Thursday, May 27, 2010
Patrick Harpur's Daimonic Reality
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.)