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The exposition in this book is so undisciplined that it has no index, uses a strange endnote system, and offers no captions for photographs, except in one list which is part of the front material. Let me also state that John Gray writes with real literary talent, and has fascinating stories to tell us. The book attempts to combine two historical episodes which belong to the period between 1840 and 1940. The men and women involved were highly creative individuals, and some of them became global celebrities in their time.
The first episode has to with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), founded in London in 1882, which attracted such luminaries as William James, John Ruskin, Tennyson, Gladstone, and Arthur James Balfour. "The purpose of the SPR was to examine paranormal phenomena in 'an unbiased and scientific way'" (p. 9). Of course, the term "paranormal" is in itself biased and false. SPR's work led mostly to "exposing the fraudulent character of table-rapping, ectoplasm, spirit photography" (p. 9), as well as crooks like Madame Blavatsky, thus demonstrating once again that the "paranormal" is quite a normal product of human capacities for deceit and credulity. The increasingly bizarre schemes envisioned by those supporting "Psychical research" included the birth of a Messiah in 1913. This messiah became a brave fighter in World War II, worked for MI6, and died in 1989 as a Catholic monk. This story by itself could be made into a great film, and is just one of many. But what was the motive behind the séances and the "research"? The SPR crowd was motivated by the desire to prove that death was not the end of consciousness, and that the eternal human soul was real. As this book demonstrates, psychical research has been a desperate attempt to lend credibility to religious beliefs through "scientific" proofs. It has been just as pathetic as so called Biblical archeology, which has been trying to find "scientific" evidence to support ancient mythology. All such efforts are self-defeating responses to secularization on the part of true believers.
After introducing us to the "psychical researchers" of England, Gray directs us to "another anti-death movement…emerging in Russia. As in England science and the occult were not separate, but mingled in a current of thought that aimed to create a substitute for religion. Nowhere was this clearer than among the 'God-builders' – a section of the Bolshevik intelligentsia that believed humans could someday, maybe quite soon, conquer death…The Russian God-builders believed death could be defeated using the power of science. The English psychical researchers believed science could show death was a passage into another life. In both cases the boundaries between science, religion and magic were blurred or non-existent…While each used science to pursue immortality, the rebellions against death in England and Russia were very different…In Russia there was no Other Side" (pp. 3-5).
These assertions are self-contradictory. If there was "no Other Side" in Russia, how could the "the boundaries between science, religion and magic" be blurred? Gray admits that "the rebellions against death were very different", so why is he trying to treat them together?
Gray uses terms rather loosely. How was science involved in the work inspired by The Society for Psychical Research? What branch of science was involved in trying to uncover the tricks used by spiritualist mediums or in reading the products of automatic writing? When I am trying to determine whether a used car salesman is giving me false information, am I using science? Science means doing work related to hypotheses and theories. The problem of all those claiming to advance "psychical research", "parapsychology", or "the paranormal", is that they neglect to offer us any theory. They want us to believe in the reality of certain phenomena, but in the absence of a general theory, what do these occurrences mean? If the "psychic" phenomena are genuine, as the heirs to "Psychical research" are claiming even today, what are the implications for psychology, physics, or daily life? And why doesn't telepathy ever work in French classes, when the teacher attempts to convey to students the mystery of the subjonctif imparfait?
In discussing events in Russia, Gray offers us a mixed salad of narratives, covering the evils of Bolshevism, several Russian crackpots, the history of the KGB, and the attempts to preserve Lenin's body, together with intrigues, spying, and femmes fatales. As it nears its last pages, the book deteriorates into a series of digressions and pontifications. The stories are fascinating but the story line, if there ever was one, is lost. Gray is swept away by fascinating personalities and events, but free association is not the way to make a real argument.
The text is inlaid with various ex-cathedra statements that are totally unfounded or odd. Examples:
"Until a few centuries ago the Genesis story was known to be a myth-a poetic way of rendering truths that would otherwise be inaccessible…Jewish scholars…always viewed the Genesis story as a metaphor for truths that could not be accessed in any other way" (p. 21). The idea that religious narratives should be read as allegories has always been totally unknown to the actual believers. It is popular today among some apologists. Gray forgets to tell us what are "the truths that would otherwise be inaccessible". I would love to know. I would also to know who the unnamed Jewish scholars are.
"It was Haeckel…who first gave currency to the idea that Jews were members of a 'race'"(p. 143). Gray seems to forget the Spanish Inquisition and many others who had the same idea long before Haeckel.
"Science is like religion, an effort at transcendence that ends by accepting that the world is beyond understanding. All our inquiries come to rest in groundless facts" (p. 227). I will leave these strange claims for others to decipher.
If Gray wanted to argue that we all want to cheat death, or abolish death, or deny death, or at least delay death, then he was clearly correct, but this argument has been made often and is almost universally accepted. Most of us are committed to the attempt to delay death through biomedicine, as we take quantities of pills and follow other medical advice more or less assiduously. Biomedicine is based on materialism and naturalism, ideas embraced by the Bolsheviks so hated by Gray. I hope that will not stop him from using biomedical technologies.
© 2012 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi
Dr. Beit-Hallahmi's has written on the psychology of religion, social identity, and personality development. Among his recent publications are Psychoanalysis and Theism: Critical Reflections on the Grunbaum Thesis, (2010) and Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity,(in press).