Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred
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Most scholars dismiss research into the paranormal as pseudoscience, a frivolous pursuit for the paranoid or gullible. Even historians of religion, whose work naturally attends to events beyond the realm of empirical science, have shown scant interest in the subject. But the history of psychical phenomena, Jeffrey J. Kripal contends, is an untapped source of insight into the sacred and by tracing that history through the last two centuries of Western thought we can see its potential centrality to the critical study of religion.
Kripal grounds his study in the work of four major figures in the history of paranormal research: psychical researcher Frederic Myers; writer and humorist Charles Fort; astronomer, computer scientist, and ufologist Jacques Vallee; and philosopher and sociologist Bertrand Méheust. Through incisive analyses of these thinkers, Kripal ushers the reader into a beguiling world somewhere between fact, fiction, and fraud. The cultural history of telepathy, teleportation, and UFOs; a ghostly love story; the occult dimensions of science fiction; cold war psychic espionage; galactic colonialism; and the intimate relationship between consciousness and culture all come together in Authors of the Impossible, a dazzling and profound look at how the paranormal bridges the sacred and the scientific.
As the researches and writing of the S. P. R. developed, its members eventually came to see telepathy as the central category through which the stories they were receiving and back-checking made the most sense. The “telepathic law,” as Myers came to call it, thus became the bedrock theoretical construct of Human Personality. The collection of phenomena that this single construct named, however, was by no means singular or simple. To begin with, telepathic events were highly variable, ranging from those focused on some simple projective technology, like the tapping table, crystal ball, or planchette (a kind of automatic writing device invented in 1853 that would later morph into the Ouija Board or “Yes-Yes Board”), to exceedingly complex psychological automatisms, such as automatic writing, trance, and possession states.
The UFO phenomenon does not thus represent an extraterrestrial visitation. “Instead it appears to be inter-dimensional and to manipulate physical realities outside of our own space-time continuum. ”80 He openly acknowledges those before him who came to the same conclusion, particularly Charles Fort, whose famous line he now cites: “We are property. ” This is no invasion, Vallee observes in agreement. “It is a spiritual system that acts on humans and uses humans. ”81 How? Through psychic processes we have not even begun to fathom, working on levels of human consciousness we know next to nothing about—hardly a positive assessment.
This is already patently obvious in his “Folklore as an Instrument of Knowledge,” an early essay (1937) in which he argues, more or less exactly like Andrew Lang had done, for the empirical or experiential reality of folkloric beliefs and psychical phenomena. 32 Behind at least some of these “miraculous” stories, Eliade argued, lays a series of actual concrete human experiences, which are then exaggerated and mythologized by the religious imagination. Eliade thus explores the critical literature on such things as levitation in Catholic hagiography and Indian yoga and the “fluid” link said to exist between an object and its previous owner assumed in various magical rituals and psychical practices (hence “contagious magic,” the magical use of relics, and “psychometry” or the psychical perception of persons via their possessions).
His mother rose and nearly fainted when she heard this particular detail. With tears in her eyes, she then “exclaimed that I had indeed seen my sister, as no living mortal but herself was aware of that scratch, which she had accidentally made while doing some little act of kindness after my sister’s death. ” She was embarrassed, and so had covered the little scar with powder and make-up (as she prepared the body for burial, I take it) and never mentioned it to anyone. The writer goes on: “In proof, neither my father nor any of our family had detected it, and positively were unaware of the incident, yet I saw the scratch as bright as if it [were] just made.
So whereas, for example, a figure like Rudolf Otto displayed a profound sensibility for the numinous as the eerie, the sacred at once alluring and terrifying, and insisted on the epistemological necessity of such a sensibility to study the sacred in any truly adequate fashion, today those ghostly sensibilities are continuously ridiculed as naive and self-serving, as if real scholarship can only proceed by denying the reality of that which it claims to study. Hence Edith Turner’s reflections on witnessing a spirit emerge from a sick body in Zambia and her subsequent experiences of ESP, all almost completely incomprehensible before what she calls the “religious frigidity” of academics.