[Paleopsych] NYT: When Séances and Science Boggle Equally
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When Séances and Science Boggle Equally
Books of The Times | 'Spook'
Science Tackles the Afterlife.
By Mary Roach.
Illustrated. 311 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.
By JANET MASLIN
Mary Roach's journey into the occult takes her to as many strange
places as she can scare up. Having written a humorous book about
corpses ("Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers"), Ms. Roach has
now ventured one step further into the unknown. On this new journey,
she is supposedly searching for answers to life's great questions
about the migration of the soul. But readers of "Stiff" know what to
expect: the author is looking for quacks.
Those quacks are sitting ducks for Ms. Roach's fine-tuned sense of the
absurd. So Ms. Roach studies ectoplasm, notes that it looks like woven
material and learns of a researcher who in 1921 asked of disembodied
spirits: "Have you a loom in your world?"
She visits India to look for firsthand evidence that spirits return.
(This trip was worth it for the chapter title alone. It is called "You
Again: A Visit to the Reincarnation Nation.") She finds scientists who
have identified the weight lost by a dying person and notes that a
recent movie title used the metric version of that figure, "21 Grams."
("Who's going to go see a movie called 'Point Seven Five Ounces'?" she
asks.) She cites two Dutch physicists, J. L. W. P. Matla and G. J.
Zaalberg van Zelst, and notes that one worked with a Ouija board. She
hopes that "the question 'What is my full name and that of my
partner?' was never posed." And she digs up the fact that
Elizabeth Taylor claimed to have had a near-death experience but
was sent back to the land of the living by one of her husbands, Mike
Todd, then adds: "Whether this was done for her benefit or his is not
How serious is Ms. Roach in wondering about life after death? Not
very. She appears more concerned with comic effects than cosmic ones,
and she is constantly on the lookout for entertainingly bizarre
details and turns of phrase. In the index to a 17th-century medical
text by a Paduan physiologist named Sanctorius, she finds "Phlebotomy,
why best in autumn" and "Leaping, its consequences."
In "The Ordinances of Manu," a legal text based on Vedic scripture
that dates to A.D. 500, she finds that a rogue Brahman may be forced
to reincarnate as "the ghost Ulkamukha, an eater of vomit." Her survey
of early homeopathic medicine yields the fact that chamomile was said
to cause this symptom: "Cannot be civil to the doctor." Ms. Roach also
finds out about a medium who relayed this news from the next world:
"It's Florida without the humidity."
Obviously, Ms. Roach's gift for facetiousness serves her well here.
"Spook" is dependably witty, especially when it ventures far into the
ether (a zone that Ms. Roach describes as "a sort of floating reunion
hall" for those who are - to use a favorite term in this field of
research - discarnate). And it is populated by vividly evoked
oddballs, like Duncan Macdougall, an early-20th-century theorist who
supposed that the departing soul would be separated from its body with
Macdougall's unpleasant wife survived him by 35 years. "Depending on
whether Macdougall was right or wrong about gravity's hold on souls,
this could mean that when the missus' soul finally shed its earthly
shell, Duncan's own soul would be 38 billion miles away," Ms. Roach
writes. "To every cloud, a silver lining."
"Spook" has great appeal on the basis of Ms. Roach's droll research.
But it is afflicted with the same problem common to its spirit-world
subjects: insubstantiality. Although she does her best to avoid what
the book calls "the Big Shrug," she is not always able to learn much
from the string of research outings described here. And though it
would be unreasonable to expect Ms. Roach to settle all mysteries
connected with the afterlife, it's fair to hope that her stories come
to some kind of conclusion. Sometimes she simply reaches a dead end.
After its prologue in India (a place of "glittery jackets and
curly-uppy-toed slippers"), "Spook" proceeds more or less
chronologically. It devotes separate chapters to the various fads and
theories that have dominated ideas about life after death. And it
points out that those who are most powerfully drawn to the subject
have often lost loved ones and are eager to re-establish contact for
personal reasons. A poignant footnote to this material is the great
attention paid to the afterlife in the wake of World War I.
Ms. Roach makes herself a wry, enjoyable character throughout the
book's escapades, whether doing research at a Cambridge library (where
"the youth to my left is sacrificing his vision and social life to
medieval land transfers") or attending an English school for mediums
(where "spirits" is pronounced "spit-its") or actually asking
questions. "Remember," she warns one scientist, "in replying to me,
pretend you are talking to a seventh-grader."
Not quite. In "Spook," she makes a clever investigator and a
thoroughly entertaining, if skeptical, tour guide. But in the end,
despite her doubts, she winds up on the occultists' side. "The
debunkers are probably right," she concludes, "but they're no fun to
visit a graveyard with."
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