tends to suggest any sort of “intrusions into our reality from an Otherworld of limitless reality”.

Which leads to the question, what is Fort really doing in this book? In a recent Fortean Times (FT388, 46-51) the philosopher Ian Kidd has attempted to show that far from being an enemy of science – an impression which comes across strongly to me when reading his books – Fort was a philosopher proposing a world of constant flux, experimenting with ideas on the nature of reality. Well, Mr Kidd is the philosopher, and I’m not, but to me Fort’s writings when not simply describing the hundreds of anomalous reports, seem to be putting the English language through an endurance course. He is, as I said in a previous review, almost unreadable en masse. But he does have one massive achievement to his name, which allows us to forgive anything else.

He invented Forteanism – John Rimmer

21 January 2020

SWIMMING AGAINST THE CURRENTS

Jeffrey J. Kripal, Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

One of the most original and fearless thinkers around, Jeffrey J. Kripal is that rarest of creatures: an academic (Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought) at a respected institution (Rice University) who is willing to admit his acceptance of paranormal and Fortean phenomena of the highest degree of strangeness. Well, rather more than just admit: he places the paranormal at the very heart of his understanding of religion and, indeed, humanity.

He decries our secular, materialist culture’s denial of paranormal experiences, as well as the shaming of those who unwisely talk about or declare their belief in them, a response he calls ‘immunological.’ A big part of his mission is to restore the balance - as he puts it to make the impossible possible again - and that’s even led him to co-write a book with Whitley Streiber (2016’s Super Natural). How many other academics would dare something like that! I told you he was fearless.

And he writes like a dream, clear, passionate and with a wry humour, effortlessly throwing off incisive and oh-so-quotable turns of phrase. (Sample: "A religion is a fantasy that an entire culture is living in.") He delights in paradoxes, ironies and wordplays.

As you might have guessed, I’m a fan, since his 2007 study of the Esalen Institute and, especially, 2011’s Mutants and Mystics, one of the first books I reviewed here.

Secret Body - the title is Kripal’s free translation of Catholicism’s corpus mysticum, referring to both the community of believers and the presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread and wine – doesn’t disappoint. It is, as he describes it, part memoir and part manifesto, being made up of essays, lectures, extracts from his books and other writings from his 30-year career, with introductions putting each in context and, where necessary, afterwords updating or adding new reflections on them. By showing how his thinking has evolved, it serves as a perfect introduction to Kripal’s work and ideas.

Kripal’s intellectual journey falls into two distinct but (at first glance unexpectedly) related halves. In the first, he explored the link between mysticism and sexuality, or as he sums it up ‘the comparative erotics of mystical literature, first applied to my own Christian tradition, then to a Hindu Tantric saint, then to the Western monotheisms as a whole.’ (Kripal uses the words ‘erotics’ and ‘mystics’ in the same sense as ‘physics.’) The second is concerned with the meaning of the paranormal.

The two major parts of the book, ‘Corpus’ and ‘Mysticum’, are devoted to those halves, with a shorter conclusion, ‘Meum’, in which Kripal takes stock of where his road has brought him and sketching his ‘future theory of religion’ or ‘new sacred’. He laces the book with 20 ‘gnomons’, or theses – the insights and conclusions he’s reached in his professional life.

One of the key gnomons (no. 13) – explored in books such as Authors of the Impossible and Mutants and Mystics – is that ‘The Paranormal is a Kind of Story’. It has a ‘narrative dimension’, being "a potential story that wants to be told in and as us, a kind of writing of the real writing us," or more pithily, adapting a quote of Philip K. Dick’s, Wwe are not the writers but the written." In Secret Body Kripal has taken that insight to its logical conclusion and applied it to himself, writing the book ‘as if I were a myth become real’ (his emphasis). If it comes across as trippy, he says, that’s because that’s the way his life has been.

Kripal’s career has been controversial and provocative from the start. His early work on religion, in the 1990s, led him to his first gnomon, that of ‘Heretical Heterosexuality’: "in the history of religious literature that employs gendered and erotic language to express a man’s union with the divine, a religiously expressed male homoeroticism tends toward orthodoxy and a religiously expressed male heterosexuality tends toward heresy."

The insight had its origins in Kripal’s time in a Catholic seminary in his native Nebraska, studying to be a monk, when he realised that he was virtually the only straight guy there. His exploration of why this should be was what turned him to an academic, rather than monastic, career.

Kripal’s dictum can be clearly seen in Christianity, in which those texts that present Jesus as a celibate who surrounded himself with an all-male band of disciples became the canon (‘there is nothing straight about the historical memories of Jesus that Christianity has preserved as its canonical New Testament’), while those that give space to his female followers, and which depict him in a close personal and even sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, were condemned and suppressed.

Kripal embraces the theory – as he set out in a 2008 lecture ‘On the Fiction of a Straight Jesus’ - that Jesus really was gay. Unsurprisingly, given the books that Lynn Picknett and I have written, I disagree with him there (it comes down to which set of texts – canonical or heretical - you think most accurately represent the historical Christ), but in terms of Kripal’s overall point it doesn’t really matter as, either way, through its selection and editing of those texts the early Church certainly created a ‘nothing straight’ Jesus.

The seminary revelation awakened an interest in the psychosexual aspects of mysticism and religion, which led Kripal to the realisation that there is a deep connection between the mystical and the erotic. And he continually found the same ‘rule’ of orthodoxy being expressed in homoerotic, and heresy in heteroerotic, terms. (He notes with his usual delight the irony of ‘orthodoxy’ literally meaning ‘straight teaching.’)

Kripal’s study of Eastern mystical traditions, primarily Tantra, led to his discovery that the ‘secret talk’ of the nineteenth-century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna included not just sexual, but homoerotic elements that, while blindingly obvious, have been ignored or suppressed by his later devotees. The result was his first book, Kali’s Child (1995), which stirred up a huge controversy in India, even leading to calls for his imprisonment.

Another pivotal event during his time studying Tantra in Calcutta was what he calls ‘That Night’, a personal, mystical-erotic experience of the presence of the goddess Kali, which not only helped his understanding of the mystic but, later, of paranormal ‘entity’ encounters such as Strieber’s.




The study of Eastern religions drew Kripal to their place in the American counterculture – what he calls the ‘North American guru traditions’ - which in turn led him to the California human potential movement and his seven-year Esalen project. And this inevitably brought him into contact with accounts of ‘exotic anomalous experiences, from the parapsychological to the ufological,’ in which he saw striking parallels with the mystical texts and traditions he’d studied.

Kripal takes a panoramic view of the paranormal, covering everything from psi (the British psychical research tradition, especially the work and theories of Frederic Myers, has a big place in his thinking), through ghosts and spirits to bigfoots and UFO encounters. As he emphasises, you can’t separate these things: alien encounters routinely have a psychic element, for example.

For Kripal, paranormal and psychical events are the ‘elephant in the room’ of religious studies: "…I have come to think that very similar psychical phenomena lie at the core of the history of religions, right behind what we traditionally called 'myth', 'miracle', and 'magic'" - what he calls "the countless interventions of the fantastic into human historical time."

Because of religious scholarship’s blindness to the connection, Kripal set out "to fashion a new intellectual language or way of speaking that could take the paranormal seriously and reinsert these key phenomena back into the heart of religion, from which they first emerged and to which they really did belong," seeking – ambitiously - to put the study of the "American paranormal’ on the same academic level as that of the Kabbalah, Tantrism, shamanism, European esotericism and Gnosticism. Or as a colleague put it, ‘to make UFOs sound Ivy League.£

Kripal calls for religious scholarship to accept the reality of present-day paranormal events and to use them to understand religious and mystical events from history - "the burning 'I Am' bushes, haunting ghosts, egoless enlightenments, lightning struck shamans, possessing spirits, throwing poltergeists, and revealing angels (and aliens) of the history of religions" - in what he calls a ‘new comparativism’. Although, as he points out, it’s really a return to the approach of the nineteenth-century psychical research tradition.

It was his own attempt to apply this that led to his collaboration with Whitley Strieber. He argues that, when seen in the context of the history of religion, there’s actually nothing anomalous in Strieber’s experiences: "What I see in the abduction phenomenon, and particularly in the use of hypnosis as a generator of the narrative, is a dramatic model not of aliens and little gray humanoids, much less of some future extraterrestrial assault on planet Earth, but of the irreducible complexities and projections of religion itself."

In one of his characteristic inversions, he challenges the widespread notion that the ancient gods were really aliens: rather, today’s aliens are really the ancient gods.

The next stage of Kripal’s journey was an even stranger one, as he discerned that the roots of sci-fi and superhero fiction, which have had such an impact on America’s (and then the West’s) culture and psyche, were firmly planted in the paranormal (as set out in Mutants and Mystics). And because of his association of the paranormal and the mystic, he came to see the impulse behind the creation and appeal of superhero fiction as essentially religious. Indeed, in another - brilliant - inversion, he writes that religion was the superhero fiction of the ancient world.

In short, Kripal sees mystical traditions, paranormal encounters, and superhero literature as all being expressions of the same thing. No wonder he calls his area of research "the Area 51 of the study of religion".

For Kripal, as I’ve said, the paranormal is a story. A paranormal experience is "a narrative expression, partly empirical, partly symbolic, of a real event that overflows and exhausts any rational explanation." He writes that "paranormal events will never be understood with the mechanistic thinking and causal models of the sciences as they stand now, or any other kind of rational reductionism. They will never be understood in mechanistic terms because they are not about mechanisms. They are about meaning. They are about narrative or, if you prefer, 'myth.'"

It’s something that sooner or later strikes all of us in the Fortean/Magonian camp (and which makes those phenomena impossible for the mechanistic-minded ‘skeptic’ to accept): paranormal events aren’t of the same kind as those in our everyday lives, but seem designed or scripted - and "intentionally, if often mischievously, meaningful" – for those who experience them.

Ultimately it all comes down to the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the material world. For Kripal, paranormal experiences offer clues to the nature of that relationship, representing as they do ‘a temporary collapse of the binary structures of self/world and subjective/objective into the anomalous and the monstrous.’


Kripal considers both literalist religion (exemplified by creationists) and materialistic science (represented by the ‘new atheists’) as equally naïve. Clearly, he wants to shake both up, writing that he wants to make the believer anxious and to provoke the nonbeliever.

For Kripal, ultimately, the point of studying religion isn’t what it tells us about God or the gods, or its theological, ethical and social dimensions, but what it shows us about ourselves, both as we are now and what we might become: "Clearly, if the gods exist, they need us to speak. In truth, I think the gods are us, but that we are not ready to see this yet. I think they are the unconscious, unintegrated part of us speaking to the conscious integrated part of us."

This overview merely scratches the surface. There’s so much more in Secret Body: a lambasting of the current state of the humanities for their materialism and pessimism ("If a truth is to be declared in the humanities, it must meet one criterion: it must be depressing"); the lessons of quantum physics ("I simply do not see how we can go on and on about how everything is local, historical, and contextual when the physicists are telling us, with compelling empirical evidence, that deep down none of this is in fact true"); material on Robert Monroe and his Out-of-the-Body travels, ‘weird Will Blake’, Philip K. Dick’s ‘Valis’ experience, Aldous Huxley, Charles Fort ("the man who did more than anyone to shape the American paranormal") and many others; the parallel between Marian visions and UFO encounters; an original and fascinating exploration of the racial aspects of ET encounters and the place of UFOs in new African-American religions such as the Nation of Islam… and much, much more.

Well, if there’s not enough there to make you want to read the book, I don’t know what will.

In short, Secret Body is, like Jeffrey Kripal’s other works, an important and inspiring book, presenting a sweeping vision not just of the paranormal and religion, but of what it means to be human. -- Clive Prince


15 January 2020

THE GODS OF IRISH MYTH

Mark Williams. Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth. Princeton University Press 2016

Despite being close neighbours, the cultures of England and Ireland are quite different in many respects. In England, you would expect a book entitled 'England's Immortals' to glorify and celebrate its sporting heroes. Try a Google search of the phrase and you will find that the majority of results are related to football, followed by rugby and cricket. Virtually all results from a search of the phrase 'Ireland's Immortals' relate to this book by Mark Williams, with an abundance of glowing reviews for this 'History of the Gods of Irish Myths'. One review called it 'the go-to book on the gods of Ireland for the foreseeable future'.

As an 'Anglo-Irish' (brought up by an Irish father and English mother), I have always found it fascinating to compare the cultures of both nations. Ireland somehow seems to have a deeper living connection with its ancient mythological past. England does not in general seem to acknowledge its ancient gods, although the names of four Anglo-Saxon gods are memorialised in the days of the week (Tiw, Woden, Thunor, and Frige).

In his Preface, Williams addresses this anomaly with good insight about the effects that Christianity had on the peoples of Europe, suggesting that they had a problem with how to think about the gods of their pagan forebears. They might conclude that they had been "demons who should be forgotten or only contemplated with a shudder. Not so the Irish, who continued to make a conspicuous imaginative investment in their island's native gods; one of the enigmas this book addresses is why this habit of mind should have obtained in Ireland but not in (say) Anglo-Saxon England."

He explains how this uniquely Irish viewpoint was able to incorporate their ancient gods into the Christian worldview by the "assigning of exotic orders of being to former gods", such as fallen angels or superhuman beings with extraordinary powers. The author warns, however, that although "the literature we have is rich, references to lost manuscripts and tales makes it clear that we only have a limited sample of what once existed and what we have may not be representative."

A piece of blurb on the back cover, by R F Foster of the University of Oxford, calls it "an important contribution to the history of religion, nationalism and Gaelic culture; it is so well written as to be unputdownable". I agree it is well written, and the text is well laid out for readability, but I guess I am not the only reader who found it harder to pick up than to put down. Well, it is more than 600 pages, including acknowledgments, a useful glossary, bibliography, index, etc. and it weighs well over one kilogram.


Arranged in two parts, the first concentrates attention on medieval Irish texts and the second on writings in English from the 'Celtic Revival' of the late 19th century to the present day. It is the first part that may prove challenging for the general reader who is unfamiliar with Irish mythology. Here the author examines and analyses texts written in the Irish language, mostly from the medieval period. Some texts written in Old Irish, the oldest form of the Gaelic languages, date back as far as the seventh century.

One text, known as 'The Scholar's Primer', contains an amusing story of how the Irish language was first created. A legendary Scythian king, with the unlikely-sounding name of Fenius Farsaid (Irishman the Pharisee), was said to have assembled all the best bits of the languages scattered at the Tower of Babel and "from them pieced together the world's first artificial, 'perfect' language: Irish". Or perhaps, I wonder, if this was the first recorded instance of the famous Irish 'Blarney'?

In any quest to find the original Irish gods it is important to remember that all written texts, from the seventh century onward, were written by Christian monks and scribes after the conversion of Ireland. The scholar's immense challenge is to decipher their references to pre-Christian texts and oral traditions about an ancient race of supernatural beings known as the Tuath De (tribe of the gods). This phrase was modified by the scribes to Tuatha De Danann (Peoples of the goddess Danu) to avoid confusion with the Israelites, or peoples of the god of the Bible.

It is clear that all available texts were written in monasteries, because "all literary composition, vernacular and Latin, depended on alphabetic writing and book production. This was only available via the technology of ecclesiastical education." Therefore, "a secular literary tradition in Irish could only have emerged in a Christian context, and the Bible remained at all times the wellspring and core of Irish literacy." The secular, learned professionals responsible for vernacular composition were known in Irish as filid. This word, commonly translated into English as 'poets', meant much more than that. They were also genealogists, keeping records of aristocratic lines, and as such may also be considered as archivists.

The filid are therefore key to the preservation of the ancient romantic tales of the origins and actions of the Irish gods. They preserved a "body of learning which was not shared with ecclesiastical scholars". It appears that in general they did not believe in the ancient gods ("though we enumerate them we do not worship them"), as of course you would expect from those working under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church. But these learned men wrote as they had been taught to read. Bible stories obviously carried several layers of meaning, so they likewise may have added their own constructions to the ancient texts. As Williams puts it, "it might be a development entirely of medieval scholarship, and thus tell us literally nothing about how those gods had been envisaged in the pre-Christian era".

Although not the author's fault by any means, reading this book can be quite frustrating. He is often at great pains to caution against accepting the medieval writers' versions of the ancient legends. Discussing the 'Mythological Cycle', a grouping of Old and Middle Irish texts of stories about divine beings, which provides much of the source material, he says: "...it is hard to gauge the degree to which any of these sagas reflect lost pre-Christian myths ... it is overwhelmingly clear that the mythic patterns and motifs present have been transmuted and transfused with meanings tailored to medieval, Christian Ireland - the period in which the sagas were written".




A good example of this is the most famous story from the 'Mythological Cycle': 'The Children of Lir', a tragic saga of humans with supernatural, magical powers and a jealous stepmother who intends to kill her husband Lir's four children. Unable to carry out the foul deed with a sword, she instead uses a spell to transform them into swans. It is a classic fairy tale until the Christian ending (evidently added by the medieval scribe) in which the children are finally transformed back into very aged humans, who receive a baptism from a kindly monk before their deaths. Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy tale called 'The Wild Swans' with similar themes.

Going back to the question 'Who are the Irish gods?' Most of us would be unable to name even one, while we could probably name several gods of the pantheons of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Scandinavia. The Irish gods are hard to pin down, shifting between human and divine attributes. "Such elusiveness is their calling card: they dissolve into the landscape, here one minute, gone the next... Paradox is key, for these gods are also fairies; they are immortal, but - like the Norse gods - they can be killed. They are simultaneously a pantheon and a people."

As a pantheon, they do have a father figure, a deity named 'the Dagda', meaning 'good god'. He corresponds to Zeus or Jupiter in that he has many children and is "conspicuously highly sexed." His daughter was Brigit, associated with spring, fertility and healing. Saint Brigit is her Christianised form, with a feast day on 1st February, the pagan date of Imbolc, the Celtic first day of spring. Of course Christmas and Easter are prime examples of how the Church was able to incorporate ancient pagan celebrations into its calendar.

Other outstanding Irish gods are: "the heroic Lug, a radiant and royal man between youth and maturity; the Morrigan, a gruesome war-goddess, shapeshifting between woman and crow, eel and wolf; the Manannan, the sea-god, speeding his chariot over the ocean churned to the colour of blood." It is said that they were eventually overcome by encroaching humans taking their space and took up residence in sidhe (hollow hills), where they might be perceived as fairies.



In the 'Celtic Revival' of the late nineteenth century, the Irish gods received something of a resurrection as writers and intellectuals looked beyond Christianity for inspiration. Did the gods emerge from their hiding places to inspire the re-birth of Ireland as a sovereign nation? Gladstone's Home Rule Bill had nearly succeeded in 1893. It was only a matter of time before Ireland became an independent country. Cultural and political nationalism was on the rise.

Two outstanding writers of that dynamic phase of Irish history, W B Yeats (1865-1939) and George Russell (1867-1935), provide much of the material in the second part of the book. The two men met at art school in Dublin and became lifelong friends, although not always in agreement. In 1896, Russell stated in a letter to Yeats that 'the Gods have returned to Erin', noting 'the increased faith in faery things' throughout the country. Yeats and Russell were instrumental parts in that spiritual and cultural revival: "Others have set important precedents, but fundamentally it was their creativity between 1885 and 1905 that shaped the ways in which the Irish gods were imagined by modernity."

While Yeats was famous for his interest in the occult, Russell was even more of a mystic, becoming an enthusiastic Theosophist. It is well worth reading this book for understanding the influence Russell had on Yeats and other great Irish writers, including James Joyce, and the wider society. Russell's influential role in Irish history and culture deserves to be better known. While a strong advocate of Irish independence from British rule, he was a strict pacifist and opposer of violence as a means to that end. That viewpoint, unfortunately, did not prevail, as shown in the bloody 1916 Easter Uprising, followed by summary executions. Ireland's nightmare continued for many more decades, as we all know, but its culture is alive and well, despite continuing arguments about the status of Ulster and the 'six counties', as well as religious disagreements.

Williams summarises the whole matter in a single sentence: "In short, the distinctiveness of the Irish setup lies in its restless refusal to resolve." While referring to its gods, it could equally apply to its people. -- Kevin Murphy


7 January 2020

A YEAR OF GREAT BOOKS

It is now an old Magonia tradition, going back, oh, several years, to look back at the previous year's reviews and rank the top ten. Of course, those which were posted at the beginning of the year, and have been on line the longest, tend to have been read the most, and this year is no exception.

The tenth spot is taken by Alan Price’s review of The Paranormal Surrounds Us, Psychic Phenomena in Literature, Culture and Psychoanalysis, by Richard Reichbart. He finds it an illuminating account of how paranormal ideas have influenced literary and artistic thinking.

The number nine place is taken by my review of a collection of essays edited by Edward Beyer and Randall Styers, Magic in the Modern World. Ranging from the inability to prove the reality of magic by scientific methopds,. to examining the use of H P Lovecraft's Necronomicon as a text for magical practitioners. I conclude that the book helps to confirm "contemporary magical practices as subjects worthy of scholarly study."

Next on the list, at number eight, is Jenny Randle’s overview of volume four of Jacques Vallee’s ongoing diary of his UFO and paranormal research and writing, Forbidden Science 4, The Spring Hill Chronicles. Covering the last decade of the twentieth century. Although "the book ranges over many topics in a haphazard manner and rarely goes into depth", she concludes "as reader you get what really happened day by day from a true giant of the UFO field. That is worth any deficiencies the diary format inevitably brings. Roll on Volume 5!"

At number seven, we find Nigel Watson looking at bizarre stories of cattle mutilations in Ireland. In States of Denial the authors Dermot Butler and Carl Nally suggest that there is a global conspiracy to hide the truth about these cases. Unsurprisingly Nigel is doubtful, but still finds the account “nightmare inducing”!

Sixth position is taken by my review of two books looking at how occult and magical beliefs developed through the horrors of the First World War, looking at issues such as the growth of Spiritualism as people tried to contact the souls of relatives killed in the trenches, the use of lucky charmes for protection, and how the conflict affected belief in conventional religion. The titles under review were Leo Ruickbie’s Angels in the Trenches: Spiritualism, Superstition and the Supernatural During the First World War, and Owen Davies’s A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith During the First World War.

At number five is Clive Prince’s discussion of Occulture, the Unseen Forces that Drive Culture Forward, by Carl Abrahamsson. He finds it an interesting and readable account of the influence of occultism and that “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.”

Number four is my own review a review of a collection of essays by the always interesting Mike Jay, Stranger than Fiction. Covering topics as varied as nineteenth century decadence, the Lewes bonfire, drug-taking engineers in India, and how Humphrey Davy was ultimately responsible for painless dentistry, this is a book which has something for everyone

Third in the annual list is Kevin Murphy’s review of The Inkblots, by Damion Searles, which is not, as he points out, about the popular 1950s American singing group the Inkspots, but an account of the life and work of Hermann Rorschach, deviser of the famous ‘ink blot’ psychoanalysis test. He concludes that Rorschach deserves to be remembered “as a man as well as a name.”

Gerrard Russell’s review of Peter Shaver’s The Rise of Science: From Prehistory to the Far Future, is our second most read review of the year. He concludes that the book is “an ideal introduction to the development of scientific thought for the interested general reader, and could well be a standard textbook for schools, which would instil a real enthusiasm for science as well as provide the basic facts.

Although published at the beginning of the year, so not unnaturally coming high in our listings Gerry Russell's review of Rare Astronomical Sights and Sounds, by Jonathan Powell is not only the top read for the year, but even a year after its initial publication this piece still shows up amongst the top-read reviews each month, and is now the third most read piece on Magonia review since records began in 2011! Mr Russell is impressed by the book, which he says demonstrates that the author “revelled in writing this book and he is filled with the wonder of collecting data on the celestial movements of this Universe”, but not as impressed as I am by the popularity of his review with Magonia review’s readers!

So wishing a happy and peaceful New Year to you all, and assuring you of another twelve months of fascinating books and insightful reviews. – John Rimmer.

6 January 2020

I REMEMBER IT WELL

Charles B. Jameux, Memory Palaces and Masonic Lodges: Esoteric Secrets of the Art of Memory, Inner Traditions, 2019.

Fans of TV’s Sherlock will be familiar with the idea of the memory palace, the trick used by the great detective, in his contemporary reimagining, to mentally file away and retrieve the vast quantities of information he needs to solve crimes. How many, though, realise that the memory palace isn’t an invention of the scriptwriters but – at least until it was eclipsed by the rise of the printed word - a time-honoured mnemonic technique, the Ars memoria, which also, as this book’s subtitle indicates, had an esoteric or ‘occult’ form?

In Memory Palaces and Masonic Lodges, translated from a 2013 French original, Charles Jameux – a high-ranking Freemason of the Grand Loge de France and former editor of its journal (as well as a part of the 1960s Parisian surrealist scene) – argues that the art of memory wasn’t only an important formative influence on Freemasonry, but that it also offers a solution to one of its enduring mysteries, the ‘night of origins’ as Jameux calls it: how and why did a purely practical guild of professional workers in stone – ‘operative’ or ‘craft’ Masonry – became ‘speculative’ Freemasonry, an initiatory network devoted to arcane rituals whose members had never touched a chisel in their lives?

The Ars memoria was developed in ancient Greece and used the imagination for memorising information. The practitioner picked a large, many-roomed building – the memory palace - with which they were familiar and could therefore easily picture in their minds. When they wanted to remember a flow of facts – to deliver a speech, for example – they formed, using a set of rules based on the association of ideas, a vivid and striking mental image (imagine) representing each one and ‘placed’ them in consecutive rooms (the loci). To retrieve the information they imagined themselves walking through the building room by room, seeing in their mind’s eye the imagines, and this automatically recalled to mind the data encoded in them. It was a system that could produce prodigious feats of memory (à la Sherlock).

During the Renaissance, the system was combined with concepts taken from the magical arts – particularly Hermeticism – to create a method for not merely remembering learned facts but one that could, it was believed, be used to acquire information. The imagines were devised using magical associations, in a similar way to talismans, and their contemplation gave the practitioner direct access to spheres of knowledge that are normally hidden. The foremost exponent of this ‘occult’ art of memory was the Neapolitan Dominican-turned-heretic Giordano Bruno (1548-1600).


A musical memory palace, from Robert Fludd (1574-1637), Utriusque cosmic maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica 

Collection, Centre Canadien d'Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal


The notion of a connection between this variant of the art of memory and early Freemasonry isn’t new. As far back as the 1960s, Frances Yates speculated about it in her classic The Art of Memory. Her suggestion was developed by David Stevenson in another ground-breaking work, 1988’s The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century, 1590-1710. Stevenson made the important observation that in the seminal 1599 document known as the Schaw Statutes – in which James VI’s Master of Works (i.e. chief architect) William Schaw set out the rules and regulations of craft Masonry in Scotland, but which includes elements that appear later in the speculative form – stipulated that every member was expected to be proficient in ‘the art of memorie and science thairoff,’ thereby linking, in Stevenson’s words, ‘the operative Mason craft with the mighty strivings of the Hermetic magus.’

Based on the work of these historians, but noting that neither was a Freemason and so had missed some vital clues, in a 1995 paper (included as an appendix) Charles Jameux advanced a wider hypothesis, which he revisits here in the light of his further study. He aims to show that ‘the classical art of memory, which was practised during the late Renaissance in the British Isles, was a major source that directly influenced the structuring of the mechanisms of the initiatory transmission of the then emerging speculative Freemasonry.’ It’s a slim volume, just over 100 pages – and 60 of those are given over to two appendices – but provides plenty of food for thought for those of us with an interest in the subject.

Unsurprisingly, Jameux gives pride of place to his own obedience, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, which originated in eighteenth-century France but which claims, as its name suggests, a Scottish heritage (and which is distinct from the systems practised in Britain but predominates, albeit in a modified form, in the USA).

Presumably as Jameux wrote it primarily for his fellow Masons, the book does assume familiarity with, although not an in-depth knowledge of, Masonic history and practice. It’s written in the rather discursive style of French academic writing that does sometimes require an extra effort of concentration to follow. (This is even more so of the other appendix, by historian Claudie Balavoine on the connection, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, between the art of memory and attempts to develop a ‘hieroglyph script.’ This highly specialised paper takes up a quarter of the book, even though it’s only of peripheral relevance to the central thesis.)

For Jameux, the formative period of speculative Freemasonry was between 1583, when Bruno arrived in London for a three-year stay during which he published some of his key works on the ‘occult’ art of memory, and 1730, by which year Freemasonry had reached its recognisably speculative form. That process happened in the British Isles – beginning in Scotland and moving into England – ‘through a series of phenomena akin to sedimentation.’

The hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that one of Bruno’s great supporters in the controversy he unleashed in England was Alexander Dickson, a Scotsman who a decade later was prominent in James VI’s court alongside William Schaw. Jameux argues that craft Masonry, being all about architecture and buildings, was a natural home for practitioners of the art of memory, who adopted its symbols – the tools, for example – as their imagines.





Jameux’s suggestion is that the Masonic focus on Solomon’s Temple came from the use of that legendary edifice as the memory palace, drawing attention to the tracing boards representing the Temple, the laying out of which marks the opening of the lodge meeting. He also links the art of memory with the mysterious ‘Mason Word’, first mentioned in 1637.

He makes much of the coincidence that the same year saw the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on Method, marking the beginning of the split between ‘the mathematical and utilitarian rationalism of conceptual thought on the one hand and the symbolic and imagistic language of analogical thought on the other,’ which led to ‘the decline of the meaningful image to the increasing benefit of the letter.’ Jameux regards this as a great error, championing – as might be imagined from a surrealist - the virtues of the ‘imaginary world (that is to say, a real world) that has not yet been disenchanted,’ and which is accessed by the art of memory, over ‘the reductive anthropology heralded by Descartes in which the world would be henceforth a machine.’

However, the art – with its emphasis on the imagination - was kept alive in the Masonic lodges: ‘this “resurgence” of the art of memory in the British secret societies of the seventeenth century appears to me to be taking place, referring now to the spiritual content of the ancient memory, in a clandestine manner as a form of counterpoint.’ But it wasn’t just a counterpoint to mechanistic rationalism, as Jameux argues that Freemasonry became a way to ‘reconcile the re-emerging Neoplatonic Hermeticism and the ascendant scientific approach.’

For Jameux, then – as for Yates and Stevenson - speculative Freemasonry was a vehicle for the transmission of Hermeticism (and its philosophical cousin, Neoplatonism). It’s instructive to compare this reconstruction with a book I reviewed a couple of years ago, Speculative Freemasonry and the Enlightenment, in which American Freemason R. William Weisberger argued that speculative Freemasonry was invented in England in the 1720s specifically as a vehicle for transmitting the new scientific method and other Enlightenment ideals. It’s hard to come up with two more divergent interpretations – although the evidence, in my view, backs Jameux’s.

As well as the Masonic symbols becoming the imagines of the art of memory, Jameux proposes that the degrees and their rituals represent the loci, with the ‘palace’ being the rite in its entirety. This leads him to an intriguing – and to many Masonic historians controversial – explanation of the Scottish Rite’s addition of extra degrees, above the three basic ones held in common with other systems, to make up its famous 33. Rather than the higher degrees, as most would dismissively have it, being dreamt up to make the Rite more grandiose, Jameux explains them as a natural development of Freemasonry as the embodiment of the Ars memoria, expanding the palace to incorporate more loci for more imagines. If so, he is implicitly arguing that his Rite is the most legitimate heir to the Scottish prototype, whereas in most historical reconstructions that place is given to the English form, all the other rites being considered modified copies.

But what’s it all for? For Jameux, the Masonic lodge as memory palace – not just the physical space, but the symbols, rituals and legends employed within it - is designed to remind the initiate of Freemasonry’s ideals and goals, and of their commitments, duties and path towards those goals.

However, there was much more to the Hermetic art of memory than that. It was, as I noted above, a method for gaining esoteric and spiritual knowledge through magical means, seemingly by inducing a meditative or altered state. Jameux says little about this side of the art in the context of Freemasonry, but does perhaps hint at it when he writes, ‘Through my own personal inner practice and my initiatory convictions shared with other men whose own choices have sent them here, I now know how to gain access to certain states of Being and, sometimes, to the meanings that are hidden from our world that we label as real.’

And it wouldn’t, of course, just be the Hermetic art of memory that was brought into Masonry: it was just one part of, as Jameux puts it in his conclusion, the ‘grafting of a post-Renaissance Hermeticism on the professional milieu of the “craft” in Scotland.’ So the picture is bigger than simply the perpetuation of the Ars memoria.

Given the paucity of information about Freemasonry’s origins, it’s not easy to say whether or not Jameux is right in everything he proposes, but his arguments and conclusions certainly have something going for them, and following the trail they open up may well shed new light on Freemasonry’s place in esoteric history and tradition. -- Clive Prince


31 December 2019

DEVIL OF A TALE

Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito. The Secret History of the Jersey Devil; How Quakers, Hucksters and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Although its fame is not quite as universal as the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil can claim to be by far the senior mystery monster. Haunting the Pine Barrens, an isolated wooded area of New Jersey, the Jersey Devil is usually described as a goat-or horse-like creature, usually walking on its hind legs, with bat-like wings growing from its withers. It has reportedly been seen since the 1600s, although most reports come from the twentieth century.

The Pine Barrens had always been an area with a bad reputation, going back to the days of the earliest European settlers, and even earlier in Native-American beliefs. The local Lenapi Indians saw it as home to a variety of spirits, among which was the M’Sing, “a deer-like creature with leathery wings or a deer being ridden by a man.” In the Colonial Era the area became a haunt for highwaymen and outlaws, and its small hamlets attracted outsiders who were despised by the more settled inhabitants of the larger towns as ‘primitive’ and only semi-human, a trope which continues even today in the racist portrayal of the ‘hillbilly’ family in The Simpsons.

In the ferment of the witchcraft persecution and the constant religious religious conflicts between various groups of colonists, rumour and accusations of evil-doing became common currency, including claims that ‘monstrous births’ were the result of consorting with demons, or being involved with devilish practices.

The history of the Jersey Devil begins here, with the legend of a witch known as ‘Mother Leeds’ whose thirteenth pregnancy resulted in the birth of a monstrous being. Either as the result of her cursing a local preacher, or her cursing the child to which she was painfully giving birth - “let this one be a devil” - her offspring was a monster with wings, claws and a horse’s head.

Depending on which version of the story you take, the creature either immediately flew off up the chimney into the pinewoods, or was looked after by the Leeds family for several years until killing its parents and then fleeing to the Pine Barrens, to haunt the location for centuries to come. Although no-one seems to be particularly clear about the origin of this legend, it may be linked to an actual historical incident, in New England rather than New Jersey.

Anne Hutchinson was a religious rebel who was prosecuted for heresy and banished from Boston, to take up residence in the more tolerant colony of Rhode Island, along with a number of her followers. At the time of her exile, she became pregnant for the sixteenth time, but her child was grossly deformed. Just before this one of her followers had also given birth to a severely deformed child. The general belief at the time would be that these were punishments for the women's heretical and blasphemous behaviour.

There was a real Leeds family in New Jersey, headed by a Daniel Leeds, who arrived in West Jersey (the Colony was originally divided into an East and a West section) in the 1670s, probably from the small village of Leeds in Kent, rather than its larger Yorkshire namesake. Daniel was a Quaker, and when he arrived in the New World the Quakers who had originally settled in Boston were fleeing persecution by the Puritan establishment in the Bay Colony. Some settled in Rhode Island, others moved to West Jersey and Philadelphia.

At first Daniel settled into the Quaker community in the newly founded town of Burlington, where he assisted in the building of the first Meeting House constructed from the timbers of the ship in which he sailed to the New World. He became a prominent landowner and attained the post of Surveyor General. It is at this time that the location of Leeds Point gained its name, which is an area strongly associated with tales of the Devil.

Daniel Leed’s association with the Quakers became fraught when he began publishing an Almanac of useful seasonal information for an agricultural community, along with a series of philosophical works which were intended to provide a scientific background to religious belief. As his work grew more philosophical, and he became interested in the mystical beliefs of a group of German settlers who were followers of the writings of Jacob Boehm he earned the hostility of the Quaker establishment who were unhappy with the astrological elements of his Almanac.

He got involved in a publishing war, with books, pamphlets and counter-pamphlets being produced by the various factions, in some of which Leeds was referred to as a ‘Devil’. This continued after his death, his son Titan taking on the publication of his Almanac and getting involved in a bizarre dispute with Benjamin Franklin, then making his name as a young controversialist. Franklin had his own publication, Poor Richard’s Almanac, and delighted in exposing what he saw as religious fraud. The Leeds' Almanac became a target for his barbs, jokingly linking it with necromancy and Satan by implying Titan Leeds was receiving messages from his deceased father.

But by this time the Leeds family began to fade from public attention, the American Colonies were in revolt against British rule, and Benjamin Franklin’s attention moved to other matters. The Leeds Devil story more or less died away for nearly a century. But in the nineteenth century monstrous creatures began to attract public attention again, this time from a scientific perspective rather than a religious one.

The discovery of the fossilised remains of prehistoric beasts, and the possibility of their still-living relatives, stimulated not only serious scientific speculation but a series of hoaxes. Most notorious was Richard Locke’s ‘Great Moon Hoax’ in the New York Sun, which held readers entranced with accounts of the amazing animals and semi-human creatures which had been revealed on the moon via Sir John Herschel’s wonderful new telescope set up in South Africa.

The exposure of this hoax did not discourage others, such as the ‘Cardiff Giant’ intended originally as a spoof of Christian anti-evolution fundamentalist, but eventually becoming a fairground attraction and producing a number of copies. The appearance of a Spring Heeled Jack figure in New Jersey, and newspaper reports of mysterious footprints seemed to revive the dormant story of the Leeds Devil. Now renamed the Jersey Devil it was ready for its latest appearance on the public stage, which has continued to this day.

By the start of the twentieth century the story had received enough attention that Charles Brandenburgh, the proprietor of the ‘Dime Museum’ in Philadelphia thought that the Devil was just the attraction he needed to revive the fading fortunes of his establishment. The ‘Dime Museum’ was basically a theatre which staged spectacular acts and freak-shows, rather like London’s Royal Aquarium, which flourished at the same time.

Along with Norman Jeffries, the promoter of the earlier ‘Devil’s footprints’ story, they staged a hunt for the Devil. Hiring a clown from the Ringling Brother’s Circus to play the brave huntsman, they headed off into the woods in search of the monster. A few gunshots later, and a good deal of shouting and screams, a caged and shrouded figure was brought back to the Dime Museum in a wheelbarrow.

The creature that then went on show was a kangaroo, with the help of a local taxidermist who painted the creature with stripes and attached a pair of home-made wings. The hoax didn’t survive for long, it’s doubtful if many of the paying punters really thought is was the Jersey Devil, but simply enjoyed the curiosity value of it. Despite the success of the event, the Dime Museum didn’t last long after the unfortunate kangaroo had been de-winged and returned to its home in Buffalo. But by now the myth of the Jersey devil was very much alive.

The authors describe how the Devil developed as a social phenomenon throughout the twentieth century, its physical form being set partly by the appearance of the winged marsupial, partly by traditional images of devilish winged creatures, from the original legend of the monstrous creature born to ‘Mother Leeds’, and the stories of the Leed’s family’s diabolic contacts helped along by Benjamin Franklin.

The Devil is now regarded with something like patriotic pride by many New Jerseyites, being adopted as ‘Official State Monster’ by the state government (leading one to wonder how many other states have official monsters), the nickname of the local ice hockey team, being sung about by the state’s favourite son Bruce Springsteen and featuring in any number of movie and TV productions, and no doubt bringing in a significant amount of tourist income via monster hunters exploring the Pine Barrens.

Regal and Esposito conclude: “[A]ll this began in the eighteenth century because an energetic and thoughtful man wanted to write an almanac and improve the life of his neighbors”.

This is a detailed and exceptionally well-referenced account of the birth, growth, survival and triumph of a legendary monster, and one would like to see other similar phenomena examined in such detail, particularly the infamous Brentford Griffin – John Rimmer.


30 December 2019

ALCHEMY BY THE BOOK

Theodore Ziolkowski. The Alchemist in Literature. Oxford University Press, 2019.

What, no Colin Wilson? I searched in vain for him skulking round the index to The Alchemist in Literature. Not to be found. I shall presently return to this missing author. In his chapter titled 'Popularizations, or Projectio' the very found author Theodore Ziolkowski states.

“In some cases, finally the term 'alchemist' is used only metaphorically in fictions that have nothing whatsoever to do with alchemy.”

But for Ziolkowski we do have Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel The Abyss (1976) chronicling the life of the 16th century alchemist-physician-philosopher Zeno. A character inspired by Yourcenar’s reading of Jung and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. This book is said not to be about the practice of alchemy but, in part only, a recollection of Zeno’s “alchemical speculations which had begun in school, or rather, in defiance of the school.” And we are informed that Yourcenar’s intense research into the period was an attempt to “try and visualise ever more exactly the images which they create beneath their closed eyelids.” This is a practice “like Hindu ascetics” and for me, on Yourcenar’s part, an alchemical act of the imagination: the basic material of her research will be transmuted into a golden plethora of ideas and associations permeated by historical atmosphere.

Ziolkowski sees The Abyss as belonging to the genre of the bildungsroman – that is a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education. Now Yourcenar is a brilliant writer (The Memoirs of Hadrian is a masterpiece) and she undoubtedly writes a bildungsroman in as elevated a manner as the letter autobiography form of Hadrian.

Yet though Zilolkowski isn’t just examining high literature (Evan S. Connell’s 1991 The Alchemist’s Journal, Katherine MacMahon’s The Alchemist’s Daughter and Jeremy Dronfield’s 2001 The Alchemist’s Apprentice are some of his cited popular fiction), but these books don’t have very much (according to Zilolkowski) to say about alchemy.

It’s time to return to Colin Wilson and his 1976 SF/Fantasy thriller The Philosopher’s Stone – a work as erudite as Yourcenar’s The Abyss but far more down-market. However Wilson’s pulpish and Lovecraftian novel does play very cleverly with the alchemical process as a deep idea, for its protagonist has a metal alloy in the brain inside the pre-frontal cortex which results in a higher form of consciousness. I can’t defend The Philosopher’s Stone as serious literature, compared to the many scientific and non scientific / literary material carefully poured over by Ziolkowski but it’s a wonderfully entertaining read about the transformation of the self.

I have ticked Wilson’s book to re-read after Ziolkowski’s. This isn’t in any way a form of mischief-making in order to criticise or dismiss The Alchemist in Literature, but simply a means of temporarily taking a reader of Ziolkowski away from the hot furnace of serious conjecture on alchemy – though unfortunately a lot of these early literary texts that Ziolkowski had to read sound very cold and dry. At least he mentions scientific books devoted to “the pseudo science of alchemy” (My Collins dictionary definition) that appear more readable for the charm of their arcane language.

Half way through The Alchemist in Literature I almost gave up reading: for the cultural satirists dominate, in an obvious manner, the cultural scene until the end of the 1600’s. After that there’s a dearth of interest in alchemy until the very late 18th and early 19th century.

When the Romantic Movement entered the picture I picked up the book and read on with interest. Mary Shelley, William Godwin and Goethe are highly significant writers who ‘opposed’ the rationalism of the Enlightenment by creating wild fictions containing references to alchemy.

In his youth Victor Frankenstein, of Frankenstein, (1818) fell under the spell of “the masters of alchemy” only to eventually become a student and be told to read books on natural philosophy and chemistry. William Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers (1834) doesn’t seek out an easy target for satire but attempts to be a moral warning, to practitioners and readers, of the suffering and loneliness that can result from a fruitless search for the philosopher’s stone. Whilst Goethe’s great drama Faust, part 1 (1808) and part 2 (1832) hardly mentions alchemy for its main theme is necromancy. However as a young man Goethe was a real, practising alchemist (It’s what he had in common with August Strindberg who also didn’t insert alchemical ideas into his plays.)

However what the three Romantic Age writers had in common was a new scientific sensibility.

“While the older alchemists are not rejected by their modern successor with contemptuous dismissal but praised for their achievements, their methods are replaced by the discoveries of modern science. Frankenstein’s education, in other words, exemplifies the historical shift from alchemy to chemistry that took place in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the persons of such scientists as Boyle and Newton.”

The Alchemist in Literature is a curious book: a very academically sound but somewhat tedious read. For Theodore Ziolkowski, in his search for relevant alchemical literary texts, has to settle for many books that reference in alchemy but are not about the personality and practice of the alchemist. This means he’s forced to paraphrase the contents of antiquarian books (Especially those pre – Romantic Movement tomes) that, to excuse the description, come across as old dross rather than relevant gold. Admittedly once past the 1800’s we’re into more persuasive territory – here an inter-play of interesting ideas occur, though without attempting to imagine the workings of an alchemist.

But, still no Colin Wilson: yet even his thriller didn’t reveal the redemptive face of God or evidence for the elixir of life. The big downside of Wilson’s The Philosopher’s Stone was that Lovecraft’s evil old ones of the Cthulhu Mythos were behind everything. At least Ziolkowski’s sensible and sincere book never reaches such a fanciful conclusion! -- Alan Price.



21 December 2019

NEW AGE GNOSTIC

April D. DeConick. The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutioniseed Religion from Antiquity to Today. Columbia University Press, 2016.

For those expecting to read what the author promises in the title, there will be great disappointment, since the theme of the history of countercultural spirituality is barely mentioned until the last chapter when the author states that "this brief chapter is not the place to map the complex movement of Gnostic spirituality from antiquity to the present"! Similarly those with a smattering of knowledge of the Gnostic gospels might have expected more than just one mention, in the opening chapter, to the gospel of Thomas.

What this book provides however is a compendium, one might almost say, a dictionary, of Gnostic movements. I am not in a position to tell whether the author has provided a complete compendium (I suspect not) but as such it no doubt has its uses. In fact the book recites the bewildering collection of sects, which sprang into being alongside Christianity in the first two centuries AD (or as she prefers to term it CE).

Unfortunately at no point does the author attempt a definition of what the term "Gnostic" encapsulates for the purpose of her book, and although it is probably beyond me to attempt such a definition, I would say that some of the common threads which emerge are belief in the idea that the body is the covering for a divine spark, and in the efficacy of secret rites, words and rituals which had the power to translate the initiated through star-gates to union with God. Often the sect was founded by a self-proclaimed religious visionary, who would take large segments of biblical texts and re-interpret them.

The variety of ritualistic practices was innumerable and no doubt worried that they would be tainted by association, Christian authors took up the quill to flail there enemies and competitors. Once Christianity got the upper hand, it engaged in perhaps the most successful suppression of a belief system in history. It would appear that book burning is highly efficacious, since our knowledge of Gnosticism derived, until the twentieth century, almost entirely from the Christian authors Irenaeus and Tertullian, whose tracts denouncing the movement unwittingly preserved knowledge of their beliefs and practices.


In some places the author's description of such Gnostic rituals and beliefs are both powerful and evocative of those lost religions. It was particularly interesting to note that some Gnostic sects engaged in silent practices, suggesting a kinship with the modern interest in meditation. The book is undoubtedly educative but inevitably a style of writing, which engages at great length in describing their ritualistic practices, at some point runs the risk of becoming tedious for the general reader.

His or her interest would be better kept if the author had given more on the historical context in which these movements emerged. Why for example is there no mention of the Council of Nicaea? Such context as is sometimes given is too sparing on detail, and there is little or no attempt to place the movement within the wider setting of Roman history, nor indeed to do what the title of her book promises. Also each chapter is introduced by the portrayal of a plot from a film, which the author felt demonstrated some aspect of Gnostic spirituality. This I found highly unconvincing, and it sat uneasily alongside the actual often heavyweight academic contents of the chapter.

In her final chapter the author makes wide claims for the influence of Gnosticism: "it is embedded in the literature our ancestors wrote". This sweeping statement is made without any evidence proffered in support, and I would have thought, as a non-expert, that the exact opposite of what she says is the case, since Gnosticism was successfully trampled under foot by the Roman Catholic church after the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and was largely forgotten for about 1500 years. It is only in more recent times, thanks to archaeological discoveries, that the true wonder of Gnosticism has been made more widely available to the modern world.

Inevitably, bearing in mind the breath-taking scope and ambition promised by the title of this book, the author has failed in what she set out to do, but, at a humbler level, for the curious reader there is plenty of interesting material to ponder. -- Robin Carlile.