24.6.17

AFTER THE TWILIGHT

Jon Karl Helgason. Echoes Of Valhalla; The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas. Reaktion Books 2017.

The Snorra Edda is one of the oldest manuscripts we have that recounts the medieval Icelandic sagas. Dating from 1220 it was compiled and partly written by Snorri Sturluson. Three years ago I was in Reykjavik hoping to view the Snorra Edda and other manuscripts at the National Library of Iceland. Unfortunately the building was being renovated and the works had been removed to the University, which meant that unless I was a visiting scholar it would prove difficult for me to see them. At least I can now hold the book Echoes of Valhalla in my hand and look at some enticing photographs of pages from the sagas. Snorri Sturluson, with others, was one of the “re-writers of older pre-texts”. Jon Karl Helgason qualifies this claim by stating “But that does not rule out the possibility that their works were driven by the same compelling need for self-expression that shape compositions which are more original.”

Echoes of Valhalla contains a fascinating two page Timeline from 870 to 2015 showing key dates in the establishment of Iceland, its early legends in poetry and prose, and the international influence of the Viking myths and sagas as realised in novels, plays, films, music, theatre opera and even heavy metal. Yet here arises a problem, for this book, that isn’t overcome. Although we have a long list of works of art (separate from Icelandic literature) very few have proved to be really substantial works of art that authentically echo those ancient tales.

For me Wagner, Carl Nielsen, Ibsen (in part), Tolkien (in much lesser part) and novelist Halldor Laxness seriously arrive at their profound Valhallas. Whereas the perfectly enjoyable Hollywood Viking films of The Vikings, The Long Ships, Erik the Viking and numerous heavy metal bands never even ascend to the uplifting home of the Gods. I appreciate that I haven’t experienced all the art of Helgason’s timeline and my preference appears to be more for high culture over popular culture, but for me the influence of the sagas works most effectively when pastiche and kitsch are skated round and/or avoided entirely. At best even this can prove to be an uneasy adaptation - turgid drama in the form of Ibsen’s early play The Warrior/Vikings at Helgeland (I know it thematically looks forward to Hedda Gabler but that doesn’t save this tedious play.)

Too many of Helgason’s examples simply allow him to retell stories, plotting and characters with their suggested connections and ideas. But does that necessarily mean the new creations are that culturally important? I might enjoy the comic book hero Thor on a engaging level of childish fantasy yet cannot take him seriously as an involving archetype of struggle and transformation: whereas Wagner’s Wotan, of the Icelandic text influenced Ring cycle, does the trick every time with some amazing transcendental music.


The prologue has an arresting quote from Fredric Jameson’s essay, Post-Modernism and Consumer Society:
“Cultural production has been driven back inside the mind, within the monadic subject: it can no longer look directly out of its eyes at the real world for the referent but must, as in Plato’s cave, trace its mental images of the world on its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ which springs from the shock of grasping that confinement and of realizing that, for whatever peculiar reasons, we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about that past, which itself remains forever out of reach.”
For Helgason this doesn’t mean that the works he will discuss in Echoes of Valhalla are “any less interesting or important.” Not less interesting, perhaps. But important? The pitfall for any modern re-working of the Sagas is the negative consequence of pastiche. And the more ancient the story that’s re-told the more unable we are to accurately reproduce its mind-set in art. In the original Sagas that I’ve read there is a dark inner sense of brute force and foreboding. In too many modern adaptations and borrowings this has been softened to create a heroic here and now of facile Viking adventurism.

Helgason can get bogged down (forgive the Icelandic pun) in too much paraphrased material. The arguments of his book need to be longer and more analytically explored. Less subjects with more substance. But to be fair to the author there are some very interesting parts touching on areas for further research. The chapters on travellers to Iceland, Ibsen’s play The Warriors/Vikings at Helgeland, Richard Wagner’s music and Snorri Sturluson are reason enough for acquiring this book.

Helgason writes in a relaxed and intelligent manner. He’s an enthusiastic academic. My big contention is the book’s subject matter in itself . Does it stand up to be written about in depth when a lot of the time, with major exceptions, the richness of the textual source, the sagas, has often been so culturally diluted? It’s not just a case of loosely imitating Valhalla but authentically projecting an idea that we are so very far away from in time. Echoes of Valhalla is one of the very first books to take as its subject the Icelandic sagas and their cultural successors. And for that fact alone must be welcomed. – Alan Price

20.6.17

GEF BEEN IN?

Christopher Josiffe. Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra-special Talking Mongoose. Strange Attractor Press, 2017.

Near the beginning of this book one mystery is cleared up. Our hero’s name is pronounced with a soft ‘g’ - as ‘Jeff’, short for Geoffrey. Unfortunately this is about the only part of the mongoose mystery which we can solve conclusively, as everything else about the creature is entirely ambiguous, and all the more interesting for that.

The basic story has been well-rehearsed. From 1931 until some time in the late 1930s, a mischievous apparition, usually claimed to be a mongoose, haunted a family living in a remote farmhouse on the Isle of Man. The creature described itself at various times as a 'spook', a spirit, a ferret, and the eighth wonder of the world. He engaged in a range of poltergeist-like activities such as throwing stones, moving and hiding domestic objects, and being responsible for a range of bangs and noises. But mostly he became famous for talking.

The Isle of Man is an odd enough place already, with its rich mixture of Viking legend and Celtic mystery, and it's position equidistant from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Manx population is a sometimes fractious mixture of native Manx families and so-called 'comeovers', immigrants from the British mainland, many from the island's nearest big city, Liverpool.

Voirrey, Margaret and James Irving in the Doarlish Cashen farmhouse

One such 'comeover' was James Irving from Wavertree, a small township just outside the Liverpool boundary at the time of his birth in 1873, but long since incorporated into the city. By the start of the twentieth century he was living with his wife and two children in a comfortable newly built home near the famous Penny Lane. He acted as a representative for a Canadian organ and piano manufacturers. This job ensured that they were prosperous enough to be able to employ a young woman as a domestic servant. Irving spoke several languages, including German and Yiddish, probably as a result of having customers and connections in Liverpool's Jewish community.

However his business collapsed during World War I when huge tariffs were imposed on the importation of luxury goods like pianos. He attempted to set up an engineering business and tried to dabble in the property market, but with little success. His wife Margaret, whom he married in 1897, was from the Isle of Man and it may be that on a visit to the Island he learned of the property for sale at Doarlish Cashen, just a few miles from Margaret's parents home in Peel.

His first intention seems to have been to use the property as an investment, rather than to live there. He saw himself as a 'gentleman farmer' employing farm-hands and having his son in charge of the day-to-day management. At first this seemed to work, but with the slump in farm prices after the end of the War, he soon found that he could not afford to employ outside hands and had to take over most of the work himself. The situation became worse when his son and older daughter tired of the remote life and left the farm, to start new lives elsewhere. There was now just Irving, his wife Margaret, and their younger daughter Voirrey (Manx for Mary), who was born in 1918.

Now anyone who has read any psychological literature – and even the literature on UFO contactees and abductees – will recognise this as a classic case of 'status inconsistency', where an individual's perceived social position seems at odds with the realities of their current position. From being comparatively wealthy (his pre-WWI salary is estimated as being about £55,000 per annum in present-day terms) to being virtually a subsistence farmer in a remote part of a small, isolated island is a massive alteration of circumstances.

And the changes were not just financial. In Liverpool he had been dealing with people who had both the money and the cultured tastes to buy expensive musical instruments for their homes. As we have seen from his knowledge of languages, often these customers were foreigners and presumably well-travelled. Now his social circle consisted of local farmers and labourers, many of whom would not even have left the Isle of Man, let alone travelled to Europe. He had belonged to a Masonic Lodge in Liverpool and perhaps in an attempt to mix with 'his own kind of people' he joined the Lodge in Peel, but as his income declined he had to give up even this connection to his old life.


"The appearance of a strict Victorian matriarch who would seem more at home chastising the parlour-maid than feeding chickens"

The other two people in this story seemed equally out of place. Irving's wife Margaret had, from photographs, the appearance of a strict Victorian matriarch who would seem more at home chastising the parlour-maid than feeding chickens. A number of visitors remarked on her eyes: “her appearance, though strikingly handsome, is alarming. I have never before seen such eyes”, “her eyes are piercing and I have no doubt she could make her fortune as a palmist or soothsayer … Immediately I had the feeling She's a Witch”, “she is an aloof, peculiar woman”.

Voirrey completed this out-of-place trio. In effect an only-child, both her older siblings having left the family, she was also an anomaly in this remote and rather primitive location. If we consider Gef to be a poltergeist, we are immediately looking for the unhappy adolescent daughter who is at the centre of the phenomena, and Voirrey fills this role perfectly.

A bright, intelligent girl, clearly taking after both her parents, she stood out at school not just as a 'comeover' but regarded like her mother as a rather aloof character. She was seen as “carrying herself a little above her neighbours”, although visitors reported also that she was a very practical person, who worked well on the farm, particularly looking after the animals. She also had a practical interest in machines and technology, which carried on into her adult career.

So we have a family of three very 'status inconsistent' people living together in a tiny farmhouse on a little farm on a small island. And then Gef turns up.

It's impossible at this remove to discern just exactly what the Gef phenomenon consisted of. There were mystery voices coming from gaps behind the panelled walls of the farm, stones thrown, and items misplaced and missing. Gef would sometimes abuse the family members and visitors. Personal abuse and offensive language is very often a feature of poltergeist cases, and is usually interpreted as the personality of the adolescent in the case expressing their anger and frustration at what they see as the repressed and controlled nature of their life. It is usually up to the taste of the investigator whether they feel this anger is expressed through a physical externalisation of the subject's emotions, or just through the medium of funny voices!

If that is the case, then certainly Voirrey had plenty of reason to express that frustration. James was a controlling character who seems to have seen himself as the sole spokesman for the family. He would not allow visitors to speak to Voirrey away from his presence, and would usually take over the conversation anyway. There have been suggestions that he may have been sexually abusing the girl - largely based on the oddity that Voirrey's bedroom was locked from the outside – but Josiffe feels there is no evidence for this, and I agree with him.

What the family thought Gef to be was never clear. At times they regarded him as an ordinary sort of mongoose which just happened to have leaned to talk, at other times he was a non-corporeal entity moving invisibly and soundlessly around the farms, but at times he seemed real enough to take James's fingers in his paws or give Margaret a painful nip.

Apparently he wandered around the Island picking up gossip which he relayed to Voirrey, and making a nuisance of himself to the drivers and conductors at Peel bus garage. He seemed to be telepathic, telling her parents where Voirrey was on the farm and which animals she was dealing with. Unfortunately he seldom seemed to be around when there were visitors. Especially important visitors from the mainland. And this is where we seem to be able to discern the pattern of an explanation.

From its origin in the autumn of 1931, the story of Gef began to spread like ripples from a stone in a pond. Rumours were passed around in the nearest villages to the Irving's farm, Dalby and Glenmaye, eventually to the town of Peel, where they began to be reported in the local papers,. The Isle of Man Examiner reported it under the headline 'Dalby Sensation', describing the phenomenon as the 'Dalby Spook', the name it seemed to retain locally.


The story spread to the mainland in the Manchester-based tabloid the Daily Dispatch, who sent a reporter to the Island. He announced that the 'weasel' amongst its other achievements, had given a tip for the Grand National. If many people had put their money on the 'weasel's' choice they would have been doing the bookies a favour!

The story was now national and came to the attention of the famed psychic researcher Harry Price, who dispatched Harold Dennis, a Liverpool businessman, to do a preliminary investigation. Impressed by Dennis's account of Gef's antics, Price paid a visit to the Irving household. At this visit he asked Irving to keep an account of Gef's doings. And it is as a result of this request that Irving seems to have taken over control of the reporting of the phenomenon, keeping a detailed diary and becoming the Talking Mongoose's public voice.

I think that what happened at this point is that James Irving realised, consciously or unconsciously, that here was a route out of his 'status inconsistency'. Price was a famous character, educated, a published author, broadcaster, with his own organisation, the National Laboratory for Psychical Research, and contacts with many important people.

From now on the people who were talking about Gef were not Voirrey's taunting classmates, or the conductors at the bus garage, but men of education and status from London. People like Harry Price, Nandor Fodor the Hungarian parapsychologist and associate of Sigmund Freud, and the exotic Rollo Ahmed, friend of Aleister Crowley and author of the sensationalist 'exposé' The Black Art, who all visited the remote farm.

In the later years of the phenomenon James Irving seems to have taken it over altogether, Voirrey expressing less and less interest as she grew to womanhood. Irving's diary and letters are the only source for most of the accounts of Gef's activities; the so-called physical phenomena are almost entirely in the words of Irving. At one point he placed a notice in the local newspapers to discourage sightseers and the idly curious from venturing to his remote home. Visitors were accepted only 'by appointment'. He didn't quite say 'no hoi-polloi', but the intention is clear. But increasingly, when those visitors 'by appointment' did turn up at the farm, Gef was noticeable by his absence. Instead of voices and stones, they just got James Irving's accounts of what had happened before they arrived.

Eventually Gef just faded away. At 22, Voirrey moved from the farm to Douglas, the Island's capital, to work in an engineering firm, a position which seemed to suit her interests. James Irving died in 1945, his wife staying on for a few more years and eventually selling the farm and moving to live with relatives in Liverpool. Voirrey moved to the headquarters of the engineering company in Cheltenham, where she lived until her death in 2005. After leaving Man she gave only one brief interview to a writer for Fate magazine published in 1952 which seemed just to reinforce the ambiguity of the entire episode.

"That ain't me, looks more like a llama"

So was Gef a ghost, a poltergeist, a hoax, a delusion, a folie-a-trois? The case is so complex, even in Josiffe's comprehensive and clearly-written account that it is impossible to come to any conclusion. For what it's worth I feel it started as a classic poltergeist case, with Voirrey using the peculiarities of the family home – the space behind the matchboard walls, the gaps in the stonework, the isolation – to produce Gef as an escape from the oppressive environment she found herself in.

But as in many of these cases the original perpetrator loses control. Her father realises that Gef provides a re-introduction to the more cosmopolitan world he saw in his earlier experience. Perhaps Mrs Irving saw Gef and the distinguished visitors providing some level of status distinguishing herself from her neighbours. Just how much did she want to live up to the image of a 'witch'? Perhaps more than you might think, the Isle of Man has a reputation for such things, and Margaret was a native-born Manxwoman.

Altogether I think they produced what was almost a collective imaginary friend, one who played a slightly different role for each of the participants, who used each other, and their visitors, fellow Islanders and even the idly curious to create their own Gef for their own ends.

As a librarian at the London University Library Christopher Josiffe has had access to the Harry Price library and papers and the Eric Dingwall archive which are housed there, as well as to the SPR Library and private collections. The wealth of detail does not detract in the least from his account. This is a fascinating and very readable story, which not only gives the definitive account of the Talking Mongoose himself, but also supplies an insight into the society of the era. A Magonia Must-read! – John Rimmer


17.6.17

PROBLEMS WITH POLTERGEISTS

Jenny Ashford. The Unseen Hand: A New Exploration of the Poltergeist Phenomena. Bleed Red, 2017.

Horror story writer Jenny Ashford here looks at various types of phenomena that have been attributed to poltergeist and presents chronologies of cases showing these various symptoms. We might use Ufological style terminology to describe these cases, so:

  • Poltergeists of the first kind involve apparently anomalous rains of rocks and stones both outside and inside buildings.
  • Poltergeists of the second kind involve apparently anomalous raps and bangs, the origins of which can never be tied down.
  • Poltergeists of the third kind are the classic poltergeist accounts involving all sorts of stuff flying around the house, sometimes appearing as if to come from nowhere.
  • In the same chapter are included poltergeists of the fourth kind, which involve all sorts of strange things happening to electrical devices
  • Poltergeists of the fifth kind in involve the mysterious appearance of liquids, often in large quantities that seem to flow out of nowhere.
  • Polts of the sixth kind involve anomalous fires
  • Polts of the seventh kind are those in which various apparitions, both human and nonhuman are seen
  • Polts of the eighth kind are where people receive anomalous injuries.
  • Polts of the ninth kind involve cases of apparent possession

Ashford not only presents cases in each section in chronological order but selects them from a variety of places and cultures, giving some idea as to both the uniformity and the cultural differences involved. It would have been helpful however for the source(s) of each case to have been given.

Though only a minority of cases show the progression above, the sequence gives a sense of an ever encroaching wildness, that starts from attacking from outside, entering the houses and getting ever wilder until it invades the body itself. What emerges from all studies of polts is that there is a common theme of the “disorderly house”, wherein the house, which should be the habitat, the place of order and civilisation, is reduced to a place of wild chaos, and that it someway this is a reflection of some internal chaos and discord within the family. Many of the families at the centre of poltergeist cases are what social workers tend to class as “problem families” with “chaotic lifestyles”.

This means that such cases are extremely difficult to investigate; I doubt that anyone without a background in psychiatric social work or family counselling should attempt this. It also means that it becomes often legally or ethically impossible to discuss such cases.

Jenny Ashford suggests that polts are due to the psychokinetic powers of the people at the centre of the cases, perhaps involving some form of quantum effect. A moment’s thought shows that this cannot be the case. First of all no such powers have ever been reliably independently detected and secondly and more importantly, if they did exist our world would be one vast chaotic smoking ruin. Evoking disembodied intelligences doesn’t solve anything either, for disembodies intelligences could not produce such raw physical effects.

The least implausible answer is that most of these effects are produced by a mixture of a variety of natural phenomena and a large dose of trickery by mortal material human hands. Of course if many of these events are accurately perceived, remembered and recorded it is very difficult to see how this was done, but we know from many studies how inaccurate much human perception, memory, recall and reporting is. Many of these cases involve rapid chaotic events where perception and recall would be very challenged. These is often an assumption that just one person is responsible, where perhaps several are and this may well include non-family members or even in some cases “investigators”.

If you find that judgement unappealing, the only clear alternative—that we are all living in a computer simulation and that polts and other Fortean phenomena are glitches in the programme, or that they add to the delight of the game for the bored alien teenagers running the simulation—seems much less appealing.

Whatever your views on the subject this is a good introduction which gives much food for thought. – Peter Rogerson.

13.6.17

... ME NEITHER

Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson. We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe. John Murray. 2017.


You might think, judging by some of the rhetoric, that scientists have everything sewn up and are perhaps near the magical formulae that will provide the theory of everything. Cham and Whiteson, in this book, which I assume is intended for a late teen, twenty-something readership, show just how little we really know about the world.

For example the known particles that make up the familiar matter around us comprise only about 5% of the “stuff” of the universe, the rest is made up of “dark” matter (invisible matter is a more accurate description) which makes up just over a quarter of the “stuff”, the rest, just over two thirds is “dark energy” and they argue that no-one has a clue what that really is. Furthermore no-one really knows what familiar matter really is; there are hints that the known sub-atomic particles, which aren’t really particles at all, are made of something simpler still.

Even basic concepts like mass, space and time are a lot more complex and problematical than you might think and that is without dealing with questions as to whether there could be more than three spatial dimensions. The latter might explain why gravity is so much weaker than the other known fields. We don’t know whether the universe is very big but finite or actually infinite, or whether there might be an infinite number of universes or what happened before the Big Bang, or even if that question makes any sense at all. Physicists don’t know how to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics and so on.

In the final section the authors discuss extra-terrestrial life and intelligence which we don’t know exist or not. In order to answer those we would probably have to define things life, intelligence, technology etc. in very general terms.

The book discusses a good number of unknowns but there are some omissions, for example there is no discussion of quantum entanglement and non-locality, which nobody understands, or of the really hard questions like “why is there something rather than nothing” (to answer that one you would have to define 'nothing' which is a lot harder than you might think); why are there laws of physics; why does the universe appear to run on mathematics and how is it that patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the brain can generate phenomenal experience.

The book is very easy for the lay readership to follow and its discussions are told with humour, though not possibly humour aimed at old codgers like me, but definitely one for your late-teen children. -- Peter Rogerson


9.6.17

A MAGICAL APPRENTICESHIP

Jack Zipes (editor). The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (An Anthology Of Magical Tales) Illustrated By Natalie Frank. Princeton University Press, 2017.

Most readers will open this book of sorcerer apprentice tales and think of Disney’s Mickey Mouse incarnation of the cute apprentice who gets up to mischief during his master’s absence. The mops and buckets of water that keep relentlessly marching on and on to flood the house only being halted when the sorcerer returns. Mickey’s inexperience and inability to control events are accompanied by the music of Paul Dukas. All very enchanting animation. But the moral message is very Walt Disney: don’t meddle in things that your elders, and betters understand, for they have to mop up your childish magic in the end, kid! Parental control, authority and institutions know best – as Jack Zipes notes of Disney’s version in Fantasia.

“…young people are to obey omnipotent people, and if they try to use the knowledge and power of their mentors before they have been fully formed by these magicians, they will bring demons into the world and create chaos.”

For Zipes (A leading authority on fairy tale literature) there are two possible roads for the apprentice to travel along. One road is for The Humiliated Apprentice and the other for The Rebellious Apprentice.

The journey taken to humiliate child-power magic was instigated by Goethe’s poem of 1798, The Pupil in Magic and much later culminated in the most contemporary global expression of the power and control of magicians - the Harry Potter books. Zipes persuasively argues the Potter books are so caught up in a media phenomenon that it creates its own kind of ‘magic’ power of total acceptance - the media as manipulative magician, if you like. “To be phenomenal means that a person or commodity must conform to the tastes of hegemonic groups that determine what makes for a phenomenon. In short, it is impossible to be phenomenal without conforming to conventionality.” Zipes critique will not please fans of J.K.Rowling but does advance his point about the Potter novels harking back to earlier stories of magicians and apprentices.

To counter the conservatism of Goethe and Rowling, we have the archetype of the rebellious apprentice as shaped by the 16th century Italian writer Giovan Francesco Straparola. His tale Maestro Lattantio and his Apprentice Dionigi (1550) provided the groundwork for The Brothers Grimm who in 1819 produced the story, The Nimble Thief and his Master. This subversive tale kicks out domesticated magic to replace it with sorcery outside of the law. A young man is apprenticed to a magician in order to become a master thief, made possible by his father who takes the advice of his sexton that his son should learn the trade of thieving! At the end of the story Master and apprentice instantly turn themselves into a fox and a rooster (the transformative powers of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are to be found in all apprentice stories.) The fox (apprentice) bites off the head of the rooster (magician). And for the Brothers Grimm their magician stays very dead!

Zipes employs the term ‘meme’ (not in the current internet definition of information passed on but as a cultural idea or value imitated from one generation to the next). Sorcerer’s apprentice myths have generally been shaped more conservatively in America and more radically in Eastern Europe. Yet long before Goethe and Grimm, cultures as different as Ancient Egypt, and 10th century India skilfully played with these important narratives.

Zipes attempts to elucidate why Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic is important for our understanding of “the struggle young people face in the process of individuation.” Tales of apprentice resistance bring political enlightenment, knowledge of magic (self-belief) and how the world operates: whereas stories of submission demonstrate the cunning use of power to uphold a socio-economic system. Any plotting of Hegel (and to a lesser extent Adorno) through this book’s very long (it’s an 80 page essay) and really fascinating introduction is not an easy task. Zipes doesn’t totally convince me of the German philosophical underpinning to these stories. Yet it’s a brave attempt that broadly makes sense as the master/slave dialectic spreads out into other cultural fields.

Zipes is much more successful in reflecting on the effects of such tales on the psychology of children. For this he draws in the theories of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s book Childism: Confronting Prejudice against Children.

“Childism can be defined as a belief system that constructs its target group, ”the child”, as an immature being produced and owned by adults who use it to serve their own needs and fantasies.”

Zipes response is.

“In the case of both the tale types…we have fantasies that have taken the form of diverse fairy tales. These two tales form a whole narrative that allows us to grasp the myriad childist ways that young people are badgered and deprived of the knowledge of magic that might enable them to transform themselves as they wish – not just to survive.”

If this review has allocated more space to Zipes’s introduction, and his subsequent theorising, than the tales themselves, that’s because I urge everyone to savour the brilliance of its breadth and insight. Please read and digest it before embarking on this anthology of marvellous tales. There are almost 60. It’s difficult to select favourites as they all ingeniously present the tropes of the sorcerer’s apprentice. As a bonus we have Zipes’s research into sorcerer film versions. I’d suggest not only watching Disney again, but the enchanting films of Karel Zeman, Michael Powell’s arresting short film and a strange TV episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (The last two films are now available on YouTube. Powell's film is linked below)

So forget Harry Potter’s dubious wizardry and allow yourself to succumb to the real pre-media phenomenal thing as edited, with magical authority, by Mr. Jack Zipes. – Alan Price



6.6.17

GODS OR MEN

Jim Willis. Ancient Gods: Lost Histories, Hidden Truths, and the Conspiracy of Silence. Visible Ink Press 2017.

Where do we come from? The ultimate question of humanity's true origins and development is fraught with complexity and mystery. There can be no simple answer or explanation. It is not a simple binary choice of saying that either 'God' or 'evolution' started the process. One would only have to ask 'How?' to realise that there are always more questions than answers. And for all of the facts and information that we can be reasonably certain of, there is vastly more that is in the realm of speculation and guesswork.

This book from Visible Ink Press, based in Detroit, is a new addition to their extensive range of "popular reference mega-works that inform and entertain in the areas of science, history, minority studies, and the paranormal." Its author, Jim Willis, has done a great job here of sifting through an immense amount of scientific material from many fields of study and making it not only comprehensible but also highly readable and enjoyable. From first impressions right through to the end it is a great read. The text is beautifully laid out in short paragraphs with good spacing, subheadings, highlighting and an abundance of illustrations that stimulate and hold one's interest.

Willis has a warm and engaging style of writing, with many touches of humour and unfailing honesty. In one paragraph of his first chapter, 'Ancient Ancestors', he says: "By following the so-called objective, scientific method of study by separation, archaeologists can leave questions of origins to the biologists and anthropologists. They in turn, find it convenient to retreat into their specialities and pass the burden of our beginnings on to the philosophers. And so it goes, on down the line. Sometimes it's safer and easier to retreat into specialisation".

The author is rigorous in separating fact from fiction, and assiduous in analysing and weighing what 'facts' may be gleaned from ancient texts and myths. Before launching into these, he frankly says: Where did we come from? We don't know. But what follows is a broad spectrum of theories to consider. In the next few pages we learn about the ancient Sumerian text known as The Epic of Gilgamesh. Discovered in 1853, and translated in 1870, it was of no interest to the popular press or the general public until, as Willis amusingly informs us, it was featured in an episode of Star Trek.

He uses this as his first clear example of the 'Conspiracy of Silence'. The Epic of Gilgamesh told the story of a great worldwide flood that destroyed most of humanity. The only survivors were a god-fearing family led by a patriarch named Utnapishtim, who built a large boat to ride out the deluge. Willis points out that this text was written five thousand years ago, long before the famous biblical story of Noah was written. He cites a quotation from a scholar stating that the text contains little of value for Christians, since it concerns typical polytheistic myths associated with the pagan peoples of the time. In other words, despite clear evidence that it might be a source of the biblical text, it was dismissed and devalued regarding its other revelations.

Perhaps the greatest of these revelations in The Epic of Gilgamesh is described by Willis as a 'hidden time bomb that wouldn't explode until more than 150 years had passed. It told of seven "judges of hell" who set the land aflame in advance of the great flood. They were called the Anunnaki.' In another text, known as Enuma Elish, the Anunnaki were also known as Watchers or Holy Ones, appointed by the god Marduk to oversee his slave race of humans. This would all be academic but for the work of Zecharia Sitchin, whom Willis introduces in the section 'Enter the Aliens'.

Sitchin became famous for locating the home of the Anunnaki as a planet called Nibiru, another name for the god Marduk. He claimed that this planet had a long elliptical orbit around the sun and was rarely seen from Earth. They were having trouble with their planet's atmosphere and needed to seed it with gold to save themselves. There was plenty of gold on Earth, but they needed a slave race to mine it. Sitchin's theory is that they did a little genetic manipulation on existing life forms, tweaking their DNA to make slaves of them. The worrying implication is, of course, that some of this programming might remain in humanoids today.

What adds real interest to this story is that only last year, in 2016, scientists found gravitational evidence of the existence of a massive planet orbiting our sun in the outer reaches of our solar system beyond Pluto. Willis is not saying that the planet Nibiru has been found, only that it might become visible in time. Nobody knows for sure yet. But all of this ties in with the earlier work of Eric von Daniken, who claimed in Chariots of the Gods that we had been visited by 'Ancient Aliens'. This phrase stuck, and, thanks to the internet and cable TV, is now well-known.

Willis is careful not to exaggerate any particular theory. He keeps an open mind and follows the scientific method through the first half of Ancient Gods under four main headings: Ancient Ancestors, Ancient Astronomers, Ancient Catastrophes, and Ancient Civilisations. DNA evidence is useful for determining that various species of humans have been around for over 40,000 years, and possibly as long as 400,000 years. One estimate for the transition from ape to human ancestors is as much as six million years. Another estimate for human ability to make and use fire is 350,000 years.

As for the origin of life itself in a 'young universe of unimaginable chaos and violence' there are many theories:
'Panspermia', the concept of life being seeded by comets and other bodies throughout space by micro-organisms or bacteria that begin to thrive where conditions are suitable;
'Spontaneous Generation', although this theory has virtually died as it has never been demonstrated that life can come from non-life;
'Quantum Theory' and the weird relation between observing and manifesting - which hardly explains life itself;
'Many Worlds Theory', related to Quantum Theory in the idea that anything, including the creation of life itself, is possible in an infinite multiverse.

No stone is left unturned, figuratively and literally, as Willis surveys ancient cultures and the stone monuments they have left behind as clues for the possibility of an advanced civilisation on Earth that was wiped out suddenly by a great catastrophe. The Great Pyramid and Stonehenge are the most famous ancient monuments in the world today, many thousands of years old and seemingly too advanced to have been constructed by the 'primitive' peoples of their time. Willis mocks the experts who explain away the Great Pyramid as the work of thousands of labourers dragging massive stones up ramps. As to how it was done, he prefers an advanced technology that we do not yet have in the modern world. It could have been done by sound vibrations and resonance, for example, as a kind of anti-gravity, or levitation, effect. We simply don't know, as Willis often admits to some of these truly baffling questions.

There is another stone monument, discovered only as recently as 1995, that may be even more important than the Great Pyramid and Stonehenge as evidence of a lost civilisation: Gobekli Tepe is a temple built of immense stone pillars arranged in sets of rings. The tallest are eighteen feet high and weigh sixteen tons. Carved into their surfaces are bas-relief totemic animals of prey - a whole menagerie. But what makes the discovery so fantastic is this: Gobekli Tepe was built 11,600 years ago!

This discovery has proved to be a game-changer in the world of archaeology and the orthodox view of humanity's development of civilisation. Willis puts it like this: How did a hunter-gatherer culture supply the manpower to carve and move sixteen-ton rocks? It must have taken thousands of labourers. What motivated them? Religious temples supposedly didn't come into play until generations after the Agricultural Revolution, but here was a huge religious temple found springing up from the landscape thousands of years before religion was thought to have been organised enough to even attempt such a thing!

Another mysterious fact is that the most advanced parts of Gobekli Tepe are the oldest. The most sophisticated building happened first, at the bottom of the dig. It appears that later generations built on top of it. But their work exhibits less and less skill with each succeeding layer. This discovery defies and overturns all previous expectations of what humans were capable of in that time period. Gobekli Tepe was not built near a water source and there is no evidence of towns or villages because these had not yet been developed. What are the implications of this? It was built as a 'religious' temple, therefore it may indicate that religion came before agriculture.

Two more recent discoveries, both as it happens found in Indonesia in the year 2014, have added to the mystery and the need to re-assess what we know about human development. On the island of Sulawesi sophisticated cave paintings were found that date back around 40,000 years. And on Java remains of human bones were discovered, surrounded by shells decorated with geometric engravings, generally interpreted as indicative of modern cognition and behaviour, dated to 500,000 years ago - at least 300,000 years before modern humans were supposed to have evolved.

What to make of all of this? Willis gathers a compendium of indicators before 'joining the dots'. Everything from legends of Atlantis and Mu to the Nazca lines of Peru, Olmec heads, pyramids built in disparate places around the planet, ley lines, alignment of shafts in the Great pyramid to specific stars at particular times, evidence from the Sphinx, and so on. It all points to the existence on earth, many millennia ago, of highly advanced beings in human form with an equally advanced civilisation. They lived alongside primitive 'Stone Age' type humans.

At about 11,600 years ago the 'Younger Dryas Ice Age' ended as rapidly and mysteriously as it began. This resulted in worldwide flooding as the ice caps suddenly melted, releasing unimaginable amounts of fresh water into the world's oceans. Willis quotes from Graham Hancock's groundbreaking work Magicians of the Gods: The notion of global disaster more than 11,000 years ago, and particularly the heretical idea that it could have wiped out a high civilisation of that epoch, is strenuously resisted and indeed ridiculed by the archaeological establishment because, of course, archaeologists claim to 'know' that there was not, and never under any circumstances could have been, a high civilization at that time.

The 'Ancient Gods', as Willis convincingly argues, were the advanced humans who built those awesome monuments that still stand today. In some cases, recent discoveries, such as Gobekli Tepe, have served as 'time capsules', possibly even planted deliberately to be found in our present day of global crisis. He cites evidence, thoroughly explained in Graham Hancock's book, that pillar 43 at the Gobekli Tepe Temple has a carved relief showing exactly the night sky at the winter solstice 11,600 years from then - i.e. our present time. The plot thickens. For more details, read the book! -- Kevin Murphy

2.6.17

ART, NOT ELECTRONICS

Wladimir Velminski, Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny, The MIT Press, 2017.

The apparent incongruity of this book’s title, which seems more at home in Nexus magazine, and its publisher raises questions and expectations. Is it really a serious academic study of research not just into mind control but psychic mind control?

Disappointingly, no, it isn’t. Homo Sovieticus is a translation of a German original from a rather different, if also internationally acclaimed, institution, Wladimir Velminski being an ‘art and media scholar’ at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, and it soon becomes apparent that his book is the product of a university devoted to the creative arts rather than science and technology; despite Velminski’s description of it as a ‘coupling of science and poetology’ the latter wins out, with artistic licence and imagination trumping critical analysis.

It’s a slim volume, just 100 pages, and about a quarter of those are given over to illustrations and diagrams from Soviet sources, and employs the kind of art-speak and high-flown language – only some of which can be blamed on the translation of those awkward compound German nouns – that’s always a warning sign of style getting the better of substance.

The substance is the Soviet leadership’s supposed efforts not just to control the thinking of its population through technologically-enhanced psychic means – direct mind control on a mass scale – but, beyond even that, the ‘project of making a New Man [the Homo Sovieticus of the title] endowed with telepathic destiny’. The last phrase, even though it’s used just the once, has, rather cheekily, been picked out by MIT Press for the subtitle: it’s the translator’s rendering of Velminski’s Sendungpotenzial, which my German-English dictionary tells me translates more literally as the far less sexy ‘broadcast potential’. (The original title was also less grabby: Gehirnprosthesen - ‘neural prosthesis’, Velminski’s term for the machine-enhanced psychic techniques.)

Early Soviet research into psi was based on the notion that thoughts are electromagnetic in nature and behave in the same way as radio waves, the brain being ‘a broadcasting tower able to emit, receive, and, ultimately, influence thoughts’. Telepathy is, according to this model, a natural ability to pick up the mental signals ‘broadcast’ by others, which could theoretically be boosted, both in their transmission and reception, using electromagnetic devices.

Velminski conflates the Soviet state’s use of broadcast media to shape the thinking of its citizens in conventional ways with its supposed aim of developing such enhanced telepathic mind control methods, literally beaming thoughts into the heads of the populace. He doesn’t argue that this was ever viable, or even that telepathy is a reality – he sidesteps that question with an airy ‘The precise status of telepathy in science does not stand at issue’ - merely that it was believed to be possible. Neither does he attempt to place the theories on which that belief was based in the context of parapsychological research generally (subsequent theories of how telepathy and clairvoyance work – assuming they do – having moved on from the simplistic ‘mental radio’ concept).

However, Velminski never produces any real evidence for the existence of such a programme, or even that the Soviet leadership had ambitions in that direction. While the individual parts of his story have their interest, they’re strung together with thin connections and tenuous associations of ideas that would make the most undiscriminating conspiracy theorist blush.

Velminski begins with ‘labour scientist’ Aleksei Gastev, who, before he fell victim to Stalin’s paranoid purges and was shot in 1939, developed a new ergonomic approach to the organisation of work, which entailed not only training the worker’s body to make the movements required to carry out a task as efficient as possible, but also their thought processes and even imagination.

He then passes on to the neurophysiologist Vladimir Bekhterev, who in the 1920s, in Velminski’s word, ‘repurposed’ Gastev’s system in the light of his own research into telepathy, which had convinced him that it was possible for one individual to mentally influence another at a distance. However, while Velminski’s account of Bekhterev’s research is fascinating, he doesn’t explain how he applied Gastev’s methods; the supposed repurposing is simply stated as fact.

The same applies when he moves on to the inventions of the television pioneer Hovannes Adamian, whose designs, Velminski says, were ‘directly linked’ to Bekhterev’s experiments, representing ‘auratic-electromagnetic networks’ that ‘provide the basis for hypothetical-telepathic circuitry’. He doesn’t give any detail of exactly how the two men’s work linked, directly or otherwise, the chapter consisting mostly of technical descriptions of Adamian’s patents, which purely related to TV. Velminski notes that Adamian was a regular participant in spiritist seances (then much in vogue) but that’s it.

So, although he shows that Bekhterev provided a theoretical framework for technologically-enhanced mass thought control, Velminski doesn’t demonstrate that anybody tried to develop it practically. His only examples of such a conceptual leap actually being made are a 1921 speculation by futurist Velimir Khlebnikov on the possibility of transmitting sensations, such as taste, via radio waves, and a science fiction novel explicitly based on Bekhterev’s work, The Ruler of the World (1926) by Alexander Balyaev, in which telepathic influencing enhanced by machines becomes an instrument of mass subjugation (or, in a typical phrase, ‘the novel’s psychography implicitly and explicitly elaborates a media theory that hypostasizes a closed order of reception-, production-, and transmission technologies’). Velminski suggests that Balyaev’s novel represented what the Soviet state was working towards, but a SF plot hardly constitutes evidence.

Post-war, cyberneticist Pavel Gulyaev developed Bekhterev’s idea of thoughts as a ‘kind of radiation’, which he called the ‘auratic field’, developing devices such as the ‘Aurathon’ for diagnosing disease by reading information about internal organs from that field, and for healing by its manipulation. Gulyaev called this bioinformation signal the psikhon. Inevitably, Velminski links this to the supposed goal of mass control - ‘Psikhon stands for something that serves to take in and instrumentalize the population – an animate “agent of infection” for influencing, controlling, and steering the psyche along cybernetic lines’ – but that is what he reads into it: Gulyaev’s work, as outlined by Velminski, was concerned purely with health and healing.

According to Velminski, all this ‘reached its apogee when the Soviet Union was in the course of collapsing and the masses had to be “recharged with healing forces”.’ This refers to a series of live broadcasts on the USSR’s main TV channel in October and November 1989 by Anatoly Kashpirovsky - described by Velminski as a ‘clinical psychotherapist’ but more accurately a hypnotist and psychic healer – which attempted to ‘calm a land beset by turbulence and heal the body politic by setting viewers’ minds to the state’s new goals’. MIT Press’s back cover blurb makes this episode the book’s focus (‘Incredibly enough, this last-ditch effort to rally the citizenry was the culmination of decades of official telepathic research, cybernetic simulations, and coded messages undertaken to reinforce conformity’) – but it is, yet again, all much vaguer than it’s made to sound.


Kashpirovsky was – and is, having recently returned to Putin’s Russia after a couple of decades in the USA – a well-known media figure, and the 1989 broadcasts were overtly an exercise in applying his healing talents to both a studio audience and viewers at home, beaming cures to the sick and infirm. Although Velminski isn’t the only person to have speculated that there was a sinister subtext to the shows, speculation is all it is; in any case it manifestly failed to save the USSR. (It should also be pointed out that others argue that the promotion of paranormal beliefs by Kashpirovsky and others were part of an undermining of the Soviet Union’s materialist ideology that actually contributed to its downfall.)

Velminski’s final leap is the most baffling. His closing chapter is devoted to Russian artist/rapper Pavel Pepperstein’s 2004 film Hypnosis. This consists of a series of close-up sequences in which young women kneel in front of a naked man and stare at his genitals until he achieves an erection. This is apparently Pepperstein’s attempt to answer the burning ‘psychoanalytic question’ of ‘What distinguishes the penis from the phallus?’, and leads Velminski to ponder ‘Does the female gaze hypnotize the male member, or is the woman herself hypnotized by the process of erection?’ (Or neither, maybe…?)

Leaving aside the artistic merits or otherwise of Pepperstein’s film, its place in Velminski’s book and connection to what has come before is unclear to say the least. His attempts to explain its relevance produce statements ripe for Private Eye’s ‘Pseuds Corner’, such as ‘One can draw a parallel between the genital striving to become a phallus and Soviet power’ and ‘In this light, neural prostheses aimed at domestic or foreign affairs… come to resemble a penis that cannot turn into a phallus.’ If you say so, Wladimir…

Homo Sovieticus doesn’t achieve Velminski’s aim to ‘outline a new picture of the thinking that shaped the age’ and explore ‘how the phantasms haunting psychological research were enlisted to steer thinking and manipulate the population’. At best it shows how some in the USSR, following the false trail of the ‘mental radio’ model, might possibly have thought along such lines. Velminski looks at the data with the eye of an artist, not a scientist or historian, making Homo Sovieticus more a piece of literary performance art than, as billed, history. – Clive Prince


29.5.17

AVOIDING THE TRAPS

Darren Naish. Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. Arcturus, 2017.

As a boy, palaeontologist and zoologist Darren Naish became interested in cryptid creatures, and thought that in time decisive evidence for their existence would be found. This has not happened and he has now come to the conclusion that while there are no doubt new animal species to be discovered, these do not include the headline want-lists of cryptozoologists. For these - though encounters with real animals and other features of the environment play a part in the development of reports of mystery beasts - at their heart are “self-perpetuating cultural phenomena”, in other words a psycho-social approach to cryptozoology.

Naish examines the contents of the want-lists; sea monsters, lake monsters, hairy humanoids, “prehistoric survivals” and some mystery Australian beasts. He examines some of the classic cases and suggests conventional explanations, pointing out that often the descriptions in the original accounts differ from those in the illustrations which have had the major cultural impact. He notes that lake monsters are sometimes reported in bodies of water that are little more than oversized ponds, that hairy humanoids are reported from all over the world, including Australia where there are no non-human primates, and from Britain of all places. These reports are no different from those in places like the Pacific coast of America.

He suggests that lake monsters represent the wildness and danger of bodies of water, that their origin may be the same as the supernatural creatures such as folklore's Jenny Greenteeth that are said to haunt waters; stories told to warn children away from these dangerous places. Other writers have suggested that bodies of water act as screens on which dreams and fantasies can be projected.
Similarly the hairy humanoids represent folk images of 'ape men' mixed with earlier notions of Wild Men who represent liminal figures between culture and nature.

Naish gives detailed critique of the work of Bernard Heuvelmans, particularly his systematisation of sea monster accounts into nine new creatures and shows both that reports were often arbitrarily placed into one category or another, or his use of extremely dubious accounts to construct some of the categories. He warns throughout of the fragility of human perception and memory and challenges the belief in the inerrancy of eyewitness testimony that lies at the heart of what he calls 'literalist cryptozoology', and of course many other forms of 'literalist Forteanism'.

He is, I think, rather over-critical about these other Fortean topics, as at the psychosocial level they clearly merge. Cryptids, UFOs, ghost, boggarts and all sorts of nameless things are images from the deep imagination called to the surface by ambiguous environmental stimuli, particularly in liminal regions and times.

I wonder if really cryptozoology or ufology and similar Fortean topics ever were scientific enterprises, but might be more accurately described as populist political movements, noted for their hostility to scientists, experts and elites; believing in the wisdom of the folk, particularly those outside the big cities; and with a sense of persecution and the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. While Naish does not bring this up himself, he does refer to the role of creationists in areas of cryptozoology, particularly in promoting belief in surviving dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.

Perhaps cryptozoology is bound to separate into two disciplines, one looking for real but probably unromantic uncatalogued animals, the other dealing with beasts of the imagination that will never be caught on film or found in a trap. – Peter Rogerson

MAGONIA RECOMMENDS