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When mental illness is really demonic possession, according to a psychiatrist

The following two paragraphs are excerpted from what’s basically your everyday, run-of-the-mill article about the reality of demonic possession as distinct from mental illness. Written by a board-certified psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. For The Washington Post.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness – which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.

Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.

FULL TEXT: As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession.

(For more on the relationship — and distinction — between possession and mental illness, check your local library or any online bookseller for my Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies, which contains separate entries on possession and exorcism. Also see relevant entries in editor Joe Laycock’s excellent Spirit Possession around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures.)

 

Huston Smith and H. P. Lovecraft on transcendent longing and humanity’s fundamental dis-ease

From Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith:

The traditional worldview is preferable to the one that now encloses us because it allows for the fulfillment of the basic longing that lies in the depth of the human heart. . . .

There is within us — in even the blithest, most lighthearted among us — a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies  in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls. All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release. Two great paintings suggest this longing in their titles — Gauguin’s Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going? and de Chirico’s Nostalgia for the Infinite — but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.

From a 1930 letter by H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith:

My most vivid experiences are efforts to recapture fleeting & tantalising mnemonic fragments expressed in unknown or half-known architectural or landscape vistas, especially in connexion with a sunset. Some instantaneous fragment of a picture will well up suddenly through some chain of subconscious association — the immediate excitant being usually half-irrelevant on the surface — & fill me with a sense of wistful memory & bafflement; with the impression that the scene in question represents something I have seen & visited before under circumstances of superhuman liberation & adventurous expectancy, yet which I have almost completely forgotten, & which is so bewilderingly uncorrelated & unoriented as to be forever inaccessible in the future.

From a 1930 letter by Lovecraft to James F. Morton:

It is never any definite experience which gives me pleasure, but always the quality of mystic adventurous expectancy itself — the indefiniteness which permits me to foster the momentary illusion that almost any vista of wonder and beauty might open up, or almost any law of time or space or matter or energy be marvellously defeated or reversed or modified or transcended . . . that sense of expansion, freedom, adventure, power, expectancy, symmetry, drama, beauty-absorption, surprise, and cosmic wonder (i.e. the illusory promise of a majestic revelation which shall gratify man’s ever-flaming, ever-tormenting curiosity about the outer voids and ultimate gulfs of entity) . . . the illusion of being poised on the edge of the infinite amidst a vast cosmic unfolding which might reveal almost anything.

From Smith, Why Religion Matters:

Release from those walls calls for space outside them, and the traditional world provides that space in abundance. It has about it the feel of long, open distances and limitless vistas for the human spirit to explore — distances and vistas that are quality-laden throughout. Some of its vistas . . . are terrifying; still, standing as it does as the qualitative counterpart to the quantitative universe that physics explores, all but the fainthearted would switch to it instantly if we believed it existed. . . . Our received wisdom denies its existence, but that wisdom cannot prevent us from having experiences that feel as if they come from a different world.

From Lovecraft, in his essay “Notes on the Writing of Weird Fiction”:

I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best-one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasize the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.

ADDITIONAL READING:

Teeming Links – May 23, 2014

FireHead

Decline of religious belief means we need more exorcists, say Catholics: “The decline of religious belief in the West and the growth of secularism has ‘opened the window’ to black magic, Satanism and belief in the occult, the organisers of a conference on exorcism have said. The six-day meeting in Rome aims to train about 200 Roman Catholic priests from more than 30 countries in how to cast out evil from people who believe themselves to be in thrall to the Devil.”

Is there a ghost or monster? Is the weather always awful? Is the heroine a virginal saint prone to fainting? Is the villain a murderous tyrant with scary eyes? Are all non-white, non-middle class, non-Protestants portrayed as thoroughly frightening? Chances are you’re reading a Gothic novel.

The Return of Godzilla: “The first time Godzilla appeared, in 1954, Japan was still deep in the trauma of nuclear destruction. Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fresh and terrible memories. US nuclear tests in the Pacific had just rained more death down on Japanese fishermen. And here came the monster. Godzilla. The great force of nature from the deep. Swimming ashore. Stomping through Tokyo. Raising radioactive hell. Godzilla came back again and again. In movies and more. Now, maybe Fukushima’s nuclear disaster has roused the beast. It’s back.”

When you first heard the Snowden revelations about the NSA, did you just kind of shrug and feel like the whole thing merely confirmed what you already knew? This may be no accident: funded by the wealthy and powerful elite, Hollywood has acclimated us to the idea of a surveillance society.

Google Glass and related technologies will create the perfect Orwellian dystopia for workers: “In an office where everyone wears Glass, the very idea of workplace organizing will be utterly unimaginable, as every employee will be turned into an unwilling (perhaps even unwitting) informant for his or her superiors.”

Speaking of dystopias, James Howard Kunstler recently observed that it’s a true sign of the times when, in a society where our digital devices have basically become prosthetic extensions of our hands, it’s impossible to get anybody on the phone anymore.

Also speaking of dystopias, researchers are teaming with the U.S. Navy to develop robots that can make moral decisions. Meanwhile, scientists have no idea how to define human morality.

Net neutrality? Get real. It’s far too late to save the Internet: “The open Internet of legend is already winnowed to the last chaff. . . . To fear a ‘pay to play’ Internet because it will be less hospitable to competition and innovation is not just to board a ship that’s already sailed, but to prepay your cruise vacation down the river Styx.”

And anyway, as far as the Internet goes, it’s totally broken, including, especially, when it comes to security: “It’s hard to explain to regular people how much technology barely works, how much the infrastructure of our lives is held together by the IT equivalent of baling wire. Computers, and computing, are broken. . . . [A]ll computers are reliably this bad: the ones in
hospitals and governments and banks, the ones in your phone, the ones that control light switches and smart meters and air traffic control systems. Industrial computers that maintain infrastructure and manufacturing are even worse. I don’t know all the details, but those who do are the most alcoholic and nihilistic people in computer security.”

Despite Wikipedia’s skeptical disinformation campaign against all paranormal matters, remote viewing is not pseudoscience, says Russell Targ, the field’s most prominent pioneer. What’s more, he easily eviscerates the Wikiskeptics with a revolutionary tool called evidence: “Jessica Utts is a statistics Professor at the University of California, Irvine, and is president of the American Statistical Association. In writing for her part of a 1995 evaluation of our work for the CIA, she wrote: ‘Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established’ . . . . [I]t should be clear that hundreds of people were involved in a 23 year, multi-million dollar operational program at SRI, the CIA, DIA and two dozen intelligence officers at the army base at Ft. Meade. Regardless of the personal opinion of a Wikipedia editor, it is not logically coherent to trivialize this whole remote viewing undertaking as some kind of ‘pseudoscience.’ Besides me, there is a parade of Ph.D. physicists, psychologists, and heads of government agencies who think our work was valuable, though puzzling.”

And finally: “Mesmerists, Mediums, and Mind-readers” (pdf) — Psychologist and stage magician Peter Lamont provides a brief and thoroughly absorbing “history of extraordinary psychological feats, and their relevance for our concept of psychology and science.”

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – May 2, 2014

FireHead

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 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Powerful and serious fictions”: The mythic/psychic reality of gods and other fictional characters

From a recent blog post by psychologist and author Thomas Moore, in which he elucidates one of the key insights from his mentor in depth psychology, the late, great James Hillman:

“An axiom of depth psychology asserts that what is not admitted into awareness irrupts in ungainly obsessive, literalistic ways, affecting consciousness with precisely the qualities it strives to exclude. Personifying not allowed as a metaphorical vision returns in concrete form: we seize upon people, we cling to other persons.” — James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, p. 46.

James Hillman always spoke of the Greek gods as if they were present, not literal but real. Years ago I read Karl Kerenyi’s idea that religion begins in the atmosphere of a place or situation. I thought of Artemis, a spirit I feel strongly in play in my life, and I imagined feeling her presence as she is depicted in classical poetry, as the atmosphere you sense when you are in a pristine forest, far from civilization. I can imagine that same “atmosphere” within myself, some place so pristine and uncontaminated that is has the qualities associated with Artemis. So I can speak of Artemis in me and in the world without being naive or simplistic.

An image for Hillman is not an intellectual abstraction but a presence, again, one that is real but not literal. The Mona Lisa, Hamlet, and Sherlock Holmes have become so real in some people’s imagination that they relate to the figures as real presences, though they know they are fictions. Seeing the astrological conditions of an ordinary day may be another way of taking certain images seriously without turning them into abstract ideas or confusing them with actual persons.

. . . If I don’t treat the images of dream and the stories of life as powerful and serious fictions, therapy itself becomes personalistic. I get involved in my own pet ideas and agendas, and I try to influence the person I’m trying to help rather than care for the soul. Therapy becomes life management based on personal prejudices or on the wishes of the client.

And so, it’s important to read fiction and poetry and drama; to contemplate paintings and movies; to listen closely to music and to make interesting photographs — all to keep imagination alive, to serve what Hillman calls “the metaphorical persons,” the gods and characters and personalities of fiction, because fiction is more important than we could ever imagine. Wallace Stevens wrote: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.”

More: “Real Presences

(Also see “Why dreams are the new Book of Revelation in our post-apocalyptic world.”)

Recommended Reading 34

The Teeming Brain’s “Recommended Reading” series has been on hiatus since last November. And now it’s back, with a slightly altered/streamlined format (read: no graphics, just links and text) that’s more sustainable in the context of your trusty editor’s various other claims on time, energy, and attention.

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Madrid: Dignity and Indignation
Aaron Shulman, The American Scholar, Winter 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: An American ex-pat living in Spain — and deeply loving it — explains how the country’s apocalyptically awful socioeconomic situation is forcing him and his wife to leave. Reading his description of the situation, one can’t help but extrapolate from it and speculate about the possible preview it provides for what will happen, and already is happening, elsewhere, especially since the stated causes and progression of the crisis sound so very familiar here in, e.g., the United States.]

Spanish paro [unemployment] has already surpassed the worst levels of the American Great Depression. The Red Cross recently launched a campaign to combat hunger in Spain, redirecting resources previously dedicated to Haiti. More than one in every four children live in households below the poverty line. Things are bad in a way no one could have imagined even five years ago.

. . . . Spain’s unemployment figures depress me because they seem to presage collapse, but the reality of life in a country with so many unemployed is even sadder. Elisa and I relocated from Córdoba to Madrid this past April, and since then almost every day I see a corriente, or average, person rooting around in the trash in search of food — never mind homeless people, who now also have competition at soup kitchens and food banks. The border between the perennially homeless and the newly homeless is increasingly porous and irrelevant.

. . . . What brought Spain to this point? The Spanish economic boom in the years preceding the crisis was a grim parable described as a fairy tale we’re all familiar with: subprime mortgages, unchecked speculation, laughable regulation, political complicity—a world built on fictions. The Spanish version had a result even more disastrous than elsewhere because way too many of the country’s economic eggs were in the construction sector basket.

. . . . On top of the increasingly untenable work situation, the comportment of police in the face of demonstrations is becoming more brutal and frightening. In September we happened to leave Neptune Plaza just minutes before police began beating demonstrators who had nonviolently surrounded the congress. In a restaurant we watched live TV coverage of defenseless people holding up their hands and yet still receiving blows. The next morning a shocking video appeared of police launching projectiles in a train station. A few days later the head of the riot police was awarded a medal by the government.

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Killer Robots Must Be Stopped, Say Campaigners
Tracy McVeigh, The Observer, February 23, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The title and subject of this article would tend to invite scorn and skepticism for their seemingly over-the-top invocation of outlandish science fictional-type fears if it weren’t for the fact that, as described by the following excerpts, the imminent rise of autonomous killer robots, as well as the present rise of serious opposition to them by people in positions of authority and respect, really and truly is happening.]

A new global campaign to persuade nations to ban “killer robots” before they reach the production stage is to be launched in the UK by a group of academics, pressure groups and Nobel peace prize laureates. Robot warfare and autonomous weapons, the next step from unmanned drones, are already being worked on by scientists and will be available within the decade, said Dr Noel Sharkey, a leading robotics and artificial intelligence expert and professor at Sheffield University. He believes that development of the weapons is taking place in an effectively unregulated environment, with little attention being paid to moral implications and international law.

The Stop the Killer Robots campaign will be launched in April at the House of Commons and includes many of the groups that successfully campaigned to have international action taken against cluster bombs and landmines. They hope to get a similar global treaty against autonomous weapons.

“These things are not science fiction; they are well into development,” said Sharkey.

. . . . Last November the international campaign group Human Rights Watch produced a 50-page report, Losing Humanity: the Case Against Killer Robots, outlining concerns about fully autonomous weapons.

. . . . US political activist Jody Williams, who won a Nobel peace prize for her work at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, is expected to join Sharkey at the launch at the House of Commons. . . “Killer robots loom over our future if we do not take action to ban them now,” she said. “The six Nobel peace laureates involved in the Nobel Women’s Initiative fully support the call for an international treaty to ban fully autonomous weaponised robots.”

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The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food
Michael Moss, The New York Times, February 20, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is simply riveting, and in a way that explodes an all-too-easy and glib dismissal along the lines of “Yeah, we already know junk food is addictive. So what else is new?” Moss names names and gives specifics in an article, adapted from his new book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, that sounds like it could blow open the junk food industry in much the same way the famous 1996 Vanity Fair article that served as the basis for Michael Mann’s The Insider blew open the shady world of Big Tobacco.]

The public and the food companies have known for decades now. . . . that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.

. . . . If Americans snacked only occasionally, and in small amounts, this would not present the enormous problem that it does. But because so much money and effort has been invested over decades in engineering and then relentlessly selling these products, the effects are seemingly impossible to unwind. More than 30 years have passed since Robert Lin first tangled with Frito-Lay on the imperative of the company to deal with the formulation of its snacks, but as we sat at his dining-room table, sifting through his records, the feelings of regret still played on his face. In his view, three decades had been lost, time that he and a lot of other smart scientists could have spent searching for ways to ease the addiction to salt, sugar and fat. “I couldn’t do much about it,” he told me. “I feel so sorry for the public.”

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Is Smart Making Us Dumb?
Evgeny Morozov, The Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2013

Teaser: A revolution in technology is allowing previously inanimate objects—from cars to trash cans to teapots—to talk back to us and even guide our behavior. But how much control are we willing to give up?

In 2010, Google Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette told an Australian news program that his company “is really an engineering company, with all these computer scientists that see the world as a completely broken place.” Just last week in Singapore, he restated Google’s notion that the world is a “broken” place whose problems, from traffic jams to inconvenient shopping experiences to excessive energy use, can be solved by technology. The futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, a favorite of the TED crowd, also likes to talk about how “reality is broken” but can be fixed by making the real world more like a videogame, with points for doing good. From smart cars to smart glasses, “smart” is Silicon Valley’s shorthand for transforming present-day social reality and the hapless souls who inhabit it.

But there is reason to worry about this approaching revolution. As smart technologies become more intrusive, they risk undermining our autonomy by suppressing behaviors that someone somewhere has deemed undesirable. Smart forks inform us that we are eating too fast. Smart toothbrushes urge us to spend more time brushing our teeth. Smart sensors in our cars can tell if we drive too fast or brake too suddenly. These devices can give us useful feedback, but they can also share everything they know about our habits with institutions whose interests are not identical with our own. Insurance companies already offer significant discounts to drivers who agree to install smart sensors in order to monitor their driving habits. How long will it be before customers can’t get auto insurance without surrendering to such surveillance? And how long will it be before the self-tracking of our health (weight, diet, steps taken in a day) graduates from being a recreational novelty to a virtual requirement?

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Unlike: Why I’m Leaving Facebook
Douglas Rushkoff, February 25, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: When somebody of Rushkoff’s status and stature as a commentator on the world of information technology goes and does (and says) something like this, you can know that a sea change is brewing.]

I used to be able to justify using Facebook as a cost of doing business. As a writer and sometime activist who needs to promote my books and articles and occasionally rally people to one cause or another, I found Facebook fast and convenient. Though I never really used it to socialize, I figured it was okay to let other people do that, and I benefited from their behavior.

I can no longer justify this arrangement. Today I am surrendering my Facebook account, because my participation on the site is simply too inconsistent with the values I espouse in my work. In my upcoming book Present Shock, I chronicle some of what happens when we can no longer manage our many online presences. I argue — as I always have — for engaging with technology as conscious human beings, and dispensing with technologies that take that agency away.

Facebook is just such a technology. It does things on our behalf when we’re not even there. It actively misrepresents us to our friends, and — worse — misrepresents those who have befriended us to still others. To enable this dysfunctional situation — I call it “digiphrenia” — would be at the very least hypocritical. But to participate on Facebook as an author, in a way specifically intended to draw out the “likes” and resulting vulnerability of others, is untenable.

Facebook has never been merely a social platform. Rather, it exploits our social interactions the way a Tupperware party does. Facebook does not exist to help us make friends, but to turn our network of connections, brand preferences, and activities over time —  our “social graphs” — into a commodity for others to exploit. We Facebook users have been  building a treasure lode of big data that government and corporate researchers have been mining to predict and influence what we buy and whom we vote for.  We have been handing over to them vast quantities of information about ourselves and our friends, loved ones and acquaintances. With this information, Facebook and the “big data” research firms purchasing their data predict still more things about us.

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Is it OK to be a Luddite?
Thomas Pynchon, The New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1984 (reprinted at The Modern Word)

The word “Luddite” continues to be applied with contempt to anyone with doubts about technology, especially the nuclear kind. Luddites today are no longer faced with human factory owners and vulnerable machines. As well-known President and unintentional Luddite D.D. Eisenhower prophesied when he left office, there is now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed, although Ike didn’t put it quite that way. We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time.

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come — you heard it here first — when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long. Meantime, as Americans, we can take comfort, however minimal and cold, from Lord Byron’s mischievously improvised song, in which he, like other observers of the time, saw clear identification between the first Luddites and our own revolutionary origins. It begins:

As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!

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Miracles and the Historians
Peter Berger, The American Interest, December 21, 2011

Modern science has achieved high credibility and prestige, not only for its intellectual plausibility, but because of its immense practical successes. Modern science, and the technology it has made possible, has fundamentally changed the circumstances of human life on this planet. One result of this has been the ideology of scientism, which asserts that science is the only valid avenue to truth. On the part of believers there has been the understandable impetus to present belief itself as being based on science. The prototypical figure in this has been Mary Baker Eddy, founder of a denomination aptly called Christian Science, with Jesus transformed into someone called Christ, Scientist. Not only does this do violence to the Jesus found in the New Testament, but equally so to science as an intellectual discipline. In the same line there have been attempts to establish a Christian economics, a Christian sociology, and so forth. Such constructions are as implausible as a Christian geology, or a Christian dermatology.

But there is something more fundamental involved in all of this: The refusal to accept the fact that there is more than one way to perceive reality.

. . . . If [the historian] wants to claim the status of “science” for his discipline, he has no alternative to following in the “naturalistic tradition”. The acts of God (miraculous or otherwise) cannot be empirically investigated or falsified. How the historian then looks at the same phenomenon, such as a Biblical account of ancient events, will obviously depend on his theology. If he believes in Biblical inerrancy — every sentence is literally true — he will definitely have some serious problems.  But there are other, more flexible ways of looking for revelation “in, with and under” the Biblical text. In that case, even the most rigorous historical scholarship cannot undermine the approach of faith.

Horror for the Holidays: Santa, Krampus, and the Dark Divine

Watching the children get chastised is part of the Krampus fantasy (Nikolaus and Krampus in Austria; newspaper-illustration from 1896).

Watching the children get chastised is part of the Krampus fantasy (Nikolaus and Krampus in Austria; newspaper-illustration from 1896).

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For a kind of companion piece to this one, see Ryan’s “Have a Very Scary Christmas!” over at Dreamstudies.org.]

This Christmas Eve as you lay the children down to sleep and lock the doors, you will have the chance once again to notice that feeling of holiday vulnerability creeping on up. You may feel it especially when you hang the stockings with care or leave out a plate of cookies for Santa. Something feels hollow. It’s a subtle, diffuse sense that we usually dismiss as misplaced nostalgia or a bit of underdone potato or undigested beef. A vague foreboding on the periphery of awareness. A nagging intuition that something important has not been acknowledged.

Many of us, perhaps even most of us, simply ignore the feeling and go to bed (perhaps to be plagued by unpleasant dreams of unformed menace). But if we take the opposite approach, if instead of forgetting this annual sense of emptiness and dread we focus on it, follow its thread, and let it take us where it wants to lead, what we will discover is nothing less than an ancient tale about the horror of the holidays: the real nightmare before Christmas.

He sees you when you’re sleeping

Although there are many roots buried beneath the Santa Claus complex, American Christmas traditions come mostly through the Pennsylvania Dutch, those German-American settlers who arrived in large numbers in the Eastern woodlands during the 18th and 19th centuries. The name “Santa Claus” appears to be a corruption of the Dutch settlers’ “Sinter Klaus,” or St. Nicholas. [1] But in the German Alpine traditions, jolly old St. Nick does not ride alone. His wingman is the Krampus, a beastly “anti-Santa” that has been present throughout the last three hundred years of Christmas tradition in Europe. Read the rest of this entry

My Own Personal Tesseract: Reflections on ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

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Although my work as an author has been overwhelmingly centered in realms of darkness and horror, as cross-fertilized by my deep and personal focus on matters of religion, philosophy, and psychology, I have also been a lifelong lover of fantasy and science fiction. So perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the foundational books in my life has been A Wrinkle in Time, which wraps all of these genres, themes, and concerns up inside a story, a writing style, and a sensibility that together epitomize the word “wonderful.” Interestingly, over the past decade-plus of my involvement in professional writing and publishing, I’ve found that many other authors who likewise work in the field labeled “horror” count Wrinkle as one of their most cherished books.

Yesterday I caught wind of the fact that a graphic novel adaptation has just been released. I did a bit of looking into it. This involved reading several plot summaries and celebrations of the original novel. And, appropriately enough, it all sent my thoughts and emotions soaring backward and forward through time. Read the rest of this entry

“The Uncanny Convergence of Religion and Horror”: My new column for NAMELESS MAGAZINE

The first installment of Numinosities, my new column for [Nameless] Magazine, is available for free reading at the journal’s Website.

[Nameless] is a newly launched “Biannual Journal of the Macabre, Esoteric and Intellectual.” Edited by Jason V. Brock and S. T. Joshi — a fine team indeed — its stated goal is “to meld divergent (even challenging) critical perspectives on a variety of subjects — fiction, music, art, film, social commentary — and present them with the best content (literary, artistic, and, in the case of the website, multimedia) we can muster from the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism, slipstream, and dark fantasy.” The format is a biannual print journal and electronic edition combined with a Web magazine.

The debut issue, dated Summer 2012, is now available, and is a really impressive piece of work featuring a beautiful visual layout and contributions from the likes of William F. Nolan, John C. Tibbetts, and Gene O’Neill. So it was a welcome thing when Jason contacted me with an invitation to contribute a recurring column about horror, religion, and philosophy to future issues.

The first Numinosities column is about the perennial entanglement of religion with horror in a way that makes each imply and entail the other. Here’s the gist:

In point of fact, horror and religion have always been bound together in the most intimate of entanglements. Look to the ancient Sumerians: you’ll find in their cosmogony the tale of Tiamat, the great chaos dragon who formed the original, primal substance of reality until her children, who were more anthropomorphic, and who were therefore the gods worshipped by humans, overthrew her. Observe that horror came first, before divine solace, in the most ancient creation story of which we’re collectively aware. Check the ancient Egyptians, those vital quasi-neighbors of the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent, and you’ll find similar instances of daemonic monstrousness built right into their reigning theologies at nearly all points. The same goes for the ancient Greeks, some of whose creation myths involved the progressive overthrow of primal chaotic monstrousness — think the Titans, think Kronos devouring his children — in order to produce the ordered cosmos we have today.

[…]

So why, then, should people today still find it necessary to ask about the connection between religion and horror? When it would be more reasonable to ask if they have ever not been connected, why do so many of us moderns find it odd or shocking to hear their deep linkage called out and explicitly identified?

Perhaps — and here I may simply be indulging my own temperament and mistaking it for insight, or perhaps I may really be onto something (a judgment I will invite the reader to make for him- or herself) — perhaps it has to do with an unconscious recognition that only a few have ever named aloud, a recognition that is simultaneously implicit and explicit in all of those great biblical images of a wrathful God whose transcendent nature is categorically other than the natural world, so that, even though this nature is technically termed “holiness,” it emerges in human experience more as a tremendous, awe-and-dread-inspiring eruption of supernatural nightmarishness that is fundamentally corrosive both to the world at large and to the human sensibility in particular. In other words, perhaps it has to do with a psychologically subterranean sense of unsettlement at the notion that the divine itself, not just in its conventionally demonic aspects but in its intrinsic essence, may be fundamentally menacing.

— Matt Cardin, “Things That Should Not Be: The Uncanny Convergence of Religion and Horror,” Numinosities, [Nameless] Magazine, December 1, 2012

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Image: “”Saturn Devouring His Son” by Francisco de Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Teeming Brain Podcast #1: “Cosmic Horror vs. Sacred Terror”

Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft

PLAY IT:

Listen now (92 min.):

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Cosmic Horror vs. Sacred Terror

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DESCRIPTION:

Do nihilism and cosmic meaningfulness stand in fundamental tension with each other at the heart of the horror genre? Were Lovecraft and Machen getting at fundamentally different moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical points with their respective horror stories? Does the (possible) tension between Lovecraftian cosmic horror and Machenian sacred terror constitute a fault line running right through the center of the horror genre and impacting its literature and cinema today?

These are the questions driving this first-ever Teeming Brain podcast, which has been, if you count back to the blog’s original launch, six years in the making. More immediately, it was recorded between November 20 and 28, 2012. Its origin can be found in three items: first, an article titled “Meaning to the Madness” — about Lovecraft, Machen, and the moral and philosophical ideas playing out in the current horror movie scene — written by Christian horror novelist Jonathan Ryan and published in Christianity Today; second, a response to and rebuttal of Ryan’s argument by Teeming Brain founder Matt Cardin in “Cosmic Horror, Sacred Terror, and the Nightside Transformation of Consciousness“;  and third, the vigorous conversation that grew up around that response both here and at Thomas Ligotti Online. There is also, fourth, John Morehead’s suggestion that this could all be turned into a stimulating podcast.

 

PARTICIPANTS:

This debut episode presents a roundtable featuring eight authors and thinkers in the areas of horror, philosophy, and religion, all of whom engage the questions described above plus a whole lot more.

  • Peter Bebergal, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and author of the widely praised memoir Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood.
  • Matt Cardin (host), founder and editor of The Teeming Brain and author of Dark Awakenings, Divinations of the Deep, and the forthcoming To Rouse Leviathan.
  • Nicole Cushing, author of the forthcoming horror novella Children of No One and the trippy bizarro fiction collection How to Eat Fried Furries.
  • Richard Gavin, author of the numinous horror collections At Fear’s Altar and The Darkly Splendid Realm and the Teeming Brain column Echoes from Hades.
  • T. E. Grau, fiction editor at Strange Aeons, author of the Teeming Brain column The Extinction Papers, and co-author (with his wife, author/editor/screenwriter Ives Hovenessian) of the forthcoming horror fiction collection I Am Death, Cried the Vulture.
  • John W. Morehead, Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, creator of the blog Theofantastique (“A meeting place for myth, imagination, and mystery in pop culture”), and co-editor of The Undead and Theology.
  • W. Scott Poole, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston and author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting.
  • Jonathan Ryan, author of “Meaning to the Madness,” the highly praised supernatural/spiritual horror novel The Faithful (as Jonathan Weyer), and the forthcoming urban fantasy novel 3 Gates of the Dead.
Image via Tartarus Press, from “Arthur Machen vs. H.P. Lovecraft