Deathly Sories

Carol Zaleski. Otherworid Journeys; Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times. Oxford University Press, 1987.
An excellent comparison of modern NDEs and those of early and medieval Christianity, Zaleski points out the similarities - the panorama of the body, the encounter with supernatural beings, the journey to the garden of bliss, the return, the final ineffable revelation. But gone from modern accounts is the bifurcation of paths one leading to hell, described in splendidly gory detail. In modern accounts the judgement of deeds is transformed into a non-judgemental life review

Like UFO abductees, medieval returnees have old scars healed and new ones imprinted. St Fursa bore a permanent burn mark on his jaw and shoulder from a flaming soul flung at him by a demon! There are also the psychological stigmata common to both classes of experience: loss of memory or the power of speech, or the possession of wild talents. Other familiar motifs occur: Knight Owen, in St Patrick's Purgatory encounters the room much larger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Zaleski argues that the approaches both of believers - naïve literalism, and the sceptics - dogged reductionism - miss the point. The real significance of these reported experiences is that they are narratives, possessing a definite structure. For example, the medieval conversion tales of sinners transformed to penitents are paralled by modern conversion tales from ‘sceptic' to 'believer'. Writers like Ring and Saboa are also part of the narrative structure, which is aimed at instruction, encouragement and consolation.

Zaleski rejects the claim that modern near-death experiences are free of cultural influences. This claim, she feels, reflects three prejudices: that 'myth' is equivalent to falsehood; liberat1on from the body is equivalent to liberation from cultural influences; and assumptions about the ‘rationalist' nature of post-enlightenment society. Claims of prior scepticism, she feels are often indications of skin-deep attitudes which are soon shaken under stress. The medieval near-death experience reflected the harsh, hierarchical values of that society, whilst the modern NDE presents a democratic paradise strongly influenced by nineteenth century spiritualism.

Zaleski suggests that the two views of the near-death experience, either as being generated by an amalgam of physiological, psychological and cultural influences, or as a revelation of the transcendent, are by no means mutually exclusive. Rather the experience can be seen as elements of sensation, perception, language, memory, etc., forged together ‘into one’ by humanity’s religious imagination. Attempts to investigate the experience scientifically by isolating specific paranormal elements or playing with statistics, can only frustrate the attempt to treat the 'narrative as a whole' as a living symbol of the transcendent.

This is not only the best available work on the near-death experience, but a major contribution to our whole field.
  • Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 29, Aptil 1988.

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