Though it's been mentioned in the comments, I'd like to call additional attention to Stephen E. Braude's reply to Tom Butler's criticism of his work with Kai Mügge. His detailed response can be read here. (It has been posted via Dropbox, but you do not need to have a Dropbox account to read it or download it.)
In contemporary parapsychology, Braude is one of the very few serious researchers into physical and materialization mediumship, areas that have historically been plagued with fraud and ambiguity. For several decades the Society for Psychical Research largely refused to conduct any investigations into such claims, having found that virtually all cases they did examine proved fraudulent. The credibility of mediumship in general was severely undermined by public exposures of fake mediums of the physical/materialization type, carried out both by enterprising newspapermen and by Harry Houdini. The decline of widespread public interest in Spiritualism dates to this period.
Accordingly, it's only common sense to approach the subject with a degree of skepticism (healthy skepticism, not dogmatic Skepticism). And it's essential to be honest and open about any findings, even if they might be harmful to the medium or to some larger agenda. At the same time, owing to the tricksterish nature of these phenomena, it's necessary to avoid jumping to conclusions or painting with too broad a brush.
This is a difficult balancing act, but Dr. Braude has managed it throughout his career. His ongoing investigation of Kai, whatever its controversies, is one more important contribution to this perplexing field.
A new website has been set up to display infrared videos, presumably taken surreptitiously, that show what goes on behind the scenes at one physical/materialization medium's seances. His name is Gary Mannion. (No, I'd never heard of him, but apparently he has a following in the UK.)
It's interesting stuff, and a reminder that books like The Psychic Mafia tell an important part of the story.
More disturbing than the videos themselves is the likelihood that a not-insignificant portion of Mannion's clientele will accept whatever explanation he comes up with — probably that a malevolent spirit possessed him and made him cheat, just this one time.
Roger Knights informs me that The Witch of Napili, Michael Schmicker's fictionalized account of Eusapia Palladino's mediumship, is now available for free as a Kindle ebook.
Stephen E. Braude has published a follow-up report on the Felix physical mediumship circle. The credibility of medium "Kai" (a pseudonym) took a hard hit when it was revealed that he had cheated in some earlier sessions. Braude discusses the cheating in detail, but also explains his reasons for thinking that Kai was still worth studying. Unfortunately the new investigation was inconclusive, and the hoped-for infrared video of table levitations was not obtained. Braude's balanced, scrupulously fair report is well worth reading (as is everything he writes).
Update: Actually I meant to say that clear, unambiguous IR video of a table levitation was not obtained. There was video of a purported levitation, but it was not the iron-clad evidence the researchers were hoping for.
A pair of neuroscientists tried to see if contemporary approaches to understanding the brain would allow them to successfully interpret a simple computer program — in this case, the vintage Donkey Kong game. They found that they were unable to learn much at all about the program, calling into question the efficacy of the current computer-based model for studying brain functions.
Some years ago I used to argue with a Skeptic on the comments threads of this blog about the evidence for life after death. One point he liked to make was that evidence for UFOs was at least as good as evidence for an afterlife, so why would I believe in one but not the other? At the time I could only say that I hadn't studied UFOs and had no opinion on the subject, an answer he found unsatisfactory.
I still haven't studied UFOs in any depth, but I've read a little on the subject. My tentative conclusion now is that, while many of the reports are hoaxes or errors, some are probably valid. It doesn't follow that UFOs are physical spaceships that have crossed lightyears to visit us. Scott Rogo in his book The Haunted Universe makes the point that there are often close connections between psychic phenomena (premonitions, etc.) and UFO sightings; his suggestion is that UFOs are in some sense a psychic phenomenon in their own right. Carl Jung and Jacques Vallee seem to have had a similar notion. My best guess is that legitimate sightings of "flying saucers" could involve a glitch in the system, a sort of information leakage from one plane of reality to another, perhaps triggered by, or at least accompanied by changes in consciousness on the part of witnesses. This is vague, but it's the best I can do. They are "real," but maybe not physical, or only transiently physical. This would account for the known tendency of UFOs to behave unlike physical objects— to wink in and out of existence, for example.
As for alien abductions, I would see them as out-of-b0dy experiences misinterpreted as events in the physical world. Many "abduction" experiences start out with a sense that the body is vibrating uncontrollably; then the body levitates off the bed and floats through the wall. This is identical to descriptions of OBEs. The only difference is that OBErs look down and see their physical body left behind, while "abductees" apparently do not. Both experiences also have much in common with shamanic vision quests and with drug-induced experiences involving ketamine and DMT.
Incidentally, I don't think it's actually true that evidence for UFOs is as good as evidence for life after death. The advantage of afterlife studies is that some can be performed under controlled conditions (e.g., scientific tests of mediums) and others can be performed prospectively (e.g., hospital and hospice studies of deathbed visions and NDEs). UFOs can be studied only in the field and only after the fact, on the basis of eyewitness reports and occasional technological evidence such as videos or radar readings.
As a companion piece to my post on Richard Carlson's work, here's an old post from October 11, 2008, covering a related approach pioneered by David Burns. Incidentally, there's now an app for this — in fact, there's more than one. For iOS, the iCouch CBT app works pretty well. For Android, the Cognitive Diary CBT app looks good, though I haven't tried it.
Carlson's method involves not taking your thoughts too seriously. Burns's method involves subjecting your thoughts to a reality check. The common denominator of both approaches is to distance yourself from your thoughts — to look at a thought from a detached perspective, rather than letting it control you.
Neither method is a cure-all, but both can be helpful in preventing a "thought attack" — a cascade of negative thinking that often has little basis in reality.
In these stressful days, you may find it useful to study the ten cognitive distortions identified by Dr. David Burns. I first came across these in Burns' self-help book Feeling Good many years ago.
The basic technique is to write down a thought that's troubling you, and see which of the cognitive distortions may apply to it. Then reword the thought in more objective terms. It can also be helpful to rate your belief in the original thought and, later, in the revised thought.
For instance, suppose you are thinking, "I'll never get that promotion." Your belief in this is, say, 80% - you're almost certain of it.
Then consider if one or more of the distorted thought processes is at work here. You might decide that #7 applies - emotional reasoning. And maybe # 5(b) - fortune telling.
Something may feel true without necessarily being true. And predicting the future is dicey business. How many times have you made a false prediction or had a feeling of doom that turned out to be unjustified?
Next, ask yourself if you can replace the thought with one that is not affected by these distortions. You might say, "It seems as if getting that promotion will be harder than I hoped." Rate your belief in this new thought - maybe you believe it 60% or so.
Now go on to the next step: why will getting the promotion be harder than you hoped? "Because the boss hates me." Write this down. You believe it 100%.
But are there distortions in this thought, too? Maybe # 5(a) - mind reading. Perhaps also # 3 - mental filter.
Have you focused only on those times when your boss has been hostile, and suppressed your memory of those times when he has been pleasant? Have you assumed he has a negative attitude toward you personally, when you actually don't know what he's thinking?
Revise your thought. Now it might be something like: "My boss can be hard to get along with sometimes." Rate your belief in this, and then ask why you feel this way. You'll come up with another thought to analyze.
Continue in this way, digging deeper into your thoughts in a step-by-step fashion, until you have arrived at a clearer perspective, one that is not clouded by distorted thinking.
This deceptively simple technique can be amazingly powerful. Give it a try.
One of the most useful books I've read is a little self-help manual called You Can Be Happy Matter What, by Richard Carlson. The book was written early in Carlson's career, before he became famous for a series of bestsellers beginning with Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. The later books never appealed to me all that much, but You Can Be Happy … remains one of my favorites.
Carlson's central insight is that you are not your thoughts. His teaching is both simple and profound. He suggests that most of us have the wrong relationship to our own thinking, and that this misconstrued relationship is responsible for most of our angst, depression, worry, and unhappiness in general.
What is this relationship? It is that we think our thoughts are important, when most of the time they are not. They are just thoughts. Thoughts come and go, and it is up to us whether to grant them any importance by focusing on them, examining them, and pursuing them further, or instead to simply let them go.
Suppose you are having a perfectly ordinary day when, for no obvious reason, a thought pops into your head: I really screwed up on that blind date. Maybe the blind date happened yesterday or maybe it happened ten years ago; it doesn't matter. The usual – but wrong – response to this thought is to drill down into it. Yeah, I just can't handle blind dates. Maybe that's why I'm so bad at relationships. I just turn people off. Face it, I'm going to be alone forever.
At this point, you've turned a perfectly nice day into an exercise in self-accusation leading inevitably to a bad frame of mind – probably either anger at yourself, anger at the whole world, or depression. Whatever you were doing a minute earlier seems pointless now, and whatever you had planned to do in the next hour suddenly doesn't seem worth doing anymore. You lie down on the couch, feeling low, and naturally you continue to explore the same thoughts and memories that have brought you down, thus spiraling lower and lower.
This is how most of us behave, at least a good part of the time. We grant our thoughts too much power. We think that there's something significant about them, and that when we take notice of a thought, it must require our immediate attention. We also tend to think that analyzing a problem, worrying at it the way a dog worries at a bone, circling around it to see it from every possible vantage point, will help us to find a solution. It doesn't occur to us that we've spent countless hours analyzing this or similar problems in that way, and all it's ever gotten us is frustration and misery.
So what is the right way to react to the initial thought about the blind date gone awry? Actually, the best way is not to react to it at all. Nor is it to instantly suppress the thought, as if guiltily shoving it into a mental drawer where it can't be seen. That's only another way of giving the thought power – making it so powerful that it must be hidden away like some kind of occult talisman.
The best way is to say yourself, I don't know why I thought about that. It's not worth thinking about now. Or some words to that effect. Then just dismiss the thought and go on about your business.
Though it may be hard to believe, this really works. The subconscious is extremely suggestible, and if you tell it that a certain idea is not important or interesting and certainly not worth bringing up, then the subconscious is much less likely to bring it up again. And the more you reinforce this policy, the less likely it is that the thought will even occur to you. Your subconscious can be trained to stop bringing you things you don't want, much like dog that can be trained to stop bringing you scraps from the garbage can.
Now you might say, What if I would actually benefit from taking a good hard look at my mistakes on the blind date? How else am I going to learn? And that's a valid point. But you're not going to learn anything by an exercise in recrimination and self-abasement. You'd be better off approaching the subject neutrally, when you're in the mood to tackle it without being too hard on yourself. And you're unlikely to get much benefit out of repeating this exercise countless times. Learn what you can from your mistakes, and then close the book on that subject and move on. If your subconscious keeps nudging you to return to this topic after you've gotten what you can out of it, then simply ignore the nudges.
Carlson tells us that nearly all of our emotional and interpersonal difficulties come from granting our thoughts a power they don't deserve. He calls the spiraling nosedive of negative thinking a "thought attack," and observes that these attacks are best handled by nipping them in the bud. Take note of the first negative thought, acknowledge it (don't try to hide it or suppress it), and then simply decide not to take it seriously right now. You can even schedule a time later in the day when you might be willing to take it seriously. Most likely, when that time arrives, you won't even remember it. If you do remember it, you'll probably be sufficiently detached to be able to look at it more objectively and usefully.
From my own experience, I can say that this is a highly effective technique. It's also easy to forget. You can quickly lapse back into old habits. The imagined power of your own thoughts can exert a seductive hold on your ego, a hold difficult to break. But it can be done. It takes a kind of mindfulness, a willingness to step back and look at the thought before committing to it – I mean before committing to even taking it seriously or thinking about it further. Most of the time, once you've taken a step back, you'll find the thought is not worth your time, and you'll dismiss it as effortlessly as you would brush a mosquito off your arm.
Incidentally, this is one of the objections I have to the New Age mantra "thoughts are things." I think this gives thoughts entirely too much reality and importance. It also encourages us to suppress (or repress) our thoughts, by investing them with a fearful power that makes them dangerous to look upon. The opposite is closer to the truth: "thoughts are nothing."
There are limitations to Carlson's method. Though he insists that our happiness is entirely a matter of our own interpretation and that outside circumstances have nothing to do with it, I think some outside circumstances are so dire that no amount of mindfulness, short of the otherworldly detachment of a Zen master, could make them bearable. If you're a prisoner in a concentration camp or the captive of a serial killer, your happiness is really not in your own control. But most of us, thankfully, are not likely to find ourselves in those circumstances. For the ordinary ups and downs of everyday life, the frictions and frustrations, the arguments and disappointments, Carlson's approach works extraordinarily well.
It also has a certain relevance to the whole question of the nature of consciousness. If we are not our thoughts, then what are we? Evidently we are the mind that looks at our thoughts and either investigates them or shoos them away. Which means we are something like "the witness" who habitually stands back from our thoughts and actions, observing and sometimes judging in an impersonal way.
Perhaps it is the witness who is fully real and accounts for the continuity of consciousness that persists across many changes of mind – changes of opinion, changes of knowledge, changes of mood, changes of psychological maturity, etc. When we regard ourselves as essentially the same person we were at the age of six, maybe what we are acknowledging is the persistence of the witness, the observer who is outside the ego with its changeable nature, its endless conflicts, its Sturm und Drang. We are the eye of the storm, and the I in the storm.
And when we get caught up in petty quarrels, ego-based rivalries, and counterproductive obsessions, we're forgetting our essential nature as the witness and becoming ensnared in a briar patch of thoughts that ultimately have no reality at all. We're like a spider that gets stuck in its own web.
At this point we've gotten a little bit away from Richard Carlson's book, so let me circle back to it by saying that my summary of his views is necessarily incomplete and, in itself, probably not very helpful. If it interests you, I suggest reading the whole thing. It's not a long or difficult read, and you just may find it helpful. I know I have.
I recently came across an article by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman, proponents of the "biocentric" theory presented in their book Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death.
The article, "There is no death, only a series of eternal ‘nows’," argues that
biocentrism, in which life and consciousness create the reality around them, has no space for death ... [E]verything we see and experience is a whirl of information occurring in our head ...
Of course, as you’re reading this, you’re experiencing a ‘now’. But consider: from your great-grandmother’s perspective, your nows exist in her future and her great-grandmother’s nows exist in her past. The words ‘past’ and ‘future’ are just ideas relative to each individual observer.
So what happened to your great-grandmother after she died? To start with – since time doesn’t exist – there is no ‘after death’, except the death of her physical body in your now. Since everything is just nows, there is no absolute space/time matrix for her energy to dissipate – it’s simply impossible for her to have ‘gone’ anywhere.
Think of it like one of those old phonographs. The information on the record is turned into a three-dimensional reality that we can experience a moment at a time. All the other information on the record exists as potential. Any causal history leading up to the ‘now’ being experienced can be thought of as the ‘past’ (ie, the songs that played before wherever the needle is), and any events that follow occur in the ‘future’; these parallel nows are said to be in superposition. Likewise, the before-death state, including your current life with its memories, goes back into superposition, into the part of the record that represents just information.
In short, death does not actually exist ... And if death and time are illusions, so too is the continuity in the connection of nows.
The model is interesting, but I think at a certain point it fails. If we assume that the needle of the phonograph corresponds to consciousness, then presumably death corresponds to the moment when the needle is lifted off the record. But at that point the needle no longer can play any tracks on the record. Yes, the information encoded in the grooves remains, but it is inaccessible to consciousness. It might be seen as a store of information akin to the Akashic Records, but it would not be part of a dynamic, living personality.
At least, this is how I read it. It's possible, however, that I've misunderstood what the authors are saying. as best I can tell, if your life "goes back into superposition, into the part of the record that represents just information," then "you" are not actualized and, as such, "you" do not exist.
A more complicated but perhaps slightly more satisfactory model occurs to me. It involves holography. (Somewhere, Art is cheering.)
Image from Phys.org.
A holographic plate consists of wave-interference patterns that encode the information necessary to generate a three-dimensional image. Such a plate can be either reflective or transparent. A beam of focused light reflects off the plate or passes through it, creating, in either case, a three-dimensional projection. For our purposes, let's imagine that the plate is transparent.
The projection is fully three-dimensional, a fact that a spectator can appreciate only by circling around the image. From any given vantage point, only part of the image – one narrow slice of it, so to speak – can be seen. To take in the entire image, one must move around it, seeing first one side, then the front, then the other side.
Now let's say that this three-dimensional image corresponds to the entire content of the spacetime universe. And let's say that the spectator slowly making his way around the image and taking it in bit by bit in sequential fashion is egoic consciousness. What, then, is the beam of focused light? I suggest it can be analogized to the higher self, the larger consciousness of which the ego is only a small fragment or offshoot.
The higher self converts raw information into rendered images (using the word image in the broad sense to include objects that can be felt, smelled, tasted, etc.). The higher self sees the entire panoply of images as a single whole; the focused light of its consciousness pervades the entire spectrum of information, illuminating all of it. The egoic self, in contrast, perceives the hologram from one particular angle at any given moment; its movement along the axis of time creates the impression of change, as each new slice of (rendered) information comes into view and previously observed information moves out of view. The ego's point of view is narrow and limited, while the point of view of the higher self is omniscient, at least as far as the spacetime cosmos is concerned.
This is how things usually work, but occasionally the ego gets a glimpse of the bigger picture. In bursts of inspiration known as "cosmic consciousness," or in certain kinds of drug-induced visions, or in near-death experiences, or in death itself, the ego is – temporarily and partially – merged with the higher self. From this vantage point, the ego perceives the whole spectrum of rendered information all at once. The experience is overwhelming. It can be described as seeing the world from God's point of view, seeing and knowing everything there is, bursting free from the limitations of time and space, leaving Flatland to enter a higher-dimensional realm, etc. It can also be described as a "life review," in which all the events of one's life are reexperienced either simultaneously or nearly so.
In all cases other than actual death, the ego soon detaches from the higher self and is left once more with its familiar narrow perspective. But the memory of the transcendent experience never completely fades. It can provide the impetus for personal growth, religious or spiritual innovations, and even the development of psychic powers.
In death, the aftermath is less clear. Some would say that the ego simply dissolves into the higher self, while others would say that the ego detaches and continues its progress in an illusory replica of the spacetime world. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, among other sources, seems to suggest that the newly dead person can, with an effort of will, maintain the ego's merger with the higher self, but in the absence of this will (and the highly cultivated self-awareness it entails), the ego will inevitably retrogress. This opinion seems to be seconded by many channeled communications stating that the earthlike realms of the afterlife are ultimately illusions that must be transcended, and that the ego is progressively sloughed off as spiritual evolution proceeds. It is also borne out by the many postmortem communications strongly suggesting the persistence of the individual personality.
The end result, in either case, would be the (immediate or eventual) immersion of the ego in the higher self, which, standing outside time and space, is indestructible and self-contained. This would seem to be the ultimate destiny toward which we are all striving.
That's not to say that the higher self known to us is all that exists. It may well be the case – in fact, I suspect it is – that there are many higher selves, and that they ultimately comprise all of the consciousness there is; the sum total would be akin to what we call God, and the awareness of all these higher selves together would encompass many planes of reality, not just our physical plane.
The Next Big Thing appears to be virtual reality. Suddenly, VR headsets are being written up everywhere.
I was sufficiently intrigued to spend $15 on Google Cardboard, a VR viewer made of — yes — cardboard, which holds your smartphone in a snug little Velcro-tabbed flap and allows you to watch VR videos through two built-in lenses. The quality is not great (and why would it be for fifteen bucks?), but Cardboard does give you a taste of the VR experience. I watched a short documentary video via the free Vrse app; called "The Source," it concerned an Ethiopian village desperate for clean water. The image quality is not first-rate and the 3D effects are rather crude; figures in the foreground appear somewhat pasted on, like the images in an old stereopticon (or the ViewMaster toy from my childhood). But you do have a 360 degree view of the scene; turn your head and the point of view shifts appropriately. The experience was convincing enough to make me a little dizzy at times, and I was genuinely startled when someone abruptly appeared right "next to" me.
Even now, far more sophisticated VR gizmos are available, and naturally the technology will only get more realistic and affordable. It's not much of a stretch to assume that within ten years, and maybe much sooner, nearly everyone will be spending a certain part of his day plugged into an uncannily real virtual world.
All this has led my Facebook friend Ian, who occasionally comments here, to suggest that this trend represents, in part, an attempt to recreate the Summerland experience. I think he just might be right.
Image from a promotional video for the Oculus Rift VR headset
Summerland was a term coined by 19th century Spiritualists to designate the earthlike plane of spiritual reality to which most people gravitate shortly after they have died. Created out of the collective memories of the deceased, it feels as solid and real as physical reality does to the living. But unlike the earth plane, the Summerland environment is more directly under the control of consciousness, and some of its features can be creatively altered by an effort of imagination and will.
Because people at a similar level of spiritual development tend to flock together, Summerland is largely free of the conflicts and frictions that plague us on earth. And because it is a product of consciousness, it is an idealized environment - butterflies, but no mosquitoes; flowers, but no weeds.
If those of us who are currently alive retain any memory of a pre-birth existence, we may find ourselves unconsciously yearning for Summerland. This gnawing homesickness could be the basis of the persistent theme of paradise lost that resonates throughout world mythology. It may be why children, especially, are drawn to stories about magical kingdoms and happy endings. It may also be why some people become sad, even tearful, at the sight of a beautiful sunset or a scenic vista.
And it may help explain our urge to lose ourselves in a wondrous world of color and light, where nothing bad can happen to us no matter what adventures we embark on. For over a century, movies and television have exerted a hypnotic influence on millions of people (there's a reason Hollywood has been styled the Dream Factory); more recently, the entertainment experience has become interactive in the form of increasingly realistic first-person video games; and now VR is poised to take us to a whole new level of immersion in an unreal reality.
Some fans of the movie Avatar claimed to actually find it difficult to readjust to the real world after being immersed in the 3D (and sometimes Imax) world of Pandora. They said they felt sad and lost in mundane reality, and longed to return to the more colorful and exotic environment of the movie. Since Avatar arguably represents the highest technical and artistic level of 3D/CG imagery yet achieved, it's not too surprising that some people would get hooked on it. But VR technology will give us a vastly more immersive experience, one that makes even Avatar seem primitive by comparison. I will not be at all surprised if VR addiction (with its corollary: difficulty functioning in physical reality) becomes a leading issue in the next decade.
Imagine a fully immersive VR experience that is shared with thousands of other people via an online platform. Players interact with each other via avatars in a completely convincing 3D world. The environment has been meticulously designed to offer otherworldly beauty, dazzling variety, and total realism. The disagreeable features of real life are omitted, while the enjoyable aspects are abundantly available with no downside. In this world you can explore, study, party, fall in love, or just sit quietly on the bank of a babbling brook.
It sounds a lot like Summerland — the "heaven" that we may indistinctly remember. Maybe we are exerting our efforts as a society toward recreating that lost paradise so we can escape the travails of physical life and return to the place we came from.
But as Ian also observed in his Facebook post, Summerland is understood by Spiritualists to be a temporary place of rest and recuperation, a way station that prepares us for further challenges — either on higher planes or in a new earthly incarnation. If we should find a way to escape those challenges, are we missing out on the lessons that earthly life is intended to teach? Are we playing hooky when we should be in school, or going AWOL when we're meant to be in combat?
Or will VR serve, instead, to heighten our spiritual sense by reinforcing the idea that physical life is simply another drama played out for the ebenfit of consciousness — a "cosmic game," as Stanislav Grof described it? Will VR allows us to undergo shamanic vision quests without the need for ayahuasca, DMT, or peyote? Will it enable us to live a variety of alternate lives and have even more experiences (with concomitant opportunities for learning) than we can have now?
Perhaps the outcome will be mixed. Historical VR worlds may open us up to past-life memories, but also plant false memories of past lives. VR encounters with deceased loved ones may make some of us more accepting of a postmortem existence, while leading others to conclude that an afterlife is unnecessary. The convergence of physical and virtual reality may be liberating to some people and destabilizing to others.
I don't know. But I suspect that VR will be the next frontier in the expansion of consciousness and that it will take us in wildly unexpected directions. It may even take us home.
Years ago I posted a couple of essays on my author site called "Unusual Occurrences" and "More Unusual Occurrences." They were collections of mostly trivial and anecdotal synchronicities, coincidences, and premonitions from my personal life I still keep a record of such things in a journal.
Yes, I'm aware that they can be "explained" by the ever-helpful truism, usually delivered with condescending weariness, that in a universe of infinite possibilities, even very unlikely things are bound to happen now and then. How persuasive anyone finds this mantra is a personal matter. For me, it can explain a certain amount of strangeness in the world, but not an unlimited amount.
Anyway, within the last 24 hours I had two such occurrences, both very trivial, and I figured I would mention them here. They do not prove anything, but to me they are indicative of the everyday role that psi plays in our lives — a role so clandestine and marginal that we are usually unaware of it.
Yesterday I found myself thinking of a satirical variation on the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty," which would begin, "Humpty Trumpty sat on a wall…" I thought this could be a clever dig at Donald Trump, but I was unable to complete the rhyme. Later that day I flipped through a copy of a magazine called The Week and came across this cartoon:
Political cartoon by Glenn McCoy, available online here.
At a different time yesterday, I was musing on old-time special-effects master Ray Harryhausen, and specifically thinking about the death pose of his creation the Cyclops (in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), which is almost identical to the death pose of his earlier creation, the Ymir (in Twenty Million Miles to Earth). The fact that he chose almost the exact same pose for both models, which were built around the same (refused) armature, struck me as either a stylistic decision or an inside joke. Anyway, the first thing I saw on my Facebook newsfeed this morning was a post from a Harryhausen group with this photo:
That's the Ymir in its death pose.
Pure chance in both cases? Could be. I've been thinking a lot (in fact, too much) about Trump lately, and I've always been a bit Harryhausen-obsessed. But the specific parallels, right down to the fact that the Humpty Trumpty poem was unfinished in the cartoon just as I was unable to finish it in my thoughts, are suggestive to me.
As Goldfinger says in the movie named after him, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action." Rightly or wrongly, when things like this happen often enough, I see a pattern.
As a palette cleanser after our political kerfuffle, here's a book review that I originally posted on June 21, 2008. Happily it is Trump-free, though trumpets do make an appearance.
Arthur Findlay's On the Edge of the Etheric was first published in 1931. The used edition I purchased came out in 1970; it was the 66th printing in the United Kingdom. The book has been translated into at least 19 languages as well as Braille. According to Amazon.com, the book remains in print to this day.
Clearly, On the Edge of the Etheric has found an audience. And it's easy enough to see why. Arthur Findlay provides a convincing portrait of an otherwise little-known British medium, John C. Sloan.
Sloan appears to have been a man of high moral scruples. He accepted no remuneration of any kind for the many séances he conducted, preferring to maintain a regular 9-to-5 job to pay his bills. He practiced trance mediumship as well as direct voice and produced various physical effects such as levitating trumpets. He supplied a great deal of accurate and detailed information without prompting, often addressing sitters who were strangers to him and whose names he had never been given. He cooperated with sensible tests carried out to preclude fraud. Findlay reports putting his ear against the medium's lips while direct voice communication was in progress. Though the voice continued, there was no sound emanating from Sloan's mouth. On another occasion, Findlay heard a slight hissing sound from Sloan while the voice emanated from the center of the room some distance away. Sometimes two or three voices would talk at once. Sitters were able to identify deceased loved ones by their distinctive voices and by the specific, personal information that was conveyed.
There seems to be no possibility that Sloan used an accomplice, since his lodgings were typically searched before each session. Moreover, it would be hard to imagine any motive for an elaborate deception lasting for many years, even decades, when there was no money or fame involved. Sloan sought no publicity and would probably not be remembered at all if not for Findlay's book, which was published some years after the séances took place.
Findlay gives examples of Sloan's readings, classifying them as A1 and A2 cases. The A1 cases are those in which Findlay feels that fraud, telepathy, cryptaesthesia, and other non-survival explanations can be ruled out. In the A2 cases the evidence is not quite as clear cut but still highly suggestive.
In one instance, Findlay seems to misclassify a case. This is the second case listed in chapter 8. Here, Findlay reports knowing some details about a painting owned by a friend. At a later séance, a different friend was addressed by the direct voice, which said, "Tell your friend Dr. Lamond, 18 Regent Terrace, Edinburgh, that I am much obliged to him for keeping his promise and placing my picture on his mantelpiece." The name and address given were correct, but the friend knew nothing about the painting. Findlay writes, "This is another fool-proof case ... it being quite free from any other explanation than that the personality of [the painter] was present, and spoke. Otherwise how could such a message have come?" Of course, there is another possible explanation -- telepathy. Since Findlay himself knew all the details of the painting, it is at least conceivable that the medium read his mind. It seems odd that Findlay overlooked this obvious objection, and it does cast some doubt on how accurately he categorized the cases in general.
Nevertheless, the evidence he gives is quite persuasive overall. There seems little doubt that John C. Sloan was an exceptionally talented trance and direct voice medium who was immune to the blandishments of fame and fortune.
A large part of the book is taken up with an explanation of how séances are conducted "on the other side." How exactly is the direct voice manifested? According to Findlay, who asked this question many times during the séances and received detailed answers, some vital force known as ectoplasm is elicited from the medium and the sitters, and is then collected in a kind of bowl. Using this ectoplasm, the communicator is able to materialize his hands, which he then uses to create a masklike form. He presses his face into this mask until it coats his mouth, tongue, and throat. With this coating in place, the communicator's etheric body takes on the "heaviness" necessary to produce sound vibrations in the physical world.
Of course the concept of ectoplasm is difficult for many of us to accept; it is too reminiscent of cheesy Hollywood movies and the pronouncements of fraudulent mediums. But if materializations are possible, then presumably some kind of quasi-physical substance is involved, and ectoplasm is probably as good a word for it as any.
Another large portion of the book concerns the allegedly scientific basis for materialization and direct voice mediumship. Unfortunately, Findlay's argument is based on the now-outdated notion of the ether, a substance once thought to pervade the cosmos and serve as the medium for the propagation of electromagnetic waves. Findlay believed that the key to mediumship was understanding differences in the frequency of vibration of the ether. Indeed, many sources affirm that "vibrations" of some sort are critical in mediumistic communication. If there is no such thing as ether, then what is vibrating? As far as I know, there is no answer to this question (though The Unobstructed Universe, by Stewart Edward White, attempts to supply one -- as I recall, the book posits "vibrations of consciousness").
A minor impediment to accepting the phenomena Findlay describes is the nature of Sloan's spirit control, an American Indian named Whitefeather. As was all too common in séances of this period, Whitefeather spoke in broken English, using the cliché expressions of a B-movie Indian. It is hard to take this personality at face value, although Findlay does mention that, in life, Whitefeather knew no English and learned his English by participating in the séances. If true, this might suggest that the expectations of the sitters influenced the idioms used by the spirit control. In other words, perhaps Whitefeather spoke like an Indian in a penny-dreadful novel because that was how his audience expected him to speak.
Interestingly, another Indian communicator spoke flawless English. The explanation he provided was that he learned English in his earthly life.
Whatever the deficiencies of the spirit controls, the information that came through the séances is quite impressive. Findlay gives only a few cases out of the scores he witnessed, but these are highly convincing. Here is an abbreviated version of one of the best:
I took my brother with me to a séance shortly after he was demobilised from the Army in 1919. He knew no one present, and was not introduced. No one present, except myself, knew that he had been in the Army. No one present knew where he had been during his time in the Army. His health had not permitted him to go abroad, and he was stationed part of the time near Lowestoft at a small village called Kessingland, and part of the time at Lowestoft, training gunners ...
During the course of the sitting the trumpet was distinctly heard moving about the room, and various voices spoke through it. Suddenly it tapped my brother on the right knee, and a voice directly in front of him said, "Eric Saunders". My brother asked if the voice were addressing him, and it replied "Yes", whereupon he said that there must be some mistake, as he had never known anybody of that name....
[My brother] asked where he had met him. The answer was: "In the Army." My brother mentioned a number of places, such as Aldershot, Bisley, France, Palestine, etc., but carefully omitted Lowestoft, where he had been stationed for the greater part of his army life. The voice replied "No, none of those places. I knew you when you were near Lowestoft." My brother asked why he said "Near Lowestoft," and he replied: "You were not in Lowestoft then, but at Kessingland." ...
My brother then asked what company [Saunders] had been attached to, and, as he could not make out whether he said "B" or "C", my brother asked if he could remember the name of the Company Commander. The reply was "Macnamara." This was the name of the officer commanding "B" Company at that time. By way of a test, my brother pretended that he remembered the man, and said: "Oh yes, you were one of my Lewis gunners, were you not?" The reply was: "No, you had not the Lewis guns then, it was the Hotchkiss." This was quite correct, as the Lewis guns were taken from them in April 1917, and were replaced by Hotchkiss ....
[Saunders] told my brother he had been killed in France, and my brother asked him when he had gone out. He replied that he had gone with the "Big Draft in August 1917". My brother asked him why he called it the Big Draft, and he said: "Don't you remember the Big Draft, when the Colonel came on the parade ground and made a speech." This reference was to a particularly large draft sent out to France that month, and was the only occasion on which my brother remembered the Colonel ever personally saying good-bye to the men ....
About six months after the above incident my brother was in London, and met, by appointment, the corporal who had been his assistant with the light guns in his battalion at the time. My brother told him the above story, and asked if he remembered any man named "Eric Saunders"....
The corporal had brought with him an old pocket diary, in which he had been in the habit of keeping a full list of men under training, and other information. He pulled it out of his pocket, and together they looked back until they came to the records of "B" Company during 1917. Sure enough the name appear there, "Eric Saunders, f.q., August '17", with a red-ink line drawn through it; f.q. stood for fully qualified, and, though my brother knew the meaning of the red-ink line, he asked the corporal when it meant. He replied: "Don't you remember, Mr. Findlay, I always drew a line through the man's names when they went away. This shows that Saunders went out in August 1917."...
It is a remarkable case, as it is fraud proof, telepathy proof, and cryptaesthesia proof. Not only did no one present know my brother, but my brother did not know the speaker, and cannot even to-day recollect him, as he was passing hundreds of men through their training ... This case contains fourteen separate facts; each one was correct.