Sunday, July 11, 2010

Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred

Jeffrey Kripal is Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He has written and edited a number of books, including: Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, 1995, Vishnu on Freud's Desk: A Reader in Psychoanalysis and Hinduism, 1998, Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West, 2003, Hidden Intercourse: Essays on Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, with Wouter J. Hanegraaff, 2008, and one in 2007 on the California community Esalen, among others. His writings are not without controversy, perhaps due to his contention that “one must rise by that by which one falls.”

His new book, just released by University Of Chicago Press, May 30, 2010, is Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred, described as follows:

Most scholars dismiss research into the paranormal as pseudoscience, a frivolous pursuit for the paranoid or gullible. Even historians of religion, whose work naturally attends to events beyond the realm of empirical science, have shown scant interest in the subject. But the history of psychical phenomena, Jeffrey J. Kripal contends, is an untapped source of insight into the sacred and by tracing that history through the last two centuries of Western thought we can see its potential centrality to the critical study of religion.

It focuses on four major figures in the history of paranormal research: psychical researcher Frederic Myers; writer and humorist Charles Fort; astronomer, computer scientist, and ufologist Jacques Vallee; and philosopher and sociologist Bertrand Méheust. Blavatsky is referenced on page 55:

The society [for Psychical Research] studied the famous founder of Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky, for example. It even sent one of its own, Richard Hodgson, all the way to India to examine the details of her shrine from which “miraculous” letters were said to materialize. Hodgson soon discovered double-sided drawers opening up into Madame’s bedroom and obtained damning confessions from her servants. In her recent history of the S.P.R., Deborah Blum explains how “Hodgson had scarcely left the building before it mysteriously burned to the ground, turning its secrets into ashes. He’d no doubt she’d ordered the destruction of evidence.” The society subsequently declared Blavatsky a patent fraud and said so in its own published Proceedings of 1885. Hodgson’s dramatic debunking extended to 174 pages of text. One wonders, though, if Blavatsky was not more complicated and interesting than that, if she resembled Eusapia [Palladino] more than a simple stage magician. I wonder anyway.

And wonder he might. Kripal was going along fine until he gets derailed by Deboroh Blum’s muddled explanation in her 2007 book: Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Is she saying the building or the shrine “burned to the ground”? The building is still standing today. Hodgson never saw the shrine. Michael Gomes, in his examination of the events relating to this in The Coulomb Case, notes that the cabinet known as the shrine had already been removed from Mme. Blavatsly’s rooms on September 20 while she was still in Europe. Hodgson did not arrive in Madras until December. Gomes’s monograph, Volume X of the Theosophical History: Occasional Papers, clarifying this confusing incident, can be obtained here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments to this blog are subject to moderation, and may appear at our sole discretion, if found to add relevance to the site's topics.