23 June 2010


Jeffrey Kripal. Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Jeffrey Kripal is a professor of philosophy and religious thought at Rice University in Houston Texas, and the author of a book, among others, on the Esalen Institute. Here he is concerned with 'the impossible', the varieties of anomalous personal experience which challenge not just contemporary science's view of the universe, but the whole world of daylight reason and commonsense.
These themes, and the group of authors he chooses to exemplify them are encountered while doing research for a book on American comic superheroes. He cannot understand why his colleagues in the field of religious studies have not heard of them, or the phenomena they discuss.

The four writers he chooses to discuss are probably known, at least by repute by many Magonia readers: F. W. H Myers, Charles Fort, Jacques Vallée and Bertrand Meheust. As these were all writers whose work has had some influence, direct or indirect on the paths which Magonia has taken, I was looking forward to Kripal's take on their work. There are indeed some valuable insights here, and fascinating biographical asides. On the other hand, far from clarifying any of their viewpoints, Kripal tends at times to make them more obscure. Whether this is because he is trying to express insights for which there is no adequate vocabulary, or because he is tailoring his text to an academic audience for which the obscurity of a private tongue, such as the special languages sometimes used by the world's religious, conveys the sense that one is privy to a special esoteric knowledge.

They are, of course, very different writers, Fred Myers, though much out of fashion now, was one of the leading intellectuals of his time, and his inclusion here is a reminder of a time when psychical research was at the core of psychological study. Charles Fort was a collector of unusual facts, and either a significant precursor to what has become known as post-modernist thought, who used the humour of staged silliness to make his points, or a complete crank.

Jacques Vallee is an astronomer and computer pioneer, who has written a number of popular books on UFOs. While Meheust has also written a couple of fairly popular and influential books on UFOs (though only known in the English speaking world through the mediumship of Hilary Evans!) the main works for which he is known in France are a huge two volume opus on what became known in Britain as 'the higher phenomena of hypnotism' - the paranormal powers and wild talents allegedly demonstrated by the hypnotised, or to use the old term 'magnetised' - and the biography of one of the wildest of these wild talents, Alexis Didier. Needless to say neither of these works are available in the English language.

Haunting the chapters on Vallée and Méheust are the ghosts of Allen Hynek and Aimé Michel, trying to balance the scientific and occult with perhaps little success. Michel is another of those enigmatic French figures, only a small proportion of whose work has been translated into English. Like many of the writers in these fields he had a vision of a directed evolution of humanity, but like many who want to believe in a guided universe he was confronted with the terrifying mystery of the total amorality of wild nature, responsible for the suffering of animals, and his own crippling polio. I am, incidentally surprised that as a student of religion Kripal does not connect Michel's visions back to those of Teilhard de Chardin.

These writers then make something of a strange quaternary, but what unites them for Kripal, is that they tackle the impossible head on, and he would argue that they share his own discontent with 'materialism' and perhaps the whole modernist worldview, and he uses their works as a springboard for a personal quest for that transcendent reality. This may at times involve reading into some of the authors, especially Fort, things which are not there.

One can sense how as a neophyte, Kripal is swept up by this realm of the fantastic, one hears through the book a sort of huge chorus of 'gee whizz'. This stuff is for the cloistered academic the 'fearful' (or as Kripal puts it "fucking terrifying") and fascinating mystery of the numinous, the encounter with the wholly other. It is fascinating because it evokes the promise of transcendence and escape from the routines of bourgeois life, and terrifying because it could take away their professional careers, and as the history of these subjects show, their very sanity. It contains within itself the heady addiction of the transgressional.

Perhaps also as a neophyte, Kripal tends to view some this 'impossible' in a rather literalistic light, even though at some level he is aware of the dangers of this. Evoking for example literalistic interpretations of these stories, and looking for explanations (extraterrestrials, spirits, the brain as a radio receiver of conciseness, hidden dimensions etc...), merely drags one down into the realms of what Fort called the "old dominant". Furthermore the ideologies of psychical research, ufology, cryptozoology and etc. operate on just the same exclusionary principles as that of the cultural mainstream.

Kripal distinguishes between the 'psychic', which seeks the scientification of the realms of the impossible which were once in the domain of science, while the 'paranormal' leaps into the world of 'science mysticism', though a better description might be that it is the translation into popular culture.

If these 'impossible' events which his authors discuss are signs of transcendence, then it is a transcendence which changes or manifests itself differently over time. In the world in which Myers lived, and which MĂ©heust writes about in his major books, this transcendence takes the form of extraordinary human abilities and relationships: the clairvoyant who can cross the seas in his mind and tell you just what is in your study all those miles away; the love affair after death; the ghostly figures in the candle-lit corridors; the medium levitating through the open window.

By the time Fort writes, in the chaotic start of the 20th century, the transcendent is simply a wild rule-breaking anarchy of lights in the sky, poltergeist girls, falls of frogs and toads. For Vallee the scientist and technologist, they are a magical technology, that they are a 'technology I' (i.e. within my zone of speciality) is something he insists upon.

This 'impossible' manifests itself in the language of the moment. It is a Marian apparition to pious Catholics; it is the result of witchcraft to early modern peasants; it is the spiritual telegraph in the mid-19th century. It is the spiritual radio in the late 19th century, phantom airships, biological absurdities in the age of biology, fantastic aircraft and spaceships. It is as though it is something from the deepest collective imagination, which appears refracted through various cultural lenses.

Interestingly MĂ©heust takes the view that some kind of fork was taken in the road which banished the magical powers of the seers. If such a fork was taken, I doubt it was by some decision of a committee of academe, rather it must have been that society developed along urban and industrial lines, that in such a case the vision of the impossible born out of the intimate face to face society faded away. Magonia can now only appear as a machine, but what will replace the machine in the post industrial age?
  • Peter Rogerson.

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