Author Topic: Ghost Hunters: book review  (Read 1822 times)

Devious Viper
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Ghost Hunters: book review
« on: August 16, 2006, 03:01:27 AM »
NY Times review by Patricia Cohen SOURCE
Published: August 14, 2006

In the late 1880's, shortly after he helped found an organization to research the supernatural, William James confidently predicted that within 25 years science would resolve once and for all whether the dead could speak to the living.  He - and a handful of other brilliant 19th-century intellectuals - was also fairly confident that the answer would be yes.

And why not? Science had begun to pull back the veil on some of the cosmos' deepest mysteries. If there were invisible radio and electromagnetic waves, perhaps there was an undetected link between a spirit world and this one.

In "Ghost Hunters," Deborah Blum's sympathetic account, these 'psychical researchers' are not simply a bunch of smart men (and a couple of women) obsessed with a dumb idea, but rather courageous freethinkers willing to endure the establishment's scorn. This quirky band, she argues, was more scientific than the scientists and more spiritual than the theologians who ridiculed them.

People like Henry Sidgwick, a classics don at Cambridge who co-founded the British Society for Psychical Research, worried about "humankind stripped of faith." As Ms. Blum writes, "He shuddered at the empty silence of what he called 'the non-moral universe.' " Didnít the church understand, Sidgwick wrote in his diary, that "if the results of our investigation are rejected, they must inevitably carry your miracles along with them"?

Nor could Sidgwick and his associates understand how scientists could reject their claims without even bothering to investigate.

Ms. Blum details the supernatural studies of James; Sidgwick and his wife, Nora; his student Fred Myers; and other British and American scholars, including the co-founder of evolutionary theory, Alfred Russel Wallace, and the Nobel-winning scientist Charles Richet. Despite their differences, what nearly all of them shared was the death of a loved one; behind their lofty scientific and moral motives was also the very human desire to reconnect with a lost love.

Ms. Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, can tell a good ghost story, and there were many during this unsettled period of industrialization and urbanization when belief in the occult swept through America. All that's missing in the tales of dead apparitions, moving furniture and sudden revelations of tightly held secrets is the "Twilight Zone" theme song.

Yet after traipsing from Bombay to Boston, through hundreds of candle-lit sťance rooms with their elaborate "spirit cabinets," where glowing apparitions would appear and objects fly, what the ghost hunters mostly found was fraud.

That is, until William James met Lenora Piper, a tall, respectable Beacon Hill housewife who would settle into her favorite armchair surrounded by puffed pillows and contact dead souls without charging a fee. James met her shortly after the death of his year-old son, Herman. For years Piper was the pet project of the American and British psychical research associations, which paid her a wage to make her less susceptible to fakery (though that strategy would seem to carry its own risks).

They shadowed her movements, interrogated her contacts and shipped her off to Britain, where she would be less likely to have confederates helping her. To test her trances they stuck her with pins, held ammonia under her nose, even put a match to her skin.

Hundreds of times she was wrong. But then there were those frequent occasions when she seemed endowed with otherworldly power. One London test devised by the physicist Oliver Lodge was to ask a distant uncle, Robert, to mail an object belonging to Robert's long-dead twin brother. Piper, fingering the ornate gold watch Robert sent, was able to name the brothers and told a story from their childhood about a near drowning and the killing of a cat that only the twins would have known.

About 10 years ago the popular science writer Martin Gardner wrote an essay titled "How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James." He discussed the way cunning mediums subtly fish for information and the network of professional spiritualists who shared information.

But "Ghost Hunters" is less interested in the sociology of bamboozlement than in giving a respectful accounting of what the participants saw and felt. This approach has benefits, but among its drawbacks are the sometimes credulous reports of telepathy, telekinesis or contacts with the dead.

That is not the book's only weakness. Shifting the spotlight among the large cast and larger number of supernatural tales often gives the book a jumpy, episodic feel. And it doesnít leave much room for wider discussion of the links between the psychological and philosophical work that James and others were engaged in, or of the often erotically charged atmosphere of sťances presided over mostly by women with few career options in that high-buttoned era.

Ultimately what distinguished James and his colleagues from many of their scientific peers was their humbleness. To think one can divine everything in an infinite universe is an act of extreme hubris. As it turned out, when the 25 years that James thought would settle the issue had passed, he had to conclude that hardly any progress had been made. "I confess that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling," he said.

Ms. Blum relates that she too has been humbled by her efforts. In the acknowledgments, she writes, "When I started this book, I saw myself as the perfect author to explore the supernatural, a career science writer anchored in place with the sturdy shoes of common sense." But now, after her historical research and contemporary encounters with people who had ghost stories to tell, she says, though still grounded in reality, "Iím just less smug than I was when I started, less positive of my rightness."

And a little humility, particularly in a writer, is never a bad thing.

William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death.

By Deborah Blum
370 pages. Penguin Press. $25.95.