Thursday, May 27, 2010
Several years ago I came across an amazing little book called Daimonic Reality by an Irish writer named Patrick Harpur.
In Daimonic Reality, Harpur proposes that paranormal shapeshifting creatures do actually exist, and that they simultaneously inhabit both physical and spiritual realms, shifting back and forth between these realms at will.
Encountering one of these creatures is by definition a Big Deal.
Encounters with shapeshifters like Bigfoot, aliens, huge black cats, werewolves, and other paranormal entities are distinguished from sightings of ordinary animals by the intensely emotional quality of the experience, which can be so huge as to be disorient the experiencer for years.
Typically the person who encounters such a creature is deeply changed as a result. What's more, specific kinds of creatures have long running mythic associations with specific kinds of changes.
Harpur's point is that psychologizing strange phenomena in no way explains them; it simply retells a story from a perspective that makes less sense than the standard one used by almost every other culture except our own: Namely, something actually happened.
The word daimon actually comes from a Greek term meaning something like 'spirit of place.' Daimons were not the 'demons' of contemporary Christian lore, but much, much older entities that pagan peoples recognized as being associated with actual locations or natural landmarks.
Thus werewolves live in the deep woods, aliens descend from the sky, faeries disappear into circles of rocks, sea serpents inhabit lonely landlocked lakes, and trolls guard crossings, bridges, and borders.
Daimonic Reality is still one of my all-time favorite books on the paranormal, because it strikes me as being the simple truth of the matter. The book cuts through the endless annoying debate over whether paranormal creatures are material or psychological in nature, whether they are 'real' or 'imaginary'.
Harpur's answer is, "Both!"
It's a hard answer for most of us to get our heads around, and yet it instantly makes sense of the stories and firsthand accounts, which almost always are profound and unambiguous. Witnesses not only saw something real, it was so incredibly real and so memorable they tell the story for the rest of their lives.
I think that contemporary culture needs these stories so much. The created world is a mysterious living entity with a soul and a consciousness, and it seems to me that devaluing direct experience of its sentience bleeds life of color and meaning. Something goes missing when every damned thing comes with a 'rational explanation'.
Three words! Occam's razor, you know?
In a similar book, The Terror that Comes in the Night, folklorist David Hufford recounts his research on the 'Old hag' phenomenon which today goes by the more familiar term sleep paralysis, and in medevial times was known as an incubus or succubus.
Hufford very methodically and rationally comes to the conclusion that this specifc bit of folklore is grounded in an actual experience. We may not know the nature of the experience. But that doesn't make it less 'real'.
In other words, just because we have folk tales that are cross-culturally consistent, and just because an experience has a physical and perceptual component, there is absolutely no basis for concluding that something 'real' is not actually happening to people who have the encounter. 'Brain chemistry' explanations are non-explanations. They are philosophically bankrupt.
Hufford's book made groundbreaking and risky claims, but his work and his perspective are now widely accepted as valid. The book is very readable, though maybe not as much fun as Harpur's.
I personally believe we need our 'damned things' way more than we need rational explanations for them. We need our daimons. We need to encounter and respect mystery. Such encounters remind us that the world is not composed of dead matter, and we are not located in the dead center of it.
I'm currently halfway through Patrick Harpur's new book, The Philosopher's Secret Fire, and that one is pretty good too.
When I finish it, I promise to come back and share the secret.
(At least, I promise to come back.)
Sunday, May 23, 2010
While the crowd is 'looking over there' the magician does something 'over here' and presto! An object appears or disappears in a seemingly impossible fashion and everyone has a bit of fun being amazed and amused.
Before the Age of Reason, however, such tricks were accepted as a part of daily life. Pranks of altered consciousness were played on ordinary humans by faeries and household sprites, by witches and sorcerers, by ghosts and demons, and by all manner of other supernatural forces.
Two specific types of trick--the glamour and the pishogue--were especially common and were regularly discussed.
A pishogue is when someone or something casts a spell over a person that confuses or changes how that person perceives an object. A glamour, by contrast, is when the spell is cast over the object itself in order to change how it appears or even to make it disappear entirely (or cause it to become invisible).
Faeries were said to be especially skilled in the art of pishogue. Faeries could easily alter human perception to make people see whatever they wanted them to see, and could appear to humans in whatever form they wished. (Many writers versed in faery lore believe that today's 'aliens' are actually the same faery folk our ancestors talked about as a matter of course.)
Faeries are notoriously private and don't appreciate human nosiness into their affairs. Their skill at deception and the alteration of human consciousness remain legendary to this day.
Glamours were more often cast by witches or sorcerers. The Malleus Malleficarum, the infamous 15th century text that allowed the Church to burn and torture thousands of women accused of witchcraft, goes into great detail on the matter of the use of glamours, especially in regard to stealing the male member or causing it to disappear altogether:
f his exterior sense, such as sight or touch, can he perceive that it is present."
It's easy to look at a piece of text like this one and conclude that the author must have been speaking metaphorically, but the quote is actually pretty clear: It says plainly that the guy whose dick has been glamoured off isn't dealing with impotence or a mere loss of confidence. He literally can't see a dick where once a dick used to plainly obvious.
Witches also cast glamours to make themselves appear to be beautiful when in reality they were hideously ugly or deformed. This is where we get the modern usage of the word 'glamour' as having something to do with sexy women's clothes and the proper make up and attitude. It's important to point out, however, that nothing that pedestrian was meant by the original term. Today's 'glamour' is a very watered down, tame version of the original concept.
It's odd how the everyday practice of magic has lost so much credence even though we absolutely know magic exists and that it is a powerful, amazing art. It's almost as if science has cast its own glamour over the notion of glamour itself.
Illusionists like David Copperfield successfully make large buildings disappear and Chris Angel hovers in midair, and we accept all these feats easily as long as it is a form of entertainment. We've given our consent, asked to be amazed, suspended our disbelief, and are happy when we get our wish.
Yet when we read defunct texts from the prescientific era we laugh off such claims as simple ignorance and superstition--as though it would be impossible to fool anyone who hadn't given advance consent. We are not all that comfortable with the idea that magic can be used against us when we don't want it, or when its aim is something other than entertaining games and fun. We know on some level that it can be used this way and is used this way, but we don't like it so we pretend it's all impossible.
The Church wasn't all that comfortable with that idea either. They responded rather badly.
Basic principles of magic such as pishogue and glamour are still used today by the press, by Hollywood, by the government, by amateur and professional hypnotists, by psychotherapists, and most especially by the advertising industry. This is just a short list of the open uses of pishogue and glamour. Think of the art of 'spin' and how big a part of all our lives that art really is.
When I read accounts from alien abductees I often wonder about covert uses of these techniques.
Just because the Church reacted in a totally batshit manner to accusations of magic 500 years ago doesn't mean magic isn't real and isn't still being practiced today by those who know how.
We don't really need to roast anybody.
But it is food for thought.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Today's science is far ahead of what most of us imagine, and our educational system is so lame that most of us aren't even capable of imagining it.
Most scientists would still agree that science is a way of knowing the world that is based on reason and logic. Science is a methodology grounded in doubt.
Scientists must test their ideas through experimentation, and these experiments must be replicated by other scientists. Even then, science departments at major universities hammer at facts and theories just to see if they will break.
That kind of constant challenge is a good thing: It is meant to keep theories and information accurate, to keep inquiry democratic, and to keep researchers on their toes.
The attack on science by today's political right is disturbing on many levels, but perhaps the most disturbing thing about such attacks is that they misunderstand what science is and then offer up something even worse: bad religion.
This is often the case with New Age critiques of science too. Just because you can't understand quantuum physics that doesn't mean you are free to make it all up in your spare time and use it as evidence that your daily conversations with alien superbeings are 'real'--whatever 'real' means.
That approach is just so wrong on so many levels that it would take a separate essay to list them all.
Science is neither as bad nor as good as its press. It's a tool, period, and if you want to learn to use it effectively you must be trained in the craft. Used well, science is a really powerful tool. But it isn't always the right tool and it can't account for all phenomena.
Science always comes up in discussions of the paranormal in this way, as if it were the only portal into any examination of the unknown, as in, "Is there any scientific evidence for it?" or "Can it be proved by science?"
The right answer is often, "Who cares?"
Most paranormal phenomena lie outside the realm of science, in the shadows science wants to avoid--in traditions of magic and imagination, in methods of concealment and deception, in defunct inner disciplines of transformation, in embodied narratives like myth and folklore that see information in emotion, pattern, and dreams.
Science competed fiercely with traditions of alchemy and magic in the 17th and 18th centuries and won. But science went too far in declaring victory. Science was a sore winner.
The fact that today we hear the word 'imagination' as nearly synonymous with 'falsehood' shows how far the mark was overshot. The degradation of imagination is a distortion, and a serious one. It does real violence to the human race and is as limiting in its own way as any religious dogma.
Part of scientific overkill was grounded in political rebellion against the Church, which in that era was usually the same entity as the State in most parts of the world, and which had become crushing, unjust, and damaging to the human spirit.
But another part of the overkill was a kind of covering over of basic legitimacy in the older traditions. If you want to be the new boss, you have to make the old boss look bad--even the parts of his performance that aren't bad at all, even the parts that are valuable.
Something valuable was definitely lost in transition, and now science seems always to be nervously looking over its shoulder, always waiting for something to jump out of the shadows and shout "Boo!"
Modern Western culture is the ONLY culture in mankind's history that has no respected tradition that includes spirits, energies, big stories, magic, and other paranormal phenomena. Not only do we not have such a tradition, science feels the need to make fun of people who seek to resurrect one.
Why the defensiveness?
A recent batch of scientific experiments revealed that when people had to make decisions based on logic alone, they were soon crippled with confusion. They could not function at all. Subjects would spend hours, days, deciding what to eat for lunch.
It turns out emotion precedes logic and guides it.
Emotion contains real information, necessary information that grounds us and embeds us functionally in our surroundings. The notion of the detached, rational observer (an 18th century notion, by the way), is a fiction, a conceit that makes certain kinds of experimentation easier--and yet it is still widely touted as both possible and superior and, worst of all, the only legitimate way to relate to matter, the only sensible way to be in and of the world. Detached. Separate. Examining.
I submit that science was never big enough, good enough or true enough to be a guiding philosophical principle. Trying to make it so is like declaring your blender is God. Declare that function all you like. It's still putting an awfully heavy burden on your blender. Why not just use the thing to make smoothies, which is what it was designed to do? Why not let science just be science: an epistemological tool among many--good for some tasks, bad for others.
Deepak Chopra was on TV last night promoting his book about the Shadow of each individual human personality--about how the part of us we push away, deny, and repress actually enriches each of us and makes us who were are, makes us whole people with unique contributions--if we can only acknowledge and embrace it.
The same could be said culturally. The Shadow of science is not a garbage can. It's worth exploring in a serious, thoughtful fashion. That doesn't mean every weird idea that comes down the pike is as valid as the next. But it does mean that, as Shakespeare said in the play Hamlet,
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Thursday, May 6, 2010
For about a year before the collapse of the Silver Bridge, hundreds of sightings of a creature that later came to be known as the Mothman came to the attention of the Mason county police department. The sightings are widely believed to have been warnings of the bridge disaster. To this day legend has it that the Mothman shows up just before a major catastrophe.
Paranormal investigator and professional magician John A Keel collected what he claimed to be a large quantity of first hand accounts of Mothman encounters, then published them in his book The Mothman Prophecies. In 2002 Keel's book was made into a seriously disturbing movie by the same name starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Debra Messing, and Will Patton.
Keel's views on the Mothman are unique and his chronicle controversial. Keel believed that the Mothman encounters were directly related to a rash of UFO sightings occurring in the Mason County area for over a year before the collapse of Silver Bridge.
Keel spent most of his life studying the strong connections between UFO sightings, paranormal phenomena, stage magic, and religious magic, and often implied that all of these were interrelated in a complex fashion that was not easily accessible to the Western mind.
Fortean Times writers made him especially aware of the power of concealment and trickery in the world of occult phenomena and in the problem of studying the occult.
At the same time, Keel believed--in fact, knew first hand--that worlds beyond this one do indeed exist and that through meditation and rigorous training some human beings are able to access and use these other worlds--if the other worlds didn't use them first. Keel was never convinced of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis regarding alien beings and UFOs, and maintained that they were more likely a modern expression of the same forces behind 19th Century Spirtualism. He understood the trickster dimension to these phenomena very well.
Keel and his writer friends were adventurers and pranksters themselves, and often pranked each other. Keel's friend Gray Davis, who also wrote popular articles and books about the paranormal, was famous for setting up elaborate and deliberate hoaxes, often to tease his fringe journalism colleagues.
After the publication of Keel's The Mothman Prophecies, Gray Davis told the Skeptical Inquirer that Keel had written the Mothman accounts up quite differently in personal letters than he did in the published book, suggesting that the information presented in the book was therefore suspect. It is almost impossible to assess the motives behind Davis's public charge against Keel.
Superficially it would seem that Davis clearly intended to impugn Keel's claims about the Mothman. On the other hand, knowing Davis's love of pranking, it is also quite possible that Keel did not disclose everything to him or did not disclose it honestly, or that Davis's Skeptical Inquirer article was itself meant to gig Keel just for laughs.
Davis himself was a rather suspect character, and he reveled in this side of his personality.
Whatever the case, The Mothman Prophecies is a chilling tale that anyone who has ever picked up a Ouija Board will recognize as at least partially true. Mothman entities differ from those smaller forces attached to a Ouija only in strength and level of terror.
Interestingly, Mothman encounters also frequently tended to leave physical aftereffects consistent with UFO experiences--red eyes, extreme fatigue, altered states of consciousness, psychic ability, strange phone calls made up of static or unrecognizable languages, and the likelihood of further contact. Keel claimed to have extended personal contact by phone with the Mothman, who he said would return and possess those who had seen him. The humans thus possessed had no recollection of these conversations, even though Keel was able to record and capture them.
Mothman sightings and connections have continued unabated since the Point Pleasant Silver Bridge incident in 1967, both around Point Pleasant and in other locations. Several investigators who felt that they were closing in on an explanation for the experiences met with violent accidents or deaths. For a full catalogue, check out Loren Coleman's Mothman Death List.