21.11.17

CONSCIOUS HUMOUR

David E. H. Jones. Why Are We Conscious? A Scientist’s Take on Consciousness and Extrasensory Perception.  Pan Stanford, 2017.

David E H Jones who died last July aged 79 was for many years the 'Daedalus' of the New Scientist and Nature. Daedalus was described in his Fortean Times obituary as “the court jester in the palace of science” and he himself described  it as “a region of scientific humour whose appeal lay in its closeness to reality”. (FT 359 p28)

Though he retired as Daedalus in 2002, this book, his swansong, had all the hallmarks of an extended Daedalus column. Starting with the “hard problem of consciousness”, Jones argues that consciousness must depend on the unconscious mind of Freud and Jung, and that might give access to another world, the unknown world, from which information might leak in the form of ESP. This unknown world might be colder than ours, it should have three dimensions like ours, there are discussions of the size and velocity of entities in the unknown world, whether any “matter” in it would be atomic or continuous etc.




Jones then goes on to describe how the concept of the unknown might explain various paranormal phenomena. There are some interesting asides, there should for example be about 100 billion ghosts in the world, there calculations as to how much space a ghost can haunt. We should be careful about stories of materialisations and denaturisation because hardly anyone reports the explosions caused by the air thus displaced. The use of the unknown world for space travel at transoptical velocities or for recovering information from lost historical documents are among suggestions Jones makes. Jones, however, has missed another possibility here, of the unknown world could react across the “many worlds” of Hugh Everett it should be possible to recover documents that do not exist in our reality such as the Necronomicon or Magonia 100, and its annual successor Visions and Beliefs.

Getting information form this unknown world from psychics and the like is not ideal and so Jones speculates that it might be detected using computers, powerful decryption techniques and anomalies in the behaviour of liquids.

Behind the humour it is clear that Jones took a serious interest in parapsychology and psychical research and the humour allows him to raise questions that otherwise could not be publicly aired by a scientist and it is important to note that he is not laughing at these topics but rather using humour to encourage open minded speculation. -- Peter Rogerson


17.11.17

SEEKING THE INTUITIVE GLUE

Gary Lachman. Lost Knowledge of the Imagination. Floris Books, 2017.

“That is the job of the left brain…Its business is to ‘unpack’ what the right brain ‘presences’ to ‘spell it out’ as it were, to focus on the individual trees that make up the forest given it by the right brain – and eventually to focus on the individual leaves of a given tree with ‘meaning perception’ while the left is concerned with ‘immediacy perception.’ We could also say that the left brain knows through Aquinas ‘active search’ for knowledge while the right has the ‘intuitive possession’ of it.”

“What this has resulted in, McGilchrist argues, is an increasingly fragmented picture of the world, with less and less awareness of the intuitive glue, needed to hold things together.”

“Two souls, alas, live in my breast.” He may have got his astronomy wrong, but the insight is clear. Yet Goethe might have added: And they don’t get along.”

I’ve prefaced my review of Lost Knowledge of The Imagination with these quotes as being appropriate for Gary Lachman’s argument to urgently recover our ‘poetic’ imagination, where we once instinctively understood nature “at a glance” without a prior need to analyse it to destruction. According to Lachman this tension between our inner and outer perception of the world started with the revolutions of the 17th century when science throw out the old shibboleths of superstition and questioned God’s authority. Unfortunately this resulted in a mechanistic view of ourselves and our place in the world. Our intuitive faculties were suppressed when they could have helped guide us through our over-rational material and technological progress.

I don’t think that Lachman considers this to be a new or novel insight into the way our 'impoverished’ minds (outside of the artist, poet and philosopher) function. Many previous writers have attempted such a cultural overview of the imbalance created by a skewed perception of creativity, imagination and rational thought. Reach back to 1976 and you’ll find similar ideas propounded by Erich Fromm in his book To Have or To Be. He neatly stated that if coming across a beautiful wild flower in a wood, do you pick it up to examine its petals (murder to dissect) or leave it in its natural habitat and just let your eyes take in its beauty from a distance? Swop Fromm’s flower for Lachman’s tree in the wood and you have the same dilemma about greed, exploitation and possession versus sustainability, letting go and the contemplation of nature.

Gary Lachman has done an impressive amount of research. His thesis is very carefully laid out and his conclusions are sensible and attractive. Owen Barfield, Kathleen Raine (A fine and unfairly neglected poet) Carl Jung, Goethe, Husserl, Henry Corbin and cultural critic Erich Heller plus many others are sensitively drawn on. All have fascinating things to say about the lack of creative dialogue between “the requirements of positivism” and as Lachman says quoting Goethe “the harmony of the hidden law in the world within the hidden law within ourselves.”

Unfortunately Lachman’s writing is a bit pedestrian and repetitive. The evidence of a dangerous split in modern consciousness is all there but does he add anything insightful to help us move on? Not really. After six chapters Lachman quietly ends with uncertainty about our state of flux over the continual mental fragmentation of society. We must be vigilant in this phenomenal world: engaging with more subtlety and (To employ Owen Barfield’s lovely word) finesse.

If only Lost Knowledge of The Imagination had had the energy and drive of its penultimate chapter, The Learning of The Imagination. Here Lachman sounds really engaged and makes incisive connections between Kathleen Raine (As William Blake scholar), the S.T. Coleridge of “primary imagination”, W.B.Yeats and Thomas Taylor (19th century writer and associate of John Flaxman – the artist friend of Blake). Such a strong and convincing chapter could (with a summary of Lachman’s basic argument) be published as a separate pamphlet. Here the case is effectively made for poetry (read as imagination containing the ‘soul’ part of the brain) and science (read as transformed political reality) to be in a Blakean contrary state of interdependence of each another: still relevantly connected but not at war.

I’ve enjoyed previous books by Gary Lachman (Especially his Turn of Your mind: The Mystic Sixties and The Dark Side of The Age of Aquarius) but this is not one of his best. That’s not to say that his thesis doesn’t matter. It does, very much. We do need a mental re-balancing of our psyche. But it’s a long haul and I do wish Lachman could have been more inspiring and directive: supplied some suggestions as to how his “intuitive glue” (A great term, that) could cement the cracks. – Alan Price

13.11.17

FEEL THE FEAR

Ronald Hutton. The Witch: A History of Fear From Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press, 2017.

In this book the noted historian and folklorist Ronald Hutton examines the various themes and motifs which coalesced into the great European witchcraft fear of the early modern period and its expression in the United Kingdom especially. It is not an account of those trials themselves but of the beliefs that led up to them and the conflicting views of scholars over the last 200 years or so as to their origin and nature.

The book develops through a process of narrowing from the most general to the most specific. Therefore the first chapter is a cross cultural study of witchcraft beliefs across a range of traditional societies and of the persistence of those beliefs into the modern world. In the course of this Hutton notes that how in the past Western Christian missionaries had opposed witchcraft beliefs as “pagan superstition”, they are now active in promoting belief systems that actually encourage witchcraft accusations.

Hutton then examines witchcraft beliefs in classical Egypt, Greece and Rome, essentially arguing that it is Rome where such beliefs tend to develop. He next studies the claims that witchcraft beliefs arose out of shamanic practices, an idea associated with the Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg and in the UK with Emma Wilby.

In the second part of the book Hutton examines “continental perspectives” including the role of ceremonial magic, with its alleged Egyptian origins, in elite culture. In this section he next examines the various ‘hosts of the night’ from the wild hunt, the dead riders, the female followers of a mysterious woman sometimes called Diana and other times Herodius, and how these might merge together. He then examines how concepts of the witch evolved through the middle ages and into the early modern period.

In the final section ‘British perspectives’, Hutton examines the role of fairy beliefs, the status of witchcraft in the Celtic countries of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the role of the animal familiar in British witchcraft trials.

Throughout Hutton argues with exquisite attention to historical detail and overturns many popular misconceptions, while providing a balanced overview of the many conflicting opinions of other scholars. One interesting theme which recurs is how much of what is regarded as popular belief has actually first arisen in elite culture, only to trickled down into mass culture, to be rediscovered by later generations of the elite as ‘popular lore’.

Hutton examines the manner in which the polarities of opinion generated by the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, who argued that witches were members of a surviving pre-Christian religion, and the reaction against that view which tended to see witchcraft beliefs as ideas that were imposed from above by religious elites, still can influence debate. On a more general level these might be seen as part of the wider division between 'cultural source' and 'personal experience' models of folklore.

This is a deeply scholarly work requiring close attention and is not a light read, or for those wanting gory accounts of witch trials, but should be essential reading not only for those studying the historiography of witchcraft, but a wider range of social and cultural historians, folklorists, students of theology, the history of ideas, anthropologists and for the lay reader willing to give the time and patience this work requires. – Peter Rogerson

8.11.17

UNPOPULAR PHILOSOPHY

David Benatar. The Human Predicament. A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. Oxford University Press 2017

Please note the book title: it’s not the human condition or the human problem but The Human Predicament. To have a condition or a problem suggests a coming to terms with things, an answer and even an optimistic outcome. Predicament infers something more difficult, final, unanswerable and pessimistic. There’s certainly no escape from the gaunt facts of our existence as laid out by Professor David Benatar of The University of Cape Town. Life is too short, badly compromised and that’s all there is.

In this beautifully written, persuasive (almost) and lucid work the search for meaning exuding from those many, half-read sometimes spurious, self-help books on how to affirm your life is pulped into an uncaring void by Benatar’s elegant reasoning. I am on the side of affirmation (from art, music, philosophy and good friends) but rarely from the text book bestseller. Yet the unflinching pessimism of Benatar’s counter-arguments, in relation to life’s big questions, although not reassuring, isn’t a position resulting in absolute despair.

“My own view is that a deep pessimism about the meaning of life is entirely appropriate, but this should not be confused with total nihilism about meaning in life.”

“Life’s big questions are big in the sense that they are momentous. However, contrary to appearances, they are not big in the sense of being unanswerable. It is only that the answers are generally unpalatable. There is no great mystery but there is plenty of horror.”

For that “plenty of horror” I immediately think of Marlon Brando, as the monstrous Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, exhibiting his sweaty bald head and muttering, “The horror…the horror!” Yet whereas that was cinematic rhetoric amplified from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, David Benator is for real and true in a profound, salutary and philosophical sense. For though I often rejected his stark conclusions they have a thoughtful honesty that’s impressive and moving.

The Human Predicament consists of an introduction on life’s big questions, and what they mean for us from an optimistic or pessimistic viewpoint. Chapters 2 and 3 concentrate on meaning and meaninglessness. 4 covers the quality of life. 5 brings us up front with death (Asking the intriguing question, Is Death Bad?). No. 6 questions ideas about immortality. 7 examines suicide – for and against. Finally the concluding chapter 8 attempts to sum up the human predicament.

In the chapter on the quality of life is a section called Why is there more Bad than Good. Here Benatar lists all the physical and mental pain we might endure and the discomfort of simply getting through everyday life (The horror of trivia covers whether we are too hot, too cold or after eating and drinking we can have distended bladders or bowels, did feel like a rational exaggeration of the low quality of being).

If there is a daily imbalance towards the negative over the positive, then I think a constant shift of perspective is a necessary to get through things and not go under, though that may not be possible for all of us if we are chronically ill.

On death, Benatar says, “We want long lives, but the longer we live, the more reason we have to fear that less life remains.” A quandary that can only be tolerated by living life fully, in good health, mentally and physically, whilst coming to terms with the ageing process? That’s my half-way house solution, not Benatar’s, but I am a cautious optimist by nature.

Perhaps Benatar’s most impressive chapter is on suicide. I have always recoiled at the idea of taking your life – for it’s not simply an end to your mortality but an act of irresponsibility – what of the consequences for those closest to you after your death? Yet when you introduce the thought of being in a vegetative state or terminally ill, and in great pain, can suicide, involuntarily or not, be justified? Is it right and more importantly is it rational?

“Suicide is not an effective means to every end. However, it should be equally clear that suicide may also often be entirely rational under the ends-means conception of rationality. If one’s end is to avoid those of life’s burden’s that can only be avoided by the cessation of one’s life, then suicide is rational.”

This doesn’t make me believe in suicide but Benatar’s case is powerfully made for suicide not be morally condemned, allowing us, despite our overwhelming urge to hang onto life, still resist the visceral shock of the act from clouding our judgement.

The Human Predicament is an uncomfortable book. It doesn’t give you any kind of workable solace or applicable hope. Yet in its confrontational way there is much valuable insight here and finally compassion. David Benatar is a pessimist yet more importantly he’s a probing and deeply caring writer.

Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra bears the sub-title, “A book for everyone and no one.” The Human Predicament is more accessible than Zarathustra though probably another work that’s not for all but definitely for the few whom, in Benatar’s words, “…might describe this book as a work of unpopular philosophy”. It is and ought to be explored. – Alan Price

4.11.17

ART AND THE OCCULT: COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Nadia Choucha, Surrealism and the Occult: Shamanism, Magic, Alchemy and the Birth of an Artistic Movement. Mandrake of Oxford. 2nd rev. edition, 2016.

John Bramble, Modernism and the Occult. Palgrave MacMillan. 2015

Although similarly titled and published near-simultaneously, these books aren’t two of a series (although Bramble’s is part of one on modernism). While there’s some common ground – Choucha’s study being of a subset of the wider subject covered by Bramble – they are very different in style and approach (and approachability).

Surrealism and the Occult is a re-issue from 1991. In it, art historian Nadia Choucha sets out, in her words, to ‘demonstrate that surrealism was the twentieth-century development of a nineteenth-century tradition in art and poetry that was heavily indebted to the occult revival of the period.’ She succeeds admirably.

Choucha opens with outlines of the origins and development of surrealism and its forerunner symbolism, and of the basic principles of occult thought, that are models of clear exposition of such arcane (in both senses) subjects.

She then relates the story of their intertwined relationship, beginning with the Parisian occult revival of the late nineteenth century and its influence on symbolist art, literature and poetry, examining such fascinating figures as J.K. Huysmans, Gustav Moreau, the illustrator Félicien Rops, and groups and movements such as Peladan’s Salon de la Rose+Croix, the peculiarly French tradition of Catholic occultism, and the late-nineteenth century upsurge in Satanism as ‘a means of protest of society, especially the taboos of sex, death, and religion’.

The development of symbolism into surrealism, and the influence of occult theories on surrealists, is then traced. Choucha explains how the desire to resolve dreams and reality into an ‘absolute reality’, begun by the Dadaists just before the First World War, was the result of an ‘impulse towards the inner subjective experience, combined with the search for the “marvelous” in the external world and a disregard for conventional thought, behavior, and appearances [that] led the surrealists, inevitably, to the occult tradition.’ Beginning with experimentation with automatism in the early 1920s, by the ’40s it was using overt imagery from the Tarot, Tantra, shamanism, and so on.

Among her examples of the direct inspiration of occult ideas on artists are Mondrian and Kandinsky - followers of Blavatsky who attempted to express Theosophical spirituality in their abstract paintings – the poet Apollinaire, coiner of the word ‘surrealism’, who ‘believed magic was still a relevant proposition in the twentieth century despite intellectual sophistication and technological progress’, and Picasso, who in the words of critic Jacques Rivière ‘strayed into occult researches where it is impossible to follow him’.

André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifestos of the 1920s that defined the movement, was another key figure with a deep interest in the occult, as was Marcel Duchamp who, although remaining ‘slightly aloof’ from Dada and surrealism, drew heavily on occult concepts, particularly from alchemy. Choucha describes Duchamp as a ‘modern alchemist’ and his The Bride Stripped Bare (derived from an alchemical term) as his Great Work.

Another artist she examines is Austin Osman Spare who, unlike the others discussed, who were artists who drew on occult ideas for inspiration, was an occultist who used art as part of his magical practices.

There’s a two-chapter break in the chronological narrative to examine the parallels, in concepts and objectives, between surrealism and occult systems. There is, for example, the similarity of Breton’s ‘point of the mind’ at which apparent opposites are ‘not perceived as contradictions’ to the Cabala’s Kether, as well as alchemical concepts.

An important part of this interlude is a discussion of the female principle in surrealism. Choucha makes the intriguing argument that it was the place of the feminine in esoteric systems, primarily Tantra and alchemy, that was behind the surrealists’ characteristic veneration of women revolutionaries, rather than, as usually thought, political arguments about female subjugation advanced by the likes of Engels.

This leads on to the chapter ‘The Androgyne, the Surrealist Woman, and the Magical Tradition’, which explores the importance of androgyny in surrealism, again as in Tantra and alchemy, in all three representing the union of opposites. However, Choucha observes that ‘There is plenty of evidence to suggest what may have been a “perfect union” for the male surrealist was not necessarily as perfect for women.’

Female surrealists, such as Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington, ‘tended to be on the periphery of the group and disinterested in theory’: ‘Faced with no strong female roles to emulate, many of the women turned to occultism, which held an attraction because of the powerful female archetypes and mythological goddesses in these systems.’

Another of Choucha’s themes is the surrealists’ view of eroticism as a ‘subversive force’, which led to an interest in Tantra and Western systems derived from it, such as that of the OTO.

The historical narrative is resumed with the dispersal of the surrealists by the Second World War, which led to ‘a maturing of surrealism, with stronger and more obvious occult leanings.’ A chapter is devoted to a detailed analysis of the paintings of Max Ernst and his lover Leonora Carrington, to demonstrate not only how they applied occult concepts in their work but also in their personal lives.

Choucha ends with an analysis of why the occult attracts artists and poets, concluding that it is because of occultism’s ‘opposition and challenge to the establishment, academism, and accepted values, conditions, and standards.’ A particularly incisive point is that ‘The surrealists adopted occult theories, not so much as a challenge to the facts of science and logic, but as a challenge to the values attached to those facts.’

All in all, Surrealism and the Occult is a superb, fascinating and illuminating study by a scholar with a thorough knowledge of both fields and who has a gift for explaining complex ideas, making the book accessible to readers with every degree of familiarity with the artistic and occult worlds.




John Bramble’s Modernism and the Occult isn’t. In fact, it’s about as far from Choucha as it’s possible to get: abstruse, opaque, self-consciously academic – Bramble is a classicist at Corpus Christi College, Oxford - and written for a specialist audience.

Admittedly I was prejudiced from the start, as I have a problem with the term ‘modernism’. It’s so broad and all-embracing as to be virtually meaningless: after all, a ‘movement’ that manages to accommodate Nietzsche and the Beatles is hardly narrowly defined. Sweeping up all manner of schools and movements – artistic, literary, musical, architectural, philosophical, even religious – and declaring them all products of the same cultural and historical impulses seems to me to be imposing a pattern that exists more in the eye of the beholder. As Bramble himself puts it, ‘Where does modernism and the early twentieth-century vernacular begin? Given their shared exotico-occult, high-imperial background and histrionic flare, that question is not easily answered.’ Indeed.

The concept of modernism seems primarily designed to create work for those who study it, as they debate what should and shouldn’t be included. I was alarmed to read in the preface by the series editor, fellow Oxfordian Roger Griffin, that this book is part of a ‘radical extension of the term modernism to embrace cultural phenomena that lie beyond the aesthetic in the narrow sense of the term.’ Please, enough already!

My other beef with modernism, or rather modernist scholarship, is it’s use of overblown, self-important and downright posey language – inventing unwieldy portmanteau terms on a whim – that obscures rather than illuminates, an academic-speak designed to keep discussion to a select inner circle, and make it all sound much more definite and impressive than it really. That’s very much the case here, making Modernism and the Occult, in the widest sense, an esoteric work in its own right.

In all-too-typical phrases, Bramble writes of ‘the anomistic deliquescence which… new nomo-seeking modernists tried to overcome’, ‘gesturalist encodings of the rhetoric of unmediated perception’, ‘anti-heroic, anegoic or objectivist alternatives to the “unshaven” vitalist/gesturalist ethos’ and the ‘transition towards a new, energetic-cosmogenetic, post-onieric-visionary zone’. Prétentieux, lui?

Another obstacle to comprehension is the level of background knowledge that Bramble assumes. Names of individuals, schools and movements in both the arts and occult – the Swedenborgian doctrine of correspondences, Eranos, the Golden Dawn, Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the Oriental monochromaticists - are dropped in without any introduction or definition, the reader clearly expected to know all about them already. All this is in great contrast to Choucha’s clarity and accessibility.

So, having got that off my chest (and don’t even get me started on postmodernism), what’s the book about? The back cover explains (or rather ‘explains’) that it ‘tracks the specifically modernist, not the occult revivalist or proto-New Age, manifestations of the occult-syncretic-exotic conglomerate.’ So that’s clear then.

Bramble gives his aim as being to demonstrate ‘the range and magnitude of modernism’s complicity with the occult’, while admitting that ‘the exact extent and nature of modernism’s indebtedness to practising occultists and non-art-world Theosophists remains unclear.’

My main difficulty with the book (well, apart from understanding what it’s talking about half the time) is that Bramble has adopted a definition of ‘occult’ that, in typical modernist-studies fashion, is too broad. He identifies three ‘initiatives’ of the nineteenth century that helped shape modernism, or rather movements that are considered part of modernism: the occultist, from Western traditions such as Hermeticism, alchemy and the Cabala; the vitalist, from Mesmerism and the like; and the Orientalist, from Eastern spiritual philosophies and disciplines such as yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism. Of these, Bramble gives priority to the last, assigning it a more important role than the others. Moreover, although aspects of Eastern spirituality clearly did influence esoteric schools and groups such as Theosophy and the OTO, Bramble brings it in its entirety into his definition of ‘the occult’, which is questionable to say the least.

Consequently, much of the book is given over to tracing the inspiration of the East throughout the history of modernism, from the ‘quasi-Buddhist grand démolisseur’ Schopenhauer to the American abstract artists, much of which isn’t occult in the strictest – or for that matter loosest – sense. For example, there’s a section on the modern dance pioneer Ruth St Denis [left], on the grounds that she was influenced by Eastern dance (and was, apparently, interested in Theosophy); hardly an example of ‘the occult’s’ influence on modernism.

The same goes for the chapter on Zen, included because ‘Zen stands in a similar relationship to late modernism as Theosophy to early modernism.’ In it, Bramble makes much of visits to the Orient by post-war Americans such as Jackson Pollock, Morris Graves and John Cage, and Graves’ frequenting of a Buddhist temple in Seattle. Fine, but what’s all this got to do with the occult?

This redefinition of ‘occult’ to make it mean what Bramble wants it to mean made much of the book redundant for me.

Where it comes to occultism proper, Bramble drops tantalising asides before ploughing on along his Orientalist trail. For example, in a discussion of post-war Californian surrealism, he mentions that the poet Robert Duncan was ‘acquainted with Golden Dawn magic since childhood’, and writes in respect of novelist Malcolm Lowry, ‘Present by virtue of an encounter with the Crowleyite “Frater Achad” (Charles Stansfeld Jones), Lowry’s interests in Golden Dawn Cabala, later shared with Kenneth Anger, show how Symbolism-era occultism, if not its “orders”, continued to flourish’ – before going off on the ‘Hindu occupations’ of John Cage. As with a casual aside about French artists Yves Klein’s and Arman’s 1948 initiation into the Rose+Croix, I wanted to know more, as it seemed more relevant than Buddhism or Hinduism.

Part of the reason for this emphasis on the East is that Bramble considers that groups and schools which more obviously merit the label ‘occult’, such as the Golden Dawn and the Parisian occult revivalist societies, had ‘little impact on modernism’. This conflicts directly with Choucha, who demonstrates that, when it comes to surrealism – a central part of modernism – traditional occultism and occultists had a very direct and significant impact. (Given the relevance of Choucha’s book to Bramble’s theme, I was surprised not to find it in his bibliography.)

Despite the authority with which Bramble writes, he makes some distinctly dubious statements. Discussing Nazism’s alleged occult roots, he states that the term ‘Third Reich’ was derived from the mystic Joachim of Fiore’s Third Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, whereas the conventional explanation, that it signified the third in succession to the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire of 1871-1918, is certainly correct – after all, it’s what the person who coined it, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, said.

Discussing the surrealist poet Louis Aragon’s 1925 call for an uprising in the East, Bramble notes it includes the words ‘Let distant America’s white buildings crumble’, which he calls an ‘uncanny premonition’ of 9/11 – which is pushing it bit.

I wasn’t convinced that Bramble knows as much about Western occultism as he makes out. Oddly, he consistently lumps the Golden Dawn in with the Parisian occult groups, even including them in a contrast with their ‘Anglophile, Germanic and Russian coevals’.

More significantly, at one point he argues (or rather, in typical fashion, airily states) that the objective of magic is the liberation of the individual, and that its modern proponents, such as the Theosophists and Aldous Huxley (in his Perennial Philosophy), ‘strayed’ by assuming it was rather about ‘cosmological know-how’. I’d argue that, where the Western occult philosophy is concerned, they were correct, and that it’s Bramble’s interpretation that’s the modern one (perhaps because of his extended definition of the occult to include Eastern philosophies, which are more about personal liberation).

I kept getting the sneaking suspicion that Bramble’s redefinition of the occult is to make it include the things he knows most about, adjusting the subject to fit his knowledge rather than the other way round.

Bramble ends by arguing that ‘modernist occultism’ has been overlooked in modernist studies, likening it to the neglect of the influence of occultism on the Renaissance before Frances Yates’ works. That’s if there is such a thing as ‘modernist occultism’, according to Bramble’s expanded definition. But that’s modernism for you. At least it gives them something else to debate.

It’s rather Nadia Choucha who, without the high-flown language and playing fast and loose with terminology, demonstrates the very real, but neglected, contribution of occultism to nineteenth- and twentieth-century art and culture. -- Clive Prince


31.10.17

LIVING IN THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND

Dennis and Michelle Waskul.  Ghostly Encounters: The Hauntings of Everyday Life. Temple University Press, 2016.

Denis Waskul, the lead author of this book is lying in bed one night, finding sleep difficult, his wife Michelle asleep beside him when he sees a mist forming at the top corner of his window, coming through the window and blind. From it come wispy tentacles, reaching out to him. Without thinking he says “I will tell the truth, I will tell the story right” and the misty thing retreats.

This personal experience in its strange ambiguity is typical of the stories in this book, many of which centre on some ill-defined disquiet, whispers where there should be none, doors that open on their own, pictures on the wall move around, the cat acts up for no reason, the TV is turned on where you were sure you had turned it off, coins are found in strange places, something bangs against the window when there is no wind, a slap in the face when there is no-one there, a black shadow moves through the living room, you feel watched when you are alone, the cat peers round the corner, the dog barks at nothing.

All of these add up to senses of shared space, the house is never truly empty and you are never really by yourself. These small incidents can be signs of presence or of transcendence, one of the interviewees spoken to by the authors relates a number of these apparently trivial incidents and then breaks into tears because she feels they are signs that her sister, killed in a car accident, is trying to communicate with her. 

As they examine the stories the authors note the language and intonation of the tale, how they wrestle with the ideas of belief and scepticism; their day light reason tells them it is all explicable, their night intuition tells them otherwise.

Even in the home ghosts seem to haunt liminal spaces, if outdoors they inhabit crossroads, bridges, field boundaries, old houses and graveyards falling from habitat into wilderness, in the home they can haunt porches, doorways, landings, closets (which are room-like spaces which are not real rooms; the same going to bathrooms. They come in the marginal zone between sleep and waking.




Ghosts are creatures of the edge-world that are both and yet neither presence nor absence, here or not here, real or unreal, alive or dead. Ghosts frighten us because they cannot die, we can’t kill them because they are already dead.

Children report playing with a little girl no-one else can see, the little girl in pyjamas perhaps. The might be the brunette sitting on the right side of your bed looking at you, or perhaps the man wearing the light green short sleeved shirt, the lady in the red dress who is pretty to some people but not to others. Or maybe it is Madison who lives in the closet in your brothers’ bedroom and who tells you that this is her house and not yours. All of which goes to remind you that before you came ‘they’ were here, and when you have gone, another ‘they’ will come and occupy your space.

Few of these presences are hostile, that is left to living people. The most chilling tale doesn’t concern a ghost at all but a deserted graveyard that has been vandalised because a legend grew up around a seventeen year old girl who died of diphtheria and who is buried there, that she was a witch who had been beheaded by her father and that others in the graveyard were also witches. The vandalism argue the Waskuls is a symbol of human beings capacity to dehumanise and persecute and destroy. Today the gravestones, tomorrow …?

The authors are unable to come to any conclusions at the end of their survey and ghosts remain too elusive to analyse. The Waskuls suspect that however anomalous such experiences are, there really is little reason to associate them with deceased people. They note that ghosts have an absence of specific traits, often ageless, sexless and lacking in ethnicity, essentially empty presences which are also absences, though there was a tendency among recipients to give anonymous ghosts masculine names.

This book can be compared with the British studies of Caron Lipman's At Home With Ghosts,  and though somewhat lighter in analysis, avoids the academy-speech. -- Peter Rogerson


24.10.17

STARS OF STAGE AND SEANCE

Simone Natale. Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

Today we see the prepackaged corporate entertainment business as somehow separate from science, religion and daily life but in the Victorian period things were very different. Most entertainment, at least for the middle classes and the respectable working class, was often conducted at home, while outside the home popular sources of entertainment included inspiring sermons, recitations by authors and demonstrations of scientific marvels.

Spiritualism, which emerged in 1848, straddled these boundaries. Spiritualist experiences often began in the home, as one of a number of domestic entertainments; table turning was one of its original forms. Popular mediums however could broaden out to be platform speakers and more general performers. As Dr Natale, a lecturer in media studies at Loughborough University, shows a fair number of mediums had been professional performers, something which continued into the twentieth century, Eileen J Garrett and Gladys O. Leonard two of the most prominent mediums of the early twentieth century had connections to the theatre.

On stage, mediums could give 'inspired' lectures and quasi-sermons, play musical instruments, or in the case of physical mediums produce performances that occupied a liminal ground between 'scientific wonder' and stage magic, escapology and burlesque

Spiritualism imitated and subverted new means of communications. The raps by which the spirits were said to communicate were clearly pastiches of the tapping of the telegraph and the term 'spiritual telegraph' became a popular term for the process, and the new science of photography spawned the spirit photograph. This seems appropriate as photographs themselves become a kind of haunting after their subject’s decease, in old photographs the dead stare out at us through the camera lens, hinting that we shall soon follow them.

The spiritualist movement utilised all the paraphernalia of the media of the period from advertising to literature. This was the first age of true mass literacy and mass literature and all sorts of spiritualist literature was produced from periodicals such as Medium and Daybreak, through promotional pamphlets to ponderous biographies. Ghost stories formed a central theme of the literature of the period.

One special aspect of literature was that produced by automatic writing. Natale points out that this was at a time that people were fascinated by all sorts of automatons. The medium is reduced to author as amanuensis, relaying messages from the famous dead (these included Dickens and Oscar Wilde). A better strategy was create a fictional dead author, as Pearl Curran did with 'Patience Worth', said to be a seventeenth-century Quaker girl, but whose language resembled less that of Bunyan and the King James Bible than the olde worlde English of historical romance writers. There is an element of knowingness and satire in Pearl’s writing, as witness her creation of a character called Willie Passwater.

At the top of the game were the medium superstars, Natale’s example is Eusapia Palladino, whose performances were rather too raunchy for even Celebrity Big Brother. An even bigger superstar was Daniel Dunglas Home who featured many of the rich and famous among his clients. The dark side of celebrity is revealed in the fate of the Fox sisters' abusive and disastrous relationships, substance abuse, the descent into poverty, confessions and de-confessions worthy of any of today’s celeb mags.
Far from being an incidental byway of the media age perhaps spiritualism lies at its roots, that the very beginning of visual and performing arts lies in ecstatic encounters with 'the other' in shamanic and like techniques as suggested in Rogan Taylor’s Death and Resurrection Show. – Peter Rogerson

19.10.17

ROLL UP FOR THE MAGICAL MEDICAL SHOW

Wendy Moore. The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2017.

Today I think that most of us would think that science and surgery, spirituality and showbiz are clearly separate things but less than 200 years ago, in the late Georgian and early Victorian England things were much more mixed, up as these books show. We should be reminded of this by the use of the word 'theatre' to describe an operating room.

Wendy Moore’s sympathetic but not uncritical biography of John Elliotson takes us back to the 'good old days' of holistic medicine, or what passed for medicine, dominated by the time-old doctrine of humours and the time-old practice of bloodletting as a cure for just about everything, a technique that more often or not made a bad situation worse. That was, however, better than being operated on without anaesthetic, antiseptics or antibiotics. If the shock of the operation didn’t kill you then there was a good chance that sepsis would. Speed was of the essence but that could lead to some nasty complications, such as when one of the characters in this book, Robert Liston, achieved a record time of sawing off a patient’s leg in two and half minutes. Such was his rush however that he also sawed off his assistant’s fingers and through the coat tails of a spectator. Sadly both the patient and the assistant died from infections and the spectator dropped dead from shock, a 300% mortality rate.

It was not surprising in these circumstances that ambitious young doctors would try anything to improve this dire situation and to rebel against the old dominant. Two of these radical reforming medics were John Elliotson (1791-1868) and Thomas Wakley (1795-1862), who started out as firm friends but ended as bitter enemies. The cause of the rift lay in the title of this book, Elliotson’s support for and use of mesmerism in general and in particular the antics of his star patient/pupil/turn Elizabeth Okey (1821-1871).

John Elliotson
The relationship between these two men and the role that Elizabeth played in its failure is the central story of this book. Elliotson in his endeavours to make medicine more modern and scientific had taken up with the new fads of the time, phrenology and mesmerism and had introduced the latter to both his original hospital, St Thomas’s and to the brand new University College Hospital, part of the equally new University College London. Unlike the old universities of Oxford and Cambridge, UCL was a radical institution, open to all regardless of religion and a place for new innovative ideas.

It was as a patient at UCH that Elizabeth Okey had been introduced to Elliotson. She was the daughter of a rather impoverished London goldsmith and had been having fits of some sort since a head injury at the age of 12. Times had not been good to her, from being the second eldest and the eldest daughter in a family of 9 to 11, a position that probably entailed quite some authority and responsibility, and alternating with periods of being fostered by an uncle who ran a bookshop, where she and her sister Jane were again the centre of attention, she had been reduced to the role of a housemaid.

Housemaids were among the lower ranks of servants and as such they were meant to be almost literally invisible, coming when called, speaking when spoken to. The naturally intelligent and ebullient Elizabeth was forced into the role of the quiet, demure servant girl who would sit and do her needlework.

Being admitted to hospital was probably a relief from this life of tedium. At first she was bled, blistered and given doses of not entirely pleasant medicines (if you weren’t ill before you went through this you certainly were afterwards). When this produced no results Elliotson had mesmerised by the resident mesmerist Baron Dupotet. After a while it seems to have occurred to Elizabeth that being mesmerised gave her the perfect excuse to release her hidden laddette, behaving like a music hall artiste, telling comic stories, doing impersonations and singing both straight and comic songs.

There lay the downfall of both Dupotet and eventually Elliotson, for in effect Elizabeth became a stage act, acting ever more uninhibited, with Dupotet’s encouragement she began to show wild talents, going round the hospital diagnosing other patients, claiming to foretell the future and so on. At this point Elliotson went on holiday, and with his patron out of the way Dupotet was given the boot for reducing the hospital to chaos. That might have ended the whole thing but Elliotson himself took over the mesmerism and the reign of Elizabeth, shortly joined by her sister Jane would continue and Elliotson would drift into almost being a professional showman.

Now Elizabeth was increasingly in charge, doing mesmerism herself, diagnosing patients, and making a claim that was to presage what was to come; the was being advised by a 'negro spirit'. He was to be then joined by a more sinister figure, one in a white robe which she saw by the beds of patients who were going to die, the later the figure the sooner the death. This new spirit she called Jack alias 'he Great Jackey. Elizabeth had already moved from servant to superstar now she was moving on to shaman.

However nemesis was at hand in the form of Elliotson’s old friend Thomas Wakley, founded of the radical campaigning medical journal The Lancet and the radical MP for Finsbury. One of Wakley’s campaigns was for the professionalisation of medicine, so the idea of an eminent doctor like Elliotson allowing an unlearned young woman to diagnoses illness was anathema. Elliotson played into his hands by claiming that mesmerism was based on an actual physical effect and that when Elizabeth and Janet were brought into contact with nickel over which mesmeric they underwent strong reactions but did not react at all to 'mesmerised' lead. Thus Wakley was able to perform a series of experiments that showed Elizabeth did not react to nickel unless she was told it was there, and reacted to neutral substances as if they were nickel when told they were. This convinced Wakley that the girls were frauds and that mesmerism was a load of nonsense. Both Elliotson and Wakley stuck to their own polarised views and ignored a third possibility, that 'mesmerism' was based on suggestion.

It was to be that approach that was to lead mesmerism to be rebranded as hypnotism and for its medical use, including for a time as an anaesthetic in surgery, before being side-lined by the rise of chemical anaesthetics such as ether and chloroform. Elizabeth and Jane were returned to their working class roots, much to their disgust, Elizabeth eventually dying of consumption as so many Victorians did.

Meanwhile mesmerism was being upstaged by a new fad; spiritualism, of which Elliotson was originally sceptical, before being converted by Daniel Home to both spiritualism and Christianity, both of which he took up with his usual zeal.

Times were changing and Elizabeth and Jane Okey were soon to be well and truly upstaged by two even younger sisters from America, the Fox sisters. – Peter Rogerson.