Drinks With Dead People

Raise a glass to history.

Tag: Woo-woo

Mary Todd Lincoln

Have a drink with: Mary Todd Lincoln
Bad taste in psychics; good taste in jewelry

Ask her about: Levitating pianos

Spirit photography

George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo looks at the metaphysics of the Lincoln family, with what on first glance might seem to be wild creative license. Dramatizing the doubt and grief that colored the President’s life, Saunders gathers a swirl of chatty ghosts to comment on Lincoln’s brief foray into the graveyard after the death of his son Willie in 1862.

Linking the Lincolns and the spirit world isn’t a stretch – though it wasn’t the President so much as his wife who was eager to commune with spirits. Mary Todd Lincoln, driven by family tragedy, was interested in spiritualism through much of her life.

Continue reading

Spirit Photographers

Have a drink with: Spirit Photographers
Ray? When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes.

Ask them about: Selfies with your dead relatives

Spirit_Photography

In 1848, two sisters from Hydesville, New York spread word that they heard mysterious rapping noises on the walls and furniture of their home, and could speak with spirits through tapped code. An enthralled public declared the girls spirit mediums, and over the years household seances, lectures, even Spiritualist “churches” formed a movement – one that survived and grew even after one of the Fox sisters admitted that their spiritual “conversations” were total fluff, the noises no more than dropped apples and cracking their toes under the table.

Just in time for Halloween I’ve been reading David Jaher’s new book The Witch of Lime Street, a detailed romp through the spiritualist revival of the 1920’s, starring Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and a real-life parade of mediums, journalists and hucksters. Jaher talks about the movement’s surge in the post-WWI years, due in no small part to the inescapable impact of war and influenza on the populations of the Western world. With so many suddenly dead from violence or virus, the grieving were understandably receptive to the idea that they might contact their friends and family in the hereafter. Would the spirits speak to you? Could they?

That’s all well and good, but Jaher ignores a more pressing question: would they hold still for a selfie?

Continue reading

Leonardo da Vinci

Have a drink with: Leonardo da Vinci
Polymath, painter, engineer, left-handed gay underdog genius

Ask him about: flying psychic unicorn voyages of the mind

Leonardo da Vinci

The surgeon and writer Leonard Shlain was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008 and died less than a year later, just a week after finishing the manuscript for his book “Leonardo’s Brain.”  Released late last year with the help of Shlain’s surviving family, the book purports to use what we know of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work to tell us about the capability, potential and future evolution of the human brain.

Shlain starts with the premise, hardly arguable, that da Vinci stands alone in artistic accomplishment and diversity of skill.  It is no exaggeration to claim that few if any humans throughout history have even begun to approach Leonardo’s explosively creative, integrative mode of thinking, and to execute on it so well and so beautifully. To suggest candidates – he tosses out Omar Khayyam, Galileo, Goethe, Freud – is only to drive home the achievement gap.

It’s one thing to say that every artist, ever, was influenced by da Vinci, to suggest that he presaged the discoveries of Newton and Bernoulli, or even to claim he discovered arteriosclerosis (all of which Shlain does).

But that’s small potatoes once you bring up the psychic flying.

Maybe we should back up a little.

Continue reading

Saint Teresa of Avila

Have a drink with: St. Teresa of Avila
Reformer, mystic, dreamer, smart lady.

Ask her about: that time she told the devil to piss off.

Teresa_Avila_07_14

I grew up thinking saints were terribly stodgy, righteous people who had somehow gotten themselves onto life’s “Do Not Call” list for doubt and temptation. It wasn’t until later in life, when I learned that hagiography is basically a template for fictionalizing the lives of remarkable yet messy people, that I realized many of them would probably have made excellent drinking buddies.

My personal favorite is Saint Teresa of Avila, the first woman doctor of the Catholic Church and a stone-cold sixteenth-century bad-ass. I own a St. Teresa coloring book. You can’t but be awesome if someone made a coloring book about you.

Teresa grew up in sixteenth-century Spain, smack in the middle of what we’d now call the early modern period in Europe and the Spanish (Counter-) Reformation. This is to say: Lots Going On. Europe had suddenly gone pro in hair-splitting points of church doctrine; academic humanism was on the way up; there was explosive growth in art, writing and theater; hybridization and tension thanks to Jewish and north African cultural influences in Spain; and also there’s the disturbing effect of inbreeding on the Hapsburg family jaw. Plus, iconoclasm and poop jokes.

Continue reading