Occult in America


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Howard Kerr, and Charles L. Crow (Editors). The Occult in America: New Historical Perspectives. University of Illinois Press, 1983.


Ten essays on a wide range of topics, ranging from the Salem witchcraft outbreak to flying saucers. They testify to the growing academic interest in areas formerly dismissed as nonsense.

Several of the chapters are primarily of interest to students of American cultural history, but others are of more general interest. Robert Galbraith in 'Explaining Modern Occultism' is severely critical of flight-from-reason styles of explanation for contemporary interest in occultism, and suggests a great degree of historical continuity.

Larry Davidson's 'Paranormal Memorates in the American Vernacular', despite its formidable title, is an extremely valuable study of the literary rules of the 'true personal experience' ghost story. He warns that parapsychologists have paid insufficient heed to these, and to the transformations which take place in a tale with repeated telling.

David Jacob's 'UFOs and the Search for Scientific Legitimacy' (the concluding chapter) shows how 'legitimate' ufologists sought to create an acceptable face for ufology to present to the scientific community yet were unable to stem the tide of growing 'strangeness' within the reports. The failure to gain scientific credibility, and the fact that the phenomenon had grown so strange in the 1970's that it had moved beyond rational control, inspired ufologists to seek new theories so that they could experience "a renewed sense of intellectual achievement".

Attempts to obtain physical data failed and led to an increased reliance on subjectivity: "By the 1980's UFO proponents were divided and confused. Older theories had failed to explain the totality of UFOs; no newer theories had evolved to solve the enigma, and the subject had taken on occult qualities that helped prevent scientific explanation. Thus UFOs seemed as shrouded in mystery as ever ..."

Jacobs, however, does not properly address the facts that the 'ETH' presented by 'scientific' ufologists was really above the comic-book level until the mid 1980's, and that the moment serious intellectual effort was applied to the idea of 'extraterrestrial intelligence' (by Aime Michel and others), it rapidly became apparent that it was the sort of 'explanation' which simultaneously explained everything and nothing.

The ufologists could never see that by its very nature, science was a 'game' which played to certain rules, one of the most important of which rules out the 'arbitary wills' of superhuman forces as an explanation for physical events. This was also the central failure of spiritualism. Its attempts to marry scientism with essentially religious concerns were doomed from the start, inviting accusations of occultism from one side and materialism from the other.

Several of the contributors point out the progressive nature of Jackson Davis's philosophical spiritualism and his radical critique of Victorian society. In some respects we should perhaps see spiritualism and related nineteenth century religious ideas as the last attempts to analyse the human condition in religious terms before the coming of such secular ideologies as those of Marx and Freud.

However, as Mary Farrell Bednarowski's essay 'Women in Occult America' shows, 'religious' critiques of society still have an audience, as exemplified by the feminist 'Wicca' and its rejection of 'male' scientific and objective perception.

Though hampered by the essay format, which sometimes prevents authors from really developing their arguments, this is a valuable and stimulating book. -- Peter Rogerson, Magonia 16, July 1984.


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