Sunday 13 December 2020

The Infinite Hive by Rosalind Heywood

This book is a non fiction work about the paranormal and is a sequel to Rosalind Heywood's The Sixth Sense, which I wrote about here. In that post I discussed my ambivalence to the whole notion of ESP — I feel the subject is fascinating but the evidence is not compelling.

Many would disagree with me. Although he's not cited in this book (he was a forgotten man at the time it was written) it seems Alan Turing was interested in the paranormal: “the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming.”

The Infinite Hive (the title is a quotation from a sermon by John Donne, alluding to the buzzing complexity of the human mind) is different from The Sixth Sense. The earlier book was a scholarly study of the subject.

This one is a collection of personal experiences which fall into the paranormal realm. Sounds juicy? Yes, but it takes its bloody time to get going. The endless pussyfooting build-up drove me crazy. 

I wanted to shout "Get on with the good stuff." But we're on page 46 and Heywood is still hedging her bets and establishing the terms of the discussion, before offering her stories of ESP.

When we do get down to these accounts, they disappointingly start with a "famous spiritualist medium of unquestioned integrity" whose spirit guide was "transparently honest."

Well, you can guess what I think of that... Or, in case you can't: I immediately questioned the integrity of the famous spiritualist, and I suspected the spirit guide was opaquely deceitful.

Heywood's own memoir is considerably more interesting. Her experiences as a war nurse would win the respect of any reader. And I was impressed by the profound insight she got from trying mescalin: "to take my yapping little ego at all seriously is quite ridiculous."

Indeed, Heywood is an altogether charming writer. She discusses her lifelong love of reading and says "the library had the effect on me that the smell of fish has on a kitten."

The book is full of intriguing but unverifiable anecdotes. At one end of the scale there's her son, who would routinely look up streets on a map because he knows he'll soon be asked where they are by a stranger when he goes out.

At the other is the lonely cottage she and her husband rent which contains such a malign and overwhelming sense of a hostile presence that they get the local vicar in to conduct an exorcism.

Now, I feel that Heywood was an honest and intelligent woman who had some extraordinary experiences. 

And I sympathise with her when she's hurt because somebody "rejects as nonsense an impression which one feels, but cannot prove to be, extra-sensory. It is as if music one heard in the distance were to be dismissed with contempt as only the wind in the trees."

Yet, I'm afraid that somebody is me. Heywood writes, "Such feebly corroborated experiences as mine are easy game for people who fear ESP."

Is that me, too? I think not. One doesn't need to fear ESP to have problems with these kind of accounts, although they remain fascinating. And frustrating.

(Image credits: The two pan editions are from Tikit. The American hardcover with a different title is from Amazon. The British hardcover is from ABE.)

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