Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred

December 16, 2010

In his alternately engaging and exasperating new book, philosopher and historian of religion Jeffrey Kripal attempts to recover a history of "thinking off the page" through the work of four investigators of telepathic experiences, ghosts, UFO encounters, and other wacky instances of the 20th-century supernatural.

He focuses one chapter each on the work of Frederic Myers, Charles Fort, Jacques Vallee and Bertrand Meheust, in order to construct a history of theorising the occult that takes in philosophy, anthropology and post-structuralism.

Myers, who coined the word "telepathy", was a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge in the 1880s. He came to believe that the majority of reality, including our own consciousnesses, lay hidden from us, and that the human race was evolving progressively towards greater supernatural powers. He spent much of his life attempting to reconcile the claims of science and religion, conducting telepathic experiments, testing spiritualist mediums under "laboratory" conditions, and collecting stories of deathbed transmissions.

The second case study, Fort, was also a compiler of phenomena, a "collector of coincidences" who trawled through newspapers in the early 20th century gathering reports of hauntings, ectoplasm and things that could not be. His science-fiction novel, X (1915), suggested that our reality might be like a film, projected from the rays of some alien consciousness.

Kripal's next two subjects are contemporary: Vallee, the internet entrepreneur and Rosicrucian mystic who after a long study of UFO sightings decided they were potential evidence for psychic forces emanating from the future; and the comparatively tame sociologist Meheust, whose studies of mystical phenomena led him to suspect that popular accounts of paranormal experience may reveal a history of real supernatural occurrences.

The ways in which these rogue thinkers have explained the apparently inexplicable makes an entertaining story; however, Kripal's aim is not merely to provide an anthropological or historical study of belief in the supernatural that reveals the interest of apparently "marginalised" perspectives. Roger Luckhurst, Alex Owen and other critics have established, with more critical rigour, the continuities between late 19th- and early 20th-century interest in the supernatural and defining practices of modernity such as modernist writing, psychoanalysis, early 20th-century physics and technological innovation.

Kripal's goal is different; he wants to open readers' minds to the possibility that evidence for the supernatural may indicate that we need to rethink our basic beliefs about the nature of subjective and objective reality. What would our world look like if telepathy really existed? Or if the evidence for UFOs, or sightings of the Virgin Mary, was convincing enough to appear not as the delusions of the few but rather the reality for all of us? How would this change our understanding of science, or of time, or of religious belief and its elusive "sense of the sacred"?

Understandably, the book cannot answer these huge questions, and struggles unsuccessfully to reconcile conflicting views: an objective "truth is out there" perspective reductively ascribed to materialist science, contrasted with a literary or psychological view that emphasises our narrative construction of the world. At its best, the book made me think hard about questions relevant to anyone working on the history of the supernatural.

Must we bracket the question of our own beliefs when we consider a subject such as telepathy or UFOs? What would it mean to admit that such a bracketing may be neither possible nor desirable?

Ultimately, Kripal cannot reconcile the weird and wonderful histories of his "authors of the impossible" to his over-ambitious, mystical theorising, but there is something brave, as well as intermittently nuts, in his attempt to do so.

Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred

By Jeffrey J. Kripal. University of Chicago Press. 320pp, £24.00. ISBN 9780226453866. Published 9 July 2010.

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