Archive for the ‘John Buescher’ Category

The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear, John Buescher, 2006, 368 p.

A month or so ago, at my workplace (the Center for History and New Media, at George Mason University, where I work on the National History Education Clearinghouse project), I said something to my officemate, John Buescher, about science fiction. John’s an older gentleman, whom I’d never talked to much until our department’s offices got rearranged (also about a month ago) and I ended up office-paired with him; and I was expecting to puzzle him, with my plush facehugger and my Doctor Who pictures and my general geekiness. Instead, he seems to like me—I make him laugh, frequently, and in this case, the mention of science fiction led to him lending me a copy of one of his books, The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear.

Turns out, John’s written several books on spiritualism in the 19th century (and on Buddhism, as well); this one follows the life of a man who started out as a preacher and abolition and prison reformer and became an ardent, radical spiritualist, often claiming to speak, in trance, with the voices of historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams. John Spear spent his entire life flying further and further off into the fringes of society, attempting to remake human nature through the creation of artificial life, the societal adoption of free love, and the rebirth of dead geniuses through the control of human reproduction and female sexuality. Meanwhile, friends spent their fortunes on grand plans that came to nothing—the creation of a perpetual motion device, the mining of treasures from lost civilizations, the establishment of utopian communities—and the general public and even fellow spiritualists lambasted him from every side.

The book gives a different view of a period of time anyone mucking about in U.S. history hears a lot about—the whole foment of political and cultural tensions leading up to the Civil War. People like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison show up in the story, but they’re not the focus—the Civil War’s barely more than a blip on Spear’s radar, concrete evidence that society as it stands is broken and needs spiritual revolution. Feminists and abolitionists flit about in the background, puzzling at John’s work or ignoring it; it’s a perspective on this time period that makes it clear that not everyone was following the steps set out in U.S. history textbooks.

It’s also a sad book, as it shows a life lived in a desperate search for meaning and for change. John and his fellow spiritualists saw significance where none existed, just as, I think, everyone does, to some degree—signs and symbols and correspondences that we create and then deem inevitable and factual because we see them. While it sounds ridiculous to have sex and ejaculate on a machine to try to imbue it with a motive force—the principal of sympathetic magic is as old as human beings. These people were trying to bring together science and religion/spiritualism into some great magic bullet, a miraculous cure-all that would raise every individual human being up into something that would be a simultaneous magnification and nullification of the self.

They were trying to gain power and meaning by giving themselves up to forces beyond the self—possession let them speak as people with authority, who inarguably had something to say, instead of as human beings, whose ideas could be criticized and tested and rejected.

They looked beyond themselves for meaning, and found nothing there and made something up to fill the void. The way we all do. But for John and his group of spiritualists the result was even more bizarre and irrational and self-contradicting than most such constructs—and, through exaggeration, points back to the absurdity of our lesser, “normal” faiths and the networks of meaning and purpose we construct for ourselves.

I’ve been reading this in conjunction with a book on the history of tarot (its evolution from a pack of playing cards to an occultist tool), the memoirs of Casanova, and a collection of essays on game design; and all of the texts reflect on each other, showing the ways in which humans struggle to make significance and meaning out of life.

Also, John (Buescher, not Spear) is apparently a lapsed-Catholic-lapsed-Buddhist-turned-Catholic-again. People have interesting lives, and you would never know about those lives by just glancing contact with them. We’re all secrets.

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