A close Shavian

Michael Prescott - Tue, 23/05/2017 - 7:48pm

Continuing our ongoing discussion about controversial direct-voice medium Leslie Flint, I'd like to quote some material from Allan Barham's 1982 book Life Unlimited: The Persistence of Personality Beyond Death. The book includes two chapters on Flint, whom Barham knew personally. Barham says he attended many Flint séances, often bringing friends along.

In the first chapter, he quotes from Flint's alleged spirit control, Mickey, who explains why the voices don't always sound quite right:

What one must bear in mind is that all methods of communication, whether it is in this form or any other, is basically a mental thing. And therefore, when a person comes to speak to you – when the scientist whose job it is to build up the voice-box from the ectoplasm supplied by the medium [has finished his work]: when it is all arranged and built up ready for the communicator, the transmission of their thought into sound, via the voice-box, is quite an art in itself. One has to learn how to manipulate it, and you've got to concentrate the mentality on saying certain things – invariably things that really are evidential to the recipient.

And what one has to bear in mind most of all is that all communication is artificial – it must be. You see, the majority of people who go to a séance – to this kind of séance, that is – they say "If that voice speaks to me in so-and-so's voice I'll believe it." And the point is that it doesn't always sound like the identical voice, because what produces the actual voice is, and must be, artificial. It cannot be under any circumstances the identical voice, because they are not using the same physical body or the same vocal organs under the same conditions.

What is actually happening is that they are trying to convert their thoughts into sound via the voice-box; the voice-box being artificial; temporarily constructed from ectoplasm, and kept in being, as far as possible, by the scientist who produces it and utilizes it. And I don't see how you can get the identical voice, the identical tone. Occasionally the voice is reproduced; another time it takes a long time to get anything like the original voice.

Whether or not we find this convincing, it is at least an attempt to explain why the voices often do not sound like the originals and why they sometimes sound too much like one another.

Most of the rest of Barham's coverage of Flint concerns a tape recording allegedly of the deceased George Bernard Shaw, known familiarly as G.B.S. This tape was not produced under anything like controlled conditions. According to Flint, he was having tea with a certain Mrs. Creet, his landlady, in one of her rooms (not the room he rented) when he had the feeling that someone was trying to come through. Barham tells us that a tape recorder was switched on and soon after, Shaw showed up. Barham was not present – the only people there were Flint and Mrs. Creet – but he did go to the trouble of interviewing the landlady. He concluded:

Mrs. Creet believed implicitly in the phenomenon of Direct Voice. She could have been called gullible, but she was certainly a woman of integrity. She confirmed what Leslie had told us, and in particular she confirms that the questions which she had asked G.B.S. were entirely spontaneous.

Naturally, we will have to take Barham's word for this. A skeptic could reasonably assert that Mrs. Creet was in on the trick and simply pulled the wool over Barham's eyes. The transcript of the tape, however, certainly suggests that she was enthralled by the conversation and entirely convinced of its genuineness.

Barham went further in his investigations. He made an effort to play the tape for various people who had known Shaw in life.

The first really impressive evidence for the authenticity of Shaw's communication came from George Bishop, a former dramatic critic of the Daily Telegraph, who had been a friend of G.B.S. for a great many years. It was with some reluctance that he consented to listen to the tape; he had no faith in psychic phenomena of this nature. But as soon as he heard the voice on the tape his attention was riveted, and he sat unmoving for the thirty minutes of the recording. When it was finished it was apparent that he was deeply moved, and he told me, "The mind and the mood are Shaw's."

The only difference that he had noticed, he said, between the voice of Shaw post-mortem and the Shaw whom he remembered was that the latter had a faster delivery than that on the tape. But he was in little doubt that it was Shaw himself who had spoken.

Barham, however, was not quite satisfied with this testimony because "it was an old friend who was concerned, who might have been influenced by the mechanism of wish-fulfillment." To get around this problem, he arranged to have the tape heard by some people who had known Shaw but had not been particularly friendly with him.

Like George Bishop, the writer Lawrence Easterbrook had known Shaw for many years, but was not, I think, a close friend. After he had heard the recording he wrote to me, "I found the G.B.S. recording interesting indeed. The more I think about it, the more impossible it seems for anyone but himself to have been responsible. It brought back to me the sense of infectious gaiety one got with him when he was in the family circle and not showing off. You felt the world with all its follies was tremendous fun, to be laughed at with gentleness and understanding."

Dame Sybil Thorndike did not agree about the "not showing off." She told me, "It sounds like Shaw putting on an act for people whom he despised intellectually."

J.B. Priestley did not believe that the voice was that of Shaw, but he admitted to me that George Bishop had known G.B.S. better than he had himself.

Barham concludes that the reactions were mixed. As for his own personal view:

I don't know whether Shaw communicated through Leslie Flint or not. Nevertheless I have an opinion about it. First, as I have indicated, I do not believe that Mr. Flint has a mind which is capable of producing the spontaneous conversation that is heard on the tape. I refer here to his conscious mind, as I have learned to know it over the years. What the unconscious mind contains provides one of the largest question marks in the area of psychical research.

It is conceivable that some other mind in an earthly body, capable of Shavian expression, telepathically provided the material that emerged at the séance. It is also conceivable that a mischievous discarnate being personated Shaw deceased. Some people might even believe, I suppose, that the devil was responsible for what took place, in order to mislead the faithful and attract them to Spiritualism. All that can be done is to consider the evidence, and to decide, if you can, where the probability lies.

In the second chapter dealing with Flint, Barham includes the greater part of a transcript of the G.B.S. tape itself. This is too long to quote in its entirety (it runs about ten pages), but it does convey a definite sense of personality and what you might call intellectual joie de vivre. The excerpts below were mainly chosen to highlight the humor of the exchange. Following the book's practice, "Shaw's" remarks are italicized.

Well, my name probably will not convey very much to you. You may have casually heard it mentioned in conversation; or it may be possible that you were one of the very disappointed people who came out of the theater grumbling about wasted money, after having seen one – or more perhaps if you ever went to second time, that is, to one of my plays....

I am very grateful indeed for many of the compensations of the earthly existence; but I have no desire whatever to return, should it be possible, that is; to return to live it all over again, and become, as I believe some people say one does, someone else. The fact of having been George Bernard Shaw is enough for any one person for any time.

Mrs. Creet: Oh, your name will last everlastingly I should think.

What a dreadful thought that is....

Mrs. Creet: You were a wonderful old man, you know. You lived to a very great age.

I don't mind "wonderful"; I rather object to the "old."…

Well, I must admit [the afterlife] was a very great surprise. I think the surprise of finding that I was still alive, and yet I was dead, was in itself a very great disappointment to me.… I could see no point in continuing. After all's said and done, I could see no point in a life after death. I think that an earthly existence such as I experienced was enough for any one man….

Mrs. Creet: The continuation is very much more pleasant than it has been on the earth, isn't it?

You seem to know more about it than I do! May I be allowed to say, madam, since you have not yet arrived here, by what right can you tell me that it's better over here?…

Of course, I realize now that me – or I, if I should speak in the so-called correct English – that I was more than the body. The same as a lot of people said that the preface to my plays was more to the point and more important than the play itself.

Mrs. Creet: That's quite true.

Oh, you agree with that do you?

Mrs. Creet: Oh, I do. I think your prefaces are marvelous.

Well, it's a pity they couldn't act the preface, and just leave the play out.…

[As an aside, I find Shaw's pique at having his mock self-effacing remark taken seriously rather amusing and very much in keeping with the touchy egos of many creative types. - MP]

I've never been terribly keen to be a sinner. In fact, when I tried to be a sinner, I was never very successful – much to my great disappointment. I wanted to sin once or twice with several very charming ladies, but they would only sin by correspondence, which was no satisfaction to me at all!… I was a bit of a sentimental old fool, you know, but I wouldn't let people know it. At least, I tried to avoid them realizing it. I used to put on a brusque manner, you know, and try and waggle my beard and frighten them. I didn't always succeed; I did it much better by postcards. Now I come to think about it, I was much more successful with my pen than ever I was with my tongue.…

Mrs. Creet: When you were passing over… Tell us something about that. I'm always very interested…

I never knew a woman who was so anxious to know about death before! Why don't you wait until you come?… Surely, my dear, it's more interesting to know something about life rather than death.

Mrs. Creet: Yes, but then you can start with death, you see, and as you gradually go on, we will hear a bit more.

One usually starts with birth and ends up with death. But now I've had to reverse the procedure and start with death.… But I must admit that I was very much surprised, and very much perturbed … and at the same time very elated; if one can have three such different emotions all at once. I was elated because I realized that I hadn't lost the opportunity to do something which I had always wanted to do – and that was write a successful play. Because you know although financially my plays were successful, I was never really satisfied with them myself. But I'm just telling you that as a secret. You must never let anyone else know. Otherwise they might think that I wasn't so good as they thought I was!…

Well, I met my own parents, of course. I can't say I was exactly elated about that, but they seemed to be much more excited about it than I was.…

Where were we? Oh, I was talking about Oscar [Wilde]. Of course, you know he was a fool, but then again most of the best people are! Most of the most intellectually brilliant people, as far as the world is concerned, are considered fools; so there's hope perhaps for you!…

[Another rather clever jab at the happily oblivious Mrs. Creet. - MP]

The only people, I think, who really had any affection for me were the children, who were never really frightened of me like the adults. I think children are much more trusting; they have much more faith in human beings. Whereas as you get older you become suspicious; and children are very rarely suspicious, especially of old men, because I think that they realize that old men might be Father Christmas in disguise, and bring them a nice present at Christmas if they treat them nicely.… I probably would have filled the position very nicely, now I come to think of it. In fact I think I'd have made a much better Father Christmas than a playwright!…

I'm just joking; because I realize that you are in rather an invidious position, poor dears, sitting up here in this room in the dark, listening to a voice coming out of the void, and not knowing quite who, what or how. After all, I say I'm G.B.S. You haven't the faintest idea. I might be Jesus Christ for all you know. But there you are; that's a matter of opinion.

[Possibly another witticism, suggesting that it's a matter of opinion whether or not Shaw is the equal of Jesus Christ. If this is a joke, it passes completely over Mrs. Creet's head. - MP]

Mrs. Creet: Oh, but we know you're G.B.S. by what you say.

But you know, when you come to think of it, people do accept things too much on face value.…

I know Oscar's very interested [in producing more plays]; and as for that chappie friend of yours, Chopin, he's rounding us all up.

Mrs. Creet: Isn't he a wonderful soul, GBS?

He's a very fine fellow indeed; but you know there's such a thing as letting the dead rest! And if I know him, he's not going to let anybody rest!…

I don't think there are the artistes of the caliber of the old days [in the theater today]. I think that is partly because there are no great actor-managers. I think it is that in the old days they used to, as you know, tour the provinces; they use to learn their work the hard way. I mean they were trained; they knew every aspect of their art. They weren't fêted and courted by society like they are today. Today the theatrical profession seems more interested in the social register than it actually seems interested in "the boards," which I think is a pity. You can't divide yourself. There are exceptions, of course.

In [Henry] Irving's latter days he was very much courted and fêted; but he always kept his distance, more or less, from the general public. But then again, I think that he had the theater at heart; he wanted to make it respectable because, you know, in my early years the theater wasn't exactly a respectable place. No, it was the sort of place where one went to be entertained, and one admired the actors of the day. One went to see special types of plays and special types of theaters; and the orchestra-pit was put there to separate the public from the vagabonds. That was the only reason they ever had an orchestra-pit, because it wasn't particularly so much the musicians that mattered, because they were just put there with their instruments to keep the two apart. Usually somebody would blow on a trumpet to let people know there was a difference between the angels and the devils.

It can certainly be argued that there is nothing especially evidential in all this, apart from a few references to figures known to Shaw in his earthly days. Still, the quoted comments do not seem out of character or markedly below the intellectual level Shaw attained in life. There is an engaging blend of exaggerated self-deprecation and touchy vanity, a certain amused scorn for his interlocutor, combined perhaps with a touch of pity, and a persuasive nostalgia for the great old days of his youth, when men like Irving (a towering figure in London stagecraft) dominated the scene. If this is merely a performance – and an improvised one, at that – by Leslie Flint, a man of very limited education, then it is a small masterpiece.

Barham concludes:

It is doubtful whether any Irish intonation is discernible in the communication. If this is indeed what it purports to be, the reason for the lack of an appropriate accent may be the artificial method of the production of the voice, as was suggested earlier. Apart from this, I remember what one of Shaw's friends told me, namely that the Irish accent was put on when he spoke on public occasions.

Categories: Fortean

Natural born killers?

Michael Prescott - Fri, 19/05/2017 - 8:22pm

Some time ago we had a discussion about whether some people are just born bad — the "bad seed" idea. Here's a lengthy article from The Atlantic dealing sympathetically but realistically with this issue. (You may be required to disable ad blocking on that page.)

Starting at age 6, Samantha began drawing pictures of murder weapons: a knife, a bow and arrow, chemicals for poisoning, a plastic bag for suffocating. She tells me that she pretended to kill her stuffed animals.

“You were practicing on your stuffed animals?,” I ask her.

She nods.

“How did you feel when you were doing that to your stuffed animals?”

“Happy.”

“Why did it make you feel happy?”

“Because I thought that someday I was going to end up doing it on somebody.”...

Samantha had just turned 6. Suddenly Jen heard screaming from the back seat, and when she looked in the mirror, she saw Samantha with her hands around the throat of her 2-year-old sister, who was trapped in her car seat. Jen separated them, and once they were home, she pulled Samantha aside.

“What were you doing?,” Jen asked.

“I was trying to choke her,” Samantha said.

“You realize that would have killed her? She would not have been able to breathe. She would have died.”

“I know.”

“What about the rest of us?”

“I want to kill all of you.”...

Four months later, Samantha tried to strangle her baby brother, who was just two months old....

Samantha was diagnosed with conduct disorder with callous and unemotional traits. She had all the characteristics of a budding psychopath.... Researchers shy away from calling children psychopaths; the term carries too much stigma, and too much determinism. They prefer to describe children like Samantha as having “callous and unemotional traits,” shorthand for a cluster of characteristics and behaviors, including a lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt; shallow emotions; aggression and even cruelty; and a seeming indifference to punishment. Callous and unemotional children have no trouble hurting others to get what they want. If they do seem caring or empathetic, they’re probably trying to manipulate you.

Researchers believe that nearly 1 percent of children exhibit these traits, about as many as have autism or bipolar disorder....

Researchers believe that two paths can lead to psychopathy: one dominated by nature, the other by nurture. For some children, their environment—growing up in poverty, living with abusive parents, fending for themselves in dangerous neighborhoods—can turn them violent and coldhearted. These kids aren’t born callous and unemotional; many experts suggest that if they’re given a reprieve from their environment, they can be pulled back from psychopathy’s edge.

But other children display callous and unemotional traits even though they are raised by loving parents in safe neighborhoods. Large studies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have found that this early-onset condition is highly hereditary, hardwired in the brain—and especially difficult to treat. “We’d like to think a mother and father’s love can turn everything around,” Raine says. “But there are times where parents are doing the very best they can, but the kid—even from the get-go—is just a bad kid.”

Still, researchers stress that a callous child—even one who was born that way—is not automatically destined for psychopathy. By some estimates, four out of five children with these traits do not grow up to be psychopaths. The mystery—the one everyone is trying to solve—is why some of these children develop into normal adults while others end up on death row.

There's a lot more. Read the whole thing.

Categories: Fortean

All rats go to heaven

Michael Prescott - Mon, 15/05/2017 - 11:41pm

Back in 2014 I published three blog posts on a study that showed a surge of electrical activity in the brains of dying rats. (First post, second post, third post.)

The surge was suggested as a possible naturalistic explanation of the near-death experience. Some NDE researchers countered that the electrical surge was so extremely minute (too small to be detected by a standard EEG) that it could not account for the complexity of the subjective experience reported by patients.

Recently a reader sent me two more studies on same subject. The first article, "Asphyxia-activated corticocardiac signaling accelerates onset of cardiac arrest," was originally published in 2015. Its findings: 

Asphyxia stimulates a robust and sustained increase of functional and effective cortical connectivity, an immediate increase in cortical release of a large set of neurotransmitters, and a delayed activation of corticocardiac functional and effective connectivity that persists until the onset of ventricular fibrillation.... These results demonstrate that asphyxia activates a brainstorm, which accelerates premature death of the heart and the brain.

The second article, "Neural Correlates of Consciousness at Near-Electrocerebral Silence in an Asphyxial Cardiac Arrest Model," appeared in April of 2017. It concludes: 

In summary, we found asphyxial CA [= cardiac arrest] to induce a period of near-electrocerebral silence that was marked by hypersynchrony in the frontal lobes and increased power in the visual cortices, which suggests potential markers of consciousness.

The material in both cases gets very technical, as would be expected of articles written by and for neuroscientists.

My first reaction is that the electrical activity reported still seems to be extremely minimal and restricted to narrow bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. This would (I think) make it hard to account for the persistence of consciousness according to currently accepted models of brain functioning, which posit widespread "global" information processing. In addition, the surge is very brief, yet some NDEs take place considerably later and last longer (as estimated by patients' veridical observations).

These points were part of the rebuttal offered by Bruce Greyson, Edward F. Kelly, and W.J. Ross Dunseath after the earlier rat study was published: 

[T]he activity observed following cardiac arrest represents a tiny fraction of the total neuroelectric power present just before arrest ..., and thus it is misleading to describe these rat brains as being “hyperaroused.” All that can be concluded is that activity of unknown functional significance occurred at a few places in the EEG frequency spectrum in the context of near-total obliteration of activity accompanying the waking state. The pertinent question here is not whether there is any brain electrical activity at all after cardiac arrest, but whether there is activity of the type currently thought to be necessary for conscious experience....

[M]any reports of near-death experiences include verifiable perceptions by the experiencer that are anchored to specific time periods far longer than 30 s after cardiac arrest, the duration of the electrical surge in this study.

There was also a response by Robert Mays, who, like Greyson et al., argued that the electrical activity post-cardiac arrest was too small to account for consciousness.

The original researchers responded forcefully to Greyson et al. in this letter.

I think the NDE researchers' objections would apply to the new studies also. But I'm no expert, and perhaps there is something new in these papers, so I'm putting them out there to see if anyone more knowledgeable than I am in matters of neuroscience would like to comment.

Categories: Fortean

More on Flint

Michael Prescott - Sat, 06/05/2017 - 7:35pm

I figured that before ordering another book about Leslie Flint, I would check my own fairly large collection of paranormal literature to see if he was covered in any of the books I already own. Admittedly, many of these books are too specialized to touch on Flint's mediumship; I wouldn't expect a book devoted to near-death experiences, for instance, to talk about a direct-voice medium. Even so, I was surprised to find Flint mentioned in the index of only one book (other than the Neville Randall book I discussed in my last post).

It would appear that Flint does not occupy a particularly prominent position in parapsychological studies, despite his own claim of being the most tested medium in history.

The one book I did find was Is There an Afterlife? by the late David Fontana. As the subtitle (A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence) suggests, the book is a compendium of cases relevant to the question of life after death. Pages 233 through 237 cover Leslie Flint. Here are some excerpts:

So strong and consistent were the voices that Flint soon attracted the attention of researchers, and three of the experiments set up by them to test him deserve mention. In the first of these, organized by the Reverend Drayton Thomas in 1948, Thomas closed Flint's mouth with adhesive surgical tape over which he secured a scarf, then tied Flint's hands to the arms of his chair. Another cord was tied at his forehead so that he could not bend his head an attempt to remove scarf and tape by rubbing his mouth against his shoulders. The sitting proceeded as normal, and Drayton Thomas reported that independent voices were heard with all their usual clarity, sometimes even shouting loudly. At the close of the sitting, it was found that everything securing Flint* was still firmly in place.

[*The text reads "Ford," an obvious typo.]

This appeared to dispose of the theory held by some researchers, that although Flint might perhaps receive genuine spirit communications, the supposed independent voices were not independent at all but came from his own lips. A few weeks later Drayton Thomas arranged for the Research Officer of the SPR, Dr. Donald West (subsequently Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and twice President of the SPR) and other SPR members to attend a sitting of Flint's circle. Donald West was invited to secure Flint's arms to his chair and to seal his mouth with both horizontal and vertical strips of adhesive tape, and to trace around each strip with indelible pencil to ensure that any movement of the tapes during the sitting would be readily apparent. Flint, entranced on this occasion, sat in the darkness of a cabinet as it was agreed that the lights would remain on in the room. Again voices were heard, and Dr. West was given permission by the communicators to raise the curtain of the cabinet briefly during the sitting, with the lights still on, to check that everything securing Flint was still intact. All seemed well, but on checking at the end of the sitting Donald West discovered that one of the pieces of tape was no longer in line with his pencil markings. Although no suggestion was made that this was Flint's doing (one of the tapes may have moved slightly with Flint's labored breathing) this invalidated the test .…

There was no claim that Flint himself was responsible, and no explanation as to how, bound as he was, he could have displaced the tape deliberately or of how, with only a small displacement, he would have been able to fake independent voices. Nevertheless, Donald West's concern was to close every loophole that might permit critics to argue a normal explanation for the voices, the matter how unlikely this normal explanation might be. He was also doubtful that the cords binding Flint were fully secure owing to the thick coat that Flint insisted on wearing even though the cabinet was hot and stuffy, and would have preferred that the medium's hands were held throughout the sitting by disinterested observers.

Donald West attended two other sittings of the Flint circle, both of which took place in darkness and both of which left him unable to reach conclusions as to the genuineness or otherwise of the phenomena; he then invited Flint to participate in a more thorough investigation at the SPR offices. The conditions he suggested for the test were that the sitters would include "a majority of sympathetic spiritualists," that the medium should have his lips sealed and his hands held by sitters on either side, and that he should wear a throat microphone. The sitting could take place in complete darkness if Flint preferred, but in this case he should be under observation through an infrared viewer. Disappointed that he had not already satisfied Dr. West that the voices were genuine, Flint tells us in his autobiography that he refused.

It is a pity that Flint did not agree to be tested under Dr. West's conditions, none of which was in any sense unreasonable (a decision that he tells us in his book that he subsequently regretted) .…

However, two years later Leslie Flint again agreed to be put to the scientific test, this time under the supervision of Professor Bennett, an electrical engineer from Columbia University, and under the aegis of Drayton Thomas and Brigadier Firebrace, another prominent researcher. This time, in addition to the usual taping and trussing, Flint was fastened to a throat microphone wired to an amplifier that would detect even the slightest attempt to use his voice; his hands were held by investigators, and an infrared viewer that detects movement even in the dark was trained upon him throughout. Once again independent voices were heard, though more faintly than usual, and Professor Bennett was able to confirm that Flint's vocal cords were not involved in their production. Very near the end of the sitting the infrared viewer failed, and immediately the voice heard speaking at the time increased in volume. Flint tells us that Brigadier Firebrace confirmed these facts in writing to him, and testified that the medium could have had no knowledge that the viewer had failed, yet the independent voice "immediately doubled in volume." Firebrace concluded from this that infrared may weaken mediumship in some way .…

Flint worked at a time when it was possible to tape record independent voice settings, and two of Flint's regular sitters, George Woods and Betty Greene, were able to put on record over 500 of their conversations with communicators. These were later transcribed, and a selection published by Neville Randall (Randall 1975). George Woods and Betty Greene were concerned primarily to investigate the experience of dying and the nature of the afterlife (Betty Greene's opening question to communicators was "Can you describe your reactions when you found yourself alive?"), and although this material carries its own interest, it is regrettable that once again no consistent attempt was made by investigators to obtain the kind of personal details from communicators that could be verified later. It also seems odd that communicators did not themselves offer these details, and request that contact be made with their surviving relatives and friends. As many of the communicators were what is now generally called drop-ins (i.e. unknown to anyone present, and thus immune to the charge that their details came telepathically from the sitters,), this failure to collect verifiable information is doubly disappointing.

Flint was never identified in fraud, and his mediumship further supports the survivalist argument that communications through at least certain mediums do not appear to be due to any psychic abilities in the living so far identified in laboratory experiments.

Fontana's references include Flint's autobiography Voices in the Dark and Randall's Life After Death.  It's not clear if he used any other sources, or if Flint's claims about the independent validation of these tests were confirmed by the other people involved. 

Categories: Fortean

Our man Flint

Michael Prescott - Mon, 01/05/2017 - 12:21am

As my first step in examining the career of direct-voice medium Leslie Flint, I ordered an out-of-print title called Life After Death, by Neville Randall, originally published in 1975. The book is based exclusively on tape recordings of over 500 conversations carried out by George Woods and Betty Greene in séances with Flint. Woods and Greene worked with Flint on a regular basis over 15 years to produce this large archive of material, which was said to have been transmitted by discarnate spirits using an ectoplasmic voice-box mechanism that materialized in the dark séance room. The voices preserved on these many audio recordings are purportedly those of the deceased persons themselves, as somewhat imperfectly reproduced by the pseudo-voice-box device.

Naturally, the first question that will occur to anyone is whether the whole thing was a fraud. Some people, like our own commenter Amos Oliver Doyle, have suggested that Woods and Greene conspired with Flint to produce the voices themselves. As far as the tape-recorded sessions are concerned, this would probably have been feasible. It appears that most of these sessions involved the three people alone – some of the communicators advised them to avoid adding other people to the circle – which means they could have simply sat in a fully lit room improvising conversations for the benefit of the tape recorder. I can't help but think, though, that the entertainment value of this hoax would have worn thin long before the 15th year and the 500th conversation had been reached.

Besides the question of motivation, there are other reasons to doubt this explanation. For one thing, Woods and Greene seem to have gone out of their way to invite people who knew the various deceased parties to listen to the tapes and judge for themselves whether or not the voices were genuine. For another, Flint was subjected to controlled testing long before he ever met Woods and Greene, and he appears to have passed those tests (though I admit I don't know too much about this phase of his career, which is covered only briefly in Randall's book). Here is what Randall has to say about these early tests:

Before Woods and Betty Greene began their long series of sittings, Leslie Flint had already undergone and passed the most stringent tests that objective psychic investigators could devise .…

One of his investigators was Dr. Louis Young who had worked with Thomas Edison … and had already exposed several doubtful mediums in the States. Flint was made to fill his mouth with colored water. The lights were turned on. Flint returned the water from his mouth to a glass. [That is, Flint apparently kept the water in his mouth throughout the séance, while the voices were heard.] 

In 1948 the Rev. Drayton Thomas, then a member of the Council of the Society for Psychical Research, carried out another test. He reported the result in Psychic News of 14 February.

“On five February I placed over his [Flint’s] tightly closed lips a strip of Elastoplast. It was 5½ inches long and 2½ inches wide and very strongly adhesive. This I pressed firmly over and into the crevices of his closed lips. A scarf was then tied tightly over this and the medium’s hands tied firmly to the arms of his chair; another cord was so tied that he would be unable to bend down his head. Thus, supposing he endeavored during trance to loosen the bandage, it would be quite impossible for him to reach it.

"Anyone can discover by tightly closing the lips and trying to speak how muffled and unintelligible are the sounds then produced. My experiment was designed to show that under the above conditions clearly enunciated speech and plenty of it could be produced by the direct voice. The experiment was entirely successful. Voices were soon speaking with their usual clarity and Mickey [Flint’s guide] emphasized his ability several times by shouting loudly. Some twelve persons were present and we all heard more than enough to convince the most obdurate skeptic that the sealing of Mr. Flint’s mouth in no way prevented unseen speakers from saying anything they wished. At the close of the sitting I examined the cords and the plaster, finding all intact and undisturbed. The plaster was so strongly adhering that I had considerable difficulty in removing it without causing pain.” 

In another series of tests a microphone wired to an amplifier was attached to Flint’s throat to record any sound he might make. His hands were tied by observers sitting on either side of him and his investigators watched his movement through an infra red telescope.

The voices still spoke. And the investigators actually saw the ectoplasmic voice box forming two feet from his head. [pp. 170-171]

All of this sounds convincing enough, although more information would be needed to flesh out these summaries. When it comes to the more current tests conducted to establish the authenticity of the voices, the results were somewhat mixed. Randall writes:

From the time he began his recordings, Woods has issued an open invitation to anyone who knew the people they claim to be when they were on earth to listen to the tapes and tell them if they sounded genuine.

One of the first voices claimed to be Michael Fearon .… Woods went to the sitting with Michael’s mother, Mrs. Fearon. The voice held a long and lively conversation with them both. Mrs. Fearon was convinced she had been talking to her son ....

On 19 April 1962, a voice claiming to be F. E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, one time Lord Chancellor, came through to announce that he had changed his mind about capital punishment, and gave his reasons for thinking it did more harm than good.

The tape was played to the late Charles Loseby, M.C., Q.C., who had been a student under Smith at Gray’s Inn. [Loseby later wrote that he was] “satisfied that I have heard the voice of the late F. E. Smith … I listened to the voice of Lord Birkenhead, still living, anxious apparently only to assist humanity.” [p. 172] 

A voice claiming to be that of Sir Oliver Lodge, an early psychical researcher and noted chemist, was positively identified by a certain Mr. J. Croft and his wife, both of whom had known Lodge. “We felt that the voice had the qualities which we had associated with the voice of Sir Oliver Lodge, we having heard him speak on a number of occasions. There was a characteristic sibilance, and easy fluency of expression, and a choice of the apt word and phrase which we remembered were a feature of Sir Oliver Lodge’s speech.” (p. 172)

When a voice claiming to be that of Lilian Baylis, founder of the Old Vic, came through, Baylis' goddaughter, who had lived and worked with her, attested to its genuineness. (p. 173)

On the other hand, "the most extensively tested tapes," which involved the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, could not be definitively authenticated. A certain Rev. John Pierce-Higgins, who had an interest in psychical research, believed that "it bears all the signs of Lang. Those who have heard this tape and Lang say the voices are very similar. It’s just the sort of thing he would say. When you take it in conjunction with a lot of other similar types of communications which can be more accurately corroborated, it seems probably true.” A family friend, Mrs. Herbert Lane, thought the tape was probably genuine: "As far as I could see it felt like him talking.” But when the tape was played along with a broadcast Lang made after the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, "the voice of the living Lang was stronger and firmer than the voice from the dead.” One of the listeners on that occasion, a bishop, said, “It might be Cosmo Lang. It might be anyone. I cannot prove or disprove.”

In a later session, Cosmo Lang again supposedly came through and explained why his voice hadn't sounded quite the same and why he had used some expressions foreign to the living Lang. Essentially he blamed it on difficulties in the communication process.

After all this, Randall concludes that "if the voices are not just making excuses," then it would appear the difficulties of using the ectoplasmic voice-box make it impossible to conduct a definitive test. (p. 178) 

The book's last chapter, titled "The Final Proof," is a something of a letdown. First we read a transcript of one of the voices describing the death of his ex-wife, which he purportedly witnessed. He says that her astral body rose out of her physical body and met with her mother, who was there in spirit to greet her. This account is then paralleled with the various narratives drawn from Spiritualist literature, including some out-of-body experiences at the point of death – the sort of thing that would now be known as a near-death experience. The implication is that Flint's communicator couldn't have known such details unless he had actually witnessed the dying process, just as he claimed. But of course, it could just as easily be argued that anyone familiar with Spiritualist writings and the works of, say, Robert Crookall, who compiled many such accounts in groundbreaking books in the 1960s, would have known the basic elements of the dying process as described by NDErs and mediums. So this "final proof" falls a bit flat.

The bottom line, for me, is that I need to know more about the conditions under which Flint worked, and especially the conditions of the formal tests that were conducted by qualified researchers. Randall's book, while interesting in its own right, did not settle anything for me.

With that out of the way, I thought I would present some excerpts from the various communications transcribed in the book. As is obvious from what I've just written, I can't say if these communications are genuine or not – or perhaps some mixture of authentic and garbled material. They are pretty reminiscent of certain allegedly channeled books such as Anthony Borgia's Life in the World Unseen. Whether this makes them more or less plausible is a matter for each person to decide.

A man who died in the trenches in World War I tells us:

I don’t know how long I must have been there [in the trench]. Anyway I must have fallen asleep or something, because the next thing I knew was that I remember I was seeing a bright light in front of me.

I couldn’t make this out at all. It was a sort of light I’d never seen before, just as if the whole place was illuminated, and it was so dazzling that, for a moment, I could sort of hardly look at it. I had to keep closing my eyes and having a look. And I thought, “Well, it’s a trick of the light.” I got a bit windy [i.e., scared].

Then, all of a sudden it was just as if I saw an outline – shape or figure appearing. It was the outline of a human being, and it was full of luminosity, and gradually it seemed to take shape.

I was in an absolute sweat. It was an old friend of mine who I knew had been killed some months before, named Smart. Billy Smart! [p. 12]

With regard to this communication, Randall tells us:

There is a record of every British soldier killed and buried in every theater of war. It is kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Maidenhead in Berkshire.

Pritchett is not a common name. A search through the files turned up only four. One of them was private 9023 A. Pritchett of the Machine Gun Corps (Infantry). He was killed in 1917. And buried in the Potijze Chateau Lawn Cemetery a mile from Ypres .…

Smart is a common name in the British army. There were hundreds of Smarts killed in the Great War and dozens of them had the Christian name of William.

One, and only one, fits the story told by the voice claiming to be Pritchett. Private 20394 William Smart, also of the Machine Gun Corps (Infantry). He was killed near Arras in 1916. [p. 19]

Randall doesn't say that his discovery of matching names proves anything, though I suppose that if no matching names had been found, it would have counted against the credibility of "Pritchett's" narrative. The bright light and appearance of a deceased friend are, of course, common features of NDEs. 

Another communicator recounts his first impression upon meeting his guide:

As a matter of fact, quite frankly, I thought at the time that he looked just like Jesus. At least what I’d seen pictures of Jesus. But I realized of course it wasn’t afterwards. [p. 42]

I found this interesting, given the many statements of NDErs about meeting Jesus. How many of them would have "realized of course it wasn't afterwords" if their NDE had become a full-fledged death experience?

Several communicators refer to telepathic communications in the next life:

She was nattering away to me. Funny thing I said she was nattering. It was as if she was nattering, yet she wasn’t opening her mouth. It suddenly dawned on me I could hear her speaking to me, and yet she wasn’t saying anything. That is she wasn’t speaking. So I stopped still.

“Come on,” she said.

“But I don’t understand it. You’re speaking to me, and yet your mouth’s not moving. It’s like a ventriloquist,” I says. “Funny, isn’t it?”

“Oh you’ll soon learn over here to speak by your thoughts, and, after all,” she says. “You’re receiving what I’m saying. You are hearing me aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I says, “but you’re not actually speaking. At least it don’t look as if you are.”

“Oh you’ll get into the habit,” she says. “Come on, don’t let that worry you. You’ll understand a lot of things ere long.” [pp. 54, 55]

Randall notes an annoying gap in the information the voices seem willing or able to convey:

Thanks to Woods’ and Betty Greene’s insistent questioning, the transition from this world to the next is an experience we feel we know from A to Z. The voices can remember it as though it happened yesterday. They seem to have total recall. But when it comes to describing what they’ve been doing ever since, they seem to have lost either their memory or their powers of description. Or it’s also different that they find it impossible to put into words that earthly mortals can understand. [p. 91]

Even something as basic as the layout of a person's house remains vague:

“It’s got four rooms, quite enough for me to look after.”

What are the four rooms? She doesn’t say. The only room that is ever described is the sitting-room. Do they have bedrooms, dining-rooms, kitchen, bathroom and lavatory? Or, if usual offices are unnecessary, library, billiards room or study?

No one ever says. [p. 123]

There is also some confusion, it seems, about such things as weather and daily cycles.

If there is no sun, does it ever get dark, and do you go to sleep?

The voices disagree.

“Do you have night and day there?” asked Woods.

“Yes,” said George Harris. “The same as you do. Night and day. Of course we do. I go to sleep and go to bed, wake up the same as you do on earth.”

So, soon after his arrival, did Mr. Biggs .…

But Mr. Biggs was newly arrived from Earth. And George Harris was at the stage where he still felt compelled to lay celestial bricks. [He had been a bricklayer in his earthly life and continued this occupation, rather pointlessly, for some time after arriving in the next world.]

Rose, who had been in Heaven rather longer, replied differently: “Oh yes, you can sleep if you feel so inclined.”

“But it’s not necessary?”

“It isn’t necessary .… If you’re mentally tired you just sort of mentally relax, close your eyes, and you rest. And you re-open your eyes after a time. You don’t feel tired no more.”

Ellen Terry, a more advanced old inhabitant, explained: “There is never darkness. There is a kind of what you might call perhaps a twilight, and yet this is something which is so unlike yours. There is a time for quietude with us, and rest. And yet there is never any need for rest, or sleep, but a peacefulness that comes upon us when we feel the need.”  [pp.124, 125]

As for the weather, George Harris – the stubbornly persistent bricklayer – insisted that it does rain, while others said it doesn't. These disputes may have something to do with varying perceptions of the environment on the part of people who have not yet made the adjustment versus people who are fully settled in.

Speaking of night and day, how is the passage of time experienced by those on the other side?  

“You say you don’t measure time and space. How do things go by? How do you measure at all?” [asked Betty Greene.]

“Well, I don’t know. There isn’t any measurement of time as I understand it. We are not conscious of time. I know you can’t realize – I mean you think oh well, afternoon, evening and night. Well those things don’t affect us. We don’t have time as you have it, at all. Time after all is only man-made to a point, isn’t it?”

“Do you have night and day over there?”

“No. Although you can have a fall of night, inasmuch that if you feel the need for rest, if you close your eyes, you can sort of go into a condition which, I suppose, you can call a kind of twilight. I don’t know how to put that.” [p. 96]

Famous people purportedly came through Flint. One of them was Lionel Barrymore, one of Hollywood's top actors in the 1930s and 1940s. Barrymore informs us that he is still active in the theater on the other side, as is William Shakespeare. 

“Have you met Shakespeare?” asked Woods.

“I have met Shakespeare, and I can settle the argument once and for all. There is no doubt about it. He wrote his own plays. It does not mean to say he didn’t sometimes use old plays and refurbish them. But you can take it from me that when you have a Shakespeare play, it’s Shakespeare’s.” [p 112]

As an anti-Stratfordian myself, I can't say I found this communication particularly convincing. I also can't help wondering why Shakespeare himself couldn't come through, reciting some of the poetry he has allegedly written since shuffling off this mortal coil. According to Barrymore, the Bard's new works, written in a more modern idiom, are even greater than the ones he left behind. Surely old Will ought to be able to recite some of these immortal verses to us; or, if he lacks the power to control the ectoplasmic voice-box, then Barrymore ought to be able to perform the recitation. (He says he is still acting.)

Yet we never hear so much as a smidgen of the remarkable new works produced by departed geniuses. Even when Oscar Wilde or the poet Rupert Brooke is chatting with us, he doesn't recite any passages from the new works that have occupied his time since passing over.

The communicators are capable of passing along thoughts about the nature and progression of life, however. One of them, a Mr. Ohlson, has this to say:

“I mean it’s quite obvious to me that consciousness of an individual was in existence before birth. I mean you only come into awareness of things as you gradually develop. As you become a little older on earth you gradually take a conscious awareness of things going on around you – shapes and forms, and color and sound. And these gradually began to mean something when you’re infant. But there’s no getting away from the fact that life existed before birth.

"I don’t think for instance, I was just born any more than I just died. I mean I was obviously there before birth, not necessarily in quite the same sense. I developed and evolved my own personality, and people called me so-and-so Ohlson. But the point is that it’s infinitesimal in time itself. I mean it’s pretty obvious to me that none of us are what we think we are. The whole thing is so complex I agree, but it’s also fascinating.” [pp. 126, 127]

 If there are stages of life before earthly incarnation, there are also untold stages of life beyond the initial phase of postmortem existence. A communicator named Rose, who appears at several different points in the book, was initially content to rest in her modest home and garden. She resisted moving on, even when other discarnates gently suggested that she should. But eventually even she felt the urge to progress:

“No one’s content for long. You give them everything that they want. You give them all the things they thought they needed. And after a time it palls on them, and they want a bit more of something else. They find that it isn’t what they thought it was going to be. I thought I’d be content with all the things that I had, but I soon began to realize that although in a way I was doing things for others I wasn’t doing enough. I was finding that these things didn’t mean as much to me as they did before, and that there was something else I had to strive for. I had to find out what it was.

“It’s like in your world. You go through life. You possess things. You create things and conditions for yourself. You get yourself a nice little house, and you furnish it, and you’re happy. But the point is, that if you lived for centuries, you’d soon get fed up with it.

“The things that really count of course are the things of the mind and the spirit.” [pp. 147, 148]

What does this continuing progress consist of? One communicator recounts a conversation he had with his guide shortly after passing over:

“Well,” she says, “actually of course everybody has many lives. You’re having an extension of your life. But you’ll find you have an extension of this life, and so on.

“You’ll grasp it later,” she says. “You mustn’t think just because you’re dead so called, that you won’t have an extension of life to a degree whereby you will eventually be able to extend it into another condition of life. For the time being don’t let it worry you, son. You’ll find that all life is really an extension of previous life. In other words you go on and on ad infinitum.

“You’ll exhaust this place or this sphere or this condition or of life in which you are now. Eventually you’ll realize that there is nothing more that you can learn here, or nothing more that’s necessary to you here, and you’ll find the urge and the need to extend your experience. And you will pass into a different existence in a higher sphere or place where you’ll be able to appreciate and learn and experience all sorts of things that you couldn’t possibly experience on this. But that may be a long time yet.” [p. 148] 

And there's this about the process of materializing on earth:

“There is this idea that persists among Spiritualists that you just think of a dress and you’re clothed in it. Well, that, in a sense, is true. But it’s only true from the point of view when one comes back to earth, and wants to re-create an impression of probably oneself as one was. One would be remembered by perhaps certain wearing [sic] apparel, and so on. And one has the ability to re-create, in a mental thought force or form, oneself in a particular, shall we say, dress. But only temporarily. It’s only for a fleeting second or two of Earth time that we can hold on to that thought sufficiently for it to be impregnated and picked up by a sensitive or a medium.” [p. 131]

A communicator informs us that not all mediums are created equal:

“There are innumerable people in the Spiritualist movement who are not mediums, but who consider themselves as such, and who are accepted unfortunately as such, often by people who one would have given more credit for their intelligence. And the lack of it – the intelligence – in the Spiritualist movement – at times causes us great concern. We do not ask you to accept everything that comes as gospel. We ask you to use your common sense, but more important to use your uncommon sense.

“We ask you to realize that there must be, because of the very nature of communication, some discrepancies, because of the manifold difficulties.” [p. 163]

These difficulties are illustrated in amusing fashion by Alfred Higgins, who fell to his death from a ladder. He recounts his travails in trying to impress a message for his wife on a not-very-talented Spiritualist medium:

“She kept getting a ladder. Of course she got it all mixed up. ‘I don’t know, my dear,’ she says, ‘if you’re going to have a bit of luck, but I see a ladder with you.’ I thought, ‘For crying out loud, this is getting on fine, this is!’

“'Well,’ says my missus, ‘I do place the business of the ladder.’

“Of course the medium got it all confused. ‘I think as how there’s going to be something very good for you, my dear,’ she said. ‘I see you rising, going up this ladder towards success.’

“Of course this wasn’t what I was telling the damn silly medium, but it’s her interpretation. I thought, ‘Oh blimey!’ But eventually I was able to get a few bits over.” [pp. 164, 165]

The direct-voice communications courtesy of Leslie Flint, we are assured by one of the communicators, are far more precise and reliable than those of garden-variety mediums, because Flint's communicators are able to control the ectoplasmic voice-box themselves, rather than relying on a medium's dubious interpretations. In other words, his communications are basically the gold standard of postmortem messaging.  

I'm not quite ready to accept this conclusion, but I'm sufficiently intrigued to read on. 

Categories: Fortean

Vonnegut on writing

Michael Prescott - Thu, 13/04/2017 - 7:45pm

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut's death in 2007, the website Literary Hub posted excerpts from advice he offered  writers over the years. It is wise and sensible advice, well worth reading if you have any interest in the craft.

For me, Vonnegut's most important point, which he repeats for emphasis, is this one: 

When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

It seems like such a simple thing, yet it's so easy to overlook. Many aspiring writers seem to think that telling a story consists of saying that first this thing happened, and then this thing happened, and then the next thing happened ... But a mere sequence of events is not compelling. It gives the reader no reason to keep turning pages. What's needed is a motivation, a desire, a need. Our characters must yearn for something – something they can't get, at least immediately.

Nor is it enough to introduce this want or need later in the story. It has to be there from the beginning. Consider the typical "cozy" mystery of the type perfected by Agatha Christie. The characters' major need, ultimately, is to solve the murder. But the murder ordinarily doesn't take place until the book is well underway. How to hold the reader's interest in the meantime? Give the characters a variety of other, lesser wants and needs.

Sir Reginald Fotheringay wants desperately to marry the chambermaid, but knows his elderly Aunt Edna will disinherit him if he does. Aunt Edna's butler, Soames, is in desperate need of 100 pounds to replace the money that he stole from her purse and lost at the dog track; if she finds out it's missing, Soames will be sacked and ruined. Heyward Graspinghard, Edna's upwardly mobile neighbor, wants desperately to acquire Edna's property so he can expand his home into the showcase he craves, but the old girl sturbbornly refuses to sell. 

And so on.

These mundane motivations are sufficient to carry the story forward until the bigger issue of Aunt Edna's murder is introduced. They also serve the ancillary purpose of providing the various characters with possible motives for doing away with poor Edna.

As a general rule, if a story is boring or seems to be going nowhere, it's because the characters don't have any urgent desires or needs.

Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut also makes this related point:

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. 

It has become fashionable for sophisticates to disparage plots as formulaic. The late Siskel and Ebert both chronically complained about standardized Hollywood plots and how boring they were. One reason they waxed enthusiastic for My Dinner with Andre was its absence of a plot. Their favorite scene in Fargo was a dialogue exchange that had nothing to do with the plot; they singled it out for this very reason. And I can understand their frustration with predictable plots. I've gotten mighty tired of "the hero's journey" as the basis for pretty much every action/fantasy/sci-fi/historical movie of the last twenty years. 

But in fact, plots really do serve a legitimate purpose. They give the reader (or viewer) some sense of where the story is going and therefore an additional reason to stick around. If the reader can't figure out where the story is headed, she may very well decide it's headed nowhere and give up.

Recently I did just that – gave up, I mean – on the TV series Better Call Saul, because as it begins its third season, it still seems to be heading nowhere in particular. The show is a prequel to Breaking Bad, and it features the attorney who, in that series, represented criminals and was essentially a criminal himself. The idea behind the prequel is that we meet this guy before he went over to the dark side. 

I liked Better Call Saul when it started, because I thought I knew the general structure it would follow. In the first season, as I saw it, the main character would try to make it as a legitimate attorney, fail, and decide to pursue a shadier path. And in fact, the first season did seem to play out this way. When season two began, I expected to see the beginning of his transformation into the darker and more interesting character we'd come to know in Breaking Bad

But it didn't happen. In season two, our character was still trying to make it as a legitimate attorney. No transformation yet ... Now it's season three, and guess what? He's still basically the same guy he was in season one. As Milhouse on The Simpsons might say,  "Aren't we ever going to get to the fireworks factory?"

By this point in Better Call Saul, I have no idea what the structure is, and I suspect there is no structure, no master plan. Some will call the show "subtle" or "nuanced" or "realistic," but to me, it's just dull.

A story can tread water for only so long before sinking. If there's no destination in sight, the whole thing begins to feel like a pointless exercise. That's why plots – yes, even formulaic, generic plots – are usually necessary. And if you don't like formula, you can play with it. You can surprise the reader by upsetting his expectations. You can kill off the protagonist halfway through, as Hitchcock did in Psycho, to the great distress of the audience in 1960, who were totally unprepared for it. You can upend the stupid "hero's journey" by changing the rules. You can be creative and think outside the box – but first you've got to have a box, a plot. Without some kind of plot, you are likely to lose your reader very quickly.

I don't agree with everything Vonnegut says. There's this, for instance:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I think I know what he's getting at here. Some writers have a tendency to withhold so much information that the reader is left at sea, unable to figure out who the characters are or what situation they're mixed up in. The trouble with Vonnegut's advice is that it could lead the unwary writer to make the opposite mistake – to dump a big pile of exposition into the story right at the start, when the better approach is to deftly weave background material into the story as it goes along. Excessive exposition in the early stages of the story is one of the most common and most easily avoided errors that inexperienced writers commit.

And naturally I have nothing against suspense as such. I write suspense novels, after all. Not all writers employ suspense as a technique – Shakespeare didn't – but most do, because most of us aren't Shakespeare.

Of course, most of us aren't Kurt Vonnegut either.

I also have nothing against semicolons, when used judiciously. Vonnegut seems to have despised them for idiosyncratic reasons. I've used a couple of them in this post, and I have no regrets.

Vonnegut was a world-class writer and, if I can judge by these excerpts, one hell of a teacher as well. Read his advice and take it to heart. Maybe you'll never write Slaughterhouse-Five, but your next letter to the editor will pack a punch!

Categories: Fortean

Annie Jacobsen’s ‘Phenomena’

Paranormalia - Tue, 11/04/2017 - 10:23am
A new book has just been published in on ‘psychic spying’. It’s by Annie Jacobsen, author of best-selling books about the secret doings of the US military based on declassified documents, including Operation Paperclip and The Pentagon’s Brain, for...

www.paranormalia.com
Categories: Fortean

The mark of Zoroastrianism

Michael Prescott - Mon, 10/04/2017 - 12:54am

First, I want to thank the many readers who contributed ideas on my last post about the future direction of this blog. Right now my inclination is to follow Bruce Siegel's suggestion and post less often, while still keeping the focus on the paranormal. I also think Roger Knights had a good idea about reposting older material, though I don't plan to do so on a regular basis. Julie Baxter had good thoughts about Leslie Flint and other psi phenomena that have not been treated thoroughly, or at all, in this forum. I think Eric Newhill is right in saying that political discussions become too contentious; and there are plenty of political sites already.

I'm no doubt overlooking a lot of other people who made valuable contributions. The bottom line is that I appreciate all your input.

And yes, I am open to guest posts. This has been my policy for a while, so please don't be shy about taking me up on it.

This new post is on a subject that I admittedly know little about. Until recently the only thing I'd read about Zoroastrianism was Gore Vidal's historical novel Creation, which takes place during the so-called Axial Age and features Zoroaster's (fictional) grandson as the narrator. It's a good book, but I read it years ago and don't remember it very well. Recently, however, I did some online research into Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, and the religion he founded, which predates Christianity by at least 500 years and which was a major belief system in the ancient world. Zoroastrians practice their faith to this day, though in greatly reduced numbers.

Two things in particular interest me about Zoroastrianism. The first are certain obvious similarities to Christianity, and the second are parallels with modern spiritualism, including some of the speculations that I've offered right here.

 

The mark of Zoro ... aster?

I'll start with the Christian parallels. I should point out that I'm deriving most of this information from the Wikipedia entry on Zoroastrianism, which seems to be well-sourced. As always when dealing with Wikipedia, some skepticism may be advisable, since the quality of the entries varies tremendously, and the content is constantly changing.

According to Wikipedia, Zoroaster was drawing water from a river for use in a ritual when a spiritual being appeared to him and allowed him to see God. In Matthew 3:16, Jesus was undergoing baptism in a river when the spirit of God descended on him like a dove.

Afterward, Zoroaster encountered six other spiritual beings who taught him the rest of what he needed to know; only after this did he begin his ministry. After his baptism, Jesus is said to have gone off into the desert for an extended period, during which he saw visions and overcame temptations, before commencing his ministry.

Zoroaster acquired only one follower in his homeland and found success only after traveling abroad. Jesus acquired no followers in his home village and reportedly said (Mark 6:4) that a prophet is without honor in his own town.

Zoroaster taught that there is only one God, that God is entirely good, that the various pagan gods are inferior heavenly beings (many of them demons), and that man's free will is (at least partly) responsible for his pain and suffering in what would otherwise be a paradise on earth. All these views are consistent with Christianity and also with Judaism, which was developing into its modern form during the Axial Age.

Zoroaster taught that the forces of chaos and order were perpetually in conflict, and that our free will allows us to choose which side to take. It is the individual's responsibility to choose rightly. The darker forces will eventually mount a final assault at the end of days, but will be decisively defeated by a savior-figure who will be born of a virgin. After their defeat, the dead will be raised and restored to earthly life, this time with immortality. Needless to say, all of this is strongly reminiscent of Christianity.

The parallels I've selected may make it seem as if the two belief systems are virtually identical, but that's only because I have cherry-picked the most interesting similarities. I could have selected other details highlighting notable differences between the two faiths. For instance, Zoroastrianism emphatically rejects asceticism and monasticism, insisting that the purpose of life on earth is to participate in life and gather experiences, not to shut oneself off in a monastic cell or to deprive oneself of any experience, including physical pleasure. Zoroastrianism also rejects spirit-body dualism, conceiving of both earth and heaven in similar terms. In these respects, Zoroastrianism is arguably similar to Gnostic Christianity, but not to Christianity as generally practiced today.

Still, it would be hard to argue that even orthodox Christianity was not, at the very least, influenced by Zoroastrianism in its formative centuries.

What about modern spiritualism? Zoroastrianism holds that the individual soul preexists earthly incarnation. During this pre-birth phase, the soul is joined with its guardian spirit. While incarnated on earth, the soul is separated from its guardian, which watches over it and attempts to protect and guide it when possible. After death, the soul is reunited with its guardian spirit, achieving wholeness again.

This is pretty similar to the spiritualist idea that the individual soul is an extension of a higher self or oversoul, from which it detaches during its period of earthly incarnation and to which it returns after the incarnation is complete.

After death, Zoroastrianism tells us that souls are judged according to their thoughts, words, and actions while on earth. Souls that pass the test will enjoy paradise, but with the caveat that continuing spiritual struggles can be expected even in postmortem existence. The ongoing battle between order and chaos is apparently not limited to this physical plane.

Souls that fail the test of judgement are relegated to a hellish sphere of existence – but not for purposes of punishment and not for all eternity. Instead, the sojourn in hell is temporary, and the purpose is to reform the soul. Ultimately this process must prove successful; it is the destiny of every soul to be reunited with its guardian spirit (= higher self) and with God.

The Zoroastrian concept of God transcends gender. God is called Ahura Mazda, a name that connotes both male (Ahura = Lord, masculine) and female (Mazda = Wisdom, feminine). It can be translated as Wise Lord. Yet God, for all his/her power, is not omnipotent. This idea of a less-than-omnipotent God has led some commenters to classify Zoroastrianism as a form of pantheism in which God/consciousness emerges from a self-creating universe, although this seems to be a later interpretation and probably not the original idea.

I find it interesting that as we go back in time to a comparatively early stage of religious development, we find a number of ideas that match up quite well with spiritualist teachings today: a pre-incarnational existence for the soul; separation from and reunion with a higher self; a division of the spiritual world into heavenly and hellish spheres, with the hellish spheres intended as temporary way stations for the moral improvement of the soul; a God that is neither male nor female, is not omnipotent, and may be immanent, not transcendent; a universe that is still a work in progress, with the balance between systemic order and chaos determined by the choices of individual incarnated beings.

Again, I don't want to exaggerate the parallels. There are certainly differences. For example, many people in the spiritualist community embrace reincarnation, but Zoroastrianism rejects reincarnation except in the limited sense of the resurrection of the dead after the final judgment.

Even so, the similarities are at least worth looking at.

Oh, and for the dog lovers out there: the dog is sacred in Zoroastrianism. This in itself strikes me as a pretty good recommendation of the religion.

Categories: Fortean

Whither we goest?

Michael Prescott - Tue, 28/03/2017 - 10:54pm

I haven't posted much new material lately, in part because I've been busy, but also in part because I'm not quite sure what this blog should be about anymore. When I started blogging back in January of 2005, I unimaginatively titled my space Michael Prescott's Blog because I had no idea what subject matter I would end up discussing. I definitely didn't anticipate homing in on evidence for life after death and its implications. If anything, I probably figured I would talk mostly about fiction writing, movies, and current events, with the paranormal as only a small part of the mix. 

But over the years, the reactions I got from readers were usually most positive when psi and afterlife issues were under discussion. As a result, in classic stimulus-and-response fashion, I gravitated toward this material. I've written in the last year or two that I'm not quite as interested in this subject as I used to be; I've read and written so much about it that, for me, it feels kind of played out. A few times in the past year, I've put up a post on politics just for variety, but in almost all cases I've gotten many negative responses. 

What's been most apparent recently, however, is that even when I put up a nonpolitical post, the discussion can turn heatedly political in short order. This was most obvious with regard to my post "A World of Hurt," which concerned different theories of evil and their spiritual implications; the comments thread has spiraled down into a free-for-all about Donald Trump, Brexit, and other hot-button issues that have very little to do with the original topic.

My impression is that many readers, like me, are starting to get bored with rehashing paranormal and spiritual issues, and are looking for a different direction. This is fine by me. The problem is, I'm not quite sure what direction to take. I don't want to turn this blog into a political forum, because the arguments can become so contentious, and because there are already a huge number of political websites pushing every conceivable point of view. Besides, who wants to think about politics all the time?

I do, however, have other interests – for instance, the Shakespeare authorship question, classic and contemporary movies, fiction-writing techniques and practices, the history of Christianity as reconstructed by modern New Testament academic studies, special visual effects in cinema, and money management. I can probably think of other things, but that's a start.

I'm wondering if perhaps the blog should become more eclectic and deal with some or all of the above issues on a regular basis, along with the occasional paranormal post as necessary. Or would it be better to stick with paranormal stuff and simply have fewer posts? Or do you think it's time for me to shut down the blog, while leaving all the earlier posts and comments threads archived indefinitely?

I'm open to any suggestions and ideas. I'll be traveling tomorrow, so I may not be able to approve comments right away.

Categories: Fortean

Inner Light

Paranormalia - Tue, 21/03/2017 - 2:11pm
I’m in touch with a Chinese professor of physics who’s written an entry for the Psi Encyclopedia on parapsychology in China. His English is quite limited, and the article needs a fair bit of work. But it contains some rather remarkable claims about...

www.paranormalia.com
Categories: Fortean

Thoughts on Mind and Matter

Paranormalia - Tue, 07/03/2017 - 10:58am
It seems to me that a lot of people in the spirituality business positively embrace the idea that mind and matter are intimately related. In principle, I go along with that. In practice, though, I’m bound to say that my ideas about the relationship...

www.paranormalia.com
Categories: Fortean

Some Past Life Memories

Paranormalia - Mon, 27/02/2017 - 6:42pm
There’s quite a bit of new activity in the reincarnation research category of the Psi Encyclopedia. This piece by Jim Matlock discusses patterns that can be found in the research. Karen Wehrstein has contributed an entry on adult memories, and...

www.paranormalia.com
Categories: Fortean

Arrival

Michael Prescott - Tue, 21/02/2017 - 9:27pm

Since I never go to movie theaters anymore, I didn't watch the highly acclaimed science-fiction drama Arrival until last night, after I rented it from one of those supermarket vending machines.

It's a good movie, with strong performances and a compelling storyline – though I thought the method selected for establishing communication with the aliens was a bit disappointing, given the enormous technology that presumably would be marshaled for the task. Some of the story elements work better than others, and there are probably plot holes if you think about it really hard, but that's true of most movies.

I mention Arrival here because it provides an interesting angle on the whole Flatland idea that we sometimes explore on this blog – the idea that our current perception of reality is dimensionally limited, and that, from a higher-dimensional perspective, our experience would be radically different. Not that the movie ever mentions Flatland or extra-dimensionality as such, but you can read those ideas into it.

The appearance of this film, along with Interstellar, virtual reality technology, and the popularizing of the holographic universe notion, may suggest that a new paradigm is slowly forming in the public mind.

Or maybe not. Anyway, I liked the movie enough to sit through it twice last night. It made me curious to see the director's earlier effort, Sicario.

Categories: Fortean

Animal Psi

Paranormalia - Tue, 14/02/2017 - 2:59pm
The Psi Encyclopedia needs an entry on telepathy, and since I couldn’t immediately think of someone to write it, I thought I’d have a go myself. So I’ve been having a look through the literature. One particularly interesting read is Rupert...

www.paranormalia.com
Categories: Fortean

World without end, amen

Michael Prescott - Sun, 12/02/2017 - 7:59pm

The Atlantic offers a brief, interesting article on apeirophobia, the fear of eternity. Writer Bobby Azarian explains that he's had this fear since he was four years old.

... every time I thought I had a grip on eternity, it slipped further away. The largest number of years I could imagine failed to make a dent in infinity. My primitive brain filled with an existential angst. The idea of living forever was even more unsettling than the idea of no longer existing after death.

He still feels the same way, although "rather than trying to comprehend eternity, now I just avoid the thought altogether." 

The condition is not listed in formal psychiatric manuals and apparently has not been the subject of any research studies, but for those who suffer from it, it can be extremely intense. An anonymous online commenter is quoted: 

Now I’m in my 30s, and the thought of eternity still freaks me out. It usually hits at night when I’m trying to sleep. I’ve learned to push it out of my mind, but sometimes I can’t, and when that happens I start pacing the room and thinking that I might have to go to the emergency room or else I might kill myself.

Cognitive scientist Martin Wiener thinks the phobia may arise from the brain's own limitations. Azarian summarizes his view: 

Maybe human brains, as finite instruments with limited cognitive and computational capacities, are flat-out not hardwired to have a conception of something completely absent from sensory experience. Evolution has done just fine without organisms that contemplate infinity, after all. Doing so wouldn’t have likely offered any survival advantages to pre-modern humans.

Wiener also suggests that fear of eternity is simply a variation on fear of death. Whether death is seen as eternal existence or nonexistence, it remains the unknown. And people do fear the unknown. 

The article got me thinking. First, I wonder if some if the anxiety and anger exhibited by militant Skeptics regarding life after death is, in certain cases, grounded in a fear of eternity. I'm not saying that all skeptics, or even all uppercase (dogmatic) Skeptics, have this fear, but perhaps some do.

We often hear Skeptics say, "Naturally we'd all love to believe in eternal life, but there's simply no evidence for it." But maybe some of them would not love to believe it. Maybe the idea actually fills them with dread, which could explain why they do their best to dismiss the evidence out of hand. 

Second, I don't doubt that Wiener is correct in saying that the human brain (whether it is the originator or only the mediator of consciousness) is too limited to grasp eternity. It's a Flatland thing. Mr. A. Square, while living in his two-dimensional world, simply cannot conceive of a third physical dimension. After being lifted into Spaceland (the three-dimensional world), he experiences a disorienting change of perspective and is able to perceive the vertical dimension, though he is not able to explain it in words to his Flatland friends.

People who have undergone NDEs, OBEs, certain kinds of psychedelic trips, vision quests, and other transcendent experiences often lose their fear of death and, apparently, any fear of eternity. Perhaps the best treatment for apeirophobia would be the medically supervised induction of "cosmic consciousness." (We are told that patients are currently treated by "medication and cognitive behavioral therapy," with mixed results.) 

Third, I think the idea of eternity is improperly understood by many people, and this misunderstanding may be partly responsible for apeirophobia. Look again at Azarian's account of his first experience of the phobia at age four: "The largest number of years I could imagine failed to make a dent in infinity.... The idea of living forever was even more unsettling than the idea of no longer existing after death." 

The mistake lies in thinking of eternity as a succession of years, rather than as a timeless now. The word "eternal" literally means "outside of time." The idea is not that time goes on forever, but that there is no time, or at least no time as human beings understand it. 

If we look at mediumistic accounts, we find that the newly deceased report themselves existing in an earthlike world where time passes, lessons are learned, and new experiences are enjoyed. But this so-called Summerland environment is not the be-all and end-all of afterlife realms. It is more like a way station, a place to rest and recuperate after the rigors of incarnation. We are consistently told that higher realms await, and that these realms are progressively less earthlike.

The highest realm, our ultimate destination, is indescribable, but apparently it has none of the properties we associate with earthly life, including physical space and sequential time. It is the eternal now. In this state we are not marking off years like a convict in a cell. We are not seeking to "make a dent in infinity." Boredom, repetition, and other issues associated with lengthy time periods are irrelevant to a state of existence in which time does not exist. 

Here is a story I've told elsewhere on this blog. A few years ago I was wondering how anyone could exist "forever" and not go crazy with boredom. That night I had a vivid dream in which I was a bodiless awareness in a humming void. I was suffused with feelings of peace and contentment; perhaps "bliss" would be the better word. All around me was a golden orange field of pure light.* I had the sense that this state of existence would continue indefinitely. 

When I woke up, I felt that the dream had answered my question. That's how you can exist "forever" without becoming bored with it all. In that unchanging state, there is no past, no future, no time, no measurement, no desire, no frustration. There is only total unquestioning acceptance. Everything simply is

If we think of eternity as merely a timeless moment, maybe it seems a little more friendly and a little less unknown.  

- - -

*P.S. The few times in my life that I've had anything remotely similar to an experience of cosmic consciousness, I've seen (subjectively) a bright orange field of light. I have no idea why. I don't even like the color orange!

Categories: Fortean

A world of hurt

Michael Prescott - Mon, 06/02/2017 - 5:34am

Why is there so much suffering in this life? The question has plagued human beings for millennia, and no worldview can call itself complete without offering an answer.

Unfortunately, it's hard to find an answer that's really satisfying. Historically, four major answers have been proposed. 

God is punishing us. 

There are many variations on this answer, which is fundamental to the Judeo-Christian theology. According to this view, suffering is ultimately the result of free will. Because we have free will, we are free to behave badly. Suffering is the price we pay for freedom of choice. And because all of us are prone to behave badly at times, we all deserve to suffer.

So then, why would anyone say God punishing us? It turns out free will is not a sufficient explanation. For instance, why do innocent babies suffer? The answer is that they have inherited Original Sin, a stain on their character passed down from Adam and Eve. In effect, God is punishing them for the sinful choices of their distant ancestors.

There is also the question:What about natural disasters, diseases, and other ills not directly related to free choice? Again, the answer is that Adam and Eve, by disobeying God, brought sin into the world, and this sin has now corrupted all of creation, leading to a "fallen" world in which such calamities are possible. God, therefore, is punishing all of us for the "sins of the fathers."

The Hebrew prophets were even more explicit in attributing human suffering to God. In their view, the Hebrew people, who were the chosen people of God, had broken the covenant that their ancestors made with God, and as a result, God was punishing them for what amounted to a violation of their contractual obligations.

In the Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible, a more individualized and pragmatic version of this same position was explicated. Here, the idea was that any individual who prospers and enjoys good health and happiness must be "right with" God, while anyone who suffers and enjoys ill health and misery must have disappointed God in some way.

God is not God.

An alternative view is that the very God worshiped by conventional religions is not the true God at all. This view is most closely identified with Gnosticism in its various forms.

Gnosticism holds that the God recognized by most people is an inferior deity (the Demiurge, or Craftsman) who created this world but botched the job. His incompetence accounts for all our suffering and pain. The true God exists only a higher plane and is accessible only to those with secret knowledge (gnosis). Only by pursuing higher truths while maintaining aloofness from this debased world can we maintain equanimity in the face of inevitable suffering. 

Suffering can be overcome by the right mental attitude.

Somewhat related to the gnostic view is the Buddhist position – namely, that enlightenment brings with it detachment from the things of this world. As long as a person desires certain outcomes and fears others, he will be prone to suffering, as his desires are frustrated and his fears are realized. But if he extinguishes his ego and becomes indifferent to the world, he will be immune to suffering. The ultimate goal is to escape from the wheel of rebirth altogether, leaving physical reality behind.

Other mystical traditions hold that suffering is merely an illusion, because all of life is only a momentary dream. When we wake in the next life, we will look back on this one as a few moments of disturbed sleep, which we will quickly shrug off.

If suffering doesn't matter, does anything matter? Maybe not. Which leads us to ...

Suffering is an unavoidable feature of a meaningless, random universe.

In this view, there is no higher meaning or purpose to life, which is a purely biological phenomenon driven by evolutionary imperatives. Living creatures survive by killing each other. Carnivores eat other animals. Herbivores eat plants. Parasites infest hosts. Viruses infect healthy organisms and make them sick. Cellular reproduction, essential to maintain and repair the body, sometimes goes wrong and produces cancer cells. Genetic diversity, essential to maintain a species' viability, sometimes produces crippling birth defects. All of this drama is played out against a backdrop of earthquakes, floods, droughts, asteroid strikes, and the other random calamities. 

According to this view, there is no "problem of pain" because there's no reason why life should not be painful. 

Personally, I don't find any of these answers entirely satisfying, though there may be some truth to all of them. Here is my own viewpoint, for what it may be worth. 

My personal view

Suffering, in part, is a way of teaching us lessons or nudging us in the right direction when we've gone off track. And in part it is simply random, a result of the unscripted or improvisational nature of the universe. 

As an example of the first point: When I was fresh out of college, I moved to Los Angeles with the intention of working in the movie business. For several years I devoted all my energy to this goal. Time and again I was frustrated. Other people remarked on my amazing run of bad luck. A crucial meeting would be canceled literally as I was on my way there. A producer would go bankrupt just as he was about to start production on a movie I wrote. My own body rebelled against me; I started experiencing digestive problems and other issues. A doctor told me I needed to choose between my career and my health. 

Of course, breaking into showbiz is hard. Perhaps my situation was not that much out of the ordinary. But I certainly felt that it was. In fact, my motto at the time became "sometimes you just can't win," the title of a then-current song. I was depressed a lot of the time, and felt my life was going nowhere. 

Eventually, in frustration and facing a serious need of cash, I thought of writing a novel. It seemed like a long shot, but I had nothing to lose, and I was pretty desperate. In contrast to my movie experience, this new venture proved immediately rewarding. My book proposal immediately netted me an agent (I'd had little luck attracting Hollywood agents over the previous four years), and within a month I'd received three offers for publication. This was the beginning of a lifelong career in publishing, and while it certainly has had its ups and downs, I never again experienced the chronic rejection and failure that marked my foray into the movie business. 

In retrospect, I can see that I was ill-suited for Hollywood and would never have been happy in that field. I love watching movies, but actually working on them — and working with producers and other highly ego-driven, control-oriented, Type A personalities — was not something I was cut out for. Writing books is, I feel, what I was meant to do. In my youthful ignorance I'd gotten off on the wrong track, and something was intent on nudging me back in line. Every setback, every failure, every dramatic reversal, even the signals of my own body, all combined to send me a message, so loud and clear that my friends heard it, my doctor heard it, and eventually even I heard it: You are doing it wrong

My life in that period was not very pleasant. I would not relive those days for a million bucks. One of the reasons I don't much care for the idea of reincarnation (even though, in some form, it's probably true) is that it may oblige me to go through something like that again. 

Nevertheless, the many disappointments and personal hurts that I experienced during that time did serve a purpose. They shoved me back onto the path I was meant to take all along. 

Now, it's certainly true that my small example of personal suffering pales before the horrors of famine, genocide, civil war, Ebola, etc., etc. Obviously there are countless people who have gone through — and are currently enduring — far worse things than being frustrated in the early years of their career. This kind of thing is inevitably relative. It's always possible to find a worse example of human misery, and then an even worse one, and so on, ad infinitum. But this isn't a competition. And pain is pain, even if it varies in degree. For me, at least, the painful parts of my life have generally served to push me in what I believe, in retrospect, to be the right direction. 

I'm not saying it's "God" who gave me the push. I'm inclined to think it was my higher self, the oversoul that designed my life plan for this incarnation and wants me to follow through on it. 

Okay, but what about those greater horrors I mentioned? Surely no one can claim that being eaten alive by Ebola or being murdered by the Khmer Rouge is some kind of life lesson, right? 

Right. I would not claim that. This is where the other part of my answer comes in. Contrary to the New Age maxim, not everything happens for a reason. Some stuff is just random. As bumper stickers tell us with admirable concision, s--t happens

There may be a master plan for an individual life, as designed by an oversoul or a group soul or what-have-you. It does not necessarily follow that there is a master plan for the universe as whole. It does not necessarily follow that no sparrow falls except by God's explicit intention. It does not even follow that there is a God, in the sense of an omniscient, omnipotent master of ceremonies who controls everything and knows where it is headed.

Instead, the universe may be a work in progress. An improvisational performance, not a scripted recital. It may be roughly analogous to a sports event, like the Super Bowl. The rules are set down, and the players are sent into the arena. What happens after that is unpredictable. 

Moreover, not all the players will follow the game plan. Some will ignore the path chosen for them by their oversoul, as I tried to do when I persisted in banging my head against the closed door of the movie industry for several years. Had I been even slower on the uptake, I might still be banging my head against that wall today. 

And who is to say that all life plans are benevolent, or that all oversouls are equally evolved? Every religious and spiritual tradition agrees that some spirits are "lower" than others. I see no reason to doubt this. For a low-level, malign spirit, the life lived by Adolf Hitler may very well have been the plan all along. Hitler's sense of personal destiny may not have been misplaced. But it was an evil destiny, engineered by a malevolent higher power. (Indeed, it is remarkable how events seemingly conspired to keep Hitler alive and in power, against considerable odds. There is something eerie about his many close calls and narrow escapes from death. For a powerfully provocative discussion of this whole idea, see James Hillman's book The Soul's Code.)

We can posit, then, that much of what happens in the universe is random and accidental. It is not part of any master plan. 

Beyond this, some things we see as bad may be no more than necessary consequences of certain fundamental rules. Without gravity, no one would ever fall to his death; but without gravity, no planets would be formed and no life would be possible in the first place. What we appear to have is not "the best of all possible worlds," but a trade-off, a compromise — like an automobile built with lightweight materials that afford increased fuel efficiency at the cost of some degree of safety in a crash. 

We can add to this the likelihood that many of us don't fulfil our life plans, and maybe none of us are able to do so with perfect faithfulness. Finally, we can take into account the possibility that not all oversouls (or the Powers That Be, whatever they are) are equally well-intentioned, and that some are actually malignant. 

This approach lacks the comforting simplicity of any of the single answers listed at the start of this post. Instead, it can be seen as incorporating parts of each. 

If we stray from the life plan laid by our higher self, then our own choice (free will) is responsible for the suffering we experience as the oversoul nudges us back into line ("God" enforces the terms of the contract). We are born into a world where good and evil coexist, a world that was imperfectly designed (gnosticism) or corrupted (original sin). We can minimize suffering by recognizing the fleeting nature of all earthly things and by striving for spiritual union with the oversoul (detachment and enlightenment). Still, unpredictable calamities will sometimes strike because of the improvisational nature of the ongoing performance we call reality (randomness). But not to worry too much — life is short, and immortality is long (life is a dream), so in the end, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” 

I admit that this is something of a hodgepodge — one from Column A, one from Column B. It is not a testable hypothesis, not a "scientific" proposition at all. It's a belief system, like all the ones I listed above (and yes, even materialism is a belief system). I find it broadly satisfactory, though I would prefer it to be simpler and more aesthetically pleasing. 

But, like everything I write on this blog, it is merely a work in progress, subject to future improvement. For now, it's the best I can do.

 

Categories: Fortean

Radio Rennessence ends

Rennessence - Wed, 21/10/2009 - 11:44am
Radio Rennessence is closing down for business. The three interviewers Philip Coppens, Corjan de Raaf and Andrew Gough can no longer combine the podcasting station with their many other individual engagements. It is with a sad heart that they have therefore chosen to stop publishing audio interviews. The site will remain online. The RSS News Service will also continue as it has for the last three years.
Categories: Fortean

Video clip of City of Secrets

Rennessence - Wed, 14/10/2009 - 2:44pm
Researcher & singer-songwriter Corjan de Raaf has published the video clip for his single "City of Secrets (the Grail in you)". The song was inspired by Patrice Chaplin's bestseller "City of Secrets" and deals with her relationship with the keeper of the Grail Josep Tarres.
Categories: Fortean

Saunière drawings discovered

Rennessence - Wed, 14/10/2009 - 2:41pm
Researcher Ben Hammott has published some original drawings by Abbé Saunière, whose life and dealings are at the heart of the Mystery of Rennes-le-Château. The drawings were discovered inside the priests Atlas. They tell us a lot about Saunières fascination with the French royal line and as such confirm the suspicions he was a legitimist, in favour of making France a monarchy again.
Categories: Fortean

Andrew Gough's Arcadia 2.0

Rennessence - Sun, 27/09/2009 - 5:08pm
Andrew Gough's Arcadia website has been fully re-styled by artist Mark Foster who applied a radical and very colorful new design. As an opening gift, Andrew Gough is offering a full chapter by author Patrice Chaplin from her book 'The Door', sequel to 'City of Secrets'.
Categories: Fortean