Matters of the Occult

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by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Blog

Taking matters of the occult seriously has had its benefits, and it has also brilliantly displayed the sheer arrogant ignorance, malicious or merely prosaic, of humanity.

Throughout its history, science has sought to banish the occult despite at times being directly informed by it. Paracelsus, the arch alchemicist, may have urged by his study of essences a prototypical chemistry, and the whole lot of those zealous alchemists who believed they could transmute base material into gold and thus satisfy a dream of eternal riches, not for themselves alone but for humanity in general, perhaps instigated a thought and theory that through technology much of our needs could be, if not completed, at least increasingly eased. This “knowledge of the hidden” is also a fine way to persecute and manipulate — isolated and unstable elderly women in the case of witches; social leaders as false prophets; outsiders of the tribe as ignorance and evil incarnate; impressionable and insecure minds as fit to be loyal foot soldiers. There may be, somewhere between these two socially-powered sides of the occult, a middle way that directs, or nudges, an individual not to or for but rather inward.


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The twentieth century exhibits plenty of high-brow leanings into the “occult”, a fascination with it that engaged writers and psychologists in a curious miscegenation. Two famous examples would be the psychologist Carl Jung and the writer Arthur Koestler. Carl Jung’s psychological theories, as did many other psychoanalysts, extrapolated much from myth and the spiritual realm to re-define humanity’s psychic journey throughout life. The occult, though maligned by the scientific attitude, was felt to offer another kind of knowledge in an area unassailable by scientific resolve: the unconscious mind.

Once the unconscious had been established, in varying degrees, Jung would later propound the idea of synchronicity, “circumstances that appear meaningfully related but seem to lack a causal relationship”. Jung thought that this was a healthy attribute of the psyche and a fundamental connection between the individual and the external world. Arthur Koestler, too, felt drawn to collect “coincidences”, and later published a book The Roots of Coincidence which introduced many to the theories of parapsychology, psychokinesis, and extra-sensory perception. Koestler implored the scientific community to take greater consideration of the phenomena that lay outside of our “common sense”.

For many, and there are many critics of this area of thought, it appears to endorse pseudoscience. Perhaps, in some cases, those enmeshed in this line of thinking are unresponsive to the charge of non-science, nonsense, and a waste of time, precisely for the reason that the supposed insult is no insult to them at all; it is their desire to find a “new way”, an understanding outside of science that gives them meaning. As the scientific method increasingly loosened the grip of religion on the subject of the earth’s age, of the stuff of the universe, the nature of time, it tried also to get into the soul. The soul, however, proved a harder task – indeed, some would not take to the word at all. The cross-examination of the occult and of religion in the twentieth century – the work of psychology to represent the science of the soul – is an aspect of the troubled relationship between science and its “others”.

A contested phenomenon serves as a great example: the dream. Freud’s work on the dream shaped much of the twentieth century’s perception of the dream, and still does today. Another man had something to say about the dream, perhaps lesser known to common knowledge, but respected and influential to many thinkers and writers after him. John William Dunne, an aeronautical engineer, published a book called An Experiment in Time in 1927 and in this book, Dunne put forth his idea of “Serialism”. In the book, through his experience, Dunne tells the reader that dreams function as precognitive visions; dreams can function to foretell future personal experiences. The reason why this is is that when we dream, we are taken out of the present “now” and we are able to experience parts of the future intermixed with parts of our past. All this is possible because of the nature of time: a waking moment of an observer, Time-1, an objective time, is experienced by the observer as subjective, Time-2 (the physical brain experiences or inhabits Time-1, consciousness occurs when Time-2 is inhabited as well, Dunne referred to these as “levels”). This is not the end, however. A third time (Time-3) ought to inhabit a level that experiences the passages of Time-2; and, now we have serialism, an infinite regress. It is these higher “levels” that the mind experiences during a dream-state. Both Freud and Dunne presented ideas for the dream that would detain it, explain it, and render it explicable to the individual whilst representing their more mystical leanings.

The dream’s ability to explain and understand existence does not end there. About forty years later, a psychologist named John Barker thought so. After visiting a horrific slurry disaster that claimed the lives of 144 people in the Welsh town of Aberfan, Barker was struck by the fact that many locals had had portents and dreams related to the event a few nights before. He decided to put out questions in the newspaper asking whether anyone else had had portentous dreams about the Aberfan coal disaster. Barker proceeded in this vein, exchanging letters globally when reports of

foresight/premonitions/forebodings came up. Finally, in 1967, the real experiment began with something called “The Premonitions Bureau”. People were invited, for a year, to write in about their dreams and any forebodings. Barker believed that if only one major catastrophe could be evaded by this psychic means then the whole project would be justified.

The story of Barker and the Premonitions Bureau is a fascinating one and the story as a whole can be found in Sam Knight’s book of the same name. Moving away from the story itself, this Bureau was taken very seriously, and by yet another “man of science”. It is juvenile in some sense to say of course science cannot account for everything, or for my experiential life, as abstractedness can never do such a thing. Science does not claim to account for all things in this way; it is, more often, in a way, a function of how someone reacts to the world. Barker felt justified if one major catastrophe could be avoided, lives saved; science, wanting to cohere things, perhaps make a working theory, can not allow this “just once” kind of thinking, and that is what is so attractive about the occult practices, that it promotes in the individual an openness for this “just once” moment to occur.

The fascination of the more occult practices in twentieth century psychology tells us that there was something that needed to be accounted for and perhaps more to be accounted for in everyday experience. More often than not, what thinkers like Jung were signalling was an intense interest in paying attention to ourselves and how we pay attention to ourselves – what signs we follow as we endeavour to construct ourselves. This much has not changed a great deal; the contemporary interest in the practices of mindfulness is working the same routes. It is fine that studies in neuroscience show the positives of meditation/yoga etc., but the common consensus you hear from those practicing mindfulness is more a “better connection to themselves, their bodies, and their intuition”. The extravagance of the premonitions bureau, or a new theory of synchronicity, may not hold such a mainstream stay today, but the meaning behind them will undoubtedly stick around precisely because experience and giving meaning powerful enough to sustain that experience is not at all obvious, and indeed, cannot be explained away.
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Other articles by Fraser Hibbiitt include Oliver Sacks, ChatGPT, and the JWST.
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Author: Carl Kruse

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