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.

The National Archives Podcast

The National Archives of of the United Kingdom organize lectures they record, nice up with music and release as podcasts. This is a History Podcast I advise to pass, unless you are very dedicated to the subject. The latest podcast about King John and the Magna Carta is a case in point.

I am ready to suffer some drawbacks in educational podcasts, which quite regularly are recordings of live lectures. The result is mostly: bad sound, inaudible questions, additional noises, sudden lapses in sound level and the quite frustrating references to slides or other visual material. In this respect, this podcast is no less than others, it may even be better, but like with the others the compensation for these drawbacks hinges on the quality of the lecture as such. Is it exciting? Entertaining? Thought provoking? Can it deliver a couple of key points that open up the subject and allows you from then on to say something about it and understand more? On the subject of King John and the Magna Carta, none of that was established even remotely.

I guess everybody who dislikes history, must have had a teacher who delivered lessons in the way of the National Archives lecture. With a toneless voice and poor enunciation, the lecturer reads out the titles from his Power Point, hands then an endless train of dates, facts and figures without conclusion or punch, only to move on to the next slide with either the next title or some artifact of the archive. Even for the history die-hard, such as myself, it is impossible to keep attention, let alone pick up some interesting fact, understanding or even a joke or a juicy anecdote.
I can't tell anything about King John or the Magna Carta, not even after two runs of the show. But to give you a feel of what it is like, ask someone who barely reads English to read to you the following lines:

Anne Frid de Vries was born in 1966 and grew to be neither the lawyer, nor the scientist he had hoped to be. A mediocre writer, a bland blogger and a dedicated father, are what we see by 2007. Here we see him on a school picture in 1976, squeezed in between the tallest boy in the class, Leo, and school master Brons. In 1979 he became an avid reader of comic books and I can show you here an 'Eppo' magazine that he signed with his name. This one he bought for 25 cents on the market. And here we have a recount he wrote of his first kiss in 1983. It has been suggested that this was his 'first time', but this is highly disputed and generally considered unlikely. We do have here a receipt for a package of condoms he bought in a vending machine in 1985 for the price of 3.50, 'gulden' the currency of that place and time. The head master Broekman, may have said in 1978, Anne was going to salvage the ESA project that failed at the time, but in 1990 he graduated Law School. Professor Huppes graded his master's thesis with a 9. Professor Hoekema brought him to the University of Amsterdam where he left to make a living as a software engineer in Israel. Here we see the ticket dated 13 may 1998 and you can see that the return flight was never used. The next item is a certificate of the Hebrew Course, 600 hours, 100% attendance. Marital life... yes. He married in 1998, became a father in 2001 and again in 2004. And this is a picture with him and his sons in 2006. Thank you.

OK, you can wake up now.

Joan of Arc -- In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and his guests (Anne Curry, Malcolm Vale and Matthew Bennett) concentrate on the siege of Orleans in 1429. What had led to the siege? How was the situation for the English and the French side in this part of the Hundred Year War? What were the prospects?
Then Joan of Arc enters the scene. Why did Charles, the Dauphin, choose to even allow her a chance of riding to Orleans in an attempt to lift the siege?

In fact he had little to lose. The figure of Joan mapped on some legends about a Maiden leading troops, that hung around. He was not aware that the English were actually stretching their might on Orleans a bit too much and were not invincible, in fact. So off she was sent with better chance than really understood. Then there is the famous turning of the winds and the siege could be lifted.

Events sped to the capture of Rheims and the coronation of Charles that tipped the balance in this war that was basically a war of succession. One gets the impression that by then Joan became dispensable, or even a threat and hence, her capture by the Burgundians and consecutive trial by the English and eventual death at the stake, were no longer a problem.

Then the figure of Joan takes on a symbolic meaning and when a couple of decades later there is a retrial, she is exonerated. From then she is the stuff that myths are made of. She captures the imagination of many and is sainted by 1920.

It underlines the quality of In Our Time, that 24 hours after listening to the show I can recount the broadcast, such as above. Again this was a brilliant issue of the show. The only thing I regret is what I had hoped to find: some version of Joan, as a human being. No matter how well documented her person is, few histories of her manage to find the middle ground between the mythic proportions (the mighty maid, the visionary, the saint) and the plain (illiterate peasant girl) woman. Who was she, really? That remains a mystery.

I want to close with Joan's own words (as recorded during her trial). When they tried her with a trick question, whether she knew she was in God's Grace -- a knowledge, theology had it, no one was supposed to have, meaning that a yes, meant heresy and a no meant admission of her evil -- she replied:
If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.