Monday, April 29, 2013

The Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum

Still (ayyy) rewriting my introduction to my translation of Francisco I. Madero's Spiritist Manual of 1911. I'd aimed to have that ready for the second edition an eon ago, but it turns out that to do it to my properly, I had to delve into an entire library's worth of reading on Spiritualism, Spiritism, Theosophy, metaphysics, and 19th century science-- not to mention reviewing Madero's personal library itself (more about that esoteric treasure trove anon).

For those new to my blog and Mexican history: Francisco I. Madero was the leader of Mexico's 1910 Revolution and Mexico's democratically elected President from 1911-1913, when his government was overthrown and he was murdered. For this reason alone, his Spiritist Manual, an evangelical statement of faith and political philosophy, stands as a key document in Mexican history. When I first came upon it, in his archive in Mexico's Ministry of Finance, I was astonished to learn that no one-- no one in 100 years-- had translated it. So I decided to do it, and without really understanding what would be involved, for the material is exceedingly strange. What to make of the parts about interplanetary reincarnation, for example? Was Madero mad, as his detractors claimed? It turns out, it's not so simple. His Spiritist Manual, exotic as it may appear, sits firmly within the tradition of 19th century American and European metaphysical tradition.

Stay tuned: the new edition with my revised and expanded introduction will be available soon in both Kindle and iBook, plus paperback.

Apropos of that, I just finished reading a book I wish I'd read sooner, for it is so well researched, so elegantly written, and provides a solid context for Madero's (and his fellow Spiritists') perception of Spiritism as science: Ghost Hunters: William James and the search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Its author is Deborah Blum, one of the most outstanding science journalists in the country. (No doubt I'll be adding it to my annual Top 10 Books Read.)

Spiritists (French and Latin American followers of the closely related Spiritualism-- note the "u" in the latter) believed that theirs was both a religion and a science-- and in the late 19th century and early 20th, paid special attention to the efforts of scientists such as Harvard University's William James, British physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, and Nobel prize winning medical researcher Charles Richet. This particular trio conducted research with mediums such as Leonora Piper, who  would fall into a trance and channel various personalities, among them, including "Imperator," and the flamboyant Neapolitan Eusapia Palladino, whose seances were remarkable for their psychokinetic phenomena such a billowing curtains, floating mandolins and ectoplasmic hands.  Just as today, a minority of scientists found this compelling while the majority of their peers met it with severe skepticism and even hostility.

P.S. Check out this fascinating interview with Deborah Blum.