Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Shrinkrapradio meets Curtiss Hoffman

Here is a nice story: In the beginning of time God walked on the face of the earth with the first woman and they discussed what the fate of humanity would be. God picked up a piece of dung with the intention to throw it in the river suggesting: "If it floats, men will live forever and if it sinks, men will be mortal." But the woman stops him, picks up a big rock and says: "I'll toss this stone into the river. If the stone floats, men will live, if it sinks, men will die." God shrugs and lets her have her way and then asks: "Why did you do that?" She answers: "If men won't die, there will be no place for love."


Anthropologist, archaeologist, psychologist and dream researcher Curtiss Hoffman relates a version of this story in the Shrinkrapradio podcast, edition 91, and reveals that this tale in nearly the same fashion is told both by indigenous people in the Sudan as well as in Wisconsin. He goes on to emphasize that these peoples could not possibly have met in history, at least not until the twentieth century, when these stories had long been recorded. Could they?

The more I understand history, the more I find out there has always been exchange between the cultures. So even if indeed the Sudanese never met the American Indians directly until recently, does that mean that until then there were no intermediaries either? Intermediairies that could have carried the story from one culture to another?

I do not reject the idea of archetypes or anything such that indicates some general underlying consciousness in people, but that doesn't mean I take any indication for granted. I'd like to know when these stories were recorded. My hunch is, no earlier than the 19th century, with its Romantic interest in folk tales. How many intermediaries could there have been until the 19th century that could link these two peoples and be a medium to transfer this tale from the one to the other? British colonials had reached both the Sudan as well as Wisconsin by then, so there need be only one intermediary, for all I know. With a couple of more intermediaries, we know the story could have traveled from America to Africa and vice versa, ever since 1492. What is more, there are also things we do not know, exchanges we have yet to discover.

It is still a remarkable story, regardless of a possible direct or indirect contact. The emphasis on the impossibility of the contact seems to want to make it even more remarkable and when such claim is not sufficiently founded and can so easily be challenged, it smacks of fervor, of a thirst for awe, of the want to believe. And that kind of thing gets my hackles go up.

Psychologists know how eager we want to believe something. Two psychologists in one podcast fall prey to their own want to believe. Not just with this story, also on the subject of dream incubation. When Curtiss Hoffman describes the technique, I get to think: this is how you can induce anything into anybody, what is it that justifies the exceptional importance of the induced dream? But both he and show host David van Nuys are so much into dream research that this is hardly challenged. And that is a pity. I am sure such learned people have much to say about the importance of dreams, but they are so full of wanting to show how wonderful all of this is, that they fail to make a point for hard science.

Curtiss Hoffman loses his credit with me when he recounts an occurrence that involved a student of his, whom he describes as a great, or a gifted 'psychic'. I can accept a person to be described as smart, or as insightful, or creative, or even wise. I can accept that occurrences are described as remarkable, as baffling or even as inexplicable, but not as a miracle. Never is someone a psychic, just as nothing is a miracle. Not that I do not allow for belief in psychics or miracles, but I do reject the use of those words. The use of those words reveals an intellectual surrender; one resigns from questioning and explanation. It even gives up proper description and without description, questioning or explanation there can be no understanding and when there is no strive for understanding, frankly, one even gives up on imagination. I hope the upcoming shrinkrapradio podcasts about dreams and dream research (there are three more waiting for me) have more to offer.
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