Ectoplasm, poltergeists and a bit of holy S&M

Portals - Ghosts - The Paranormal and the Politics of Truth
June 1, 2007

The quarrel between science and religion seems to be heating up. One approach to this venerable problem is through the anthropology of religion, especially as practised by Lynne Hume in Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses .

Was the world created 6,000 or 4 billion years ago? Did God create man, or are we by-products of natural selection? The current conflict between science and religion centres on questions such as these. Religion, however, consists of more than beliefs; for anthropologist Hume it is mainly the product of certain kinds of experiences, which are then interpreted and expressed as beliefs. In Portals , she takes the reader on a cross-cultural tour of the techniques shamans, prophets and mystics use to induce such experiences.

Along the way, we are updated on recent findings in the neuroscience of mysticism and related phenomena. Hume's instincts are happily anti-reductionistic. Her overall stance is emphatically pluralistic: there are many portals, many ways to experience the transcendent. Moreover, the "doorways to other realities" are based on the senses: visual symbols, songs, drumming, dance, the tactile and the erotic, and an assortment of tastes, scents and breathing techniques, all designed to lift us out of the mundane into the sacred realm.

Hume's idea of "religious" and "spiritual" is truly catholic. She reminds us that many traditions use sex as a portal to transcendence, suggesting that certain S&M, bondage and submission practices be construed as "ecstatic religious practices". In fact, masochistic asceticism has been around a long time: ancient pillar saints, medieval flagellants, the Native American Sun Dance and so on. Pain has long been deployed as a portal to expanding one's sense of reality.

In Hume's anthropology of aspiration, psychoactive plants are valid portals to spiritual life. As with pain, so have cultures evolved psychoactive plant rites to induce special experiences. In advanced societies these so-called entheogens are often forbidden by law, but the perennial urge to experiment with ecstatic states is evident in the rise of "clubbing, raves, technoshamans and doofs". If we wish to understand a different culture, we must be prepared to enter imaginatively and sensorily into its spiritual practices, Hume suggests. She goes further and says Western anthropology should be open to being transformed by other cultures. She is quick to note the dangers of cultural imperialism, as when entrepreneurs copyright yoga postures taken from classical Hindu writings. This book is a brilliant corrective to the view that religion is mainly about belief; it shows that lurking behind this troublesome word are many technologies of transcendence and many ways to transform and elevate earthly life.

Ghosts in particular are a topic of key importance in the battle of world-views. Spooks presumably are indicators of life after death, a notion at odds with mainline scientific materialism. P. G. Maxwell-Stuart's scholarly and well-written history of the subject proves with detailed examples that ghosts are a recurrent part of human experience. Indeed, the question "Do you believe in ghosts?" is misleading, for the historical testimony is that people everywhere report ghostly encounters.

The real and hard question is not whether they exist but what they are: hallucination or conscious agent? Ghostly phenomena range from traditional revenants to the ghoul, the zombie, the poltergeist and the vrykolax . How these phantoms are understood is inevitably moulded by historical and cultural factors. The afterlife in the ancient world was portrayed as a dark, gloomy and cheerless scene, although some hauntings could be purpose-driven. Thus, Pliny the Younger tells of a philosopher who rented a haunted house and met an unhappy ghost; the haunting ceased when the bones were properly reburied.

Afterworld geography changed in the Middle Ages with the Christian idea of purgatory, a concept that "was to be the most significant in relation to ghosts". For when the Reformation rejected the doctrine of purgatory, ghosts became highly problematic. Without purgatory, ghosts for the Protestant "should not have been able to break the confines of Heaven or Hell to make an appearance". It was disquieting to the Reformers when spirits continued to put in appearances, despite the new theological prohibitions. Anti-papists were forced to reinterpret their visitations as proof of something diabolic, a view still held by some Christians today.

Historically, things were piling up against the cause of ghosts. A deadly enemy sprang up in the 17th century in the form of scientific materialism. Ghosts could not be captured with the tools of the new science and were rejected as unreal. The new science would also do away with demons and, by implication, anything supernatural. But in spite of this philosophical disavowal, people continue to report ghostly encounters.

Maxwell-Stuart notes (but does not endorse) the tendency to want to make the ghost part of the vagaries of human subjectivity. The concept of hallucination, of psychological projection and of the subliminal mind offers ways to safely neutralise the strangeness of these phenomena.

A minority of Victorian researchers set out to use the methods of science to study a wide range of afterlife phenomena, reviving in a new way the ancient controversy. The Great War and the Second World War, with their enormous loss of life and social disruption, stimulated interest in spiritualism, which offered consolation to thousands of bereaved people. The physical medium Helen Duncan apparently materialised appearances of dead people but ran foul of the authorities and was prosecuted under an old law against witchcraft.

As to why the Victorians' ectoplasm-toting physical mediums seem to have vanished, the author suggests several reasons, one being the excesses of fraud associated with them and another the distancing of the modern self from the very idea of death. Why employ a medium when old videos, audio recordings and photographic images of the deceased can bring them back to us? It is clear from Maxwell-Stuart's wide-ranging account that, regardless of historical fluctuations in style and interpretation, ghosts are here to stay, and to the attentive student much of mystery about them remains. The truth may be out there, but it likes to hide.

For reasons that sociologist Jeremy Northcote lays bare, the truth about phenomena called paranormal is elusive. The reason is that the whole subject is entangled in deep political, religious and psychological concerns. Do people have telepathic experiences? Is precognition a fact of nature? Are poltergeists real? Northcote does not provide answers in The Paranormal and the Politics of Truth . Instead, he focuses on clarifying the nature of the controversy. It's not easy to reach anything resembling consensus when what's at stake are the big stories and deep values we live by.

The paranormal is incendiary and draws as much ire from religion as it does from science; Northcote exposes the tacit assumptions that come into play during this often acrimonious debate. Proponents of the paranormal face off against mainstream Christian and scientific culture. Opponents have a penchant for demonising each other. This Other is seen as a menace to the moral and cosmic order. To the scientific disbeliever, the paranormal is a threat to reason, progress and human dignity. Religious antagonists perceive the threat differently. They don't doubt the reality of the paranormal but interpret it as satanic, also as enemy (this time) to the divine order. In turn, the put-upon paranormalist hardens his heart, blocks up his mind and demonises scientific reductionists and religious fundamentalists.

The author gives an even-handed discussion of the strategies people use to demonise their chosen Others. The politics of truth goes on all the time and everywhere, whether we are labelling things and people in order to degrade or exalt them, ridiculing them or, if it suits our needs, building them up. We may exploit the legal system in the struggle to certify our world-view, manipulate public media or influence the job market. It is well documented that paranormalists lose jobs and are publicly scandalised for their views.

Northcote concludes by discussing the possibility of positive dialogue. Is an honest confrontation with the Other possible? The first step is for debaters to see each other as human, the second to cultivate the art of listening. And it would help if people learnt to adhere to their world-views less rigidly. This book, like the previous two, will help readers navigate rough waters in the quest for big truths.

Michael Grosso is a philosopher affiliated with the division of perceptual studies in the health department, University of Virginia.

Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses

Author - Lynne Hume Berg
Pages - 195
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 9781845201456

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