BOOK REVIEW / Supernature: the times they are a-changing: 'Daimonic Reality' - Patrick Harpur: Viking, 18 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
EVERY weekday, on the outskirts of Rome, hundreds of ailing souls gather outside a nondescript church building. At the appointed hour, they file into the basement to sit before Archbishop Emanuel Milingo, once head of the Catholic Church in Zambia, but today something of an embarrassment to the ecclesiastical bigwigs in the Vatican. To his visitors, though, the bespectacled archbishop is a saint - with the Christ-like power to cast out the evil spirits that are giving them colds, flus, aches and pains, even tumours, cancers and wasting diseases.

His is a congregation turning its collective back on conventional medicine and the 20th century's scientific triumphalism. Instead it is placing its faith in something altogether less tangible. It is this grey area - the paranormal, the supernatural, the ill- defined, the unexplained, the unexplainable, call it what you will - that Patrick Harpur has bravely tackled. In ancient Greece, daimons - as opposed to the more sinister demons - were neutral spirits at work behind the scenes shaping the universe.

Harpur's ambition is clear: 'to entertain the impossible, to think about the unthinkable'. In practice, this means that every tale of the unexpected is treated with breathless reverence. Such a prose style is in accord with the promise, in the introduction, to collect an A-Z of other worldly experiences without spoiling them with 'extravagant, sensational theories'.

I took this as meaning that the author would be largely impartial, letting the weight and range of evidence do the talking. And indeed, Daimonic Reality does prove that there are plenty of strange things going bump in the night, from policemen flagging down UFOs in Todmorden and 'white ladies' hovering over bridges in Switzerland, to Brazilian soldiers being taken captive by dwarves and whisked away on a trip round the moon - not to mention countless Virgin Marys appearing to young peasant girls in villages the world over.

The supernatural world has changed. Where children in the Middle Ages would see fairies at the end of the garden, today's adolescents spot hunks of metal with flashing lights and aliens taken straight from Hollywood scripts. Save for the Catholic Church, where the cult of the visiting Virgin is still going strong, most supernatural events are usually treated with the irreverence reserved for the 'And Finally . . .' items at the end of news bulletins. But Harpur finds powerful referees in poets such as Blake, Shelley and Yeats; and in Jung, who in 1956 wrote a long essay on flying saucers.

'Jung's model of the psyche', he writes, 'provides the best - and perhaps the only - framework for understanding visionary experiences.' In short, buried in the subconscious are fascinating ideas, mental pictures, a sea of images that feed and animate the extraordinary events described in the rest of the book.

At this point Harpur seems to lose sight of his original intention merely to report; he throws his lot in with Jung, and delves into those historical movements - like Gnosticism, with its mythical and cosmic projections, and Neo- Platonism, with its separation of body and soul - that were precursors of Jung's sense of a collective unconscious.

The book ends up less the entertaining and thought-provoking field guide promised by its subtitle than a dogmatic attempt to fit a bewildering array of events into the inadequate strait-jacket of psychoanalytical theory. Having initially castigated those rationalists who feel that science has the answer for everything, Daimonic Reality concludes by turning on the lights at the end of what had been an enjoyable grope in the dark.