“Know thyself? If I knew myself, I’d run away” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Don’t you hate it when apparitions borrow your clothes? Most of your more preternatural, yet corporeal critters don’t usually wear clothes. When your primary goals may include avoiding detection by overenthusiastic monster hunters, striking terror in the hearts of man, or snacking on our mortal souls or tender flesh, sartorial splendor takes a back seat. Bigfoot is already hairy, so a fur coat would be overkill, and his shoe size is hard to come by. Sea monsters obviously prefer to skinny dip. All those other cryptological creatures no doubt find that nakedness just adds to the desired creep factor. Custom tailoring for non-standard appendages can get expensive. And when faced with some sylvan horror, one is probably more concerned with the gnashing teeth than noting a fashion faux pas.
Now, apparitions are a whole different matter. Perhaps incorporeality encourages either a certain vanity or modesty. Ghosts, phantasms, doppelgangers, and other devoted adherents of creepy insubstantiality tend to come dressed for the party. And sometimes they do so by rifling through your closet. Wait, I feel a metaphor coming on. That’s usually when I reach for the scotch and hope the urge passes. Yet, you try scrubbing, you try soaking, and you’ve still got metaphors, so one has to roll with it. The things I do for England (to borrow a phrase from Prince Charles when diplomatic protocol required him to eat snake meat). One central philosophical conundrum that has caused millennia of confusion is the difference between ontology (what things are allowed to exist) and epistemology (the manner in which we go about knowing these things). We’ve been conflating ontology and epistemology since time immemorial. Modern scientists and their skeptic fellow travelers rarely seem to understand why us common folk distrust them, and attribute it variously to lack of a solid scientific education, general paranoia, or drooling imbecility. That’s because they’ve been peeking in our closets and picking only those epistemological garments that conform with their ontology. And why not? A linear view of the progress of scientific knowledge (the mechano-material, reductionist approach) branched into rationalism (knowledge can be gained independent of sense experience) and empiricism (knowledge can only be gained through sense experience), which in their heydays have lead to some pretty heady knowledge and cool toys. This epistemological crisis has also no doubt led to the mental breakdown of many a philosopher of science, a boon for the pharmaceutical industry. Immanuel Kant took a shot at resolving this with his epistemological dualism, suggesting there were both sense-based and the super-sensible worlds that required both reason and faith to comprehend our position in the universe.
But remember, epistemology is just methodology, that is, the method we choose to interpret what our ontology tells us can exist in the world around us. Thus, we do not need to throw out the scientific baby with the epistemological bathwater. Here’s where the German writer, statesman, philosopher, and natural scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) jumped into the fray. He argued that a purely materialist science (which still dominates our discourse today), led to epistemic impoverishment, by removing the human observer as a fundamental element in the accrual of knowledge, which he described as the “the living imaginal beholding of Nature”. Goethe argued that what we now refer to as the epistemology of “Goethian Science” needed to examine reality through external-sensory angles, as well as sensorily-invisible archetype-patterns (Ur-phänomen), recognizing that feeling, intuition, imagination and inspiration could all contribute to conclusions. Essentially, while devoutly believing in the experimental methods of science it also seemed to him that it created an artificial experience that divorced individual manifestations of phenomena from the meaningful context of the whole, giving weight to both the external characteristics and the consciousness of the observer in seeking a deeper understanding of nature or super-nature, as the case may be. Oddly, the archetypal Ur-phänomen that characterized Goethe’s notable anomalistic experiences always seemed to involve his clothes.
Let us call to memory the remarkable case of Goethe. The poet, one rainy summer night, was walking with his friend K-, who was going back with him from the Belvedere to Weimar. Suddenly he halted, as if confronted by an apparition, and stopped speaking. His friend thought nothing of it. Suddenly Goethe cried: “Good heavens! If I weren’t sure my friend Frederick is this minute in Frankfurt, I’d swear it is he!” Then he burst into a great laugh. “But it is he,—my friend Frederick! You here, in Weimar? But, Heavens, my dear fellow, how you’ve got yourself up! In my dressing-gown, in my night-cap, with my slippers on your feet here, on the highway!” His companion, seeing absolutely nothing was terrified, thinking the poet had suddenly gone mad. But Goethe, absorbed by his vision, stretched out his arms and shouted: “Frederick! Where did you go? Good God! My dear K-, didn’t you see where the person we just met went?” K- , astounded, did not answer. Then the poet, turning his head this way and that, exclaimed with a dreamy air: “Yes, I understand. It was a vision. But what can the meaning of all that be? Could my friend have died suddenly? Could that have been his spirit?” Then Goethe went home, and found Frederick at his house. His hair stood on end. “Away, phantom!” he cried, drawing back, pale as death. “But, my dear fellow,” said the visitor, nonplussed, “is that the welcome you give your truest friend?”—”Ah, this time,” the poet cried, laughing and weeping at once, “it is not a spirit, it is a being of flesh and blood!” And the two friends embraced with effusion. Frederick had arrived at Goethe’s house, soaked with rain, and had put on the poet’s dry clothes; he had then gone to sleep in an arm-chair, and had dreamed that he went to meet Goethe, and that Goethe had questioned him in these words (the same that the poet had uttered): “You here, in Weimar? In my dressing-gown, my night-cap, with my slippers on your feet, here on the highway!” (Flammarion, 1921, p36-37).
Goethe would later have an infamous encounter with a snappily dressed apparition of his future self (or a doppelganger, or a time slip – one never knows), which he noted in his autobiography.
Yet amid all this hurry and confusion I could not resist seeing Frederica once more. Those were painful days, whose memory has not remained with me. When I held out my hand to her from my horse, the tears stood in her eyes, and my heart was heavy. I rode along the footpath towards Drusenheim, and here one of the most singular forebodings took possession of me. I saw, not with the eyes of the body, but with those of the mind, my own figure coming towards me, on horseback, and on the same road, attired in a dress which I had never worn;—it was pike-grey with some gold about it. But as I shook myself out of this dream, the figure had entirely disappeared. It is strange, however, that eight years afterwards, I found myself on that very road, on my way to pay one more visit to Frederica, wearing the dress of which I had dreamed, and that, not from choice, but by accident. Whatever one may think on such matters in general, in this instance my strange illusion helped to calm me in this farewell hour. It softened for me the pain of leaving for ever lovely Alsace, with all that it had brought me, and now that I had at last put behind me the painful strain of parting, I regained my peace of mind on a peaceful and pleasant journey (Goethe, 1908 ed., p48).
When anomalistics is not trying to play the game of mimicking mainstream scientific epistemologies, a losing battle, as disentangling the phenomenal and noumenal and re-assembling them as the experiential runs counter to the narrow reductionism required to get anywhere in the scientific academy these days, perhaps it should be making a deal with the devil. In Goethe’s famous play Faust, Mephistopheles notes the erudite Faust’s frustration with the limits of his knowledge, and the devil wagers that he can satisfy Faust for the price of his soul. The Devil is thwarted in the end by the intercession of the divine, impressed with Faust’s eternal striving for knowledge and goodness, despite a few diabolical mis-steps. Anomalistics strives to reconcile what our current state of knowledge declares impossible, with the human experience of the anomalous. Sadly, we are often more interested in material manifestations and the “evidence” that will justify our striving for a knowledge about the uncanny universe we live in. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe himself said, “Few people have the imagination for reality”.
Flammarion, Camille, 1842-1925, Latrobe Carroll, and Eleanor Stimson Brooks trans. Death and Its Mystery v2. New York: The Century co., 1921.
Goethe, J. Wolfgang von. Morrison, A.J.W trans. (Alexander James William), et al. Poetry and Truth from My Own Life v2. London: G. Bell & sons, 1908.