Views on Mysteries

No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere. – Sigmund Freud’s conclusion to The Future of an Illusion (1927, 1968) translated by James Strachey

I have long been interested in “mysteries” and I have long nourished a professional interest in “Canadian mysteries.” So I have the utmost respect for my predecessors as collecdtors and commentators in this field, R.S. Lambert and George Owen.
I met Mr. Lambert on one occasion in the mid-1960s and realized then that he was the last in the line of the country’s psychical researchers. He had been a producer of children’s broadcasts at CBC Radio where he was known as Rex. Indeed there was something regal or at least imperial in his manner. He was an author, editor, and broadcaster who was practically alone in this country with his abiding interest in the literary and psychical possibilities offered by mediumship and hauntings. He harboured an interest in René Guenon’s school of metaphysical thought known as Traditionalism, and I suspect that he wondered more than most people about the “survival hypothesis.” I suspect that had no settled opinion about these possibilities, because he knew all the arguments for and against them and was fully familiar with the best evidence that had been offered in the past.
I met Dr. Owen and his delightful wife Iris on many an occasion, though I lost contact with them once they moved from Toronto to Calgary where they joined their son Robyn who enjoyed an academic posting in that city. George was one of the country’s few parapsychologists. Indeed, he was at heart and in reality a Cambridge don with an intellectual passion for the study of the paranormal: what used to be called psychical research, but which today is generally called parapsychology. As a statistician he was under no illusions about the nature of evidence in this field or in related fields of investigation. He never expressed to me or to our mutual friends any firm convictions about the survival hypothesis other than the fact that it seemed to be one of mankind’s continuing concerns and that this psychological fact in itself made it a worthy subject of study.
My own work in this field has been that of the researcher rather than that of the investigator if only for the reason that I spend most of my time in the study rather than in the field. As well, I prefer synthesis to analysis, accumulation to value-judgement, and presentation to argumentation. As the compiler or editor of at least thirty-six separate books in the field of “mysteries,” as I call it for simplicity’s sake, I see myself adrift in the wake or wash of man-of-letters Andrew Lang (the compiler of the twelve-volume series of “Coloured” books of traditional children’s lore) and of newspaperman Elliott O’Donnell (whose many books did so much popularize the modern “ghost story” as did those of any other person).
The key to my lock is my conviction (it is not a theory, a belief, or a creed) that “There is another world but it is in this one.” That statement comes from a forgotten work written by a French poet and it appears as the epigraph of Mysterious Canada, my first foray into this field. The tome is a survey of supernatural and paranormal phenomena in this country over the centuries. By “supernatural” I understand tradition and superstition, story and rumour. By “paranormal” I understand modern and contemporary accounts of anomalous phenomena. These “zones of wonder” are not distinct but overlap.
When I completed Mysterious Canada, I realized that the best and perhaps the sole evidence for the existence of ghosts and spirits, for the operation of psychical powers and energies, for the presence of psychokinesis and proof of survival, etc., lies in the statements of the witnesses themselves, not in collateral reports or analyses. Simply said, the evidence for mysterious events and experiences is anecdotal, not statistical or creedal. Fraud, faith, and foolishness are “the three F’s” that must not be forgotten.
This conclusion is both liberating and confining. It is liberating because it involves “the whole man,” not just some part of his nervous system, critical intelligence, imaginative faculties, need to conform, or drive to be regarded as chosen or cursed. It is confining because it distances itself right away from the so-called hard sciences and places itself within the compass of the so-called soft sciences in the vicinity of the arts and the humanities. As Iris Owen has been known to affirm, “Parapsychology is people.”
The conclusion to which I came is that neither the scientific method nor theology nor metaphysics offer skeleton keys to these enigmas. (At the same time I recognize that the so-called Magic Helmet of Professor Michael Persinger does offer a breakthrough, as had the Philip experiment conducted by the Owens.) So I began to focus on first-person accounts rather than on second-hand interviews, third-hand reports, or fourth-hand scholarly and academic studies.
Early on a number of characteristics of these accounts became apparent to me. It might be argued that I was taking a literary approach to records of extraordinary events and experiences, whether oral or written. Indeed, ufologist Chris Rutkowski continues to feel that my pace-setting book UFOs over Canada, which consists of witness statements, treats the subject of flying saucers and unidentified flying objects as belonging to a branch of psychology and perhaps folklore rather than to the departments of aviation technology, meteorology, and astronomy. My rejoinder is that tabulation of witness statements is statistical and at best semi-scientific; it is gross rather than subtle in approach and findings. In a sentence, it remains cerebral rather than intelligent or intellectual.
My strategy is rightly described as literary or verbal, in the sense that is deals with words, and as Northrop Frye reminds us, words are not orphans but belong to “the order of words,” the quintessence of communication whether among ourselves or within ourselves or without ourselves. Without the word we can describe nothing or remember nothing; with the words, we can describe everything, alas!
From the discipline of folklore I borrowed for use in my collections the word “memorate.” I am not aware that anyone else had ever adapted the word in the way that I continue to use it. It has been employed by folklorists – including my late friend Edith Fowke – to describe first-person, oral accounts that are discreet in both senses of that word: the account is separate from other accounts; the account is modest in aim, economical in expression, and in intent meant to be shared by like-minded listeners or readers. In addition, the subject of this memorate is a narrative account of an event or an experience that was witnessed by the speaker and is described in a way that renders it rationally inexplicable. The typical memorate is the so-called “ghost story.”
It became apparent to me once I had read hundreds of such accounts in popular and semi-scholarly publications, and then helped to construct or reconstruct more than one hundred such accounts for my own early books, usually in co-operation with the witnesses themselves – I now have on hand almost one thousand of them – that they have structural features in common. In this sense the memorate resembles the three-line haiku. Briefly, the memorate has three phases. It commences with a statement like the following: “You will not believe me when I tell you what happened to me ten years ago.” It continues with a fairly objective summary of that unlikely event or experience. And it concludes, “I do not know what to make of it.”
Those are the three structural elements. To these over the years I have added three psychological dimensions. The first dimension is that the witness understands that the experience may not be understood by the rational mind. The witness is thus asserting his or her rationality in face of the reader or listener’s. The second dimension is that the witness is aware that other and different presentations or interpretations of the episode recalled are possible. Most witnesses will admit to some familiarity with the vocabulary of ufology or psychical research. The third dimension is that although “such things be,” belief in them is incidental: it is enough that they have been experienced and hence have occurred. The psychology of the witness – why people “believe” in irrational events and experiences – why they experience and then report such episodes at all – is fascinating.
Let me add here only my observation that witnesses are generally not readers. They may have read some ghosts stories in newspapers or accounts of sightings of UFOs, perhaps descriptions of “alien abductions,” but they do not read imaginative literature. The “educated imagination” is a foreign world to them.
Another factor to consider is belief. Take the following simple-seeming sentence: “I believe in God.” Does that statement make sense? There are two unknown quantities in that sentence: belief, God. The former is the exponential, the latter the constant. Or is it the other way round? Two unknowns in four words! (One could include the other important word, the first-person singular.) No wonder arguments persist and believers in the wrong god or disbelievers in the right god are burnt at the stake or beheaded.
An illustration of the slippery nature of the noun “belief” and the verb “believe” is the story that is told about the computer scientist John von Neumann. He invited a group of fellow scientists to step into the barn behind his chalet in Austria which he had converted into the study where he undertook his calculations. One of the scientists pointed out that above the barn door someone had nailed an inverted horseshoe. He asked Neumann if he believed it would bring good luck. “No,” Neumann replied, “but I understand it works whether I believe in it or not.”
I feel it is foolish, indeed, or at least non-productive, to look to records of anomalous experiences – by the way, the phrase “anomalous experience” is of Canadian origin, as is the phrase “cosmic consciousness” – for proof of any reality other than our own. The presence and persistence of such episodes in the lives of witnesses and their remarkable appeal to memory and the compulsion to share them must be meaningful in human life and to that extent as part of the nature of reality. I am dubious that such episodes and experiments have or will have anything significant to say about the survival hypothesis.
(In this regard I am reminded of the epistemological problem presented by photographs of UFOs and ghosts: the real thing will be indistinguishable from the fake.) Neuroscientists and theologians have little if anything to add; just as them for proof of this! The findings of psychical researchers and para-psychologists are sometimes suggestive but ultimately are revealed to be igni fatui. It is not for nothing that seances were conducted in darkened rooms. When they are conducted in brightly lit experimental laboratories, the results are detected (when detected at all) by electronic devices and hence yield results that are numerical and statistical.
Behind the compulsion that I feel to record the experiences of other people lies my sense that such experiences are not anomalies at all but are commonplaces of the human condition. They are more common than we can imagine. One need not search far and wide to find them. They are right around the corner. For instance, if someone asks me what I do professionally, I often reply, “I compile books of told-as-true ghost stories.” That usually stops inquirers in their tracks!
Sceptics are inclined to be dismissive from the first. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” they declare, as if belief had anything to do with it. Psychics (or people with some degree of access to their intuitions and imagination) may blurt out, “I believe in ghosts.” It matters little whether people believe in them or not. Most people know someone who claims to be puzzled by the fact that he or she has “seen” a “real ghost.” You do not have to believe in them to see them, or see them to believe in them.
To encapsulate these considerations, I regularly include variations of the following statement on the back covers of my books: “John Robert Colombo does not believe in ghosts. He does not disbelieve in ghosts. He is interested in ghosts.” Another formula that I find to be effective is the following: “Colombo does not believe in ghosts. Colombo does not disbelieve in ghosts. Ghosts belong to the category of experience, not belief.”
It strikes me that few people are interested – in a disinterested way, so to speak. One person who showed interest and concern without feeling personal need or pressure from society to make a commitment to a given outcome was William James, the Harvard psychologist and philosopher, who noted that the evidence of twenty years of research did not warrant such a determination. William James on Psychical Research is the single most valuable book in this field of study. It gives uninhibited play to the speculations and scepticisms of a widely experienced and deeply intuitive scientist. It is the pragmatic approach in action. As busy as he was James found the time to serve as President of  the original Society for Psychical Research and also of the American Society for Psychical Research. He often explained that he felt that ghosts, which nobody could explain, like snakes, which nobody could love, were lumps or remnants of an original order of creation, primal matter that had yet to be homogenized with the new.
My own special interests lie in two fields of inquiry. The first interest is researching historical mysteries of Canada that are reasonably well documented (occasionally in the pages of the SPR’s own Journal). The second interest is establishing the status of occult, esoteric, and wisdom traditions. There is no need to discuss that concern here, other than to add that in addition to researching, writing, and publishing monographs on Lambert and Owen, I have done the same for James Webb, the historian of “rejected knowledge,” and for a couple of years I have been contributing reviews, articles, and commentaries on activities to a blog devoted to the Fourth Way. Some of these were collected in my “chestomathy” called Whistle While You Work.
Enlarging the circumference of the circle of wonder is predicated on deepening one’s instinctive, emotional, and intellectual responses to the real world in which we live. As P.D. Ouspensky wrote in The Fourth Way, “There is no difference between life and work.” Concerns about such matters as earlier lives and later lives are certainly credible and reasonable, but as these inquiries are unlikely to fall within the purview of science, it is better to take them with a grain of salt (as well as with a pinch of paprika). For that reason I often recall the magisterial statement delivered decades ago by Northrop Frye at a baccalaureate service:

The knowledge that you can have is inexhaustible, and what is inexhaustible is benevolent. The knowledge that you cannot have is of riddles of birth and death, of our future destiny and the purposes of God. Here there is no knowledge, but illusions that restrict freedom and limit hope. Accept the mystery behind knowledge: It is not darkness but shadow.

September 2007

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