May 2007

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.  By Mary Roach. W.W. Norton. 320 pages. $13.

On August 6, 1978, Pope Paul VI died at 9:40 AM, Roman time. At that very moment, his Polish alarm clock, purchased in Warsaw in 1924, went off. Did the clock alarm sound to mark the Pope's leaving this world and his entrance into the next? This is the first of several life-after-death stories Mary Roach investigates in Spook:: Science Tackles the Afterlife. She does so not as a scientist but as a journalist researching historical cases of alleged scientific investigations in this area and interviewing some modern researchers in this field.

Roach is a self-described non-practicing cradle Catholic and seems to go out of her way to show her indifference to the Catholic Faith. She explains that her mother tried to inculcate faith in her using the usual methods of Catholic education, but Roach always preferred the "god" who "wore lab glasses and knew how to use a slide rule." Despite her at least nominally Catholic upbringing, she finds science (which makes fewer demands on her morally and otherwise) a more credible witness than the Church throughout history. But if one chooses a worldview that requires "slide rules," one equally will disdain both the abacus and the calculator and mire oneself in a world of outdated "science" that has less to do with the pursuit of truth and more to do with wishful thinking. This is the perspective Roach brings to the ghost-hunting of Spook.

Significantly, in retelling the story of Pope Paul's alarm clock, she is never able to explain exactly what happened. Instead, she proposes several naturalistic and coincidental explanations: It was an old clock and may not have worked properly; someone other than the Pope might have wound it and accidentally changed the alarm setting to coincide with what was to be the exact moment of the Pope's death, or perhaps the whole thing was fabricated to foster a pious legend. In the end, she leaves the reader hanging, satisfied that any of her mundane explanations has to be better than the one motivated by faith. In fact, she shows greater sympathy to some of the more outrageous and likely larcenous characters she deals with elsewhere in the book than she does to the churchmen who reported the Pope's story.

Roach also reviews several attempts at scientifically documenting the soul and life after death. One was by Dr. Duncan Macdougall from Massachusetts, who in the early 20th century used an exquisitely sensitive scale to weigh tuberculosis patients at the point of death to see how much their soul weighed after it left their bodies. He estimated it at 0.75 ounces or 21 grams.

Roach also reviews the scientific study of mediums, which was taken very seriously in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but which never discovered any true evidence of the supernatural. The research did uncover many tricks used to deceive the gullible. Mediums allegedly would excrete spiritual material from their bodies called "ectoplasm," which generally turned out to be cheesecloth or silk surreptitiously sequestered in various bodily orifices or handed off to the medium by an accomplice.

Since the 1970s the stories of clinically dead patients describing lights, tunnels, dead relatives, visions of angels, or of paradisiacal vistas have been described as near-death experiences. Roach, however, is unable to reach a firm conclusion about this phenomenon. Another distinctly modern allegation of afterlife evidence was electronic voice phenomena, in which the voices of the dead are allegedly recorded out of thin air by sensitive microphones. It seems though that the "voices" are not discernable by everyone and may represent overly active imaginations hearing things in the background static.

Unfortunately, in her various pursuits of spooks, Roach has made the same error that so many others have made in seeing the soul as a part of the natural world. Consequently, she devotes more than half her book to documenting the futile attempts by researchers and theorists to explain the soul as a kind of "substance" with measurable quantities. The Catholic Church, of course, takes a differing view, teaching that the human soul is not derived from nature but is a purely spiritual entity created by God in His own image.

Spook shows clearly that the people who try to find the afterlife "scientifically" are constructing a straw man. The insights of the Scholastic philosophers on this matter have been lost on the modern world and only the occasional lone voice (e.g., Alexius Meinong) challenges the illogic of gross materialist presuppositions.

In the final analysis, Roach actually finds a lot of faith among the scientific investigators in their afterlife theories, but little or no scientific validity, and in some cases out-and-out fraud. Spook is entertaining inasmuch as Roach demonstrates this with both humor and incredulity. Surprising, however, is the very last line of the book. After all the negative findings, Roach says she still believes in ghosts.

If one is not put off by skeptical sarcasm and the occasional salty remark, Spook is worth reading if only for an update on the state of afterlife research in the early 21st century. Interested readers looking for an edifying companion volume will find that Fr. Herbert Thur­ston's 1930s classic The Church and Spiritism offers a more Catholic view of these issues.

- Arthur C. Sippo



Seminary Boy: A Memoir.  By John Cornwell. Doubleday. 336 pages. $24.95.

The post-World War II years in England hold a special fascination -- the transition from heroic seat of empire to a much-shrunken modern power trying to find its way in this new world, a society once governed by rigid social stratification now opening up to contemporary pressures and influences.

John Cornwell has penned a remarkably engaging memoir, sketching out his experience of growing up in that transitional society. His easy writing style, keen eye for detail, memory for the associations he made, and his guesses about their significance, give the reader the impression that he has actually stepped into the author's world, is seeing through the eyes of the author's younger self.

In the section titled "Father Figures," Cornwell describes his upbringing in a poverty-stricken family, with both parents working, and his father handicapped by a leg injury. It seems not to have been a particularly happy home; his parents were prone to argument and physical fights, his brothers each dealt with deep frustration and numbing poverty in his own way. Cornwell's father eventually abandoned his family. But outside the home, the parish priest, Fr. Cooney, whose early Mass Cornwell served every day, was a salutary if simple influence and took an interest in the boy. His shy avowal that he was interested in the priesthood led to Fr. Cooney referring him to the bishop, and young John Cornwell found himself accepted into the seminary and financially assisted by a diocesan burse.

From a life dogged by wearying poverty and harsh disappointments, Cornwell found himself accepted into another world, a world with its own identity and purpose, hierarchy and customs. He describes its strangeness at first, then one follows him as he settles happily into it and makes it his own. Seminary is indeed like that, even now, decades later when much of the structure and rigid discipline of the preconciliar seminary Cornwell describes has been abandoned. He finds more father figures in the priest faculty of the seminary, some of whom are remote and rigid, others remarkably helpful. On vacation breaks he finds himself a fish out of water, returning with relief to the seminary that has become his world.

Cornwell describes himself as a devout seminarian who strove for a relationship with Christ, but with a serious inclination to scrupulosity. Through his reading and a couple of visiting retreat masters, he picked up a seriously exaggerated sense of sin and impending damnation, but he nicely balances this out by describing how other priests, no doubt sensing that he was "a scrupe" (as we say in the trade), helped with genuinely balanced, sane advice.

Then, of course, there is sex, without which I doubt anyone could write such a book today. Cornwell had been molested by a strange man in a train station restroom as a boy; that incident just hangs there ominously until almost the end of the book. During his seminary years he experiences a couple of emotionally intense and sexually charged friendships, obsessions really. He doesn't ever pout about the restricted, single-sex, disciplined seminary world, or speak of it as warping or unnatural. He writes of it with real appreciation. While on vacation he begins to explore the world of girls and mixed social groups.

John Cornwell lived in a world that really doesn't exist any longer; rare are the traditional seminaries in this latter age, although they do exist. This book is not just a keeper; it's something I look forward to re-reading, for in Cornwell's approach to his memories there is something anyone can find helpful.

- Fr. Joseph F. Wilson



The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability.  By Laura Kipnis. Pantheon. 173 pages. $24.95.

In 1975, in one of her less agitated moments, Andrea Dworkin stated, "Only when manhood is dead -- and it will perish when ravaged femininity no longer sustains it -- only then will we know what it is to be free." Kipnis, coming off the success of her previous polemic, Against Love, echoes and expounds upon these words in her latest work. Like Dworkin, Kipnis believes that many of women's current problems arise from their inability to detach themselves from a dependency upon men. This "inability" is the entire driving force behind The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability.

Contemporary society is saturated with self-improvement products, magazines, images, and ideas specifically designed to push women into tailoring themselves to an idealized, completely plastic misrepresentation of femininity. In this context, Kipnis strives to offer an explanation as to why women today seem to be as neurotic as they are. She acknowledges that the besotted state of femininity is not entirely a result of male chauvinism -- at least a little part of woman's plight arises from her own seemingly natural insecurities. Kipnis's stated aim in this work is to provide an "updated topography of the female psyche, along with notes on the four primary regions [she has] encountered there: Envy, Sex, Dirt, and Vulnerability." One has to applaud Kipnis's effort to provide a new map of the female psyche. In each of the four parts of the book, she addresses a separate major problem facing Modern Woman, be it envy of the fact that men still on average make more money than women, or disgust at the fact that men are all perverts, or the tragic inequality of the sexes when it comes to cleaning up the apartment, or the ingrained sense of fear and vulnerability that plagues every woman who walks down the street alone at night. By employing a curious blend of sarcastic remarks, anonymous interviews, case studies, and painstaking research, Kipnis makes a pretty good case for, well, it's difficult to say exactly what Kipnis makes a pretty good case for. We know at least that Kipnis sees the modern era as harmful for the female psyche, but as far as any ameliorative action plan goes, she remains strangely silent. Kipnis doesn't break any new ground when retelling the familiar plight of women through the ages. Where she does break new ground is in her insistence that modern feminism has merely replaced one kind of suffering with another -- namely, a sense of detachment from, and an overarching dissatisfaction with, men.

The Modern Woman, according to Kipnis, is caught in a false dichotomy between ultra-feminist rhetoric and a reactionary, antiquated view of what constitutes classical femininity. On the one hand, women want to have as many opportunities and lifestyle choices as men, but on the other they still want to be able to feel like women, or at least be able to feel like what they think women are supposed to feel like. Perhaps the most interesting point of The Female Thing is Kipnis's insistence that women in Western democracies, after recently having come close to achieving socioeconomic equality with men, still desperately want something more. Specifically, they still want something more from men. Kipnis over and over again details this unnerving facet of feminist "progress": Why, after forty-plus years of "achievement" by the modern feminist movement, are women still complaining about men? Here is where, annoyingly, Kipnis abruptly changes focus, and it's not clear why. She doesn't answer the nagging question she poses. Nevertheless, she does go on to provide food for thought.

"Today's female sex advice reads like a modern quest narrative: a victory over adversity in which the hero is redeemed and liberated." Through passages like this, Kipnis displays her disdain for what she quite humorously describes as the "female-industrial complex," a loosely allied group comprised of the cosmetics industry, makers of fine housecleaning products, and the ever-maligned leviathan we refer to as women's magazine publishing. This industry's sole reason for existence is to make women feel inadequate -- physically, mentally, emotionally, and otherwise. Taking into account all the myriad sex-advice columns and tips 'n' tricks to get a more desirable posterior, one gets the impression that the (female) shapers of popular culture wish women to be more like porn stars and less like coherent, responsible human beings.

The Female Thing's one failure is its inability to provide a cohesive picture of exactly what it is Kipnis believes the female psyche to be. What is it that Kipnis is trying to prove through this informative but sorely non-persuasive work? It could be that Kipnis's most egregious flaw lies in misunderstanding human nature. Of course women want more. We all want more. "Want" is something that does not dissolve when equilibrium between the sexes is achieved. Throwing Divine Grace out of the equation, the only thing we can ever hope for through socio-political writings is a further analysis of that "want," not a remedy for it.

- Paul Bower





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