21 April 2018

STORIES ALL AROUND

Mark Rees. Ghosts of Wales; Accounts from the Victoria Archives. History Press, 2017
Wendy Hughes. The A-Z of Curious Sussex. History Press, 2017.

When reading books of ghost stories, particularly those related to a specific location, it is often the case that the stories are retold and edited in a way that sometimes bears no relationship to any original account or testimony, and we are often presented with a homogenised and rather standardised narrative. In his reviews of such books, Peter Rogerson often pointed out that the modern ghost story is as much a product of the heritage industry than of any kind of psychical research, and an entry in a Good Ghost Guide is now as essential to any pub as an entry in the Good Beer Guide.

In Ghosts of Wales Mark Rees attempts to circumvent this processing by bringing us the original, unedited narratives from contemporary sources, or at least contemporary sources as recorded in the newspapers of the era. Because this is a boxes-within-boxes situation, where we will never really be able to access the source. However the newspaper accounts given here are probably about as far as we will ever be able to delve at this remove.

The majority of the stories here are from the latter part of the Victorian era, and this probably relates more to the coverage of local newspapers in the Principality as to the number of actual reported supernatural occurrences. Many of the stories describe experiences which are common to ghostly reports in other parts of the world, although some are specifically Welsh. A chapter on the ‘Ghosts of Industry’ recounts supernatural tales from the iron-works and coal-mines of South Wales. Stories like the haunting of the Morfa Colliery at Port Talbot after a mining disaster bear stark evidence of the trauma that such an incident wreaks amongst the local community, and gives some clues as to how the trauma resolves itself.

Late Victorian Wales also seemed to have had its own breed of ghost-hunting enthusiasts well before the era of ‘Reality TV. One local councillor in Cardiff had his own programme of pavement politics, sweeping the streets clear of ghostly manifestations and calling for a “course of systematic investigation, the whole thing to be followed up, if possible, to some real conclusion” and that the investigators should be “honest, conscientious and honourable”. Well, we’ve all heard these promises from politicians before, and it seems like most such, little came of it.




The ghost ‘with a mission’ is featured here. Members of a local Friendly Society, refusing to pay the funeral allowance for a member, on the grounds that he had committed suicide, found their lodge meetings disturbed by ghostly noises, and one committee member assaulted by the spirit of the deceased on his way home one dark night. As the reporter commented “such at least was the account he gave in tones of horror, at the first public house he came to after this terrific encounter”.

In many of these incidents we see the phenomenon of the ‘flash-mob’, with up to several hundred local people assembling at the site of a supposed haunting, often spending the night there, shouting, throwing stones and banging pots and pans, even firing guns. The leniency to this activity displayed by the local constabulary contrasts remarkably to reactions to much less riotous escapades today!

Although reading the original newspaper accounts gives a much closer look at the people and places involved, it also means that the reader has to plough through some of the most turgid prose know to man, from reporters who thought that the world hung on their every word, and were probably being paid per line. Also jarring to the modern ear are the casual, almost libellous, comments on individuals – usually those of the ‘lower orders’: “he engaged a new servant – a somewhat dull and ingenuous maid of twenty-six”.

I suppose reading some of the original documentation does explain why subsequent writers have found it necessary to edit and smooth out much of the narratives of these experiences, but it is essential that we do occasionally trouble to look at the earliest possible sources if we are to understand the background to them, whether they be supernatural or psycho-social. Mark Rees does an excellent job in reminding us of this.

The A-Z of Curious Sussex is perhaps more at the ‘heritage industry’ end of the spectrum, with brief accounts of historical curiosities, legend and folklore attached to various localities in East and West Sussex, alphabetically from Albourne to Yapton. These range from dramatic shipwrecks, gruesome crimes, historic battles and the usual quota of haunted inns, to the disputed origins of banoffee pie, the self-made legend of Grey Owl and the moving story of the pioneer of reading systems for the blind.

I was particularity interested in the legend of the pyramidal grave of ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller in Brightling churchyard, supposedly buried in his imposing tomb sitting at a dining table in full evening dress, complete with a bottle of claret; as a very similar tale is told about the pyramid covering the grave of William Mackenzie in St Andrew’s Churchyard in Rodney Street, Liverpool. Is this perhaps a recurring theme to explain eccentrically designed monuments?

The author does not burden the reader with the apparatus of scholarship, but the stories are well told and will interest anybody who is familiar with this part of the world, and reinforces the feeling that there are few places in these Islands without a legend or two to entertain us. – John Rimmer


13 April 2018

GOING DUTCH

Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch: Witchcraft, Faith Healing and Related Practices by [Orth, Richard L.T.]Richard L. T. Orth. Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch: Witchcraft, Faith Healing and Related Practices. McFarland, 2018.

Books on witchcraft frequently refer in passing to the ‘Powwowing’ of the Pennsylvania Dutch, but the reader is seldom told anything about it. The present study is by a folklorist who was brought up in that culture, so he knows the subject from both inside and out. It is evidently a combination of folk beliefs going back to prehistoric times, together with material published in German about two hundred years ago.

The traditional view, almost everywhere, posits the existence of black witches and white witches, though these actual terms have not been used very often. If a child falls ill, if a cow gives bloody milk or none at all, this is presumed to be due to a curse laid by a ‘black witch’. There are various cures available, but often the sufferer will go to a ‘white witch’, who may be termed a wise woman, a cunning man, a witch doctor, or, among the Pennsylvania Dutch, a hex doctor. “The art of white magic in the Dutch Country is referred to as 'Braucherei' or, more popularly, Powwowing.” No doubt much of this is due to paranoia, but clearly, in a society where everyone believes in cursing, some people will try to do it, a point historians often overlook.

Unlike in previous centuries, there are printed texts available for both cursers and blessers. Now, the ‘Dutch’ are mostly descended from immigrants who spoke a dialect of German. Among the books that they brought with them from the old country was one known as The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. This was reprinted in the New World and eventually translated into English. It is generally believed to have been written by the Devil, and anyone who inadvertently reads a passage must immediately read it again backwards, or risk damnation. Personally, I think this unnecessary: on examination, it proves to consist primarily of illustrations of talismans inscribed with what must have originally been Hebrew characters, but are too corrupted to make out; the instructions beneath each include invocations, written in Roman character, but evidently from a Hebrew archetype ruined by successive miscopyings. It must have been the work, in the first instance, of a pious if slightly unorthodox Jew, though expanded by later authors, mostly Christians. The title shows that it was meant to be a secret instruction of God, given after the public ones for the use of a select few only.

For the faith healers there was Der lange Verborgene Freund, 1819, written by a local, John George Hohman. This was later put into English as The Long Lost Friend. Its underlying principle was that “certain illnesses and afflictions were believed by the Pennsylvania Dutch to be evil in origin, from either a witch or the Devil himself, and a person so afflicted could not very well be cured by home remedies or medicine.” So to be a successful healer, or even a successful patient, one had to believe in both God and Satan. To the complaint of some people that the use of the Lord’s name in Brauching was blasphemous, he responded with the words of Psalm 50:15 “And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.”

One highly regarded protection formula among them was the celebrated SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS, about whose origin they had some peculiar ideas: “The late Reverend Thomas Brendle, a foremost authority on folk medicine among the Pennsylvania Dutch, once stated that Hohman’s SATOR formula was traced to 200 BC in India.” A twelve-page Pennsylvania tract of the 1820s said “This is the song (first letter of each word used) sung by those three men, Shadrack, Mesack and Abednego, those that were allowed to be placed in the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar; then did God send [his] holy angel.” In fact, it is almost certainly a near-anagram of Pater Noster, 'Our Father', twice. I suppose that Protestants would believe almost anything except its Roman Catholic origin.

Also popular was the Himmelsbrief, a single leaf in German, but later translated and printed (in Pennsylvania) in English: “A Letter Written by God Himself, and Left Down at Magdeburg …” This protected one from all kinds of disasters, and so was often framed and hung on the wall; soldiers from the Dutch Country would carry them into war. Baptismal certificates would often be hung on the wall in perpetuity, to become eventually a reminder of one’s ancestors; sometimes, though, they would be buried with the individuals. They acted as passports to heaven by proving that they were baptised. -- Gareth J. Medway

9 April 2018

THE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY

Joel Martin and William J. Birnes. Edison vs. Tesla - The Battle over their Last Invention. Skyhorse Publishing, 2017.

If you were asked, right now as in a conversation, who do you think were the greatest inventors of all time, who would come in the top places of your list? It is a good bet that Thomas Edison would come top, or thereabouts, on most people's lists. Nikola Tesla would be there too, along with such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Guglielmo Marconi, the Wright brothers, James Watt and Galileo, amongst several other candidates.

Thomas Edison (1847 - 1931)is best known for his successful inventions of the incandescent electric light bulb, the motion picture camera and projector, and the phonograph. Nikola Tesla (1856 - 1943) is remembered as the genius engineer who pioneered alternating current (AC) electricity generation and distribution. As an indication of how prolific both men were as inventors, Edison had 1,093 U.S. registered patents by the end of his life, and Tesla's total was around 300 patents worldwide. By contrast, Benjamin Franklin, who invented the lightning rod,bifocal lenses and other useful devices, never took out a single patent, believing that all knowledge should be freely available.

It is common knowledge that Edison and Tesla developed a fierce personal and commercial rivalry, which is alluded to in the title of this book. Their greatest battle, fought in the 1880s and early 90s, was "the war of the currents" over the relative merits of Edison's preferred direct current (DC) system against Tesla's AC. Edison's hard edge showed itself in his efforts to demonstrate that AC was more dangerous. To this effect, he publicly electrocuted several animals, such as stray cats and dogs, unwanted horses and cattle, and a circus elephant who had recently killed three men. Then an actual human victim, a condemned prisoner, was executed in an AC-powered electric chair, taking ten minutes to die in appalling agony. It was gruesome. Of course it would never be allowed today.

This battle came to a climax with the award of the contract for lighting the 1893 Chicago World Fair to Westinghouse with Tesla's AC system, decisively beating Edison's General Electric bid with a much lower price and superior technology. After this, AC became the accepted standard for power distribution and lighting. Edison, a proud and stubborn man, deeply resented this loss, although his company was soon forced to adopt the AC system into its business.

The 'last invention' was something altogether more bizarre and esoteric: a 'spirit telephone', meaning a device that could be used to communicate with departed spirits of dead loved ones. From the beginning of the book, in the foreword, introduction and first chapter, the game is given away. The 'spirit telephone' did not work, and no model of it exists today. But the story of Edison's concept of how it might work, and biographical details of both men's lives, are fascinating and inspiring to read.

It is not a major criticism of the book to say that there is a good deal of repetition throughout its chapters. The same themes, such as Edison's belief in 'life units' or what we today might call 'quantum particles', are repeated several times. This may be partly due to the book having two authors, Joel Martin, a leading author in the paranormal field, and William J. Birnes, an author and expert in the field of UFO research. One gets the impression that certain chapters were written separately, perhaps as magazine articles, which may explain the repetition of facts and explanations which had already been given in previous chapters. However, that means in effect that the book is readable and accessible. To their credit, the authors do not over-complicate the science, thereby appealing to a much broader potential readership.

Edison and Tesla were like chalk and cheese with regard to their personalities and qualities. Edison laboured long and hard at his inventions to make them successful and viable commercial products, most notably in the case of the incandescent lightbulb. It took hundreds of 'failures' to find the right material for the filament: carbonised bamboo fibre. He became a consummate entrepreneur and industrialist, becoming extremely wealthy. Tesla was a natural genius who got all of his futuristic concepts and intricate designs of machinery as complete images in his mind. He too became very wealthy, but his last few years were lived in cheap hotels and he died in relative poverty.

One appreciates Thomas Edison all the more for reading about his formative years. Born in 1847, in that year three of his siblings died. He was bright and inquisitive by nature. His mother, a qualified teacher, took him out of school at an early age and taught him at home. 'Natural philosophy' and chemistry were two of his favourite subjects. He made a lab at home to do experiments. Then, at age only 13, like his hero the British scientist Michael Faraday, he left his education to go out into the world of work. He got a job on the Great Trunk Railroad selling goods from a tray to passengers on the journey from Port Huron, Michigan where he lived, to Detroit and back again.

His enterprising nature soon showed itself. Using some space allowed to him in the boxcar, he set up a compact printing press and produced a small newspaper for sale. Then in the same space he started doing some chemistry experiments. In one of these he mixed nitric acid with sulphuric acid to produce nitroglycerin. He showed the beaker to a military man who, horrified, threw it out of the train where the substance exploded, nearly derailing the train. In another experiment he set fire to the boxcar, whereupon the irate train conductor extinguished the flames and kicked young Tom off the train with all of his stuff. In the process, it is reported, the conductor boxed his ears or possibly pulled him up by them. Whatever the cause, Edison later became very hard of hearing, which may have explained his appearance of aloofness.

Edison went on to become an expert telegraph operator, and soon found ways to improve on its function. He moved to Boston, which was the equivalent of today's 'Silicon Valley' for technological innovation, working for the Western Union Telegraph Company. In 1869 he left to become a full-time inventor. By 1870 he had two shops where he repaired telegraph equipment, and by 1876, aged 29, he had set up 'America's first industrial research lab' at Menlo Park, NJ.

Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1856, and eventually, after advanced education and experience in engineering and physics, decided his future lay in the USA to develop his world-changing innovations in the emerging field of electricity. To the young Nikola, Edison was a titan of invention and a great source of inspiration. In the American Magazine of April 1921, Tesla is quoted as saying these revealing words: "One of the great events in my life was my first meeting with Edison. This wonderful man, who had received no scientific training, yet had accomplished so much, filled me with amazement. I felt that the time I had spent studying languages, literature and art was wasted; though later, of course, I learned this was not so."

Compare those words of praise to the opprobrium expressed by Tesla's letter to The New York Times in 1931 just after Edison had died: "He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene. . . His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened, and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor's instinct and practical American sense."

It is a remarkable fact that Tesla worked for Edison's companies. In 1882 he got a job with the Continental Edison Company in Paris, in charge of the installation of incandescent electrical lighting. His talent was soon spotted, and he was used for troubleshooting engineering problems and improvements to generating dynamos and motors. That is what led to his being invited to work for the Edison Machine Works in New York, where he arrived in June 1884. After six months of distinguished service he left suddenly over a dispute about unpaid bonuses he felt entitled to for special projects he had completed. One version of events is that Edison told him personally he did not understand American humour.

Tesla had to overcome many hardships and setbacks, with all the trouble of finding suitable investors for his major projects. In 1887 he developed a self-starting induction motor that did not need commutators, avoiding the problems of sparking and costly maintenance. George Westinghouse invested in Tesla's designs and paid him very well as a consultant. A major success they achieved together was the 1893 contract to construct a 2-phase AC generating system at Niagara Falls.

All of this success made Tesla a very wealthy man over many years. Despite his wealth, his main motivation and life purpose was his work. He fell in love only once in his life, while young, and after that it appears he had no other relationships with women. All through his life he kept virtually the same weight of 64 kilos, despite being about 6ft 2ins tall. In appearance he was handsome and charismatic, but he had none of his rival Edison's cold aloofness and pride. One of Tesla's best friends was Mark Twain, who liked to visit the lab to see Tesla's experiments and demonstrations.

In 1898 Tesla demonstrated a remote-controlled boat at Madison Square Gardens, using newly discovered radio wave technology. He tried to sell the concept of a radio-controlled torpedo to the U.S. military, but they were not interested. Or it may have been on the advice of a certain Thomas Edison serving as a consultant on the Naval Advisory Board.

By 1901 Tesla was ready for his most ambitious project to date: wireless transmission of high-voltage electricity, and for this he received a massive investment from the famous magnate J.P Morgan, equivalent to over $4 million today. This financed the construction of Wardenclyffe Tower in Long Island, NY, as an experimental radio broadcasting station. Tesla was by then in another battle with Marconi to be the first to transmit a radio signal across the Atlantic. Marconi won that particular challenge, but Tesla developed even greater ideas.

It seemed that he had found the way to produce electricity so cheaply and abundantly that it would not need to be metered. By a combination of solar power and using the earth itself as a giant dynamo, Tesla was sure it could be done. But he needed more investment to achieve, and both Westinghouse and Morgan were hard-headed entrepreneurs who quite obviously wanted to create income streams from their investments. Whether or not Tesla's scheme would have worked is moot. There would certainly have been dramatic lightning effects around the towers, and the military were afraid that a beam of highly charged particles could be used as a weapon or cause massive damage accidentally They were also concerned about German spies in the early 20th century as the tensions that led to the World War I, started to mount. So, the military destroyed the tower with explosives before it could be proven to work.

Perhaps it is ironic that Tesla, despite being a man of peace, could conceive of robotic weapons, 'death rays' and even 'AI' (Artificial Intelligence). His visions were well ahead of their time. They are happening right now, in our time, as technology accelerates exponentially. The authors cite the first case of a remote-controlled robotic device being used by police to kill an armed and dangerous sniper in Dallas, Texas, in July 2016.

In recent times there have been at least two incidents of 'intelligent' weapons systems going seriously awry, according to Martin and Birnes. First, the 3 July 1988 shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by a missile fired from the USS Vincennes in the Gulf, and then the downing of TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747, shortly after takeoff from JFK International Airport on 16 July 1996 with the death of all 230 people on board. The book goes into some detail on these events, as a kind of tangent to the discussion of Tesla's advanced weaponry concepts. A brief online check on TWA Flight 800 and the cause of the crash indicates that the official enquiry blamed an exploding fuel tank, sparked by a short-circuit. The authors, and many other writers and researchers, are insistent that the cause was a submarine-launched missile aimed at a drone as part of a US Navy exercise of leading edge weaponry that went wrong. They claim eyewitness verification and forensic evidence.

Edison also envisioned the future, with high-speed trains powered by electricity, electronic books and the 'internet' of shared information. He predicted that peace would eventually come through technology, after a few violent upheavals. Let's hope he's right, but it will also take Tesla's vision of clean, free energy and wise use of power to bring it about. According to this book, both men were offered the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1912 but turned it down because neither could bear to share it with the other.

Towards the end of the book there is more explanation of the concept and technology for the 'spirit telephone'. It is a bit of an anti-climax compared to the real achievements of both men. There's very little on Tesla's design, if it ever existed, and even Edison's experiments have no detailed records. Probably they were destroyed by his family or agents to remove this dubious device from the record. The idea in principle was that departed spirits of humans might retain packets of memory as energy quanta after death. No one expected spirits to vocalise, but it was thought they might be able to respond by simple yes/no raps, leading to a more sophisticated type of Morse code.

Edison's experiment used a light beam focused on photoelectric cells, with a meter to show any subtle fluctuation to indicate the presence of a spirit. He had corresponded with the British scientist Sir William Crookes, an expert in spectroscopy, or analysis of the components of light, about detecting the energy of auras. Crookes, in later life, became interested in spiritualism. Edison was sceptical, but even so mediums were present to do their rituals to attract the spirits. It's all quite nebulous. Some say it was a hoax all along to provoke Tesla. Who knows? It was the confluence of the Great Age of Spiritualism with the Age of Science and Industrialism.

It is certainly true that Edison had a profound near-death experience on his deathbed in 1931. Awakening from a coma, he said that he had seen the 'other side' and it was totally blissful.

As for Tesla, when he died alone in his cheap hotel room we don't know his final moments. His body was found by a chambermaid two days after he died with a 'do not disturb' sign on the door. Some of the greatest pleasure he had in his last years came from going out every day to feed pigeons, and one particular white pigeon that came to the window of his small hotel room needing care and attention. He wrote: "I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was purpose to my life."

As a postscript, after his death in 1943 the FBI, under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover, broke open the safe in Tesla's room and took away all of his papers. When the newly formed Yugoslav government requested his papers for the proposed Tesla Museum in Belgrade, it seems that at least one set of papers was retained. These were Tesla's designs for what could have been his greatest invention: an antigravity device. He had theorized that excited quartz crystals, at the correct frequency, could be directed to levitate an object, negating the effect of gravity. It was the start of World War II and he had enthusiastically tried to sell the design to the U.S. military without success. The Russians were interested and offered $25,000. It was never made, as he became ill and died with no further progress.

The notes on anti-gravity devices were sent to General Nathan Twining of Air Materiel Command at Wright Field base, outside Dayton, Ohio. Debris from the so-called 'UFO crash' at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, were sent to the same base, and the same General was responsible for the investigation. Was there a meaningful connection? Did the military in the USA, or elsewhere, manage to create an anti-gravity aircraft, or spacecraft? Or was it really an extraterrestrial spacecraft with alien bodies inside? All the evidence points to a hoax or cover-up story, as so often happens. But the 'spirit telephone' hasn't been invented yet, and probably never will be. – Kevin Murphy


5 April 2018

AMATEUR HOUR

Sharon A. Hill. Scientifical Americans; The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers. McFarland, 2017.

Sharon Hill opens the introduction to this book with a question that sceptical researchers of anomalies are often asked: if we are sceptical about such phenomena, why are we researching and writing about them? Hill’s answer is that she loves the ‘idea’ of such things, even if she does not accept their reality. And this ‘idea’ is promoted vigorously through the mass media in all its forms.

Hill is writing from an American perspective, which perhaps differs from the development of anomaly studies in Britain and Europe. I have commented previously that many of the influential critical voices in Britain have come from within the UFO and paranormal research movement itself, as researchers have found that the problems raised by the phenomena cannot be explained adequately by the literalist narrative of the believers. In the US, by contrast, the high-profile sceptics seem to have approached the subjects from the outside, almost as missionaries bearing the light of Sagan’s ‘candle in the dark’.

There is a little bit of this attitude in Hill’s approach, and at times in describing the workings of ghost-hunting groups in particular, she does give slightly the impression of someone finding themselves looking at the curious habits of a remote tribe, and at times gives the impression that her main criticism of amateur anomaly research is that it does not lead to a PhD. Generally though, she is prepared to give an objective view, although I doubt may of the members of the groups she describes would credit her with that.

By ‘scientifical’ Hill means researchers who operate in what they claim is a ‘scientific’ way, but without really understanding the implications of that claim. Old-time ufologists like your reviewer, will remember from the distant past such things as ‘UFO detectors’ which were advertised in the saucer magazines of the sixties and seventies. These were predicated on the principle that UFOs operated using some vaguely defined sort of electromagnetic, antigravity motor that would cause a compass needle to swing when approached by a UFO. This would create an electrical contact which would set of a buzzer and/or a flashing light.

This is the very epitome of ‘scientifical’. It looked the business, - ‘sciency’ as Hill terms it - there were lights and buzzers, and something happened which could be noted down with great accuracy in a UFO report. But it wasn’t science. It didn’t really demonstrate anything other than your group was a bit more scientifical than the next one, especially if your UFO detector had a flashy aluminium case.




Using ‘sciency’ words and giving themselves ‘sciency’ titles is another way in which groups validate their existence, with roles such as ‘director of research’ or impressive organisation titles like ‘nation research committee’, and so on. Hill suggests that these are a form of ‘cargo-cult’ whereby aping the style and outward appearance of a scientific organisation, the ‘cargo’ - solutions to the mystery under investigation – will somehow arrive, but without the complex scientific structure that produces real solutions.

A great deal of this book looks at the many ‘ghost hunting’ TV shows that seem to dominate American cable channels, and have a presence on this side of the Atlantic as well. Most of these involve people with massive amounts of ‘sciency’ gear spending the night in suitably spooky locations. There are many “did you hear/feel/see that” exclamations in these shows, but despite all the gadgetry on display, little or no real scientific findings are ever produced. She is particularly scathing about ‘sciency’-sounding language, and in particular the bandying of the word ‘quantum’ by people who have no idea at all what it means, which effectively is most of us.

Hull describes these groups as ARIGs – Amateur Research and Investigation Groups. Although she considers that they all share the same ‘scientifical’ approach to their topics of study, she accepts that there are differences of emphasis between and within the various interest groups. Cryptozoology in her view has a better grasp of scientific principles than some other ARIGs, pointing out in particular figures such as Karl Shuker and Loren Coleman. Of course, the basic principle of cryptozoology – that there are large humanoid primates unknown to science living in remote parts of the world – may be difficult or impossible to prove and is likely false, but even if true it does not break any fundamental laws of science in the way that telepathy or the presence of humanoid aliens on earth does.

One important point she makes is the danger that ARIGs may present to the people they encounter in their investigations. In some of his reviews of books describing investigations into poltergeist phenomena, Peter Rogerson has expressed concern at the actions of certain unqualified investigators, with agendas of their own, getting involved with what are often very troubled people, and imposing their own interpretation onto the individual’s experience.

Hill points out, “most of the ghost investigators I’ve spoken with have stories of clients that are clearly in need of mental health assistance and do not have a solid grasp of reality”. This is particularly crucial with poltergeist cases, which often involve young and vulnerable people in a complex and sometimes troubling family dynamic. No ‘ghost-hunting’ group should be allowed within a mile of such cases.

Hill notes that many ARIGs “reject any intellectual approach” claiming that genuine solutions can only be found through active field-work, and dismissing any critical approach as “armchair research”, a criticism often heard in the fields of ufology and cryptozoology. She might also have added that any intellectual attempt to examine historical or sociological contexts to anomalous phenomena if often dismissed as “literary criticism”.

I have no doubt that this book will enrage many members of ARIGs, and as I said, at times the author does perhaps adopt the tone of someone setting foot in a rather alien environment and looking with surprise and puzzlement at the fauna she finds there.

Perhaps a deeper involvement in some of the research areas would have helped her get a rounder view, and be able to appreciate both the constructive work that has been done by some ARIGs – her focus on American groups has rather limited her view here - as well as understand the motivations of the people involved in such groups. Overall though, she raises many valid criticisms, which members of such research groups would do well to consider. – John Rimmer.


30 March 2018

STILL SEARCHING

Michael Shermer. Heavens on Earth, the Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality and Utopia. Robinson, 2018.

This book is in many ways fascinating, at one point ghoulish, and finishes with a chapter, which fails to persuade me in favour of the author’s views. The range of subject matter is widely divergent, with Shermer inter alia, exploring the pre-execution thoughts of those waiting on America’s death-row (the ghoulish bit), delving into the subject of brain consciousness, discussing briefly and to my mind inadequately the past life phenomena, and considering utopian and dystopian world views, with the latter topic allowing the author to stray into a discussion of modern politics.

Shermer’s underlying assumption, which he more or less makes clear in his concluding chapter is that this is it folks, what you see is what you get, and you should be happy with that, there is no afterlife. At no point in the book does he consider the possibility that science itself may be an inadequate tool to examine what may or may not lie beyond the grave. For him all religion is simply an invention to fill a longing in mankind for a sense of purpose, since the universe and its laws are all that exist, there is no 'beyond'. Life, we are told, is governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the hope for any individual beyond death is futile; we should be satisfied that we had the fleeting privilege of our mundane existence, and if there is any eternity on offer, it is for the species and not for the individual. Whilst the author appears to find comfort in this thought, it pretty obvious that most of humanity has not, to date, done so.

The possible problem in approaching such a subject with this mind-set is that there may be a tendency for the 'scientific' mind by default to try to debunk the myth, because this mind knows in advance that only one thing – matter - exists. In his discussion of consciousness in chapter 4, Shermer adopts the following view: “We know for a fact that measurable consciousness dies when the brain dies, so until proven otherwise, the default hypothesis should be that brains cause consciousness”.

But the argument can be put that consciousness is not to be equated with brain consciousness and is beyond both time and space, and per se cannot be measured, so that in fact one should not adopt such a default position.

An example of Shermer’s approach is in his all too brief mention of Ian Stephenson’s “massive 2,268 page two-volume work” on past lives, which is dismissed in one line: “one need not read deep into the literature to see this process as a classic case of patternicity - the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and random noise”. I am sorry but this will not do, and a far fuller examination of these past life phenomena is required here.

The book includes a chapter on progress and pessimism and another on utopias and dystopias. These, to my mind are entirely different topics to those of the afterlife and immortality, so that the reader may wonder why he is forced to digress into a discussion about Nietzsche and the growth of far-right politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and beyond (surely the domain of the professional historian rather than the scientist).

On the other hand the author’s chapter on progress and pessimism I felt to be the best in the book, even though (or perhaps because) it was not on the subject of the afterlife. Some really interesting detail is given about mankind’s overly pessimistic attitudes, which appears to have evolved from the necessity for early mankind to assume the worst (since one mistaken moment of optimism could have fatal consequences) and here science is able to measure data in order to evidence this; plenty of examples are given, such as the fact that “memory recall is better for bad behaviours, events and information than it is for good”.

If the author quite rightly points out that civilised man needs to take a less pessimistic approach to life, then I find him too pessimistic about immortality and the afterlife, and his concluding chapter in which he attempts to persuade me I should be satisfied with nothing after death leaves me cold. The oldest and unanswerable rebuttal of this argument is that science is unqualified to answer the question, it is simply a great unknown. The chapter raises more questions than it answers, for example various citations from poets and playwrights are included in which the word self or soul is used, but this begs for a debate about what we mean by theses terms. – Robin Carlile

24 March 2018

THE MAN WHO INVENTED SCIENCE

John Henry. Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Helped Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science, Icon Books, 2017

Knowledge is Power – reissued from 2002 as part of Icon Science’s 25th anniversary series on ‘groundbreaking moments in science history’ – is the perfect introduction to the life, work and legacy of Sir Francis Bacon, written by the ideal person for the job, John Henry being Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at Edinburgh University. His specialism is the relationship between science, magic and religion in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods - something crucial to a proper understanding of Bacon.

Although Bacon (1561-1626) didn’t make any great scientific discovery or come up with a new natural or physical law, he’s nevertheless regarded as the founder of modern science. This, Henry explains, is because he gave science its basic philosophy and guiding principles, setting out what it was for and how it should be done: gathering information about the natural world through systematic experimentation and objective analysis, with the aim of accumulating knowledge that will improve humankind’s lot. Bacon’s self-imposed, lifelong task was to reform natural philosophy, as the precursor to science was known. As Henry sums up, ‘Before Bacon there was no such thing as science in our modern sense of the word. After Bacon, Western Europe was set on a course of discovery and invention that was to result in a civilisation based on the power of science and technology. In a very real sense, therefore, Bacon invented modern science.’

But what will surprise most readers is that, as Henry demonstrates, Bacon’s major inspirations came not from natural philosophy, but from religion and magic.

From his strong religious beliefs, imparted by his Calvinist mother, Bacon drew his convictions that natural philosophy should be for the benefit of all humankind and that it was his Christian duty to help make it so. But more importantly, imbued with the apocalyptic, millenarian thinking that permeated his day, he believed that his reforms would actually help usher in the Second Coming and Day of Judgement. This notion – which seems downright weird today – derived from the then-accepted belief that Adam had had a complete knowledge of the natural world which was lost at the Fall. By recovering that knowledge, Bacon’s programme of reform would effectively reverse the Fall, thereby precipitating God’s Judgement. He made this clear in his writings, calling his programme the ‘Great Instauration’, meaning ‘restoration’, and relating it to apocalyptic Biblical prophecies such as those in the Book of Daniel.




When it comes to Bacon’s methods, as opposed to his motivation, Henry shows that he basically lifted them from the magical tradition of his time, which not only provided him with a major source of inspiration for his reforms but also with a model for what natural philosophy should be: ‘Bacon’s philosophical works show that he knew a great deal of magic, that he was a practitioner of some parts of the magical tradition, particularly alchemy, and that his own philosophy was heavily indebted to magic.’ Indeed, some of his writings paraphrase classic Renaissance occult philosophers such as Giambattista della Porta and Agrippa. (Probably wisely, Henry avoids the word ‘occult’ – he uses it only once, in its original meaning of ‘hidden’ - preferring ‘magical tradition’ or ‘natural magic tradition’.)

Henry places this in the context of the Renaissance revival of magic as a respectable field of enquiry, particularly as a result of the rediscovery of the Hermetic texts, which were believed to embody the wisdom of the most ancient times. He also shows that modern perceptions of the magic of the period as purely irrational and based on supernatural beliefs are wrong: Renaissance natural magic was an entirely rational system for exploring, understanding and utilising the properties of all things in nature.

Bacon drew from magic not only the notion that knowledge should be of practical use but, more significantly, the all-important experimental method. Practitioners of natural magic routinely employed experiment, most obviously in alchemy. Consequently, Henry calls the usual assertion that ‘science’ is simply an updated term for natural philosophy ‘highly misleading’: science was rather the combination of natural philosophy with the magical tradition.

Henry goes on to describe how later generations of science historians played down the influence of magic on Bacon, turning him into a scientist in their own image by selectively using his criticisms of the errors of certain magicians as evidence of his rejection of magic as a whole (as well as using a similar selectivity to ‘prove’ that Bacon was a secret atheist, despite his manifest religiosity).

Similarly, Henry criticises contemporary ‘cultural commentators and feminist historians’ for misrepresenting Bacon as promoting science as a patriarchal, capitalist endeavour that aims to dominate and exploit nature - ‘the anti-hero who embodies everything they despise about what they see as modern scientific attitudes’ – by shamelessly using selective and out-of-context quotations from Bacon’s work and ignoring those that show his true position.

So, as well as informing us about Bacon and the origins of science, the book also tells us much about how history is written, or rather rewritten.

On a personal note, the book made me realise that Lynn Picknett and I were over-harsh on Bacon in our The Forbidden Universe: The Occult Origins of Science and the Search for the Mind of God, in which we depicted him as a careerist who hid his occult leanings for the sake of preferment. In fact, Henry’s reconstruction of the man and his inspirations fits the theme of our book even more neatly.

The final chapters examine why Bacon’s ideas caught on, concluding that it was in many ways a fluke of history: he wrote at the right time. An early reason for interest in his ideas for the reform of natural philosophy was that they chimed with the apocalyptic expectations of his day. More significant for their longevity was, Henry argues, the growing antagonism between the Catholic and various Protestant Churches which, by co-opting different philosophies (Aristotelianism, Platonism, and so on) to justify their dogmas, had brought natural philosophy into disrepute. Bacon offered an objective approach, in which facts are interpreted by scholarly consensus and not an appeal to an ancient authority. It was this that led the Royal Society to embrace Baconianism, as well as attracting the admiration of Voltaire and the French Enlightenment philosophes - and the ‘ultimate endorsement’ of Newton – all of which sealed its success.

John Henry writes in a conversational, accessible style and is adept at explaining complex subjects and ideas simply but without giving any sense of dumbing down. Particularly impressive are his elucidations of aspects of the mindset of Bacon’s time – the ingrained religious thinking and the magical ideas - that are (in large part thanks to the success of his philosophy) completely alien to the modern reader.

Henry doesn’t shy away from discussion of the thornier philosophical questions, such as whether Bacon’s notion of complete objectivity in the gathering and analysis of data, without any preconceptions or bias, is truly workable in the real world (concluding that it isn’t, but that the aspiration to objectivity is what counts).

There’s a glossary and a useful further reading section – but, annoyingly, no index, which is my only negative about the book.

Although written to introduce Bacon to a general audience with no background in the history science (or magic), those with all levels of knowledge and interest, including academics, will learn something from Knowledge is Power, particularly from its placing of magic in its rightful position in Western intellectual history. I certainly did. -- Clive Prince



18 March 2018

COMIC TIMING

Francesco-Alessio Ursini, Adnan Mahmutovic and Frank Bramlett (Editors). Visions of the Future in Comics, International Perspectives. McFarland, 2017.

By far and away the main issue concerning 'comics' in the English-speaking world is that one word; comics. Comic without the plural 's' means amusing, with a whiff of the trite and inferior. It refers to the funny three or four-panelled short strips in newspapers, and children's publications such as the Beano and Dandy in the UK. Many will also associate American superhero periodicals with the 'c' word, too. 'Serious' data depicted in this form, however, is nothing new to us. Two-dimensional art, imparting what the artists and their social superiors regarded as essential information about their world, is where all this started. 

From the Lascaux cave paintings in the Dordogne to the stone reliefs in Uruk, Mesopotamia; from Egyptian murals to Greek friezes, art depicting one event after another has come down to us in a stunning and impressive fashion, to impart to the viewer the greatness of their peoples and, significantly, the importance of the events depicted. The writer and artist Scott McCloud noted the discrepancy of the momentousness of the subject matter and the similarity in the method of disseminating it to modern-day comics. He came up with the term 'sequential art' in response, thereby enabling the reader to further examine the nature of current 'comic' art with a more objective eye. Furthermore, when a whole series of comics are published together in one volume, we get the graphic novel, which certainly sounds more portentous and worthy of academic study.

The editors are all scholars; "Francesco-Alessio Ursini is a linguist working on universal semantic typology and a comics scholar working on cross-cultural aspects of narratives in comics. He lives in Sweden. Adnan Mahmutovic is a Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Stockholm University. Frank Bramlett is a Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His research focuses predominantly on the linguistic nature of comics and he serves on the editorial board of Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society." – courtesy of the book's Amazon page.

The sections that the book is divided into cover various interpretations of how the future may be seen. Part 1: Future-Formal, looks at the nature of time in general, as well as that of the future itself. Part 2: Future-Past and Future-Present concerns itself with how the past affects the future within the medium of the comic strip. Part 3: Future-Culture examines how comics cross over into films, our concerns with ageing, how our individual futures are shaped and more about our personal worries for the future. Returning to Part 1, the doyen of comic writers, Alan Moore, whose stories single-handedly almost seem to have resulted in the comic coming-of-age, replacing wisecracking, throwaway comments with introspection and drama, has both his From Hell and V for Vendetta laid out for inspection. 

From Hell is Moore's time-spanning fable about the Ripper murders as ritual, changing the nature of tomorrow. This was in turn influenced greatly by the poet and filmmaker Iain Sinclair's book-length poem Lud Heat, concerning lines of force laid out across London, mostly by the work of the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. V for Vendetta is about a future fascist British state, where anything outside of a tight view of Britishness is banned, and its downfall mainly due to the actions of one determined and resourceful rebel, whose essence was created in the concentration camps of that state, along with the medical experimentation he underwent whilst incarcerated. "The Future in Comics" is not all beer and skittles. 'Dystopian' is very much the zeitgeist, not just in comics but in most quotidian artistic depiction.

This, then, is an academic look at a genre that many might dismiss as a frivolous indulgence. The writers treat this medium as a valid form of communication, and their work is set out as such. For the most part it is laid out in as plain English as possible, and whilst a few areas contain jargon words  these are, mercifully, kept to a minimum, thus enabling the less academically-minded to mostly access fascinating concepts from what has hitherto been an area that was less explored than the novel or the painting. The articles themselves supply lists of works referenced. The book includes short notes about the contributors, and there is an index, which cannot always be taken for granted these days. A person who would appreciate insightful essays into both the nature of comics today and the nature of time itself will welcome this volume. -- Trevor Pyne.

14 March 2018

ENCHANTING MYTHS

Jason A. Josephson-Storm. The Myth of Disenchantment - Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences. The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

The key thought behind this scholarly work is the meaning and significance of 'disenchantment' (German: Entzauberung) in social science and Western intellectual culture. Max Weber (1864 - 1920), an influential German philosopher and one of the founders of 'sociology' as a new academic discipline, coined the term to describe the character of the secularised modern world where the magic and myth pertaining to traditional values had, seemingly, all but disappeared and had been subsumed by pure rationalism and intellect. Josephson-Storm exhaustively traces the development of Western thought on this subject through history to the present time, and convincingly argues that the magic never really went away after all.

As a young Associate Professor of Philosophy, the author displays impressive erudition in tackling what is, by any standards, a massive undertaking. While the underlying theme is eminently simple and understandable, some of the philosophical arguments become immensely complex. This book is a serious academic work written by a scholar in the process of building a reputation, and it shows. Yet he reveals a capacity for lightness of touch in his Preface and Introduction to show some of his own personality and background.

We learn that the inspiration for this book came to him while he was in Japan on a writing research project in March 2011. He happened to be in a tattoo parlour in Kyoto, having some finishing touches done, when the news came over the television about the massive earthquake and tsunami that had hit the Tohoku region. As the disaster unfolded, the conversation that ensued between those present covered topics such as protective talismans, ghostly premonitions, and whether Japan was more 'spiritual' than the West. Realising that his research project might reinforce cliches about the 'mystical Orient', he decided to expand his project by studying in depth the linkage between modernisation and enchantment in Europe and America.

His Introduction opens promisingly with a graphic description of a seance in 1907 attended by one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century, Marie Curie (1867 - 1934). The spirit medium was Eusapia Palladino (1854 - 1918) who convinced many seekers with astonishing displays of phenomena but was eventually shown to be a fraud. Curie's presence was not her first attendance, as she and her husband Pierre (1859 - 1906) had been researching psychic phenomena for some time.

Tragically, Pierre was killed instantly in 1906 when he slipped on a pavement in the rain and fell under a cart which crushed his head. The Curies had both been researching invisible energies such as magnetism, electrical fields and, of course, radioactivity, for which they had been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. In a letter written shortly before his death, Pierre mentioned that he and Marie had attended several seances with Eusapia Palladino. He reported that "these phenomena really exist and it is no longer possible for me to deny them". It is no wonder that Marie might have hoped for a communication 'from the other side', but what is most interesting is that both of these leading scientists believed in spiritual energy as a higher form of the invisible physical energies they were researching.

Presenting himself as a disciple of critical theory, the author refers to a key text in Dialectic of Enlightenment, a monumental work by Horkheimer and Adorno of the Frankfurt School published in 1944: ''Enlightenment's program was the disenchantment of the world." In other words, the concept of a 'clockwork universe' arose with mathematical physics and other hard sciences. Josephson-Storm says: "From my perspective, this particular world picture is a myth insofar as it has taken on its own narrative force and bears little relationship to the status of physics in any given moment."

While finding Dialectic intensely useful, the author considers it "a late expression of an old myth" that rests on a set of basically mythical binaries (myth/enlightenment, nature/human) while asserting that myth and magic had been lost, on the assumption that reason had triumphed. "Yet this event never occurred. It too is a myth". Perhaps anxious that the reader might not get his gist, he goes further: "Let me put this differently. What I am saying is that not only is myth myth; not only is the opposition to myth myth; but the recognition of the opposition to myth as myth is itself myth." We might wish that he had put it differently. Does not reading, and re-reading, that sentence leave you feeling somewhat, well, miffed? A surfeit of myths, I would say. One must allow the odd tortuous sentence in a serious philosophical work such as this, and it may even be an attempt at humour.




Isaac Newton, a pivotal figure for this study, straddled the world of mathematical physics while yet being, more privately, an alchemist and mystic. Apart from his great knowledge he showed wisdom when he said: "Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity of things." That is indeed the ideal, but philosophical thought and argument always have a tendency to a prolix style of writing. Take this sentence from the book under review as an example: "According to the set of augmentation and periodization that loosely gets clustered under the name of 'postmodernism', perhaps postmodernism has meant the return of irrationality."

However, it has to be said this book rewards time and effort in reading the text carefully for many gems of knowledge and historical fact in the lives of great men who were pioneers of human intellectual and social evolution. All of the great thinkers are here, such as Paracelsus, physician and alchemist, Giordano Bruno, cosmological theorist, Francis Bacon, founder of the scientific method, Jakob Boehme, a mystic with a profound vision of God, and Rene Descartes "whose bifurcation of mind and matter relegated the physical world to mere extension".

The French philosophes receive a good deal of attention, in particular Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784) a prominent figure of the Enlightenment and co-founder of the Encyclopedie. Diderot dismissed those non-rational thinkers such as Paracelsus and Boehme as theosophes, although he did find some redeeming qualities in Paracelsus. It appears that anything that could not be comprehended by the rational mind was unacceptable to those purist philosophes. Diderot is most interesting because of his reputation as 'the first of the atheists', yet he still evinced a sense of wonder at natural phenomena displaying a kind of divine intelligence and order. Furthermore, he had studied in his youth with a known alchemist and had read magical texts with interest.

German philosophy and culture of the 18th and 19th centuries clearly had a passion for mythology. One need look no further than the Brothers Grimm, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche and later Martin Heidegger for evidence of the 'longing for myth'. This kind of mythology was romantic, nostalgic and based on past glories such as Ancient Greece, Rome and Teutonic history. Later German philosophers called for a new mythology, without defining exactly what it should be other than something arising from a future generation. As Josephson-Storm rightly points out, the word 'myth' usually implies "embellishment if not outright falsehood".

Friedrich Nietzsche
This is where the author seems to be claiming a new insight: "What later scholars have typically missed is that the real myth was not in their proposed solutions: it was not Orientalized reconstructions of Aryan mythology nor Teutonic revivals. Its core was the very idea that, as Schlegel stated, 'we have no mythology'". To elaborate what this actually means, Josephson-Storm gives us the following concise explanation: "In a nutshell, the myth born from this philosophical conjuncture was an anti-myth, a myth that described itself in terms of longing, absence and mythlessness. Its paradox is that only by being a myth that there was no myth could its status as myth go unnoticed and hence not be demystified. It was a myth in search of a myth. Insofar as this myth is still our myth - or at least an animating narrative across many sectors of modern society - their project worked."

The main point he is making in this section is that "the myth of disenchantment" was born and found expression in 19th century Germany, and then spread to other developed countries, especially Britain and France. Was it not Nietzsche who became famous for the quotation "God is dead"? It did not mean that there was a creator God who had died at some point. Christianity had lost its grip, and in The Will to Power Nietzsche gloomily predicted the advent of nihilism. So it proved as the whole of Europe was plunged into the Great War, followed by Communism, Nazism, and Nationalism.

At the same time, there was an occult revival, manifested in leading figures such as Helena Blavatsky who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, and Eliphas Levi. A most important and influential book was published by James Frazer in 1890: The Golden Bough. Josephson-Storm devotes a whole chapter to this work, which reveals ancient origins of religions as fertility cults, human sacrifice, and a dying king or god. Aleister Crowley, the most outstanding occult figure of the period, drew a great deal of his ideas from Frazer's book. Crowley also rightly gets a whole chapter to himself and his work, reflecting the significance of the mission he had set himself: nothing less than to revive true 'Magick' and to be the messiah of the new age.

Crowley's definition of Magick was: 'The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.' Finding one's true will, or one's place and purpose in the universe, was the key. He proposed that Magick was cutting-edge science and future-focused, based on the power of the mind over matter and energy. Quantum mechanics, with the 'observer effect', shows the scientific validity of magical philosophy, but one must never think it is all intellect. I like this quotation of Crowley: "The universe is a phenomenon of love under will, a mystic and poetic creation, and the intellect only stands to it as mere scansion does to poetry."

The Myth of Disenchantment is a most stimulating and informative book that covers much more than its title alone suggests. Professor Storm, as he likes to be addressed by polite students, is to be congratulated for his great work of collating and analysing so much material on a complex subject. He admits in his final words that he does not come down on either side in this debate. His point is that the extremes of both modes transform into their opposite. It is this duality of opposites and polarities that is most fascinating. Might this be exactly the reason why we humans have two hemispheres in our brains? -- Kevin Murphy

If you have any comments or questions about the book, leave them in the Comments below and Prof. Storm will reply.