Beyond Supernature

Lyall Watson. Beyond Supernature; A New Natural History of the Supernatural. Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.

Lyall Watson's Supernature was one of the biggest literary surprises - and successes - of 1973: a lively cocktail of biology and parapsychology, full of startling insights and connections as its author took freely from the arcane and technical, swished the results around and made them tastily accessible to persons who were neither biologists nor parapsychologists. the general reading public responded gratefully and enthusiastically: Supernature became a book which no half-serious follower of psi dared to miss, partly because so many folk who were ordinarily non-interested nonfollowers were talking about it.

Now 13 years and a respectible number of titles further on, Dr Watson takes us Beyond Supernature. His tour-guide style has not changed; the insights are still there, the melding of data from apparently unconnected fields jollies readers along as he pursues a holistic vision in which the significance of what we persist in styling anomalies floats like a beacon seen through fog. But perhaps we have changed. We no longer get excited by pyramid powere - or at least most of us don't; we don't believe in Cleve Backster's telepathic plants, though Dr Watson is inclined to. There have been enough whistle-stop tours of the paranormal to make another seem about as inviting as a visit to Basildon on early closing day. What can Beyond Supernature do to put that right?

For a start, and as befits a trained biologist) Lyall Watson looks at all phenomena as evidence of the workings of a vast organism. Between the constituent parts of that organism - even between ones we do not traditionally think of being connected, such as plants and Man, or Man and fish - there flows an alternative mode of communication and interaction. Part I of Beyond Supernature (Life) deals with the real nature of living things and enlists such exemplars as the calluses on camels' knees, the stripes on the great anteater or the ability of leaves to produce defensive tannin against predators, as indications of "a faculty with clear survival value, a biological attribute that gives decision making a predictive quality". Animal behaviour, he suggests, may demonstrate ostensibly supernatural powers which make their owners better geared for survival.

But this is only a prelude to the idea of how our human supernormal powers relate to the rest of creation. In this model, society appears as an interlinked organism in which each individual can reach or affect another by unknown 'extrasensory' means. These acts of transference may help to explain mass hysteria, xenoglossy, multiple personality and, would you believe, the music which departed greats dictate to medium Rosemary Brown. Further, this extrasensory dialogue can be taken to reveal the existence 'of a shared or 'group soul', or common awareness for which Dr Watson coins the name same, 'something which thinks together or is of common mind' (p.137). And in Part III (Planet) he pleads, via summaries of paranthropology, parabiology and several other 'pares', for a less restrictive, less restricted approach which will help us to understand the growth of this planetary bonding: a global ecology of the mind, no less.

This is highly dynamic stuff, presented in a highly readable fashion. So why didn't I find Beyond Supernature more exciting? Surely not because the material seemed over-familiar, though it's true that bar a scary Filipino possession case or a Timor-Timor poltergeist (both witnessed first-hand by the author) there is little here that Magonia readers won't have come upon elsewhere. You do not look for new case-histories in a book like this. What you look for is how the writer uses and interprets standard cases, the fusion of material into something which not only justifies their inclusion but offers clues as to how they relate one to another. And maybe what on earth they mean.

Unfortunately, Dr Watson's approach itself seems over-familiar. The eclectic sweep through a gamut of phenomena, the skilful progression from diverse casematerial to overview has become something of a convention in psi literature, and at times it seems that he who can juggle the greatest number of strangely-coloured balls at the same time has achieved all that there is to achieve. Familiarity breeds complacency and there is a dreadful tendency to turn off when Modern Physics makes its inevitable entry on the scene, or as the Dragon Project shuffles over the horizon. To rearrange what Dr Watson borrows from Heraclitus, we have come to expect the unexpected because writers have been giving it to us for years; it no longer stimulates and the insights and connections arising from the approach suffer likewise. Heads down boys, here comes Sheldrake's morphic resonance again.

I'm reminded of something that Scott Walker once said about one of those Jack Good TV pop-n-rock programmes, where manically rapid two minute acts hurtled along in breathless succession: "In the end", declared the Walker Brother solemnly, "it works against him". Beyond Supernature has something new to offer on practically every page, but at a cost; the sheer pace makes each phenomenon blur into the next. And that is the problem with eclecticism.

Dr Watson makes a cogent appeal for a holistic vision over the more divisive view of science (and parapsychology as well) which prefers to dwell on parts in isolation. This, he argues, gives a sense of perspective and permits us to recognise patterns: "You only get to see the wood when it becomes too difficult to distinguish individual trees". There are an awful lot of trees in Dr Watson's forest and some of them would appear on closer inspection to be in a sad state - if we were allowed time for a closer inspection. The reviewer who criticised Supernature for what he called the author's "ready acceptance of certain dubious phenomena" - meaning specifically some of the PK work summarised in that book - may be sharpening his pen even now.

Dr Watson's rapid transit from Vasiliev's 'long distance hypothesis' to the blood of St Januarius means that critical evaluation of separate components gets left far behind. I only hope a certain ultra-sceptic I know never sees the single-paragraph treatment of the Mons Angels affair (p.138), which oddly neglects to mention the role that Arthur Machen claimed to have played in the thing, let alone the near-certainty that it never happened at all. Parapsychologists who contest these cases aren't doing so for the fun of it, nor because they are wilfully obstructive or reactionary: they realise only too well that weakly-evidenced cases are fuel for the fires built by real reactionaries. Dr Watson obviously realises this too, but his approach does not cater for it.

Yet everyone will agree with his statement that there is a need for "A slightly broader definition of reality. One which includes the possibility of certain things happening when humans are involved. A definition that is not so exclusive; one less inclined to dismiss certain thing as impossible, and better able to deal with what actually happens in terms of probability rather than out-right and unreasonable denial" (p.266).

Beyond Supernature may not be the galvalic force that its predecessor was back in the seventies, but if it encourages people to go looking for that 'slightly broader definition', it. will have done its job. -- Michael Goss,  From Magonia 24, November 1986.


No comments: