18.7.17

The State We're In?

David Benatar. The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions. OUP USA (1 July 2017)

Are human lives ultimately meaningless? Is our inevitable death bad? Would immortality be better? Should we hasten our deaths by taking our own lives in acts of suicide? Many people ask these big questions and many are plagued by them. Surprisingly few analytic philosophers have spoken to these important questions. When they have engaged the big existential questions they have tended, like more popular writers, to offer comforting, optimistic answers. The Human Predicament offers a less sanguine assessment. David Benatar invites readers to take a clear-eyed view of our situation, defending a substantial, but not unmitigated, pessimism about human life. 

Benatar argues that while our lives can have some meaning, cosmically speaking we are ultimately the insignificant beings that we often fear we are. A candid appraisal reveals that the quality of life, although less bad for some people than for others, leaves much to be desired in even the best cases. But death, David Benatar argues, is hardly the solution. Our mortality exacerbates rather than mitigates our cosmic meaninglessness. It can release us from suffering but even when it does it imposes another cost - annihilation. This unfortunate state of affairs has nuanced implications for how we should think about immortality, about suicide, and about the aspects of life in which we can and do find deeper meaning. Engaging profound existential questions with analytic rigor and clarity, The Human Predicament is clear eyed, unsentimental, and deeply provocative to some of our most cherished beliefs.

15.7.17

Social Histories of Spiritualism

Beth A. Robertson. Science of the Seance. UBC Press. (1 July 2017)

Beth A. Robertson resurrects the story of a group of men and women who sought to transform the seance into a laboratory of the spirits and a transnational empirical project. Her findings cast new light on how science, metaphysics, and the senses collided to inform gendered norms in the 1920s and '30s. She reveals a world inhabited, on one side, by psychical researchers who represented themselves as masters of the senses, untainted by the effeminized subjectivity of the body and, on the other, by mediums and ghostly subjects who could and did challenge the researchers' exclusive claims to scientific expertise and authority.

Stefan Bechtel. Through a Glass, Darkly. St. Martin's Press (13 July 2017)

After the American Civil War, while bodies still littered battlefields, the movement known as Spiritualism began to sweep across America as thousands of people, mostly from shock and grief, tried to make contact with the recently departed. The movement captivated Europe as well, especially England in the aftermath of the Great War and Great Influenza Epidemic. Prominent figures such as Charles Dickens, W.B. Yeats, and Queen Victoria were mesmerised. The movement's most famous spokesman was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Known to the world as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle underwent what many people at the time considered an enigmatic transformation, turning his back on the hyper-rational Holmes and plunging into the supernatural. 

What was it that convinced a brilliant man like Doyle, the creator of the great exemplar of cold, objective thought, that there was a reality beyond the reality? Why did professors, philosophers, statesmen and men of science like the great evolutionist Alfred Russell Wallace, the Novel-Laureate physiologist Charles Richet, and the distinguished chemist Sir William Crookes also become Spiritualists? Using the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a lens, Bechtel probes this largely unexplored movement, a movement rife with fraud but also full of genuine evidence that is difficult to dismiss. Expertly written and peppered with engaging anecdotes, Through a Glass, Darkly is a terrifically fun read.

9.7.17

Back to Square One

Donald R. Schmitt. Cover-Up at Roswell: Exposing the 70-Year Conspiracy to Suppress the Truth. New Page Books (6 July 2017)

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the most significant UFO event of all time, best-selling author Donald R. Schmitt takes a fresh look at the renowned incident. Previous books on Roswell, including his, have focused on the witnesses, their families, and the history of the case. Cover-Up at Roswell catalogues the extreme measures the U.S. government exercised to suppress the truth. How they silenced military witnesses clearly demonstrates their need to prevent the facts from leaking out. But more disconcerting are the tactics used against civilians and the media. Over the years, the government has actually issued four different explanations for what took place in 1947, yet Roswell remains a mystery, shrouded in secrecy, cover-ups, and deception. Is a fifth explanation at hand? Cover-Up at Roswell includes fascinating new information.

5.7.17

Witch-hunting in the West

Gordon Napier. Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West. Amberley. (15 July 2017

Europe in the 1500s and 1600s was an ascending, expanding civilisation, poised to become globally dominant, and destined to produce the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Confident mercantile republics and opulent monarchies alike seemed to be flourishing. But it was also a Devil-haunted society. Witches and imps were not merely the stuff of stories, used by mothers to frighten their children into obedience. Many people believed in a real conspiracy of witches, in league with the cloven-hoofed Devil, flying on broomsticks, having familiar spirits and casting harmful spells. People from all classes, from peasants to kings, attributed calamities to malevolent witchcraft, and anyone (though it was of course mostly women) could be suspected of being a witch. 

Witch hunts flared up, particularly in German lands. Mass persecutions culminating in burnings – seemingly insane and monstrous acts of societal self-mutilation on a grand scale – were accepted as acts of faith, justice and collective self-defence. Who were the witch hunters? Where did they get their ideas? Did witch hunts mask politically motivated persecutions? Were there witches? Were witches a secret society, or a surviving shamanic religion? Did initiates induce hallucinations of night-flights and contact with supernatural beings? Or does torture and the preconceived notions of the witch hunters account for the consistent confessions secured from suspected witches?

4.7.17

The Myth of Mythless Modernity

Jason A. Josephson-Storm. The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. University of Chicago Press (4 July 2017)

A great many theorists have argued that the defining feature of modernity is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Jason A. Josephson-Storm argues that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong, as attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded. Even the human sciences have been more enchanted than is commonly supposed. But that raises the question: How did a magical, spiritualist, mesmerized Europe ever convince itself that it was disenchanted? 

Josephson-Storm traces the history of the myth of disenchantment in the births of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, folklore, psychoanalysis, and religious studies. Ironically, the myth of mythless modernity formed at the very time that Britain, France, and Germany were in the midst of occult and spiritualist revivals. Indeed, Josephson-Storm argues, these disciplines' founding figures were not only aware of, but profoundly enmeshed in, the occult milieu; and it was specifically in response to this burgeoning culture of spirits and magic that they produced notions of a disenchanted world. By providing a novel history of the human sciences and their connection to esotericism, The Myth of Disenchantment dispatches with most widely held accounts of modernity and its break from the pre-modern past.

30.6.17

Deconstructing Gurdjieff

Tobias Churton. Deconstructing Gurdjieff: Biography of a Spiritual Magician. Inner Traditions (29 Jun 2017)

In November 1949, architect Frank Lloyd Wright announced the death of “the greatest man in the world,” yet few knew who he was talking about. Enigmatic, misunderstood, declared a charlatan, and recently dubbed “the Rasputin who inspired Mary Poppins,” Gurdjieff’s life has become a legend. But who really was George Ivanovich Gurdjieff? Employing the latest research and discoveries, including previously unpublished reminiscences of the real man, Tobias Churton investigates the truth beneath the self-crafted mythology of Gurdjieff’s life recounted in Meetings with Remarkable Men. Showing how Gurdjieff deliberately re-shaped elements of his life as parables of his system, Churton explains how he didn’t want people to follow his footsteps but to find their own, to wake up from the hypnosis that drives us blindly through life. Offering a vital understanding of the man who asked “How many of you are really alive?” the author reveals the continuing importance of Gurdjieff’s philosophy for the awakening of man.

28.6.17

Telling Tales

Carol Mavor. Aurelia. Art and literature through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale. (Reaktion Books, June 2017)

In the eighteenth century the members of London's Society of Aurelians were butterfly collectors. The term 'Aurelian' relates to the chrysalis, and the golden colour it can display before the butterfly emerges. As a twenty-first-century Aurelian, Carol Mavor collects fairy tales old and new and awakens them out of their chrysalises: like slumbering Snow Whites in caskets of gold and glass, or Briar Roses in tangles of branches and thorns. In Aurelia, Mavor takes special interest in the fairy tale's gastronomy, including Alice's Wonderland cake marked 'eat me', the sugar of the witch's house in 'Hansel and Gretel' and the more disturbing ingestions of cannibalism, as in the Brothers Grimm's 'The Juniper Tree', where a murdered boy sings through the mouth of a bird: 'My mother she killed me. My father he ate me.' 

Moving beyond this, Mavor discovers the fairy-tale realm in more surprising places: the tragic candy-land poetry of the 1950s 'genius' child-poet Minou Drouet; the subterranean world of enchantment in the cave paintings of Lascaux; the brown fairies of African American poet Langston Hughes; and Miwa Yanagi's black-and-white, bloody photograph of the Grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood holding one another in the cut-open belly of the wolf, as an allegory of the victims of Hiroshima. Through the lens of the fairy tale Mavor reads the world of literature and art as both magical and political.