The next post will on or before Wednesday 14th November
OUT OF THE BODY EXPERIENCES
A close friend of mine who is reliably enthusiastic about my blog, asked me recently what I was going to write about next in these pages. I told her I had been thinking about Out of the Body Experiences, then immediately hastened to add, in case she thought I had suddenly turned New Age and/ or prematurely senile and begun throwing the I Ching straws every morning to see if I should get out of bed or not, that I had never had such experiences myself. At that she laughed, then said I would soon run out of material, and it would be a very short post. Those who know something of my writing can predict my considered reply, which is that if ever I do run out of material, I simply digress, on the basis that a digression as long as it is interesting and has a basic anticipatory tension in the prose, is as valuable as whatever the original subject was under discussion. I went on to say that in any case the initial inspiration was not re astral projection or whatever you want to call it… but a fond memory I had that was approximately 30 years old. Back in 1987 I was at an unusually enjoyable dinner party in my native West Cumbria where I was talking to a very likeable woman called Mary, a 40-year-old music teacher at a local comprehensive. Mary was exceptionally attractive and in an original way, as she had a pair of lively and mobile eyes that somehow managed to be gentle, and also to radiate outwards that moving gentleness, in a just discernible if immaterial way. Animation and gentleness together, an unlikely oxymoron perhaps, but the older you get and the more you learn of the fabric of life in all its myriad permutations, the more you wordlessly realise that opposites are often there together and subtly harmonious notwithstanding.
Mary and I weren’t talking about astral projection, but with a great deal of passion about posh types of tea. It turned out we both liked Broken Orange Pekoe, Assam, Darjeeling, English Breakfast (did you know they call it Irish Breakfast in Bewley’s Café, Dublin?) and then moving to China, we praised Yunnan and Jasmine and all the rest. However, there was at least one fly in our connoisseurial ointment, I suddenly realised at one stage, as I remarked:
“I can’t stand Lapsang Souchong, Mary. Can you? It always tastes of iron filings.”
Incredible as it sounds, I suddenly felt I might be struck by lightning for saying something so appallingly heretical, and that despite my Oxford degree in Sanskrit and three works of imaginative fiction in hardback, I was really a grubby working class provincial northern lout, the only things missing being a damp Woodbine on my lower lip and a shivering whippet on a bit of string. Imagine my relief then when Mary sniffed and stoutly replied:
“Lapsang Souchong smells exactly like coal bags. That is if you sniff them in the coalhouse when your coal’s being delivered.”
I almost applauded as I loved her ancillary detail and the specificity, and I loved even more the fact that Mary wasn’t remotely intimidated by upmarket tea. To return to the start though, and very relevant to astral projection, was the fact that Mary had had a great tragedy in her life somewhere in the early 1970s, which I only learnt of a decade after we first met. It turned out that she had been married very young and when she and her husband were both about 23, he had collapsed and had a rapid and fatal brain haemorrhage in their North London flat. She had coped as best she could, they had no children thankfully… but about a fortnight after his funeral, she had awoken one night alone in the marital bed, only to discover that she was apparently close to the ceiling, some ten feet above her body, and, not unconfused, was looking down on herself who was fast asleep down below.
“Was your husband there?” I asked.
“No, no. There was only me on my own in the bed.”
She added as expected that all of that went against her natural and visceral atheism, and that it emphatically didn’t mean she afterwards believed in the afterlife or the occult or any of that, at which risible checklist she sniffed her exquisite nose sardonically, in the identical way she had when talking about Lapsang Souchong and malodorous coal bags.
I have only ever met one other person who claimed extracorporeal experience, and that was in singular circumstances in one of the dullest towns in the universe, the Scottish Border town of Gretna, famous for its miraculously unattractive and clinical depression-inducing annexe Gretna Green, which as you probably know in the old days attracted 16-year-old runaway lovers wishing for eternal nuptial felicity. The reason we were there was that Annie and I in 2003 had driven teenage daughter Ione to a dance just inside Scotland, and instead of returning 15 miles to our North Cumbrian home, then back again, decided to carry on and have a night out somewhere nearby, and that somewhere had to have a quality Indian restaurant. We duly ate a tolerable enough set meal for 2 in the Gretna Green curry house where remarkably one of the starters was called Spicy Boti, and then we went on to a huge pub which looked outwardly exciting but was terminally dull. An unexceptional and innocuous looking man of perhaps forty sitting alone at an adjacent table, suddenly introduced himself, and within half a minute I promise you was telling us about his Out of The Body peregrinations. It transpired that a few years back he was a jobbing farm labourer and was sat on a bunch of haystacks on an open lorry when the vehicle suddenly braked, he was flung forward, only to hit his head on the stony ground, whereupon he entered the Other World minus his astral sheath. I will edit what he said about such an unworldly world, where he like Mary was at some distance above his body, but suffice to say our storyteller was very plodding, mechanical and pointlessly finicky in his exposition, and minus any narrative flair or editorial sense whatever when it came to evoking the excitement of finding oneself reft of all one’s customary phenomenological bearings. In short, he managed to make his Astral Projection Adventure about as exciting as a tax return, and at the first opportunity when he laboriously slipped off to the Gents, I whispered the hoarse injunction to Annie, Off We Fuck! And so indeed we did.
I know of only two fiction writers who have engaged wholeheartedly with such exotic paranormal phenomena. One is William Gerhardie (1895-1977) also known as the English Chekov, who wrote wonderfully funny and brilliantly nuanced novels concerning matters of the heart, but who also made an excursion into the florid and bizarre, and penned Resurrection (1934) which is a whimsical and unsatisfying romance about someone who regularly goes AWOL from his body, rather on the lines of it being a party game. The other writer is French and he is Jules Romains. the pen name of Louis Faragole (1885-1972) best known for his multi-volume Men of Goodwill but who also wrote The Body’s Rapture (translation 1933) and Tussles with Time (translated 1951). The latter is a novel about out of the body phenomena, and surely gets the prize for the worst translated title ever, co-winner that is alongside a rare English version of the much-translated Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry aka A Nest of Nobles which somewhere around 1890 was amazingly rendered as A Nest of Hereditary Legislators…
But to return again to digressions, or rather to digress to digressions. And while we’re at it, alternative technical terms you might conjure with for ‘gressing’ in ‘di’ manner, are divagations, meanderings, anastomosings, excursi, three of them being Latin-derived and one only from good old Classical Greek (‘stoma’ means ‘mouth; as I’m sure you know). There is, would you believe, an entirely digressive novel or rather a 100 page single sentence novella (related by a sex mad cobbler) which is called Dancing Lessons For the Advanced in Age (1964, translated 1995), and is devoted entirely to endless very entertaining and very funny, ricocheting and catapulting anecdotes. These digressions are about people, especially attractive women that the cobbler has met, plus tall stories, meaning hilariously crazy tales that he has heard, and that cover an amiable time span from 1900 to 1948, which is when totalitarian communism arrived in the country in which it is set. The author is the Czech, Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) who as I regularly remark is one of my all-time literary heroes. Hrabal wrote fabular, comic, serendipity East European fictional entertainments, and even if you’ve never read any of his books, if you are aged 60 plus, there is a good chance you will have seen a film based on a short story that he wrote in the 1960s. The film is called Closely Observed Trains (1966) and was directed by his pal Jiri Menzel, and was made in the Prague Spring when the gentle Czech president Alexander Dubcek was trying to liberalise and democratise state communism, until 2 years later in August 1968 the hideous Soviet tanks rolled in, a man called Jan Palach immolated himself in protest, and that for the time being was that.
Of the numerous memorable things in Closely Observed Trains which is set in the 1940s in a tiny country railway station in a small and vulnerable nation occupied by the Nazis (inter alia, a new and young and bashful employee attempting suicide via slit wrists in a hotel bathroom when he cannot perform sexually…and the old station master being such a crazy pigeon lover that the birds use him as a landing post, and at one stage completely obliterate him on film) there is the one scene that everyone remembers, as it is both supremely erotic and supremely farcical. The failed suicide’s fraternal mentor who incidentally ingeniously cures the young man’s impotence problems, is a railway clerical worker who sports round and rimless glasses, and who always wears a smirk, and who thinks about absolutely nothing but sex. He is enamoured of a handsome and infinitely playful female colleague who is also a clerical worker, and they share the same small highly-charged office. She flirts with him and teases him to distraction until one day when the pair of them are alone, he chases her around the office threatening to spank her for her pains. He catches her, upends her right enough, and pulls her knickers down, but instead of condign chastisement he picks up the station stamp, its ‘logo’ in modern usage, and stamps that logo more or less indelibly on her succulent backside. Later her outraged Mum discovers this souvenir memento on her daughter’s behind, whereupon she creates havoc with the railway authorities and tries to have the speccy Lothario sacked forthwith.
Hence as we contemplate the cinematic, theatrical and thematic charisma of a tantalising female bottom, with an official administrative address on it no less, by a digressive route we are back to the Gretna tandoori place and its innocent menu that boasts of a ‘Spicy Boti’ starter. Everything that goes around comes around is what I’m saying, and those who like their stories strictly linear and sequential in my view, really are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to the eternal perspective.
One other novel that deals significantly with Out of the Body phenomena is a minor one by Aldous Huxley called Time Must Have A Stop (1944). Sebastian, a 17-year-old English poet, has a hedonistic Uncle Eustace, who he is invited to stay with in Florence, and one night after a surfeit of rich food, fine brandy and cigars, Eustace dies of an overdue heart attack. Not only does Huxley describe his initial extracorporeal experience, he gives a detailed account of the uncle’s spiritual journey to the Other World, which reads to me very much as if lifted straight from the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Dead. Huxley of course was famous for his fascination with the great religious traditions, and his book of spiritual quotations The Perennial Philosophy is excellent at showing the common ground of all the great religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. However, and for all his massive intelligence, his tendency to easy conflation, led ultimately to his equating spiritual and psychedelic drug experiences, for which in the end I believe he was justly ridiculed.