11.12.17

THE WITCH REPORT

Gordon Napier. Maleficarum: Witchcraft and Witch Hunting in the West. Amberley, 2017.

"There is a modern saying that the greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist. One might well wonder whether an equally great trick of his was to convince the authorities that a witch cult existed, causing churchmen and jurists to torture and kill fellow Christians whom they falsely suspected of satanic witchcraft." So says author Gordon Napier in his Preface, setting the tone nicely.

Here we have a book by an academic, though apparently not specifically for an academic audience, which approaches the whole vexed subject of historical western witchcraft with thought and, seemingly, a subdued but – in my view - largely healthy scepticism. But not entirely…

Perhaps Napier’s greatest triumph lies in his use of language – after all the most immediate link between author and reader. He is direct, concise and accessible. (There’s only one use of ‘trope’ in the entire book, which is otherwise mostly innocent of ‘memes’ and other irritating trendy terminology.)

We are taken, often meticulously, through the shocking history of witch-hunting (and duly disabused of the usual mistakes: the pinnacle of this reign of terror was not in medieval times, but much later, when the west was tipping over into the Enlightenment, for example).

And shocking it was, those in charge of the tortures and executions – basically, the Church – descending to levels of depravity that might even turn the stomachs of luminaries of the so-called Islamic State. Or more likely, would provide inspiration for yet more imaginative crimes against humanity.

Both alleged witches and heretics found themselves the target of the religious establishment – not the most hopeful situation. No one was safe, not even the most vulnerable members of the community. As Napier writes: "When conventional preaching failed to eradicate heresy, the Inquisition adopted a more aggressive way of doing things. If a frail old lady with hours to live was denounced for heresy, these Inquisitors apparently thought nothing of having her burned in public tied to the bed she was too weak to leave."

JUNIUS'S LETTER TO HIS DAUGHTER
Under the Inquisition, the accused had no right to appeal. Huge numbers were summoned to be tried, almost all imprisoned and "put under pressure to name fellow heretics". We see in the later case of Johannes Junius, the mayor of Bamberg, Germany, how the terrible pressure caused by torture can very swiftly rob a human being of their normal morals. Put to the thumbscrews and other devices of terror and agony repeatedly, this normally honourable man invented all sorts of highly-embroidered stories of cavortings with demons that involved his neighbours. As he managed to write to his daughter, "… whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and – God pity him – bethinks him of something." Then, heartrendingly, Junius wrote: "Dear child, six have confessed against me at once [he names them] – all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged my forgiveness in God’s name before they were executed… They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say it, just as I myself was…"

The author insists Junius was executed with a sword – a great mercy as he was a man of some social standing, being the mayor – but most sources have him being publicly burnt. His wife had already died in the flames. No one knows whether his daughter ever received his letters, though it seems unlikely as they were found with his trial records, implying they had been intercepted. One can only hope she managed to escape.

At the height of the witch hysteria, even the dead were exhumed and their bones publicly burnt. (They, of course, were the lucky ones.) Even this caused great suffering to the living, because their surviving families could be imprisoned – or worse – and in any case most were given hefty fines. Perhaps it goes without saying that anyone accused of witchcraft or heresy in these courts had all their money and property confiscated. Witch-hunting, apart from all other considerations, was big business.

It was also the near-perfect excuse to rid yourself of your enemies. Just breathe their names to the Inquisition or the local court and their terrible suffering was nearly as good as done – and all, horribly, terminally within the law. There was, however, a potential problem. As we saw with the case of poor Herr Junius, reporting people to be in league with the devil almost always had a domino effect, especially when torture was applied. All too often, the accusers became the accused. What went around, came around. And usually this involved appalling agony.

The euphemisms made it worse. Napier notes that, "… there was general support for 'relaxing' the accused to the 'secular arm', the Inquisition’s euphemism for handing condemned prisoners to secular authorities, usually for execution by burning at the stake." The author adds drily, "(One struggles to think of a less relaxing experience.)" Being relaxed by the Inquisition sounds rather akin to being massaged by the Gestapo.

The author does a good job of alerting us to the facts, as opposed to the assumptions, though sometimes he seems to miss the point. For example, while it is true to say that the accused were not all toothless hags from the bottom of the social pile – Herr Junius was a comfortably-off pillar of his community, after all – even the most cursory glance at Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches, the notorious witch-hunting manual by Kramer and Sprenger) reveals a hatred and fear of women that drove much of the witch-hunting mentality. That can’t simply be ignored or sidelined, but doesn’t figure much here.

In fact, given the title of this book, surely we could have had more from the Malleus: Kramer and Sprenger’s sick and twisted minds are there in every word. Little explanation would have been necessary.

Still, we are carried – often rather too quickly – through all the classic cases, including Salem and the Pendle witches, through the anti-witch fixation of King James and the depredations of the Witchfinder General. We learn that, while Germany killed the most ‘witches’ – around 20,000, decimating whole swathes of the population - Ireland was virtually free of such persecutions.

Well-written and engaging though most of this book undoubtedly is, it has some very irritating traits. For example, topics and people are mentioned briefly but only properly introduced – described in context – later, sometimes much later, such as Agrippa and the nuns of Loudun. By the time you get to any detail, you’ve forgotten what was said about them earlier, in passing.

Sometimes you never get any serious information, even about key people. Though Aleister Crowley gets a name check occasionally in the sections about modern Satanism, you search in vain for a single other mention. If you were unacquainted with him, you’d simply be baffled – or buy someone else’s book, of course.

(And it’s a bit poor that the usual dismissal of Crowley’s apparently ragingly hedonistic axiom: ‘Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law’ is given without the quintessential riders: ‘Love under Law. Love under Will.’ This changes the implications somewhat radically.)

Also, somewhat mystifyingly, Alex and Maxine Saunders – ‘King and Queen of the Witches’ of the 60s and 70s – get precisely one line, alerting us to the fact they existed. And that’s it. Maxine Saunders is still around, so if Napier had been desperate for information, he could have interviewed her.

On the other hand, sensationalist author Dennis Wheatley gets a whole page, though he, too, is missing from the index.

Something that does feature in it, however, appears at the very end of a chapter, and reads in its entirety: "… leaving aside recent interest in blood-splashed 'Spirit Cooking' events…" Indeed, the subject is duly left aside. I would have liked to know more – or anything, really. (Somehow I doubt ‘spirit cooking’ is a recipe book for paraffin burners.) Clearly, though, this book isn’t going to enlighten me.

But surely the most perplexing example of this infuriating delayed-explanation syndrome concerns the Malleus Maleficarum, which after all gives the book its title. It is mentioned in passing on page 46 but only properly discussed a full 25 pages later, presumably because the author assumes his readers will already be familiar with it. (In which case, do they need to consult this book at all?) And it is only when that witch-hunting manual is introduced that we discover what the maleficarum of the title means (‘concerning witches’). It might have been more useful in the otherwise interesting enough Preface.

Please note I’m not getting drawn into an argument about the Templars, though I seriously challenge Napier’s line about their involvement with heresy. Basically, he quotes the fashionable line that there was none. In fact, not so. (A couple of clues: Johannitism, learned from the Mandaeans in the Middle East, but practised only by the Templar inner circle, not the rank and file.)

Napier clearly doesn’t believe in the paranormal, so any ‘real’ witches – as opposed to those just picked on out of malice or more or less randomly – must, he suggests, have suffered from psychosis. They probably did, but one does wonder sometimes if, in a world where even agnosticism wasn’t even considered to be an option, but where Christ’s Church did such terrible things to the innocent, might some people think genuinely siding with Satan was the only sane alternative? If the followers of the ‘Good’ behaved like devils, perhaps, no doubt they thought, it made sense to align oneself with the other lot. (This is pretty much the rationale of many modern Satanists, though their insistence on ignoring or even seeking to destroy ‘useless’ members of society, such as the vulnerable, might remove any vague sympathy one might feel for their basic ethos.)

Napier writes from a very twenty-first century perspective, which disallows any consideration of what the people of the day suffered spiritually. If you were an innocent and devoted Christian, but were dragged into the mire of the witch hunters, not only would you suffer in this life but, you were repeatedly informed, your soul would also be damned in the next. Not only would you suffer the pains of Hell for all eternity, you would also be removed from the love of the Christ you genuinely worshipped. This was real to them. Not only were these thousands upon thousands of good Christians hideously tormented by physical torture and the worst possible death at the stake, but they were removed from the possibility of all hope for the life to come. In this way, they were tortured psychologically, even spiritually, beyond imagining. That whole side of the witch-hunts is almost entirely missing from this book, a sad failure to truly engage with the real people behind the stories. – Lynn Picknett

6.12.17

HOLY DEATH

Tracey Rollin. Santa Muerte. The History, Rituals and Magic of Our Lady of Holy Death. Weiser Books,  2017.

How-to-do-it books on magic, almost unobtainable a generation ago, are a growth industry. Those in English, at least, are rooted in the practices of the Golden Dawn and Wicca, even when some quite different slant is ostensibly given to them, such as ‘Practical Egyptian Magic’.

The present volume is a fusion of this modern British magic with Latin American practice. The popularity of saints in Catholic countries is partly due to their accessibility: during a Catholic upbringing, for instance, one may see “their statues, their prayer cards, and their sacred medals every day”, whereas God has no image, or only one of “an old man wearing a snowy white robe”. Now, it is a curious fact that though the Catholic Church recognises a huge number of saints, there are numerous others, known as ‘folk saints’ whom they do not condone. Some of these are nevertheless very popular. Santa Muerte, “Holy Death”, typically depicted as “a female skeleton wearing an elaborate black silk wedding dress”, is actually condemned by them.

This mistrust is not only due to the fact that she is a reminder of mortality, and the suspicion that she may be a crypto-survival of the Aztec Goddess Mictecuahuatl, but because she is a popular object of veneration among drug traffickers on the US-Mexican border. While raiding a cartel compound in New Mexico, “agents found an entire room turned into a temple dedicated to the worship of Santa Muerte”. The FBI terms her a “narco-saint”, and “blames her cults for shocking acts of violence and ritual slayings”.

Rollin, you may be relieved to learn, does not advocate such things. She gives detailed instructions on how to prepare an altar to Santa Muerte and make offerings to her – the saint particularly likes Florida Water, which is not a brand name, but a scent formula first produced in 1808 – and the application of traditional Catholic items of worship, such as candles and rosaries, combined with Golden Dawn practices such as the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.

Santa Muerte is one of those saints whom you can petition for almost anything. She has seven aspects related to colours, Nina Blanca, ‘White Girl’, Nina Violeta, ‘Purple Girl’, and those of Blue, Golden, Red, Green, and Black. Though Rollin does not mention it, these are also the seven tinctures of heraldry, and are astrologically associated with the planets, in that same order. Thus, Nina Roja, the Red Girl, who is thereby linked to Mars, is “fiery and passionate”. Interestingly, “A common folk spell to ensure that a husband remains faithful is to soak a white cord in the couple’s combined sexual fluids and then to wrap it around the base of a red Santa Muerte statue.” Nina Verde, Green Girl, governs legal matters, and is accordingly called upon by criminals and police officers alike. Nina Negra, the Black Girl, who would correspond to Saturn, and is called ‘The Mother of Tears’, unlike the others has the aspects you would expect of a Death figure.

The only problem for anyone wishing to join the ranks of her worshippers is that images of her, readily available in grocery stores in New Mexico, may be hard to come by in Britain, or elsewhere. – Gareth J. Medway.

1.12.17

QUIET DAYS IN HASTINGS

Antony Clayton, Gary Lachman, Andy Sharp and David Tibet. Netherwood - Last Resort of Aleister Crowley. Accumulator Press, 2017 (Revised hardback edition)

Seventy years ago, at 11 am on Monday 1st December 1947, Aleister Crowley died in his bed in room 13 at 'Netherwood', the Hastings boarding house where he had spent the last three years of his life. Crowley was the most famous, or some might say infamous, resident of this grand Victorian mansion set in four acres of grounds and gardens on a ridge approximately 500ft above sea level and just over two miles from the centre of Hastings.

It had been bought by Vernon Symonds, an actor, and his wife 'Johnnie', an ex-teacher and an excellent cook, both with left-leaning socialist tendencies. Their purpose was to run an 'intellectual guest-house' that would attract great thinkers and characters. So they were not at all put out by the prospect of having the 'wickedest man in the world' (as the sensationalist press had once dubbed him) coming to stay. This book tells the interesting history of the house and its various owners, but its main subject is Crowley himself, his daily life and the great variety of visitors who came to see him.

The main author is Antony Clayton under the epithet of 'A Gentleman of Hastings', with contributions from 'Frater Amor Fati' (Gary Lachman), 'Anok Pe' (David Tibet) and 'The English Heretic' (Andy Sharp). It is meticulously researched, very well written and beautifully presented with period-style endpapers and many fine illustrations, some in colour. The previous edition of 2012 had evidently become a sought-after collectors item, so there was clearly a considerable demand for this new edition with some revisions and added material.

To my knowledge there is no other book available that so thoroughly covers all of Crowley's life, especially the details of his last three years which are generally perceived to have been a wasteful slow heroin-addicted demise. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the overall tone of the book is a sympathetic portrayal of the magus who had mellowed and grown frail with advancing old age and poor health.

Hastings, "where a magus must go to ascend", is known as a magical town, so it is appropriate that Crowley should have ended his days there. Interestingly, he also spent part of his childhood there, attending the White Rock School as a boarder at the age of eight. It is reported that after a harsh punishment he willed the death of the headmaster, which occurred within a few weeks and caused not the slightest bit of remorse to young Edward Alexander Crowley, as he was then known. By the way, the pronunciation of Crowley is most definitely given as rhyming with 'holy', whereas it is still quite commonly and incorrectly pronounced the other way.

At age 19 he climbed the Beachy Head cliffs along the coast near Eastbourne, an act that was described as 'insensate folly' by the Eastbourne Gazette. He went on to become a great mountaineer, but tarnished his reputation for ever when he abandoned some fellow climbers after they had fallen on an expedition in the Himalayas. His opinion was that 'it served them right'. Gary Lachman's excellent condensed biographical section of 'Netherwood' thoroughly nails what it was about Crowley that enabled him to be cruel, sadistic, masochistic and lacking in human feeling and empathy through most of his life. His upbringing by two stern parents steeped in the extreme Plymouth Brethren religion was a major factor.

Lachman identifies Crowley's three main 'motors' as: obsession with sex; adolescent need to shock; and scientific curiosity, which found expression in mountain climbing, drug taking, and 'magick'. (He added the 'k' to distinguish the practice from mere tricks of illusion and entertainment). He was fond of calling himself the 'Beast - 666', which represented his rebellion against the stifling puritanical rectitude forced on him in childhood. Evidently it was his mother who first called him a 'beast', probably when she caught him in the act of masturbation. It seems that all through his life he needed acts of wilful degradation and transgression to excite him.

'Magick' for Crowley meant training the will and imagination to achieve desired results, but sadly he all too easily used his powers for selfish purposes no matter what harm they might cause to others. He left the Golden Dawn when he perceived all of its members, with the exception of his friend Allan Bennet, as 'weaklings'. From Bennett he learned Buddhism, meditation and yoga. But, unfortunately, he also learned how to use heroin to treat asthma and to 'get high', which led to his life-long addiction. His famous dictum of the new Aeon of Thelema: ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ had a noble motive of finding one's calling or vocation, but in practice could mean justifying or rationalising any desires or appetites.



In Lachman's fine analysis, which very much resonates with my own conclusions, Crowley saw himself as a messiah or prophet, which meant that he needed followers. I agree with Lachman that the most important and formative event of Crowley's life was the strange encounter in Cairo with the entity Aiwass. The channelled information and text, which became the Book of the Law was his bible, holy writ and scripture. This totally convinced him of his mission and changed his life for ever. Lachman's sober insight is that it was his own continuing adolescent rebellion: "Most of us pass through this phase and with any luck mature into responsible adults. Crowley never did."

For those who have never read about the goings-on in Crowley's occult order the OTO and its branch in California, the Agape Lodge Pasadena, there is some hilarious and salutary information about what can happen in such groups. Jack Parsons, the great rocket scientist who eventually went mad and met a violent death, and L Ron Hubbard, who went on to found his own religion of Scientology, joined forces in a series of magical workings to create a human manifestation of the divine feminine called Babalon. The project was based on Crowley's ideas and a similar project described in his novel Moonchild. Needless to say, it all got quite messy and Crowley tried to keep some order on proceedings to no avail. He had to keep some order because he depended on a regular stipend from the lodge's members which helped to keep him going during his time at Netherwood.

On the question of whether or not Crowley was actually evil, Lachman says this: "Crowley wasn't evil - all talk of black magic and Satanism aside. Merely insensitive, selfish and oblivious to the fact that doing his will usually meant trampling on that of others. But then, given that he already had several incarnations, perhaps next time around he will have a chance to work that out." A very fair and balanced assessment in my opinion.

The bulk of Netherwood is made up of three chapters devoted to the years 1945, 1946 and 1947. Antony Clayton has done a great job of collating information from many sources, including Crowley's own diaries, to provide a very readable and fascinating overview of Crowley's daily life and circumstances. What emerges is a very human man facing up to the trials of fading health and approaching mortality. There are several photos of him in the house or gardens, smoking his pipe with a thoughtful, quizzical look on his face. He is hardly recognisable as the bulky menacing figure from earlier years.

I found myself quite endeared to the old Aleister and would have loved to meet him for long conversations in those days. But this book is the next best thing, with a surprising amount of detail that Clayton has unearthed about Crowley's daily activities, conversations with visitors and other residents, and the whole post-war atmosphere of England in a time of rationing and austerity.

An amusing anecdote concerns Crowley's telegram advising his arrival on 1st February 1945. He travelled by ambulance from his previous accommodation at the Bell Inn in Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, and advised the Symonds that a consignment of 'frozen meat' would be arriving. They were puzzled as no delivery of meat was expected. Furthermore, because of strict rationing, the Post Office sent a copy of the telegram to the Ministry of Food for investigation. The joke was explained when Crowley himself turned out to be the consignment.

When he arrived, aged 69, he gave the impression of someone much older, eccentric and vulnerable. Gaunt and slightly bent, there was nothing sinister in his appearance to alarm his new hosts. His three years of residence at Netherwood appear to have been rather more comfortable than the lives of many other citizens living with the privations of rationing. It seems that he had a sweet tooth, taking five or six teaspoons of sugar in his cup of tea, and he loved sweets and chocolate. His favourite snack was sardines sprinkled with curry powder, and he often had only a boiled egg for lunch. He was a great connoisseur of types of tobacco for his pipe and the best quality cigars. Fine brandy and whisky were his favourite tipples, not beer, which had, ironically, provided his fortune from his father's brewery business.

Chess remained one of his favourite hobbies and he enjoyed many visits to the Hastings Chess Club. Heroin remained his addiction and he obtained as much as possible from a local doctor and more from London. He had serious dental problems which entailed several extractions and finally a dental plate which hurt his gums and made speaking difficult.

The wealth of material so admirably collated and presented by Antony Clayton gives a 'warts and all' portrait of the Great Beast in decline, often through the eyes of visitors. Some were admirers and truth-seekers, such as Kenneth Grant, who had heard about Crowley at the Atlantis Bookshop and became his amanuensis for a time at Netherwood. Others were merely curious. Madame Wellington Koo, the wife of the Chinese ambassador, reported after her visit to Crowley that she "found only a dirty old man wallowing in drunkenness." He had presented her with a copy of his precious Book of the Law, and she returned it to him with a note saying "instead of destroying it, I venture to return it in case you might be short of copies".

Professor E.M. Butler interviewed Crowley for several hours during a visit in 1946 as part of her research for her book The Myth of the Magus and was shocked by his appearance. "He seemed to be disintegrating and to be surrounded by an aura of physical corruption ... he was more repulsive than I had expected and his voice was the ugliest thing about him, fretful, scratchy - a pedantic voice and a pretentious manner."

There are several versions of his last moments when he died on 1st December 1947, ranging from anxiety and fearfulness to a peaceful passing with a sudden gust of wind blowing in the curtains and a clap of thunder. The Hastings and St Leonards Gazette carried a brief death notice. It referred to him as a writer and poet who was interested in magic. Then, inexplicably, it stated that although many people came to see him from all parts of the country "his interest in magic seemed to have waned and he seldom even mentioned the subject". At least it goes to show that some newspaper reports of those days were no more reliable than they are today.

Aleister Crowley continues to be a source of fascination and inspiration to those who read his own books and those written about him, his life and his work. Netherwood is an important and very valuable addition to the library. -- Kevin Murphy


26.11.17

HAUNTED PLACES AND HAUNTING MEMORIES

Colin Dickey. Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Penguin, 2017.

For Colin Dickey ghosts and hauntings are not about the dead but the living, he is not concerned with the question as to whether ghosts exist or not, but what such stories tell us about places, their history and our reaction to them. He selects a number of places and locations around which ghost stories have accrued and uses these as springboards for discussions of the history of that place and the wider narrative that such places tell about the USA. In the process the reader learns about a number of often obscure topics such as the rise and fall of the insane asylum, the transition from churchyard to cemetery, the development of memorialisation of the dead of the Civil War, the decline of the city, and even the place of the brothel in American history.

For Dickey the essence of haunting is what Freud called the unheimlich, usually translated as ‘uncanny’ but more literally as ‘unhomely’. He uses this in connection with a number of houses he and his wife visited when looking for a new home, places that seemed somehow wrong and disquieting, often because of their, to say the least, eccentric architecture as previous owners had adapted and expanded in various ad hoc ways.

The ultimate expression of such ad hoc architecture may well be the so-called Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, the home of Sarah Pardee Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, the inventor of the Winchester repeating rifle. With its 160 rooms and sprawling architecture, Dickey suggests that the house had simply morphed into a perpetual project, with Sara constantly experimenting and changing her mind.

Popular folklore had a different idea. In the folk stories Sarah built the house on the advice of a medium named as Adam Coons (there is no evidence any such person ever existed) in expiation of the lives lost to the Winchester rifle, the victims of which were haunting her. In the myth it is a building of dead end staircases, trapdoors, false rooms, labyrinthine corridors and the like, in an exaggerated version of the real place. Dickey notes that although the true story is readily available, the myth is constantly repeated. This is perhaps because myths can be ‘truer than true’, for the mad, blind futile haunted house is an entirely apposite symbol of the madness, chaos and futility of war. The endless task is part of a long folk tradition of the endless Sisyphean task, such as emptying a bottomless pool with a cockle shell.




Of the dark, disturbing and unhomely places that Dickey takes us to, arguably the worst is the Devils Half Acre in Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, Virginia. This was the place of the slave auctions and the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail where ‘recalcitrant’ slaves were beaten and tortured. Surely a place for ghosts, yet Dickey noted that in the popular accounts of Richmond’s ghosts all the ghosts are white! Perhaps there are horrors too great for ghost stories to deal with; they can handle small domestic tragedies, but death and terror on an industrial scale is beyond comprehension. Or the ghosts are sanitised for commercial exploitation in books, ghost tours and ever more competitive TV ghost hunts.

But perhaps the image from this book that will remain with many readers is that of the corpse of the woman left to rot in the streets of New Orleans after Katrina, who the authorities did not think was a priority, but was unwilling to allow anyone else to move her.

This is an interesting and haunting book, and obviously of chief interest to US residents and visitors, however many of the insights will apply to the UK and other places. Dickey borrows terms from the Kiswahili culture, that divides the dead between those who remembered as living people by the currently living, the sasha; and those where the last person who remembered them as a person has died, the zamani, the deep ancestors. We in Britain have plenty of ghost stories of the latter reduced to heritage industry cliches. The ghosts come when it becomes seemly to talk of them. -- Peter Rogerson.

21.11.17

CONSCIOUS HUMOUR

David E. H. Jones. Why Are We Conscious? A Scientist’s Take on Consciousness and Extrasensory Perception.  Pan Stanford, 2017.

David E H Jones who died last July aged 79 was for many years the 'Daedalus' of the New Scientist and Nature. Daedalus was described in his Fortean Times obituary as “the court jester in the palace of science” and he himself described  it as “a region of scientific humour whose appeal lay in its closeness to reality”. (FT 359 p28)

Though he retired as Daedalus in 2002, this book, his swansong, had all the hallmarks of an extended Daedalus column. Starting with the “hard problem of consciousness”, Jones argues that consciousness must depend on the unconscious mind of Freud and Jung, and that might give access to another world, the unknown world, from which information might leak in the form of ESP. This unknown world might be colder than ours, it should have three dimensions like ours, there are discussions of the size and velocity of entities in the unknown world, whether any “matter” in it would be atomic or continuous etc.




Jones then goes on to describe how the concept of the unknown might explain various paranormal phenomena. There are some interesting asides, there should for example be about 100 billion ghosts in the world, there calculations as to how much space a ghost can haunt. We should be careful about stories of materialisations and denaturisation because hardly anyone reports the explosions caused by the air thus displaced. The use of the unknown world for space travel at transoptical velocities or for recovering information from lost historical documents are among suggestions Jones makes. Jones, however, has missed another possibility here, of the unknown world could react across the “many worlds” of Hugh Everett it should be possible to recover documents that do not exist in our reality such as the Necronomicon or Magonia 100, and its annual successor Visions and Beliefs.

Getting information form this unknown world from psychics and the like is not ideal and so Jones speculates that it might be detected using computers, powerful decryption techniques and anomalies in the behaviour of liquids.

Behind the humour it is clear that Jones took a serious interest in parapsychology and psychical research and the humour allows him to raise questions that otherwise could not be publicly aired by a scientist and it is important to note that he is not laughing at these topics but rather using humour to encourage open minded speculation. -- Peter Rogerson


17.11.17

SEEKING THE INTUITIVE GLUE

Gary Lachman. Lost Knowledge of the Imagination. Floris Books, 2017.

“That is the job of the left brain…Its business is to ‘unpack’ what the right brain ‘presents’ to ‘spell it out’ as it were, to focus on the individual trees that make up the forest given it by the right brain – and eventually to focus on the individual leaves of a given tree with ‘meaning perception’ while the left is concerned with ‘immediacy perception.’ We could also say that the left brain knows through Aquinas ‘active search’ for knowledge while the right has the ‘intuitive possession’ of it.”

“What this has resulted in, McGilchrist argues, is an increasingly fragmented picture of the world, with less and less awareness of the intuitive glue, needed to hold things together.”

“Two souls, alas, live in my breast.” He may have got his anatomy wrong, but the insight is clear. Yet Goethe might have added: And they don’t get along.”

I’ve prefaced my review of Lost Knowledge of The Imagination with these quotes as being appropriate for Gary Lachman’s argument to urgently recover our ‘poetic’ imagination, where we once instinctively understood nature “at a glance” without a prior need to analyse it to destruction. According to Lachman this tension between our inner and outer perception of the world started with the revolutions of the 17th century when science throw out the old shibboleths of superstition and questioned God’s authority. Unfortunately this resulted in a mechanistic view of ourselves and our place in the world. Our intuitive faculties were suppressed when they could have helped guide us through our over-rational material and technological progress.

I don’t think that Lachman considers this to be a new or novel insight into the way our 'impoverished’ minds (outside of the artist, poet and philosopher) function. Many previous writers have attempted such a cultural overview of the imbalance created by a skewed perception of creativity, imagination and rational thought. Reach back to 1976 and you’ll find similar ideas propounded by Erich Fromm in his book To Have or To Be. He neatly stated that if coming across a beautiful wild flower in a wood, do you pick it up to examine its petals (murder to dissect) or leave it in its natural habitat and just let your eyes take in its beauty from a distance? Swop Fromm’s flower for Lachman’s tree in the wood and you have the same dilemma about greed, exploitation and possession versus sustainability, letting go and the contemplation of nature.

Gary Lachman has done an impressive amount of research. His thesis is very carefully laid out and his conclusions are sensible and attractive. Owen Barfield, Kathleen Raine (A fine and unfairly neglected poet) Carl Jung, Goethe, Husserl, Henry Corbin and cultural critic Erich Heller plus many others are sensitively drawn on. All have fascinating things to say about the lack of creative dialogue between “the requirements of positivism” and as Lachman says quoting Goethe “the harmony of the hidden law in the world within the hidden law within ourselves.”

Unfortunately Lachman’s writing is a bit pedestrian and repetitive. The evidence of a dangerous split in modern consciousness is all there but does he add anything insightful to help us move on? Not really. After six chapters Lachman quietly ends with uncertainty about our state of flux over the continual mental fragmentation of society. We must be vigilant in this phenomenal world: engaging with more subtlety and (To employ Owen Barfield’s lovely word) finesse.

If only Lost Knowledge of The Imagination had had the energy and drive of its penultimate chapter, The Learning of The Imagination. Here Lachman sounds really engaged and makes incisive connections between Kathleen Raine (As William Blake scholar), the S.T. Coleridge of “primary imagination”, W.B.Yeats and Thomas Taylor (19th century writer and associate of John Flaxman – the artist friend of Blake). Such a strong and convincing chapter could (with a summary of Lachman’s basic argument) be published as a separate pamphlet. Here the case is effectively made for poetry (read as imagination containing the ‘soul’ part of the brain) and science (read as transformed political reality) to be in a Blakean contrary state of interdependence of each another: still relevantly connected but not at war.

I’ve enjoyed previous books by Gary Lachman (Especially his Turn of Your mind: The Mystic Sixties and The Dark Side of The Age of Aquarius) but this is not one of his best. That’s not to say that his thesis doesn’t matter. It does, very much. We do need a mental re-balancing of our psyche. But it’s a long haul and I do wish Lachman could have been more inspiring and directive: supplied some suggestions as to how his “intuitive glue” (A great term, that) could cement the cracks. – Alan Price

13.11.17

FEEL THE FEAR

Ronald Hutton. The Witch: A History of Fear From Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press, 2017.

In this book the noted historian and folklorist Ronald Hutton examines the various themes and motifs which coalesced into the great European witchcraft fear of the early modern period and its expression in the United Kingdom especially. It is not an account of those trials themselves but of the beliefs that led up to them and the conflicting views of scholars over the last 200 years or so as to their origin and nature.

The book develops through a process of narrowing from the most general to the most specific. Therefore the first chapter is a cross cultural study of witchcraft beliefs across a range of traditional societies and of the persistence of those beliefs into the modern world. In the course of this Hutton notes that how in the past Western Christian missionaries had opposed witchcraft beliefs as “pagan superstition”, they are now active in promoting belief systems that actually encourage witchcraft accusations.

Hutton then examines witchcraft beliefs in classical Egypt, Greece and Rome, essentially arguing that it is Rome where such beliefs tend to develop. He next studies the claims that witchcraft beliefs arose out of shamanic practices, an idea associated with the Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg and in the UK with Emma Wilby.

In the second part of the book Hutton examines “continental perspectives” including the role of ceremonial magic, with its alleged Egyptian origins, in elite culture. In this section he next examines the various ‘hosts of the night’ from the wild hunt, the dead riders, the female followers of a mysterious woman sometimes called Diana and other times Herodius, and how these might merge together. He then examines how concepts of the witch evolved through the middle ages and into the early modern period.

In the final section ‘British perspectives’, Hutton examines the role of fairy beliefs, the status of witchcraft in the Celtic countries of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the role of the animal familiar in British witchcraft trials.

Throughout Hutton argues with exquisite attention to historical detail and overturns many popular misconceptions, while providing a balanced overview of the many conflicting opinions of other scholars. One interesting theme which recurs is how much of what is regarded as popular belief has actually first arisen in elite culture, only to trickled down into mass culture, to be rediscovered by later generations of the elite as ‘popular lore’.

Hutton examines the manner in which the polarities of opinion generated by the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, who argued that witches were members of a surviving pre-Christian religion, and the reaction against that view which tended to see witchcraft beliefs as ideas that were imposed from above by religious elites, still can influence debate. On a more general level these might be seen as part of the wider division between 'cultural source' and 'personal experience' models of folklore.

This is a deeply scholarly work requiring close attention and is not a light read, or for those wanting gory accounts of witch trials, but should be essential reading not only for those studying the historiography of witchcraft, but a wider range of social and cultural historians, folklorists, students of theology, the history of ideas, anthropologists and for the lay reader willing to give the time and patience this work requires. – Peter Rogerson

8.11.17

UNPOPULAR PHILOSOPHY

David Benatar. The Human Predicament. A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. Oxford University Press 2017

Please note the book title: it’s not the human condition or the human problem but The Human Predicament. To have a condition or a problem suggests a coming to terms with things, an answer and even an optimistic outcome. Predicament infers something more difficult, final, unanswerable and pessimistic. There’s certainly no escape from the gaunt facts of our existence as laid out by Professor David Benatar of The University of Cape Town. Life is too short, badly compromised and that’s all there is.

In this beautifully written, persuasive (almost) and lucid work the search for meaning exuding from those many, half-read sometimes spurious, self-help books on how to affirm your life is pulped into an uncaring void by Benatar’s elegant reasoning. I am on the side of affirmation (from art, music, philosophy and good friends) but rarely from the text book bestseller. Yet the unflinching pessimism of Benatar’s counter-arguments, in relation to life’s big questions, although not reassuring, isn’t a position resulting in absolute despair.

“My own view is that a deep pessimism about the meaning of life is entirely appropriate, but this should not be confused with total nihilism about meaning in life.”

“Life’s big questions are big in the sense that they are momentous. However, contrary to appearances, they are not big in the sense of being unanswerable. It is only that the answers are generally unpalatable. There is no great mystery but there is plenty of horror.”

For that “plenty of horror” I immediately think of Marlon Brando, as the monstrous Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, exhibiting his sweaty bald head and muttering, “The horror…the horror!” Yet whereas that was cinematic rhetoric amplified from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, David Benator is for real and true in a profound, salutary and philosophical sense. For though I often rejected his stark conclusions they have a thoughtful honesty that’s impressive and moving.

The Human Predicament consists of an introduction on life’s big questions, and what they mean for us from an optimistic or pessimistic viewpoint. Chapters 2 and 3 concentrate on meaning and meaninglessness. 4 covers the quality of life. 5 brings us up front with death (Asking the intriguing question, Is Death Bad?). No. 6 questions ideas about immortality. 7 examines suicide – for and against. Finally the concluding chapter 8 attempts to sum up the human predicament.

In the chapter on the quality of life is a section called Why is there more Bad than Good. Here Benatar lists all the physical and mental pain we might endure and the discomfort of simply getting through everyday life (The horror of trivia covers whether we are too hot, too cold or after eating and drinking we can have distended bladders or bowels, did feel like a rational exaggeration of the low quality of being).

If there is a daily imbalance towards the negative over the positive, then I think a constant shift of perspective is a necessary to get through things and not go under, though that may not be possible for all of us if we are chronically ill.

On death, Benatar says, “We want long lives, but the longer we live, the more reason we have to fear that less life remains.” A quandary that can only be tolerated by living life fully, in good health, mentally and physically, whilst coming to terms with the ageing process? That’s my half-way house solution, not Benatar’s, but I am a cautious optimist by nature.

Perhaps Benatar’s most impressive chapter is on suicide. I have always recoiled at the idea of taking your life – for it’s not simply an end to your mortality but an act of irresponsibility – what of the consequences for those closest to you after your death? Yet when you introduce the thought of being in a vegetative state or terminally ill, and in great pain, can suicide, involuntarily or not, be justified? Is it right and more importantly is it rational?

“Suicide is not an effective means to every end. However, it should be equally clear that suicide may also often be entirely rational under the ends-means conception of rationality. If one’s end is to avoid those of life’s burden’s that can only be avoided by the cessation of one’s life, then suicide is rational.”

This doesn’t make me believe in suicide but Benatar’s case is powerfully made for suicide not be morally condemned, allowing us, despite our overwhelming urge to hang onto life, still resist the visceral shock of the act from clouding our judgement.

The Human Predicament is an uncomfortable book. It doesn’t give you any kind of workable solace or applicable hope. Yet in its confrontational way there is much valuable insight here and finally compassion. David Benatar is a pessimist yet more importantly he’s a probing and deeply caring writer.

Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra bears the sub-title, “A book for everyone and no one.” The Human Predicament is more accessible than Zarathustra though probably another work that’s not for all but definitely for the few whom, in Benatar’s words, “…might describe this book as a work of unpopular philosophy”. It is and ought to be explored. – Alan Price