Electricity of the Mind: The Anomalist 14
By Simmons, Ian (ed)
From the publisher’s website: With this issue, The Anomalist seeks to provide sudden jolts of illumination to spark the imagination. "Electricity of the Mind" is instant CPR for the head.
Electricity of the Mind. Anomalist Books, March 2010. ISBN: 978-1933665399
Reviewed for the SPR by: Tom Ruffles
Electricity of the Mind: The Anomalist no 14, edited by Ian Simmons. Anomalist Books, 2010.
Editor Ian Simmons has chosen a wide range of articles (appropriately fourteen in number) for Issue 14 of the Anomalist, and it will surely provoke the same kind of pleasurable expectation that is aroused on opening a new issue of Fortean Times (FT). It has to be said that Simmons has put together a mixed bag, but the success rate is high, and even those readers whose primary interest is psychical research will find enough to keep them interested, and may find their horizons expanded.
There are two stand-out papers here, one by Theo Paijmans, the other by Mike Jay. Paijmans writes excellent articles for FT, mining the recently available wealth of old newspapers made available through the wonders of digitisation. Here he gives us more of the same, with some fine examples of how searching newspaper runs digitally can assist in uncovering stories. A major benefit of this is the ability to check huge quantities of text quickly, throwing up variants of the same story in different publications. Where authors, including Charles Fort, have relied on perhaps a single source for a story, there might be many versions, and Paijmans gives a number of examples. By examining newspapers from different areas he can show how stories were disseminated across a wide geographical range sometimes over a long period of time.
Paijmans notes that not all newspapers have been digitised, so it may still be necessary to consult the paper record (or increasingly these days a microfilm reader). But while using keywords to interrogate a database is much faster and brings a wide range of related stories from different newspapers within reach, there are a couple of issues that Paijmans does not acknowledge. The first is that particular keywords may miss a story if it was phrased in a different way. If journalists cribbed from each other, they were likely to use similar words, but that was not necessarily the case.
On a related point, researchers today might miss interesting stories because they themselves use different categories, and hence do not use the appropriate keywords. The search is only as good as the keywords used, and things could be missed that a diligent search of the hard copy would throw up; there is still a place for serendipity in this technological age. Paijmans acknowledges the problem when he wonders how the modern researcher would have started had Fort not blazed a trail and done so much categorisation. But that throws up the issue of what might have been missed. Anomalies not yet categorised might still be there, not noticed by the search engine as it chugs through the 1s and 0s.
More significantly perhaps, as digital access becomes the norm, is the separation of reader from the physical text that came off the press. There is a pleasure in handling old newsprint, a connection it gives to the first readers, which a computer cannot replicate. But more important is the danger that stories will be ripped from their original setting, becoming an abstraction for the researcher that the original audiences would not recognise as they skipped from story to story. Researchers may be able to find significant stories faster than someone leafing through endless volumes in an archive, but they lose something too. One is not a replacement for the other, they are complementary activities.
The always reliable Mike Jay looks at Coleridge, though the subtitle is a little optimistic; “The psychic investigations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge”, as he was mostly investigating himself, in true Romantic fashion. The epigram which opens the essay really sums this approach up. A lady asks Coleridge if he believes in ghosts, to which he replies, “No, madam! I have seen far too many myself.” Jay unpicks this sub-Oscar Wilde paradox and highlights how Coleridge’s introspection led him to a psychology of ghosts which has lessons for paranormal investigators today. He had had a singular experience at Valetta in which, coming to from a doze, he saw a man who had left the room some time before, sitting across the table from him. He realised eventually that his imagination, (aided by a heady combination of drugs and alcohol, Jay surmises) had interacted with elements of the environment, such as a flask of port and the chair opposite, to produce the illusion. What he ‘saw’ was a synthesis of external and internal factors.
Rejecting the term ‘supernatural’, Coleridge instead coined ‘supersensual’ to describe, without arriving at a final verdict on them, experiences which contravened our laws of perception, rather than the contravention of the laws of nature indicated by the use of ‘supernatural’. Coleridge pursued his speculations in an essay on Martin Luther, in which he identifies the origin of Luther’s vision of the Devil in his radical change of diet while in prison. Rather like Scrooge’s verdict on his own spectral encounter, there was rather more of gravy than of grave about it.
Jay concludes that Coleridge, being poised to elaborate a new psychology, then drew back, perhaps because he found it beyond his capabilities, though he incorporated these insights into his wider literary theories. The main point was that imagination was not mechanical but was fluid, capable of synthesis and recombination. The issue that this raises, and which Jay does not address, is how far this reach of the imagination affects eyewitness testimony in psychical research, and the extent that a field investigator (or desk researcher like Paijmans) can take someone’s word for it that they experienced something in the way stated. As Coleridge indicated, experiences are a complex admixture of reality and imagination, so is it ever possible to reach beyond the witness’s subjective experience with any certainty?
Technology might help to answer that question, and Bryan Williams, Annalisa Ventola and Mike Wilson provide two linked articles collectively entitled ‘A Primer for Paranormal Enthusiasts’. The first deals with magnetic fields and the second with temperature, and together they outline the strengths and weaknesses of instrumentation in measuring the environment where a haunting is supposed to have occurred, how such measurements might relate to hauntings, and give tips on how to interpret findings. The tips are particularly useful and should help investigators who take such readings to ensure that they are doing so in the most efficient manner. There is an excellent bibliography.
Dwight Whalen recounts the sort of event that should become more familiar as newspapers are digitised and scoured, a strange image seen in the sky at a place called Hetlerville, in Pennsylvania, USA (a place I’m surprised the residents didn’t rename in 1941, just in case outsiders misheard) which occurred in the summer of 1914. As Paijmans found with the accounts he examined, the story had spread, in this case to the Niagara Falls Journal, where Whalen found it by chance. Hetlerville locals saw strange scenes in the sky; Harry Hudleston saw an amazing sight – “an immense house filled with children dressed in white with a black band on the arm of each... the children came out of the house in columns of two, dividing at the door...” Coleridge would have been impressed. A neighbour also saw something, “like a picture thrown on the screen”.
These visions appeared in other places nearby as well, but the curious thing is that when Whalen recently asked someone who had grown up in Hetlerville if the story is recalled there today, she said she had never heard about it before. This makes it most unlike the story with which is shares some similarities: The Angel of Mons. At the time, the Hetlerville visions were put down to a searchlight belonging to a carnival, or the misinterpretation of a star, but the article considers other possibilities such as temperature inversion, or anxiety at the prospect of the Great War. Whalen attempts a symbolic interpretation of the images described which may or may not have some validity, but as he concludes, what happened in that small area of Pennsylvania almost a hundred years ago is now beyond reach of conclusive explanation.
Ulrich Magin explores the little-known (to say the least) Earth Mysteries topic of ‘out-of-place volcanoes’. While only three European countries – Iceland, Greece and Italy – boast volcanoes, there are stories of volcanoes from many more regions where there is just no evidence that such activity ever took place. Magin has collected a number of these, from places where you might think there have been volcanoes in the recent past, such as Norway and Switzerland, because of their mountains, or Russia, because it is so big, to others where the proposition seems ridiculous, not least all the British countries.
Some of the examples seem borderline. Looking at England, there is an account of an earthquake in the twelfth century during which “huge fires burst out of rifts in the earth”, and one in the eighteenth in which cliffs in Dorset began to smoke and then burn at intervals for several months. It’s hardly Mount Etna. On the other hand, a couple of eruptions which allegedly occurred in Ireland, one in Sligo and one in Antrim, were supposed to have killed large numbers of people and animals, and the latter was claimed to have destroyed an entire village.
Magin unsurprisingly concludes that the term out-of-place volcano covers a range of phenomena. These range from misinterpretation of natural phenomena, providing useful case studies in the limits of eyewitness testimony, to hoaxes, or the transposition of real volcanoes onto more familiar locations by hack journalists. The last of these links nicely with Paijmans’s article, and is a common problem with older sources, distinguishing the sincere from the fanciful. Unfortunately the term volcano conjures up a specific image, so perhaps further work is needed to categorise the examples presented by Magin, and others which are surely buried in the literature, in finer detail.
Cameron Matthew Blount considers two cultures in Peru, the Moché and the Nazca and amazingly gets through an entire article concerning the latter without mentioning Erich von Däniken. His warning that it is unwise to interpret any artwork that does not appear to fit with what is already known as ‘mythological’ as the default is well taken, as he gives examples of images which appeared to be non-realistic but which later turned out to be representational. Unfortunately though, by referring to the “Nazca Astronaut”, the implication is that this figure may well represent a figure which really dressed like that.
He does not actually say “alien visitors”, but it seems difficult to see what else he might have in mind. Rather like von Däniken he downplays the creativity of these early peoples; Blount thinks it likely that they did not have the time or resources to create “complex and abstract mythology”, and nothing to gain by doing so, a dubious assertion, but one that leaves open the possibility that as the “Astronaut”, an astonishingly loaded term to use in this context, if not mythological, must be something else. One wonders why his title mentions the Moché but not the Nazca.
Other articles range just as widely as these. Patrick J Gyger studies witch trials in Fribourg, Switzerland, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, using a collection of cases entitled Livres noirs. Aeolus Kephas compares Carlos Castaneda and Whitley Strieber, the link (apart from the accusations of hoaxing) being their acting as a conduit between mysterious entities with esoteric knowledge and the mundane world, that and continuing to write after they have passed their sell-by dates. The major difference seems to be that Castaneda possessed a sense of humour which Strieber lacks, and which Kephas rightly links to a sense of self-importance. Their tragedy, he concludes, may have been that because they wrote so much, they were not themselves able to assimilate the lessons they conveyed to others. And they could not find acceptance in either camp.
That John F Caddy presents a strange thesis is intimated by his title – ‘An Exercise in Transdimensional Zoology: Speculating on the Origin of the Chakras’, which includes his thoughts on the ability to time travel and move between dimensions. You see a lot of this sort of thing on the internet. One question I would like to ask Mr Caddy (apart from exactly what variety of scientist he is, which he does not specify) is why, if our ancestors’ attainment of an upright posture is related to the crown chakra being closer to the sky, and thus more specialised for “ethereal communications”, did they bother to come down from the trees, which are closer still?
Chris Payne presents complicated mathematics to try to determine whether, if thylacines have survived in small numbers, when their population might have become large enough for us to rediscover them, or conversely when it might be safe to assume that the species is extinct. Apparently, if one hasn’t turned up by the mid-2030s, we can be pretty sure it never will. Gary Lachman, also a name well known to readers of FT, contributes a frankly bizarre piece which consists of the footnotes from a book which were excised at the insistence of the publisher. Waste not want not, he has gathered them up and published them as a standalone article. They read like ... well, like a bunch of footnotes, or ideas for articles, undercooked nuggets. I’m sure that Lachman will make something interesting of them in due course, but the reader of an article expects some structure to it. The effect reminded me of Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms, and that is not necessarily a compliment.
Mark Pilkington, yet another FT regular, contributes an article on crop circles which continues his attempts to place the phenomenon within its cultural context. Pilkington presents a possible scenario: genuine anomalies inspire artists (ie Doug Bower and Dave Chorley) to create their own interpretations, which then grow into the phenomenon we know today (ie ostension in action), before showing how the situation is not that straightforward. His example is a shape first illustrated in Robert Plot’s 1686 The Natural History of Staffordshire (FT264, July 2010, contains an article by Paijmans on precursors of the modern phenomenon, again showing the value of online sources, which also refers to Plot.) Plot included a shape, a circle with a square inside it, which then turned up in the science fiction film Phase IV in 1973, predating Doug and Dave’s initial interest in circles by several years. While Pilkington concedes that it is unlikely they were aware of Plot’s book, he wonders if they (or their successors) may have seen the film, which then fed into their work, though as he points out, it begs the question why Doug and Dave did not borrow more from the film. I have to say that the square-in-a-circle reminds me of the end of a radiator key, which while unknown to Professor Plot, would presumably have been familiar to at least some of the makers of Phase IV, so perhaps the shape was borrowed, consciously or not, by a member of the production team fretting about whether his or her system needed bleeding.
Richard Wiseman provides a rather touching account of a magic trick he was shown by his grandfather at the age of 8, which sparked his interest in the subject, and the psychology of deception more widely. He describes an experiment in which he and his associates mounted a Victorian-style séance to investigate possible methods used by fraudulent mediums. By controlling the phenomena, in total darkness, they could compare what participants thought had happened to what really happened. I participated in one of these at a Fortean UnConvention, and it was remarkable how many people were fooled. At one point a stooge kept shouting that the table (marked by luminous dots) was rising, and while I could tell it wasn’t, knowing how it all worked, many of those present really thought it was levitating. Not only do many participants at these events misperceive what has happened, largely based on prior attitudes to the paranormal, but some also report other “spooky effects” such as a mysterious presence, shivers, or sense of energy flowing through them. Coleridge would be nodding his head sagely.
Following a page on psychologist Joseph Jastrow, who surely deserves far more space, Wiseman concludes by recounting his search for a film that was described in an article by Alfred Binet in 1894. He had collaborated with Georges Demenÿ (not Demeny, as Wiseman has it) in producing a rapid succession of photographs (chronophotographs) of magician Raynaly doing a very brief card trick. Three brief sequences were located in Paris, and by making digital copies, Wiseman was able to recreate one of these performances, just a few seconds long. The cover blurb says that Wiseman “recounts his discovery” which oversells it because it suggests the films were lost until Wiseman’s sleuthing unearthed them, but archivist Laurent Mannoni for one knew where they were.
The final article by Tim Cridland (also known as Zamora the Torture King) purports to show us the “real” James Randi, a much more complex man than his strident criticisms of the paranormal might suggest. In press before Randi’s announcement that he is gay, nevertheless Cridland’s article does a good job in excavating Randall Zwinge’s various activities, and shows how his accounts of them have varied over the years as he reinvents his persona and rewrites his history and motivations, showing him to be a master of spin in the process.
Cridland’s account of Randi’s early life is particularly valuable in peering behind the image, highlighting how he was able to tour in a psychic act, or write an astrology column, yet later, rather than be embarrassed when charged with hypocrisy, recast such jobs as a kind of social experiment. Randi’s relationship with Geller is covered, though there is no mention of cereal boxes, nor Randi’s departure from CSICOP. Cridland feels that examining Randi’s career is reasonable, given the way that Randi has himself subjected others to similar scrutiny. But more, it is reasonable because, Cridland argues, Randi promotes a “socio/spiritual viewpoint” and is willing to distort the truth for “the cause”, a cause that puts personal gain above the truth. As far as I am aware, Randi’s response is still awaited.
While Electricity of the Mind is generally entertaining, one minor criticism is the reprinting of articles which have already appeared in other places. Chris Payne’s article was first published in Mathematics Today (where it surely belongs, at least in this form; it should have been rewritten for a more general audience before Simmons accepted it). Mike Jay’s article, with the footnotes that are omitted here, is not only included on his website, but previously appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 2006, though this outing does not mention either earlier incarnation. Aeolus Kephas’s piece is freely available on his website, dated 2008. While it is good that such generally high-quality material reaches a wider readership than might otherwise see it, one wonders if there is a scarcity of good original articles to fill the pages of The Anomalist. It would surprise me if there were.