Two Short Essays
By JAMES GALLANT.
What It’s Like on the Other Side
A 1980 SURVEY SHOWED that seventy percent of adult Americans believed in the afterlife. A similar survey now might yield a similar figure—but it’s hard to imagine this belief has been more than an abstraction for most people in the secular West. Modern theologians have been unwilling to speculate about the nature of the afterlife, and it would probably not be an exaggeration to say that the idea of Hell has been erased from the Christian imagination.
Was it different for the Victorians? Much ink has been spilled on the Victorian “cult of death” with its elaborate funerals, graveyard stone angels, and mawkish epitaphs. (Period favorites were “Asleep in Jesus” and “Gone in the [Resurrection] Morning”). It has been argued, though, that the Victorian to-do over death was rooted in the same conviction of death’s finality common today.
That said, the sense of what had been lost in the decline of religious faith could be acute in the nineteenth century. One thinks of Tennyson’s lengthy struggle to come to terms with the death of his friend Hallam in In Memoriam, or Poe’s inability to let go of deceased lovelies; and there is that much-fondled touchstone of Victorian disbelief, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Atheism or agnosticism was common among Victorian scientists, but the question of the afterlife retained its interest for the fellows of the English Society for Psychical Research. The rage over spiritualism in the last half of the nineteenth century drew attention and performances of popular mediums moved English physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, a fellow of the Society, to declare, “I know that certain of my friends still exist because I have talked with them. I have conversed with them as I could converse through a telephone.” (Brian Inglis has observed the curiosity that paranormal researchers of more recent times whose concerns have resembled those of the Victorian SPR closely have ordinarily had no interest in the question of the afterlife.)
The reason so many Americans and Brits rushed to embrace spiritualism is obvious enough: It was providing what seemed to be empirical evidence of “survival.” Belief in the afterlife has undoubtedly always been strongest in people who have had a seeming brush with the Other Side, like Lodge’s. Encounters with ghosts, or “near-death” experiences (a subject of the second of these two essays) might have that effect. A friend of this writer saw hovering over her kitchen the face of her recently deceased father-in-law framed in a circle of cloudy light, his radiant smile announcing that all was well with him.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had been a scrupulous physical scientist and an administrator with the board which oversaw the Swedish mining industry before he began speaking to contemporaries about encounters with deceased persons on the other side. He wrote in his most famous work, Heaven and Hell, of having conversed with spirits “person to person, sometimes with one, sometimes with several in a group, without seeing anything about their form to distinguish them from man.” Among his otherworldly contacts were highly evolved angels. They had all had been humans at one time, and were now “wholly men in form, having faces, eyes, ears, bodies, arms, hands, and feet.” They “see and hear one another, and talk together, and in a word lack nothing whatever that belongs to men except that they are not clothed in material bodies.” Certain of these angels were distressed to learn from him that the church of his day represented them as “formless minds” or “ethereal breaths.”
These experiences began for Swedenborg when he was in his fifties. Earlier than that, his twentieth-century biographer Signe Toksvig remarks, there had been nothing in his writing to suggest more than a “decent Deistic rationalism” of the kind common among seventeenth and eighteenth century scientists.
On Swedenborg’s own account of the matter, his encounters with spirits and angels occurred when the “eyes of the spirit” were open in him. Vision of this kind is the subject of the second of these two essays.
ENGLISH POPULAR WRITER Isaac Taylor wrote in Physical Theory of Another Life (1837) that the danger to religion in his time was not “vain and presumptuous intrusions into its mysteries,” but “cold withdrawal of all attention and curiosity” from its “high themes.” That being the case, there was “seasonableness in the endeavor to engage attention upon tranquil but vivifying anticipation of another life.”
Scarcely anyone today is likely to have heard of Taylor (1787-1865), but the author of a lengthy 1841 piece on him in the North American Review remarked that “hardly any author has exerted a wider influence” than this “eclectic philosopher and theologian”; and the entry on Taylor in the English Dictionary of National Biography, 1903, speaks of his having been regarded by some in his day as “the greatest lay theologian since Coleridge.”
Taylor could not, like Swedenborg, claim to have made visits to the other side, and his approach to the afterlife in Physical Theory of Another Life was speculative rather than reportorial. Natural theologians since the Middle Ages had supplemented revealed truth of Scripture with contemplation of the “Book of Nature” for what it might reveal about the Divine Mind, and that was Taylor’s approach. He contemplated the natural state of the human being in which body and “mind” were combined (he uses the term “mind” as others might “soul” or “spirit”) as a basis for speculating about an afterlife in which “mind” would be separated from body—the physical body. Early in the book he refers to St. Paul’s mention in I Corinthians 15 of the “spiritual body” (soma pneumatikon) of the resurrected Jesus who had appeared in the disguise of a gardener before Mary Magdalene, shared a meal with the disciples, and invited doubting Thomas to touch his wounds.
Paul and the other disciples were not physiologists and they had not expatiated on the nature of the “spiritual body” which, for all Taylor knew, might be just a transitional state between a physical existence and “sheer incorporeity.” In any event, the resurrected Jesus demonstrated for the faithful like Taylor the existence of a spiritual body which was not entirely unlike the physical body. He thought it a reasonable speculation that the spiritual body would excel the corporeal body in freedom and powers.
Taylor was not given to disturbing the elegant flow of his prose with references to influences, and the impression one gets reading Physical Theory of Another Life is that he had never learned anything from anyone. There is no suggestion that he was aware of Swedenborg, but his speculations about the spiritual body often resemble what Swedenborg claimed to be observable facts for the “eyes of the spirit.” Edwin Paxton Hood in Swedenborg (1854) noted the similarities between the two writers, but did not pursue them in his text. That would be “pleasant work for the reader to do…for himself,” he said, and settled for placing quotations from Swedenborg and Taylor side by side at the head of his chapter twelve.
As mentioned above, Taylor uses the term “mind” as others might “soul” or “spirit.” In physical life, mind and physical body are combined. “The body is to the mind the means of a mode of existence…which in its incorporeal state it could never have known.” Central to this mode of existence was the awareness of time generated by sleep and waking, youth and age, hunger and satiety, the beating of the pulse, day and night, the progression of seasons, and the motions of heavenly bodies. Change and motion measure time for earthlings, and these being properties of matter, the experience of time is also an experience of space.
Taylor’s ruminations on the human space-time experience recall Swedenborg’s having once attempted to explain time to a puzzled angel. “I was obliged to tell him…how the sun appears to be carried around our earth, and to produce years and days, and how years are divided into four seasons.” This was hard for the angel living beyond space-time to understand. His experience consisted simply of a succession of mental and affective states—swift for those who were happy, of varying duration for those experiencing hope, and hellishly prolonged for those in despair. The succession of psychological states in a “spiritual body” resembled what a person asleep and dreaming experiences, abstracted temporarily from the “regular motions of the material world.”
Spatial metaphors are unavoidable in talking about the “other side,” but it is not a place, and in it there are no distances to be crossed. The only experience of angels analogous to the human experience of space, Swedenborg said, was proximity to spirits with whom they were simpatico, and remoteness from others—either state achievable instantaneously simply by willing it. None of the inconveniences of travel.
Apropos, Taylor observed that in natural life, depending on the condition of nervous systems, muscles, and tendons, we are able to overcome inertia, put our bodies into motion. With the physical body’s limitations eliminated, “locomotion by simple volition” ought to be possible for the spiritual body; and “is there not,” Taylor wrote, “a latent or half-latent instinct in the mind which speaks of a future liberty of ranging at will through space?” (One thinks of those dreams of flying so many people have.)
It might seem surprising that angels would have such difficulty comprehending our experience of time and space, considering Swedenborg’s claim that they had once been natural human beings. However, memory loss commonly attends the abandonment of one psychological or ontological state for another. People emerging from sleep often fail to recall dreams; reincarnated persons cannot usually remember previous lives; and people abducted by fairies into Fairyland, or by aliens into hovering UFOs, are told before their release back into normalcy they will not remember what has happened to them. They may be warned against attempting to do so. Should they remember, they are to keep their mouths shut.
The angelic incomprehension of time and space Swedenborg described would have illustrated for Taylor, a truth he saw in play throughout Creation: Reality for any specie is an expression of its constitution. An insect with a lifespan of a day or two might be “running through a century of joyous sensations.” (William Blake: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way/Is an immense world of delight clos’d by your senses five?”) We know there are species whose powers of vision and hearing exceed ours, and the microscope and telescope testify how much escapes our attention routinely owing to the limitations of our sensory equipment. Those limitations are felicitous, of course, in preventing a debilitating information overload.
The limitations of human memory have a similar value. “By the medium of corporeity,” Taylor wrote, “the mind is defined and its power rendered applicable to definite purposes.” For better or worse, sensory life, memory, character, emotion, and mentality in humans are all expressions of our kind of embodiment. (Taylor writes in an unintentionally funny passage, “The [readily disturbed] human mind now may be compared to a lake among the mountains exposed to gusts and eddies from every ravine that opens upon its margin; and troubled, too, by gurgling streams from beneath.”)
In his third chapter, “Probable Prerogatives of Spiritual Corporeity as Compared with Animal Organization,” he speculates that for the spiritual body divorced from the drag of the physical body and the distractions of the senses, there ought to be a marked gain in intellectual acuity, and a liberation from “illusions, humiliations, and false judgments” that disturb mental life as we know it. Abstract truths (e.g. those of mathematics or metaphysics) that embodied persons must pursue laboriously, and often erroneously, ought to be graspable intuitively. Thought on any subject might have something of the indubitable certainty of mathematics, and memory. The expansion of powers in the spiritual body Taylor envisioned was matter of fact for Swedenborg. Angels could communicate in an instant what humans could not in an hour, and express in a few words what would require numerous pages of writing for embodied humans.
Taylor imagined that the sensory life of the spiritual body, no longer limited by the gross sensory organs, would be intensified. Swedenborg had said, as did the spirits who would later communicate through Victorian mediums, that deceased persons who reached the other side were treated to brilliantly illuminated and colorful panorama of gardens, “groves of trees, rivers, mansions, houses, stunning things…all glistening as though they were made of gold, silver, and precious stones.” In his Journal of Dreams and Spiritual Experiences in the Year Seventeen Hundred and Forty-four, Swedenborg recounts casual conversations with the deceased King of Sweden (albeit on April Fool’s day) and in the Spiritual Diary Swedenborg wrote of spirits present with him so exhilarated by the performances of street musicians “they scarcely knew but that they were in heaven.” There were marriages in heaven, he said, and sexual sensitivity there was out of this world.
Natural life bodies are, in Taylor’s metaphor, castles rather than open tents. “Corporeity” means seclusion and individuality of minds; and for communication to be possible there must be elaborate systems of signs and symbols (“external notices of thought”). Sophisticated as these systems may be, they often fail to express “the heights and depths, and refinements of human passions and affections.” One could imagine there being among spiritual bodies, on the other hand, a “direct and plenary communication” of thoughts and feelings. “The veil of personal consciousness might, at pleasure, be drawn aside, and the entire intellectual being could spread itself out to view.” Whatever a spirit thought or wanted would be conveyed immediately to other spirits “as if formed to their sight.”
For Swedenborg there was no “veil” to be drawn aside. It was simply impossible for a person in the afterlife to conceal feeling or thought. Their actuality was out in the open for all to see, and it would determine a person’s eventual assignment to some specific realm of Heaven or Hell.
THE NUMBER OF species in Nature differently constituted from us, and experiencing the world in ways we do not, suggested to Taylor the probable existence of ranks of beings ordinarily invisible to us “elaborate in structures and replete with life, agitated by momentous interests, and perhaps by frivolous interests.” This, too, had been not merely speculation, but observed fact, for Swedenborg–and a lot of other people historically.
The sublunary region (always a scene of anomalies, including the UFOs of recent times) has often been regarded as province of such entities. Thomas Lance in The Spirits of the Dead and the Spirits of the Air (1845) wrote of them:
The vast aerial circle, then, is peopled with spirits, or, I would rather say corporeal beings of a substance infinitely more attenuated than ours, and invisible: not essentially invisible, but relatively so to us. Our organs of sight may not be so constructed as to be capable of perceiving them, or they may be somehow disconnected with those peculiar vibrations of the aether which render objects visible to us. However that may be, when the impediments are removed, they are seen.” Among these entities were not only ministering angels, but “dreadful inhabitants of the air…constantly intent on our destruction.”
Not everyone sees an angel, the sixteenth-century physician and alchemist Paracelsus said—but those who do should confirm their reality for everyone else.
The manner of such seeing is the subject of the essay to follow.
Seeing Without Eyes
WHAT HAVE COME to be known as “near-death” experiences may occur during surgeries, or in the aftermath of serious automobile accidents. The sensorium closes down, and in ostensible separations of mind or soul from body, people claim to view from aerial perspectives emergency crews or physicians working over their bodies. Before regaining use of their ordinary faculties, they may also claim to have visited brilliantly illuminated otherworldly landscapes populated by ancestors and angels.
Dr. Kenneth Ring, a psychologist, writes of such seeing-without-eyes associated with near-death states in Mindsight (2008), a book he co-authored with Sharon Cooper. The properties of “mindsight” for those who have experienced it have often been peculiar. One near-death experiencer claimed to have enjoyed panoptic vision; it was as if he had eyes in the back and sides of his head. Another reported peculiar microscopic vision of tiny details. A third thought her out-of-body perceptual life was synesthetic, combining tactile with visual impressions.
Curiously, congenitally blind people have experienced “mindsight” in near-death episodes, and, never before having seen anything, have not understood at first what they were experiencing. A skeptical view of “mindsight” is that it’s just dreaming induced perhaps by shock or anesthesia, but as Ring and Cooper point out the congenitally blind never dream scenes—only sounds, smells and tactile sensations. So there is evidently a kind of vision “that comes into play when, whether one is blind or not [italics mine]…an individual is thrust into a state of consciousness in which one’s sensory system is no longer functional.”
If these experiences are what they seem to be, regarding them as adumbrations of postmortem existence is plausible. It is as if being near death were, so to speak, close enough. Zen Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki in his study of Swedenborg wrote of “a spiritual realm separate from that of the five senses; and when we enter a certain psychological state we apparently communicate with that realm.” A Buddhist or Emanuel Swedenborg might achieve this psychological state consciously and willfully in asceticism, but it may also be achieved spontaneously and involuntarily by people in near-death experiences. (Swedenborg once mentioned in this connection the experiences of those who are suffocating or drowning.)
Ring and Cooper admit, grudgingly, the resemblance between “mindsight” and a type of out-of-body experience occultists and mystics associate with liberation from the physical body of the “etheric body” or “astral body.” To refer to it as the “spiritual body” would be appropriate. Ring and Cooper shy away from these comparisons: “From a scientific point of view [esoteric] thinking is not useful as an explanatory vehicle…[since] it rests on various ad hoc assumptions and concepts that make it immune from any testable…consequences.” But ad hoc assumptions and concepts, while they may not be “testable,” do have some experiential basis, after all; and as terminology “mindsight” is scarcely less esoteric than the “astral body.”
Ring and Cooper mention the criticism of mindsight voiced by Keith Augustine, “Executive Director and Scholarly Paper Editor” for “Internet Infidels.” Augustine psychologizes such phenomena in “Hallucinatory Near-Death Experiences” (online) in which he notes the resemblance of mindsight to other “altered states of consciousness…temporary departures from the normal (alert) waking state” which occur, for example, in hypnosis or during meditation. He doubts that the experiences Ring and Cooper describe, compelling as they may have been for those who had them, demonstrate the separability of spirit from body. Nor can they be trusted to deliver trustworthy reports of “objective existence.” He refers to cases in which people in near-death states have claimed to witness from aerial perspectives events that did not actually occur.
Confirmations by doctors, nurses, or emergency crew personnel of what near-death experiencers claim to have observed in hospital rooms while “out-of-body” are naturally of interest, though commonly difficult to acquire. Locating such personnel can be difficult, and their memories of the incidents in question may be imperfect. However, there have been enough cases in which the factuality of what people have claimed to observe in the near-death condition has been confirmed to convince Ring and Cooper of mindsight’s reality.
Scientists interested in mindsight but wanting more proof of it have designed experiments which Anthony Peake describes in The Out-of-Body Experience (2011). People in near-death states during surgery have claimed to observe while hovering in spirit over operating tables things invisible from floor level, e.g. accumulations of dust atop light fixtures. With that in mind, researchers placed high up in hospital cardiac care units and emergency rooms objects a near-death experiencer might be expected to see. While the experiments continued, there were patients who claimed to attain the aerial perspectives associated with near-death experiences, but none reported seeing the objects they would have, had the experiments succeeded. At the time Peake wrote the experiments had not been numerous, but the conclusion they suggested was that people in near-death states do not actually experience veridical out-of-body perception. A remark concerning paranormal experiences by Jungian psychologist Aniela Jaffe may be pertinent, though: “If we lie in wait for them…[try to] measure, to photograph, to make statistics,” we are usually foiled.
It is to be observed, also, that while “mindsight” is not simply dreaming, it involves the same resources of the psyche that are in play in dreaming, and dreaming, that may convey uncanny knowledge of matters present or future, cannot be counted on to do so.
THE PREREQUISITE FOR the communion with spirits and angels Swedenborg enjoyed was that a person be “withdrawn from the sight of the body, and the sight of his spirit…opened”—i.e., “mindsight.” His biographer, Signe Toksvig, writes in Emanuel Swedenborg: Scientist and Mystic (1948) of “a suspension of bodily sensations during which a man could receive angelic wisdom,” whether in the forms of apparitions, automatic writing, or clairaudience—all of which Swedenborg had experienced. The prerequisite for a “suspension of bodily sensations” was “abandonment of the lust of the will,” the appetitive ego.
A technique of Swedenborg’s for opening the “sight of the spirit” was restraint of breath and an associated deceleration of pulse-rate that might induce trance states. This practice is found also in yoga disciplines. Swedenborg writes in Spiritual Diary of his respiration being “so formed by the Lord that I could respire inwardly for a considerable time without the aid of external air…in order that I may be with spirits and speak with them.” He had practiced breath control in youth while praying, and he had noticed how it occurred spontaneously during intense contemplation. Toksvig saw his attraction to breath-control as an expression of an intense will to “be rid of his ego.”
Restraint of breath and trance states were not necessarily required for the “sight of the spirit” to open in Swedenborg, though. He might be walking in a city street with friends when he would become aware of his spirit acquaintances’ presence. Then he would have to shift his attention back and forth between the two realities. There was a mode of apprehension appropriate to each.
Immanuel Kant, self-described as having no “inclination to the marvelous, or a weakness tending to credulity,” made fun of Swedenborg in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Illustrated by Dreams of Metaphysics (1766). Scoffing at Swedenborg’s “spirit-seeing” was of a piece with a disavowal in that work of Kant’s own earlier metaphysical interests which had included reflections in Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755) on “various classes of intelligent beings” associated with various planets.
There were, however, ambiguities in Kant’s response to Swedenborg’s “spirit-seeing” that survived for years. He had gone out of his way to confirm reports of Swedenborg’s clairvoyance, one instance of which had impressed him especially. Swedenborg, while attending a dinner party in Gothenburg, had envisioned a fire raging in distant Stockholm. Pale and alarmed, he had informed the other guests that the fire was threatening his house there. Later in the evening he expressed his relief that the fire had been contained short of his house. When messengers from Stockholm arrived in Gothenburg some days later, they confirmed the accuracy of Swedenborg’s visions.
Kant had once attempted to initiate a correspondence with Swedenborg that never materialized. Gregory R. Johnson, a translator of Swedenborg’s works, thinks it may well have been Swedenborg of whom Kant was thinking when he wrote in Anthropology in Pragmatic Perspective (1798) of people in whom a kind of mental derangement enables them to take “self-created ideas as perceptions of external objects”—i.e., to experience visions. Such a state of mind, bypassing the limitations of the senses, might give access to noumenal realities.
E.B. TYLOR, the English author of a pioneering anthropological work, Primitive Culture (1871) was obviously responding to the popular spiritualism of his day when he spoke of belief in spirits as a survival among civilized people of “savage” thought.
Edwin S. Hartman, who mentions Tylor respectfully in his The Science of Fairy Tales (1904), wrote that fairy stories were “based upon ideas…familiar to savages everywhere, and only slowly modified and transformed as savagery gives way to barbarism, and barbarism to modern civilization and scientific knowledge of the material phenomena of the universe.”
Pre-scientific savage “ideas” cannot really account, though, for humanity’s age-old beliefs in fairies, djinns, dybbuks, sylphs, leprechauns, Pan the goat man, centaurs, the dryads, fauns–not to mention the four feet tall, scaly-skinned frog-headed man that a pair of Loveland, Ohio policemen encountered twice while on patrol duty in 1972. People have rather obviously seen these entities, just as people have seen “aliens” in “close encounters” with UFOs—make of their seeing what one may. Author Whitley Strieber, no “savage,” wrote of his personal abduction by aliens that “if there aren’t demons out there, there might as well be, because these guys [aliens] are indistinguishable from demons….To look into their eyes is to be less. Forever.”
People who have witnessed such entities have probably not done so with eyes functioning as they do normally, but to suppose that they have been merely hallucinating, dreaming with their eyes open, does not accord with the vividness and intensity of many these experiences; neither does the fact that these experiences may have definite physical consequences, a matter to be discussed later in this essay.
The alternative to supposing that people who witness such entities are hallucinating is that the “eye of the spirit” or “mindsight” awakened in them has given access to realities ordinarily imperceptible. The Kantian philosopher Schopenhauer (1788-1860) argued precisely this in his “Essay on Spirit-Seeing.” He posited the existence of a “dream organ” allowing for the apprehension of noumenal realities in apparitional forms.
The rural folk of the British Isles understood that those who witnessed and communicated with fairies, elves, brownies, and such, had “second-sight” or the “third eye.” American anthropologist W.Y. Evans-Wentz was touring the British Isles studying the faith-faith early in the twentieth century when an “Irish mystic” told him that in sightings of these entities “the physical eyes may be open or closed,” but “mystical beings in their own world…are never seen with the physical eyes”; and an old man who lived near Ireland’s Tara Mountain remarked, “The souls on this earth are as thick as the grass, and you can’t see them, and evil spirits are just as thick, too, and people don’t know it,” but the “old people” with “second- sight” had seen these entities around the mountain hundreds of times.
What people can see without the physical eyes was a matter of serious interest to the fellows of the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882 in England for the scientific study of depth-psychological phenomena; but, as Swedenborg’s biographer Toksvig remarked, psychical research “does not underwrite” the idea that supernatural realities are perceptible in this way. Fellows of the SPR generally preferred to think of fairies, ghosts, and such, as projections of depth-psychology. Sir William Barrett wrote in Psychical Research (1911) that there are things seen “for which there is no material cause.” The mind “receives the hallucination as if it came through the channels of sense [italics mine] and…externalizes the impression, seeking its source in the world outside itself.” Oxford philosopher H.H. Price, another SPR member, wrote in “Paranormal Cognition, Symbolism, and Inspiration”: “Something happens at an unconscious level of our personalities. We…receive a paranormal impression of some kind [he does not dwell on the source of such an impression] which then becomes conscious in “a dream, or in the form of waking mental imagery….It may take the form of a vision or a voice, a visual or auditory hallucination”—maybe a dryad, a fairy, a UFO-related “alien.”
G.N.M. Tyrrell wrote of such phenomena in Apparitions (1953): “The visual solid constituting the apparition is provided by the percipient.”
Regarding such apparitions as simply depth-psychological projections is not without difficulties, though. For example, ghosts have been sighted by more than one person moving about houses as a living person would, going in and out of doorways, ascending staircases, avoiding contact with furniture, and reflecting in mirrors. Multiple observers of such ghosts have described them similarly. If a ghost is not in any sense an actual presence, but a dreamlike projection of the psyche, how is it that more than one person has seen it simultaneously. And if the phenomenon is purely subjective, and percipients are in effect dreaming when they see it, how can their senses operate simultaneously as in wakefulness to articulate the scenes through which the dream-ghost moves?
The position in this matter of F.W.H. Myers of the Psychical Society as characterized by Tyrrell, was that specters were like cutout figures “pasted” onto scenes perceived by the eyes functioning as they did normally. This notion bothered Tyrrell, because it would resemble being simultaneously asleep and awake. Faithful to the notion that such ghosts must be depth-psychological phenomena, rather than manifestations in our common spaces of some other dimension of being, Tyrrell conceived a way around the difficulty in Myers’ position: For as long as an apparitional scene lasts both the paranormal figure and its setting are spectral. He envisioned a “complete machinery in the personality for producing visual imagery exactly like that of normal perception up to the range of a complete environment, and for making everything [in the environment of the apparitional figure] appear as natural and as fully detailed as normal sense-perception can do.”
Somehow this does not inspire a “Eureka!” response. A simpler solution to the difficulty here, one that would accord with what humanity has commonly assumed, would be to suppose that a ghost, fairy, or alien, is not merely a psychological projection, but an uncanny manifestation of some other “dimension” or “plane” of being. Its perception may require the activation of the “third eye” or “mindsight,” but it is a real presence, or at least a representation of one. Schopenhauer argued this way in his Essay on Spirit-Seeing. In either sleep or waking the “dream organ” allows for the visual or auditory experience of a dimension of reality other than the one familiar to us. The fact that the perception of a ghost or some other spirit is a kind of waking dream “does not in any way forfeit its reality,” i.e. the dimension of reality of which it is an emanation.
Given this reading of the situation, there would be no reason to suppose that while it is the “dream organ” or the “third eye” perceiving the ghost, the senses might not be operating as they do normally in articulating the scenery through which the ghost moves. A dimension of reality ordinarily concealed from human awareness has simply been added to the one most familiar to us. Myers’ metaphor of a “pasted” apparition would be appropriate. Swedenborg describes such dual-sightedness in a passage of his Spiritual Diary: “I was in the interior heaven, and certain spirits were at the same time with me in their own world; and although being in heaven, yet I was…in the body….just as I am in this present writing.” The difficulty in the typical SPR understanding of apparitions Tyrrell wrestled with arises only if one assumes that apparitional scenes are purely subjective.
It is an error, Schopenhauer said, to assume we have “abolished the reality of a spirit apparition when we show that [its apprehension] was subjectively conditioned.”
THE ‘SIGHT OF THE SPIRIT’ seems to have been awake in people who experienced the “alien abductions” widely reported in the later twentieth century, especially in the United States. Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack, who studied such abductions extensively, noted that, while they were dreamlike in quality, abductees were generally convinced that they had not been simply dreaming when their abductors conveyed them through the walls or ceilings of their residences and up into hovering UFOs for physical examinations by alien “doctors.”
Among Mack’s abduction cases was a twenty-two year old music student, “Catherine,” who, after experiencing a number of such kidnappings, had come to the realization that while they were in progress she was neither awake nor asleep, but a state of mind distinct from both: “I kind of shift to this other consciousness that’s not really either….I have access to an entirely different part of me that I don’t have access to in normal waking consciousness”—and access to another dimension of being as well? Mack wrote in Abduction (1994) that a number of the abductees he studied felt that their experiences had not occurred “within the physical space/time dimensions of the universe as we comprehend it,” but in something more nearly resembling Fairyland. It was as if the “aliens” had managed to breach an ontological barrier.
In Passport to the Cosmos (1999) Mack describes a conversation he had with Bernado Peixoto, a shaman of the Ipixuma tribe in the Brazilian rainforest, who mentioned his people’s legend of a flying disk that had landed in the Amazon basin. Makuras (spirits from “high up in the sky”) had emerged from it. Mack inquired if the Ipixumas believed makuras were material or “metaphoric.” The Brazilian said his people did not recognize the distinction. Makuras might not be real in the way that human beings are, but they were not simply imaginary.
SUPPORT FOR THE IDEA that an apparition may be more than simply a subjective phenomenon is to be found in the fact that fairies, ghosts, aliens, and such, have often been associated with physical effects. A wealth of superstitions grew up around the fairy-faith of rural British, but it is difficult to imagine that superstition alone would account for this people’s strenuous efforts to stay on the best side of the “good people.” More likely, harsh experience had taught them what angered fairies could do to their persons and property.
UFOs in “close encounters,” have immobilized automobiles, and “aliens” debarked from UFOs have immobilized people by pointing wands at them. The psychosomatic aftereffects of alien abductions—headaches, fear of hospitals and hospital equipment, urological-gynecological symptoms, and sexual dysfunction—bear a resemblance to the physical effects of abductions of mortals in the folklore of fairies and djinns.
In 1978, Philip Imbrogno and his team of UFO investigators were studying the case of a New York state woman, “Sandra,” who had complained of being followed around by strange aerial lights, and assaulted by demonic figures that appeared by her bed at night. The mysterious lights were perceptible by Imbrogno in the purlieus of Sandra’s home when his team visited there. While hypnotized, she recalled being carried with her young daughter through a vortex to a place neither could later recall.
The dialogue between Sandra and the hypnotist had been tape-recorded. Imbrogno describes in Interdimensional Universe describes what happened the next day when he replayed the tape: Over the voices of the hypnotist and Sandra he heard “a pulsing siren, or a high-pitched electrical noise,” followed by animal sounds, and a voice speaking what sounded like gobbledygook, before a voice said abruptly in perfectly lucid English, “Stop playing with my head, they pointed you out to us and we know where and how to get you all.”
Mystified, Imbrogno consulted a specialist in audio recording at the State University of New York at Purchase who listened to the tape and determined that the part of the tape that seemed nonsense was actually English being spoken backward. When the tape was run in reverse at controlled speed, a voice identified itself as what sounded to Imbrogno like “Ablis,” the “Supreme Commander of the Millennia Council.” (He later discovered a figure in the Koran called “Iblis,” leader of a group of djinns punished for ignoring God’s command to cede the natural world to humans.) The speaker on the tape explained that his race had been imprisoned in a dismal void, and that their only way back to earth and its pleasures lay through sensitives like Sandra. The vortex Sandra had mentioned led to this void. “If you continue to interfere with our work,” the speaker said, “we will have no choice but to take action against you.”
Imbrogno’s attempts to discover how some knowledgeable prankster might have meddled with the tape were fruitless. Meanwhile, a member of his team, a biologist whom Imbrogno describes as “one of the most intelligent and grounded persons I have ever met,” had begun hearing voices at night, and then during the day. He awoke one night to find three dark blue creatures about five feet tall with blazing red eyes circling his bed. In what struck Imbrogno as completely out of character, the biologist committed suicide by jumping in front of a train.
Another member of the investigating team, an airline pilot, received a visit from an odd man in a dark suit claiming to represent the National Security Agency who instructed the pilot to discontinue his research. At the bedside of a third member of the team appeared a hooded figure who held out to him a glowing red heart. “This could be your heart,” he said. He squeezed the heart, spraying phantasmal blood about the room. The investigator learned shortly thereafter of a minor defect in a heart valve said to be correctable in simple surgery. He had the operation, but died unexpectedly afterward.
Middle Eastern people have respected the power of djinns to produce physical effects. Pakistani nuclear scientist Bashiruddin Mahmood proposed in a Wall Street Journal interview that a way out of the looming international energy crisis might be to cultivate the assistance of the djinns, the Near Eastern equivalents of fairies.
One can only wonder how that might turn out.
James Gallant, an independent scholar, is the Fortnightly Review’s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and author of Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations, published recently in our Odd Volumes series. He is also the author of Whatever Happened to Ohio?, and an earlier novel, The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta, published by Glad Day Books.