Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Urban's Scientology and Schpayer-Makov's Sherlock Holmes

The 26 January 2012 issue of the London Review of Books has two reviews that seem related.  The first is a review entitled “Religion, grrrr” by Rachel Aviv of Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion.  Urban, as all historians strive to be, is objective in his analysis of Scientology, too much so to suit Aviv.  “Urban takes no position on whether or not Scientology should qualify as a religion.  Also, “Urban avoids the controversies and crimes that have shaped Scientology’s public image – he doesn’t consider them part of his remit – but in leaving out details about the church’s more sordid traditions, he gives only an incomplete view of the afterlife of Hubbard’s ‘rather postmodern view of the self and of reality.”

“Urban details Hubbard’s obsession with surveillance, and attributes his paranoia to the influence of the Cold War. . .  But Hubbard suffered from paranoia before it became fashionable.  In the 1940s and 1950s he sent letters to the FBI, complaining that Communists were going to attack him, that Russians were stealing his work, that a stranger had broken into his apartment and given him a 100-volt electric shock.  ‘Appear mental,’ an FBI agent wrote on his file.  His paranoia created a world in which nothing was trivial.  The paranoid person ‘logically weaves all events, all persons, all chance remarks and happenings, into his system’, a character in Philip K. Dick’s story ‘Shell game’ explains.  Paranoia functioned as a religious worldview, and bound his followers into a community.”

Aviv tells us that “Hubbard told a group of doctoral students in Philadelphia in 1954 that his followers were more convinced of Scientology’s cosmology than he was.”  Hubbard is conscious of having created a cosmology, and is the paranoid truly mad if he realizes that he has created his own reality?  His followers on the other hand are not paranoid but have been convinced to accept Hubbard’s.  We hasten to call them naïve, dupes, fools, etc. but as Pragmatists we recognize that some of these followers derive benefit.  William Burroughs for example testified that Scientology had allowed him to “become a more imaginative writer.”  Burroughs later criticized Scientology not because it encouraged him to believe in his own reality but because “Scientology” had become “a model control system, a state in fact with its own courts, police, rewards and penalties.  It is based on a tight in-group like the CIA.” 

Six pages after we leave Tom Cruise, John Travolta and the others who demonstrate that the acceptance of Hubbard’s cosmology has made them better at what they want to do, we find John Pemble’s “Gaslight and Fog,” a review of The Ascent of the detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England by Haia Shpayer-Makov.  Just as Hubbard’s followers believed more in the cosmology he created than he did; so did Doyle’s followers believe more in the world of Sherlock Holmes than he.  One gathers that Doyle didn’t believe in Holmes at all.  He wrote A Study in Scarlet as a pot-boiler because he needed the money, and Pemble tells us “It’s gone on boiling ever since.  We’ve had reprints, pastiches, parodies and adaptations galore.  Holmes migrates effortlessly between cultures and languages because, like Robinson Crusoe, he’s fiction that’s become myth.  ‘Fictions,’ according to Frank Kermode, ‘can degenerate into myths whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive.’”

To add credence to this fiction-becoming-myth hypothesis, Pemble tells us “The fictiveness of Sherlock Holmes was uncertain from the start.  The letters addressed to him sent to Conan Doyle for redirection, the landladies who wanted to keep house for him when he retired, the tourists who came to baker Street looking for his lodgings: these are more than mythical, they are legendary.  And addicts who know he’s fictive pretend that they don’t.  There’s a whole archive of mock research in pseudo-academic publications dedicated to his life and work.  In 1954, when the BBC broadcast a 100th-birthday tribute, the contributors all said they hoped he was listening. . . .”

Scientology allows its followers to work more effectively if they embrace the myth as reality.  The Holmes myth presents us with an intellectual who can solve all our social mysteries.  These are two major choices available to the Post-Christian who seeks to fill his void, a system that works, and a Guru that does. 

Those not willing to leave reality far enough behind to embrace fictive systems or heroes are faced with depressing alternatives.  Some of us might argue that neither Communism nor Fascism avoided fictiveness to any marked degree, but huge numbers embraced it and made it real in the same way that Scientology has become so for its followers.  Stalin and Hitler were as paranoid, and they believed in their fiction more single-mindedly than Hubbard did. 

Standing apart and skeptically striving to find “the truth” as Nietzsche did can drive us mad.  It is much better, the post-Christian tells himself, to accept some paranoid’s reality, preferably a benign one, but beggars can’t always be choosers:  The poor indeed we have with us, and their numbers are on the increase.

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