23.7.17

PICTURING PHILOSOPHY

Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler. Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous ) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 2017.

The seventeenth century was a difficult and dangerous time for philosophers. To challenge set ideas that the earth was the centre of the cosmos, that kings maintain their divine right to rule and religious orthodoxy be sacrosanct, created a heretical volcano for the establishment. Such disturbances for governments resulted in house arrest, exile, imprisonment or even death (Giodarno Bruno was burnt at the stake.) 

Yet in spite of deep resistance a provocative proto-modern world view emerged; creating an uneasy alliance of heretical thinkers in a cluster of European states. By the end of the seventeenth century you couldn't claim that the 'radical' philosophies of Bruno, Locke, Newton, Galileo, Pascal, Descartes, Liebnitz, etc. were fully integrated into society but they were still an irritant or blessing, influencing the behaviour of the privileged / learned and engendering serious public and clandestine debate.

If you want to understand this time you could read a chapter on it in any reliable history of western philosophy, sample the philosophers writings and attempt to summarise their achievements. Or you might take an introductory shortcut and acquire Steven and Ben Nadler's Heretics. Here in graphic/comic text book form is perhaps all you'd need to be launched. But is it? Given that Heretics is a fun, intelligent, irreverent and visually pleasing book it does oddly assume its readers to be quite philosophically literate.

I would have very much liked an index, references to other books and even a comic book pointer to their authors. All we have are three pages of Dramatis Personae for the heretics concerned. What I missed was a graphic book appendix about the continuing influence of such radical world views on twentieth and twenty-first century philosophy.

Yet let's consider what Heretics is and how it gets through its narrative. Heretics is obviously an American academic action story with an occasional awkward juxtaposition of text and image. For in order to engage the student reader some deliberate 'cool' anachronisms crop up in its comic-book panels.



"When one considers that Newton, Locke and Liebnitz would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned in Rome and burnt in Lisbon, what are we to think of human reason?"


On page 109 we have the philosopher Malebranche questioning Descarte's metaphysics concerning the movement of bodies. For this Ben Nadler supplies an image of disco dancing John Travolta and God as a megaphone wielding film director. Page 126 presents John Locke exploring ideas about the individual's rights concerning property. Our 16th century farmer becomes a modern guy removing an apple pie from his electric cooker. When we arrive at Locke's years in Amsterdam he's not wholly occupied with his political theory but depicted eating popcorn and holding his TV remote control up to the screen. His speech bubble reads, "Exile sure frees up a lot of time”. Whilst the next panel depicts him, quill in hand, writing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in more free time!

I don't want to appear solemn about communicating philosophy but the Naders feel the need to connect seventeenth century heretics with modern day so as to make them 'relevant.' This feels like an easy cop out and contradictory, for there are other well executed examples that summarise difficult ideas in their own time and historical context (e.g. Newton on gravity, Leibnitz's monad perceptions and Descarte's waking and dreaming states). If they'd trusted the difficult ideas more they could have found enough appropriate seventeenth century imagery and still have produced a popular and accessible book.

Yes let's not take this serious enterprise too 'seriously.' Heretics is meant to be entertaining. And to this end it succeeds. Especially in conveying the concepts of Descartes, Locke, Newton (I loved the explosion of zany illustrations at the end of this chapter) and Spinoza (a delightful comic reference to Hamlet in relation to control of our lives.) The aesthetic/technical quality of the drawings alternates from the formally stiff to the enjoyably fluid. The text contains core philosophical 'truths' that do come clearly through. And what certainly, and sadly, emerges is that the fate of a philosopher/scientist was hugely dependent on which country they lived: "When one considers that Newton, Locke and Liebnitz would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned in Rome and burnt in Lisbon, what are we to think of human reason?"

Heretics is engaging and playful even when it's shallow. When deep and thoughtful it instructs and entertains with real graphic invention. – Alan Price.

21.7.17

AWAY WITH THE FAIRIES

Richard Firth Green. Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church. University Of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Nearly all human cultures have conceived of liminal beings that straggle the divide between mortal and immortal, matter and spirit, good and evil, habitat and wilderness. In western culture these beings have been given names such as fairies, elves, trolls, boggarts etc., in Islamic culture they are the djinns, and other cultures have their equivalents.

Green argues that belief in such beings was a pervasive part of medieval popular culture but it was a belief that the church was undertaking a culture war against. Unlike today’s popular beliefs in ghosts or aliens, these beliefs were seen as profoundly subversive of the church’s authority; it had no room for such beings, so it set about literally demonising them. Green argues that many of the demons that the church inveighed against were actually fairies, and this allows us to reconstruct these beliefs from studying a variety of literary sources ranging from romance, Arthurian legends, sermons, mystery plays and so on. Green argues that these works do not just represent poetic fancy but represent a living folklore.

It is the liminal nature of the fairies that troubles, and the church found particular problems with the supposed mortality of the fairies, who were envisioned to have lived long lives but to eventually die, and to the idea that they were material enough to have sex with and beget children on mortals. And above all that they came from a realm that was neither heaven nor hell. All of this was dismissed as an illusion brought about by the nasty old demons. The fairy world may appear glamorous, full of glorious castles and beautiful maidens, but it is really a false enchantment and that the castles are actually dirty hovels and the maidens are just ugly demons.

Green argues that fairyland became incorporated into the idea of purgatory, a belief in which may have developed as a means of Christianising fairyland. Not noted by Green however is a better fit, limbo, the realm of the virtuous pagan dead and unbaptised children. In early Christian times, when Christians still had pagan loved ones, limbo was presented in very positive terms. Though exiled from the divine presence, those in limbo live in the best possible world achievable by unaided human reason, it is a secular paradise. By the later medieval period views on it were essentially darkening, as there were no more 'virtuous pagans' to worry about. So Purgatory now replaces this as a post-mortem half-way house.

This is a book by a professor of English dealing in medieval texts and no concessions are made to the non-specialist, in that it is illustrated by many quotations in Middle English, preserving not just the original spelling but the original lettering, such as the thorn and eth [đ and Þ for 'th']. While this preserves the authenticity of the original it does not make for easy reading, which is a pity because this is a book which should be of great interest to folklorists and to a wider readership.

Superficially these beliefs may seem to the products of a remote past, but Green argues that they persisted to inform the witchcraft trials and many of the demonic encounters reported there are really encounters with the fairies. The global nature of such beliefs suggests that they may have originated before the great human diaspora out of Africa and are hence tens of thousands of years old. It is unlikely that such deep seated beliefs can be eradicated in a few centuries.

Green notes that tales of alien abduction reflect earlier beliefs about incubi and succubi, and of course those who follow this blog know how much the modern UFO lore derives from these earlier beliefs. The same goes for ghost lore or cryptozoology, and though fairies as such have been trivialised almost out of existence as the gossamer winged fays of Victorian picture books and as portrayed in the Cottingley photographs, their companions still live on. The hidden folk still are a powerful part of Icelandic life, and djinns are an integral part of Islamic culture.

Beyond this the tradition lives on even in secular form, sometimes barely visible, for example in the way that the disappearance of Madeline McCann and popular reactions to it echo tales of untended children taken by the 'others'. Fairyland lived on as Cockaigne, Fiddlers Green, the spiritualist Summerland and in numerous Utopian visions, even the other worlds of UFO contactees and near death experiences. Enchantment is secularised into “false consciousness”.

At and even deeper level we can see fairyland as a metaphor for the whole of the natural world, the Church’s culture war in effect the demonization of that natural world and of the people living in it. Recent events show where such ideologies lead, so maybe it is time to re-embrace fairyland as an act of defiance. – Peter Rogerson.


18.7.17

NORTHERN ECHOES: 50 YEARS ON



This summer marks the 50th anniversary of my major involvement in Ufology, for it was then that I bought in one of the Manchester bookshops, now long gone, a copy of the magazine format Flying Saucer Menace written by Brad Steiger in the days before he found the New Age. It was 64 pages of sensationalist text, photos of UFO luminaries and lots of photos of UFOs, of varying degrees of dubiousness. This re-kindled my enthusiasm for the subject and shortly thereafter I got hold of paperback copies of Frank Edwards’ Flying Saucers Serious Business and Coral Lorenzen’s Flying Saucers the Startling Evidence of the Invasion from Outer Space, as well as the much more sober and worthy Challenge to Science by Jacques and Janine Vallee, not to mention Arthur Shuttlewood’s Warminster Mystery

The source of most of my books at that period was Lionel Beer who sold loads of UFO books that weren’t regularly in the shops. I started to develop an interest in historical UFO reports and come up with theories that I tried out on Lionel.

It was from him that I started to get copies of Flying Saucer Review, the first being the September/October 1967 issue which featured a headline “Was it a landing at Marliens?", which was about a hole in a field in France. Holes in fields in those days were taken as evidence of UFOs landing. It also featured the mysterious tale of the 'Extraordinary Happenings in Casa Blanca' about some extremely strange things seen by a group of Californian children back in 1955. Had this story been dated 1967, we might have assumed that the youngsters had found the stash of mom and dad’s less than legal substances - but 1955? For Christmas that year I got some back issues of FSR, a copy of their special issue The Humanoids and a couple of more Steigers: Strangers from the Skies and Flying Saucers are Hostile, the last co-written with Joan Whritenour, the editor of a magazine called Saucer Scoop.

You are starting to get the picture of the obsessions of late 1960s ufology, it was blood, guts, burnings, and generally nastiness attributed to flying saucers. Two more titles add to the mix, one edited by Steiger and Whritenour entitled Flying Saucer Invasion Target Earth and another by Ray Palmer The Real UFO Invasion.

These themes of invasion and hostility marked the turbulence of the times, as UFO wave followed UFO wave, the TV screens were filled with the battle images of the Vietnam War, China was convulsed by the Cultural Revolution, youth cults abounded. Britain had two major UFO waves in 1967, one in the summer, another in late autumn. Britain had its own troubles, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, then in the autumn there was devaluation which the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson assured us would not affect the pound in our pockets and there was own mini-Vietnam, Aden, which marked the final symbolic defeat of the British Empire. The world was stumbling towards the apocalyptic year of 1968, the year in which a little duplicated magazine called the Merseyside UFO Bulletin was born.




16.7.17

SIGNPOSTS TO UTOPIA

Michael J. Lewis, City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning, Princeton University Press, 2016.

A history of town planning and architecture is unusual Magonian fare, but this one does have some relevant aspects, dealing as it does with religious sects as well as touching, albeit reluctantly, on aspects of esotericism.

City of Refuge is concerned with a variety of utopianism that runs parallel to the main stream. Rather than aspiring to the perfection of society, it seeks to withdraw from it, a motivation shared by two groups, religious sects and social reformers. Michael J. Lewis’ main aim in writing the book is to counter the conventional view that there’s a sharp distinction between the two, historians of one tending to ignore the other. In particular, it’s intended as a corrective to the Marxist position, based on the writings of Engels, that there is a fundamental difference between ‘socialist utopias’ and the religious refuges.

Lewis, professor of art history at Massachusetts’ prestigious Williams College, sets out to demonstrate that there was a mutual influence and exchange of ideas between the two. He mainly does this through the unexpected relationship between a charismatic leader of a German millennialist cult, Johann Georg Rapp, and a Welsh social reformer and staunch atheist, Robert Owen, a story that takes up the last third of the book.

He begins by looking at the Biblical inspiration for the city of refuge (the term comes from Numbers), particularly the notion that holy cities – such as the New Jerusalems of Ezekiel and Revelation – should be square in layout, and how this concept of ‘sacred squareness’ was taken on board by Reformation Protestants.

Lewis then traces the development of the city of refuge from vision to actuality, beginning with ideas of the perfect city proposed by Italian Renaissance architects (who invariably envisaged it as circular). Then, of course, came Thomas More, who imagined his ideal civilisation (located in a square city) in Utopia (1516).

However, the person who ‘established the square as the canonical form of Protestant urbanism’ was, I was surprised to discover, Albrecht Dürer. Influenced by More’s book, in 1527 Dürer published plans for what his ideal city. Another, rather more unexpected influence, Lewis suggests, was that of the square citadel at the heart of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, a celebrated map of which [above] was published in Dürer’s home city of Nuremberg shortly before he wrote his treatise.

Seventy years later, Dürer’s plans, scaled down and modified, were used for the first ‘formally planned city of refuge’, Freudenstadt (‘City of Joy’), established in 1598 by the Duke of Württemberg for persecuted Austrian Protestants.



In turn, Freudenstadt’s design was co-opted for another utopian work, Christianopolis (1619) by Johann Valentin Andreae – he of (probable) Rosicrucian Manifestos fame. Andreae, too, was inspired by More: Lewis describes Christianopolis as effectively a rewriting of Utopia as a ‘Protestant fable’. It was also directly influenced by the heretical Dominican Tommaso Campanella’s Civitas solis (‘City of the Sun’) – itself inspired by Utopia – which was smuggled out of his Naples jail in 1618 by one of Andreae’s friends.

Lewis downplays or ignores the esoteric preoccupations of these individuals, especially Campanella’s basing his Sun City on Hermetic principles; Lewis describes him merely as a ‘priest and philosopher’.

Be that as it may, Lewis emphasises that ‘Andreae’s Christianopolis and its precocious synthesis of theology, philosophy, and architectural theory updated Dürer’s ideal city for an age of religious conflict.’ It also ‘overtly connected Protestantism with such square-planned, uniformly built cities’.
He shows how Andreae’s vision, via his friend Samuel Hartlib (of ‘Invisible College’ fame), influenced the first city of refuge in the New World, the Puritan sanctuary of New Haven, Connecticut, established in 1638 by John Davenport, who took the town’s layout and dimensions from the Bible but the concept from Christianopolis.

All this is scene-setting for the largely Germanic trail that Lewis then follows, from the refugee settlements built in Germany to attract Huguenots fleeing France and the communities founded by the persecuted Moravian Church, to the eighteenth-century shift of ‘the focus of separatist action’ to America.

Lewis’ own focus moves to Rapp [right] and his Harmony Society, which he led from Germany at the beginning of the 1800s. In preparation for the imminent Second Coming, Rapp preached Biblical fundamentalism, communal living and celibacy. (Tantalisingly, Lewis also mentions, but doesn’t elaborate on, Rapp’s ‘long-standing interest in alchemy’ and other ‘secret sources of knowledge’.)

Between 1802 and 1824 Rapp shifted his Harmonists around, establishing three successive towns, Harmony in Pennsylvania, New Harmony in Indiana and Economy back in Pennsylvania, the layout and architecture of which – square or rectilinear with streets laid out in grids - are described in detail.
That’s when the surprising, to say the least, relationship with Owen began. In 1825, wanting to put his radical new ideas about social organisation into practice, Owen purchased the recently-vacated New Harmony from Rapp, and the fundamentalist and atheist struck up an unexpected friendship, exchanging ideas about the organisation of their respective communities.

The contrast between the fates of the two colonies – Owen’s New Harmony ‘sputtered to a halt’ within a decade, whereas the Harmonist’s Economy survived Rapp, lasting (particularly impressively for a society of celibates) to the turn of the twentieth century – is used by Lewis to make the point that such communities need more to hold them together than rational organisation and good intentions; a point, he argues, missed by the likes of Engels, who used both communities in his studies of social organisation, naturally coming down in favour of Owen’s.

In his conclusion, Lewis notes the irony that, although these cities (rather, towns) of refuge were intended to remove their inhabitants from the rapidly modernising world, they actually became a ‘source and stimulus’ for it: ‘Because of their compact nature, physical isolation, and their social homogeneity, they had the purity of a control group in a laboratory experiment.’ Many social thinkers, such as Marx and Engels, used them as ‘case studies’ to explore new ways of organising an industrial society.

Coming at the subject as an outsider, I wasn’t sure how universal the conclusions Lewis draws from his own case studies are. Although other separatist communities, such as the Shakers, are included, they aren’t described in detail, and there are some obvious omissions – most conspicuously the Mormons, whose desire to get away from the world involved the creation of an entire state!

That aside, I found the book – which is attractively designed and profusely illustrated in colour – interesting and engaging, and learned some new things, including about familiar figures such as Dürer and Andreae, along the way. -- Clive Prince


12.7.17

GOD'S BLACK EYE

John Dvorak. Mask of the Sun: The Science, History and Forgotten Lore of Eclipses. Pegasus Books, 2017.

On 21 August 2017 a total solar eclipse will track across the United States, passing over twelves states, including five state capitals. As the day approaches, and 'eclipse fever' builds up, millions of Americans and visitors from around the world will make plans to see the awesome spectacle, hoping that the skies will be clear. Mask of the Sun has been published in good time for this great event and provides a thoroughly comprehensive guide to the science and history of eclipses, both solar and lunar.

John Dvorak, having trained as a lunar scientist, spent twenty years operating a large telescope at Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano whose peak is the highest point in the state of Hawaii. It is one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observation. Dvorak's hands-on experience is evident in his ability to explain the most complex scientific theories in an uncomplicated way to a general readership. He honed his writing skills with many articles for magazines such as Scientific American, and has already published two books on earthquakes and volcanoes.

There is only one sentence where an editor might have suggested a revision, where, after discussing the development of Stonehenge and its possible use as an astronomical observatory, he says: "At no time other than the present has Stonehenge ever looked the way it does today."

He might also like to ask his proof-reader how he missed a glaring error on page 69. Describing a British mission to Hudson Bay that departed from Bristol on 13 May 1631, on the same page he tells us that on the same voyage an eclipse of the Moon was recorded in the ship's log on 8 November 1831. I know those voyages could be lengthy, but 200 years?

At the beginning of the book is a map of the United States with symbols showing the path of totality, with exact timings of the start and duration of the eclipse on 21 August 2017 (already dubbed 'The Great Total Solar Eclipse') at various points across the continent. That feature alone will be of great value to anyone thinking of travelling to, or within, the USA for this rare opportunity. The next total eclipse over the USA will not be until 8 April 2024, and the one after that on 12 August 2045.

For many people it is a 'once-in-a-lifetime' experience to have a clear view of a total eclipse for a few minutes, and almost all of those will say it filled them with a sense of wonder that is never forgotten. I can certainly vouch for that myself, having witnessed the perfect total eclipse on the morning of 22 July 2009 from a boat on the river Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi, India. The headline of the English language newspaper in our hotel the next day read "God's Eye Shines over Varanasi". It was that kind of experience.

The fact that solar and lunar eclipses can be predicted with such pinpoint accuracy as to time and place is in itself a wonder. We may easily take it for granted in this computer age, but just a little consideration shows how extremely complex are the observations, measurements and variables in making those calculations. Dvorak guides the reader effortlessly from the earliest eclipse predictions of the Babylonians, and the methods they used, right up to the present day in which predictions are shown to be accurate to within one second. Along the way are many entertaining anecdotes and insights about the progress of human understanding through the ages.

PATH OF THE 21 AUGUST 2017 SOLAR ECLIPSE ACROSS THE USA

In fact, rather than diving straight into ancient history, Dvorak starts his book with an entertaining Prologue about the observation of the total solar eclipse over the USA on 24 January 1925 from a giant airship the 'Los Angeles'. This vessel was the largest craft of its kind in the world at the time. It had been manufactured by the Zeppelin company in Germany and given to the United States after the First World War as part of the war reparations agreed in the Versailles Treaty. A cameraman stood on top of the airship cranking a manual movie camera to record the eclipse and suffered severe frostbite. This Prologue sets the tone of Dvorak's book.

Human emotions and sacrifices in search of knowledge are as important as the knowledge itself. He describes the effect of that 1925 eclipse on the city of New York, for example. The whole city came to a standstill for the eclipse. During totality there was at first silence, then spontaneous applause broke out. Some people stood and wept, others began to spin or wave their arms. People were leaning out of buildings, shouting and banging metal pans, or anything else that came to hand. It will be interesting to see what mass effects the forthcoming eclipse on 21 August 2017 will have.

That eclipse of 1925 was the first total solar eclipse to pass over a broad region of the world that was connected by telegraph links, so providing the first opportunity to measure the speed of the Moon's advancing shadow. Telegraphic operators were stationed at key points along the path of totality with an unobstructed view of the sun. At the moment when the last ray of sunshine was hidden by the moon, indicating the arrival of the shadow, that particular operator was to press a special key connected to a recording station. Bell Telephone engineers had devised a new mechanism that would record the arrival of each signal to within a tenth of a second. The result? The average speed of the moon's shadow was about 3,500 miles per hour, or nearly one mile per second. That explains why totality arrives so suddenly. Even if the moon's coverage of the sun is 99% there is still enough light to make everything look normal. But at totality there is a sudden unearthly darkness, a cooling effect and a sense of silence.

Birds in particular are confused by the onset of darkness in a total solar eclipse. Dvorak gives some amusing examples of various animals' reactions at such times and the most memorable of these concerns Thomas Edison. For the solar eclipse of 1878 he had invented a new type of scientific instrument to measure the temperature of the sun's corona. It was a delicate instrument so he sought a quiet sheltered place to set it up. On the day of the eclipse he found a vacant shed with a doorway that would give an unobstructed view of the coming phenomenon. Just as darkness descended and he began to take the first measurement a flock of chickens rushed into the shed, taking him totally by surprise and disrupting his experiment as they flapped all around him. He had unwittingly chosen a chicken coop, and the chickens had come home to roost!

Dvorak entertainingly tells all you need to know about eclipses. He explains how and why they were viewed as bad omens before the scientific age, and how kings and even popes took steps to protect themselves from an untimely death. In some cases they did die near to the time of an eclipse, adding to the mystique and fear. He gives examples of how foreknowledge of an eclipse might be used to impress superstitious native peoples, such as the case of Christopher Columbus in Jamaica in the year 1503. Using an almanac he was able to predict a lunar eclipse and, having called the local leaders to a meeting he persuaded them that God was angry with them for not providing enough food to him and his men. The rising of a blood-red Full Moon did the trick.

This is a book about human endeavour to understand the heavens above us, and the meaning of celestial events. To understand eclipses is to have knowledge about planetary motion, orbits, forces of gravity and cycles of time. The Babylonians were the first to record cycles of planetary and lunar alignments. Newton taught the world about gravity and the laws of motion. Einstein revolutionised the understanding of the space-time continuum and the effect of the sun's gravity on rays of light from distant stars. It was through studying eclipses that much of this knowledge was gleaned, often through extreme trial and error and much disappointment. Mask of the Sun tells the whole tale superbly. -- Kevin Murphy




For a curious social and moral panic that is building up about this eclipse, see http://www.wdrb.com/story/35850973/hopkinsville-on-high-alert-for-sex-trafficking-around-next-months-solar-eclipse


7.7.17

EXPLAINING THE EUREKA MOMENT

David N. Stamos, Edgar Allan Poe, Eureka, and Scientific Imagination, SUNY Press, 2017.

The latecomer to a Magonian meeting always runs the risk of finding that they’ve been ‘volunteered’ to review a book that, because the subject matter appears rather recherché, everyone else has passed on. Such is the case here. As someone who has read very little Edgar Allen Poe – a little that doesn’t include the book that’s the focus of this study - I approached this book with more than a few reservations. 

To my relief, I found it not only a pleasure but revelatory. David N. Stamos uses Poe’s Eureka as a springboard to explore a subject with a far wider relevance, making it much more than a niche work for Poe aficionados.

As well as being a lover of Poe, Stamos teaches philosophy at Toronto’s York University and is the author of books on evolutionary biology in relation to such heady issues as race, religion and human rights. His subject, or rather starting point, here is his hero’s last and most perplexing work, Eureka, published in 1848, the year before his death. As it’s about science and the scientific mind Eureka has, as Stamos laments in his prologue, been largely ignored by, on the one hand, the literary world (as it’s not fiction) and, on the other, philosophers and historians of science (as Poe wasn’t one of their hallowed number). His intention in writing Eureka has long been the subject of debate among Poe enthusiasts; some even consider it one of the literary hoaxes that he took delight in perpetrating.

Stamos aims to show that Eureka should be taken seriously, and that in it Poe was saying something important and of continuing relevance. Not only had he developed a proper philosophy of science – something then unknown – but, Stamos contends, one that is superior to any of the various schools that have emerged since his day. And his application of that philosophy enabled him to anticipate nine – at least – major discoveries and theories of twentieth-century science.

So, Stamos simultaneously uses modern science to vindicate Eureka and Eureka to deepen our understanding of science. In doing so he takes in a vast array of subjects: philosophy, theology, neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary studies and much more, all described with a clarity that makes me envious of his students.

He also examines how the philosophy in Eureka connects with the rest of Poe’s body of work, for example the themes of terror and hope found in many of his stories. Given my lack of familiarity with Poe, it’s not for me to critique those parts of Stamos’ thesis, or his challenging the interpretations of other Poe scholars, other than to say that it all seems to hang together. I’ll concentrate here on the bigger picture that Stamos paints.



For him, the central theme of Eureka is the ‘scientific imagination’ (Stamos’ term): ‘the educated imagination that takes in information that was available to others at the time but that arranges and adds to it in a strikingly new and superior way, a way that anticipates future understanding of the domain in question, future knowledge.’ Poe was trying to show that ‘great achievements in science were also great achievements in imagination.’ As the title suggests, he saw science as advancing not slowly and steadily but by sudden jumps – eureka moments – resulting from those imaginative leaps.
Laying the groundwork are two chapters dealing, respectively, with Poe’s literary theory and theology – which are intertwined in Eureka, which is why many find it is so strange. Eureka represents Poe’s ‘attempt to harmonize the science of his day with his theories of poetry and plot so as to provide a grand and panoramic answer to the meaning of the Universe.’ Nothing if not ambitious!

Poe’s religious view, which he himself described as ‘heretical in the extreme’, was that the Universe, and everything within it, including ourselves, is a manifestation (in his term a ‘Self-Diffusion’) of God: ‘panpsychism’ in modern terminology. He called the Universe ‘a Plot of God’, a phrase that Stamos dissects to show that Poe meant by this a ‘plot’ in the sense that a novel, or one of Poe’s own narrative poems such as ‘The Raven’, has a plot: the Universe is a tale, or poem, being told by God. Eureka, therefore, represents Poe ‘solving the mystery of the Universe by analogically identifying with the mind of God as Poet.’

Stamos doesn’t accept Poe’s view, but simply tries to show that it’s understandable. He does, however, ask whether, given physicists’ current grappling with the conundrum of the ‘fine tuning’ of the laws of physics, ‘can anyone be sure, looking a thousand years ahead, say, that some sort of theology will not play a more prominent role in scientific cosmology?’ (Indeed, Poe’s cosmology is strikingly like that of the ‘participatory universe’ proposed by physicists such as John Archibald Wheeler – as well as that of ancient schools such as Hermeticism and Neoplatonism.)

Still scene-setting, Stamos describes Poe’s intellectual background and his extraordinary learning – and prodigious memory – which encompassed an immense range of often obscure knowledge, combining ‘polymathy with monomania’, before going on to the nine ‘scientific anticipations’ in Eureka.

These are, briefly: the rejection of axioms as self-evidently true (one of the more abstruse for the modern reader, since this fundamental assumption of science in Poe’s day has since been demolished by discoveries such as non-Euclidean geometry and quantum mechanics); Big Bang cosmogony, including the concept of the Big Crunch (Poe thought we’re in the Universe’s contracting phase); the ‘fine-tuning’ of the laws of nature and the related anthropic principle; the non-existence of the laws of nature before the Big Bang; the solution to Olber’s paradox (that’s the one about why, if the Universe is infinite, the sky is dark at night, which wasn’t officially solved until 1901); multiverse theory; the interdependence of space and time (as later proved by Einstein); the equivalence of matter and energy (ditto); and the non-existence of the material ether.

As, to come up with all these, Poe must clearly have been on to something, the obvious question is what, and exploring this leads to an examination of the whole range of philosophies of science, from the rudimentary musings of Poe’s day to the latest scholarly fashions in the field, contextualism (about which Stamos is – three cheers! – particularly scathing) and ‘evolutionary epistemology’, taking in logical positivism, Popperism and all the other -isms along the way.

He shows that (staggeringly to an outsider) none of these schools makes any allowance for eureka moments, revealing ‘an overall poverty in modern philosophy of science… when it comes to dealing with the role of imagination in the scientific process.’ A huge contrasts with Poe’s philosophy, which ‘views eureka moments as the main driving force of science.’

To make the point that imagination should be taken seriously, Stamos shows how central it was in the breakthroughs of the two scientists who have had the greatest impact on the modern world, Darwin and Einstein (the scientist ‘closest to Poe’).

This opens up a whole exploration of exactly how the scientific imagination works. Stamos homes in on the role of the unconscious mind (which Poe, in pre-Freud days, called ‘intuition’ and ‘double consciousness’). This was one of the reasons, Stamos argues, why madness and unusual states of mind feature so prominently in Poe’s tales, as a recognition that ‘madness can loosen the straightjacket and break the shackles of axiomatic and linear thinking – “logical” thinking – and open the door, especially for the educated imagination combined with monomania, to deeper truths about reality.’

Stamos looks at many examples of eureka moments in science and the circumstances in which they occurred. He also explores the common factors in genius, some expected, such as the importance of self-learning rather than formal education and of having a childlike curiosity, others less so, such as being a pet lover and not being a firstborn child.

He concludes that far from being (as cognitive science has it) dumb and passive, the unconscious is ‘the largest part of human mental functioning’: ‘the history of eureka moments alone… proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the unconscious is capable of profound intelligence, absolutely remarkable brilliance, and in the relatively few, genius.’. However, its insights can only break through when the conscious mind is inhibited – in dreams, moments of reverie, or periods of mental derangement from grief (which appears to have been the case with Poe when he wrote Eureka), depression or delirium through fever.

Finding the contribution of cognitive science to the subject sadly wanting, Stamos homes in on the recent findings of neuroscience about the workings of and relationship between the brain’s two hemispheres, summarising that the conscious mind ‘which resides in the left brain, is faced with problems in its environment that it tries to solve, collecting as much information as it can, but is limited by its single focus analytical, syntactical, and serial nature, while the unconscious mind in the right brain, with its synthetical, holistic, and metaphorical abilities, which are language independent, attempts … to solve the problem as a big picture.’ Then, ‘once the right brain has the solution to the problem … and the left brain is in a low-active receptive state, such as upon awakening or while doing something relaxed, the right brain sends the solution via the corpus callosum to the left brain.’
This leads to a philosophical discussion of what the self is (and whether it really exists), before finally places these discoveries in an evolutionary perspective – what the advantages of a ‘double brain’ are for survival. All fascinating stuff.

This isn’t only relevant to the Einsteins of the world, of course. As Stamos writes, ‘it is not just scientists, or artists, or Bedlamites, who achieve these moments of seemingly divine inspiration. We all have these experiences, albeit on a much smaller scale, if only we would pay attention when they happen.’ For him, eureka moments tell us something important about ourselves.

I’m sure that very little of Stamos’ central point of the role of the unconscious in inspiration will come as a revelation to most readers of this review. But what makes his book significant is his explanation of how the process actually works (and the fact that it will come as news to most philosophers of science, cognitive scientists and other professionals).

The above summary doesn’t do anything like justice to a book that is so broad in scope and, in keeping with Poe’s idea that the mind should be as open and wide-ranging as possible, so rich in ideas. Stamos displays an enormous erudition and mastery of a range of academic and scientific disciplines, and writes with eloquence.

I found Poe, Eureka, and Scientific Imagination an exhilarating read. It makes me want to read more Poe – and, for that matter, more David Stamos. – Clive Prince

3.7.17

AND THE UFOLOGISTS GO ROUND AND ROUND AND ROUND...

Robbie Graham (editor) UFOs: Reframing the Debate. White Crow Books, 2017.

I am starting this review on 24 June 2017; the seventieth anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of nine strange objects over the Cascade Mountains, which launched the social panic that began the age of the UFO. This book, a collection of fifteen essays, coincides with that anniversary and seeks to present new and differing perspectives on ufology.

If by 'ufology' is meant what editor Robbie Graham calls the 'Megachurch' of unthinking belief in the reality of UFOs as extraterrestrial spaceships, the inhabitants of which go around abducting people willy-nilly and that the US government has access to this 'truth' and must be badgered into 'disclosing' that truth, then indeed this book offers new perspectives. If however by ufology is meant the entire history of the subject, then there is little that is truly new here.

The contributors fall into two broad categories; those such as veteran Canadian ufologist Chris Rutkowski along with Micah Hanks, Jack Brewer and Curt Collins who look to a 'scientific ufology', stripped of its numerous cultural accretions. Hanks, for example, refers back to Allan Hendry’s UFO Handbook (1979). It is an approach typified the painstaking demolition of alleged slides of the alleged Roswell alien by Curt Collins. The central proposition is that if ufology could only be cleared of cultists, or more politely, a quasi-religious world view, then proper scientists would take an interest in the subject.

However this is exactly what ufology was striving for forty or even fifty years ago. Themes like these can be found in early issues of MUFORG Bulletin and MUFOB. Even Flying Saucer Review published quite scientific papers on the then hot topic of orthoteny. Sober and serious books were written.

Conversely other contributors to this volume argue exactly the opposite that the fringe material is an integral part of the subject and indeed ufology must broaden its scope to cover all sorts of anomalous personal experiences, with the general assumption that such experiences are evidence of some exotic external reality. Joshua Cutchin beliefs that this will challenge 'materialist' science and that 'materialist' science will fall some time soon, but people have been saying that for over 150 years without effect. Susan Demeter-St Clair argues that ufology is connected to parapsychology. Someone calling himself 'Red Pill Junkie' links the subject, as does Cutchin with magic or rather 'magick'. Greg Bishop argues that we somehow co-create 'The Phenomenon'. Experiencers such as Mike Clelland argue that anomalous experiences are much more widely prevalent and often much weirder than is usually assumed. Of course Clelland still thinks in terms of the UFO folklore, describing himself as an abductee rather than someone who has had some very unusual experiences.

This line of thought can also be traced back fifty years, to the writings of John Keel, and the ur-text quoted is Vallee’s Invisible College, written 42 years ago. Themes along these lines can be found in issues of MUFOB going back to the 1960s. Indeed much of the writing in this book has a very sixties feel to it. Some of the themes here can be found in the writings of Tom Comella aka Peter Kor in Ray Palmer’s Flying Saucers magazine back in the early years of that decade.




Another theme that runs through a number of the contributions is that somehow ufology was created and maintained by the US government for various obscure reasons, perhaps to make the Soviet’s believe that the Americans had access to various not altogether pleasant technologies, or as mechanism of social control in the event of a crisis. Or perhaps more plausibly as a cover for testing various experimental aircraft.

The problem that most of the contributors have is that they possess at least a residual belief that there is some exotic stimulus out there which might be the core 'UFO phenomenon'. The more likely probability is that while a small minority of UFO reports might well be generated by uncatalogued natural phenomena or rare neurological events, the real core 'UFO phenomenon' is a social and cultural construct rather than a physical one.

If the UFO phenomenon is essentially a product of our imaginations then so too are the kinds of ideas invented to explain them, which might be one reason why the same ideas keep cropping up time and again. Another reason is that in the age of the Internet we are gradually losing our history.

This is rather amusingly demonstrated by an article by M J Banias who argues that ufology is a sort of anti-capitalist protest movement which is ignored by the establishment because they can’t make money out of it. This might seem plausible in the age of free Internet sites and self-publishing, but in its heyday ufology was very much a capitalist enterprise fuelled by the desire to sell books, magazines and newspapers. Publishers only published books on the subject in order to make money and judging by the number of books published in the 1960s and 1970s they were quite successful at this. The truth is that UFOs have been a saleable commodity from Kenneth Arnold onwards.

What struck me also about this book is that like much of what it critiques it is overwhelmingly Americocentric despite its editor being British. There are only passing references to Hilary Evans, David Clarke, none to Peter Brookesmith, Nigel Watson, Andy Roberts or even Charles Bowen. No mention of Fortean Times or for that matter Magonia, and certainly none of the likes of Bertrand Méheust, Jacques Scornaux, Mauzio Verga, V. J. Ballester Olmos, Clas Svahn, or even the European pioneers like Aime Michel.

That being said this is still well worth reading particularly for newcomers to the subject, and brings out what appears to be a division between those who see UFO experiences in strictly secular scientific terms and those who see them as essentially religious experiences, a modern version of the distinction between 'UFO' and 'Flying Saucer' belief systems that I noted in my 'Revisionist History of Ufology': http://mufobmagazine.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/revisionist.html -- Peter Rogerson

29.6.17

HOODOO ROOTS: RITES AND WRONGS

Tony Kail, A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo: Rootworkers, Conjurers and Spirituals, The History Press, 2017.

Some may be shocked, others bemused, to discover that Amazon sells High John the Conqueror Anointing Oil. This, as the more esoteric of you no doubt know, is a staple accoutrement of traditional Afro-American Hoodoo. And clearly, as such an arcane thing is available on Amazon, Hoodoo has got at least one toe in the mainstream pool. Whether or not that’s desirable depends, of course, on one’s view on what some venerate as a religious aspect of black folklore, others decry as blatant charlatanism and superstition – and some believe to be nothing less than black magic. But it is much more than any of those.

As Tony Kail’s detailed and restrained book reveals, the history of Hoodoo in the US – specifically in its heartland, around Memphis, Tennessee – is pretty much also the history of black survival in certain areas of north America and as such possesses a remarkable significance, without even scratching the surface of the actual religious aspects. Hoodoo is important, not only in its own right, but also as a marker of the tenacity of African Traditional Religions (ATRs).

But first, Hoodoo is not Voodoo. Geographically, Voodooism was and is centred on Louisiana and has its roots, not only as expected in African tribal beliefs but also eclectically in Catholicism, with a Cajun undertone. Certainly to an outsider – and therefore craving indulgence from true adherents of the religion – Voodoo is heavily based on a belief in spells and spiritual possession. In any case, it is all too often viewed with alarm and disgust by an outside world that is familiar with sensationalist stories of Voodoo as synonymous with devil worship in places such as Haiti. Sadly, however, revisiting Voodoo is not the subject here: Hoodoo is.

Hoodoo has similarities to Voodoo, but differences too. It is primarily a plant, root and herb-based practice that also uses spells, often for healing, and is associated with what might be termed the black Spiritualist movement. The roots of Hoodoo are both literal and figurative. Roots are very, very important to Hoodoo practitioners.

From as early as 1866, newspapers in the American Deep South were reporting about the deviant, ‘barbaric’ practices of Hoodoo ‘rootworkers’. These, needless to say, were viewed as a threat to the white overlords. Soon public panics arose, and ancient beliefs became a laughing stock. One police officer stopped and frisked a rootworker. Finding a bag containing a charm, the officer said: ‘A grown man, even if he was a negro, ought to have better sense than to believe in such stuff.’ He threw the charm onto a stove. The rootworker was horrified, claiming it was his only defence against enemies. The story went the rounds. To the white population it showed how stupid black people could be. To adherents of Hoodoo it showed how crass white people, especially the authorities - could be. And usually were.

One knee-jerk reaction to this might be that, despite his inflammatory and bigoted approach, the policeman might have a point. Surely, some might think, any sensible adult wouldn’t believe in such stuff. That is the big question, of course, vis-à-vis any religion: do their prayers, incantations and sacraments in any tangible sense, actually work?

(The answer is probably: yes and no, and it depends. But that’s not the point here.)

The Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo is first and foremost a respectful socio-historical presentation of Hoodoo, not essentially a critique. You will learn a huge amount about an intense – even perhaps a somewhat claustrophobic culture – but your scepticism is irrelevant.

As a valid ATR, Hoodoo’s charm bags, roots, potions and so on are sacred – just as much as a crucifix might be to a Catholic. Perhaps more so, given that Hoodoo represents in so many minds a whole way of life that is synonymous with surviving the grim years of enslavement.

One of the major points of interest is the revelation of how local, even parochial, American Hoodoo was and is. After all, the book’s title makes it plain it’s about Memphis, and much of the content even discusses specific drug stores and ‘curio’ emporia in specific streets. It’s that local, and that intense.

The streets of Memphis have historically bristled with shops, some of them famous, selling the stuff of Hoodoo, from the inevitably love potions – though the ‘come to me’ candles and lotions sit side by side with those intended to split couples up or banish an unworthy suitor – to the paraphenalia of money- and luck-attracting spells (always a favourite among gamblers), and those for healing or cursing.


As mentioned earlier, one of the most famous names associated with Hoodoo ritual is High John the Conqueror, a legendary figure, ‘said to be a son of an African king and had been sold into slavery. John the Conqueror was said to bring about laughter and hope to African slaves. He would even bring laughter to the faces of slave owners…’ He is both a sort of invisible superhero and an actual root, or a group of herbs. The root can be carried, or chewed or placed in that Hoodoo essential – the mojo (personalised charm) bag.

When plain ‘John the Conqueror’ is ‘dressed’ with Heart’s cologne (perfumes and oils are also staples of the ritual practices) it becomes ‘High John the Conqueror, King of the World’. Researchers have discovered that High John was carried by slaves to avoid beatings from plantation owners. One can only hope it worked.

Like Voodoo, Hoodoo adherents use elements of the Bible in their practices. For example, Psalm 6:6-9: ‘… I water my couch with my tears. Mine eye is consumed because of grief… Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping. The Lord hath heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer’ is used together with spells for healing eye troubles.

For almost all its presence in Memphis, Hoodoo rootworking, conjuring and healing had to be practised clandestinely.

Historically, few practitioners were keen to talk about their work to outsiders and it is only in the modern era that academics have been able to interview them – or, indeed specialise in a subject that for so long was deemed unworthy of scholastic interest. Pioneers in the early 20th century opened up the field, with the work of the likes of folklorist Newbill Niles Puckett, whose book Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro is a classic.

One of the most remarkable revelations – and the most colourful – is the discussion of famous practitioners. One of the most revered is known simply as ‘Doctor Jack’, a slave (born in the late 18th century) whose astonishing results as a healer earned him the freedom to roam and practice his ‘medicine’ throughout the southern states. Soon, however, complaints were filed against him in the courts, which led to a group of 67 influential white women petitioning the state to repeal the act that prevented him practising legally. Their petition stated that they ‘believe “Doctor Jack” to be honest, honorable and skillful, especially in obstinate cases of long standing; and that the people ought not to be denied the privilege of commanding his services.' This was accompanied by several other testimonies.

One, from a slave owner, said that one of his male slaves appeared to have been dying but after being treated by Doctor Jack with ‘indigenous roots’ he ‘made a perfect cure’. Grimly, however, this ends: ‘The negro is now well and fit for the hardest service given under my hand.’

Many Hoodoo practitioners have been arrested for fortune-telling, which was often the result of police ignorance or bigotry. Hoodoo does incorporate ‘spiritual readings’ and prophecy. Sometimes, as this excellent and objective book makes clear, however, the authorities were quite right in taking decisive steps against some ‘rootworkers’, who turned out to be blatant charlatans. ‘Conjuring cons’ have been all too frequent.

Memphis was also home to many historically important Spiritualist organisations – such as the Reverend Samuel Watson’s Southern Association of Spiritualists. In its day, this was quite a step, as the earliest Spiritualists – c. 1840s – were none too keen to involve the black community. But in 1855 Watson formed a group, including five physicians, the Episcopal Bishop of Tennessee and laymen from several churches to investigate the apparent psychic talents of a young black girl who seemed to be able to channel spirits of the dead. After she impressed the investigators favourably, Spiritualism blossomed among the Hoodoo-based community. It was particularly beneficial to black women, who soon rose to prominence in many of the new Spiritualist churches, assuming names such as ‘Queen’ or ‘reverend’. Some congregations chose to call themselves ‘spiritual churches’ rather than evoke the Spiritualism of the white people (or the Spiritism of South America). The Spiritual Churches often focus, not just on contacting the dead, but also on healing the living. The spirit of Doctor Jack lives on.

This book is even-handed, non-judgemental and unsensational, but not without a sort of gentle implicit affection for its subject. And somehow, while not being literary in the slightest, its pages still manage to convey the reader to the hot, stifling streets of Memphis with its Hoodoo curio shops and stores pungent with High John the Conqueror floor washes and colognes.

To a white European, it might seem bizarre that a religion can encompass everything from perfume to spells to healing, but then what would, say, the practices of Catholicism seem like to an outsider?

And if the amorality and practice of casting spells appears intimidating and distasteful, it might do to recall exactly where Hoodoo came from – the roots of its roots, if you like.

At a lecture given by a Hoodoo priestess in London a few years ago which I attended, a Wiccan (modern witch) in the audience asked if she wasn’t worried about her spells rebounding on her. He explained that Wicca teaches that whatever you put out magically comes back threefold, so if you curse someone you will basically get hammered thrice over.

‘Well,’ replied the Hoodoo lady with feeling, ‘We don’t have that in our tradition. After all, what could possibly be worse than being a slave?’ -- Lynn Picknett.

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