Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Something Rotten

Last year, stunning revelations about the systematic scientific fraud committed by social psychologist Diederik Stapel sent shockwaves through the Dutch academic community. This week, the official committee in charge of examining the case, headed by the ex-president of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences Prof. Dr. Willem Levelt, presented its final report Flawed Science: The Fraudulent Research Practices of Social Psychologist Diederik Stapel. The report can be downloaded here. The affair is certainly the largest and most spectacular case of scientific fraud in Dutch academic history, and places Stapel in the all-time top-10 of academic swindlers; but from a very well-researched book by science journalist Frank van Kolfschooten one has to conclude that it is far from unique.Van Kolfschooten's book (its title could be translated as Derailed Science: About Fraud,
Plagiarism, and Academic Morality) provides a very readable and extremely disconcerting overview of the history of plagiarism, fraud, and other forms of scientific deceit in the history of science and scholarship in the Netherlands, and should give any reader pause for thought. As emphasized by the Levelt committee as well, most worrying about the Stapel affair and other cases of systematic scientific deception is the serious questions they raise about the current state of the academic system. How is it possible that a well-known scholar could get away, for many years, with a large string of publications in which all his hypotheses were always spectacularly confirmed, by experimental data that were widely perceived by colleagues as "too good to be true", but the correctness of which could never be confirmed because their exclusive source was Stapel himself and no one else? How to explain that these results, in spite of their inherent implausibility, kept being accepted by the reviewers of important peer-reviewed journals? It is only due to the courage of three (still anonymous) Ph.D. students working under Stapel, who assumed the role of whistle-blowers at great risk to their own academic career, that the deception was finally discovered. Perhaps the most important passages of van Kolfschooten's book appear in his chapter "In the Publication Bubble", particularly on pp. 115-116. I quote: "A report published by the VSNU (the organization of Dutch universities) published in May 2012 shows that between 2000 and 2010, Dutch scholars have been devoting more of their time to teaching, while more scientific publications were expected of them at the same time. Their research is financed ever less frequently by their own university ("first money stream"), but must be earned through subsidies in competition with other scholars. This requires scholars to write grant applications, and the energy and time needed for this goes at the expense of the research itself [and here we might add that countless scholars are asked to read and assess such applications or sit in committees, obviously at the expense of their research time as well, WJH]. Furthermore, the number of successful applications keeps decreasing. In addition, the workload of professors and lecturers is increased further due to a steady increase in the number of Ph.D. students (the number of dissertations grew from 2360 to 3700 between 2000 and 2010). As a result, the number of Ph.D. students that they must supervise has risen with 40% over the last ten years. Add to this the fact that, in order to allow the number of scientists to grow, the budget for supporting personnel has been reduced. This has increased the work pressure both for scientific and for supporting personnel. Nevertheless, the increase in the number of publications (27%) over the last ten years has been greater than the increase in personnel (22%)" (p. 115-116)".
Such cool figures suggest that someting is seriously rotten in the state of academia. The first thing to be said is that these developments can never be an excuse for plagiarism and fraud. But the next thing to say is that there is reason to ask serious questions about an academic "publish-or-perish" culture that not only allows systematic fraud to pass unnoticed, but even pressures scientists to cut corners where they can, and actively seduces them to privilege quantity over quality. As the general climate of academic research in the neoliberal university is getting ever more unhealthy, one should not be surprised when diseases are the result. Elsewhere in his book, Van Kolfschooten mentions further ingredients of what is already a toxic mixture. Think of the fact that, again and again, academic top managers have tried to cover up cases of fraud and plagiarism, and have been intimidating whistleblowers, because apparently they are more afraid of reputation damage for their institution than concerned about scientific standards and morality. Think of the fact that science is increasingly expected to deliver "products" to a market, rather than to solve problems, ask questions or offer new perspectives (van Kolfschooten, p. 117). Think of the trend of lowering the standards for accepting dissertations in order to cash in as much as possible of the money a university receives for each successful promotion (pp. 117-118). Think of scientific journals refusing articles that are "too technical" because this lowers their impact factor (p. 131), or even demanding that the author add references to articles from the same journal as a condition for acceptance, because this will increase the journal's impact factor (p. 131). Think of psychologists "torturing the data until they confess" and repeating experiments until they finally result in a statistically significant result (p. 253). And of course, think of the perverse phenomenon of "science on demand", where financial sponsors pay scientists to furnish them with the results they like (p. 280). The list is far from complete.
To all this I would add another aspect that is seldom mentioned. Particularly in the humanities, postmodern ideologies have contributed to an "anything goes" mentality that questions and subverts any standards for distinguishing between "true" and "false", suggesting that scholarly debate is never more than a gratuitous exchange of subjective opinions anyway, and that the academy is really not about trying to advance our knowledge but only about professors trying to advance their careers and getting on top in the chase for power and prestige. In the long run, perhaps the most damaging effect of the Stapel affair is that his behaviour confirms and strenghtens popular (and populist) suspicions that this is what science and scholarship is really all about: not knowledge but power. Have we forgotten that it was supposed to be the other way around?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Enochiana

I had barely begun working at the University of Amsterdam in 1999 when I received a recently-completed doctoral thesis by a student in linguistics, Liesbeth van Dijk, who had made a systematic syntactic and morphological analysis of the Enochian language. Her supervisor quite rightly assumed that I might be interested and sent me a copy. The Enochian language, or lingua adamica, originated (or, if one prefers, was revealed) during the late 16th and early 17th centuries through the mediumship of Edward Kelley (1555-1597), at the behest of the Elizabethan magus John Dee (1527-1608/9), and has long been an object of fascination for occultists, not to mention scholars. Van Dijk's technical linguistic analysis is hard or impossible to follow for ordinary mortals, as could be expected, but her conclusions are clear: Enochian appears to have all the characteristics of a natural language, and its syntax is quite consistent and reminiscent of early modern English, but its morphology is far from consistent or systematic. As pointed out to me by her supervisor, the analysis allowed van Dijk to actually correct Dee's original English translation in several respects!
The Enochian phenomenon might well have slipped into oblivion, had large parts of Dee's diaries not been published, in 1659, by Meric Casaubon (whose father Isaac had famously exploded the myth of the great antiquity of the Corpus Hermeticum in 1614). The irony is that Casaubon junior intended to warn the public about the evil arts of necromancy, but unwittingly ended up providing later generations with all the materials they needed to revive it and take it into new directions. The reception history of Dee's/Kelley's Enochian revelations, from Elizabethan to Victorian England and from there up to the present, has now been traced by Egil Asprem in his Arguing with Angels: Enochian Magic & Modern Occulture. It is a delightful read. Demonstrating an expert knowledge of the complex Enochian system and a sharp sense of historical criticism, not to mention a healthy dose of common sense, Asprem deconstructs the idea (promoted by some esoterically-inflected scholars) of a secret transmission of Enochiana by magicians with access to Dee's unpublished manuscripts, and continues by tracing the lines of transmission through Casaubon and William Godwin to 19th-century crystallomancy and practical occultism. Via the famous Cipher manuscript at the origin of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Enochian materials came to be incorporated into the rituals of that order, and from there they traveled further to Aleister Crowley, various satanist currents (Anton LaVey's Church of Satan, Michael Aquino's Temple of Set), and the wider networks of contemporary occultism, online and offline.
A particularly interesting aspect of the story concerns what Asprem calls the "authenticity problem". Quite some esotericists have been taking the trouble of going back to the original manuscript sources to study the Enochian revelation at first hand, only to discover considerable discrepancies and contradictions with what the standard occultist literature had been telling them about it. The result looks like a replay of the history of Christianity. Quite like the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, "purists" insist on the original sources of Dee and Kelley as the only legitimate foundation for Enochian occultism, thereby criticizing what Asprem calls the "perennialist" schools who, quite like the Catholics, insist on the legitimacy of their tradition as it has been handed down, regardless of whether the original sources support it. And furthermore, quite like spiritualist dissenters and other heretics caught between traditionalism and scriptural fundamentalism, there have also been occultists claiming to be the recipient of new Enochian revelations, presumably from the same or similar sources as Dee and Kelley. Thus the Appendix of Asprem's book contains the full text of Dor OS zol ma thil ("The 12 Black Hands and the Falling Seats"), said to be received through spiritual dictation by the Norwegian occultist Runar Karlsen, who considers it to be a work of "both global and galactic implications". Well, maybe so. But if we are to believe that angels are at work here, why are they doing such a poor job at making themselves understood? Karlsen's revelation consists entirely of sentences such as "The torment-snake that is neither good nor bad, sleep comes from. The regrets within 456 becomes, and is the 2nd finding ways" or "In hardening like the earths mercy-like chamber and letting the mute cry invoke the 2828 (NI NI) for the pouring of regret, the feelings of destruction are the fighters named my defaced sons". My only regret about Asprem's book is that while he reprints the text, he makes no attempt to explain what such apparent gibberish is supposed to mean, at least according to Karlsen or other occultists who take it seriously. Perhaps the translation is faulty?? It could be great fun to invite Liesbeth van Dijk to re-visit the Enochian phenomenon and apply a linguistic analysis to Karlsen's text as well. For instance, is the syntax of Dor OS zol ma thil (provided there is any!) still based on early modern English? Or - I'm just guessing - will it turn out to be an Enochian dialect closer to modern Norwegian?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Emotional Obscurity

In a footnote somewhere, I came across a letter of Immanuel Kant (6 april 1774) to J.G. Hamann, "the Magus of the North". Kant asked Hamann for some explanations about a passage in Johann Gottfried Herder, Aelteste Urkunde des Menschengeschlechts (1774) where Herder talked about a "Hermes figure" and called Hermes "not a person but the first sketch of all human science". From what I know about Hermetic philosophy, this did not make any sense to me, so I got curious and decided to try and find out what it was all about. One thing leading to another, I ended up reading not only the entire text by Herder plus a small biography of the man for background and context, but also two books about Hamann: the well-known short monograph by Isaiah Berlin, The Magus of the North and a more recent study by John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J.G. Hamann. Hamann and Herder are known as central figures of what Berlin calls the "Counter-Enlightenment", a movement of virulent reaction against Enlightenment philosophy. As I found out, a very good characterization of Hamann, by Wilhelm Lütgert, is perfectly applicable to his pupil Herder as well (I'll quote in the original German: just try to translate this sentence into English and you'll find out why...): '[er] vermag nicht und versucht auch nicht, die logischen Bindeglieder zwischen den einzelnen Gedanken hervorzuheben, denn er ist nie durch einen Schluß vom einen zum anderen Gedanken gekommen. Jeder ist eine Beobachtung für sich und stammt nicht aus einem Schluß, sondern aus einer Wahrnehmung. ... Formell treten daher seine Gedanken als Einfälle auf, blitzartig, ohne Zusammenhang untereinander". Even if Herder is perhaps not so extreme as Hamann in this regard, most striking about his Aelteste Urkunde is the exceedingly strange style of writing, full of emotional outbursts and exclamation marks, but refusing deliberately (and consistently) to build up a logical argument or follow some kind of didactic order of presentation: often the text reads like the written transcript of an improvised sermon - Herder did work as a minister during most of his life - that is meant to carry the audience along with a stream of mental images and exclamations rather than trying to convince it by means of a cogent line of argumentation. It is almost as if Herder is trying to hypnotize his readers through the sheer cumulative effect of an endless series of emotion-laden statements and repetitions, perhaps on the assumption that as long as those readers will just keep on reading, they will eventually give up the attempt at logical comprehension and will begin to "get it" by relinquishing control and submitting themselves to the flow of images and impressions.
So what is this text all about? A literal translation of Aelteste Urkunde des Menschengeschlechts might be "oldest document of the human race", but the German word has connotations that get lost in translation: what he means is some primal (Ur-) divine message or teaching (Kunde) that has been given to humanity at the dawn of history, and of which the biblical book of Genesis is the reflection. Herder spends much time refuting and ridiculing the countless attempts (definitely including those of the theosophers and rosicrucians) at reading some kind of sophisticated rational philosophy, doctrinal theology, natural science, or metaphysical speculation into the Genesis narrative. Instead, he insists, it is the simple but profound reflection of how the natural cycles of light and darkness, day and night, were experienced as expressions of divine power and agency by the people of the ancient orient. Herder's passionate plea for seeing Genesis as the expression of simple but profound religious feelings and sentiments grounded in the observation of natural processes (instead of the complicated but shallow theorizing of rationalists, who are blind to nature but in love with the speculative products of their own minds), may sound unremarkable to us today but was quite unusual in his own day and age and announces the sublime naturalism of the Romantics.
So far so good. Having made his point about the true nature of Genesis, Herder embarks on a search for the ultimate origins of this most ancient divine revelation. It definitely does not come from Moses but must be traced to more ancient oriental sources. And this leads us to the exceedingly strange chapter "Seven Holy Vowels", where he embarks on a particularly obscure chain of reasoning, full of excited exclamations, leading up to the conclusion that the essence of the ancient revelation can be reduced to a sevenfold symbolic figure that he links to "Hermes, Theut, Thot, Thaaut" (all names referring to the same mythical origin) and that somehow lies at the basis of all the ancient natural disciplines, the "seven sciences of Hermes".
From here on he continues with a long series of chapters on "hermetic" elements in ancient mythology and symbolism. All of it is extremely difficult to follow, not just because of Herder's unsystematic writing style but also because he is in constant discussion with a range of 18th-century authors who have been thoroughly forgotten today. Tracing his "hermetic" figure back ever further to its supposed origins, Herder moves from Egypt to Ethiopia, Greece, and Phoenicia, finally ending up with the "religion and wisdom" of the Sabaeians, the Chaldaeans, and the Zoroastrians. Finally, after almost four-hundred pages, it becomes clear (well, sort of...) that he wants to find a way of distinguishing between true and false gnosis as the origins of all true and false religion: "I believe we have reached the clearest source for everything. When it can be proven that there were religions in Asia that were older than Moses; that all of them were dreaming about the creation of the world; that all of them traced everything from there, even the miraculous; and that they were proud about this as about the most ancient religion, gnosis and wisdom of the world; that they saw - or despised, even cursed - Moses and the books of the Old Testament as younger bastard-children of their Primal Mother; when it can be demonstrated that this sect or sects were spread universally from India to Egypt and were in the highest esteem everywhere; and that everywhere, according to all the sources of the legend, their image was the bodily image of the gnostics, that their wisdom was the gnosis itself - see! then everything becomes clear! Gnosis ... is just the Greek name for what had long existed as Wisdom of the Chaldaeans". So what is Herder's point, really? Simply to say that the transcendent message of Christianity got mixed with the universal "religion of the world" from the very beginning, and that even Genesis has its origin from there. And he continues to make a similar point about the kabbalah in the Jewish context": its sources are "Chaldaean". But whereas many earlier and later authors (such as Jacob Brucker, to whom he refers quite a lot) argued that this very influence of pagan religion was the origin of all heresy, it seems that Herder does not quite want to make up his mind about whether it was a good or a bad thing: he seems to have too much admiration for the original, simple but universal message of "natural religion" to bring himself to see it as a source of evil. And as a result, it remains unclear how his book must be read, and what point he really wants to make. Probably it makes most sense to see the Aelteste Urkunde as an early attempt at comparative mythology and the history of ancient oriental religions, ending with an annoying cliffhanger: "Wait, reader, and have patience! ... the best is yet to come!" But it doesn't come. All we get is a table of contents at the end: no conclusion, and no explanation of why we have been taken through all those 450 pages of erudite, confused and excited prose. Herder keeps exclaiming that "now everything becomes clear", but forgets to explain what it is that needed to be clarified in the first place.
I must admit: my excursus into the discourse of the "counter-Enlightenment" leaves me with very ambiguous feelings so far. What is the point of high-handed rejections of Enlightenment rationalism and its "empty abstractions" if the alternative is just an emphasis on raw emotional expression and a stubborn refusal to be clear about what one wants to say? And it seems to be the same problem with Herder's master Hamann. Betz' study After Enlightenment turns out to be the project of philosopher with fundamentalist Christian convictions who seems to like Hamann mostly because he is so radical in rejecting rationalist thinking. He keeps repeating that Hamann's alternative is "faith", but never really explains what that means, or why we should care. Yes, sure, Hamann is a Christian who doesn't like the Enlightenment - but does he have anything to offer beyond that? I suppose he must have, but Betz doesn't tell us. He just keeps repeating "faith!", as if that explains everything. And to be honest, Isaiah Berlin is not much better. Although he insists on Hamann's importance as "the first out-and-out opponent of the French Enlighenment", he claims to be neither interested in nor competent to discuss Hamann's theology and religious metaphysics (p. xv); and in discussing his thinking nevertheless, Berlin himself is often as incomprehensible as his topic of discussion. I have a sneaking suspicion that half of the time he doesn't have a clue about what Hamann is saying either, but keeps writing anyway. Aargh....
So has all of this been "creative reading" or just a waste of time? I'm not sure. I certainly have a better sense of Hamann and (particularly Herder) than I had before, but I don't feel I "get" them at all. Should I persist until I do? Or should I conclude that in fact there isn't much to be gotten here in the first place?  I'm not one to give up when the going gets difficult, but is there anything at the end of this particular road at all? Honestly, I have no idea... To read or not to read, that's the question.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Academic Suicide

John Marco Allegro (1923-1988) counts among the textbook examples of respected scholars committing "academic suicide", and I have always been curious about his case. From 1953 on, he belonged to the small group of specialists who were deciphering the sensational scrolls and fragments found at Qumran in 1947, and he made his name with a book The Dead Sea Scrolls published in 1956. But then, in 1970, he published a book that he believed would cause a revolution in New Testament scholarship but that ruined his career and his reputation instead: The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East. What happened? How could he have made such a fatal misjudgment? How did he handle the fallout? What happened with him afterwards?
I hoped to find answers in a book written by Allegro's daughter Judith Anne Brown, John Marco Allegro: The Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It turned out to be a strange, partly fascinating, but ultimately disappointing read. The book starts out as a very well written and quite interesting story about a young man who, after World War II, decides to study theology in view of a clerical career but discovers a gift - turning into a passion - for ancient languages instead. While he is working on a Ph.D. in semitic languages, his supervisor recommends him to join the team of scholars working on the Qumran scrolls, and thus he arrives in Jerusalem in 1953. The story of what happened during the ensuing years - growing tensions and conflicts between the members of the scholarly team and endless delays in the publication of the scrolls, leading to frenzied media speculations and popular conspiracy theories about the church attempting to "suppress the truth" about the true origins of Christianity - has been told before, for instance by Geza Vermes (The Story of the Scrolls), and Brown provides a detailed and interesting account of her own, with an obvious emphasis on the role of her father and plenty of quotations from otherwise inaccessible correspondence. On the positive side, Allegro would seem to have been motivated by a sincere search for scholarly truth and intellectual honesty, a great enthusiasm for providing the public with reliable information about the scrolls and their implications, and a healthy disregard of theological scruples. But on the less positive side, one sees a consistent pattern of self-promotion and opportunism. Allegro seems to have understood much better than most of his colleagues that they needed to use the media to generate funding for their research; but once he had discovered his own talents as a popularizer, he seems to have gradually fallen prey to the temptations of fame and media attention.
 The sacred mushroom book marked the transition from Allegro the respected scholar to Allegro the ridiculed maverick; but unfortunately, the moment his daughter's begins discussing it in her 10th chapter, the quality of her narrative begins to decline as well. I had hoped for some historical and biographical contextualization that would help me understand where Allegro got his ideas in the first place, and what inspired him to make such a surprising and risky move.What was he reading during the 1960s? Was he familiar with authors such as Robert Graves or Gordon Wasson, who were pursuing similar agendas? Did he have any personal relations to people involved in the counterculture and the youth movement of the time? But Brown spends not a word on such questions: it looks as if for her, too, the mushroom book came suddenly and out of the blue. Unfortunately, her analysis of the mushroom book and its argument is not really convincing either. She makes a valiant attempt, but is clearly unaware of the fact that Allegro's idea of interpreting early Christianity in terms of ancient fertility cults was by no means as original as he might have thought (see, for instance, the phallicist hypothesis of religion and Christianity that was proposed by Enlightenment libertines already during the 18th century), and one gets the impression that her father's argumentation goes considerably over her head. Not that there is any shame in that: in fact The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross is a difficult book, grounded in an enormous apparatus of learned footnotes full of philological and etymological arguments referring to a whole range of ancient languages. What seems to have disappointed Allegro most is that none of his academic colleagues took the trouble to confront his argument on the level of philology and were content to dismiss it out of hand as just a cheap piece of "sex & drugs & Jesus" sensationalism.
But then again, Allegro himself was not exactly averse to sensationalism either. He loved to be in the spotlight, he got a kick out of upsetting religious or academic authorities and playing the role of the anti-establishment rebel or "martyr for truth", and became ever more sloppy and careless with his evidence and his argumentation as time wore on. His daughter's biography leaves me quite convinced about his intellectual integrity and good intentions during the first half of his career, up to and including the mushroom book, but the story ends with a rather painful account of intellectual and moral decline during the last two decades of his life.
POSTSCRIPT. By chance, this week I came across what seems to be the only recorded video interview with Allegro. For Dutch viewers of my generation this has a particular interest, for Allegro was interviewed by Kees van Kooten and Wim de Bie. At the time of the recording (1976), "Koot & Bie", as they were called, were absolutely famous in the Netherlands, because of their weekly satirical TV program "Het Simplistisch Verbond" (the Simplistic Alliance). Non-Dutch viewers may not even notice, but Allegro was walking with open eyes into a trap by accepting to be questioned by these two: to any regular viewer of "Het Simplistisch Verbond", it would be obvious that Koot & Bie could not possibly have serious intentions but were out to make fun of him all along. And they succeed brilliantly: precisely by making him believe they are genuinely interested, they let poor Allegro do all the work for them. Note how, during the course of the interview, they slowly creep up to Allegro from both sides, until the situation gets so claustrofobic that Kees van Kooten suggests they should get a breath of fresh air. Outside in the garden they are wearing their famous black barets with buttons of "The Simplistic Alliance" (logo: a carpet-beater), while Allegro, in blissful innocence, continues assisting them in his own self-demolition, even arguing at one point that Jesus' cross reflects the shape of a mushroom... It's all very comical, but ultimately very tragic too: even six years after his book was published, Allegro still does not seem to have understood the impression he was making, and still believed that foreign journalists were knocking on his door for no other reason than a serious interest to learn his scholarly opinions about the birth of Christianity as a mushroom cult.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Even Bigger than Aegypt?

Should I include fiction in this blog? I've been hesitating, but finally decided that I don't want to be too strict here about distinguished between academic publications and fictional prose. It has been some time since my last posting, not because I stopped reading and not even because I went on vacation (I wish...), but because practically all my attention had to go to two Ph.D. theses that are in their very final stages, plus a whole series of MA theses and papers (on which: see previous posting). In between, when the weather allowed it, I've been playing with my cats or relaxing on my roof terrace while reading an absolute enchanting novel by the American writer John Crowley. I think it's sufficiently close to my professional work to be mentioned here, for one of Crowley's special attractions, for me at least, is his considerable expertise in my own field of research.
Just a few years ago I read the four volumes of his Aegypt cycle, which intrigued me in particular because of Crowley's profound musings about history (which seems to be a numen for him, as it is for me), but also because of the way in which figures such as John Dee or Giordano Bruno appear in his work. I was sufficiently captured to read all four novels in a row, and don't regret it, but they did not prepare me for the powerful impression that his earlier novel Little, Big is now making on me. Interestingly, it somehow didn't attract me very much when I first leafed through it. But once I started reading it in earnest, I found myself overwhelmed by some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read, in any language. Perhaps it's just me, but reading this novel feels like an intoxicating, synaesthetic drift through a never-ending symphony of pure sensual delight. I find myself re-reading passages and even entire chapters for no other reason than to re-experience the pure joy that this language gives me. But what about the content? Well, this is one of those books where the less one says about it before reading, the better. Even a summary could end up giving a totally wrong impression. Yes, it is a faery tale in the most literal sense, full of magic and mystery - but much more importantly, it is very great literature. It makes you see the world in a different way, makes you ask questions you'd never considered before, makes you fall in love with persons you'll never meet (particularly, in my case - halfway through the book now - with a woman carrying a name as luxuriously flamboyant as Daily Alice Drinkwater), and of course, it makes you feel the book should never end - or should at least have an endless number of sequels.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Paper Trail

After moving back from Göttingen to Amsterdam, dealing with the unavoidable homecoming chores, then a board meeting and a workshop (both very successful, and a welcome occasion to see friends and colleagues from all over Europe), finally I'm getting some opportunies for reading again. But not yet for reading exactly what I want: rather, my desk is now full of papers and thesis chapters (with deadlines attached to them, of course). Outsiders tend to underestimate how much time academics are spending on such tasks, and how different reading student work is from reading published books or articles for one's own research: one cannot just concentrate on the contents, but part of one's mind must be constantly alert to such critical matters as sentence structure, use of footnotes and references, logic and coherence of the overall argument, and, subliminally at least, what grade it deserves (I tend so see a mental pointer before my mind's eye, moving up and down the scale while I get through the text: the all-important question being where it is by the time I've reached the end). Not that I mean to complain - I mean, how would I dare? I just read an interview with Martha Nussbaum in the Amsterdam University paper Folia, and in spite of her well-deserved celebrity status (40 honorary doctorates, if I remember correctly), she says that right after this interview she, too, will go home to meet the humble task of grading written exams, reading and commenting upon term papers, and emailing with students (Bachelor and Master) about their plans and ideas.
A shining example for all of us. Most university staff tend to complain about having to waste so much of their precious time on reading student papers, and I admit that I've had my moments of despair too. But if Nussbaum can do it, then so can we. And so we should, for if it has taken us years to master the essential skills of scholarly writing and argumentation - and one hopes we have! - then it's not just our responsibility but our privilege to pass that knowledge and experience on to the next generation.
Fortunately I'm blessed with my readings this evening. Admittedly I first had to get through a written product of appalling quality, on which I will be silent, but then came the good stuff. Of course I'll preserve anonymity here, but let me say that I've been enjoying a truly exemplary report of anthropological fieldwork on the Dutch Santo Daime church (known for it's use of a mind-altering tea, ayahuasca or daime, as their central sacrament), written with all the sophistication, perceptiveness, and attention to detail that such a delicate topic deserves. What followed was a highly informative paper on the myth of the "Mother Wheel" in the Nation of Islam, from which I learned a lot. And tomorrow I'll continue with an MA thesis on William Blake and a PhD chapter on contemporary kabbalah. I ventured a sneak preview and they, too, look very promising. Today my students make me proud.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Historical Unconsciousness

I have to review a collective volume titled Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth-Century German Thought (2010), edited by Angus Nicholls and Martin Liebscher, and the further I get, the more I'm surprised and, frankly, upset by what I'm reading. The history of the unconscious (or rather, of conceptualizing the unconscious) was put on the agenda by Henri F. Ellenberger in his classic The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970) and although it has been rightly criticized for its "realist" agenda (i.e. assumption that the unconscious has always "existed" and just needed to be "discovered", which finally happened in the 19th century), that monograph is still unique for its comprehensiveness and solid historical scholarship. Forty-two years later, one would hope for a volume such as Thinking the Unconscious to show some evidence of progress in our understanding of the history of psychological theorizing; but instead, the book reflects a shocking lack of historical consciousness, with one author after the other falling spectacularly and with eyes wide open into the trap of what used to be called "Whiggishness" and is nowadays often referred to as "Presentism". The strange thing is that the editors would seem to be at least nominally aware of the problem: they pay lip service to Elke Völmicke's warnings (in his Das Unbewusste im Deutschen Idealismus, 2005) about precisely that kind of anachronistic distortion. But they don't seem to have grasped the point: after the Introduction, the book immediately begins with a series of chapters that show a spectacular lack of historical sensitivity in simply projecting the whole machinery of Freudian psychoanalysis or contemporary philosophical concerns back onto 18th-19th century authors seen as "pioneers" of the unconscious. I will save the full argument for my book review, but just to give a example: how can there be any question of "Goethe's historical relation to psychoanalysis" (p. 91, and several repetitions)? There is no such relation, and there cannot possibly be one, for the simple reason that one cannot have a relationship with something that does not (yet) exist. At most, one could speak of "psychoanalysis' relation to Goethe", because Goethe and his work did exist in Freud's time. But the authors never seem to grasp that there is a difference, and seem blind to the consequences of missing the point. It may seem like a question of theoretical trivia at first sight, but it isn't: it's a fallacy that leads to strings of distortions and misinterpretations, as demonstrated page after page by the chapters under discussion.
Another reason for utter amazement is the strange obsession of so many contributors with Goethe: it's almost as if they think an article cannot be complete unless Goethe has made his appearance in it, relevant or not. What is worse, as a Goethe-admirer and lover of the Faust tragedy I could hardly believe my eyes about what one of the contributors makes out of the famous "Prologue in Heaven" between God and Mephistopheles. "Faust is driven by a 'dark impulse' (dunkler Drang), which will ultimately, so the Lord thinks, bear the fruit of humanity" (p. 171, idem on 162). The point being, of course, that this "dark impulse" means the unconscious. But that's not at all what Goethe wrote. The text says "Ein guter Mensch in seinem dunklen Drange / ist sich des rechten Weges wohl bewußt": this means simply that Faust - a good man, according to the Lord - may be deeply confused by his dark drives (his unconscious, if you wish) but nevertheless won't lose sight entirely of the difference between good and evil. That's something very different, as anyone can see who just reads the text. And what's worse, the second example given by this author is even more wrong. Faust gives Mephistopheles permission to take him to hell if, but only if, he (Faust) will experience just one moment of such happiness and bliss that he wishes it would never pass ("Werd' ich zum Augenblicke sagen: / Verweile doch! Du  bist so schön! / Dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen ..."). But what do we read in this book chapter? "As a symbol of the unconscious Faust has no sense of the present" (p. 171). What nonsense! Again, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Goethe's text: it's just about the author's own preoccupations.
Why do I get so angry and offended by stuff like this? Because it's not just incompetent but damaging as well. If scholars have no respect for simple truth and plain evidence, then they make a mockery out of the academic enterprise, adding fuel to the poor reputation that the humanities are already suffering among the wider public.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dreamtime is over

Later this week I'm giving a paper about Will-Erich Peuckert at a conference in Siegen about Trance and Folklore. Because of that topic I decided to prepare myself a bit by taking a closer look at a famous academic cultbook of the 1970s that I had bought second-hand last week, Hans Peter Duerr's Traumzeit: Über die Grenze zwischen Wildniss und Zivilisation. From what I've heard, it made big waves in Germany at the time of publication, selling a stunning number of 150.000 copies.
But it turned out to be a disappointment. Some books (academic or not) become bestsellers because they hit the Zeitgeist exactly at the right moment, and this is definitely a good example. But the flip side is that they tend to age badly: they start their career as a "secondary source" widely read by scholars and students and taken seriously for its supposed contribution to research, but end up as a "primary source" documenting a mentality that is no longer ours. They may escape that fate only if the sharpness and originality of their analysis transcends the contingencies of their original time and place.
What must have made Duerr's book super-cool at the end of the 1970s is the combination of two things: (1) a countercultural valuation of everything that ran counter to establishment society and its Christian and rationalist values (myth, magic, the non-rational, sexual expression, ecstasy, and most of all, psychoactive substances) and (2) a display of scholarly erudition so extreme as to make it impossible for critical academics to dismiss it out of hand. And if I write extreme, I mean just that: Duerr's actual text is ca. 200 pages long, followed by ca. 340 pages of footnotes and a bibliography of 90 pages. Let me hasten to point out that I have nothing against many footnotes and long bibliographies, on the contrary. But the problem of Duerr's book is that it is not actually a coherent argument backed up by references: it is a toppled-over file cabinet documenting the author's voracious reading - or at least, so one hopes! -, while the main text amounts to little more than some comments on those readings and a largely unsuccessful attempt at creating some semblance of order. For even most of those 200 pages of text are not really by Duerr himself: to a large extent, they consist of quotations from those sources mentioned in the footnotes. If one were to delete those quotations, one would be surprised by how little text there remains. And what does the text say? Not very much either. Duerr is adept in the art of suggesting profound thoughts without keeping his eye on the ball and finishing arguments up to their conclusions. Moreover, his later chapters degenerate into the kind of quasi-philosophizing that seems profound after many glasses of wine late at night, but not so much so in the hard light of morning. No, this is not the way to do it. Duerr's topics are fascinating and they deserve serious study. His footnotes and bibliographies are full of treasures. And I agree with him that we need to learn much more about the role of ecstasy and trance in religion and culture, whether induced by psychoactive substances or by other means. All of this deserves our attention as scholars. But not this way.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Memories of a Magician

Before there were books, there were manuscripts. Another sideline to my research here in Göttingen has to do with Will-Erich Peuckert (1895-1969), remembered mostly as a folklore specialist today, but also the most important German pioneer in the academic study of "Western esotericism". As an undergraduate I came across his classic Pansophie: Eine Geschichte der weissen und schwarzen Magie, and it decisively influenced my choice of specialization. I've had a weak spot for Peuckert ever since. His Nachlass is kept here in Göttingen, so of course I took the opportunity to take a look at it. Among other things, I came across an enigmatic type-written manuscript titled Erinnerungen eines Zauberers (Memories of a Magician). I've photographed in its entirety, and am playing with the idea of an annotated edition.
It's a very strange text. The catalogue lists it as "autobiographical", and that's exactly what it looks like at first: although the author refers to himself as a magician rather than a professor of Folklore studies, his childhood memories and the description of his personal development and scholarly interests look like a perfect match with what we know about Peuckert's life. Already on the first pages one understands that the text is in fact a kind of personal confession, and it still fits that pattern that the author continues by describing his sexual exploits as a young man, explaining in detail how he learned to use traditional recipes of love magic for seducing any woman he wanted. So far so good. Credulity is stretched beyond the breaking point, however, when we reach the chapter where he confesses actually murdering a rival by means of black magic! As the narrative unfolds, more and more details creep in that conflict with what we know of Peuckert's life, and one finally realizes that this must be a mixture of fiction and autobiography. Of course that makes it all the more intriguing. Because the resemblance with the real Peuckert is so strong, one cannot help wondering about the exact amount of historicity in what turns out, in the end, to be a classic example of the "gothic" genre full of Faustian overtones. It tells the story of a magical Casanova whose pursuit of lust and power causes him to fall into the clutches of evil, but who is finally saved from the Abyss by the pure and selfless love of a woman who sacrifices herself to save his soul... The narrative is interspersed, however, with long reflections about the true nature of magic, the true nature of good and evil, and the true nature of history and time. Those discussions have "Peuckert" written all over them, but go far beyond the boundaries of scholarly argument, and it is almost impossible to read them otherwise than as reflections of Peuckert's deepest personal convictions. Today I compared them with the other two "autobiographical" files in the Nachlass, and made some interesting discoveries. A magician of sorts is hidden behind the scholar of magic, and this throws new light on some core dimensions of his work as a historian.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pagans in Schwabing

I am presently working as a fellow at the Lichtenberg Kolleg in Göttingen, Germany. I arrived here on April 1 and will move back to Amsterdam on July 1, so my stay is nearing its end. It has been an interesting experience to be living in a quiet German university town, and being part of a small community of scholars from all over the world who are working in many different academic disciplines and are all in the same situation away from home. Most of my afternoons and evenings I've spent reading (mostly in Göttingen's best Konditorei, because of the pleasant atmosphere without background music: ideal reading conditions for me).
This autumn I have to give a conference lecture on the "pagan" and mythical dimensions of the German poet Stefan George, and therefore part of my reading has been connected with him. George is an unusual topic for me, but he has interested me ever since my days as a conservatory student, when I got to know him through the many songs that were composed to his poetry by Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern. Last year I read the large English biography of George by Robert L. Norton, and last week I finished its more recent German counterpart: Thomas Karlauf's Stefan George: Die Entdeckung des Charisma. An ideal biography: very well documented, equally well written, and very convincing in its interpretation of this weirdest of all poets. I am now following it up with a book about how the devoted members of George's famous "circle" handled his legacy after his death in 1933: Ulrich Rauff, Kreis ohne Meister: Stefan Georges Nachleben. Excellent quality again, and yesterday I was particularly impressed by the chapter "Hildebrandt's Lied", about the self-stylization of George and his followers as a modern "Platonic Academy" (a homo-erotic hidden church of the spirit - "Secret Germany" - consisting of handsome young men who looked up to The Master as the one to whom they owed their "spiritual regeneration"). And finally some light reading as well, still connected to the same topic: Gunna Wendt's biography Franziska zu Reventlow: Die anmutige Rebellin. As a biography it's only so-so, but it gives an interesting sidelight on the famous bohemian milieu in Schwabing, Munich, in the years before and after 1900, circling around Stefan George and his Kreis, the notorious "Kosmiker" around Ludwig Klages and Alfred Schuler, and (last but not least) the indomitable spirit of Franziska zu Reventlow herself, the "pagan madonna" of Schwabing: a novelist, painter and satiricist, free spirit, pioneer of polyamorous love, model of female self-determination, and quite simply an adorable person. Quite a positive counterpart to George, whose only concept of "friendship" was one in which the other subjugated himself completely to his will (his pupils required the Master's permission to get married! And if they were too close to him, he was sure to say "no"). A more egotistic and narcissistic personality is hard to imagine, but admittedly he was a highly gifted poet as well, next to many other things, such as the direct model for Max Weber's concept of "charisma". How George managed to cast his spell so successfully and dominate everyone around him remains something of a mystery to the present day.