A total, hardcore, lollapalooza of a Dreher-bait interview with cultural historian and ossuary expert Paul Koudounaris, who has studied the way particular cultures interact, or interacted, with the dead. Excerpt:

How did the mummies in the Palermo catacombs end up with such nice outfits?

For centuries people would pay to have their relatives mummified and put on display. And every November 2 you would dress your mummies in a new set of clothing. It was just a traditional family obligation. Eventually this stopped. Those catacombs are basically the finest fashion history museum in the world — what they’re wearing now is whatever they had on when their relatives stopped bringing them new clothes.

Generally this happened arond the Enlightenment. It shows how drastically our conception of dealing with the dead changed at that point. If you consider Psycho, the one thing that makes Norman Bates absolutely unfit to be a member of human society is that he has his mother mummified and dresses her in clothes. That what marked him as a lunatic. But back in 1700 in Sicily that would have marked him as the paradigm of a loving son. At that point death was not a boundary, it was just a transition and the dead still had a role to play.

There’s freaky ghost stuff all up in the interview, along with this warning from Koudounaris:

One of the dangers of necromancy is you don’t really know who’s on the other side or what they’re going to give you in return.

So, there you are. It all reminds me of one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, Authors Of The Impossible, by Rice University religious studies professor Jeffrey Kripal. I wrote about it for Real Clear Religion. Excerpt:

Kripal’s personal viewpoint on all this is slippery. He says he neither believes nor disbelieves –  not because he’s trying to avoid taking a position, but because of his theory about what the mind and human personality are. This requires some unpacking. In Kripal’s view, the mind and consciousness are far more complex than science and religion think, which renders our various interpretive models inadequate to explain reality. Kripal doesn’t propose a clear alternative, though he does propose that in some way, human consciousness helps create reality through its interaction with the material world, much as we have learned from quantum physics the fantastical lesson that a conscious observer helps determine physical outcomes at the quantum level. He doesn’t believe UFOs are hallucinations or creatures from outer space, for example, but theorizes that UFOs are a a real phenomenon that is, in some dimly understood way, a result of human consciousness interacting with the universe.

If this sounds impossibly New Age, well, it kind of is. But this is precisely where Kripal wants to take the reader by the collar and say, “Not so fast!” The kind of characters we dismiss as kooks may in fact be kooky — but their very distance from the mainstream may help them to see things as they are more clearly, or at least to ask questions that are important, but embarrassing to the right-minded. This is why he turns to a handful of outsider figures, both historical and contemporary, in his search for forgotten insights. One of them, the 20th century American eccentric Charles Fort, described as “damned” information and phenomena discarded by dominant intellectual paradigms. Fort was a legendary curator of the damned, and though he entertained some thoroughly crackpot notions, Kripal values him for paying attention to things respectable intellectuals ignored.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 19th century, Kripal shows, leading scientists and thinkers turned their powers to investigating and analyzing what we now call the paranormal. At some point, however, a dogmatic materialism suppressed genuinely scientific curiosity about these strange phenomena. This is partly, Kripal says, because the paranormal typically cannot be reproduced in laboratory settings. But can we really afford to say that nothing that can be measured or reproduced scientifically can be said to exist? This, according to Kripal, is to succumb to an unreasonable rationalism.

In the end, “Authors of the Impossible” is not a book about “The X Files” and spiritualist ooga-booga, but one about epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we know that we are refusing to ask the right questions because we are afraid of the answers? Have we set up our modes of inquiry such that we cannot possibly penetrate these mysteries? We don’t need to toss out the rational and to embrace the irrational, he argues, but we do need more balance in our approach to these things. Writes Kripal, “Why continue to tolerate a kind of armchair skepticism that has everything to do with scientistic propaganda and nothing at all to do with honest, rigorously open-minded collection, classification, and theory building, that is, with real science and real humanistic inquiry? True enough, anomalies may be just anomalies — meaningless glitches in the statistical field of possibility. But anomalies may also be the signals of the impossible, that is, signs of the end of one paradigm and the beginning of another.”

Above, a 14-minute documentary outlining the themes of Kripal’s book.

(Via The Browser.)