Saturday, March 10, 2007

BOOK: L. Sprague de Camp, "The Ragged Edge of Science"

L. Sprague de Camp: The Ragged Edge of Science. Philadelphia, PA: Owlswick Press, 1980. 0913896063. x + 244 pp.

L. Sprague de Camp was primarily a science fiction author, but he also wrote several popular science books and articles. Last year I read his Citadels of Mystery, and some time before that I also read his Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature. I quite enjoyed both of them, so when I noticed The Ragged Edge of Science on eBay, I didn't hesitate much before deciding to buy it and read it.

This book is basically a collection of articles, on various subjects, all of which he had previously published in various magazines, mostly during the 1950s and 60s (and a few in the early 70s). Thus, I guess that some of these articles are probably fairly out-of-date by now, but on the other hand, many of them are about topics where a few decades more or less probably don't make such a big difference. The common thread is that these are skeptical takes on subjects that are often muddled by paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.

Ancient civilizations

The first part of the book is about various ancient civilizations, with an emphasis on the various pseudoscientific theories that have been proposed about them.

There's a chapter about the Maya (pp. 2–20), with a discussion of the various diffusionist theories that hypothesised that the Maya had a common origin with various other real or hypothetical ancient civilizations (such as Egypt or Atlantis). This includes a good debunking of diffusionism. Sometimes similarities between unrelated cultures can be explained by the simple fact that people everywhere were faced with the same limited set of options, e.g. in the case of burial customs: “you can only do so many things with a corpse: bury it as among us, burn it like the Hindus, mount it as in Inca Peru, throw it away as in Tibet, or eat it like the ancient Irish.” (P. 14. The Irish never disappoint. For more kooky ancient Irish funerary customs, see my post about Citadels of Mystery.) Incidentally, I was interested to learn that the hammock is an Indian invention, unknown in the old world before Columbus' time (p. 20).

There's a chapter about myths, how they develop, what they mean, and why it's usually not a very good idea to interpret them too literally as reports of actual historic events (pp. 21–46).

“[. . .] while the myths of primitives often show a childish irrationality, they still reflect the lives and customs of those who tell them. [. . .] In this way the Polynesian myths have to do with the Polynesian's main amusements: war, water sports, genealogy, and adultery, and the winner of a contest has the privilege of eating the loser.” (P. 23. You can see right away that this chapter is based on an article written in 1955 — he'd probably be flayed alive if he dared to write something like that now... :-))

“The Church Father Tertullian went into a perfect frenzy in describing his Hell: ‘What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy and exultation, as I see those kings, those great kings . . . groaning in the depths of darkness! [. . .]’ And so on, in a transport of sadistic gloating, he describes with drooling malevolence the roasting of actors, charioteers, poets, athletes, and everybody else whom he disliked.” (P. 44. A footnote says that the quote is from De spectaculis 20.)

There's a very short chapter about the civilization of Kush in Sudan, noted for its pyramids (pp. 47–51). De Camp also tells a few anecdotes from his visit to the Sudan: “I thought what I needed to add to the junk in my study was a well-bleached Sudanese camel's skull. [. . .] Not knowing the Arabic for ‘skull,’ I said I wanted the head of a camel [. . .] Oh, said Tejani, that would be easy. We should stop at Shendi, where I could buy a camel, cut off its head, and take it with me!” (pp. 47–8; he didn't).

There's a chapter about Troy (pp. 52–61), the archeological work there from Schliemann onwards, what we have learned about the history of Troy from these archaeological discoveries, and how this compares to the legend of Troy in Homer's poems. Interestingly, he uses the Greek spelling “Mykenai” instead of Mycenae (p. 58; in Citadels of Mystery he used “Mykenê”; the show-off!).

He mentions Hittite records containing names remarkably similar to those of some of the people in Homer's poems, e.g. Atreus (p. 59). “In Hittite times, there were two kingdoms in western Asia Minor: Arzawa in the southwest and Assuwa north of it. ‘Assuwa’ evolved through ‘Asua’ and ‘Asüa’ into our word ‘Asia,’ which originally meant the country later called Lydia.” (Pp. 59–60.)

There's a chapter about King Arthur and the Round Table (pp. 62–72); well, not really about him and his knights, since not much can be reliably said about them (including whether they existed or not), but about how the story evolved from the first vague mentions in the works of early medieval chroniclers (Gildas, Bede and Nennius) to the full story that we find in the later medieval romances.

There's an extremely short chapter (pp. 73–4) about the ruins of a Roman tower, the Tour Magne, in Nîmes, France.

There's a chapter about Teotihuacán (pp. 75–83) and another about the Toltecs (pp. 84–90); these are two less well-known pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, and these two chapters are simply short introductions to them, without any particular references to pseudoscientific theories or anything of that sort.

“The Mexican Indians were in that stage between barbarism and civilization where most gods seem to demand unlimited human sacrifices. Many Old World peoples, such as the Sumerians, the Chinese, the Phoenicians, the Celts, and the semi-civilized West Africans, passed through such a stage.” (P. 87.) “Human sacrifice played a part in many older religions, such as that of the Gauls and the Phoenicians. It occurred in Rome as late as the Second Punic War.” (P. 143.)


The second part of the book is about various subjects related to occultism.

There's an interesting chapter about the origins of the mystic trance (pp. 93–102); how this trance has been described by various mystics, and what may be the psychological and physiological mechanisms that lead to it. De Camp suggests that many memories and mental images, buried deep within the mind and quite forgotten by its conscious part, may sometimes, due to a malfunction of a part of the brain, unexpectedly flood the consciousness, and that this unusual occurrence is then experienced by the person as the mystic trance, with its attendant visions etc. (pp. 99–100).

He cites an interesting experiment by William James, who “by a nitrous-oxide intoxication [. . .] received a startling sense of metaphysical illumination [. . .] A torrent of ideas poured through his mind [. . .] He dictated as many of these ideas as he could, ‘which at the moment of transcribing were fused in the fire of infinite rationality’; but, when he came to read the result, it consisted of such drivel as: ‘By God, how that hurts! By God, how it doesn't hurt! Reconciliation of two extremes.’ ” (P. 97. The quotes are from James's essay Subjective effects of nitrous oxide.)

There's a chapter about the various silly occultist legends involving Mount Shasta, a tall volcano in northern California (pp. 103–112). The kooks involved in this story include Frederick Spencer Oliver and Guy and Edna Ballard, who even went so far as to found their own religious movement (‘I AM’).

“Ballardism may be described as a caricature of Theosophy. Since Theosophy has itself been authoritatively defined as ‘a caricature of Eastern thought and Western science,’ you can get some idea of Ballardism.” (P. 106. The quote is from Yoga: a scientific evaluation, by one K. T. Behanan.)

St Germain [an 18th-century occultist whom the Ballards pretended to follow] hated red and black because these were the colors of Communism and the Black Magicians respectively. Consequently the I AM publications were printed in purple ink.” (P. 108.)

There's an interesting chapter with short biographies of various famous charlatans who pretended to have occult powers (pp. 113–129); most of the space is devoted to Cagliostro and Aleister Crowley. On pp. 128–9 there's a hilarious list of absurdly pompous titles that Crowley invented for himself: “ ‘Most Holy, Most Illustrious, Most Illuminated, and Most Puissant Baphomet Xº Rex Summus Sanctissimus [. . .] Grand Zerubbabel of the Order of the Holy Royal Arch of Enoch, etc. etc. etc. [. . .]’ Crowley knew perfectly well that these fine titles existed only in his head, but he printed the stuff anyway. Somebody might be impressed.” OMG. Grand Zerubbabel? Grand Zerubbabel? Who the heck could be impressed by this, rather than falling into a fit of laughter? I'm surprised he didn't top it all off by proclaiming himself the Grand Panjandrum...

There's a chapter about the prominent theosophist, C. W. Leadbeater (pp. 130–140).

There's a short chapter about the kabbalah (pp. 141–8).

There's a chapter about various people who, under hypnosis, claimed to remember events from their previous incarnations (pp. 149–157). This seems to be related to the problem of multiple or dissociated personalities, as described by some psychologists (see the interesting example on pp. 155–6).

There's a curious chapter about the Taxil hoax (pp. 158–168). In the late 19th century, Leo Taxil and various other authors took advantage of the virulent anti-Freemason feelings in the French catholic church at the time, and published shocking revelations of satanic worship among the Freemasons, complete with human sacrifice, contacts with demons, etc. Their books sold well, received much praise from the catholic hierarchy, and the hoax went on for twelve years before Taxil finally decided to end it and publicly declare that it had all been just a hoax.

There are two pages of quotations from the writings of Karl Hacks, one of Taxil's collaborators, who claimed to have witnessed abominable rituals in Freemason lodges in India and Ceylon (pp. 162–3). Their efforts to summon Beelzebub are as hilarious as they were unsuccessful: “the ill-ventilated place reeked with horrible putrescence [. . .] mainly owing to the presence of various fakirs, who, though still alive, were in advanced stages of putrefaction. [. . .] the native Grand Master suggested that the evocation should be performed by the holiest of all the fakirs, who was produced from a cupboard more fetid than the temple itself, and proved to be in the following condition:— (a) Face eaten by rats; (b) one bleeding eye hanging down by his mouth; (c) legs covered with gangrene, ulcers, and rottenness; (d) expression peaceful and happy. [. . .] a woman, summoned for this purpose, plunged her arm into the flames, inhaling with great delight the odour of her roasting flesh. Result, nil. Then a white goat was produced, placed upon the altar of Baphomet, set alight, hideously tortured, cut open, and its entrails torn out by the native Grand Master [. . .] This having also failed, great stones were raised from the floor, a nameless stench ascended, and a large consignment of living fakirs, eaten to the bone by worms and falling to pieces in every direction, were dragged out from among a number of skeletons [. . .] The Grand Master seized one of the fakirs and cut his throat upon the altar, chanting the satanic liturgy amidst imprecations, curses, a chaos of voices, and the last agonies of the goat. [. . .] A final howl of invocation resulted in complete failure, whereupon it was decided that Baal-Zeboub had business everywhere.” De Camp cites Devil-worship in France, by A. E. Waite (1896).

There's a chapter with pleasantly cynical advice to would-be prophets (pp. 169–75): if you want to be succesful, make lots of vague predictions; some are bound to be correct by pure chance; you can then point to them as proof of your prophetic abilities, while the wrong predictions will soon be forgotten.

[To be continued in a few days.]

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