I just finished reading The Secret Life of Genius: How 24 Great Men and Women Were Touched by Spiritual Worlds, a new book by John Chambers. Previously I'd read the same author's highly interesting volume Victor Hugo's Conversations with the Spirit World, which recounts a series of séances held by Hugo and his family when they were exiles on the Isle of Jersey. I expected Chambers' latest book to be much the same -- a study of spiritualistic experiments and investigations carried out by other famous people.
In fact, however, the new book offers a little more variety. The 24 figures profiled in its pages had many different ways of interacting with or being influenced by "spiritual worlds." In a couple of cases, I wasn't sure I saw the "spiritual" connection at all. Chambers' account of Jules Verne, for instance, does a good job of suggesting that Verne was an overgrown adolescent boy, but I didn't see any evidence of a particularly spiritual worldview. His account of Ben Jonson makes it clear that the famed Elizabethan-Jacobean playwright did his homework when writing about alchemy, but Jonson was known as the sort of person who did his homework when writing about any subject; I'm not convinced he had any special, personal interest in alchemy.
Most of the examples are considerably more clearcut. They range from sages and seers - Nostradamus, Madame Blavatsky, and guru Sri Yashodo Ma - to famous writers with an interest in the occult - Goethe, Blake, Mary Shelley, Balzac, Tolstoy, Yeats, and of course Hugo - to other noted figures whose connection to paranormal interests is more oblique. The latter include H.G. Wells, who may have had a near-death experience in his youth that provided material for some of his later writings; Winston Churchill, whose meat-and-potatoes spirituality served him well throughout his life; and Harry Houdini, the nemesis of physical mediums, whose crusade to unmask them all as frauds may have been driven by a deep-seated desire to believe in after-death communication.
I particularly like Churchill's commonsense approach to the subject. Discussing his years as a soldier in My Early Life, he wrote:
I found that whatever I might think or argue, I did not hesitate to ask for special protection when about to come under the fire of the enemy: nor to feel sincerely grateful when I got home safe for tea. I even asked for lesser things than not to be killed too soon, and nearly always in those years, and indeed throughout my life, I got what I wanted. This practice seemed perfectly natural, and just as strong and real as the reasoning process which contradicted it so sharply. Moreover the practice was comforting and the reasoning led nowhere. I therefore acted in according with my feelings without troubling to square such conduct with the conclusions of thought....
I came across a French saying which seemed singularly apposite. [He quotes Pascal's epigram, "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."] It seemed to me that it would be very foolish to discard the reasons of the heart for those of the head. Indeed I could not see why I should not enjoy them both. I did not worry about the inconsistency of thinking one way and believing the other. It seemed good to let the mind explore so far as it could the paths of thought and logic, and also good to pray for help and succour, and be grateful when they came.
This is the kind of thing that resonates with me. But there are other conclusions and inferences drawn by Chambers' parade of spiritual seekers that strike me as less meaningful. One theme, recurring especially in the later parts of the book, is that spirit entities are somehow dependent on the living for their sense of self and perhaps for their very existence, and that spirits -- and even God himself -- are desperately seeking answers from us through their contact with the living.
This idea is part of the huge mass of purportedly channeled material produced by the Pulitzer prize-winning poet James Merrill and his partner David Jackson -- material incorporated into Merrill's 500-page poem The Changing Light at Sandover. (It was also suggested to Carl Jung in some strange occult experiences, mentioned below.)
The material produced by Merrill and Jackson constitutes a kind of alternate history of the world, recounting the rise and fall of other races prior to the human race, including a species of batlike creatures who are now, apparently, trying to communicate with us. There is even an alternate version of human history, in which the pharaoh Akhnaton perishes after building "a fifty-foot-high rock-crystal pyramid" meant to harness "the power of the sun" - a technological feat that goes horribly awry.
Needless to say, there is no record in any standard history books of such developments. It all sounds most bizarre, and even Merrill himself says he maintains "an attitude of perfect ambivalence toward the spirits."
Chambers seems to take such communications altogether more seriously than I would. He also takes seriously the large number of channeled messages purportedly arising from extraterrestrials, a subject that comes up in his study of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing. Lessing wrote a five-part series of science fiction novels sketching out the idea that Earth is under the protection of an advanced race of aliens from "the Canopean and Sirian galactic empires." Chambers writes:
Lessing can take her place in the proliferation of information being channeled these days through mediums on Earth ostensibly from aliens scattered around the universe. This "alien literature" can be strikingly rich. Most of these channeled ETs share a message that locates humanity within a vast intergalactic network of spiritual evolution. They say they are converging on earth to give our species a necessary boost to the evolutionary process. The alternative to taking this giant stride forward (which must be done quickly) is the disappearance of humanity.
Chambers gives examples of such channeled material from the work of Patricia Pereira, Darryl Anka, and Ken Carey. One of the problems, however, with such messages is that they contradict each other, as Chambers acknowledges:
An overall examination of material channeled from aliens (at least fifty mediums have books out) reveals that alien worldviews divide up into two distinctly different camps. One group ... describes our Milky Way galaxy as teeming with hundreds of millions of different sentient planetary life forms; the others say its representatives are not exactly aliens but more like angels, come to help us Homo sapiens, whose planet, Earth, is the only one inhabited by a sentient species in the entire Milky Way galaxy ...
Does this mean that, insofar as the two camps thoroughly contradict each other, we can't take anything these aliens say seriously, that everything they say is a figment of the medium's imagination?
Chambers addresses this question by suggesting that "our experiences of channeling aliens and our perceptions of them are also necessarily filtered through our subjectivities. Ken Carey is an Evangelical Christian, and Evangelical Christians are taught to believe that humankind is the only species in our galaxy."
I would suggest a different explanation, not only for the "alien" communications, but for those received by Merrill and Jackson, as well. Many mystical traditions, not to mention modern spiritualist teachings, tell us that there are both lower and higher spiritual entities. The lower entities tend to be earthbound by nature. They hover around the earth plane, sometimes attaching themselves to vulnerable humans and making mischief. They also like to communicate false or misleading messages. Even when trying to communicate what they see as the truth, their understanding is so limited that whatever they tell us is likely to be wrong.
In this respect, it may be relevant to note that Merrill and Jackson received all their communications via the Ouija board, an instrument notorious for its propensity to attract low-level, earthbound, mischievous or malicious entities. Perhaps it is not entirely a coincidence that the communicating entities in that case described themselves as batlike creatures. Traditionally, batlike creatures are seen as devils. And devils may be nothing more than confused or ignorant low-level spirits interfering with human affairs.
To the extent that the various communications from "aliens" and "bat-creatures" are genuine, and not the product of the various mediums' subconscious minds, the communications probably reflect nothing more than the bewilderment and hostility of undeveloped spirits. It's interesting to note that one of Merrill and Jackson's communicators became so hostile to them (rudely ordering them around) that they temporarily stopped using the Ouija board. I doubt that a genuinely advanced being would behave this way.
I also greatly doubt that God needs human beings to supply him with the answers to his questions. Merrill and Jackson, according to Chambers, came to this peculiar conclusion:
The more they pondered this, the more it seemed to the two that the shape of God -- his very existence -- must be dependent on the feelings and thoughts of mankind as a collectivity. It was not that Homo sapiens "made up" God. It was that God was Pure Being, and dependent on our imagination for his very shape and form.
Mustn't this also be true for heaven?
The question of heaven comes in because Merrill and Jackson's communicators claimed that if the human race obliterated itself, then the spiritual worlds themselves would cease to exist. Thus the continued existence of "heaven" depends on the continued existence of life on Earth.
In Zürich in 1916, the spirits of the dead had milled forlornly around C.G. Jung, besieging the forty-one-year-old psychiatrist standing bewildered in his living room for answers to their questions. They knew nothing, the spirits said -- neither who they were, nor where they were, nor even if God existed.
This experience prompted Jung to formulate the theory that God is not conscious of himself, and that "all the monstrous, apparently senseless biological turmoil" of evolution had as its end the manifestation of consciousness via the brain -- a solution "found as if by chance, unintended and unforeseen, and yet somehow sensed, felt and groped for out of some dark urge."
Jung's point of view reminds me in some respects of the theory of "biocentrism" presented by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman in a recent book, which I discussed here. But is it possible that "the spirits of the dead" Jung witnessed (assuming they were not a hallucination) were low-level, earthbound spirits, and that their ignorance and confusion were a direct result of their undeveloped condition? Jung never seems to have considered this possibility, though it is consistent with much mystical lore and many mediumistic messages.
Incidentally, I was surprised that the chapter on Jung made no mention of his near-death experience in 1944*, which presents a far more positive view of the afterlife, including the promise that "I would receive an answer to all [my] questions" - a viewpoint considerably differemt from that of the spirits who "knew nothing ... neither who they were, nor where they were, nor even if God existed." Again, it would seem reasonable to conclude that some spirits have answers and some don't, and the ones who don't are not the ones we should be listening to.
A similar objection might be made to Norman Mailer's claim (recounted in Chapter 22) that he heard the voice of God. In an exceedingly odd episode, Mailer was eating a donut in a late-night diner when he heard God tell him to get up and leave without paying. With some reluctance, Mailer obeyed the instruction. He later theorized that God sometimes needs people to break the rules, and developed a rather elaborate theory of God as a besieged deity at war with the Devil. It seems more likely to me that if there was any paranormal element to Mailer's experience, the voice he heard was that of a low-level spirit, not God.
Perhaps the best advice one might give to Mailer, Jung, Merrill, and others like them is found in 1 John 4:1:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
In quoting this passage, I don't mean to suggest that only messages consistent with Christian orthodoxy can be accepted as genuine (though this is the point of the quote in context). I simply mean to say that not all channeled messages are created equal. Some are products of the subconscious and may be sheer confabulation; some may be pulled telepathically from other people's minds and reproduce their assumptions and prejudices; some may reflect the influence of low-level spirits, who are often confused, ignorant, or hostile; and some undoubtedly reflect a more advanced discarnate consciousness that genuinely desires to teach us, though it is still not infallible.
There is, I think, a great deal of chaff in such messages, and relatively little wheat. Sifting is necessary.
Whatever one thinks of the conclusions reached by some of the figures profiled in Chambers' book, The Secret Life of Genius is a consistently fascinating and provocative look at an underappreciated side of human creativity, showing that a fascination with "spiritual worlds" is not so much an aberration as, in many cases, a defining attribute of the inquiring mind.
*Art, you should read this. It's kind of "holographic." Note especially Jung's reluctance to return to a "three-dimensional" world of "boxes." Quoting Jung: "For it seemed to me as if behind the horizon of the cosmos a three-dimensional world had been artificially built up, in which each person sat by himself in a little box. And now I should have to convince myself all over again that this was important!"