Category Archives: De Umbris Idearum

by David Metcalfe

Fandom & Fantasy: Exploring the Anomalous at Dragon Con

DragonCon Babylon

Exterior view of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis

 

A living person is forgiven everything, except for being present among the dying ones of this world.  “Oh, holiest sacrifice of the (children) of the unique one.”

— Louis Cattiaux

It is odd to step out of my personal reality and into a fantasy world much more mundane than the mere act of making coffee in the morning at the Liminal Analytics Georgia offices. But so it was last week as I entered the neo-Babylonian hotel complex that hosts Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta each year. “There are no real freaks* here,” I murmured to my traveling companion at the convention, Dr. Tim Brigham, a professor of experimental psychology at Georgia Perimeter College, as we looked around at the nervous faces of conference attendees who were dressed as their favorite characters (or as those most convenient to their sense of outward escape). “Maybe once it gets dark, we’ll get some spirited folks in here,” I opined aloud as the agitated buzz of students, executives, and average Americans bent on an escapist weekend began getting on my nerves, making me wish I could leave for a nice, normal afternoon at a local Botanica to study the beautiful skeletal visage of la niña bonita, Santa Muerte.

Rationalized irrationality

Upwards of 60,000 people converged on Atlanta this year to attend one of the largest  fantasy, science fiction, comic, and gaming conventions in the world. I mused and milled among the Dragon Con attendees with Dr. Brigham as we awaited an opportunity to see how the realms of anomalous science might fare in such a heady environment. The convention played host to two well-stocked tracks of paranormal and skeptical speakers, and so it seemed a perfect opportunity to understand how the ideas that Dr. Brigham and I are used to experiencing through laboratory work, statistical analysis, and philosophical discourse play out in the public domain. And play they did, to the abrasive tune of crass commercialization and the repetitious mantra “I am here to escape.”

Having spent time with some of the world’s leading parapsychologists, I’ve often been confused as to how the skeptical subculture can exist in such seeming disconnect with everything that I’ve encountered during my reading, travels, and conversations. Dragon Con provided me with an unpalatable answer by revealing the illusory landscape of fantasy and fandom that the skeptics inhabit, far afield from those liminal, but legitimate, climates where anomalistic science holds proper court. If this is what the skeptics consider a reasonable place to air their ideas, then I’m not surprised that they express such dismay at the state of anomalistic science. I’ve never seen even one of these people at any of the serious parapsychological events that I’ve attended or hosted, and nothing I’ve attended or hosted has ever been so fraught with fiction as this Dragon Con convention. Yet here among the cosplay and comic books were such leading lights of the skeptical subculture as Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, Michael Stackpole, and Massimo Pigliucci.

Without going to Dragon Con, you can get a sense of where many popular skeptics are coming from in the fact that Ben Radford is a staff writer for Discovery News, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, the company that has received attention recently for its decision to run television specials claiming the existence of living megalodon sharks (which have been extinct for upwards of 2 million years) and mermaids (which have probably never existed). The cognitive dissonance that’s palpable in this promotion of pulp fiction as fact by what purports to be a leading science education platform fact gives writers like Radford the leeway to make strange claims, such as his contention that the legendary Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Remote Viewing project returned no valid results. At Dragon Con I was unable to find anyone who had even heard of SRI, let alone who had looked at the research itself, and so skeptics like Radford, when pitted against a paranormal panel track stocked with ghost hunters, professional psychic mediums, a demonologist, and some UFO experts, were able to weave their web of rationalized irrationality with ease.

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

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The Plot Running Like a Silver Cord: Channeling and Mediumship on the Margins of Literature

De_Umbris_Idearum_300px

(Given all of the conversations that have arisen here recently on the connections between theological speculation and fantastic fiction, it seems an appropriate time to revisit, and revise, and expand, a piece that I originally wrote for The Eyeless Owl.)

Let no man read here who lives only in the world about him. To these leaves, let no man stoop to whom Yesterday is as a closed book with iron hasps, to whom Tomorrow is the unborn twin of Today. Here let no man seek the trend of reality, nor any plan or plot running like a silver cord through the fire-limned portraits here envisioned. But I have dreamed as men have dreamed and as my dreams have leaped into my brain full-grown, without beginning and without end, so have I, with gold and sapphire tools, etched them in topaz and opal against a curtain of ivory.

— From the introduction to Etchings in Ivory by Robert E. Howard

While reading Joscelyn Godwin’s  Atlantis and the Cycles of Time — regarding which, see this excerpt — I was struck by how familiar I already was with the invoked imagery of Hyperborean civilizations.  I’ve never had much of an interest in that realm of speculation, so it was odd that its concepts would be so recognizable, almost palpable, to my mind’s eye. It took me a few days to realize that this was because much of the narrative and imagery had already been put into my consciousness by a youth spent reading the works of Robert E. Howard. As one of the founding writers of the “swords and sorcery” genre, Howard portrayed his Hyperborean heroes Conan, Kull, and Bran Mac Morn all traveling through worlds enlivened by Theosophical and speculative archaeological theories of prehistoric civilizations.

The author of a more muscular strain of weird tale than what was written by some of his fellow pulp titans, Howard seems an unlikely host to some of the fae notions of Theosophical cosmology. However, after doing a bit of research I found that his interest in history, which gave his historical fiction an air of reality, was paralleled by an equal interest in the occult. His initial letters to H.P. Lovecraft contain inquiries into the esoteric truths behind the Cthulhu Mythos and imply a seeking curiosity similar to what might be found in a letter sent to the outer representative of a secret occult order.

This really should not come as a shock, since we find Howard writing marginalized fantasy fiction at one of the high points of America’s occult revival. The pulp magazines were one of the prime markets for organizations like the AMORC and the mail order mysticism popularized by publishers such as de Laurence, Scott and Company.  And naturally, writing in the genres that he did, Howard found the imagery of Theosophy and the occult provided the raw framework from which to work.  Although Conan, Kull and Co. are among the most earthy examples of the swords and sorcery genre, Howard’s cosmic vision sneaks through in stories like “The Tower of the Elephant,” which features a transcendent vision of the cosmos where lines between the celestial, the earthly, and the extra-dimensional blur into a frictious mix.

Jeff Shanks’ article “Theosophy and the Thurian Age: Robert E. Howard and the Works of William Scott-Elliot” (in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Vol. 6, Nos. 1 and 2)  provides a historical analysis of some specific Theosophical influences that went into framing the landscape of Howard’s work. But it seems to me that one of the more important aspects of this subject, and one that is a bit more ephemeral and subtle to trace than the mere origins of his influences, is the question of how Howard’s writing interacts with the esoteric tradition itself. These interactions are so prevalent in his work that in many instances he seems to utilize some of the same processes used by Theosophists such as C.W. Leadbetter in hopes of gaining an authentic vision of antediluvian worlds. Howard gives us a surprising opportunity to examine the strange chemistry that occurs when a certain psychology, no matter how seemingly mundane, acts as a catalyst to a potent stream of occult influence. His example also leads out to the realm of other authors who experienced something similar, and eventually to a general insight about the relationship of channeling, mediumship, anomalies, and visionary trance states to the creative imagination. Read the rest of this entry

Awakening the Esoteric Spirit: Mapping the Occult City

I am fresh from attending the recent American Academy of Religions pre-conference event Mapping the Occult City: Magic & Esotericism in the Urban Utopia, hosted by Phoenix Rising Digital Academy and DePaul University. Convened by Dr. Jason Winslade,  the day-long event explored the interaction of the city as entity, idea, and cultural engine with esoteric philosophy and occult inspirations.

The event’s location in Chicago provided a fortuitous opportunity to dive into the city’s rich cultural heritage as it pertains to historical and contemporary esoteric currents. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago was at the center of global culture. Hosting the World Columbian Exposition and the Parliament of World Religions in 1893 represented merely the outer manifestation of a deeply seeded cultural, and often occult, milieu that found a home in the Windy City. Read the rest of this entry

Skeptics, Believers, and the Purposes of Parapsychology: Thoughts on Two Experiments in Unseen Realities

I’m afraid there is something missing in our cultural discussion of psi phenomena. With both sides (skeptics and the pro-psi crowd) mired in a battle of believers, and with scientific exploration devolving into polemical argumentation, the fact that parapsychology is an exploration of human potential and the boundaries of experience receives frequent lip service but isn’t actually kept at the forefront of the debate. The irony of this state of affairs is especially glaring in light of the terminology that parapsychologists have deliberately adopted for the purpose of establishing a neutral and disinterested realm of discourse. As Dale Graff, a physicist and former Director of the STARGATE Remote Viewing program, points out in his article “Resistances to Psi”:

Parapsychology is the science that examines phenomena such as extra-sensory perception (ESP), telepathy, clairvoyance, remote viewing, and precognition.  It also explores psychokinesis and distant healing, interactions that seem to be mediated by mental intention alone.  These phenomena are referred to as “psi” — the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet, meaning “unknown.”  This neutral label helps minimize judgments about explanatory mechanism and cultural biases that might be associated with some of the older terms.

— Dale Graff, “Resistances to Psi,” 2009

The gap between the real scientific study of parapsychology and the ideologically slanted pursuit of foregone conclusions was illustrated in October by two separate and very interesting tests that were conducted on the phenomenon of mediumship. Each took a radically different approach from the other.  One was conducted by three people — Chris C. French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, London, Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, and science writer Simon Singh — who designed an experiment that they presented to popular UK performers as a “challenge” to prove their mediumship. In the other experiment, Leonard George, a psychology professor at Capilano University, decided to try mediumship himself with the help of some training from the famous Spiritualist community at Lily Dale, NY.

As you may imagine, the differences in approach led to distinctly different results. It is really striking to consider George’s work immediately alongside the “psychic challenge” presented by French, Marshall, and Singh, because the difference in methodology brings out many important issues associated with the question of what exactly we’re seeking to prove with such experiments. Although experimental design should seek to explore deeper implications of the data, preconceived ideas about the data can lead to experiments that are designed to foster ideologically relevant results instead of providing a true picture of what is going on. This obviously occurs on both sides of the debate over the existence of psi, and it’s a problem that needs to be seriously considered. Read the rest of this entry

Halfway between Earth and Stars: A Meditation on Sacred Sites and Future Mysteries

At the very earliest appearance of human civilization we observe the presence and importance of geometry.  It is clearly evident that geometry was comprehended and utilized by the ancient Master Builders, who, laboring at the dawn of civilization some four and one half millennia ago, bestowed upon the world such masterworks as the megalithic structures of ancient Europe, the Pyramids and temples of Pharaonic Egypt and the stepped Ziggurats of Sumeria. That geometry continued to be employed throughout the centuries from those earliest times until times historically recent is also clearly evident. That it was made use of by cultures far-flung about the globe is evident as well, finding expression in China, Central and South America, in pre-Columbian North America amongst Native Americans, in Africa, SE Asia and Indonesia, Rome and of course in classical Greece and in Europe, from the Megalithic era some 4000 years ago, as stated, and again some 3000 years later, magnificently expressed during the Gothic era of cathedral building.

— Randall Carlson, “The Meaning of Sacred Geometry

Two of my favorite places to go in Georgia are the Marian apparition site in Conyers and the Georgia Guidestones in Elberton. What I didn’t realize until I had a wonderful conversation with Randall Carlson of Sacred Geometry International (based in Atlanta) is that both sites lie very close to one of the fault lines that diagonally traverses (SW to NE) the northern part of the state. In fact the Guidestones are just south of where the fault line exits the state at its northern border, and the Conyers apparition site sits south of the fault near the halfway point. Read the rest of this entry

Remote Viewing, Reality, and the Human Condition: Reflections on a Weekend with Russell Targ

There is no other discipline that I know which engages at the same time a person’s critical faculties and his imagination and then stretches them both to a comparable extent.

— John Beloff, “The Study of the Paranormal as an Educative Experience

On the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the United States’ longest running parapsychology research laboratory is hidden behind a humble facade. This is fitting for a research institute that delves into the very root of our experience of consciousness: that hidden realm lying beneath our own humble human facades.

Founded in the 1930’s by psychologist J. B. Rhine, the Rhine Research Center, as it is now called, has been at the forefront of research into anomalous human experience for more than seven decades.  More importantly, it continues today as one of the major parapsychological research groups in the world, and the friendly folks at the Rhine are more than happy to share that experience with anyone who is honestly inquisitive about their work.

The Rhine Research Center, then and now

On October 19th and 20th, I attended a two-day seminar that was hosted by the Rhine Research Center and presented by Russell Targ, co-founder of the Stanford Research Institute‘s Remote Viewing program, which has become famous for providing training to the U.S. military’s so-called “psychic spy” initiative. As John Kruth, Executive Director for the Rhine, pointed out, the training given to those that attended the recent seminar at the Rhine (including myself) was the same training provided to the original SRI group. Read the rest of this entry

Soothsayers, Seers, and other Specters of the Skeptical Mind

I remember the last time I consulted a soothsayer. ‘Twas in the early of the year, and sorrow had wont to call upon my home.

Where, I thought dimly, shall I find succor now my very rooms themselves speak to me of tragedy? Aye me, the pains of a soul lost in this ill-lit world of dark delirium!. Fain would I press forward, if only I could find some wane and wanton hope, yet such seeking brought only more sorrow.

Strolling the thoroughfare, my hobnailed, haggard shoes tapping out a beleaguered fugue upon the chipped and sullied cobblestones, I saw what I mistook, I do admit, for a white and luminous dove: my fated angel, strange savior, black and white winged,  read all over.

Lo, ’twas nay a bird, but a breeze-blown bit of newspaper! How odd that this scrap could become so like an oracle to me, proof of providence in that strange synchronicity. Upon it, writ in print full clear, this message, which would become so dear to my heart:

Online Psychic Readings – 3 Million 5-star Ratings Don’t Lie.

Huh? When, exactly, was the last time you encountered a “soothsayer”? Perhaps down the street, next to the local smithy, or across the way from old Elias Nottuman the Tanner? What century are we living in again?

Still, someone out there is encountering them, at least according to a recent piece at Yahoo! News titled “Psychic Devastates Dead Student’s Family,” which highlights the failure of a couple of self-proclaimed psychics to solve missing-person cases and then holds this up as an example of a supposed pervasive plague of psychism and superstition infecting Western culture: Read the rest of this entry

Humility and Silence: Where True Science and True Spirituality Meet

It is said that we live in an age of light, but it would be truer to say that we are living in an age of twilight; here and there a luminous ray pierces through the mists of darkness, but does not light to full clearness either our reason or our hearts. Men are not of one mind, scientists dispute, and where there is discord truth is not yet apprehended.

– From The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary, by Karl von Eckhartshausen

What is it about the pursuit of truth that leads to so many conflicts? Eckhartshausen was writing in the late 18th century, and yet his statement reads no less true after 300-some years of “progress.”

An opinionated conflict rages today as it did during the Enlightenment — highlighted in many public disputes, provoked by writers such as Richard Dawkins — over trivial matters that have already been settled and problems that have already been overcome by leading thinkers across the history of intellectual endeavor. Yet, at heart, anyone who honestly applies to a study of existence, including even Dawkins himself, cannot help being seduced beyond conflict by the beauty of life.

Jerry L. Martin, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, posted a quote from Richard Dawkins on his Facebook page that draws out this truth:

There’s poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.

To this Martin added a simple, appended question:

Is he right?

And I have to respond: certainly. Science is one of the most direct, beautiful, and complete means of accessing the glory of existence, a raw and unequaled poetry! However, this assertion comes with the caveat that it only true when viewed through a proper interpretation. Read the rest of this entry

Science, Philosophy, Theology: If the Mirrors We Make Are Monstrous, So Too Are We

Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve known for 40 years, and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic … I would support peaceful co-existence between religion and science because they concern different domains … Anyone who takes theology seriously knows that it’s not a matter of using it to explain things that scientists are mystified by.

— Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal & Past President of the Royal Society, “We shouldn’t attach any weight to what Hawking says about God,” The Independent, September 27, 2010

The web-magazine io9 recently posted a list by the futurist author George Dvorsky on “9 Historical Figures Who May Have Predicted Our Future,”  and if you had the opportunity to read some of my recent comments on cultural amnesia (“Haunted by Our Amnesia” and “Connecticut Vampires in a Naive Skeptic’s Court“), you might have an inkling as to what I’m going to point out regarding not just one or two of the figures listed, but the majority of them.

Yes, these prophets of scientific progress were each in their own way connected to those streams of thought which are often relegated to the status of “pseudo-science” or, as the enthusiastic (but often illiterate and condescending) debunking crowd affectionately calls it, “woo.” This is made evident in the very first person that Dvorsky lists: Robert Boyle. After listing Boyle’s scientific accomplishments, he adds the caveat, “Not bad for a pre-Enlightenment thinker surrounded by magical and superstitious beliefs.” However, let’s pause here and reflect on the fact that Boyle was a dedicated alchemist.

17th-century natural philosopher and alchemist Robert Boyle pointing to a closed book in reference to the alchemical notion of Mutus Liber

Alchemy, cosmism, Freemasonry, and evolutionary mysticism all find their way into Dvorsky’s list, but is not to say that those listed were exemplars of the weaker strains of these philosophies and worldviews, which rightfully draw the ire of serious thinkers. On the contrary, these figures mark the exception, where science, philosophy, and often theology commingle in such a way as to transmute reality and open up possibilities that fundamentalists in any of these areas are not capable of accessing. Read the rest of this entry

Haunted by Our Amnesia: The Forgotten Mainstream Impact of the Occult/Esoteric “Fringe”

It’s amazing what you don’t learn in school. Even more so, it’s amazing how much “common knowledge” has absolutely nothing to do with the actual facts. I’m not talking about folk wisdom here but the  assumptions that the majority of supposed experts cling to when discussing the reality that underlies our common lives.

Mitch Horowitz, Editor in Chief of Tarcher/Penguin, has been working for several years to mitigate some of the amnesia that has arisen around our collective history. In his book Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, he exposes a few of the forgotten influences that have shaped the American consciousness, from former Vice President Henry Wallace’s engagement with the Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich to the fact that the very materially minded Mohandas Gandhi’s engagement with the Bhagavad Gita was influenced by his relationship to the Theosophical Society in the U.K.

In an article for The Wall Street Journal on filmmaker Vikram Gandhi’s recent documentary Kumaré, Horowitz outlines the process that slowly softens these facts until they become part of the culture: Read the rest of this entry