A Skinny Take: A medium please

Blog by R. J. Gallagher | 13 Aug 2009

Ryan returns to take us through the spirit world.


The human impulse to explain is a source of great imagination: never content to simply not know, history has seen humankind invent an array of mystical religious narratives, occult rituals and even fantastical places – Heaven and Hell – as we attempt to ‘make sense of it all’.  

Like the ancients who worshipped sun gods long before the dawning of astronomy, supernatural explanations today are similarly symptomatic of this same compulsive need-to-know; their perceived ability to answer the unanswerable, explain the unexplainable, and to provide simple answers for complex questions proving attractive in the face of confusion, death, chaos.   

But recent years have seen a decline in the popularity of organised religion and supernatural explanation, and it is no coincidence that this decline parallels the massive advances made by science over the course of the last few centuries. As material answers begin to replace those which are imagined, and the Hubble telescope peers deeper into that universe we now realise we are not the centre of, we can only be satisfied with explanations that can be seen, heard, experienced and truly understood. Like oil men drilling deep into the Earth in pursuit of their black gold, many of us are on the hunt for answers with substance. 

Yet in contrast, scores of individuals are today still moved to probe invisible – or ‘spiritual’ – sources in their attempts to quell that insatiable desire to know; their minds unable to rest in the knowledge that there are some questions for which answers are simply unattainable; and it is here, in the void of The Unknown, that supernatural explanations continue to prosper. 

Death for instance, and particularly what happens after it, is undoubtedly the question science cannot answer; therefore it is unsurprising that this crater in our knowledge is home to perhaps the most obtrusive of all those peddling supernatural explanations – ‘spiritual mediums’.   

Akin to religion ‘mediums’ have waned in popularity over the course of the last century, but despite having been ridiculed by everyone from Derren Brown to T.S. Eliot, exposed as fraud by T.V programmes and largely criminalized by recent legislation (the EU Unfair Commercial Practises Directive), their presence has continued to linger like an unwelcome mist above our earthly heads; as can be verified by a simple Google search of ‘spiritual medium’ or by watching video clips of bizarre Dundee based touring ‘spiritual bridge builder’ June Field

Like the myriad of churches selling us the utopia of heaven, afterlife, or reincarnation if we adhere to their doctrines, mediums similarly thrive upon our lust for eternal life, feasting on our fear of death and dying like ravenous wolves, adept to the fact that many of us conquer this fear by blindly believing that death is not the end; a belief that the ‘gifted’ medium, dressed carefully in sheep’s clothing, will happily verify – mala fide – if the price is right. 

The mythological stilts though, upon which the medium is propped up, are never far from snapping – as American poet James Merrill subconsciously discovered after two decades of dabbling with the Ouija board.  When Merrill wrote, “If the spirits aren't external, how astonishing the mediums become!”  he had unknowingly stumbled upon core of the myth itself; that is, the fact that ‘spirits’ in no kind of objective sense exist – they are simply manipulations of one's own imagination, a metaphor for the projections, dreams and memories spewed forth from the closets of the minds of the living.

But even in spite of this – money-grabbing or not – the popularity of mediums continues to persist amongst a sect of society unwilling to leave some questions unanswered; our eagerness to believe in their ability to ‘channel spirits’ representing what is exemplar of what Marx described as “the impotence of the mind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand.”  

It would seem then that while there are some questions science might never answer, if you use your imagination, regardless, you can quite easily dream up your own. 

See more of Ryan's work at http://www.rjgallagher.co.uk/