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Sunday, November 19, 2023

The Paradox of Credibility When Confronting the Incredible

 The tinfoil hat, the country bumpkin, the cork board strewn with a tangled web of string- these are examples of images used in the old stereotyping of UFO enthusiasts. Mass media and pop culture have promoted these tropes for ages, with the cumulative effect of minimizing the subject in the broader public consciousness. Likewise, the existence of ghosts, magic powers, and cryptozoological specimens has traditionally been pushed to the margins which, perhaps, may be the best place for them. For those who have had an experience with any of these mysteries, or those who seek to investigate them, a minefield lays ahead in the no-man's land of alleged expertise on these matters. Traversing the field becomes a perilous journey, full of pitfalls and explosive revelations. Without a guide, a map, or markers to go by, one must trust one's intuition. 

At the time of this writing it seems that public opinion has softened on these once shunned topics, but the old problems still persist. In the field of UFOlogy, for example, this broader acceptance seems to be a result of government hearings and a push toward that ever-elusive, amorphous old chestnut Disclosure. In the minds of many passive observers, "the Government said" that aliens are real. Those who have a vested interest in full Disclosure celebrate these events as minor victories on the road toward revelations of alien bodies and reverse-engineered technology from another world- and among these advocates, nothing short of that will be satisfactory, regardless of the facts. In the never-ending quest toward Disclosure, whatever that might mean to whomever might be interested in such a thing, there is the persistent idea that the subject is made more credible by the involvement of authority figures. Luis Elizondo himself, the de facto figurehead for the current crop of UAPology Disclosurists, said in no uncertain terms that he wished to dismantle the field of UFOlogy. Scorching the earth, relieved of the crackpots and amateurs of old- along with the experiences of everyday people- a new Utopia seemingly awaits in this worldview. Once the Government tells us what it knows, a new day will dawn: A New Age of peace and prosperity, and all we need to do is approve funding for military programs to look into it.

This is, of course, hogwash of the highest order. UFOs are and always will be obscured by the eclipse of their own mythical shadow in the public consciousness. The tinfoil hat of old always cautioned us to question authority figures, but the modern more accepted cranks grasp desperately for authorities to confirm or deny the truth for them. So hungry are they for confirmation, they seek to be legitimized by whatever authority is advantageous at the moment. The trouble is that UFOs answer to no authority. They are tricky things, airborne pookas turning expectations upside-down and inside-out, inspiring even skeptics like Phillip Klass to lay a "curse" on the pursuit of them. We would never know more about them, he said, than we did during his time. This subversion- the arch-debunker and materialist resorting, albeit jokingly, to something as spooky as a curse- is a classic example of the UFO deftly eluding our attempts to rationalize it. By extension, the other aforementioned mysteries of the world are quite adept at remaining mysterious. Perhaps that is their entire function.

When we seek out experts, when we seek to legitimize anomalous phenomena, and when we promote "serious" inquiry into these subjects we are simply flailing around in a minefield hoping someone will show us the way. Many are the traps and dangers associated with the idea of credibility. Investigators have long favored reports that come from "trained observers", ranging from military personnel to law enforcement individuals and those with a background in science. As a corollary to this, cases are often downplayed or discarded when the report comes from an average Joe. The underlying presumption is that military pilots, for instance, are incapable of making mistakes about what they see in the air. Military and law enforcement professionals, we are told, are also more trustworthy by virtue of their career paths and less likely to lie, or suffer mental illness. This of course is entirely bogus. All the same, when in search of that coveted credibility, reports from the military or police tend to be prioritized. It's too risky to rely on reports from everyday people, and why would you? Especially when someone with a PhD or government clearance is available to offer their own unimpeachable truths. The country bumpkin of old is left to wonder at his own experiences, and defer to the "experts". 

This mentality naturally results in a discourse beyond parody, as we see in the world of UAPology today. The testimony of David Grusch, which amounts to little more than a litany of very tired UFO myths that have been relentlessly debated or debunked over the course of decades, being considered a form of whistleblowing is simply ludicrous. It amounts to little more than gossip, ultimately, and does nothing to further the truth- quite the opposite, it reinforces poppycock that only muddies the waters. And yet, paradoxically, stunts like that bring a veneer of credibility to the outside observer. Similarly, this appeal to authority in a misguided attempt to locate reliable sources leads folks to books by really problematic old heads who happen to have "Dr" attached to their names. For those who don't know the history, a book by Dr. David Jacobs might sound more credible than one by John Keel simply because one of them has an academic background and the other, none. The trouble of course is that Jacobs has been repeatedly revealed to have been a fraud and a creep, his "research" methods are shown to have been highly flawed, and his ouevre rendered thus virtually worthless. It is human nature, perhaps, to be less critical when an author, investigator, or correspondent has a title such as Doctor, Lt. Commander, or Officer attached to his or her name. It is nevertheless wrong to assume their authority on any given matter is uncontaminated by ulterior motives, craziness, or judgment errors. 

It is difficult to talk about these distinctions in our polarized age. A false dichotomy is prominent in the world of UFOs, which pits believers against debunkers. In truth there is a broad spectrum of belief and opinion, all of which exists within the tiny fraction of the overall population that even cares to discuss the subject. Dismissing this or that piece of evidence, or questioning the stories of alleged authorities promoting UAPs does not necessarily indicate a belief that UFOs are bogus. For the part of this writer, a cursory glance at other posts on this very site will give you all the evidence you need about where I stand. The point is quite moot, though; suffice to say, UFOs are empirically real. What they are- and who is qualified to authoritatively determine that- is indefinitely a matter of speculation. Many are attracted to the so-called field of UFOlogy because it is such a loosely defined area of study. Similarly, the methods of Paranormal Investigators vary wildly, and there as many divergent approaches to cryptozoology as there are methods to develop wild talents of the psychical kind. This is neither a good or bad thing. It is simply a thing to realize, to be wary of, and to figure into one's personal calculus when presented with fantastical tales of the improbable. Astrophysicists may indeed have good insights on the UFO phenomenon, but reliance on their ideas seems to presuppose that UFOs come from outer space. Science has a role to play in unraveling some of these "Woo" mysteries, as they increasingly seem to become less "Woo"- but one should be ever cautious, as science itself is an evolving system of thought and is also a layer of the minefield.   

To illustrate the tricky nature of science, authority, and truth as it pertains to the mysterious, you are invited to consider the tale of Eusapia Palladino, a spirit medium Houdini referred to as the "greatest deceiver of them all." Her recorded feats were many, and were studied by scientists throughout Europe between the late 1800s and the early 20th century. Along with the standard parlor tricks for mediums of her time, such as producing raps and ethereal music, table tipping, and levitation, Palladino was also said to have been able to read through her ear and emit a frigid breeze from a scar on her forehead. In an issue of FATE Magazine from 1961, Cheiro reports having been present for a powerful display of her abilities. He claims that while staying at the Naples property of a wealthy American, one Major Davis in 1904, Palladino was brought in to showcase her abilities as a 'furniture mover'. The Major leaned against an oak chest smoking a cigar, expecting light amusement more than genuine paranormal performance. However, in Cheiro's account, Palladino's head whipped back, her eyes became white, and in a trance her arms projected white, ectoplasmic appendages in the direction of a heavy table with a marble top. The table steadily slid across the floor until it pinned the Major against the chest, and several men pushing against it failed to relieve him. Cheiro finally pulled away the medium herself, which broke the trance and the commotion of the table. Upon touching the marble top, it gently and swiftly returned to its original place in the room. All of this occurred in broad daylight, according to him- and the wealthy American did not wish to see any further demonstrations of her powers.

These kinds of demonstrations began in her youth, and soon the illiterate, unassuming peasant girl mystified the greatest scientific minds in Europe. Pierre and Marie Curie, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Charles Richet were among the befuddled scientists who recorded supernatural events in laboratory sittings. In her home country of Italy, however, it was Cesare Lombroso who first analyzed her abilities and found her to be genuine. Lombroso was internationally renowned for his work in the study of criminals. He is called by some "the Father of Criminology" for his ground-breaking studies into understanding the societal and cultural conditions that produce lawlessness. He was held in high esteem at the time of his sitting and examination of Palladino, and when he publicly declared her to be genuine his colleagues and the public turned on him. How could someone so shrewd be taken in by common parlor tricks and hocus pocus? The more generous among them excused his conclusions by declaring that his mental faculties had diminished with age. Still, by Lombroso's account, he encountered the ghost of his mother during a sitting with Eusapia. The medium sat in full view at one end of the table when Lombroso recognized the warm embrace of his own mother, in spirit form. 

Lombroso's rise to prominence began with an epiphany during the autopsy of a convicted criminal, combined with his interest in the brand new theory of evolution. He noticed an anomaly in the skull of his subject, of a type he would later call a stigmata, which suggested to him biological markers found in lemurs and rodents. In his words, "like a large plane beneath an infinite horizon, the problem of the nature of the delinquent was illuminated which reproduced in our time the characteristics of primitive man right down to the carnivores." In short, he believed that some percentage of criminals were evolutionary throwbacks. The work that gained him international renown was largely predicated on the idea that biological markers could identify subjects as "born delinquents", and that such "criminaloids" were beyond rehabilitation. Crime, to Lombroso, could be understood in physiologic and genetic terms, and all of this naturally ties into problematic ideas on race and also eugenics. His archive of criminal studies is now a museum in Turin, and includes his own head which was preserved for study.

Lombroso's theories on the atavistic nature of the criminal mind were borne of a misunderstanding of, and misapplication of, the Theory of Evolution. On the Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin's initial book on the subject, was careful not to approach the idea of human evolution too directly for fear of controversy. It is interesting to consider the more spooky and spiritual elements of evolution as an idea. Darwin was a cautious and thoughtful scientific mind, cataloguing examples of what he saw as evidence for natural selection and adaptation within species. While at work on the book, in another part of the world, Alfred Russel Wallace was busy identifying new species of birds. Of all known bird species, Wallace was responsible for identifying 2% of them. He contracted malaria during his expedition, and in a fever dream conceived of the very same ideas Darwin had been working to elucidate. It was fate that brought him to Moluccan Islands where this occurred- his prior expedition had met with disaster when his ship full of specimens sunk on its way back to England, forcing him to start over in Indonesia. Fate again played a hand by bringing him his fever dream of survival of the fittest- and by choosing to write to Darwin, rather than a journal, he forced Darwin's hand in releasing the work to the scientific community. Wallace and Darwin both presented their ideas together, bringing the former a new dimension of celebrity and renown.

Darwin continued to refine his ideas about evolution, and while he was cautious about the origin of humans Wallace was not. Wallace came to believe that a spiritual evolution of sorts was responsible for the dominance of humanity on earth, and further that the world of science itself would never be complete until the spirit world was better understood. His interest in spiritualism, and also hypnosis / mesmerism, caused consternation among his peers. He was notoriously bad with money, and wasted a good deal of it on an insane wager with a Flat Earther. Darwin had to arrange for his friend Wallace to receive a pension to help keep him afloat. 

Wallace in a spirit photograph with his deceased mom.

All the while, Wallace insisted his colleagues in the scientific community include spiritualism in with the other natural sciences. He of course got nowhere with them; the established authority of the time had decided it was all bunk. T. H. Huxley responded by saying "I never cared for gossip in my life, and disembodied gossip, such as those worthy ghosts supply their friends with, is not more interesting to me than any other. As for investigating the matter, I have half-a-dozen investigations of infinitely greater interest to me which any spare time I may have will be devoted. I give it up for the same reason I abstain from chess- It's too amusing to be fair work, and too hard work to be amusing."

We may put this in contrast with a well-known quote from the very same Huxley: "The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in each generation is to reclaim a little more land, to add something to the extent and to the solidity of our possessions." The references here to land, and to solidity, exemplify well the materialist mindset of hard data that still dominates today. It stands to reason that when there's infinitely more mystery than there is certainty in our world, the priority should be on the most immediately verifiable; but to Wallace, if the ethereal realm were understood, it would fill in all of the gaps. Perhaps a Lombroson illuminating horizontal plane would rise up and displace water from Huxley's illimitable sea of inexplicability, causing the imponderables to become quite matter of fact. And perhaps its all a daydream, or a fever dream brought on by the malaria of cognitive biases. 

Lombroso's work included the idea that other regressed, atavistic types included the insane and the geniuses. Evolutionary deviants, if not of the criminaloid type, may present staggering intellects but would pay for the benefits in the form of degraded organs and possibly madness. Similarly, there is a fine line between brilliance and crazy talk. It's difficult, as we get away from Huxley's illimitable ocean and back to the minefield, to conclude definitive answers on any of these mysteries and further, to discard or idolize any of the players and theories completely. It is a complicated and tangled mess. Lombroso's phylogenetic ideas have mostly, and rightly, been relegated to the garbage bins of quack science but the underlying idea that criminalism has underlying causes has evolved to include the social sciences of today. His reasoning as to what those causes were is wrong, but he paved the way for systematic and holistic ways of looking at society, which has led to beneficial reforms. The irony is that during his time his terribly problematic ideas were celebrated, and he was panned for allowing for the reality of ghosts. While we may have reclaimed more ground in the past century plus, it should be kept in mind that we are still very much surrounded by the inexplicable- and that the authority of today stands a good chance of looking foolish in the future.

Palladino herself has gone down in history as a fraud. By Houdini's account, the unassuming Italian ghost conjuror who fooled the greatest scientists in Europe was revealed as a mountebank by the magicians in America. Houdini, the great debunker of mediums, declared that all the laboratory investigations of her powers were worthless, as she was allowed to dictate the settings. He could explain the parlor tricks, and he did give her credit as the greatest deceiver of them all for her inventiveness. He noted that Hereward Carrington, the man who brought Eusapia to New York, even admitted that she would invariably resort to magic tricks if not watched carefully. He claimed she did this as a way of avoiding the strain of the "real" phenomena. Houdini had his own biases; he was on a crusade of sorts to discredit fraudulent spirit mediums. Carrington was actively profiting off of Palladino's American tour. As for Eusapia herself, who can say what her motivations were or what, if any, of her powers were genuine? Assuming Cheiro's account was true, how would Houdini explain that? The skills attributed to her range from pedestrian prestidigitation to the startlingly impressive, and occasionally downright bizarre as in the chilly forehead breeze. They culminate in a portrait of a woman, reflecting the contradictions within the cultural and scientific milieu of the era. In many ways, things haven't changed.

The error of hubris is all-pervasive in any era. Instead of thinking in terms of being surrounded by the inexplicable, as Huxley did, we often proceed as though we know most things and that there's only a handful of mysteries out there to solve. We really don't have authorities to whom we can appeal on the subject of life after death- it's more a matter of faith. Likewise, UFOs represent a challenge to preconceived notions about how the rest of reality, which we tend to take for granted, works. Opening ones' self to the myriad possibilities, and the weirdest possible scenarios- and hell, even the impossible ones- may not get us more ground, but on the other hand, it just might. We must realize our institutions, and models for the nature of reality, are imperfect and incomplete. There are other dimensions, other ways of contextualizing the anomalous and bizarre. Any sleight-of-hand trickster can tell you that point of view is crucial to pulling off a trick- and as you navigate the minefield, you must always be aware of the illusions around you. Step softly, ask questions, and above all stay curious. Certainty often leads to trouble.    

Saturday, November 11, 2023

The Journey of the Fool

The Major Arcana of the Tarot is filled with timeless images of mysterious origin, each numbered and offering a plethora of interpretations for the purpose of divination. The Fool is a notable outlier of these 22 cards, as it holds the number 0 or no number at all; its placement in the order of these cards has been debated in the long history of Tarot, which has changed its interpretative value. Various occultists have placed The Fool between the 20th and 21st cards- Judgement and The World, respectively- or at the very end. More modern decks place the card at the very beginning, preceding The Magician. While the meaning of the card can be, and often is, interpreted simply as a caution to the querent, its historical ambiguity in its placement serves as an example that The Fool may not be as simple to read as it appears.

It’s easy to read The Fool as a warning. A young man is pictured, in the popular Rider-Waite-Smith deck, as being one step away from falling headlong over a cliffside with a small dog at his heels. His head in the clouds, as it were, he seems oblivious to the danger. To be called a fool, or described as foolish, can hardly be interpreted as a compliment. Thus, it’s tempting to associate The Fool with folly, over-exuberance, and lack of awareness with little or no other context. The Fool, however, also has his admirable qualities - he is pure of spirit and has a lot of heart, he is adventurous, and he is willing to trust his intuition. An innocent tumble from a cliff could also be interpreted as a leap of faith. Moreover, The Fool can symbolize simply stepping into the unknown.

A popular idea among readers of the Tarot, in fact, is that of the Fool’s Journey through the Major Arcana. In this context, each card can be read in order as a linear progression through life, as The Fool meets The Magician, The High Priestess, and so on. In this sense, each of us is a fool, or at least begins as one- and the rest of the cards follow a path that constitutes the journey of our individual lives. We all play the fool at some point, and at any moment when we find ourselves trusting our gut instincts and beginning a new venture, we become The Fool as we plot our way through it. While caution and self-awareness are valuable in these cases, the intuitive decisions made in our lives that “feel right” are powerful turning points, which can lead to ruin or fortune. What may seem to be a foolish decision can, and often is, a life-changing one. In this sense, The Fool in each of us is what prompts us to avoid becoming victims of our present circumstances. The Fool is a challenge to Fate itself. 

In the spirit of foolishness and fate-defying actions, a comparison of two historical kooks who took similar leaps into the unknown might help to illustrate how the twists and turns of such decision making might play out. Submitted for your appreciation, here are the stories of Emperor Norton I and Lord Timothy Dexter.

Timothy Dexter was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1743. He was certainly not a “lord”, but he dreamed of being among those in the high society of Boston at the time. His ascent to wealth can, in large part, be ascribed to dumb luck. Saving money he earned in his youth, bolstered by a dowry through a marriage to an older unwed daughter of a farmer, he moved to Newburyport and opened a shop selling gloves and mittens. In a move that seemed absurd, he traded his tidy savings of gold and silver for continental currency, still new at the time. After the American Revolution, Alexander Hamiliton’s reforms to the banking and financial systems meant that Dexter became a millionaire for his seemingly foolish investment. He would go on to claim that he had been guided in a dream to make this decision, as well as later gambits that seemed very odd but only profited him. 

He dubbed himself Lord Timothy Dexter, and proceeded to be an embarrassing bane to the wealthy community members in Newburyport. He preferred eccentric clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat that was several times too large for his head. He could be seen walking with a gold cane, accompanied by a small hairless dog named Pepper. He tried to claim himself the King of Chester, New Hampshire after buying property there, but it didn’t stick and he had to settle for his fake lordship- and his proclamation that he was the “first in the East, and first in the West, and Greatest Philosopher in the World”. 

His business moves were always ridiculous, but in spite of it they only ever increased his wealth. He chartered merchant ships to send hundreds of cats, cases of mittens, and bed-warming pans to the plantations in the Caribbean. The mittens were sold to a passing ship, heading to the Baltic sea, and the plantation owners were happy to buy the cats as a means of rat control for their store houses. The bed-warming pans sold at a profit as well, being useful as ladles and strainers for vats of molasses. Eager to see Lord Dexter fail, other businessmen conspired to suggest to him that he ought to send shipments of coal to Newcastle, England- a town well-known for coal mining. So absurd was this proposal, the idiom “sending coals to Newcastle” had been a phrase meaning a pointless and foolish action. Dexter’s shipment just happened to arrive as a strike from the miners was underway, and he still made a tidy profit from what should have been a terrible business move. 

His mansion on High Street became a local eyesore, as he decorated the property with wooden statues which stood as grotesque interpretations of historical figures and animals. He wrote a book, called A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress, which contained his alleged philosophy. It was also written in his own form of English, with inconsistent spelling and no punctuation at all. It sold out and went into further editions, and in these later editions he added a few pages of various punctuation marks that the reader may “peper and solt it as they plese” throughout the text. The disdain from his neighbors and his wife was obvious, but he had a troop of hangers-on who were happy to encourage his ridiculousness for a chance at his money. In order to prove loyalty from those around him, he faked his death and observed his “funeral” from his house. When he eventually did die, at age 63. The ‘Newburyport Nut’ attracted thousands to his real funeral, and is still remembered for his eccentricities.

Lord Dexter's Newburyport home today. Interestingly it was once purchased by Katherine Tingley, then President of the American Section of the Theosophical Society- she had hoped to turn it into a headquarters of sorts. A series of burglaries and fires led her to sell the place instead.

13 years after Lord Dexter's death, Joshua Abraham Norton was born in London- although the city he is most often associated with is San Francisco. Fate brought him to the era with dreams of striking it rich during the gold rush, but he decided money was better made through mercantile trade in the city. He did well, until greed got the better of him- in an attempt to corner the market on rice, he bought every shipment that came into the city and charged a premium. When ships laden with rice arrived from South America, the bottom fell out and he was ruined. A few years later, the down-and-out rogue would walk into the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin and solemnly tell the editor “I am the Emperor of the United States.” The amused editor, who likely was in the midst of a slow news day, agreed to run a front page article with Norton’s proclamation. Citizens of San Francisco were amused as well, and fell in love with this shabby character who would soon proclaim that he had abolished Congress, and that he had decided he was also The Protector of Mexico. 

His reputation grew, and he would hold court in a rooming house or be seen walking around town in his tattered military uniform. He is often portrayed as being accompanied by stray dogs, namely the celebrity strays Boomer and Lazarus, although it seems this relationship was apocryphal. He issued his own currency, which was largely honored; he implemented taxes that were paid by the amused “subjects” of his empire, and would ride the rails for free. So beloved was the Emperor, that a century after his claim to the title he would be honored as a Saint in the pseudoreligion of Discordianism. Co-author of the Principia Discordia Greg Hill wrote “Everybody understands Mickey Mouse, few understand Herman Hesse, hardly anybody understands Einstein, and nobody understands Emperor Norton.”

When Norton I collapsed on a street corner and died in 1880, his funeral lasted two days and was attended by 10,000 people. As an emperor, he was held as a beneficent one. His obituary said that he “killed nobody, robbed nobody and deprived nobody of his country- which is more than can be said for most fellows in his trade.”

The similarities between the two men are obvious- each claimed a title of nobility, each made absurd decisions that forever cemented their associations with their respective cities, and each had a flair for eccentric clothing and are depicted accompanied by dogs. It is interesting to see that while Dexter attained wealth, he lacked the respect of his community, while Norton was destitute but widely loved and respected. The association with dogs is also curious, considering that The Fool depicts a small dog at the heels of the title character. This harkens back to the Greek philosopher Diogenes, the original cynic, who eschewed social norms and spent his life looking for an honest man, living in abject poverty among the stray dogs. It is more than fitting for Norton I to be sainted by the Discordians, as Diogenes and others exemplify the concept of “The Holy Fool”, those subversive characters who are able to enact social changes through profoundly eccentric behavior. Various cultures have examples of such figures, who behave in an extravagantly weird fashion in order to reflect the absurdity of the society they have abandoned back at it. While Dexter’s inscrutable attempts at philosophy amounted to little more than complaining about his treatment by those around him, his garish and opulent excesses which so offended the elites of Newburyport make a salient, albeit likely unintentional comment about greed and excess. Norton used his platform as a notable kook to advance progressive social ideas such as civil rights for African Americans following the Civil War. 

Foolishness can be a powerful thing, and can lead to profound changes in one’s own life as well as effects throughout society at large, and even down through the ages. The Fool and its trickster nature within the top 22 cards of the Tarot deck should ever be a reminder that Fate, along with its many and varied wyrd pathways, need not hem us in with cliff sides or nipping hounds at our heels. The Fool is a bridge builder, and summoning that energy from your own gut can sometimes be just the thing to break you from the bounds of a liminal rut. Short of taking a leap of faith, it at least behooves us all to get into the open air and face what’s coming with a smile. After all, it’s The Fool’s world- we just live in it!

A foolish self-portrait of the author, with his intrepid hound Bernie at his heels

* A version of this article appeared in the April, 2023 issue of Paranormality Magazine- which, incidentally, was the month I left the publication in a rather dramatic fashion. Hail Eris!