Staring Over Uri’s Shoulder

by Michael Rossman


        During the early 1970s, through a well-managed, international media campaign, Uri Geller became the best-known psychic in the world. Besides several kinds of crass opportunism, the campaign also represented a serious effort to mobilize public opinion, to compel more serious scientific research into parapsychological phenomena.

        The campaign was relatively successful. While Geller "caused" watches to stutter and forks to writhe on national television in the U.S., England, Germany, Japan, his backers were at work in the communities of theoretical physics and experimental bioelectronics, arranging, with the most reputable and inquiring minds they could meet, the series of experiments and observations whose subsequent publication [Charles Panali; The Geller Papers. Boston, Houghton-Mifflin & Co., 1977] made Geller also perhaps the most intensely studied psychic ever, at least from this perspective.

        If history remembers Geller, it will not be for his parlor flash, occasionally unmasked as fraud, but for his service as a focus for these studies. For they achieved their modest goal, which was simply to demonstrate, as rigorously as possible, the bare existence of phenomena that seemingly could not be comprehended within the present frameworks and interpretations of physical science.

        That such had been demonstrated here and there before was moot, for the Geller studies were less a scientific advance than a social event. Never before had so wide and high-ranking a group of physical scientists formulated such experiments as measured the nature of the crystal dislocations involved when Geller fractured keys; and the publication of their sober observations in prestigious journals of research may indeed have constituted, finally, the formal announcement of mysteries no longer to be ignored.

        In the wake of this event, new currents stir in the literature of physical research. Looking into the hearts of stars and subatomic particles, the intimate space between one neuron and the next, troubling the fundamental paradoxes of general relativity and quantum electrodynamics, which have remained mysterious half a century since their formulation; or striking off in new directions altogether -- a new wave of researchers, of mind, thrusts at the understanding of the world that we have so far managed, seeking to stretch or open it to embrace parapsychological phenomena, in a disciplined fertility of the imagination.


        If history records Geller's symbolism so, it may also record a bizarre footnote involving an imaginative fertility of quite a different kind: the story of what happened to the scientist who looked most intimately over Uri's shoulder as he did his magics. Andrija Puharich was a key figure in the Geller Event -- indeed, he conceived and orchestrated the whole campaign, and shepherded Uri through his public and private performances. For this, and for the social milestone thus achieved, he deserves a modest place in the annals, a grave scientific credit -- which he might have had unchallenged, had he not discredited himself by acting crazy, casting doubt upon the whole affair just when his long sober labors were coming to their fruition.

        I heard the story first in bits and snatches, through friends in the networks of psychic research. The tales they bore were even more bizarre than those Puharich chose to put forth publicly in Uri (N.Y.; Doubleday, 1974), his chronicle of the inside workings of the Geller affair. Yet even these were enough for most people to write him off as a fool (or worse), who had finally flipped; and to dismiss his account as an idiosyncratic, irrelevant rave.

        Staring over Puharich's shoulder as he stared over Geller's into wonder, chaos, and fear, I found his story instead to illustrate -- as such extreme examples so often do, in vivid human detail -- central issues in the quest of our consciousness to comprehend itself. For the story I read in his book is not, perhaps, the one Puharich meant to write. True, he warns us at the start that Uri is less about Geller than about The Nine, a group of approximately omnipotent entities from another dimension or plane, whose guidance he and Geller have come to accept and serve. But I read the book instead as a drama, candid and historical, about the states of mind of men confronting the unknown; and find in it primordial themes that we seem in various ways to reenact each time we approach the Mystery -- themes which so far are unacknowledged, indeed repressed, in the reflections of the scientific literature upon itself; and which reflect and help to maintain our social realities.


        In Beyond Telepathy (N.Y.; Doubleday, 1962), Puharich presented himself as a competent, imaginative researcher of psychic phenomena, grounded in contemporary physics and biochemistry, and dedicated to scientific method. And so he appears at the start of Uri, nine years older and now also a bit obsessed, when, at the bidding of Edgar Mitchell, the astronaut who had returned from orbit to hunt the moons of inner space, he meets the Israeli youngster whom he sees as the perfect tool with which to score a radical breakthrough in the scientific community, fulfilling half a life's self-chosen mission. He does give some account of his first ominous communication "from above," whose significance he would not realize for two decades. But the note of mystery is clean and isolated, and Puharich appears to be his own man.

        The book's first half tells the story of Uri: bow he learned to do little tricks as a child, didn't quite lose the knack, had it blossom unexpectedly during the 1967 Israeli/Arab war, and left the army to become a successful two-bit psychic entertainer. Then he met Puharich, who promised him bigger things if he would consent to research; and together they began investigating the marvels Uri could produce, multiplied them, and strove for high-level attention and verification.

        So far, the story is still almost ordinary. Geller's biography is like that of many another talented psychic; and Puharich's efforts to place him in the eye of science are straightforward. But then the character of Uri changes, so gradually that I was almost to its end before I could identify quite how.

        In the drama's second half, Puharich and Geller, seeking more deeply into the source of Geller's powers, begin to be contacted more definitively, and directed, by The Nine, known also as the Hoovans. The Hoovans represent themselves as being from beyond our locale of space, time, and matter, using computerized spacecraft as an intermediate tool to work material consequences here. These include the contact and training of humans; and Puharich describes the strange ways by which the Hoovans assign him and Geller tasks to carry out, testing their faith and abilities. The two are given a central role, apparently successful, in preventing a full-scale world war developing from Middle East conflict; and in general are enrolled as underlings in some grand program for Earth, of whose nature they get few hints. The Hoovans are candid about their program's being primarily for their own needs and benefit, though they suggest it will be just about the greatest thing ever for humankind. We learn, with Puharich, that they have directed his career for decades, and Uri's too; that their spacecraft are responsible for most of Uri's odd powers; and that the way society responds to Uri, or rather to the actions the Hoovans perform through him, may determine whether their program will continue, and how, as well as our general fate.


        If the content of this tale does not perturb me, this is not because I am so humanly solipsistic, so much the human chauvinist, as to dismiss it out of hand. On the contrary, like many more sober investigators, I have come to take seriously the notion that there are discrete intelligences at hand other than those housed in fleshly bodies, and that they interact with us in quite complex ways. The Puharich/Geller story is kin to a number of other fairly independent accounts that represent a sudden apocalyptic edge to this spreading belief; and though they arise in the context of a society that is slowly tearing apart, their flamboyance can't he dismissed simply on this account. We are in for an age of increasingly strange social phenomena (and scientific ones as well), and our beliefs about what is are already in the process of being shattered. Weird things are abrew -- perhaps as odd as Puharich's intimations, if not quite the same -- and I think it is much the better part of intellectual humility to recognize what we have no way of knowing, and to confess our guesses as projections of our wishes.

        I have more or less accepted this. What grips me in Uri is not the content of the story, but the drama of what happens to Puharich while telling it, while living it. At first, there is a clarity and singleness of purpose evident, both in the biography of Geller and the tale of his early research upon the lad, and also in the character of Puharich as he writes of these. Then, slowly and invisibly, as their contact with the Hoovans extends, this clarity simply disintegrates into chaos.

        The disintegration is most striking and painful around the question of free will, which Puharich avoids completely, at least as he portrays himself as a character in a book no longer about humans but about Them. By its end Puharich is saying things like these: The Hoovans are divine and at ease; there is a great conflict "above" and we are pawns contested by two sides. The Hoovans have it all planned out and are in control; they make mistakes and keep changing their plans. They are candid with us; they tell us almost nothing and sometimes lie. They respect our free will; they compel us to do things we don't understand.

        Unless I read it wrongly, it makes no sense: Puharich contradicts himself left and right. Yet the pathos lies within, in how calmly and cheerfully this happens. At the end, he is still using the same tone of voice he used in the beginning -- the impassioned, stubborn, cantankerous scientist, recounting the experimental data of life. He never gets hysterical; oblivious to the contradictions, he keeps on talking as if what he is saying were still making the same kind of sense, dramatic yet clear and logical. Near the end, recounting the various ways the Hoovans have used, tricked, and confused him, he states his conviction of their benevolence as if it were clear from what he had said. But all that is clear, by the end, is that Puharich himself does not know whether he is his own man or theirs now; and that he does not seem to notice this, nor to care.


        If one does not simply dismiss Puharich as a crackpot for this account of the Hoovans, but instead reads Uri seriously as the drama of the muddling of its writer's mind and will, one must ask why his pot cracked in this particular way. The question is not minor, for in nosing around circles of psychic research I have met a number of others whose minds have been muddled (if muddle this be) in a strikingly similar fashion. Perhaps their patterns of reaction give better clues to what they are reacting to, than do their researches themselves. And surely Puharich is a prime case to study, given the precise way in which he blew his scientific cover on the eve of a long-pursued triumph.

        The key image for me is Puharich staring at his watch, after twenty years of studying psychics in action. It is 1972, the Israeli-Arab war is in progress. The globe is tense, the fate of the world hinges on how he performs certain minor actions whose consequences are a mystery to him. The Hoovans stop and start his watch to tell him when. He stares at his watch for weeks; for umpteen pages of Uri, he records for us the precise times of its stopping and starting, an obsessive litany, clinging to this incongruous reed of objective data like a man drowning, the scientist stripped back to his most primitive reflex: measure something, something outside the self. The chaos he faces is real before his eyes; but it is also within him. It is the chaos that opens when one frame of understanding has broken down and a new one has not yet formed, and it reaches to the core.

        If Puharich is confused about his own will, it may be because he no longer has a coherent concept of himself, or indeed a coherent identity. This state of transition is common and usually temporary; we tend to reconstruct our frameworks as quickly as we can. Within weeks after antiwar activist Rennie Davis experienced Bliss Consciousness, he was out preaching the Maharaj Ji's explanations and purposes as gospel. Puharich has done much the same with the Hoovan line, at the cost, apparently, of giving up a critical part of his own mind and spirit. For whether the Hoovans are real or a figment, Pubarich has begun to surrender his sense of his own responsibility for what he does, and for how he forms his interpretations of his experience.

        The surrender is most striking, and most ironic, as it affects his scientific self. For there are other ways to understand what happened to Puharich as he stared too long, too deeply, or too incautiously into the well of mystery. One line of logical hypothesis, based in the lore of psychic circles, runs like this: Puharich became prominent as a researcher because he got provocative results while working with quite a variety of psychics. This may in part have been because he inspired their performances invisibly, having himself strong latent psychic powers which reinforced theirs. It is well known that such powers develop further in the presence of others exercising them. Puharich had had much intimate exposure by the time he met Uri, and soon got more. In the wake of their travels have come many reports of fork-bending and watch-stopping by children quickened by their example. It would not be surprising if Puharich had picked up one of Uri's standard tricks and were himself responsible for the antics of his watch. That people sometimes serve as open psychic channels to others is also well known, so Uri himself may have been using Puharich to toy with the watch that hypnotized him.

        Such hypotheses should be obvious to a researcher of Puharich's stature; yet he does not mention them even to refute them. In person as on paper, or so I hear, he remains doggedly uninterested in his own contributions to the phenomena he observes and tries to understand. Given his historical role, and the nature of the subject, this is a stunning blind spot, whose ultimate root, I imagine, is this: that to see fully in himself the mysteries he's investigating, and to see himself as directly responsible for them, is just too much, threatens him too directly with the abyss of not knowing who or what he is. Instead, he is moved to place the responsibility out there, on a Them, using this construct of order to reduce his own incoherence to barely tolerable levels. In this light, if we understand his Hoovan tale as his attempt to interpret a perturbing accumulation of such experiences (and as a factor in inducing and shaping them), its meaning is quite inverted; and we arc left to ask why he chose this particular interpretation, and whether it is quite so idiosyncratic as it appears at first.

        Whoever moves the Hoovans, Puharich gives no reason but their say-so to credit them for the antics of his watch, let alone the world's fate. Yet occult lore is rich with tales of how tricky the depraved lower spirits can be; how they lie that they're mighty and move one by suggestion. Puharich knows the literature; what happened to his logic? Why does he avoid the possibility of his own responsibility for the power, or Uri's, under less-than-sacred guidance? What moves him to lose his balance, to abandon the self-critical perception that should be the trademark of his trade, and to forfeit his sense of autonomy in a marvelously and terrifyingly complex universe?

        Or in plainer terms: what makes a man, well known (though not always kindly) for his self-determined and stubborn will, what makes him turn belly-up to off-brand voices in the sky? It is tempting to imagine that he was flawed and finally cracked; even so, the question remains: what cracked him? Standing back from the caricature of a mind-blown scientist that he presents in Uri, looking through it to what he beheld, seeking the sense of his interpretation within its blow-by-blow color, only this much is clear: striving to penetrate the psyche's mystery, Puharich found himself at last in the presence of power, of intelligence, vast, awesome, and incomprehensible.

        On this score his story is quite clear, and makes perfect sense. In its essence, as in the metaphor by which he phrases it, it is of a kind with a millennial wealth of such reports (which have themselves preconditioned the terms in which they are expressed). Such reports are a legacy and foundation of one branch of human science long pursued. In this light, Puharich's story was by no means the irrelevant, bizarre embarrassment to the careful "legitimate" studies of Geller which it seemed to be, but was rather their vital and essential complement  -- announcing quite as precisely, in complementary terms, the same conclusion, the solid and forceful shape of a mystery beyond our present understanding (and one, moreover, which affects the tools used to explore it).

         If indeed the whole Geller affair has marked a major cusp and phase shift in the interaction of our physical science with the psychic, then the drama of Puharich's complementary announcement in Uri seems appropriate; and has perhaps deeper significance, in itself and for the consequence of the physicists' attempt to come to terms with psi, than we are yet prepared to grasp.


        In any case, that Puharich understands his experience of incomprehensible power as he does, through the metaphor of the Hoovans, is a critical matter; and so is his reaction, for whether the Hoovans are real or a figment, in the face of the infinite power and will he assigns them his own power and will shrink to nothing, in a deep self-abasement. One can, of course, write off his account as a weak soul's and "merely" personal, just as one can say that "certain sorts" are attracted to the study of the psychic, and write them all off that way. But if we take Puharich, and the others who have imagined and reacted similarly, in their own lights, as serious, competent and brave investigators of genuine mystery, then we must elevate our view from the failure of their credentials or personalities to ask why the phenomena they explore inspire such visions and reactions.

        These form one extreme of two camps, with little middle ground. On one side are those who use the blinders of scientific orthodoxy to debunk and avoid the psychic, or who at most seek to establish its reality and technologizable character by the narrowest of statistical and instrumental methods, insulating themselves as best they can from its disruptive resonances in their consciousness (just as their nuclear counterparts gird themselves with lead to approach plutonium's glow). On the other side are those swept into proclaiming extravagant claims and systems, at basic odds with the present frames of scientific knowledge and inquiry. Staring at his watch as the fate of the world rides upon him, Puharich is stretched across the chasm between, caught in an intimate snapshot of history, one foot still in the camp he is leaving, riven to the core.

        Our reality is the surface of a sea, and we are fishermen. There is something out there or inside us, too large or too strangely shaped for our normal nets to encompass, and when someone does catch hold of it he comes to shore with it gone and his net torn and twisted in strange designs. Whatever it is is like the Loch Ness monster: most who look for it find nothing to see, and even the reports of those who think they have seen it are curiously stale and conventional, as if it were nothing truly unusual, but only another sort of fish or eel, built along familiar lines but ten times as long.

        For when we look beneath the exotic surface of Puharich's account of the Hoovans, it reads like many another ancient tale. We recognize the overlords who dispose and rule; the simple traditional postures of relation one assumes as subject to their mighty power, howsoever metaphysically expressed; and the sense of reality being governed and organized by motives and purposes which are felt to be incomprehensible, but whose style appears to be distinctly humanoid, paternal, and generally authoritarian.

        So the story goes which Puharich retells, constant in its style through the ages, and simple enough to appeal to every young child whose parents do mysterious things -- infecting the imagination with this understanding of the world, and thus providing for its own retelling. It is a regressive story, for it springs from within the self or is adopted in certain states of crisis, when people's abilities to cope responsibly are sharply undermined as they experience again the incomprehension and impotence of infancy. When the shocks involved are cognitive, as in psychic exploration, even more do people welcome the images that will bring even this much familiarity to their condition.

        Does the authoritarian metaphor this story involves arise from the archetypal depths of the riven self; from early experience in the family; from the entire weight of cultural tradition; or from all three and more? Whatever, this metaphor grasped by the vulnerable self governs (more than any other) our deepest senses of who we are and where we stand in the order of things, at least as these have been expressed in Western religions and some Eastern ones as well; and through this in turn helps govern our social relations, guiding us to experience and re-create in our social forms the same regressive postures of relation to power -- hierarchical, paternal-authoritarian, mystified -- that we read in the story. If Puharich seems so much of the time in Uri to be running around like a low-level clerk in an outpost of a ponderous interstellar bureaucracy, this is tribute less to his own lack of imagination than to the integral closure of our system of thought.


        So the story goes, be it the Hoovans or Jehovah or Kali. And so the truth may be. Who am I, who in more modest explorations have felt at least once the presence of the Christ spirit, unmistakable, though not to me the most profound of those I met -- who am I to know? The ancient tradition may be correct.

        But it may not. It may represent instead a dull reiteration of the failure of human imagination to grasp what is truly strange -- for example, a consciousness that is more than a projection of our own current social perceptions and relations. I confess, I do shiver in delicious and genuine terror, like a kid hearing ghost stories, when I am told by other bright-eyed researchers of pyramids of light again over Jerusalem, and of the plans of higher intelligence to save a few of us in the chaos I feel in my bones is coming. Yet somehow I distrust all accounts, from the Bible down to Uri: they seem to me like meeting the creature from Arcturus and finding that its native tongue is English, though with a slight accent due to the sounds' being produced by mandibles. A bit unlikely, and more, a bit disappointing. I would hope that our imagination and comprehension are capable of more, though it may well be that by their nature they are not.

        Our Western vision gives us precious little clue to the shape or nature of the unknown. On the whole, our patterns of inquiry, as represented by organized science, grasp only at the tail of the beast, so to speak, measuring a few scales in the familiar terms of material reality. (When the Eastern vision grasps at the shape of the Mystery, rather than describing how we live with it, it fares no better.) Those who jump off the pier of social normalcy to see the beast head-on report only their own reflection in its eyes, in the most primitive terms, as if what they saw were so strange that they had to grasp at some fundamental image close at hand to return.

        Perhaps it is the very need to understand, as we experience it in this culture, which gives rise to our inadequate and self-parodying explanations, and indeed demands them. Perhaps our brand of cognitive understanding is inadequate to the fuller cosmos, as Zen and a minority of other human traditions teach. We cannot endure our map of the world to have blank spaces; we explore them seemingly for their wonders, but really to chart them in. Truly to be in contact with what passeth understanding is to have a consciousness occupied in large part by a formless void. We are not accustomed to thinking of ourselves this way; we find it, in fact, unbearable.


1974, 1978

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