The Anthropology of the Paranormal and the Defenses of Modernity: On David Hufford
By Jeff Kripal
October 29th, 2013
I just returned from Big Sur, California, where I co-led a five-day symposium on the anthropology of the paranormal. Think twenty or so anthropologists, folklorists, and historians who have experienced some very strange things in the field and then tried to make sense of them back home, in the university and its various materialist epistemologies.
This extraordinary meeting emerged gradually out of three others, which are worth summarizing here.
The first and most important event, if one can speak in the singular here, was a fifteen-year series of meetings at the Esalen Institute under the auspices of its Center for Theory and Research that came to be known as “Sursem.” Some people interpreted this as the Big Sur Seminar, others as the Survival Seminar. Whatever the name, these meetings brought together over a hundred physicists, neuroscientists, philosophers, folklorists, psychiatrists, and historians of religion from around the world to discuss the evidence for the human survival of bodily death. It’s more convincing, and more complicated, than you probably imagine. These same meetings produced a most remarkable tome, entitled Irreducible Mind, and dozens of fruitful and happy professional friendships.
The second event was a series of conversations that I had with the folklorist David Hufford during some of those Sursem events. David is the author of The Terror that Comes in the Night, a classic study of supernatural assault traditions around the world and their connection to the physiology of sleep paralysis. For years, David was the Director at the Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine at the Penn State College of Medicine (Hershey), where he also had appointments in Medical Humanities, Behavioral Science, and Family and Community Medicine. He is now a Senior Fellow for Spirituality in the Center for Brain, Mind and Healing at the Samueli Institute. He is one of the leaders in the study of modern medicine and religion. David and I found ourselves in constant sync around too many things to name here. So we decided to co-host this symposium for and with the anthropologists.
The third event was a series of responses I had received to a particular book of mine, Authors of the Impossible, which is basically an intellectual history of the psychical and paranormal (both originally coined and developed by scientists and intellectuals around minor institutions like Cambridge, Harvard, Duke, and, most recently, the University of Virginia) that attempts to carve out a place for humanistic approaches alongside the scientific ones. I have lectured on this book in universities from Princeton, Yale, and Berkeley to Columbia, Northwestern, and the University of Amsterdam. Again and again, I discovered that the most sympathetic colleagues were inevitably anthropologists. Why? Because they had experienced for themselves some very strange things in the field. They knew this stuff was real, which is not to say they knew what it is. They just were not always sure exactly how to talk about it. Neither was I, of course. But they seemed very happy that someone was trying.
Empirically grounded precognitive and clairvoyant events, life-changing near-death experiences, magical healings (and magical attacks), UFO misperceptions and anomalies, small children who remember previous lives, mediums, séances, modern medicine, and trauma: these are the things we talked about on a cliff overlooking the Pacific for five days this month. I took away many things from those days, but probably none were more powerful, for me anyway, than David’s reflections on “the defenses of modernity.” For David, modernity is defined against spirit, or, to be more precise, against spirits. Modernity functions as a rejection of spirits. David likes to show the logo from “Ghostbusters” here, with a cartoon ghost “crossed out” by the iconic “no” sign.
But, denied or no, spirits continue to appear to human beings all the time, in other cultures, in this culture, and, of course, in hospitals. Trauma appears to be one of the key contexts thatcatalyze (which is not to say cause) these astonishing events. The hospital, then, could well become one of the premiere research contexts for the study of spirits, if only we were willing to invest the resources and moral courage. I doubt that will happen in the near future. I doubt that, as a culture at least, we even want to know the truth about spirits. These truths, after all, fit neatly into neither our scientific nor our religious paradigms and orthodoxies.
I am finally poignantly reminded here of the wonderful German word for what we in the States call the Humanities: Geisteswissenschaften, literally and quite seriously, the “Sciences of Spirit.” Does anyone even know what “the Humanities” are now? Or what their real potential is, if we could only put them into deep conversation with the natural and medical sciences as serious and equal intellectual partners? I know what happens when this conversation takes place. Professionals like David Hufford happen.
Jeffrey J. Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University. He is the author of Comparing Religions (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013); Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011); Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred(Chicago, 2010); Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago, 2007); The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion (Chicago, 2007); Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago, 2001); and Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago, 1995). His present areas of interest include the re-visioning and renewal of the comparative method in the study of religion, the comparative erotics of mystical literature, American countercultural translations of Asian religious traditions, and the history of Western esotericism from ancient Gnosticism to the New Age. He thinks he may be Spider-Man.