Friday, February 04, 2011

Emerson and the Occult: An Essay inspired by Jeffrey Kripal's "Authors of the Impossible"

Whenever I have had the opportunity to lecture on the Transcendentalists, which isn’t that often, I’ve always made it a point to mention how the Transcendentalists dabbled in the paranormal and occult practices that were in fashion in their day. I just didn’t know why I made mention of this fact. I thought that I brought these matters up in order to challenge any uncritical, swooning admiration that those in my audience might have for the Transcendentalists. Now, I’m questioning those reasons.

As a Unitarian Universalist, the Transcendentalists are my ancestors, but what exactly we’ve inherited is a bit hard to pin down. We are certainly not the institutional offspring of Emerson and Alcott. Intellectually, we’re indebted to pragmatism, skepticism, and scientific rationalism more than to the thought patterns of Thoreau and Fuller. If anything, the Transcendentalists are like our venerated saints. Being the spiritual descendant of Thoreau is much cooler than being the descendant of John Adams. Barry Andrews wrote Emerson as Spiritual Guide, not Joseph Priestley as Spiritual Guide. We make pilgrimages to Walden Pond, not… you get the picture.

When I lecture on the Transcendentalists, there is no shortage of things to mention. To name just a few: their critique of the Unitarianism they inherited; their spiritual openness that allowed them to see nature as a deep reservoir of spiritual energy; their commitment to progressive social causes, especially women’s equality; and, their pioneering work in introducing Eastern religious thought to the West.

But, for some reason I always bring up the Transcendentalists’ participation in paranormal pursuits. For example, consider Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, a novel spoofing the Transcendentalist utopian experiment at Brook Farm. The novel opens with a visit from a mesmerist who appears with a medium known as the Veiled Lady. Subsequent visits from this pair serve to advance the plot. Emerson openly embraced animal magnetism and praised the originality of Emanuel Swedenborg, a theologian open about his psychical and mystical experiences.

If I had been asked to account for why I’ve always made it a point to mention such dabbling, I suppose I would have mentioned a desire to scandalize uncritical devotees of Transcendentalism. However, after reading the latest book by Jeffrey Kripal, I’m not so sure:


Jeffrey Kripal is a scholar of religion and is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. Kripal burst onto the scene with his 1995 book Kali’s Child, an analysis of the repressed erotic energy in the mysticism of the great Hindu teacher Ramakrishna.

I was a student of Kripal during a year he spent as a Visiting Professor at Harvard Divinity School. I took a course he offered that explored comparative mysticism through the lens of feminist, queer, and neo-Freudian theory. I count taking this class among my most inspiring experiences in academia. This is no small compliment. It was during this year at HDS that Kripal finished his second book, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, an examination of several scholars of mysticism and the way their own scholarship was itself a kind of mysticism. A third book, The Serpent’s Gift, also containing “reflexive” observations about religious scholarship was followed by a fourth book, a history of California’s Esalen Institute.

Back in December I read Jeffrey Kripal’s fifth book, Authors of the Impossible: The Sacred and the Paranormal.


To say what Authors of the Impossible is about one almost has to first say what it is not about. It is about (it isn’t about) why the academic discipline of the study of religion privileges some categories (the sacred, the supernatural) and discounts other categories (the occult, the paranormal.) As Kripal writes in his introduction,
What also surprised me was the fact that I had never heard of these authors [of the impossible], that after over twenty-five years of studying comparative mystical literature professionally, I had never once encountered another scholar mentioning, much less engaging, three of the four writers whom I came to admire so.... My conclusion was a simple one: Myers, Fort, Vallee, and Meheust are not part of the scholarly canon that has come to define what is possible to be reasonably thought and comparatively imagined in the professional study of religion.

This latter realization both fascinated and upset me. It was as if my profession had somehow intentionally steered me away from such writers and thoughts.... I do now suspect, however, that the study of religion as a discipline, as a structure of thought, as a field of possibility, has severely limited itself precisely to the extent that it has followed Western culture on this particular point, that is, to the extent that the discipline constantly encounters robust paranormal phenomena in it its data—the stuff is everywhere—and then refuses to talk about such things in any truly serious and sustained way. The paranormal is our secret in plain sight too. Weird.
The bulk of the book concerns itself with a close examination of the thought of these four authors of the impossible. They are: Frederic Myers, a British contemporary of William James who was concerned with psychical phenomena; Charles Fort, who collected documentation in newspapers and journals of occult occurrences; Jacques Vallee, a devoted ufologist; and Bertrand Meheust, a philosopher and sociologist concerned with bringing the humanities into dialogue with the paranormal.

What all four of these thinkers manage to do, according to Kripal, is to allow us to expand our understanding of what is possible. “I am defining the paranormal as the sacred in transit from the religious and scientific registers into a parascientific or “science mysticism” register. Basically, in the paranormal, both the faith of religion and the reason of science drop away, and a kind of super-imagination appears on the horizon of thought. As a consequence, the paranormal becomes a living story or, better, a mythology. Things also get wilder. Way wilder.”


So, you’ve got these four fringe thinkers. So what? On a sheer humanistic level, it is fascinating to observe how, by thinking, writing, and experiencing the paranormal, these authors find an outlet for repressed urges, erotic energy, and the pressures of seemingly irreconcilable complexities they face in their lives. Just like in mysticism. But, more than an outlet: an avenue for creativity and even for genius.

Kripal’s introduction contains a “who’s who” of thinkers from the past two hundred years who embraced the paranormal to some degree. His list begins with Kant and Hegel and continues with philosophers like Schopenhauer and Stephen Braude, anthropologist Margaret Mead, psychologists William James, C. G. Jung, and Carol Gilligan, artists Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, and an astonishing list of authors including Edgar Allan Poe, Margaret Fuller, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Philip Dick, and Michael Crichton. (As a college student I read Crichton’s Travels. Some other time I will tell you a story about my fascination with his essay on psychic spoon-bending.)

Allow me this brief digression to explain what I mean when I talk about the paranormal as an outlet and an avenue. Kripal ends his discussion of Frederic Myers with a discussion of the erotic energy underlying his psychical research.
It is the biographical facts that in the summer of 1873 Myers fell madly in love with his cousin’s wife, Annie Hill Marshall, and—more importantly still—that it was her tragic death, on September 1, 1876, that helped catalyze and drive his own anxious questions about the postmortem survival of the human personality.... But he never really let Annie go... Myers would love this ghost for the rest of his life. There were early alleged signals from Annie in Myers’s extensive sittings with mediums, but it was not until 1899 that Myers received his first clear communication from his beloved, this time through a medium named Rosina Thompson.... It is worth pointing out that he sat with Mrs. Thompson 150 times between September of 1898 and December of 1900. And this, of course, was at the very same time he was completing Human Personality [his most important work].
But here is the funny thing. Last December I read Authors of the Impossible in parallel with Maps and Legends, a collection of literary essays by novelist Michael Chabon. One essay was entitled “The Other James” and was about a contemporary of Myers named Montague Rhodes James, an average Bible scholar, university administrator, life-long bachelor, and author of delightful ghost stories. I’d normally not pay much interest to an essay like this, but this particular paragraph jumped out at me.
For the story is also prototypical James in that when at last we encounter the Horror, there is something about its manifestation, its physical attributes, its habits, that puts the reader in mind, however reluctantly, of sex.... [T]he fact remains that [this] is a story about a man pursued into the darkness of a strange bedroom, and all of the terror is ultimately generated by a vision of a horribly disordered bed.... Sex was undoubtedly the last thing on the mind of M. R. James as he sat down to compose his Christmas creepers, but it is often the first thing to emerge when the stays of reality are loosened.
This is precisely what Kripal observes in the mystical visions and paranormal experiences he studies. Chabon states it straightforwardly when he writes, “A great ghost story is all psychology: in careful and accurate detail it presents 1) a state of perception, by no means rare in human experience, in which the impossible vies with the undeniable evidence of the senses; and 2) the range of emotions brought on by that perception.”

Another uncanny coincidence: Chabon returns again and again in his writing to comics and superheroes, a topic on which Kripal is basing his next book.


Another thing I should point out about Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible is that for all its academic rigor and blow-your-mind theorizing, it is also a heck of a lot of fun to read. Nowhere in the book is this better captured than in Kripal’s introduction of the influential religious scholar Rudolf Otto.
By the sacred, I mean what German theologian and historian of religions Rudolf Otto meant, that is, a particular structure of human consciousness that corresponds to a palpable presence, energy, or power encountered in the environment. Otto captured this sacred sixth sense, at once subject and object, in a famous Latin sound bite: the sacred is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that is, the mystical (mysterium) as both fucking scary (tremendum) and utterly fascinating (fascinans). The sacred (minus the fucking part) was a key concept in both the German and French streams of critical theory...
When I was slogging through Otto in my religious theory class as a sophomore in college, it would have been fun to have had just one paragraph like this one.


I began this meandering review with a mention of the Transcendentalists. (By the way, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s responses to the tragic deaths of his dearest loves were every bit as “unusual” and as obsessive and as desperate as Frederic Myer’s visits to a medium.) Transcendentalism is, simply put, the distinctly American expression of the Romantic movement that preceded it in England and Germany. Jeffrey Kripal, even more than his post-modernism and neo-Freudian, feminist, and queer theorizing, is in many ways a Romantic at heart. Exhibit A: his utter fascination (fascinans) with William Blake. It is not merely the paranormal that is in transit from the religious and scientific registers to the “science mysticism” register. This is his journey as well. It is the “beyond the Enlightenment” project.

I’ll always remember a course I took in college that assigned some works of modern historians of religion who were pushing the boundaries of scholarship. Kripal’s Kali’s Child was one of the optional texts. Another one was by a German Egyptologist named Jan Assman (unfortunate name) who begins his book Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism by explaining that writing the book was a mystical experience. He writes of “being possessed” and claims “I immediately started writing this study as if under a spell and in what for me (and in a foreign language) was an incredibly short time. He describes an experience of mystical unity, a “continuity and connectivity,” with the object-subject of his “fascination.”

Reflexively, let me say that I have had an analogous experience involving a scholarly project in which I was enmeshed. The experience involved a vivid dream and a loosening of the boundaries of scholarly distance that precisely demarcated subject and object.

And, somehow, the kind of alchemy and paranormal phenomena that Jeffrey Kripal describes is strangely relevant to ministry, I think. With a nod to my role as pastor, to my role as non-judgmental listener to stories of experience, I end on this coy and provocative note. Hiding behind and hiding within all those things about the Transcendentalists that we lovingly admire, there is an obvious secret that is uncomfortable and necessary. We are the rationalists who dance with irrationality, the naturalists who live amongst the supernatural. We are both repulsed by and drawn to the image of Emerson and Fuller and their cohorts hanging around with mesmerists and seeking communion with the spirits of the dead. Regarding the spiritual adventurism of our Transcendentalist ancestors as scandalous says more about us than it says about them.