Fragment: Primitive Culture, Spiritualism and “The Philosophy of Savages”

“The Received Spiritualistic theory belongs to the philosophy of savages. As to such matters as apparitions or possessions, this is obvious; and it holds in more extreme cases. Suppose a wild North American Indian looking on at a spirit-séance in London. As to the presence of disembodied spirits, manifesting themselves by raps, noises, voices, and other physical actions, the savage would be perfectly at home in the proceedings; for such things are part and parcel of his recognized system of Nature. The part of the affair really strange to him would be the introduction of such arts as spelling and writings, which do belong to a different state of civilization from his. The issue raised by the comparison of savage, barbaric, and civilized Spiritualism, is this: — Do the Red Indian medicine-man, the Tartar necromancer, the Highland ghost-seer, and the Boston medium, share the possession of belief and knowledge of the highest truth and import, which, nevertheless, the greatest intellectual movement of the last two centuries has simply thrown aside as worthless? Is what we are habitually boasting of, and calling new enlightenment, then, in fact, a decay of knowledge? If so, this is a truly remarkable case of degeneration; and the savages whom some Ethnographers look on as degenerate from a higher civilization, may turn on their accusers, and charge them with having fallen from the high level of savage knowledge.”

Edward Burnett Tylor (1871). Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, Vol 1. p. 141.

The Beautiful Knowledge of Ida Craddock

What does Aleister Crowley have in common with the suffragette movement of the nineteenth century? Understandably, one could have trouble with this question. Yet one intriguing answer can be found in the works of the free thinker, free speech advocate and early agitator for women’s rights, Ida Craddock (1857-1902).

Craddock infamously crossed swords with the giant of nineteenth century American censorship, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), who bragged that he had personally driven at least 15 people, including Craddock, to suicide in what he called his “fight for the young”, and as a self-described “weeder in God’s garden”. Now seen as more of a valiant defender of free speech and women’s rights instead of just as a  victim of Comstock’s violent crusade, Craddock was also an early western defender of belly dancing, writing a fiery defence of the performance of the group Little Egypt, which was presented at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

She was also actively engaged in a range of occult matters, associating herself with the Theosophical Society, describing herself as a Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga. Craddock taught correspondence courses to women and couples on the sacred nature of sex for its own sake. More publicly, she wrote pamphlets, articles and books on the subject in order to prevent “sexual evils and sufferings” (which is what attracted Comstock’s ire). Ostensibly single all of her life, she described her active sexual relationship with an angelic being (sometimes a spirit) named “Soph”, who she claimed taught her many things about sacred sexuality (and in whose embrace she was said to be so vocally excited as to give the neighbours some cause to complain of the noise).

Defending the existence of her spiritual lover, Craddock would explore the history of erotic relationships between humans and angels, spirits, incubi, succubi and other creatures from ancient times to her present day, presenting the result of her labours partly in her work Heavenly Bridegrooms.

In 1902, Craddock was arrested under New York’s anti-obscenity laws and was scheduled to be incarcerated. She wrote two suicide notes, one public and one for her mother (who had already attempted and failed to get her institutionalized). In her public note, she began:

I am taking my life, because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has decreed me guilty of a crime which I did not commit–the circulation of obscene literature–and has announced his intention of consigning me to prison for a long term.

She concluded the note with a public appeal to protect her written work, which I think it is fitting to produce verbatim here:

I earnestly hope that the American public will awaken to a sense of the danger which threatens it from Comstockism, and that it will demand that Mr. Comstock shall no longer be permitted to suppress works on sexology. The American people have a right to seek and to obtain knowledge upon right living in the marriage relation, either orally or in print, without molestation by this paid informer, Anthony Comstock, or by anybody else.

Dear fellow-citizens of America, for nine long years I have faced social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock for your sakes. I had a beautiful gospel of right living in the marriage relation, which I wanted you to share with me. For your sakes, I have struggled along in the face of great odds; for your sakes I have come at last to the place where I must lay down my life for you, either in prison or out of prison. Will you not do something for me now?

Well, this is what I want the American public to do for me. Only one of my books, that on “The Wedding Night,” is at present under legal ban. “Right Marital Living,” which is by far the more important book of the two, and which contains the gist of my teachings, has not yet been indicted. Mr. Comstock, however, told me, when arresting me, that he expected to get both books indicted. If sufficient of a popular demand be made for this book, and especially if the demand voice itself in the public press, he will not dare to attack the book in the courts. Will you do this one thing for me, those of you who have public influence? Remember, it is for you and for your children that I have fought this nine-years’ fight. And although I am going to a brighter and a happier land, nevertheless, I shall still look down upon you all here, and long and long and long that you may know something of the radiantly happy and holy life which is possible fore every married couple who will practice these teachings. Even in Paradise I cannot be as happy as I might, unless you share with me this beautiful knowledge.

I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book, “Right Marital Living.”

To her mother, Craddock wrote that she would refuse to for to the asylum, but that she loved here and should not grieve her passing, for:

the world beyond the grave, believe me, is far more real and substantial than is this world in which we to-day live. This earth life which the Hindoos have for centuries termed “Maya,” that is illusion. My people assure me that theirs is the real, the objective, the material world. Ours is the lopsided, the incomplete world.

And concluded by reminding her:

Dear, dear mother, please remember that I love you, and that I shall always love you. Even if you get fantastic communications from the border land, remember that the real Ida is not going there.

The real Ida, your own daughter, loves you and waits for you to come soon over to join her in the beautiful blessed world beyond the grave, where Anthony Comstocks and corrupt judges and impure-minded people are not known. We shall be very happy together some day, you and I, dear mother; there will be a blessed reality for us both at last. I love you, dear mother; never forget that. And love cannot die; it is no dream, it is a reality. We shall be the individuals over there that we are here, only with enlarged capacities. Goodbye, dear mother, if only for a little while. I love you always. I shall never forget you, that would be impossible; nor could you ever forget me. Do not think the next world an unsubstantial dream; it is material, as much so as this; more so than this. We shall meet there, dear mother. Your affectionate daughter,

Ida C. Craddock

On October 16th 1902, Ida Craddock committed suicide, apparently by slashing her wrists and inhaling natural gas.

And this is where Crowley comes into this.  After Craddock’s death he wrote a positive review of her “Heavenly Bridegrooms” in his periodical Equinox, claiming that it was:

one of the most remarkable human documents ever produced, and it should certainly find a regular publisher in book form. The authoress of the MS. claims that she was the wife of an angel. She expounds at the greatest length the philosophy connected with this thesis. Her learning is enormous. […] This book is of incalculable value to every student of occult matters. No Magick library is complete without it.

While Crowley was “The Beast”, and was certainly no feminist by nineteenth century, let alone contemporary standards, he was no Comstock either, and appears to have greatly valued Craddock’s contribution to occult literature and her beautiful knowledge.

For More Information:

Some of Craddock’s writing, including her public and private suicide notes: “Anthony Comstock and the Death of Ida Craddock”

Chappell, Vere. 2010. Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock. Newburyport: Weiser Books. (By the sounds of it, an interesting mix of Craddock’s own writings and biographical analysis)

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2010. Heaven’s bride: the Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman. New York: Basic Books.

Omnia and Pagan Folk Lore

On the topic of traditions and the channels through which they become constructed in each generation, there is also the matter of modern paganism. Like any philosophical or religious community, pagan culture is not reducible to any one group or canonical set of shared dogma. The culture of Ásatrú is not the culture of druids, druidism is not equivalent to Wicca, and even within Wicca you have the divides between Gardnerian and other sects. Yet there is a certain constellation to be seen in these varying belief systems, which are all broadly syncretic modern traditions claiming ancient roots in pre-christian western culture. I do not consider myself a pagan, though I have come to see paganism as something of a fellow traveler, and here would like to make a case for the value of paganism, particularly those elements within it which have formed around the fluid realm of folklore more so than in an ideal image of an absolute, unchanging and ancient dogma. To treat it as a dogma, or perhaps worse, as a dogma of convenience, evinces a lack of reflexivity in some pagan adherents that I find to be deeply troubling.

Wikipedia claims that the origin of the term Pagan comes from the Latin paganus, which meant rustic or “of the country”. While this is not wrong, a classicist friend of mine once informed me that at the time it was used this term also possessed pejorative undertones, more like, “bumpkin”, “hick” or “hillbilly”, and that it began to take on its “heathen” connotations with the growing dominance of Christianity in the Roman empire, which was, in its early history, much more a religion of the city than of the countryside.

In this regard some of my concern comes from the lack of historical awareness of some pagans, whose belief in the ancient origins of their tradition tends to mask the fact that in its first usage, paganism was a reactionary, christian invention, yet one which, in the hands of contemporary pagans, often seems, first and foremost to mean “not christian”. I do not know if it enriches a culture to define itself in terms of what it thinks evil, and some of my pagan colleges come very close to structuring their morality around a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment against the still-dominant christian culture.

There is also the question of perceived cultural trauma. Few things, real or imagined, tend to galvanise a people, as a collective, quite as well as a shared sense of loss. Psychologically, Christians thrived on their martyrs and their lions’ dens, something that they could rally around with the outrage of personal injustice. Jews, even before the holocaust, had the destruction of the temple. Most recently Americans (as a religion no less than as a geopolitical nation-state) experienced their 9-11. Pagans, likewise, often rally around the burning times, and a sense that as one people, the cultural destruction and abuses of Christianity have historically wronged them. Like most things, there is something to be said for this, but, like most things, it is also deceptive in its way, and has more to do with modern politics than with ancient antipathies.

I do not mean to say that the burning times did not happen, but that based on most contemporary historical studies of the events, those who were persecuted, tortured and killed rarely, if ever, experienced these abuses because of some association with what we now think of today as pagan identity. They were, by and large, christian midwives, spinsters, outcasts, very commonly in Spain they were Jewish or Jewish converts to Christianity, the Marranos. In the case of the Druids, there was a systematic attempt to destroy their culture and traditions, but this act was perpetrated by pre-Christian Rome in its wars of conquest, not by Christians.

The Awen, Neo-Druidic symbol of the Order of Ovates, Druids and Bards.

Community building is important and valuable, and I would very much like to see all pagan groups thrive, diversify, and grow into what they desire and seek in a spirit of introspective exploration and self-awareness. I would not like to see it expand upon a foundation of willed ignorance or through an apathetic disinclination to investigate its own claims as a historical tradition, or by a shared contempt for any other system of beliefs.

In this regard I have been most impressed by the the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, who not only seem to recognize how much is fragmentary, retroactive and contingent in the tradition that they themselves have made as much as found, but that they also seek to unearth whatever they can of the old ways with specific plans of historical research. I was first made aware of the order through their exploration of the possible ties between ancient druidic beliefs and practices and those of ancient India. Their article on the subject is linked below.

For More Information:

Paul Rumsey and the Seeker of Yesterday

Perhaps it could be said that any meditation on tradition, if be carried through to its consistent conclusion, comes up empty. That the castles of consciousness, to withstand a siege, must forget that their foundations are forever rooted in the air. For each eager, then ever more desperate inquest into authenticity, derived from the longing for some single, unbroken thread connecting you to the past, to some stable, certain, linear, guiding spool that would allow everything else to somehow fall into its rightful place, with time and circumspection these things begin to invite the inquirer to look with some suspicion on what is ‘real’ and what ‘contrived’. As soon as doubt creeps in, the thread is cut, and often cut. It can, indeed, I believe, it must be tied again, if that is what we feel compelled to do, but the consequences of denying that the knots thereafter exist is that you can then never use them to clime back up into, then above yourself, and some greater whole of comprehension.

It is human, indeed, perhaps characteristic of any finite intellect, to seek profound answers to where they come from, where they belong, where are they going, but how could we ever be anything but active participants in the answers to these questions? However, that we feel a certain psychological resonance, here and there, with elements of the past we see, or seek to see within ourselves, seems certain.

It will come as no surprise that for me, part of this tradition has been woven from the fabric of the weird, and so I was pleased to find a contemporary artist who seems to have so effectively characterized some key quandaries of my psyche.

His name is Paul Rumsey. In his own words:

The use of fantastic metaphor and poetic allusion allows me great freedom, to portray any idea from the exterior political to the interior psychological. And the materials I work with give me freedom; charcoal is very flexible, and can be wiped, erased, sandpapered and redrawn. It is open to chance effects that can lead to unanticipated directions and solutions. I make constant revisions and alterations. Even with a medium like pen and ink which would favour the permanent, spontaneous, linear mark, I have found a way (by using sandpaper on card) of reworking, to end up with textures, tones and atmospherics.

For my work to conform to modern taste it should be more gestural, ‘marks on paper’, linear rather than illusionistic. My work begins sketchy and gestural, and some artist friends urge me to leave it like that and not spoil it by wasting weeks bringing it to a more finished state – but I can’t stop myself. I am addicted to the moment when the marks and smudges metamorphose, solidify into an illusion of real space, with solid objects and figures under a unified light and atmosphere. It is only when I feel I can climb into the picture, wander about and touch things that I am happy with it. ~ From Paul Rumsey’s Website, “Artist”.


Triumph of Folly




The Library-head drawings were in part inspired by Rumsey’s reading of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Library of Babel”



Crawling City

Building Dream



For More Information:

On Things Unsettling: A Polemic

As long as there are men, there will be monsters.

It is not my intention to distract you.

In many the need for horror is a chemical romance, little more than the release of endorphins through the casual excitation of our atrophied sense of flight or fight. Sitting comfortably at home, with friends and with food, with the door locked, we are safe to play games with our primal terrors. Like a dancing bear with a ring through its jaw, we laugh at its discomfort. This is the most commonly sought after sensation of fear; it is also the least interesting.

What I seek is something much closer to the uncanny. Limitations of genre and the harsh mistress marketing have demanded a hitherto broad definition of horror to conform to common perceptions. Speculative fiction relaxes this grip, but along with it also gives up any attempt to understand the discreet psychological responses that accompany different forms of narrative. There is at present no suitable vocabulary to describe and detail the myriad forms of expression that tap into this elusive constituent of human experience. Few have thought to reflect deeply on the seeming paradox of attraction and repulsion that truly uncanny horror can elicit. At best it has been pathologized as the allure of the forbidden. There are, however, always exceptions, two of them being the writers H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

While Lovecraft’s famous maxim hits on the primordial force of this fascination, it does nothing to clarify its paradoxical element of attraction. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”[1]. Yet how could fear, with its fight or flight, fully account for its opposite? With the exception of the fear junkies, who paw and dig at the carpet of civil security like hounds taking merriment in expressing some deep seeded, now frustrated drive, the attractions of the uncanny are a much more sublimated set of phenomena. If we are to begin to account for this fascination it is productive to turn instead to an equally ancient experience of which fear is only a component, with analogies throughout the living world, but which manifest itself in subtle and nuanced ways within those organisms who possess more complicated nervous systems.

The principle property that separates matter into living and unliving is how it creates and maintains a distinction between itself and its environment. Life is, in many ways, defined by homeostasis. Human beings, like all living things, constantly seek out certain key stimuli in their environments, for nothing that lives can ever be simply passive, accepting anything and everything that comes its way. The most effective homeostats are those that sift through the silt of perception for the salient features of their environments, ever exploring for all that is vital to sustaining an internal condition, and beyond that, those things capable of opening up new possibilities, and give them cause to thrive. In order to maintain a balanced system in nature, organisms must, in fact, find ways to grow and develop and change in order to maintain this very constancy of their inner organization. It is thus a dynamic equilibrium.

Where our attention goes, then, is of vital importance, not only for survival, but for growth and the overcoming of present limitations. There is reason to believe that the human psyche evolved as a complement to this homeostatic principle. Indeed, that the very origin of the nervous system, from mollusk to human, ultimately serves this dual functions of preservation and development. Base fear, while serving one of these functions, is not broad enough to account for the both of them. The wellspring of the uncanny traces its subterranean roots to the crossroads of these forces and this is the source of its heady fascination.

Clark Ashton Smith comes closer to the point than Lovecraft when attempting to understand the power evident in this form of narrative.

[I]t evinces a desire—perhaps a deep-lying spiritual need—to transcend the common limitations of time, space, and matter. It might be argued that this craving is not, as many shallow modernists suppose, a desire to escape from reality, but an impulse to penetrate the verities which lie beneath the surface of things; to grapple with, and to dominate, the awful mysteries of mortal existence. The attitude of those who would reprehend a liking for horror and eeriness and would dismiss it as morbid and unhealthy, is simply ludicrous. The true morbidity, the true unhealthiness, lies on the other side[2].

If Smith is correct not fear, but awe, rests at the heart of the weird tale that grasps the mind, and holding fast, moves it elsewhere, where it wills. These “awful mysteries of mortal existence” are not a passing product of the modern world, for they are evident, like the bleached bones of long dead giants looming high, but quite unnoticed, on the far horizon. They can yet be laid bare through an archeological study of the expressions of fear and fascination organically developed and refined over the centuries.

Consider first the word awe itself: a feeling of respect mixed with fear and wonder, perhaps of a religious nature. Historically, royalty has possessed something uncanny, god-touched, and awful about it. Looking to dread for inspiration, this also follows from it, coming, as it does from an archaic, Old High German word for awe. Even fear itself, and its partner reverence, stands in a similar relation. Fear comes from the old English faeran, which likewise maintains the ambiguity of fright and worship. Reverence is a derivative of the Latin vereri to fear, with its intensifier re-. Going back to the Greeks, Phobia and Pan serve in turn as inspirations for the double meaning of awe, giving us panic and phobias from the thrones of their godhead. Where these terms fail to reference the ambiguity of awe, they instead point to a more spatial relationship. Horror and trepidation both originate in trembling, disquiet, disturb, strange, unease and even the more colloquial creepy come from some sense of unrest or distance.

And truly, something is moving here.

The concept of the uncanny has come to dominate our understanding of this relationship. Yet there are really two related, but distinct connotations of the word: English and Scottish. The English understanding is prevalent: a state of un-knowing, or a matter of ambiguous and uncertain knowledge. More than anything else, it is to this that we owe the origin of the modern translation of “uncanny” for the German Unheimlich. Yet trust the English to take a visceral, overwhelming emotive reaction and make it into an exclusive question of knowledge, which is at best a secondary phenomenon, or afterthought to animal existence. The anglophile, Lovecraft, seems to have drawn from this interpretation. Yet the old Scottish understanding, in fact, is much closer in kind to the German Unheimlich, for it preserves something about the home in itself, an understanding of what is “canny” as that which is pleasing, placed, comfortable, and familiar. Like its German counterpart, a contrary usage has coalesced through time as it became that which repels, and that which attracts.

Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay “Das Unheimlich“ commented on the limitations of some languages to find a way of articulating the phenomena he was attempting to describe, in particular the commonly understood English term. He lamented that the only way to translate an unheimliches Heim into English would be as a haunted house, which missed so much of the original idea. Uncanny was settled upon as a translation, but the difficulties involved in ascertaining the veracity of the interpretation should have made later commentators more suspicious.

And indeed it did.

Like Freud’s painstaking etymological quest for the origin of das Unheimlich, his English inheritors have followed in the master’s footsteps. As Nicholas Royle suggests for contemporary English explorers of the uncanny: “Let us, like Freud, seek cover in dictionaries”[3]. After elucidating the relationship between the uncanny’s Scottish and English origins, Royle comments on Freud’s vain efforts to enumerate all of its various manifestations. Invariably they are difficult to pin down. They oscillate, like the spatial roots of the language of horror, for by definition they transgress boundaries and with them any attempt at an exhaustive classification.

At best we can insinuate.

While often touched upon in literary theory, it is hard to identify any definitive corpus or coherent system of interpretation for the uncanny. Freud, to be sure, opened up the concept to a wider audience and shaped the psychological nature of the debate. Lovecraft, while providing a much needed reflection on the role of its spiritual feeling, nevertheless did not provide any concerted literary following, and is still considered today to be something of an aberration in more respected academic circles. Clark Ashton Smith is virtually unknown, and while his insights are perhaps the most penetrating, they are also the most fragmentary.

So while we began with the notion of horror as a genre, we have come to the inextricable association of fear and attraction in the experience of awe and the sense of uncertain, perhaps expanding, or collapsing spatial relationships. Lurking beneath all of it, the concept of homeostasis slumbers like a benthic reminder of our connection to the rest of the living world, but also of the ways in which we have sublimated this very same connection into something deeper still. While this is very similar to the concept of das Unheimlich as articulated by Freud, we need not be Freudians about it. We are free to reject both the commonly overemphasized origin of the uncanny as a matter of uncertain knowledge, and at the same time to incorporate into it the element of spiritual feeling that Freud would have discredited as so much “black mud”. Nor does admitting this element of spiritualism restrict us to a mystified or fuzzy understanding, for we cannot otherwise explain the attractive power and the frequent coexistence of spiritual experiences with the uncanny or unsettling without recourse to their common origin within the human psyche.

Like any other drive however, not everyone encounters this experience to the same degree. Both Lovecraft and Freud spoke of a “sensitivity” which is undoubtedly involved. It is not learning or the lack of learning which determines this sensitivity, that much is certain, but something much more elusive and personal. More like the ancient notion of initiation. Just because both men’s insights came from the austere, acetic domain of science at the beginning of the twentieth century, this does not negate the spiritual dimension, but only shows its omnipresence and continuity. Lovecraft, at least, seemed to be keenly aware of this:

the sensitive are always with us, and sometimes a curious streak of fancy invades an obscure corner of the very hardest head; so that no amount of rationalisation, reform, or Freudian analysis can quite annul the thrill of the chimney-corner whisper or the lonely wood. There is here involved a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it, and too much a part of our innermost biological heritage to lose keen potency over a very important, though not numerically great, minority of our species[4].

The burning bush, the pillar of fire, the god of the Israelites was an uncanny God, who expressed himself outside of nature, and who demanded fear as a companion to his worship. Those who wandered in the wilderness and found him searched through haunted landscapes and places of beautiful dread.

It is easy to imagine how these were the first temples.

Often, it seems to me, the English language has devised ways to regulate what is in fact primary and most primal with prefixes that render it merely derivative. The known and the unknown, rational and irrational, man and woman[5], finite and infinite, each of these concepts stand like crude handrails marking off the treacherous and steep path past society’s deepest insecurities; more emotional divides to help sooth the mind along its way than actual bulwarks against the peril of any potential fall. It is the liberating and terrifying insinuation that our world is merely derivative, limited, though with boundaries that are uncertain, and perhaps permeable, that helps to lend an unsettling story its narrative drive and haunting undertones. Up until quite recently it was the purview of religion to channel and reconcile these powerful drives within the human psyche, to bring them to the surface, and then let them sink again into some new configuration, refreshed. This was a way of perpetuating the dynamic equilibrium of the spiritual homeostat. Modern cynicism aside, confession was a catholic stroke of genius that the increasingly protestant-minded world again demanded in the form of the emerging art of psychoanalysis.

Yet a great deal of what most people today consider to be the history of psychology as a science actually constitutes the enshrouding of its unscientific origins. Far more likely, what the emergence of professional psychology shows is the appropriation by the acetic culture of science of previous religious, moralistic, romantic, gothic and occult trends, which had hitherto defined themselves as something outside of the scientific order[6]. The ravings of an E.T.A. Hoffmann could be treated as subjects of study only when they had first been tamed by making them “psychological” entities, instead of as diagnoses in their own right. The sheer number of mythological and fantastical terms employed in early psychology can attest to this movement from letters and literature to specialized science.

Freud acknowledged this debt. Musing in 1901, he poignantly observed that “[the theme of the ring] leaves one once again with the impression of how hard it is for a psychoanalyst to discover anything new that has not been known before by some creative writer”[7]. Today the same ability of professional psychology to understand and address the needs and longing of the individual has been questioned by figures such as Noam Chomsky when he commented that: “it is quite possible–overwhelmingly probable, one might guess–that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology”[8].

Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that Fyodor Dostoyevsky was the only person to teach him anything about psychology, while Freud, himself not unaffected by Nietzsche’s work, praised the philosopher for his degree of self-knowledge. The hinted themes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897 and the much less veiled allusions in Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play Spring Awakening, are other important literary examples of profound psychological insights that predate the psycho-sexual revolution. Before Freud could write his essay on the uncanny, he had to first go through the door of romantic literature to find in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann a discreet psychological concept already, or almost already formed.

The choice of literature was far from accidental.

The question is then: who was leading who?

A concept “isolated” by early psychologists had to be in many ways established, even if only vaguely formulated, before an author could begin to take pen to paper and build a narrative around it. When writers have tried to express something insightful about the activities of human life and thought, they are driven by a much greater need to their understanding and depiction of mental phenomenon than the scientific psychology that follows after them. A psychologist performing a study among his colleagues is less subject to the powerful whims at play in the world of our communal psyche by the insulating effects of his institutional context. A writer lives and dies by her ability to capture as broad a swath of sentiments as possible, or else somehow enliven the minds of a dedicated group of interested individuals that will resonate enough with her work to preserve it. Thus no way is barred to this vanguard of human self-understanding and growth, every taboo, every complex or simple phenomenon from the most discreet to the most nebulous, must come into play: method is malleable, theme and subject matter, inexhaustible, the audience, indefinite, but always assumed to be present no matter what the product, for there is no policing a matter of taste like there is a professional association. The scientific alternative has been invaluable in determining physiological principles, no doubt, but the dangerous, scandalous path has been cleared by the epistemologically lower caste of creative individuals.

This subsuming of the aesthetic and spiritual by the professional was timely and in some respects very important, but also terribly misconceived. This misconception is the fulcrum of the so-called conflict between science and religion that has stood out so painfully in the past century. And yet through it all, the uncanny remains recalcitrant, demanding the attention of observers on both sides of the imagined divide, for it was in the spiritual life that people first began to learn psychology, and have some insight into the powers that move us. It is a commonplace observation that the very origin of the term psychology comes from the study of the soul, or intangible breath of life.

However, there are branches missing from this family tree.

From Abraham whence Freud? From Freud, whence our contemporary derangements?

Aesthetics, what some would call morality, provides a potential bridge between one patriarch and the other –to the future, and to the deep past, belong the matriarchs, of which I cannot speak. The French revolution, that time when the promises of European enlightenment exploded into the violent birth of the nineteenth century set much of the stage. Before the French Revolution A.G. Baumgarten’s efforts to understand and systemizes “matters of taste” was the enlightenment’s abortive attempt to place the most slippery elements of the human psyche under the domain of natural reason. In contrast, after the revolution, Friedrich Schiller’s Aesthetic Education of Man would positively cry out that a new way of organizing these “matters of taste” was necessary for the humane, sane, development of human civilization. What we might today call scientific reasoning was not sufficient for understanding either ourselves or others, for it had already torn the world asunder once in its attempt to put it back together again.

Professionalization was a project of the nineteenth century, yet psychology as a discipline owed just as much to public negotiations in the periodical press as it did to the work of specialists, and even more to the dedicated explorers of the uncanny who made up the occult community of the age. In the correspondence of Alfred Russell Wallace and Frederic Myers we see ways in which the concept of spiritual possession became re-envisioned into the shadowy notion of a subliminal, or second-self. Even Freud, in his youth, was not immune to this occult fascination.

Writing to politely decline the invitation to coedit a periodical dedicated to the study of the occult in 1921, he observed: “If I had my life to live over again I should devote myself to psychical research rather than to psychoanalysis.”[9] However, this interest and source of inspiration would be subdued as he forged psychoanalysis into a scientifically acceptable and regimented discipline, which brooked no contradiction. Carl Jung, who saw in the spiritual drive not a pathology, but a powerful wellspring of self-development, commented on Freud’s distaste later in his life.

I can still recall vividly how Freud said to me, ‘My dear Jung, promise me never to abandon the sexual theory. That is the most essential thing of all. You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark’ … In some astonishment I asked him, ‘A bulwark-against what?’ To which he replied, ‘Against the black tide of mud’—and here he hesitated for a moment, then added—’of occultism’. [10]

Jung was in touch with the connection between uncanny literature, belief (both religious and scientific) and the potential for a deeper understanding of the self, but it was the Freudians who ultimately won, in the short term, the power struggle by marginalizing their opponents as unscientific charlatans. Despite drawing on so many mythic icons, and providing one of the most famous studies of the uncanny in the western world, Freud’s ultimately legacy was to retard our ability to interact with this vital aspect of the life of the mind.

Could this be true? Could the understanding of the uncanny through myth and literature achieved at the end of the nineteenth century have been so derailed in western culture by the misgivings of one particular profession, when it continued to find proponents and explorers throughout the world?

Yes, because something else was offered up instead.

The mundane needs of daily life were given, with the help of psychologists, all the arresting qualities of the uncanny, without any of its revitalizing powers of self-understanding.

We must never forget the profound impact of Edward Louis Bernays on the modern spirit. Sigmund Freud’s nephew, who popularized Freudian psychology in North America, has done more to shape the cultural understanding of ourselves than all of the artists and geniuses of the past hundred years. His way of envisioning the individual, more specifically, the lack of an individual in light of the mass, has become the defining feature against which most modern art has set itself.

And nevertheless, his spirit still holds sway.

Bernays’s Propaganda and The Engineering of Consent are considered the founding documents of modern public relations, and both the Americans and the Germans extensively used his theories of crowd control during the Second World War. Synthesizing the theories of his uncle with Pavlovian and crowd psychology, he was the one who first associated smoking with women’s liberation in America, to sell more cigarettes. No part of life was safe from his attempts at intervention. Something as seemingly basic as the idea that bacon and eggs make a good breakfast to the strategies the Chiquita Banana company employed to overthrow the government of Guatemala were decisively influenced by his attempt to raise the profits of the corporations that employed him. Believing that groups, not individuals, were the core of society, and that that core was fundamentally irrational and dangerous, and thus in need of subtle control in its every action, Bernays held that the only democratic system could be one in which the consent of the public was manufactured, and that we demonstrated our knowledge of the mind primarily through our ability to control it.

Before considering this the stuff of conspiracy theories, first ask yourself the question: where is the application of psychology most prevalent in our daily lives? How do we breathe it, consume it along with our bread and drink it to quench our lingering thirsts? For all the well meaning and curative virtues developed by individual psychologists and psychiatrists, the overall cultural effect has been much overstated. There are no fewer depressives, no fewer suicides, but only a seemingly growing legion of clinical conditions, and ever more subtle advertisements.

What I call the mundane is the ability of psychologists and marketers to reproduce the uncanny effects of awe, and the ambiguity of place in their efforts to force a kind of fascination in the minds of individuals, to vie for our attention. For there is something akin to the ways that an advertisement, or advertizing strategy takes hold of the mind, and how the uncanny influences the psyche. A similar paradox of repulsion, attraction, place and possibility fuel both, but where the uncanny has no set goal, and forces the individual to delve into themselves for some resolution, the mundane hijacks a similar channel to force an external will upon it.

As anyone knows who has ever tried to dismantle something, which it was beyond his abilities to repair, it takes far less knowledge to break a thing than it does to fix it. And yet that is just it. Unlike in other sciences, the success of psychology cannot be demonstrated through simply controlling the phenomena that it purports to study, for in this case the demonstration itself can only throw doubt on the very existence of the subject. Yet this is exactly the goal of modern advertizing and public relations, the crown jewels and collected wisdom of over a century of searching for the human soul. They are the blood diamonds of Edward Bernays and the troubled history of the APA[11].

Rather than being at the vanguard of psychological wholeness and collective self-realization, the APA has throughout its hundred and seventeen year history raised its arms in the rearguard of professional interests and disciplinary authority. It lagged far behind the literary world in its understanding of homosexuality, only declaring it non-pathological in 1973, compared to the implicit conclusions in Frank Wedekind’s masterful 1891 play. In the run up to the second world war, the APA’s support of eugenics and intelligence testing likewise represents a gross misunderstanding of its own medicinal contentions, just as the recent invention of Orthorexia Nervosa, what amounts to a “Healthy Eating Disorder”, displays its allegiance to some other code of conduct totally alien to general human wellbeing. The recent role of the APA in the development of American torture techniques, whose inherent logic was only acting through, and not despite, the actions of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, is indicative of this trend. On a more specious level, the APA’s support and rewarding of the status quo has had similar effects. Effects such as those of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace program, whose focus on employee involvement, work-life balance, employee growth and development, and employee recognition, has as its ultimate end not health, but mechanical efficiency. Human beings are organic creatures, and any efficiency they can aspire to will always be an organic efficiency, that is to say, a successful and strangely charmed kind of squandering.

Disciplinary and bureaucratic interests are ill equipped to handle the shifting terrain of individual human consciousness. Furthermore, by setting themselves apart from their fellows in the very act of specialization they often grow only further away from the subject of their searching. Change, the dynamic life of the mind, slows to a crawl inside the confines of any insular practice.

And what is the result of this professionalization?

When a person in a state of distress checks into a mental health center for the first time, what might they experience? A passionless triage given by one healthcare worker. Then an escort into a dimly lit room with other critical cases. The door locks behind you. You are told to ignore the others around you. They may be violent. They may be self-destructive. You are told that they are none of your concern. You then go to another healthcare provider and try to explain what is causing you such trouble. This second provider relays your information to a third, and things may or may not get lost or added to in the retelling. Depending upon your situation the third provider will probably record that you are having trouble adjusting to life, stress the fact that you are sick and should be taking expensive medication that is difficult to wean yourself off of, and prepare the way for you to see a fourth provider for follow up. While you wait you are not getting better. The fourth is often a councilor. These people tend to be as passionless as the triage supervisors. They are not interested in helping you, but only in assessing how much of a danger you are to society or yourself. Despite being employed to listen, they are often exceptionally poor listeners. Then, at last, you see a psychiatrist, who gives you a list of other psychiatrists, again makes sure you’re not a danger to yourself or society, and sends you on your way.

Who does this benefit?

It is often claimed that psychologists are members of a new priestly class, and that it seems that they too have come to serve the “secular”, which now is to say, political powers. Whether or not this is in fact the case, it seems that they are still less well equipped to deal with individuals’ lives and concerns than their much disparaged ancestors. Indeed, they have done little to calm conflicts of belief, and have helped to add only a new one, commercialism, to the fray. The dominance of the mundane rests in an inflexibility of the symbolic content of our daily experience, advertisements, guided by an external will, advertiser or psychologist, towards a very narrow range of possible interpretations.

Nothing is moving here.

Literature, for good and for ill, is a kind of guerrilla psychology. The most piercing studies of madness, and other internal conditions of mind and patterns of personality have invariably emerged from the great imaginations of world culture, or from those psychologists most closely in tune with their methodologies and insights.

While we live in a planned society, it is not a unified plan. The conscious, external control exerted by various groups makes it a highly heterogeneous, chaotic conglomeration of parts vying for influence and entry into our individual psyches. The regimented and disciplinary aspect of professionalization does nothing to prevent this psychic dissonance. Indeed, it seems only to add to it.

Where are the explorers who have thought to cure a convalescent with the words: “I proscribe Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life followed by chapters from Dante’s Inferno, read them and call me in the morning. Let us discuss them, and let us discuss you.” Most shy away from such prescriptions because they fear they’ve expired. Despite this, it is my contention that uncanny narratives in particular (though perhaps not exclusively) allow for a reorganization of the self, instead of the fracturing and want induced by advertizing. In the uncanny we find a particular kind of paradox that allows for a loosening of the strings of consciousness, to allows for a multiplicity of unsettling reorganizations, reflections and rebirths to take root within the mind. This is in marked contrast to the mundane, which hijacks many of the same principles, but which instead of allowing the troubled contents of the psyche to resettle, as they will, wrenches them this way and then that in an attempt to shape the focus of our human desires.

Most medicines have side effects, and so too will these. All panaceas are poisons, even when they cure. Yet even these ill effects must be brought to bear on the health and well-being of the convalescent, or else what will be achieved will only lead to a greater weakness in the end. In the case of uncanny literature the danger exists that the individual will become unhinged, lost in a hall of mirrors within the self, he begins to compulsively seek out ever more outré engagements with mythic thought in an immoderate effort to remedy his growing unbalance, loosing touch with the narrative of his own existence in the world. The best preventative to this reaction is community, not the larger, law-binding structure that makes so many demands upon the psyche, but something much more intimate and accepting. For in the company of friends the explorations of the self enacted through the uncanny can find some safe harbour once again within the external world, and we can test, but with a careful pressure, the solidity of the ground beneath our feet.

With these considerations I hope to have shown how the engagement with a particular kind of art often understood as “horror” can be used as a powerful principle for the growth of the individual human psyche. Treating the psyche itself as a homeostat, whose processes are in many ways analogous to those of every living thing, we can see the value of the fascinating power of the uncanny. With an understanding of the ancestry of fear founded in the awe and sense of motion inherent in this force we can see how the exploration of the psyche that began with religion, and moved throughout morality, aesthetics and psychology can find its bearings once again in the realm of the aesthetic. For unlike the disciplinary dogmas and demands of organized commercialism, religion or science, aesthetics does not enforce a strict goal or external teleology on our mental activity, so much as it provides a space in which to settle, or unsettle and reconstruct, the makeup of our various tastes and inclinations. Strictly disciplinary, instead of individual interests cannot accomplish this, since they too serve as a homeostatic balance with harshly delineated features demarcating them from the larger functioning of the culture in which they are embedded.

Invariably, they come to serve their own ends.

In the realm of narrative, there are many forms of literature, each producing its own effect, and answering its own needs. I simply take the uncanny to be primary because of its impurity and potential power, the way in which it both stabilizes and expands the human psyche’s understanding of its own limitations.

As research into the uncanny may some day show, the uncanny is both a vital cultural construct, with its own history and numerous negotiations, as well as part of a system of psychological and physiological responses that characterize us as living beings, and whose essential features will persist until humans become other than what they are. Indeed, it will no doubt have a definite role to play in this very process. And this allows us to return from whence we came:

It is not my intention to distract you.

As long as there are men, there will be monsters.

[1] Lovecraft, H.P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. In At the Mountains of Madness. (New York: The Modern Library, 2005) 103.

[2] Smith, Clark Ashton. The Psychology of the Horror Story. Accessed at The Eldritch Dark. October 18th 2010. <;

[3] Royle, Nicholas. The Uncanny: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2003) 9.

[4] Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, 105.

[5] Anyone who doubts the primacy of woman in nature needs to consider the case of the Anglerfish, upon which the atrophied male exists as a parasitic attachment whose only use is as an organ of reproduction. Likewise, when Charles Darwin turned his attention to barnacles, he found several that he first thought to be hermaphrodites before realizing that what he had previously taken to be a primary parasite was in fact the male of the species. Yet even here, primacy is not supremacy.

[6] Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

[7] Freud, Sigmund. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Trans. Alan Tyson. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989) 264.

[8] Chomsky, Noam. Language and Problems of Knowledge: the Managua Lectures. (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1988) 159.

[9] Freud, Sigmund. As in Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920. By Pamela Thurschwell. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 1.

[10] Jung, Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. (New York: Random House, 1965), 147-8.

[11] American Psychological Association.

Atlantis, Ancient Technology and the Dissolusioned Technocratic Impulse

Many of the conspiracy theories involving Atlantis focus on it as a technological utopia, whether that technology had a terrestrial or alien source, it is the archetypical futurists paradise, the only exception being, it is in the past. One of the most interesting things about the people who seem to be most invested in these theories is not necessarily the way in which their sense of pattern recognition is working in overdrive, but how fervently it demonstrates the continuing belief in the power of technology to influence human life for the better.

This image of Atlantis is so influential in part because it takes advantage of the powerful pull of origin myths combined with a technocratic disillusionment with the state of the present world. Rather than giving up its faith in technological progress’ ability to make our lives better, this impulse instead project the future golden age into the past. Some of the engineers and scientists who have fallen under its sway describe Egyptian pyramids as huge, industrial energy projects. After all, they reason, why else would the Egyptians invest so much effort in create them? But this ignores the entire basis of the ancient Egyptian belief structure, in which monumentality, memory and the symbolic meanings associated with them were alone enough of a motivation to create and prepare the final resting place of the Pharaoh.

Disillusioned technocrats are not the only ones with a vested interest in ancient advanced technology and Atlantis, to be sure, but it is always quite telling, the ways in which we project ourselves, our hopes and fears, first onto the future, and if that seems too murky and desolate a place, then we turn to the past, in some ways, just as the Ancients themselves.

The Codex Gigas

Legend attributes the Codex Gigas, the “Big Book” (Sometimes also called the “Devil’s Bible”), to one solitary and doomed monk, sentenced to death by entombment for some unnamed, unspeakable blasphemy. Pleading with his inquisitors for some chance to demonstrate his  repentance, he claimed that by a work of faith he would scribe in one night the largest bible ever to have existed. Intrigued, but confident, his inquisitors acquiesced; he could have his one night, and his sentence would be fulfilled should morning arrive and his task remain incomplete.

Working frantically into the night, the monk, it is said, seeing that he was running out of time made a deal with the devil, the devil depicted in the Codex Gigas’ inner pages. He was thus able to complete his task, though not his repentance. Yet when morning came and his inquisitors saw what the monk had scribed they saw that it was a work of evil, and had his sentence carried out.

That is the legend of the Codex Gigas. Recent scholarship does point to one lone author, not a blasphemer entombed for his sins, but a religious recluse, possibly Herman the Recluse, who dedicated many years of his life to the work sometime in the 13th century. Sometime after it was created, it was taken to a chapel in Sedlec, now in the Czech Republic, where it remained until shortly before the black death tore through the area in the 14th century. Sedlec would later become famous for is Ossuary, decorated with the bones of some 40,000 to 70,000 people who had died in and around the area.

The Codex was eventually taken to the court of Rudolph II (1552-1612), that intriguing patron of all things occult in the 16th century. Eventually the Holy Roman Emperor was deposed by his family and political adversaries. During the subsequent conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century, the Codex Gigas was eventually captured by Swedish soldiers and taken to the court of yet another eccentric European monarch, this time Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), raised as a boy, patron of the arts, catholic ruler of a protestant country who abdicated her throne to move to Rome. Surviving fire and war, Sweden is where the Devil’s Bible has remained to the present day.

For More Information:

Asherah, the Wife of God

After exploring the relationship between masculine and feminine aspects of the divine in gnosticism I was surprised to learn that in some of the most ancient Israelite literature available, Yahweh may have had a wife. Her name was Asherah. While the scholarly community as a whole has been hesitant to state that Asherah was an independent entity, instead of some kind of votive offering, ritual or mediating principle, there are a number of researchers who accept that she was indeed just that. In either case, Asherah was certainly a Semitic deity worshiped in the Middle East and parts of north eastern Africa. She existed, but did she ever come to play the role of the “Queen of Heaven”?

Before the more widespread imposition of an austere, monotheistic Judaism, Yahwey seemed to have often been worshiped alongside other local deities, such as Baal and Asherah. Particularly in the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit (in present day Syria) Asherah and Yahwey were repeatedly presented together in what some scholars, such as Francesca Stavrakopoulou, suggest is a matrimonial relationship.

The practice of worshiping imported and quasi-local deities was disrupted in ancient Israelite societies after conflict with the Assyrians caused a backlash against foreign imports, particularly of a theological bent, and at some point before the 7th century BCE, references to Asherah becomes scarce.

With a dilettante’s eye, a brief glimpse of the literature does suggest that some groups probably worshiped Asherah as a consort of Yahwey, as it was a common practice in other Semitic religions at the time, though the question of how widespread this practice was, and its uniformity from one Israelite community to the other, is harder to ascertain.

What does seem clear is that the answer to the question: “Did God have a wife?” could be vitally important to the present socio-cultural milieu in which we find ourselves. We have the historical evidence to show how Christianity emerged as an extremely heterogeneous, “pagan” and politically contingent phenomena during the decline of the Roman Empire. Yet because of its greater age and the nature of the sources left behind, it is much harder to clearly delineate all of the contingencies in the origins of Judaism (though contingencies there must be, it being a historical phenomena). The authority provided by the sense of necessity surrounding this lack of knowledge about the historical past, combined with the current tensions in the area, still living ideas of birthright and religious, if not ethnic purity, make for a highly charged issue that could undermine present day claims and interests in the Middle East.

The debates surrounding Asherah, “God’s wife”, demonstrate just how far the past can reach into the present, especially when that past is shrouded in mystery, and aside from what or who was worshiped those thousands of years ago, attentive observers will  learn much more about our current society than is possible of those earlier epochs. Yet because, not despite, of this difficulty, it makes a careful consideration of what has been left behind all the more important.

For More Information:

Emerton, J.A. (Jul., 1999). “‘Yahweh and His Asherah’: The Goddess or Her Symbol?” In Vetus Testamentum Vol. 49, Fasc. 3, pp. 315-337.

Olyan, Saul. (1988). Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Hadley, Judith. (2000). The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Becking, Bob. (2001). Only one god?: monotheism in ancient Israel and the veneration of the goddess Asherah. London: Sheffield Academic Press.

Cornelius, Izak. (2004). The many faces of the goddess : the iconography of the Syro-Palestinian goddesses Anat, Astarte, Qedeshet, and Asherah, c. 1500-1000 BCE. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Quantum Eyes, Minds and Mysticism

A comic description of quantum entanglement by Jim Ottaviani

There have been suggestive findings indicating that the European Robin is better able to maintain a state of quantum entanglement than can be achieved in any contemporary laboratory…. In its eyes. This has raised a bit of a hubbub since it is one of the most dramatic cases to date of the ability of biological systems to take advantage of quantum mechanical effects. Apparently, it may be what allows robins and other animals to navigate based on the Earth’s magnetic field.

Quantum entanglement is the condition whereby electrons that are spatially distant are nonetheless able to effect the behaviour of other electrons with which they are entangled. Apparently, faster than the speed of light.

The example used by Jim Ottaviani in his comic on the subject describes two dice, each in a state of quantum entanglement with the other. You could then take those two dice to opposite ends of the galaxy and, rolling one, know faster than information should be able to travel (i.e. faster than the speed of light) that whatever you rolled on the first dice would also be rolled on the second. The manipulation of this effect could make teleportation possible, but, like most things in the world of quantum mechanical effects, states of quantum entanglement are short lived, and liable to collapse.

I first came across the case of the robin’s eyes at the “Witches Voice”. For those not familiar with the popular debates surrounding quantum mechanics and biology, it may seem strange that a news agency that describes itself as “a proactive educational network providing news, information services and resources for and about Pagans, Heathens, Witches and Wiccans” would have any interest in the subject. Yet there has been an ongoing and often unkind debate surrounding the relation of quantum mechanics to biological beings in general and sentient beings in particular which has caused many politically powerful commentators to shy away from the subject as being “quantum mysticism” or “quantum biological pseudoscience”. As early as 1934 J. B. S. Haldane (F.R.S) was theorizing about the the important consequences of quantum mechanics for biology and the philosophy of mind, yet it was only in the 90s and 2000s that these linkages became popular currency.

And so from European Robins we turn to the film “What tнē #$*! D̄ө ωΣ (k)πow!?” or “What the Bleep do we know?!” (2004), which is probably the most well known representation of the kind of quantum mysticism attacked by the standard bearers of hard headed, serious science. While I myself would characterize the film as a feel good quantum fable about the powers of positive thinking, there are those in the scientific community who see it as a palpable threat.

Those who describe themselves as scientific skeptics have set out to ridicule and discredit the film’s underlying premises as soft minded pseudoscience. While I agree that this film in particular is quite light on epistemological reflexivity and care, the scorn that it has attracted belays something that is even more vexing. From the comedian Tim Minchin’s parody of the “water memory” hypothesis for the efficacy of some homeopathic cures to the constant echoing of Richard Dawkins’ 1996 assertion: “By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out”, it is far too easy to make fun of small groups of eccentrics whose explorations and ponderings may or may not lead them anywhere productive. At best it is misguided, at worse, cruel and driven by a kind of disciplinary and social power politics.

Yet in the same way that the robin’s eyes were the occasion and not really the cause of the wild interest among internet commentators, the attacks on quantum mysticism are not fundamentally about the role of quantum mechanics in the phenomena of consciousness or whether or not water has a kind of memory as they are about the reactionary feelings of a scientific establishment that understands itself to be embattled by the forces of organized religion and irrationalism. In the United States in particular this reactionary tendency is understandable, but even then it misses the point on a number of levels, and at its worst is itself a kind of irrationalism.

Firstly, since antiquity groups claiming to be defenders of reason and religious orthodoxy alike have attacked marginalized intellectual communities such as the gnostic and hermetic philosophers to gain political capital in their larger projects, yet this has only really delivered substantial returns when they were trying to court one another’s favour. Orthodox Christians would distance themselves from the Gnostics in their exchanges with Platonists in an attempt to gain legitimacy in their eyes, while Platonist groups often distanced themselves from hermetic and mystical branches of Platonism to demonstrate how their ideas represented the religion of reason.

Secondly, even assuming that the people supporting quantum mysticism are the same supporting the Abrahamic domination of secular society, there are at least a hundred years of history showing how the traditional methods of scorn and refutation do not work (there is a worthwhile article of Dostoevsky’s and Mendeleev’s criticism of spiritualism that brings this point out well).

Thirdly, if the explorers of quantum mysticism are diving into intellectually shallow waters, why so much scorn and recrimination? It seems to speak more of a bad conscience and the aggressively territorial concerns of science as a discipline than scientific methodology and magnanimous reflection.

William Crookes helped to set the stage for the development of wireless telegraphy with his experiments to detect the electro-magnetic presence of ghost, Johannes Kepler’s astronomical discoveries cannot be separated from his astrological concerns and the discovery of the unconscious or subliminal self cannot be divorced from the interest in spiritual mediums and spirit possession in the nineteenth century, so why then should even the most practical of scientists and scientistic defenders not give the stranger and more furtive branches of exploration their own space and place of self-expression?

Most recently an episode of the series “Through the Wormhole” has been brought to my attention, where a number of interesting, quantum/consciousness parallels have been discussed. It’s certainly worth exploring for anyone, mystic, scientistic, or otherwise interested in a debate which as of yet is far from settled.

For More Information: (New! as of February 13th 2013)

Haldane, J.B.S. Jan., 1934. “Quantum Mechanics as a Basis for Philosophy”. In Philosophy of Science. Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 78-98
Gordin, Michael D. 2001. “Loose and Baggy Spirits: Reading Dostoevskii and Mendeleev.” In Slavic Review. 60 (4): 756-780.

North American Robin, Photo by Mark Noseworthy