26.4.10

ELECTRICITY OF THE MIND

Electricity of the Mind: The Anomalist no 14, edited by Ian Simmonds. Anomalist Books, 2010.

Texts contain hidden secrets, and new technologies are helping to unearth them. Older texts may contain the strangest stories and the ones that require the most textual analysis to help tease out their meaning. An example of this may well be the strange tales of volcanoes where no volcano should be, as featured in several old chronicles and documented by Ulrich Magin in this issue. Magin points out that despite these reports of volcanoes in places such as Scotland, Wales, France and Germany, no geological evidence of such activity in historical times exists. Magin suggests that while some may have been generated by actual physical phenomena ranging from methane fires to landslides, others are perhaps best seen as descriptions of actual volcanoes in foreign lands transplanted to local mountains. He argues that these out of place volcano stories help us to critically analyse less obviously impossible Fortean events in.

These texts can illuminate past cultures, as in Patrick Gyger' s brief look at the beginning of the witchcraft persecutions as revealed in the "black books" or crime registers of the town of Friburg at the very end of the medieval period. Here witchcraft still existed in the liminal zone between "ordinary" crime and grand heresy, but already many of the features of the later epidemics of witch hunting, derived from the ideology of the interrogators orthodox Catholic ideology were emerging.

It is not just medieval texts that reveal strange secrets, The new digital technologies are opening up the lost worlds of 19th century American local newspapers, and this allows Theo Pajimans to track the stories behind several of the brief notes in Fort's books. There is for example the story of Isaac Martin who is supposed to have disappeared in a field. The newspaper stories unearthed by Pajimans show that Martin was found hung in a nearby tree some six weeks later. As he points out this creates its own mystery, as once presumes the area had been searched pretty thoroughly beforehand (the modern CSI-sensitised reader might suspect that Martin had been murdered and his body later placed in the tree to make it look like suicide).

Then there is the great bird of Copiapo, which mutated as some form of flying machine appears, for some reason that is not easy to understand, as the first case in Jacques Vallee's original Century of Landings. The original stories are of a great bird "its great wings covered with a brown plumage, the head of the monster was in shape similar to that of the grasshopper, with enormous eyes wide opened and brilliant as stars and covered with something like hair or bristles, the body lengthening out lie that of a serpent, was covered with brilliant scales which emitted metallic sounds as the animal moved itself along."

This reads like one of the less salubrious beasties out of the Book of Revelations, surely on its way to pickup breadcrumb sins.

To understand what these and other stories are about, we would have to know a lot more about the context in which it was originally reported in Chile (assuming that it actually was) and about the Copiapo mines and how they were regarded at the times.

As Paijmans shows these and many other Fortean stories made their rounds from newspaper to newspaper, they must have been read or heard being read by large groups of people. While it is very useful that these newspapers are now being digitialised, there needs to a a caveat entered. It is that this digitialisation can rob stories of their contexts, to grasp that we have to look at the whole page in which they appeared, and that page in other copies of the paper, to assess whether this was a page devoted to serious news, to entertainment, the telling of moral tales or whatever. Even so there will always be nuances lost to time. Were the "sober and honest" Bert Scoggins or "the respectable " Miss Cynthia Stoatstrangler, really that, or did the original readers know that they were the town drunk and the town whore. We have no way of knowing.

Local newspapers fulfilled a wide variety of functions in a society without cinema, television, radio, widespread sound records or telephones, and often with a scarcity of printed matter. They published local news, abstracted the interesting and sensational stories from the national and local press which they exchanged with, told stories, circulated gossip, provided sources of humour and entertainment, but also moral positions, and were often filled with adverts not clearly distinguished from the rest of the text. Making them even more difficult for modern readers to evaluate is their often sober and bland presentation which can give an aura of false authenticity.

Such strange stories from the bowels of the newspapers come from the 20th century also. One such is the vision in the sky reported by some of the residents of Helterville PA in July 1914 as recounted here by Dwight Whalen. It was, according to at least one witness "an immense house filled with children dressed in white with a black band on the arm of each" coming out of the house in columns of two, dividing at the door and then going in opposite directions. An image of two tribes going to war. Another witness described it as like a picture thrown on a screen, waving in the wind.

Clearly in a European Catholic country this would have become a Marian apparitions and a centre of pilgrimage, in Midtown USA it becomes a misidentified searchlight from a carnival. Here the vision is perceived in terms of the latest medium, the cinema, and perhaps in particular the travelling outdoor cinema screens run by fairgrounds and travelling carnivals.

One person who would have been fascinated by the tale of Helterville was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the subject of an important essay by Mike Jay. Jay shows that Coleridge, based on his own hallucinatory and illusionary experiences was developing a theory of "radical misperception" of the sort we have speculated on in the pages of Magonia. Coleridge argued that it was the human imagination which constructed a coherent narrative from fragmentary perceptions, that some experiences particularly those in the boundary world between sleep and waking "the matrix of ghosts", allowed a revelation what is usually hidden, the process by which perceptions are constructed, and more importantly these gaps in perception allowed the deep imagination to use perceptions as tools for works of art. These experiences he called "supersensory.

The visions at Helterville, would thus have been supersensory experiences, they may or may have been stimulated by a searchlight or a mirage or the northern lights or whatever, but that would have just been the scaffolding on which the deep imagination, or spontaneous imagination could work. He further argued that much of crafted art must use attempts to stimulate this deep and spontaneous realm of the imagination.

The liminal zone between imagination and consensus reality is apparent in the writings of people like Carlos Castaneda and Whitley Streiber, the subjects of Aeolus Kephas's paper, and in the art of the crop circle makers. Both construct images which powerfully resonate within the deep imagination. The crop circle makers for example seem to have been anticipated by such science fiction films as Phase IV issued in 1974, which featured a huge crop circle and pictograph. Though Kephas takes a more literalistic line, seemingly unaware that Castaneda did most of his "fieldwork" in libraries in California rather than in the outback of Mexico, but it is perhaps best to see both as people who became consumed by their own imagination, metaphorically eaten by their novels. Even the before the Communion cycle, Streiber had made himself a character in the novel War Day, a novel of nuclear apocalypse. These novels then use ideas, whether from the byways of academia, as in the case of Castaneda, or the realm of popular folklore as in the case of Streiber, which send them on shamanic journeys into the deep imagination.

This theme of deep imagination and the artists ability to evoke this, lies at the heart of another form of modern shamanism, that of the conjurer, the subject of the paper by Richard Wiseman, who links the professional conjurer and the medium as people who are able to deconstruct perceptions. It is precisely the circumstances in which seances are held, even the "faked" ones of Wiseman, the darkness, expectancy, mixture of tension and fatigue, take participants into the matrix of ghosts and into what Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief".

As shamanic figures conjurers are always ambiguous, trickster figures, what such is Randall Zwinge alias James Randi, whose career is lovingly taken apart by rival performer Tim Cridland alias Zamora the Torture King. Cridland suggests that Randi's past is much more ambiguous than that of the pure hearted crusader against paranormal pornography which he now portrays himself.

It is not just cultural factors which can open up the deep imagination and transport us to the matrix of ghosts, the environment can do that just as well. Sometimes this is caused by the general ambience, but perhaps other factors, elements of nanoclimate, electromagnetic anomalies, infrasound and the rest can all play a part, and Bryan Williams, Annalisa Ventola and Mike Wilson suggest some ways in which ghost hunters can test for some of these effects.

Of course all human societies contain at least some individuals who can access this matrix of ghosts, and in many societies artists are the ones who do that. This is of course true of many small scale low-tech cultures, something which is entirely lost on one Cameron Matthew Blout who actually argues that "it is likely that early man had neither the time nor expendable resources to devote to such speculative activities as creating complex and abstract mythology" or abstract art. Mr Blout is an administrator (what else could he be) at a university, presumably one without a modern anthropology department.

I have done quite well to link most of the contents of this issue of Anomalist to a common theme, but some papers are harder to fit in. Gary Lachman provides some additional notes omitted for space reasons from his book Politics and the Occult, John F Caddy (any relation to Peter Caddy?) goes on about chakras and weird physics, and Chris Payne uses advanced mathematics to estimate the likely populations of surviving thylacines in an article which makes me suspect it has escaped from the 1st April edition of some mathematics journal.

As always in the Anomalist the good stuff far outweighs the dross, and recommended to all Forteans and explorers of the matrix of ghosts. -- Peter Rogerson


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