Review – The Trickster and the Paranormal (Hardcover Book)
George P. Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranormal offers a variety of paranormal considerations around the psychological, anthropological and literary image of the trickster. Hansen’s exposition of Max Weber and Claude Lévi-Strauss is competent while reflections on Emile Durkheim are thought-provoking.1
The Trickster provides a clear account of some of the main trends in semiotics and critiques classical notions of so-called primitive and advanced religion. It also looks at contemporary cross-currents in psi and psi research. Considerable focus is given to the American psi scene but not exclusively so. References made to leading international figures, particularly European, are usually accompanied with brief but telling biographical sketches.
My main reservation with The Trickster is its reliance on the structuralist notion of binary opposition. In fairness, Hansen provides reasons for using binary opposition as the methodological backbone of The Trickster. He says a structuralist approach stimulates thought in areas that otherwise might be ignored. And he rightly notes the need for structure and limitation in any inquiry. The issue, I suppose, is the type and degree of structure that’s best for the task at hand.
It seems reasonable to accept a binary opposition of good and evil.2 But a master opposition of this sort in ethics doesn’t justify generalizing the notion of binary opposites to every modality of “our current Western worldview.”3 Hansen does say that the trickster mediates and collapses binaries, and that this process involves numinosity. But, again, he seems to firmly believe that Western culture is predicated on binaries (pp. 31, 62).
Another analytical consideration emerges when Hansen acknowledges uncertainties arising from the so-called emic/etic debate yet applies anthropological data in support of the trickster theory as if the debate were fully resolved. This is one aspect of the The Trickster that just doesn’t wash. Hansen periodically upholds the trickster as if it weren’t a device designed – or constructed as Foucault says – to stimulate thought. Instead of insisting on universal binaries and a mediating/collapsing trickster, wouldn’t it be simpler to just say that the numinous compels us to reevaluate our current assumptions and opinions?
With regard to ethics, Hansen says the Godhead contains both good and evil, and seems to advocate a type of pantheism where the dyads of creator/creation and good/evil are, respectively, taken as one and the same—perhaps something like the “warp and the woof” of the Upanisads. Not much mention is given to monotheistic theologies where an entirely benevolent creator God endows human beings with free will, thus permitting evil for a greater good. A discussion of St. Anselm’s faith-based view, “I believe in order to understand,” along with the propositional statement, “reason follows revelation,” might have been useful in rounding out The Trickster.
This leads to another unsatisfying aspect of The Trickster. Different mystics from various world traditions are presented as if they’ve experienced the same type of numinosity, when in fact we can’t be sure.4 Freud’s so-called ‘backward-looking’ theories and Rudolf Otto‘s rather basic distinctions regarding the numinous are treated in some detail, but The Trickster doesn’t probe too far beyond these standard reference points for numinosity.
To its credit, however, The Trickster questions current thinking on mysticism. Mysticism may overlap, Hansen says, with other paranormal abilities.5 Other positive aspects of the The Trickster can be found in the discussion of UFOs, frauds and hoaxes. Hansen’s treatment of lab research on psi and its practical implications is useful except, perhaps, where he notes confounding variables with retroactive PK yet proceeds to suggest research directions as if these indeterminable factors are “not too severe.”6
The Trickster’s section on literature and literary criticism offers some pointed observations on French rationalists. Thoughtful and mature reflection can be found on the oft diffuse relations among imagination, reality, paranoia, mythology, ontological boundaries, space, time, life, afterlife and the self. Still, and at the risk of sounding like an old-school theologian, I didn’t see too much on the idea of a created self, humbly existing in an “I – Thou” relationship with an omnipotent yet perfectly loving Creator.7
On the whole, The Trickster is an engaging and intelligent book. And it would be unreasonable to expect a bona fide innovator like Hansen to create a slick, seamless work in largely uncharted areas. The Trickster should help readers to better understand psi in relation to the socio-political world of the 21st-century. As cutting-edge material, there might be room for improvement. But for its considerable scope and heuristic value The Trickster and the Paranormal is certainly worthwhile.
1. For instance, Hansen argues that Durkheim has been largely misunderstood by sociologists. For Hansen, Durkheim does not reduce the idea of the numinous to non-mystical origins. This is an interesting if debatable claim. Consider, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964), pp. 218-22, 427, 439-440, 442-443, 444.
2. I would suggest that heaven and hell exist independently of whatever relativistic language games we might play with the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ When viewed from the perspective of everlasting life, this is supremely practical.
3. (a) See p. 62. Among other things, Hansen notes the binary code used in computing; but are human beings computers?
4. See p. 78. Along these lines, William James, Evelyn Underhill, Joseph Campbell, C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, John Milton, Sri Aurobino and St. Teresa of Ávila – to name a few – each suggest that numinous experience may contain radically different qualities and textures.
5. We must ask whether paranormal abilities are in every case equivalent to divine gifts. As St. Paul puts it, those without love are meaningless (1 Corinthians 13).
6. See p. 330, 342-43. It is assumed that visible subjects (or “social groups” consisting of human beings) and not some invisible external agent largely influenced pre-recorded trials. The latter possibility would still involve a reevaluation of space and time. However, it is conceivable that if a demonic supernatural power did exist, it could dupe people into believing they’re producing a retroactive PK effect when they’re not. See my discussion on the idea of discernment in ETs, UFOs and the Psychology of Belief.
7. Granted, brief mention is given to the idea of ‘heaven’ and the ‘mystical marriage,’ and Otto runs throughout the book. But with regard to the latter, I felt that I was mostly reading Hansen’s Otto instead of Otto’s Otto.
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