Why do supernatural experiences matter for history?


Heroldsbach, 1949, via

From The Hedgehog Review:

In the 1950s, in the midst of what came to be known as the Economic Miracle, West Germany was positively deluged with other wonders: mysterious healings, mystical visions, rumors of the end of the world, and stories of divine and devilish interventions in ordinary lives. Scores of citizens of the Federal Republic (as well as Swiss, Austrians, and others from neighboring countries) set off on pilgrimages to see the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and hosts of angels, after they began appearing to a group of children in the southern German village of Heroldsbach in late 1949. Hundreds of thousands more journeyed from one end of the Republic to the other in the hopes of meeting a wildly popular faith healer, Bruno Gröning, who, some said, healed illness by banishing demons. Still others availed themselves of the skills of local exorcists in an effort to remove evil spirits from their bodies and minds. There also appears to have been an eruption of witchcraft accusations—neighbor accusing neighbor of being in league with the devil—accompanied by a corresponding upsurge in demand for the services of un-bewitchers (Hexenbanner). In short, the 1950s was a time palpably suffused with the presence of good and evil, the divine and the demonic, and in which the supernatural played a considerable role in the lives of many people.

Scholars across a variety of disciplines have raised important questions about the epistemological and methodological capacities of the social sciences to capture the lived reality of otherworldly encounters, past and present. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that the hegemony of a historical practice created in the West in the nineteenth century to describe itself to itself has erased the very historicity of modes of explanation that do not satisfy its rules of evidence. Chakrabarty discusses the historiography of the Santal rebellion against the British in India in 1855—a victory for which the Santals thanked the intervention of the god Thakur. But because historians cannot permit gods to have agency, this local explanation for the victory—along with the historically and culturally specific consciousness that produced it—must be anthropologized or relegated to the status of myth (or perhaps “mere” memory). Sociologist Avery F. Gordon, meanwhile, has called on her peers to look for ways of “conjuring” social life that “merg[e] the analytical, the procedural, the imaginative, and the effervescent.” Only in this way, she says, can social science begin to take proper account of the ghosts that haunt both history and the present and that are, she writes, intrinsic to social life. Similarly, Robert Orsi, scholar of American Catholicism, has made a plea for an empiricism capable of accounting for what he calls “abundant events.” By this he refers to those experiences at the “edges of culture and self” such as

relationships, responses to objects (such as a corpse or the Host), sense perceptions (the smell of sanctity, for example, or the feel of blood), relations with special beings (among them the dead, ancestors, imagined-desired-feared persons, both real and imaginary), the experience of the body (such as it is experienced by sick people, for instance, or by the disabled, or by children, and by those experiencing the bodies of these others), and the work of memory.

Abundant events, Orsi says, are those uncanny things that lie beyond the narratives that frame our understandings of the world and constitute authorized knowledge. They are “the ‘more’ in William James’ word (which got him into so much trouble with positivist psychologists),” Orsi writes.

Evoking the worlds that produced, in various moments, the witch trials, benandanti, purgatory, the cult of saints, relic veneration, stylites, and holy men has been assumed by many historians to be an important goal in its own right because these phenomena appear to emerge from a past so distinct from the present—it is popularly held—as to be virtually impenetrable to contemporary ways of thinking. Perhaps more than any other subgroup in the discipline, medievalists and early modernists have excelled at making perplexing mental worlds comprehensible.

“The Supernatural and the Poetics of History”, Monica Black, The Hedgehog Review