Sunday, January 10, 2010

On the Move

Alright everyone,

I must admit that when I chose to start blogging I picked the first program that I saw and ran with it, but after checking out Wordpress I've decided to move the Starry Messenger over to that server.

I look forward to your comments and feedback. Hopefully this move will let me do even more to make the Messenger the best blog it can be.

See you there!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Nature's Unnaturals and the Visage of the Pit

The alien worlds and demonic vistas of Wayne Barlowe were another serendipitous internet find of mine in recent months. Barlowe's dedication to depicting bizarre lifeforms and nightmares spans an impressive career path from the demonology of the Grimoire of Honorius, to Babylon 5, Hellboy, Harry Potter, Avatar and the Discovery Channel.

Despite the surreal quality to much of his work, there is also the delightful element of realism that seems to originate, at least in part, in the artistic inspiration provided to him by his parents, both of whom were artists interested in the forms and figures of natural history. For instance, "Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials" reads much like a field guide for naturalists, and his "Expedition: Being an Account in Words and Artwork of the 2358 A.D. Voyage to Darwin IV" is an aesthetic tour de force uniting a conservationist theme with studies of fantastical ecologies and creature. In doing so, it nevertheless manages to treat its subject with an exacting, evolutionary care and attention to detail.

When not looking through the kaleidoscope that takes the place of the naturalist's binoculars, Barlowe's demonic imagery strikes me as having much in common with the Russian artist Serge Sunne, particularly in the disturbing play on questions of identity that are manifested therein. Faces are everywhere, it seems, except where they should be, and when they do acquiesce to something like the human form, there always seems to be something so off kilter as to make them even stranger than the others.

I look forward to seeing more from him.

For More Information See:

A Cosmological Romance

In 1848 the American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) went into the publisher George P. Putnam’s (1814-1872) office on Broadway and told him that as of that day he could abandon all of his other projects and dedicate his business to the production and distribution of Poe’s newest work: Eureka: A Prose Poem. The poet first looked upon his publisher with a “glittering eye” and announced, “I am Mr. Poe”. The work was to be his magnum opus, beside which “Newton’s discovery of gravitation was a mere incident”. It would revolutionize the way that humanity understood its place in the world, and as such an initial print run of fifty thousand copies may have been sufficient.

There is no comparable story surrounding Robert Chambers' (1802-1871) 1844 publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Yet despite this, Chambers’ work has been applauded for bringing an “evolutionary vision of the universe into the heart of everyday life”, with its widespread popularity and influence. In its first print run Poe had difficulty selling five hundred copies of his masterpiece, and his publisher concluded that: “It has never, apparently, caused any profound interest either to popular or scientific readers”. In comparison, Chambers’ work ran into twelve editions at around twenty nine thousand copies. Insofar as it laid the groundwork for the acceptance of the evolutionary theories of the latter half of the nineteenth century, it could be said that Vestiges, rather than Eureka accomplished what Poe had claimed for himself. Charles Darwin’s tombstone in Westminster Abbey, resting just a few meters away from the exalted monument to Isaac Newton, would seem to corroborate this account.

Yet however dissimilar they were in influence and content, there was something in Poe’s Eureka that caused contemporary commentators to link the two works together in the popular press. In examining the similarities and differences of these works and their reception, the question of authority serves as the distinguishing feature that allows us to make sense of their puzzling relationship. Whereas Chambers’ anonymity, and appeals to acceptable theological, logical and scientific sources of authority allowed him to win the hearts of his bourgeoisie audience, Poe had no such support. Instead, he infamously and systematically attacked the very foundations of respectable logic and scientific discourse, and opted for a pantheistic theological underpinning to his cosmology, which flew in the face of all but the most radical of artistic and moral sentiments.

In a February 29th 1848 letter to George E. Isbell, Poe inquired about the substance of Vestiges, of which he admitted he was only partially aware. As he commented:

’The Vestiges of Creation’ I have not yet seen; and it is always unsafe and unwise to form opinions of books from reviews of them. The extracts of the work, which have fallen in my way, abound in inaccuracies of fact: -- still these may not materially affect the general argument. One thing is certain; that the objections of merely scientific men—men, I mean, who cultivate the physical sciences to the exclusion, in a greater or less degree, of the mathematics, of metaphysics and of logic – are generally invalid except in respect to scientific details. Of all persons in the world, they are at the same time the most bigoted and the least capable of using, generalizing, or deciding upon the facts, which they bring to light in the course of their experiments. And these are the men who chiefly write the criticisms against all efforts at generalization – denouncing these efforts as ‘speculative’ and ‘theoretical’.

After laying out his own key positions in Eureka, Poe went on to state that: “I would be obliged to you if you would let me know how far these ideas are coincident with those of the ‘Vestiges’”. Here we see Poe indirectly answering criticisms against Vestiges by merely scientific men in much the same way that he criticized those who found fault with his own work. Implicitly, he praises its power of generalization, suggestion, and is willing to forgive the abundance of “inaccuracies of fact” in what he does know about the work, provided that the core of the argument rings true.

While scholars have justifiably focused on the compositional relationship between Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos and Poe’s Eureka, there is still much to be learned from examining the parallel and divergent paths that it traveled along with Vestiges in the cultural context of America in the 1840s. The sensation caused by Vestiges in Britain was echoed across the Atlantic, and part of this echo resonated with both the style and content of Eureka. Both works were the children of the popular press, but one found its audience to spectacular effect, while the other struggled to receive recognition from its intended public. What then can be said about this difference? In large part, they can be attributed to the extreme personality behind Eureka. Impoverished and desperate, Poe could not benefit from the ambiguous authority provided by literary anonymity in the same way as Chambers. Clearly linked to his identity, many suspected a hoax, not in spite of this connection, but because of it. Despite his knowledge of the popular press, he never sought to appeal to the same reform minded and utilitarian principles that made Chambers’ work so appealing to his bourgeoisie audience. What was perhaps more unacceptable to his American audience, Poe’s pantheistic cosmology was clearly and abundantly anathema to traditional religion, while critics of Vestiges were forced to argue instead that its author’s religious platitudes were disingenuous. Furthermore, while both Chambers and Poe drew criticisms for their lack of scientific rigor, Chambers overall project was not as blatantly antagonistic to the authority of the sciences. Yet at the heart of all three of Poe’s problems with traditional modes of authority remains the question of his individual personality and its relationship to the emerging “mass public” that grew out of the communication technologies of the early nineteenth-century. In this context what it evinces, in its most powerful form, is the message that the most successful profits of a new cosmology are those who can afford to remain nameless.

As a side note, not everyone was ambivalent to Eureka. The french loved it, particularly the eminent polymath Paul Valéry and the poet Charles Baudelaire. Its emphasis on the crucial role of inspiration and intuition resonated with Albert Einstein's approach to science, who also found the work intriguing, and the analytical philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine stated that it was one of the most influential works in his early life that made him interested in philosophy and the philosophy of science.

For More Information See:

Edgar Allan Poe: Critical Assessments. Vol II. Ed. Graham Clarke. Helm Information: Mountfield, 1991.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. (Cooper Square Press: New York, 1992)

“New Publications”. In the Broadway Journal (1845-1846); Jan 18, 1845; American Periodicals Series Online. 45.

Poe, Edgar Allan. 'Dream-land', in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. J. A. Harrison. T. Y. Crowell: New York, 1965.

---. Eureka: A Prose Poem. Ed. Stuart Levine and Susan F. Levine. University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 2004.

---. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. John Ward Ostrom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948.

Secord, James A. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000.

Thompson, G.R. “Unity, Death, and Nothingness: Poe’s ‘Romantic Skepticism’”. In PMLA. (Vol. 85. No. 2. 1970) 297-300.

Tresch, John. “The Potent Magic of Verisimilitude: Edgar Allan Poe within the Mechanical Age”. In The British Journal for the History of Science. (Vol. 30. No. 3. 1997) 275-290.

Welsh, Susan. “The Value of Anological Evidence: Poe’s ‘Eureka’ in the Context of a Scientific Debate”. In Modern Language Studies. (Vol 21. No. 4. 1991) 3-15.

The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 3 Vols. Ed. Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Redfield: New York, 1849.

Yeo, Richard. “Science and Intellectual Authority in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Britain: Robert Chambers and ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’”. In Victorian Studies. (Vol. 28. No. 1. 1984) 5-31.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Faust, Alchemy, Everything and Nothing

Goethe’s Faust is one of the most commonly begun, and most infrequently finished, epics of the western literary tradition. Romantics drawn to the tragedy of the first part, the personal drama and heartache, are often estranged from the archytipical allegory of the second, but this is to their own determent. It is the second part that really reveals how it is an alchemical drama, and finaly makes sense of Faust's otherwise puzzling statement to the demon Mephistopheles "I hope to see your nothing / turn to everything for me."

While it may seem prosaic to modern readers, the emphasis on the four elements in the second part of Faust is actually a completion of Faust's statement. While Earth, Water, Air and Fire might not seem like much to us moderns, with our gaggle of elements to chose from on the periodic table, in the medieval setting in which the Faust drama plays itself out, to say say those four things is to describe the basis of everything.

With this in mind, the concepts of transformation and prime matter inherent in alchemy take on a much more profound meaning.

In 1768, during his convalescent period, Goethe read a number of alchemical authors with Fräulein von Klettenberg. He studied Paracelsus, van Helmont (a follower of Paracelsus who introduced his theories to Newton and his contemporaries) as well as the American George Starkey (who was also influenced by Paracelsus and influential in the Newtonian circle in London) . After his alchemical initiation Goethe became increasingly interested in the chemical-philosophical process, and hoped to create a substance called: “Virgin Earth, which would give birth to other substances from its own womb; to imitate as it were the creation of the universe by producing a microcosmic world of his which would develop of its own accord”. This Virgin Earth appears to have been a purified form of the “prime matter” of the alchemist.

His work in this respect was ultimately fruitless, as one scholar observed: “although in old age he was still struck by the beauty of the experiment, he was disappointed in his efforts”. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Goethe was well versed in the astrological, numerological and alchemical lore which he elaborated upon, and occasionally criticized in Faust. His notebooks from his time in Frankfurt and Strasbourg have large sections dealing with figures such as Paracelsus and Agrippa, as well as showing his interest in cheiromancy, astrology, and numerology.

The scholarly world, and particularly the English world, has yet to fully embrace the implications of Goethe’s engagement with alchemy, and in particular the role Paracelsus played in his thought. With a better understanding of Paracelsian principles we can gain greater insight into how they inspired Goethe’s account of the role of the devil in creation, as well as the view that the whole world is in the process of revelation through restlessness. Furthermore, it seems more likely that the character of Faust himself was in some ways more based on the person of Paracelsus than the legend of Faust, given the alchemist's relation to authority and metaphysical doctrines. Finally, with an elemental understanding of the nebulous "Mothers", we find a greater source of unity in the second part of Faust which binds together the seemingly disparate scenes and phantasmagoric carnivals into a coherent whole. In short, for Faust: "what keeps the world together in its inner essence [rough translation of: “Was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält“] is nothing less than alchemy.

The Nightmares that Unite Us

Many people do not know that I have experienced a phenomenon known as isolated sleep paralysis with hypnopompic or hypnagogic hallucinations (SPHH) for most of my life. It goes by a number of names, The Old Hag, in Newfoundland, Kanashibari in Japan, and once it was the exclusive meaning of the term "Nightmare". It has been used to explain the belief in witches, demonds, ghosts and in alien abduction, and has been made manifest in countless artworks unbeknownst to medical science.

I have recently agreed to work on a joint project with a colleague of mine at York on the phenomenon. Dedicated to Michel de Montaigne, it will be part academic essay, part memoir, and part case study.

I've done a lot of thinking about the experience in the past few years, and wrote a short paper on its recent history, which is really quite unusual, and adds credence to my belief that the most interesting, valuable, and dangerous thought is almost always on the fringes, before being normalized in some social setting.

In the 1980s an interdisciplinary shift caused a change of focus of "nightmare" phenomenon that involved both the folkloric and medical communities. This development owed a great deal to the work of the folklorist David J. Hufford from the Department of Humanities at Penn State University and Robert C. Ness from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Centre. Both Hufford’s 1982 book The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions and Ness’ 1978 article “The Old Hag Phenomenon as Sleep Paralysis: A Biocultural Interpretation” attempted to articulate the Old Hag as a unique phenomenon whose widespread cultural occurrence should be understood alongside a particular set of physiological conditions consistent with what psychologists and doctors were designating SPHH.

By exploring the folkloric, anthropological and medical literature surrounding the changing approach to the Old Hag in the past 30 years, I hoped to demonstrate how, in contrast to its earlier obscurity and misclassification, the folkloric turn instigated by figures such as Hufford and Ness near the beginning of the 1980s allowed for the isolation of the Old Hag as a stable, medically relevant phenomenon. While not immediately accepted, this suggested approach helped to changed the medical community’s focus on SPHH away from the usual associations with narcolepsy, epilepsy and schizophrenia, towards stress, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This movement was then predicated on a shift in the medical community’s understanding of the Old Hag’s pathological associations, and was mediated by medical anthropologists’ understanding of culture-bound syndromes, as well as the contributions made by researchers with cultural and ethnic backgrounds other than that of most modern western medical practitioners. The consequence of this “folkloric turn” has been that doctors and psychologists confronted with the Old Hag have increasingly come to see the value of folklore in treating patients experiencing the condition, particularly in cases of PTSD, and several folklorists have begun understanding their rolls as those of healers and medical researchers.

It seems like its been getting a lot of attention in recent years, and i'm glad for this, since it could help to serve as a point of common communication between a number of disparate forms of thought from the main-stream to the periphery, the modern and traditional, the materialist and the spiritual, and perhaps show how, in the end, the human mind, they all collapse into each other.

For More Information:

The Devil's Trill:

Abrams, Murray, et al. “Prevalence and Correlates of Sleep Paralysis in Adults Reporting
Childhood Sexual Abuse” in Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Vol. 22, (2008), 1535–1541.

Adler, Shelly R., “Refugee Stress and Folk Belief: Hmong Sudden Deaths” In Social Science and Medicine Vol. 40, No. 12. 1995. p. 1623-29.

---. “Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome Among Hmong Immigrants: Examining the Role of the ‘Nightmare’”. In The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 411. (1991). p. 54-71.

Bell, Carl C, et al. “Further Studies on the Prevalence of Isolated Sleep Paralysis in Black Subjects” in the Journal of the National Medical Association. Vol 78, No. 7, (1986), p. 649-659.

---. “Prevalence of Isolated Sleep Paralysis in Black Subjects” in the Journal of the National Medical Association. Vol 76, No. 5, (1984), p. 501-508.

Bloom, Joseph D. and Richard D. Gelardin. “Uqamairineq and Uqumanigianiq: Eskimo
Sleep Paralysis” In The Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest. Ed. Ronald C. Simons and Charles C. Hughes. D. Reidel Publishing Company: Dordrecht, 1985.

Dahlitz, M. and J.D. Parkes, “Sleep Paralysis” in The Lancet. Vol 341. 1993. p. 406-7.

Davies, Owen. “The Nightmare Experience, Sleep Paralysis, and Witchcraft Accusations” in Folklore, Vol. 114, No. 2 (Aug., 2003), p. 181-203.

De Jong, Joop T.V.M., “Cultural Variation in the Clinical Presentation of Sleep Paralysis” In Tanscultural Psychiatry, Vol 42 (1) (2005), p. 78-92.

Duffy, Peter. “Nocturnal Visit Leaves Me Shaken”. The Chronicle Herald [Halifax] December 7th 2006, Metro and Provincial, The Mail Star: B4.

---. “Making Sense of Angels and Demons”. The Chronicle Herald [Halifax] December 9th 2006, Metro and Provincial, The Mail Star: B4.

Fukuda, Kazuhiko, et al. “Recognition of Sleep Paralysis Among Normal Adults in Canada and Japan” In Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience Vol. 54. (2000), p. 292-293.

---. “Preliminary Study on Kanashibari Phenomenon: A Polygraphic Approach.” In Japanese Journal of Physiological Psychology and Psychophysiology. Vol 7, (Dec 1989).

---. “High Prevalence of Isolated Sleep Paralysis: Kanashibari Phenomenon in Japan.” In
Sleep. Issue 10, Vol 3, (Jun 1987) 279-86.

Gangdev, Prakash. “Relevance of Sleep Paralysis and Hypnic Hallucinations to Psychiatry”. In Australasian Psychiatry. Vol. 12, No. 1. (March 2004) 77-80.

Gray, Arthur A., “Nightmares, Hypnagogic Hallucinations, and Sleep Paralysis” in The Nightmare: Psychological and Biological Foundations. Ed. Henry Kellerman. Columbia University Press: New York, 1987.

Hartmann, Ernest. The Nightmare: The Psychology and Biology of Terrifying Dreams. Basic Books Inc., New York, 1984.

Herman, J. et al. “Sleep Paralysis: A Study in Family Practice”. In Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners. Vol 38. (1988) 465-7

Hishikawa, Yasuo. “Sleep Paralysis.” In Narcolepsy: Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Narcolepsy. Advances in Sleep Research, vol. 3. Ed. Christian Guilleminault, William C. Dement and Pierre Passouant. New York: Spectrum Publications, 1976.

Hinton, Devon E, et al. “‘The Ghost Pushes You Down’: Sleep Paralysis-Type Panic Attacks in a Khmer Refugee Population”. In Transcultural Psychiatry, Vol. 42 (1) (2005), p. 46-77.

Hughes, Charles C., “The Sleep Paralysis Taxon: Commentary” in The Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest. Ed. Ronald C. Simons and Charles C. Hughes. D. Reidel Publishing Company: Dordrecht, 1985.

---. “Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience” In Transcultural Psychiatry, Vol. 42 (1) (2005) 11-45.

---. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1982.

Jones, Ernest M. On the Nightmare. International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 20. London: Hogarth Press, 1931.

Ness, Robert C. “The Old Hag Phenomenon as Sleep Paralysis: A Biocultural Interpretation” in Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 2 (1978): 26-28.

Ohaeri, Jude Uzoma. “Experience of Isolated Sleep Paralysis in Clinical Practice in Nigeria” in the Journal of the National Medical Association. Vol 84. No. 6. (1992). p. 521-3.

Simons, Ronald C. “Sorting the Culture-Bound Syndromes” in The Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest. Ed. Ronald C. Simons and Charles C. Hughes. D. Reidel Publishing Company: Dordrecht, 1985.

---. “Introduction: The Sleep Paralysis Taxon” in The Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest. Ed. Ronald C. Simons and Charles C. Hughes. D. Reidel Publishing Company: Dordrecht, 1985.

Sleep Disorders Classification Committee, Association of Sleep Disorders Centers. “Diagnostic Classification of Sleep and Arousal Disorders.” Sleep 2, no. 1 (1979) 72.

“Voice of the People”. The Chronicle Herald [Halifax] December 14th 2006, Metro and Provincial, The Mail Star: A12.