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Teeming Links – May 2, 2014


Anatomy of the Deep State (absolutely required reading): “There is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose.”

Maybe interiority dies or become obsolete when all the world’s an app: “Starting some 500 years ago, the self was understood as an enclosure. It was something that required silence to access and space to experience. I think that used to be true. It probably still is. But it might not be for very much longer.”

Looks like I got out just in time: A Eulogy for Twitter: The beloved social publishing platform enters its twilight

Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers: Liberal arts and the humanities aren’t just for the elite (shades of Earl Shorris and the Clemente Course in the Humanities)

How to study the numinous: “If our understanding of the mystical is impoverished today, perhaps it’s because we’ve put too much faith in brain scans, and allowed other forms of knowledge and investigation to ebb. Perhaps what we need is a revival of philosophically-informed psychology and anthropology, rather than a more ambitious spiritual phrenology. Perhaps, instead of a better fMRI machine, we’re waiting for a new (and doubtless very different) William James or James Frazer or Carl Jung.”

The human heart of sacred art: “The humanist impulse not only liberated the sense of transcendence from the shackles of the sacred, it also transformed the idea of transcendence itself. The transcendent was no longer linked to the divine; nor did humans fulfil themselves solely through union with God. Rather humans came to be acknowledged as conscious agents who realized themselves only through self-created projects to transform themselves and the world they inhabit.”

Ghosts of the tsunami (on a Japanese priest’s attempt to deal with the plague of ghosts in the aftermath of the country epochal disaster): “When people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki, ‘hungry ghosts’, who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief. There are rituals for placating unhappy spirits, but in the aftermath of the disaster few families were in a position to perform them. . . . Thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife. How could they all be cared for? Who was to honour the compact between the living and the dead? In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?”

Terror Incognita: The Paradoxical History of Cosmic Horror, from Lovecraft to Ligotti: Los Angeles Review of Books looks at Lovecraft, Chambers, Ligotti, and weird fiction. Worth reading even though it winds up to a somewhat disappointing (because somewhat hackneyed and by now cliched) conclusion about the genre’s appeal (“The imagination, weaned on a materialistic civilization and thoroughly disillusioned with it, yearns for that sublime unknown”) that was articulated at length by Peter Penzoldt 60 years ago in The Supernatural in Fiction, and that has been restated many times since by the likes of Joshi and others, and that has always left a number of significant alternative possibilities unexamined. But that said, hey, how cool is it to see Ligotti being talked about in the likes of LARB?



Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

John Gray on ghosts, Walter de la Mare, and the limits of scientific materialism


The relationship between supernatural horror and scientific materialism is a neverendingly fascinating subject, not least because the enormous and ongoing popularity of supernatural horror stories among the thoroughly secularized Western consumerist democracies, where scientific materialism has a cultural stranglehold, represents a striking philosophical fault line. One may say, as everybody from H. P. Lovecraft to S. T. Joshi to Peter Penzoldt (in his classic 1952 study The Supernatural in Fiction) has said, that enjoyment of supernatural fictions in a secular-scientific society is simply a matter of art fulfilling an intellectual-emotional need that has been inculcated in the human race over millions of years. But one may also argue that the very nature and persistence of these fictions constitutes a literal challenge to the dominant worldview.

This second approach is definitely a minority one, but it’s the one taken by English philosopher John Gray (characterized three months ago by The Telegraph as “the world’s pre-eminent prophet of doom), who argues in a recent and fascinating essay for BBC News  that the real-world plausibility of the materialist paradigm is directly challenged by Walter de la Mare’s literary evocation of the ghostly and the uncanny:

During the later decades of his long life — he was born in 1873 and died in 1956 — de la Mare was a familiar feature of the English literary landscape, a poet and anthologist whose poems were learnt by heart by successive generations of schoolchildren and whose books were widely available in public libraries. So why is he so little known today? It may be because his work conveys a sense of the insubstantial quality of everyday things, a point of view that runs counter to the prevailing creed of scientific materialism. At his peak of public recognition, de la Mare was most celebrated as a writer for children, but in nearly everything he wrote he explored experiences of the uncanny.

. . . Materialism — the philosophy, not the perennial human tendency to pursue and accumulate material things — sees the universe as a physical system. Everything that exists in it must be some sort of matter, or something that emerges from matter. In a fully scientific view of the world, only material things are real. Everything else is just a phantom.

In this view, science is a project of exorcism, which aims to rid the mind of anything that can’t be understood in terms of physical laws. But perhaps it’s the dogma of materialism that should be exorcised from our minds. Science is a method of inquiry, whose results can’t be known in advance. If scientific inquiry is the most powerful tool for increasing human knowledge, it’s because science is continuously changing our view of the world. The prevailing creed of scientific materialism is actually a contradiction, for science isn’t a fixed view of things, still less a dogmatic faith. The belief that the world is composed only of physical things operating according to universal laws is metaphysical speculation, not a falsifiable theory.

. . . De la Mare was much too refined and penetrating a mind to imagine that ultimate questions can ever be settled. Instead, he unsettled the reader’s view of things while leaving these questions open. His stories suggest that the everyday world contains gaps, anomalies and singularities, which may — or may not — point to a larger reality. The uncanniness of these tales comes from the impression they leave in the reader that our everyday existence is insubstantial and perhaps chimerical.

Materialism asserts that anything apart from physical phenomena is a figment of the imagination — a kind of apparition, which must be exorcised from the mind. It’s a very simple-minded philosophy. For de la Mare’s traveller [in his short story “Winter”], it’s not the strange visitor he encounters that’s the ghost. It’s the ordinary world that surrounds every one of us.

More: “Ghosts in the Material World

Also note that you can listen to Gray read the essay aloud in its entirety as part of the BBC’s “Point of View” series. In this version the title is “The Limits to Materialism,” and it comes with a teaser line that nicely summarizes the piece’s overall message: “John Gray draws on a story by Walter de la Mare to argue that the prevailing creed of scientific materialism is a ‘simple-minded philosophy’ too limited for an unknowable world.”


Image: Henry Fuseli, Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Recommended Reading 28

This week: posthumously offered words of warning and encouragement to an America in decline from Ernest Callenbach, author of the 1975 classic Ecotopia; insightful meditations on the intrinsic value of the humanities and their inherent resistance to being explained (as in, explained away) by quantitative scientific methodologies and approaches; a 1908 essay by a French author celebrating the philosophical value of “the scientific-marvelous novel,” i.e., science fiction; a penetrating essay by Adam Curtis on a classic 1990s BBC television series about ghosts and what it reveals about the real residing place of phantoms and specters in our modern mass media culture; and an essay by clinical psychologist and paranormal researcher James Carpenter on his fascinating theory about the fundamental and a priori place of what’s commonly called “psi” in the basic workings of human consciousness and perception. Read the rest of this entry

“That’s a Man Standing There Solid As Me” – Some Reflections on the Nature of Ghosts

For a moment leave aside whether you believe or disbelieve in the existence of ghosts. Would you know one if you saw it?

Once, I would have said yes. I would have had a picture in mind of a spectral figure — the familiar trope of popular media — or perhaps an orb, a shadowy shape, or some kind of purposeful, unseen force. However, there is a much deeper history to the ghost (a secret history, in fact, as Claude Lecouteux’s work points out), and one that ties it to our concepts of life, death, and our relationships with the social order and the natural world around us. And these days, although some of the details of my conceptions may remain the same, the simple associations I had given to ghostly phenomena have been erased from my mind by a brief conversation and some deep reading.

Read the rest of this entry