Saturday, July 25, 2020

Whitley Strieber and the thing that turned into a bird of paradise

Yet another morphing anecdote in the works of Whitley Strieber.

Transformation (1988)

Later that day [December 29, 1986] we were driving through a nearby town when a voice told me to stop at the house of a friend, glass artist Gilda Strutz. Another car, driven by a tall and imposing bearded man of about thirty, pulled up at the same time. We all went in to see Gilda together. The man turned out to be another friend of hers, Barry Maddock. Communion hadn't been published and neither of them knew anything at all about it.

We chatted for a while and I soon found myself talking about the owls we had been seeing.

Barry was surprised to hear this because he had had a very unusual dream the night before about an owl. He proceeded to describe what sounded to me like a screen memory for a visitor experience. He had been asleep in a house where he was house-sitting until the new owners moved in. Suddenly he was awakened by what sounded like somebody kicking a baseboard heater. He got up because the house was new and he'd helped build it. He knew that the heating system shouldn't be doing that.

He walked into the living room. The first thing he saw was a pair of huge, dark eyes. When he later saw the cover of Communion he was amazed by the similarity. At the time, he had the bizarre impression that an enormous gray owl with big, black eyes was in the room. The owl took him into a large, vaulted chamber that reminded him of the Sydney Opera House. There it turned into a bird of paradise.

I bet that Maddock said the place was the Sydney Opera House, and "reminded him" is Strieber's own interpretation. 

He remembered sitting beside a small man who seemed to him like a gnome or a gremlin. His impression was that this man was good-natured. He didn't remember anything about the man's appearance, except that he was "dark."

The next morning Barry had what he said was an extremely strange feeling. He seemed "loose" in his body. He was also suffering from "missing time" in that he could remember getting up and going into the living room, then having the vivid dream. The trouble was, he could not recall going back to bed before he had the dream. The sort of confusion that Barry described fitted very well with my own initial conscious reactions to the visitors. He also noticed a small raised mark on his neck. He didn't think to mention it at the time, and I didn't see it, but his description, given later, suggested that it was similar to the one I had found on my own neck on the morning of December 24.

The dream had frightened him badly.

I resolved to get to know him better to find out if anything more would emerge from his mind. On the morning of December 30 we went hiking together deep into the woods and we talked. He turned out to be one of the most fearless people I had ever met. [. . .] The more he spoke about his dream, however, the more he revealed deep fear. It seemed to me that he was aching to say he thought the dream was real, but dared not do so because of its content.

I found that the house at which he was sitting was quite near my own place.

The Super Natural (2016)

While I was writing Communion, I began questioning people in the immediate area regarding odd things they may have seen. As yet, I was not aware of all the strange sightings across the Hudson in Duchess County, which would become famous as the Hudson Valley UFO sightings. There were many stories, but one told by a carpenter in the process of finishing a house on our private road is particularly relevant to this part of my narrative.

In the Transformation version, the house had already been finished.

This was the first of two incidents that, to me, added up to a sort of communication. I have learned, over the years, to see the actions of our visitors as a sort of illustrative language, communication built out of images and events. For example, a consistent image that witnesses connect with them is that of the owl. It has played an enormous role in my own experience of them, in fact. If you study the habits and capabilities of the owl carefully, you find yourself studying the capabilities of the visitors. They are creatures of the night, they are stealthy, silent, and use surprise. Like owls, which can use their extraordinary ears to hear prey scrambling under snow, they have extraordinary means of detection. Like owls, they are predators. [. . .]

I include the above paragraph in this excerpt because it deals with the theme of owls. In Transformation, the reason Maddock tells Strieber his story is that Strieber had been talking about owls and his own dream had involved an owl -- but in the Super Natural version of the story, there is no owl!

The incident involving the carpenter occurred during the fall of 1986. He had been hurrying to complete construction before winter arrived, and had ended up in a situation where he had no way to take his tools out at nightfall. He didn’t want to leave them in the unlocked house, so he decided to sleep there, on the floor.

Transformation gives the date of this incident as December 28, 1986, well after winter had arrived. The carpenter, Barry Maddock, slept in the house because he was house-sitting for the owners, not because he was unable to take his tools out.

Later, he found himself awake and looking straight at a short man who was standing a few feet away. It was too dark to determine any color, but he was short and squat. The carpenter experienced a wave of intense fear, whereupon the man changed before his eyes into a bird of paradise and then disappeared.

In the Transformation version, he did not see anything immediately after waking up. Rather, he heard a noise, walked into the living room, and there saw an enormous owl, and it was this owl that turned into a bird or paradise. There is no mention of the bird's disappearing. In Transformation, he apparently saw the small man after, or at the same time as, the bird of paradise, and the man was sitting next to him rather than standing a few feet away.

This is not something Strieber experienced himself, but something that was reported to him by Maddock in 1986. Since Maddock agreed to have his name used in Transformation, we can assume that the account in that book matches what he remembered of his experience at that time. The changes evident in the Super Natural version can only be distortions.

Naturally, it is hardly to be expected that Strieber would remember in clear and accurate detail someone else's dream as it had been reported to him 30 years before. He had written about it before, though, and could easily have looked it up in Transformation or in the notes he used to write that book. That he did not bother to do so can only mean that he was (wrongly) confident that he still remembered the incident clearly. This phenomenon -- inordinate confidence in memories which are in fact seriously distorted -- has obvious implications for Strieber's autobiographical work as a whole, particularly for The Secret School, which was written more than 40 years after the events it recounts.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Eight lyouns and an hundred egles

Mandeville's Travels (late 14th century) gives this description of the griffins of Bactria:

In þat contré ben many griffounes, more plentee þan in ony other contree. Sum men seyn þat þei han the body vpward as an egle, and benethe as a lyoun: and treuly þei seyn soth þat þei ben of þat schapp. But o griffoun hath the body more gret, and is more strong, þanne eight lyouns, of suche lyouns as ben o this half; and more gret and strongere þan an hundred egles, suche as we han amonges vs.

The average weight for a golden eagle is 4.91 kg for a female or 3.48 kg for a male. Both sexes have an average wingspan of 2.04 m. Multiplying the weights by 100 and the wingspan by the cube root of 100, we can estimate that a bird "more gret and strongere þan an hundred egles" would weigh over 491 kg (female) or 348 (male) and have a wingspan of 9.47 meters. This is close to the estimated wingspan (10-11 meters) of Quetzalcoatlus, the largest known animal ever to have flown.

The Asiatic lion -- presumably the closest subspecies to such lions as would have "ben o this half" in the past -- averages 175 kg (male) or 115 kg (female). Thus, eight lions would weigh about 1400 kg, and eight lionesses 920 kg -- far heavier than 100 eagles. A hundred male eagles weigh about as much as two lions, and 100 female eagles about as much as four lionesses. Surprisingly enough, Mandeville's numbers don't add up.

What wingspan would be necessary to support a flying creature "more gret . . . þanne eight lyouns"? This is probably an extreme oversimplification, but the lift generated by wings should be a function of their area. This is why a large bird like an albatross needs much larger wings relative to its body size than a small one like a sparrow. If we keep a bird's structure the same but enlarge it so as to double its wingspan, its wings would generate 4 times as much lift as those of the smaller bird -- which would be insufficient since, weight being a function of volume rather than area, the bird's weight would have increased by eight times.

Let's say, based on the golden eagle numbers, that a 2-meter wingspan can support a 5-kg bird. Eight lions weigh 280 times that, so an animal that large would require a wingspan of 33.5 m. A merely Quetzalcoatlus-like wingspan of 11.8 m would only be enough to support the weight of a single lion. (Paleontologists estimate that Quetzalcoatlus weighed 200-250 kg, so my calculations seem to be in the ballpark.)

Whitley Strieber with between two and four giant spiders

This is another of those anecdotes Whitley Strieber has told more than once, in different books. (And another great title for a surrealist painting!) The earliest version is in Breakthrough (1995), and he revisits it 21 years later in The Super Natural (2016) and then again in The Afterlife Revolution (2017).

Breakthrough (1995)

The background of this episode is that Strieber has been meditating regularly at 11:00 p.m. every night in his guest room. (This is the Gurdjieff-inspired meditation Strieber describes in many of his books, which involves focusing one's attention on various parts of one's body in turn.) Recently, when he is doing this, he will hear seven loud thumps on the roof, followed by a sense of presence, and he has come to believe that he has acquired an invisible meditation partner, or perhaps seven such partners. As this episode opens, Strieber has just been up on the roof to confirm that the thumps he has been hearing are not the work possums, birds, or any other known cause.

I climbed down off the roof and went into the room. [. . .] A moment later there was a terrific lot of noise on the roof, like a crowd jostling for position. I sat down and an instant later felt something come bursting into my mind -- also physically, bursting into me . . . hard to describe . . . like being touched on the inside.

Pictures began to flash in front of my eyes, of everybody I'd ever known, even people I'd met only briefly. [. . .] I shortly began to realize that what I was seeing here were the wrongs I had done these people. [. . .] I was getting frantic, but I couldn't make it stop. On we went, reviewing my life.

We came to a certain face -- one that I really hadn't wanted to see. With this person, I had done wrong.

"With this person" -- not "to." In other words, this person was not (or not only) a victim but an accomplice. To me, this can only mean that the wrong was sexual in nature. If you think about it, it almost goes without saying that a concerted effort would have been made to corrupt someone like Strieber, and that sex would be a natural avenue of attack.

The roof erupted in thuds, like they were stomping with rage. Then they came roaring down around me right through the beams, a crowd of racing shadows, shabby and stinking of sweat. I could see that they looked human, but they were crouching, they backed into corners, they acted like I was the wild wolf. [. . .] Then the visitors all trooped down the stairs, some of them jumping up and down on the runners, others leaping off the landing and dropping with soft thuds.

In one of the bits I have snipped out above, Strieber compares the people who are forcing this sin parade on him to wolves, then later decides they are actually more like angels. Despite Strieber's calling them "visitors" here -- his usual word for the apparent aliens with which his name is most closely associated -- these people were apparently more-or-less human.

Later Strieber, his wife Anne, and their two cats go to bed.

About two hours later I woke up to familiar, machinelike jabs to my shoulder. Once I probably would have leaped out of bed, but no more. This had happened too often, and too often there was nothing there. So I wasn't really expecting to see anybody when I opened my eyes.

I was absolutely stunned.

They were right there, and they were glaring at me. I reacted like I might have to a coiled snake, to see human faces staring at me from a position about three feet above the bed. There was light around them, and I could see that they were all men, small, wearing gray tunics except for one, whose tunic was white. [. . .] Behind them, where the raftered ceiling should have been, there was a black, starless maw. Something about that darkness really frightened me. [. . .] All I knew was that it was oppressive and lonely and big, and where was my familiar ceiling? Reality seemed plastic indeed.

The faces of these people were terrible to see. Their eyes were normally shaped but as dark as lampblack, and their stares were amazingly ferocious. [. . .] It lasted for a moment, then another. [. . .] They left abruptly, rushing away in a crowd.

"Human faces" with "normally shaped" eyes -- not grays. A bed is normally about two feet high, so "three feet above the bed" would make these people about five feet tall -- a bit short, but well within the normal human range.

After this second visitation, Strieber goes back to sleep. He is later awoken again, by sounds he at first thinks are from the cats.

When I opened my eyes, I saw dark shapes against the beams of the ceiling, which seemed to be back to normal. I thought, now what? I turned on my bedside lamp and proceeded to receive the single worst shock of a life that has sustained some fairly severe shocks.

Hanging from the ceiling were four tremendous spiders. Their bodies were gleaming black and striped in irregular bright yellow. Structurally, they were hourglass spiders. The only problem was that they were easily a foot long and their legs spanned perhaps two feet. [. . .]

The term "hourglass spider" typically refers to Cyclocosmia, a genus of extremely strange-looking trapdoor spiders which can't possible be what Strieber has in mind here. Could he be referring to the black widow, with its distinctive hourglass marking? But the name "black widow" is so very familiar that to call that species by any other name seems odd. Perhaps he simply means that the spiders had an hourglass-like shape, with a narrow waist between the cephalothorax and the abdomen? The coloration he describes suggests Argiope (pictured above), but there is nothing hourglass-like about that genus.

The largest known spider species has a leg span of one foot, so Strieber is describing something as extraordinary as a 14-foot-tall man.

The next thing I knew I was out of that bed and on my way as far as I could go barefoot in pajamas. But Anne was still back there and Anne was sound asleep.

I was afraid that they things were going to fall on us. On her. [. . .] Above her, the spiders were working, weaving what I would describe as curved hutches made of silk.

They were, in short, settling in.

"Honey," I whispered. "I think --"

What did I think?

I thought I was being punished is what I thought. Contrition? I begged them to forgive me. I would have howled contrition but I was afraid I'd upset the spiders.

Then they were gone, just like that. I grabbed Anne, I started kissing her, and then I noticed that the cats were still panicked. What was I -- stupid? I'd seen things disappear before. What if they weren't gone?

As far as I know, they're still waiting . . . for the day I die. [. . .]

It's not clear if we are to understand that the spiders disappeared because he begged them to forgive him, or if they just vanished for no apparent reason.

I spent the rest of the night reading the Bible and trying to figure out how one might truly repair a sin. Dawn came, clear and pure, and Anne got up and we had breakfast. I didn't tell her what had happened. [. . .]

I finally said to Anne, "I've seen demons."

She responded, "Here?"

"A nightmare. Mother of all nightmares."

As we shall see below, later tellings of this story don't exactly have Strieber spending the rest of the night reading the Bible!

The Super Natural (2016)

My relationship with my meditation partners continued to develop. [. . .] So I asked the question: What do I need to do to avoid the wheel of life. I want to ascend.

There is no indication in Breakthrough that he had posed this question to his meditation partners.

The answer was the most powerful moral lesson I have ever received. It began one night with a startling review of my life—the sort of thing that is supposed to happen at the moment of death, I suppose. Image after image from my life appeared before my eyes. I saw a good, honest life, flawed but pretty blameless. But then something appeared that was of interest. I was in a hotel room in Beverly Hills with a beautiful young woman. I wanted to make love to her, but I was hesitating, forcing myself not to, respecting my vow of marriage and my love for Anne.

Still, every detail of the meetings I’d had with this woman came rushing past.

I was left on that night devastated and, quite frankly, confused. I hadn’t violated my vow. I’d been tempted, yes, but no violation.

When I got up to go to bed, I discovered that it was already three. I’d been meditating for four hours. Exhausted, I collapsed into the bed and threw my arms around my beloved wife. Silently, I cried tears of gratitude that I had not broken my vow.

Anne Strieber died in 2015; presumably after her death Strieber felt more free to speak openly about such extramarital temptations than he had when he wrote Breakthrough. Is he really being more honest here, though? As he tells it in The Super Natural, Strieber was tempted but did not yield; so blameless was he that he felt "confused" as to why they were bringing the whole thing up, as he hadn't done anything wrong. In Breakthrough, on the other hand, he says "With this person I had done wrong" -- and the context strongly suggests that he felt more guilty about what had transpired with this person than about anything else he had done in his life.

The Catholic Strieber has written books called Communion and Confirmation, but never Confession. It is hardly reasonable to expect complete candor regarding something of this nature, and I don't want to make too much of an effort to guess what particular sins he may or may not have committed. Nevertheless, I think we must conclude that something happened between him and this woman. He was in a hotel room with her, and he refers in the plural to "meetings I'd had with this woman"; in Breakthrough, he felt great guilt immediately, with none of the confusion he professes in The Super Natural. Perhaps his claim of "no violation" is a simple untruth; more likely, it's some sort of Bill Clinton "define sexual relations" kind of thing. Or, just possibly, he really is so innocent that just wanting to betray his wife is about the worst thing he's ever done.

There is no reference in this version of the story to the people on the roof thumping about in rage, dropping down through the ceiling, and running downstairs.

Later, I woke up. The ceiling was gone, the roof was gone. Overhead was a blackness that I knew at once was the appalling face of infinity. Endless dark. Arrayed around the borders of this opening were seven faces peering down at me. Gentle faces. Angry faces.

Then it ended. I was fully awake. I lay there thinking about it for a time, wondering where it lay on the spectrum of reality. A dream? I thought not. But what, then?

In this version, it sounds as if the faces are up at the level of the roof or ceiling, not three feet above the bed. There is also no reference to their "rushing away in a crowd"; instead, he simply says, "Then it ended."

I went close to Anne and kissed her cheek. She cuddled against me, delighted.

I had almost betrayed her, but I had not done so. I had wanted to, though, so very badly. And it wasn’t like the incident with the gray being. That I could not control. This, I could.

Strieber alludes to a non-consensual sexual encounter with a gray alien, narrated explicitly for the first time in The Super Natural. When he says, "That I could not control. This I could," it implies that he did succumb to temptation in some way, that there was a failure of self-control.

Some time later I woke up and there, hanging over our bed, were the two most terrible creatures I had ever seen. They were spiders, each at least three feet from stem to stern. They had gleaming black abdomens that were crossed by yellow stripes like tigers. Worse, they were not stable on the ceiling, especially the one over Anne.

My impulse was to roll off that bed and run for my life. Then I thought, “Wake up, you fool, this is the mother and the father of the nightmares.”

There were four spiders in the Breakthrough version, now reduced to two -- but what they have lost in numbers they have made up in size. The Breakthrough spiders were a foot long, with a two-foot leg span; in The Super Natural, they are "three feet from stem to stern." It is unclear how this nautical term is to be understood in terms of spider anatomy, but it would be a strange way of referring to leg span, so I assume it means anteroposterior length. Either way, these spiders show a distinctly fish-like tendency to grow with each telling.

In Breakthrough, he had called the vision of the spiders the "mother of all nightmares," using a familiar idiom to indicate the most nightmarish nightmare imaginable. In this retelling, this has morphed into the bizarre not-quite-English "the mother and the father of the nightmares." Is this because there are two spiders now -- one the mother of nightmares, the other the father?

Fully awake now, I leaped out of the bed. Surely they would evaporate, will-o’-the-wisps of dream.

But no. I stood there at the foot of the bed staring at them. I was awake and they were as real as ever. I could even hear the slick clatter of their busy, complicated jaws.

Anne lay perhaps three feet beneath one of them, sound asleep. Some of its legs had come off the wooden planks of the ceiling and were scrabbling for purchase. The sound filled the room.

It looked as if it would fall on Anne, right now.

My dear God, how I wanted to run. But if I did that, then what would happen? She had said early on, “You won’t let anything happen to me, will you?” I told her that I would protect her. But how did I know that? Now, it seemed as if I was lying.

Another leg came loose and began jittering wildly. The abdomen was now tilted. I could see a stinger in it the size of a small knife. My body screamed at me to run, but I could not run, my love would not let me. On legs of lead, transfixed by terror, I approached the bed. The pulsating demon was inches from my face. I could not dare touch it, try to push it away. God only knew what would happen if it and its brother started running around the room. What was their venom like? Where were they from? Certainly not this world.

Leaping out of bed is a new touch, not mentioned in the Breakthrough version. There is no mention this time of the spiders' building "hutches" of silk; instead, he elaborates on the fear, mentioned in Breakthrough, that they would fall on Anne.

Spiders of course do not have abdominal stingers, but biology has never been Strieber's strong suit. At any rate, these are not ordinary spiders but spidery-looking demons -- like Shelob in The Lord of the Rings, who also had a stinger.

I did the only thing I could to protect my wife, which was to lie down on top of her so that my body was between her and the spider.

She opened sleepy arms, welcoming her husband to her in the night, opening herself body and heart to the man she loved.

I lay there, waiting for the spider to drop down on me. She lay there waiting for the act of love to commence.

In that instant, there was a feeling like weight lifted. My body felt free, my soul like the soul of a child. Like that, the spiders had gone. The night—the beautiful, earthly night, filled with sensual promise—had returned.

I wept and her comforting arms came around me. Joy filled me. We rode the small hours together in the boat of our love, crossing to morning.

In Breakthrough, the spiders vanished after he begged them for forgiveness. In The Super Natural, they disappear after he demonstrates his commitment to Anne by putting himself between her and the perceived danger. Breakthrough, written while Anne was alive, is understandably less forthcoming about their marital intimacies, falling back on the tried-and-true euphemistic "kiss" -- but even taking that into account, some discrepancy remains. In The Super Natural, the couple apparently spent the whole rest of the night together, "crossing to morning" -- raising the question of when Strieber managed to squeeze in the Bible study mentioned in Breakthrough.

The Afterlife Revolution (2017)

There were in my life two instances in which I was shown something relating to an underworld. The first occurred after one of the meditations with the people from between lives. They used to page through my mind, causing me to relive past events in startling and uncanny detail. One night, paging through my memories, they came across a moment during which I had been tempted to cheat on Anne.

Where the earlier two accounts have a single "life review" experience, this one has Strieber's meditation partners habitually dredging up a memory or two each night over an extended period of time. 

They hesitated. Lingered. I writhed in discomfort.

After the meditation ended, I went as usual to bed.

I hadn’t cheated. I’d only been tempted. So all was well— wasn’t it? [. . .]

Had he done wrong, or not? Did he feel guilty, or not? Despite his assumption that "all was well," he "writhed in discomfort." A temptation successfully resisted seems cause for pride rather than shame -- unless it was resisted only imperfectly.

A few hours later, I woke up to see something so horrific that for a moment I simply did not understand what I was looking at. But then the two presences hanging from the ceiling above our bed became clear. But they were impossible. Nothing like that exists.

Except that they did.

I was looking up at two bulging black spiders, each easily two or three feet long. Their gleaming abdomens were ringed with yellow tiger stripes. I could see the pointed stingers at the base of their tails. Worse, they were scrabbling against the ceiling, struggling not to fall on us.

Dear god in heaven, it had to be a nightmare. I rolled out of bed, my initial impulse to run. But then I looked back and saw Anne lying there peacefully asleep. A few feet above her, the most unstable of the two looked ready to fall.

Now that I was on my feet, their appearance seemed entirely physical. I could even hear the rhythmic scraping of their claws as they struggled to find purchase against the ceiling.

This is pretty close to the description in The Super Natural -- two spiders, with stingers, much larger than the ones described in Breakthrough. (Whether they are larger or smaller than the ones described in The Super Natural depends on how we interpret "stem to stern" in that book.)

The rest of the anecdote is the same as in The Super Natural -- he lies on top of Anne, spends the rest of the night not reading the Bible, etc. -- so there is no need to quote it.

Recall, though, that Strieber began my speaking of "two instances in which I was shown something relating to an underworld." The second (or, rather, first) of these turns out to have to do with the young woman with whom he may or may not have done something terribly wrong in Beverly Hills.

A few years before, there had been not a test but a warning, and I will never forget it in all of my days and beyond my days.

In the years after Communion was published, Anne organized many groups to come up to our cabin. Often enough, as I have reported in previous books, they met the visitors.

Once, we had a group up which included a young woman who took a shine to me. She was attractive and I was tempted. I did nothing, however. Later, in Los Angeles, we once again encountered her and I was again tempted. Once again, I did nothing.

We spent that night in the Beverly Hills Hotel, and no sooner had I fallen asleep than I found myself being dragged downward through solid rock. I was in some sort of cage and I couldn’t get out. This was more lucid than any lucid dream I could imagine. It felt real. As I shot downward, I realized that I was inside the legs of a gigantic spider. Nothing I did would release me. Those legs were like iron.

Finally, I managed to get out. I found myself back in my body, hammering my arm against the bedside table. The lamp was smashed, Anne was screaming —and I was shaking with terror.

I connected what had happened to the temptation the young woman had offered me, and resolved never, ever to even entertain such a notion again.

Two questions immediately suggest themselves: (1) What on earth does it mean to be "inside the legs" of a gigantic spider? and (2) Wasn't there a crappy Will Smith movie about that? My best guess -- and it is only that -- is that he means that a spider had wrapped its legs around him, so that he was "in" its legs in the same sense that you might hold someone "in" your arms. (Inside, though? "If ever you're inside my arms again..."?) If the legs were hollow and he was literally inside them -- well, he could only be inside one leg at a time, right? Nor am I at all sure how to square any reading of "inside the legs" with being dragged downward through solid rock. Anyway, the key point here is simply that something scary and spidery occurred right after he resisted (or didn't) this temptation, and that he took it as a warning.

If Strieber's encounter with this woman (let's call her Beverly) had indeed been followed by a very memorable nightmare about a giant spider, then he must surely have made the connection when, a few years later, he relived the encounter with Beverly and was again menaced by giant spiders. It's strange that he never mentioned this earlier giant-spider nightmare until The Afterlife Revolution

To me, the evolution of this spider story is evidence that Strieber is mostly honest, tolerably sincere, and completely unreliable. No deliberate liar -- particularly not one who happens to be a professional writer of narrative fiction! -- would have made the basic continuity errors we see here. If Strieber were lying, he would have kept his story straight. Before revisiting the spiders in his recent books, he would have looked back at the earlier account in Breakthrough, refreshed his memory, and made sure his newer version were consistent with it -- four foot-long spiders, faces three feet above the bed, reading the Bible, etc. But he obviously didn't check the Breakthrough version, because -- well, why should he? It was an experience from his own life, he remembered it clearly, so why would he need to look it up in a book?

In short, Strieber appears to be prone to what psychologists call confabulation.

Update: Strieber's novel 2012: The War for Souls includes a monster reminiscent of the giant spiders in his non-fiction. (The main character -- a horror novelist named Wiley who wrote a best-selling non-fiction book about his close encounters with aliens, complete with a "rectal probe" -- is a ridiculously transparent stand-in for Strieber himself.)

He fell against what felt like iron bars. Where he touched them, they became visible, and he saw that they were not bars, but the legs of what the kids called an outrider. And now the slashing sound was overhead. He was under the damn thing!

Cf. The Afterlife Revolution, "Those legs were like iron." 

He rolled. The slashing came down toward him. He lashed out at it, kicking furiously toward the sound. Where his foot struck, he saw a section of the creature-a gleaming abdomen striped yellow, then a complicated eye, then a hooked claw on the joint of a leg.

All three non-fiction accounts of the spider mention yellow stripes on the abdomen. Note that real spiders do not have "complicated" (compound) eyes.

Screaming now, he rolled.

There was a pneumatic, liquid hissing and boiling yellow sludge sprayed the ground around him. A stinger the size of his arm slashed his jacket and was gone.

But it was coming back, he could hear the mechanical slashing of the jaws, but more he could feel the thing probing with its legs, and he knew that the next time it attacked, that stinger would impale him.

As in The Super Natural and The Afterlife Revolution, the spiders have stingers like hymenopteran insects.

A roar, huge, echoing off into the woods.


Nothing there. Nothing at all.

Just as in the non-fiction accounts, the spider suddenly disappears.

Update 2: It's October 2020, and I've just finished reading for the first time Strieber's non-fiction book Solving the Communion Enigma (published in 2011, when Anne was still alive). It features yet another retelling of the giant spider story.

Then I realized that something was happening, something quite new. My mind was sort of moving. I was seeing pictures from my own past. It wasn't as dramatic as I imagine the life review at  the time of death might be, but these images kept appearing, one after the other.

It was exactly as if I was looking at an illustrated book of my memories. But it wasn't me doing this. Somebody else seemed to be turning the pages of my memory.

At first the imagery was trivial. [. . .]  Then it became more complex, with images from related experiences superimposing themselves on one another. Looking back, I cannot even begin to describe them all. There were hundreds, thousands. [. . .] How lovely it was. How delicious my life had been, how beautiful -- and how much of it I had let pass by!

He gives several examples of these memories, none of them unpleasant. In the Breakthrough version, he was reliving all the wrongs he had ever done to other people, and he "couldn't make it stop," but in Solving the Communion Enigma, the review of memories seems to be positively delightful until they reach one specific memory.

And the, suddenly, I was focused on something very specific. It was the face of a woman. I knew it well. It was a woman I had wanted. Badly. And she had wanted me. We'd come close to connecting in a way that would have violated my marriage vow. I had really sweated over this. I had wanted her so badly. But I had not quite let myself slip into a love affair. Not quite.

But what was it that had stopped me, my loyalty to my vow or my love of my wife? A man might love his wife, but a temptation like this can be very powerful, and it certainly had been for me.

Then the memories ended. I slumped to the floor, devastated. I was pouring with sweat. Shocked and confused and telling myself, You weren't disloyal. You resisted the temptation.

I did not want to face what I had not resisted, which was the desire. I had been the instigator. My challenge to my vow and to the selfless love my wife has given me since the day we met was my doing. I had not been seduced, and that was very hard to face.

This sheds light on why Strieber felt extremely guilty about what had happened with this woman while at the same time insisting that he had resisted temptation. Shocked, wanting to forget the whole thing, but also remembering his desire for this other woman, Strieber goes to bed f"eeling bitter and confused and unsure of my loyalties," falls into a fitful sleep, and late wakes abruptly.

What I was looking at were two enormous spiders hanging on the ceiling. And I don't mean, for example, the size of tarantulas. These things were tremendous. Their abdomens were at least three feet long, gleaming black and banded by yellow tiger stripes. And what was worse, while the one over my side of the bed seemed stable, the one hanging over Anne was struggling and looked as if it was about to fall on her.

Instinct caused me to leap out of the bed, and as I did so, I though that this was one hell of a nightmare.

I stood there just absolutely agog because the things had not disappeared when I woke up. They still looked completely real. [. . .]

The one handing over Anne was trembling now. [. . .]

Strieber's instinct is to run, but he realizes that he must protect his wife, giving his life for her if need be.

As quietly as I could, I moved around the bed. I slid in beside her. She sighed and smiled, welcoming her husband. I slipped over her and held her to me, and lay like that, afraid to move. The core of my heart seemed to open, and I remembered why I loved this woman [. . .]

I was left like that. At some point, the spiders of nightmare had gone.

There is no mention of how he spent the rest of the night, whether reading the Bible as in Breakthrough or in some other way.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Two cases where I would have misjudged the Book of Mormon text

Suppose we were reading the Book of Mormon thousands of years after it had been published, long after the original manuscripts had been lost. Suppose, in other words, that we had to read the Book of Mormon the way we now read the Bible, reconstructing its textual history by informed guesswork. How good would we be at guessing?

Polygamy in Jacob 2

Consider this passage from Jacob 2.

[27] Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;

[28] For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.

[29] Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.

[30] For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.

[31] For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands.

I would have bet dollars to doughnuts that v. 30 (italicized above) was an interpolation. The text flows better without it, and it seems obviously to have been inserted to justify the later Mormon practice of polygamy. But it wasn't. It was there in the text all along, from the very earliest manuscripts.

Ironically, the only way we can insist that v. 30 is a self-serving interpolation by Joseph Smith is by assuming that the Book of Mormon as a whole was indeed given to him by revelation. If Smith made it up himself, why would he have written it this way? Why would have written v. 30 unless he had been planning to practice polygamy? But if he had been planning to practice polygamy, why would he have written the whole anti-polygamy diatribe in which that verse is embedded? But if the passage as a whole was revealed by God, and v. 30 was inserted by Smith, then it all makes sense. (Another possibility is that v. 30 was an interpolation by a later Nephite writer, but again we can only claim that if we assume the validity of the BoM as a whole -- that it was written by actual Nephites rather than be Smith himself.)

Mark Twain's book list

In Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain writes:

The Mormon Bible consists of fifteen “books” -- being the books of Jacob, Enos, Jarom, Omni, Mosiah, Zeniff, Alma, Helaman, Ether, Moroni, two “books” of Mormon, and three of Nephi.

If we didn't know better, wouldn't we assume that the Book of Mormon in Mark Twain's time actually consisted of those books in that order? But in fact Twain missed the fourth book of Nephi; listed the account of Zeniff (part of Mosiah) as a separate book; and listed the books of Mormon and Nephi at the end, apparently because each is the name of more than one book. (In fact, 1 Nephi is the first book, and Moroni is the last.) Early editions of the BoM had no table of contents, so Twain would have made this list by paging through the book. The very short fourth book of Nephi is easy to miss, and the Zeniff section in Mosiah contained a heading that must have made it look at first glance like a separate book.

I would have taken Twain's book list as evidence that 4 Nephi and the post-Zeniff chapters of Mosiah were later additions to the BoM, but they are not. Twain just made a few mistakes.

Implications for the Bible

The moral here should be obvious enough. The sort of textual analysis we routinely apply to the Bible would, if applied to the Book of Mormon, sometimes yield incorrect conclusions. Caution and humility are called for in any attempt to reconstruct a "truer" version of the text than the one we have.

(The late Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann once made a similar point by imagining how a modern Bible scholar would deal with Goethe's Faust. Among this hypothetical scholar's conclusions would be that the two prologues were added later by different authors, that the Gretchen passages and the Margaret passages obviously came from two different sources, etc.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Father and the Son (Notes on John 5:19-30)

The background is that Jesus is in Jerusalem for a feast, perhaps Pentecost. He is speaking to "the Jews," who want to kill him for the two crimes of breaking the sabbath (healing a man on that day and then asking him to carry his bed) and of "making himself equal with God" by calling him his Father.

I have to say at the outset that I consider this whole section (John 5:19-47) to be of dubious authenticity. It does not seem plausible that Jesus would have responded to people who were trying to kill him with this long theological discourse, and by the time the discourse has ended, the author seems to have forgotten the whole setting of Jesus confronting his would-be murderers in Jerusalem. Nothing is said about how they responded, what happened next, how Jesus escaped death, or anything like that. Instead, the narrative jumps directly to "After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias" (John 6:1) -- a stage direction which is totally out of place, as the Sea of Galilee is nowhere near Jerusalem. Something is obviously amiss with the text as we have it, so we must proceed with caution.

I find this whole passage confusing and self-contradictory, and any interpretations and conclusions I present here are even more tentative than usual. (I thought seriously about just skipping this whole section but in the end decided I should soldier on.)

[19] Then answered Jesus and said unto them, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

When accused of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus said, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work" -- in other words, God doesn't take a break on the seventh day, and so neither does Jesus. Here Jesus continues that thought: He only does what he sees the Father do.

Mormons make much of this verse, drawing from it the conclusion that God the Father once lived as a mortal man (because Jesus did, and he can only do what his Father has done) and even that he was the "savior" of his world, undergoing something analogous to Jesus' execution by the Romans as a sacrifice for sin. (This is not an official CJCLDS doctrine but is widely believed.)

To me this verse suggests almost a Homeric view of the world -- in which human beings can do nothing of themselves, and to explain something like the Trojan war in terms of humans and their motivations is to display a laughable naïveté as to what is really going on. While it would be hard to overstate the depth of my respect for Homer and his vision, I do not think that it is a Christian vision or that it can readily be reconciled with Jesus' larger message.

If Jesus were really just doing things that had already been done by the Father, there would have been no need for him. The necessity of Jesus' mission -- surely a sine qua non of Christianity -- implies that Jesus was doing something that God the Father did not, and could not, do.

[20] For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth: and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may marvel. [21] For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will.

This seems to be saying that even resurrection -- the centerpiece of Jesus' mission -- was not something new, but yet another instance of his copying something the Father had already done. I don't think this can possibly be right. "For as the Father raiseth up the dead" -- but when did the Father ever resurrect anybody before Jesus? And if he did -- if resurrections were already being carried out before the Resurrection -- then wherein lies the unique importance of Jesus?

The only somewhat coherent reading of this that I can come up with -- assuming that the text is not simply corrupt -- is that for the Father to show the Son what he (the Father) is doing, and for the Son to do that thing, are somehow the same thing. "He [the Father] will shew him [Jesus] greater works than these, that ye [the Jews] may marvel" -- why would the Father showing something to Jesus cause the Jews to marvel, unless that "showing" entailed Jesus' acting in some way that the Jews could observe? This implies that the Father acts through the agency of the Son in such a direct way that, for Jesus, "I healed a man" and "The Father showed me that he was healing a man" are two ways of saying the same thing. "For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 6:38).

This is metaphysically complex and conflicts somewhat with my current understanding of agency, individuality, and the relationship between God and man. I need to think about it more and decide whether it's something I can understand and agree with.

The referent of "he" is ambiguous in the last sentence, and I think this is also true in the original Greek (where the pronoun doesn't actually appear but is implied by the form of the verb). It could mean that the Son quickens (gives life to) whom the Father will, or whom he himself will. The next verse seems to imply that the latter is the proper reading.

[22] For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son:

(This line always makes me think of John C. Wright's conversion story, which is worth a read.)

Coming right after "the Son quickeneth whom he will," this seems to be saying that Jesus, not the Father, decides who will be "quickened," or resurrected -- although it could of course also refer to judgment in a broader sense. This seems to conflict with the preceding statement that the Son can only do what he sees the Father do, since the Son judges but the Father does not.

There's also the question of why all judgment has been committed to the Son. There would be no point in the Father's deferring to the Son's judgment unless the Son would judge differently from -- and better than -- the Father. (Of course such a thing would be impossible if we assumed a strictly omniscient Supergod, but we don't.) I would guess that the Son's superior ability to judge men has to do with his direct experience of being a man and understanding the mortal condition from the inside (which in turn implies that the Mormons are wrong to assume that the Father also began his career as a man; this is something that distinguishes the Son from the Father).

[23] That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him.

The Son should be honored even as the Father. A deified man is not a "god with a small g" -- a formulation popular among those suffering from Residual Unresolved Monotheism -- but a God in the fullest sense, the same sort of being as the Father.

[24] Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. [25] Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.

[26] For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself;

The Father hath life. God is alive -- an organism, not an abstraction -- or at least more like the former than like the latter.

That the Father has life in himself presumably means that, unlike a biological organism, he is able to stay "alive" without requiring anything outside himself. He is an uncaused cause, who exists because he wills himself to exist.

What, then, can it mean to say that the Father has given to the Son to have life in himself? If the Son has truly has life in himself -- owes his life to himself alone -- how can he also owe it to the Father? How can the Father give the Son what he (the Son) has of himself? I don't have an answer to this; I simply raise the question.

[27] And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.

Son of man has two possible meanings. Its primary meaning is simply "man" -- the singular form of the familiar biblical expression "children of men." The more restricted sense, referring to a Messiah-like figure, comes from the apocalyptic dream recorded in Daniel 7. In his dream, Daniel sees four successive beasts -- a lion, a bear, a four-headed leopard, and a monster with ten horns -- representing pagan kingdoms. (The beast of Revelation with its seven heads and ten horns, is a combination of these four.) The Ancient of Days appears and destroys these kingdoms, after which Daniel sees "one like the son of man" -- meaning a human being, in contrast to the beasts he had seen before -- descending from heaven. This son of man is given a kingdom which shall never be destroyed. While the text of Daniel itself seems to identify this son of man as a symbol of "the saints of the Most High," later Judaism sometimes saw him as an individual -- either the Messiah, or a separate figure who would come after the Messiah.

So, why has Jesus been given authority to execute judgment? Is it because he is the figure foreseen by Daniel, or simply because he is a man? I lean toward the latter interpretation for two reasons. First, the definite article is not present in the Greek; it literally reads "because he is a son of man." Second, v. 22 emphasizes that judgment belongs to the Son rather than to the Father. We should therefore be looking not at what distinguishes Jesus from other men (e.g. his role as the apocalyptic Son of Man) but at what distinguishes him from the Father (namely, his being a man, a son of Adam).

The implication is, again, that God as such is not fully qualified to judge men, never having walked a mile in our moccasins. Jesus can judge us because, in addition to being divine, he is one of us. (How do you square this with God's omniscience? Well, you can't, and I don't. I don't believe in Supergod.)

Alma 7:12-13 in the Book of Mormon seems relevant here.

[12] And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

[13] Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

While there is a nod to the traditional doctrine of omniscience, Alma nevertheless insists on the necessity of Son's experiencing human life and death firsthand "that he may know according to the flesh." This is a deeper, truer sort of knowing, above and beyond the abstract sense in which it may be said that "the Spirit knoweth all things."

Even Jesus, though, hasn't lived every human life -- only his own, very specific life -- and so even his "knowing according to the flesh" is not absolute. He has firsthand knowledge of "the human condition" in general, but not of every individual human condition. Your experience is your own, and through it you come to know things that even the Gods themselves don't really know, not "according to the flesh." We are, each of us, genuine unknown quantities, exploring uncharted waters, and "it doth not yet appear what we shall be" (1 John 3:2). Some may find this frightening -- the whole "existential angst" thing -- but it is what makes a meaningful life possible.

From this I must conclude that even Jesus' role as judge is limited. Ultimately, we can only judge ourselves.

[28] Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, [29] And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.

This is the first and only mention of a "resurrection of damnation" (or, as it may also be translated, "of judgment"). It is also the first reference in this Gospel to the idea that dead will be judged according to whether they have "done good" or "done evil" -- rather than, as in vv. 24-25 and elsewhere, according to whether they have heard and believed Jesus.

What is the point if this "resurrection of damnation"? Why raise someone from the dead only to damn him? Why not just leave him as a shade in Hades? A few possibilities come to mind:
  1. Even the resurrection of damnation is preferable to Hades. These people are being given the best they are able or willing to receive.
  2. The resurrection of damnation is worse than Hades, but God respects the free will of those who choose it anyway.
  3. The damnation spoken of is not final, and those who are resurrected to it are resurrected because they are still salvable.
  4. The resurrection of damnation is reincarnation.
  5. The text is corrupt. There is no resurrection of damnation.
I have no idea which, if any, of these possibilities reflects the real situation. I'm just throwing out ideas.

[30] I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

The word because implies that Jesus' judgment would not be just if he sought his own will -- that he himself does not will justice in the same way that the Father does. But at the same time, Jesus' judgment must be more just than the Father's own, or else the Father would not have delegated the task of judgment to him. Each of them must contribute something to the judgment process. In keeping with my speculations above, I would say that the best judgment occurs when the Father's will (which is more impersonally just, because he is not a man) is informed by Jesus' "knowledge according to the flesh" (which is truer and deeper, because he is a man).

I repeat again that everything I have written here is highly speculative, and that in the last analysis I don't trust this part of the Gospel. Nevertheless, I don't feel that I can dismiss it without doing the hard work of trying to understand what it is saying. Converged

I have benefited greatly from in the past, particularly from the function which makes it easy to compare dozens of English translations of a given verse. Obviously, it was too much to expect that a Bible reference site would be a haven from the mass-media "narrative." I will no longer be using this site and have sent them an email explaining why.

Update: I now use, and recommend, Bible Hub, which I had previously used only for Greek, as my main Bible reference site.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Synchronicity: The dead returning as moths

The cover artist was not an entomologist.

I have recently been rereading the works of Whitley Strieber, and reading some of his newer books for the first time. Among this latter lot is The Afterlife Revolution (2017), about his perceived interactions with the spirit of his late wife, Anne. (So confident is Strieber that he is channeling her that she is listed as a coauthor despite having died in 2015!) A major theme of the book is a plethora of bizarre synchronicities involving white moths, which Strieber believes (plausibly, in my opinion) to have been orchestrated by Anne as a form of communication.

Some weeks after finishing The Afterlife Revolution (and discussing it with no one), I was talking with a Taiwanese business associate of mine about a mutual acquaintance whose brother-in-law had just died. She said that the date of the funeral was uncertain (as always in Taiwan, it would be necessary to wait for an astrologically auspicious day) but that it would certainly be no sooner than seven days after the death. When I asked why seven days, she said that it was traditionally believed that the deceased person would return on the seventh day.

"You mean the spirit will come back and check on the body, or what?"

"The person will return in a different form -- most often a moth, sometimes a butterfly."

Searching the Internet after our conversation, I found many references to the Chinese tradition that the soul of the deceased returns to his home on the seventh day after his death, but nothing about the soul's taking the form of a moth or butterfly. Perhaps this is a local Taiwanese idea? Anyway, it seemed significant that the idea should turn up in a conversation so soon after I had read The Afterlife Revolution.

I wonder how common this association is? I know Aristotle used the same Greek word to refer both to the soul and to the cabbage butterfly. (By coincidence, this same species of non-moth appears to have been chosen by Strieber's entomologically confused cover illustrator.)

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Philip as a Christmas reindeer in polyvalent perspective

With sufficient sleep deprivation, you get to the point where you can be fully conscious, close your eyes for a second, and immediately enter REM without skipping a beat. (I believe Salvador Dalí used to do this.) Open your eyes again, and you're back in the waking world, without the break in continuity (and amnesia) that usually accompanies waking from a dream.

I get junk mail almost every day from About half of these are notifications that some poor schmuck from Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest has once again mistaken me for a Shakespeare scholar and cited me in a paper, and the other half are recommendations of papers having to do with the Fourth Gospel.

A few days ago, after 50 hours or so without sleep, I checked my email and found an missive of the latter kind, giving me a heads-up regarding the publication of "'Come and See!' Philip as a Connective Figure in the Fourth Gospel in Polyvalent Perspective" by Paul somebody. (I didn't click to see the rest of his name.) I closed my eyes and proceeded to read the paper chez Morphée.

The opening sentence was: "Philip first appears as a Christmas reindeer, with horns upon his head." As I read it, I had a clear vision of Philip -- as a man, not a reindeer, but wearing a rather elaborate headdress in the shape of a pair of caribou antlers which, as they were covered in red satin, did look rather Christmassy. The rest of the paper went through every single mention of Philip in the Gospel (at least that was the concept; I doubt the dream actually covered them all) and pointed out how he was showing reindeer-like characteristics or playing a reindeer-like role.

For example, the paper used the titular quotation -- "Come and see!" (John 1:46) -- to connect Philip to the four "beasts" who say that when each of the first four seals of the apocalypse is opened (Revelation 6:1-7). It pointed out that θηρίον (Greek for "beast") is cognate with German Tier, English deer (which originally just meant "animal"), and the second element in reindeer (which, despite what you might assume, does not derive directly from English deer). Thus, by saying "Come and see," Philip was fulfilling his role as a Christmas reindeer.

My waking self is aware that the Greek word used for the beasts who say "Come and see!" is not θηρίον but ζῴων -- whence Blake's Four Zoas (a double-plural in the spirit of the KJV's cherubims) -- and that the similarity between θηρ and Tier is believed to be a coincidence without etymological significance. And even if all the linguischticks checked out, the connection would still be an extremely tenuous one! Still, I thought it was a rather game attempt on the part of the old subconscious. If someone were to challenge me, while awake, to prove through textual analysis that the apostle Philip was a Christmas reindeer, I confess I should be rather at a loss!

So why am I posting this load of nonsense? Four reasons:
  1. out of a sincere and heartfelt love of the absurd
  2. as a specimen of the sort of hyper-verbal dream I often have, but which I believe is fairly rare in the population at large
  3. as a warning to myself, in my ongoing Bible-commentary project, not to get so caught up in my own exegetical ingenuity that I lose the thread
  4. in the hope that Paul somebody will somehow find this post, perhaps by googling the title of his own paper, and have a really surreal experience (which will be compounded, of course, when he reads this note at the end)

Sunday, July 5, 2020

A syndrome of sorts

I predict that the following three attitudes could be shown to be strongly intercorrelated:
  1. Thinking electric cars are virtuous because the "don't pollute" (i.e., are powered by coal-burning power plants rather than gasoline-burning engines)
  2. Being opposed to hunting as "cruel," but not being a vegetarian
  3. Looking down on people who patronize strip clubs, but having no problem with Internet porn
What's the common factor?

Mr. Peanut: Another autobiographical bit in Whitley Strieber's Cat Magic

Mr. Peanut as he appeared in the 1950s, when Strieber was a child

In addition to the dead owl in the suitcase, there's this.

In this passage from Whitley Strieber's 1986 novel Cat Magic, it is mentioned in passing that Amanda Walker (the heroine, based on Dora Ruffner, and the niece of George Walker, who saw the dead owl) was once chased by a man dressed up as Mr. Peanut.

Mother Star of the Sea came forward, prancing, mincing, her arms akimbo, her head lolling from side to side, her jaw snapping.

Perhaps she intended to be amusing, but she could hardly have chosen a more unwelcome appearance. Ever since she was three and she'd been chased by a man dressed up as Mr. Peanut, Amanda had loathed and despised all forms of puppets.

In the non-fiction Communion, published the next year, Strieber reveals that this is a memory of his own, but one that he judges to be false, a "screen memory" to cover up something more traumatic.

Many of my screen memories concern animals, but not all. I remember being terrified as a little boy by an appearance of Mr. Peanut, and yet I know that I never saw Mr. Peanut except on a Planter's can. I said that I was menaced by him at a Battle of Flowers Parade in San Antonio, but I now understand perfectly well that it never happened.

I would say that Cat Magic -- an uneven and extremely bizarre novel, but one that is full of evocative ideas and images -- is essential reading for anyone interested in Whitley Strieber's non-fiction, as it prefigures not only isolated incidents like Mr. Peanut and the dead owl, but also many of the major speculative and philosophical themes of his later work, much more so than any of the other Strieber novels I've read. Despite the way Strieber tried to distance himself from Cat Magic by publishing it under the byline "by Jonathan Barry, with Whitley Strieber" (Barry does not exist), it is the most personal of his novels. He would later name his personal publishing company (which produced such works as The Key and The Path) Walker & Collier, after Cat Magic characters Amanda Walker (or her psychotic Uncle George?) and Constance Collier.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Whitley Strieber in Italy with a dead owl

Doesn't that sound like the title of a Surrealist painting? Or perhaps something from a really weird version of Clue? (Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the candlestick? No, it was Whitley Strieber in Italy with a dead owl!) Actually, it's just another in my series of footnotes to the works of this very unusual writer.

Cat Magic

In Whitley Strieber's 1986 fantasy/horror novel Cat Magic, this very strange memory of one of the characters is mentioned in passing; it just comes out of nowhere, has no effect on the plot, and is never mentioned again.

[The smell of paint] reminded him of the six weeks of the summer of 1968 he had spent in Florence. There had been college students from all over the world there, art students, working on the restoration of the Uffizi masterpieces which had been damaged in the flood of the year before.

He had met Irish magical Roisin, with whom he had cohabited for weeks, before he had found, jammed into her suitcase, the terrible rubble of a dead owl.

He had run terrified from her. Roisin, lost in the dangerous clutter of time.

George Walker, the character whose reminiscences these are, is unsympathetic and obviously deeply disturbed; one of his other memories involves setting fire to a live cat as a joke. While one can see the relevance of the cat-burning incident -- Walker's intense and strangely sexualized hatred of cats is an important plot point -- "Irish magical Roisin" with her suitcase full of owl rubble (rubble?) seems to have nothing to do with anything. The only possible purpose of the passage is to further establish that George Walker is a pretty seriously messed-up guy, and apparently delusional to boot.

Would any reader have guessed that this bit was actually pretty much 100% autobiographical?


Communion, Strieber's famous non-fiction book about his close-encounter experiences, was published in 1987, just a year after Cat Magic. Here we find the first hints that the incident of George Walker and the owl-rubble may be based on some real experience of Strieber's.

In 1968 I ended up with four to six weeks of "missing time" after a desperate and inexplicable chase across Europe.

So both Walker and Strieber spent six weeks in Europe in 1968. Walker spent the latter part of his trip "running terrified" from Roisin, while Strieber characterizes his trip as "a desperate and inexplicable chase."

Later, in a discussion of various times owls have unexpectedly turned up in his life, Strieber mentions this:

I saw an owl once before, too, during the events of 1968.

So not only were Walker and Strieber both in Europe at the same time, for the same period of time, but they also each saw an owl there. There is no indication (yet) that the one Strieber saw was a dead owl, in a suitcase, but that's still quite the coincidence.

Later Strieber adds more details about his trip in Europe.

I took the train to Italy, second class. On the train I met a young woman and we began to travel together. At this point my memories become extremely odd. If I do not think about them they seem fine, but when I try to put them together they don't make sense. I recall that we went to Rome, but that we spent a few days in Florence on the way. For eighteen years I told the story that I stayed in Florence for six weeks. But when I went there in the summer of 1984 [. . .] I realized that I had almost no memories of the place. Even so, I placidly accepted this anomaly. For some reason, I left the young woman in Rome and dashed off on the train with no ticket, traveling almost at random. I ended up in Strasbourg.
Now we know that he stayed -- or used to think that he had stayed -- in Florence for six weeks, just like George Walker, that he met a woman there, just like George Walker, and that his "desperate and inexplicable chase" apparently involved running away from her -- just like, as you may have noticed, George Walker.

At the time he wrote Communion, Strieber seemed to have no memory of why he had left the girl; it was just "for some reason."


Transformation, Strieber's second non-fiction book about his close encounters, was published in 1988 -- a year after Communion and two years after Cat Magic. He once again revisits his travels in Italy in the summer of 1968.

In 1968 I was living in London. During the summer I spent between two and six weeks on the Continent, and have been unable to account for most of that time. As I reported in Communion, I crossed to the continent on a ferry and took a train south to Italy. On the trip I met a young woman. I remember her name and her nationality but have not been able to trace her. We went first to Florence and then to Rome. In Rome something happened that terrified me. My screen memory is that I got lost in the catacombs under the Vatican.

Whatever happened, I literally rushed back to my pensione and threw my things into my suitcase. Something I saw in the room horrified me. I have tried to recall what it was, but all I have been able to find out for certain is that I told a friend at the time that I had seen "a dried owl" somewhere in the room. If that is indeed what I saw, I am not surprised that I ran!

I made an unsuccessful attempt to extract more of this memory via hypnosis, but my feeling is that the material that emerged is not correct.

Strieber mentions that he remembers (but does not disclose) the woman's name and nationality. Given how much of this experience was apparently imported wholesale into Cat Magic -- leaving even such details as the date, the city, and the duration of the trip unchanged -- my money says she was an Irishwoman called Róisín, and I will go ahead and refer to her by that name. (It's just a guess of course, but it will be more convenient than constantly referring to "the young woman," "Strieber's traveling companion," etc.)

The owl puts in another appearance, and this time we are told that it was "dried" (and therefore presumably dead, as in Cat Magic). In the past I had always assumed that Strieber was referring to only one horrifying experience in this passage -- something that he (mis)remembered as getting lost in the catacombs under the Vatican and seeing a dried owl in one of the rooms there. Rereading it now in the light of Cat Magic and The Super Natural, I can see that the room where he saw the owl was probably the pensione he was sharing with Róisín, not in the catacombs. He saw something in Rome that spooked him, decided to leave, and then saw something else that spooked him in the pensione as he was packing.

Strieber still seems to have no memory of what exactly he saw; he "tried to recall what it was" but failed. The "dried owl" is something a friend remembers him saying at the time, not something that Strieber himself recalls at the time of writing Transformation.

What material, I wonder, emerged from the hypnosis session he mentions, and why did it seem incorrect? Did it involve seeing a dried owl (or the "terrible rubble" thereof) in Róisín's suitcase? And did he reject it as incorrect because he recognized it as coming from his fiction rather than from his life? We can only speculate.

The Super Natural

Cat Magic, Communion, and Transformation were published in three consecutive years, from 1986 to 1988. We now jump forward almost three decades (and nearly 50 years after the events of 1968) to The Super Natural (2016), a non-fiction book co-written with Jeffrey Kripal. The symbol of the owl comes up, and Strieber once again tells his story.

Later, in 1968, I had a profoundly unsettling experience involving an owl. That year, I was living in London and attending the London School of Film Technique, now called the London Film School. During the summer break, I decided to travel on the Continent. On an overnight train to Florence, I fell in which a girl. We began traveling together. For a couple of weeks in Florence, we had a lovely time, living together in chaste intimacy. But then we went on to Rome, and when we toured St. Peter's, she became crazy, stalking through the church in raging silence. She scared me. I was living with her in a small pensione near the railroad station. I decided, "No more," and headed off to the pensione to collect my suitcase and get out of there.

I went into our tiny room, threw my toothbrush into my suitcase, and started to leave. Then I stopped. Her suitcase was lying on the foot of the bed. I have always been a bit too curious, and I opened it. What I saw shocked me to my core. In it was a nun's habit and, lying beside it, a dry, flattened owl carcass. I didn't get off the train again until I was in Strasbourg.

And we've come full circle, back to the Cat Magic version of the story, in which the dead owl is in the girl's suitcase. It's a "flattened" carcass, too, so perhaps this damage is what is intended by Cat Magic's strange description of it as "rubble."

As in Transformation, there are two scary events that precipitate Strieber's flight from Rome and Róisín. The first, though is not getting lost in the catacombs (which even in Transformation is admitted to be a "screen," or false, memory) but rather seeing Róisín "stalking" through St. Peter's Basilica "in raging silence." The second, of course, is the dead owl -- described as being in her suitcase, for the first time since Cat Magic 30 years before.

What really happened?

If we take the anecdote in The Super Natural at face value, it means the one in Cat Magic is 100% true -- a real event from Strieber's life, inserted without any modification at all into one of his novels. (In fact it may even be truer than the non-fiction versions. Does anyone really believe that a 23-year-old American film student backpacking through Europe in 1968 would be "living together in chaste intimacy" with a young woman rather than "cohabiting"?) This raises the question of how many other bits of unmodified autobiography lie hiding in plain sight in Strieber's pre-Communion fiction. (I can think of a passage in The Wolfen that is a strong candidate.)

If we take the anecdote at face value -- but that would be just a tad naïve, wouldn't it? Strieber himself would be the first to admit that he is what is called an "unreliable narrator." Here are some possible ways of interpreting the texts.

1. The owl incident is fiction and was invented by Strieber for Cat Magic. As time went by, he began to get bits of this fictional incident mixed up in his mind with real memories from 1968 -- first "remembering" that an owl had somehow been involved and then finally, by 2016, adopting the Cat Magic incident in its entirety as a "memory." It's easy to imagine Strieber trying hard to remember as much as possible about that long-ago incident, coming up with a clear and distinct image of finding a dead owl in his girlfriend's suitcase, and assuming it to be a real memory, having long since forgotten that the image came from a novel he had written 30 years before. The question this interpretation raises is why Strieber would invent the owl-in-the-suitcase image in the first place -- given how bizarre it is, and how little it has to do with the plot of Cat Magic. Perhaps it was originally a dream or something.

2. The owl incident took place more-or-less as described in The Super Natural but was buried in traumatic amnesia, so that when Strieber wrote Communion and Transformation he no longer had conscious access to those memories. The memories returned decades later, after Strieber had to some degree managed to overcome his fear of the "visitors," which is why he was finally able to tell the story accurately in 2016. The question then is how some of the "forgotten" details recorded for the first time in The Super Natural managed to find their way into the fictionalized version in Cat Magic. Well, perhaps traumatic memories are only traumatic if they are thought of as memories. Perhaps when one is fantasizing or engaging in creative writing, otherwise censored memories may be able to slip into consciousness disguised as fantasies.

3. Strieber consciously remembered the owl incident all along, but for some reason didn't trust some of these memories during the time he was writing Communion and Transformation and was unwilling to commit them to writing. Given how many extremely bizarre memories he recounts in those two books, this hesitance seems a bit odd. Perhaps the similarity to Cat Magic made it seem as if the memories had been contaminated, but apparently he had overcome these misgivings by the time he wrote The Super Natural.

Five cornerstones

I recently received another batch of emails from a correspondent who keeps encountering repetitions of the number 5 (55, 555, etc.). This ma...