Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural

Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural

by Peter Bebergal


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A journey through the attempts artists, scientists, and tinkerers have made to imagine and communicate with the otherworldly using various technologies, from cameras to radiowaves.

Strange Frequencies takes readers on an extraordinary narrative and historical journey to discover how people have used technology in an effort to search for our own immortality. Bebergal builds his own ghostly gadgets to reach the other side, too, and follows the path of famous inventors, engineers, seekers, and seers who attempted to answer life's ultimate mysteries. He finds that not only are technological innovations potent metaphors keeping our spiritual explorations alive, but literal tools through which to experiment the boundaries of the physical world and our own psyches.

Peter takes the reader alongside as he explores:
• the legend of the golem and the strange history of automata;
• a photographer who is trying to capture the physical manifestation of spirits;
• a homemaker who has recorded voicemails from the dead;
• a stage magician who combines magic and technology to alter his audience's consciousness;
• and more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143111825
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 995,190
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Peter Bebergal writes widely on the speculative and slightly fringe. His essays and reviews have appeared in,The Times Literary Supplement, Boing Boing, The Believer, and The Quietus. He is the author of Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll; Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood and The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God (with Scott Korb). Bebergal studied religion and culture at Harvard Divinity School, and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

The Golem of Boston

I knew that attempting to create a golem was going to be difficult. To build a golem-a clay figure brought to life by divine magic-first requires a mastery of ancient and medieval Hebrew. I can recite the Aleph-Beit, I can recognize the letters in a prayer book, and even sound them out slowly during a Yom Kippur service, but unfortunately, I never learned any more than what was required for my bar mitzvah, almost four decades ago. And even if I get up to speed on the rudiments of the language, there is a still greater obstacle: reciting the 97,240 permutations of the combinations of the Hebrew letters (yod-he-vov-he) known as the tetragrammaton, the name of God believed to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This magical formula-found in the ancient Jewish text the Sefer Yetzirah-is the source code, the divine programming language that not only powers a golem, but was believed by Jewish mystics to be the script that runs the universe. My proficiency in Jewish mysticism is akin to knowing three commands of BASIC ("INPUT," "GOTO," "PRINT"). The attempt, nevertheless, illuminated how and why the golem has become the most compelling metaphor for acts of magical and technological handiwork that is also a microcosm of the divine creation.
My very first encounter with the golem legend came long before this recent investigation in a Yiddish tale "The Golem" by I. L. Peretz, translated by Irving Howe, in the collection A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, which sat on the bookshelf in the den of my childhood house. This version of the famous legend tells of the pogroms in the Prague ghetto getting worse and worse until one day the people urge Rabbi Judah Loew (usually rendered in Howe's translation as sourced as Loeb), the great scholar and mystic, to help them. In an almost matter-of-fact tone, Peretz describes the rabbi going out into the town, gathering up some mud, and forming it into the likeness of a man, and then he "blew into the nose of the golem-and it began to stir; then he whispered the Name into its ear," and the golem went out of the ghetto and began slaughtering the gentiles. Eventually, the Jews of the ghetto thought this was taking things too far and begged the rabbi to stop the golem. Loeb recited a prayer, "whispered into its ear," and the golem became a lifeless hunk of clay. There are several variations, most notably those where the golem is not destroyed but rather made inert, its body hidden in the attic of Loeb's synagogue.

At the time, this story was as close to anything I had heard of in myth or legend that resembled my singular childhood obsession: the Frankenstein monster. Saturday morning Creature Features had introduced me to James Whale's original 1931 version and all the Universal film sequels (Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, and yes, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), as well as the later and more lurid Hammer studio remakes, such as Curse of Frankenstein with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. That the monster was oddly innocent always troubled me. His creation was an abomination, a body without a soul inhabiting its frame. Further, it was not the power of God that ignited the monster's spark of life. Weird science coupled with Dr. Victor Frankenstein's mad ego turned man into a corrupted deity. Victor, played by Colin Clive in the 1931 film, calls out, in the moment he sees his creature move its hand for the first time, "Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!"
Loew's golem in the Peretz tale, as well as other versions, didn't have the same grotesque origins as Frankenstein's monster, which seemed to me at the time simply a contraption, a kind of bulky machine or weapon whose specific purpose was to protect the Jewish people from those that would seek to destroy them. Frankenstein of the movie created his monster not as a tool or even as a helpmate, but out of wild hubris, his face mad with power as he notes the monster's hand twitch and cries out, "It's alive, it's alive, it's alive!" What I noticed even then, however, is that the monster made of dead body parts and Loeb's heap of clay brought to life do share one thing: the zeal residing within each of their creators-the desire to create, to turn lifelessness into life itself.
The next golem in my life was found in the 1978 edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, a catalog of creatures great, small, and terrible, to be used by a dungeon master to populate their caves, crypts, tombs, and forests in a fantasy role-playing campaign. Nestled between the entries for "Goblin" and "Gorgon" is "Golem," described as "magically created monsters . . . The creation of a golem involves ultra-powerful spells and elemental forces." The Dungeon Masters Guide of the same game offers the "Manual of Golems," an artifact a player desiring to make a golem would have to acquire. It is said the character must "not be interrupted" when studying the manual, and there is a chance the golem will "fall to pieces" immediately after being constructed, echoing the original Jewish legend. But what is most remarkable about the game's instruction on the golem is that only a character known as a magic-user should attempt to use the book. A cleric-a class with a religious proclivity and whose power arrives from a deity-will suffer tragic consequences attempting to make a golem. The subtext here, reflecting 1978 American cultural fears about overplaying our technological hand, is that the construction of a golem is an irreligious act, one that requires the use of arcane and infernal magic, as opposed to divine power.
It seems remarkable that 1970s role-playing underscores an essential element that is not found in the tale I had first read about the golem of Prague. There, Rabbi Loew performs an act that is not described as magic, and does not involve any ritual more complicated than simply writing a word on the forehead of his lifeless lump of clay. In fact, as the Jewish scholar Moshe Idel notes in his seminal 1990 work Golem, Rabbi Loew's students and followers never referred to the golem in their own writings about their teacher. Loew was not a magician, and likely did not believe that magic was an appropriate subject of study. While Rabbi Loew is the single most famous maker of a golem, any occult aura was redacted from the well-known legend.
Certainly, Dungeons & Dragons wouldn't be my starting point for attempting to build a golem, but neither was the story of Rabbi Loew. This version of the Yiddish tale did lead me to others that offered more instruction, or at least a method that has likely changed in the telling over time. One detail is consistent, however. The golem is imbued with life by inscribing the Hebrew word emeth (truth) on its forehead (or sometimes placing a scroll on which emeth is written into the golem's mouth), and is turned back to a heap of clay by reducing the word to meth (death) or by invoking the name of God. The magic is intrinsic in the words, not in any special activity of the rabbi. When the word or name is removed in the legend, the lifeless clay tumbles to the ground, crushing the rabbi to death.
Tales of the golem tend toward two themes. The first is that the name of God has been forgotten, symbolized by the inert mass of clay hidden in the attic of a synagogue. When we were closer to God, we knew his name and were privy to the secrets that bring about mystical understanding, which in turn can be used in service of tikkun olam, the reparation of this broken world. The second is that in trying to create life, the rabbi has exceeded his bounds of creative gifts and the result is his being crushed by his own creation. The golem becomes an image of dangerous pride. A similar lesson is taught in one of the only (and earliest) references to the golem in a Jewish canonical text, a curious tale found in a section of the Talmud known as the Sanhedrin, discussing various forms of magical practice. The text says: "Rabbah created a man, and sent him to R. Zera. R. Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: 'Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.'" That speech is a vital aspect of life and is a nimble way to distinguish between the creation of Adam by God and the creation of a golem. Adam is not a golem, even though they are made from the same elemental material. Further, Adam can speak. The golem in the Talmud is mute, a magical con mimicking life but not equal in any sense to a human being created by God.

Subtle magical elements can be found in any number of golem stories. In an early version of the legend described by Jakob Grimm from 1808, the golem is found in the city of Chelm, where it is not a rabbi or mystic, but simply the "Polish Jews," who are privy to the divine secret of God's name, which they use to animate their golem. Grimm also inserts the notion that building a golem can be dangerous. Here, the golem grows larger every day, until it becomes an uncontrollable walking heap. When the secret word is erased by one of the residents of Chelm, "the whole load of clay fell on the Jew and crushed him." In writer and illustrator Mark Podwal's lovely children's book retelling the Prague story, Golem: A Giant Made of Mud, the narrator admits that "How [the rabbi] brought the figure to life remains a mystery," but that either a "piece of parchment bearing God's name" was placed in the golem's mouth, or it was "Hebrew letters he inscribed on the golem's brow that gave it life."
It took a non-Jewish telling of the tale to add up all the pieces of the legend's magical motifs and create what would become the default and most popular idea of the golem. The less Jewish the source, it seems, the more magical the tale becomes. In the hugely influential silent 1920 film Der Golem, or The Golem: How He Came into the World, the German director Paul Wegener introduces us to Rabbi Loew of Prague, who is told that a decree has been signed banishing the Jews from the city for their blasphemous religious practices. Loew struggles with how to respond, but soon decides that he has power to save the Jews. In one of the most detailed magical rituals portrayed on film, Loew calls upon the demon Astaroth, who appears as a monstrous ghostly face. Loew beseeches the demon, who reveals a secret word in smoky letters-"aemhet" (a rendering of the Hebrew emeth), which Loew writes down on a small scroll and inserts into a clay seal in the shape of the Star of David. Here, the rabbi is certainly more magician than tzaddik (holy one). Loew proceeds down to a secret lair, a necessary accessory for any wizard or sorcerer, where we see charts and diagrams with measurements and other magical formulas. He unveils a huge clay statue and affixes the seal to its chest. At large in the city of Prague, the living golem saves the royal family from a collapsing ceiling, and as thanks, the Jews are reinstated as citizens. But all is not well. The demon comes for his payment for the secret word and possesses the golem, causing it to wreak havoc through the streets. The golem is eventually put to rest by a golden-haired girl who removes the seal from the creature's chest. It's not entirely clear what the moral of this version is exactly. We are meant to feel sympathy for the Jews, but it's obvious that Loew's decision to use magic is dangerous folly. That the innocence of the perfectly white Christian child saves the day invokes some of the root notions of anti-Semitism. Naturally, this tale of the golem becomes the popularized telling, and even makes an appearance on The Simpsons anthology episode "Treehouse of Horror XVII" in the story "You Gotta Know When to Golem."

From all these tales and imaginings, I learned the most important thing: a magic word or a holy name was what I needed to make a golem.
The Sefer Yetzirah, thought by some scholars to be as old as the second century, is one of the most inscrutable texts in the history of mysticism. It describes in deeply symbolic language how God went about creating the world, operating a long series of thirty-two paths or processes that include, along with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, what are called the ten sefirot representing the unownable and ineffable of GodÕs attributes that interact with creation. The Sefer Yetzirah is both a map and a blueprint for creation. Often rendered as a diagrammatic tree, the sefirot are connected to one another via the twenty-two letters. This is the scaffolding of all creation.
According to the Sefer Yetzirah, God "engraved," "carved," "permuted," and "weighed" the letters and created "all that was formed, and all that would be formed." Medieval kabbalists such as Rabbi Eleazar Rokeach (often referred to as Eleazer of Worms) developed formulas for how the various letters should be combined to mimic God's creation of human beings, albeit in a much lesser form. His and other techniques typically involve taking "virgin" or untilled soil, mixing it with water, and forming it into a figure of a person. Specifications are not provided. But as we saw, golems have been known to be very, very large. To create one, you must first build the creature in your mind, limb by limb, head to toe, holding the mental image while reciting the appropriate sequence of letters that correspond to each part of the body as laid out by the Sefer Yetzirah. "Assuming that one can pronounce four syllables a second," Aryeh Kaplan writes in his translation and commentary, "it would take approximately seven hours to complete this entire process," with another formula taking possibly up to thirty-five.
There is debate regarding whether the creation of a golem was a magical activity intended to create a literal artificial being, or a mystical procedure to bring about an ecstatic state-less about the external object as an extension of divine power and more about an inner transformation. The thirteenth-century mystic Abraham Abulafia's method, for example, incorporated intense breathing exercises and physical movement toward the purpose of inducing an altered state of consciousness. Gershom Scholem, the preeminent scholar of kabbalah, also writes that the golem served to prove the magical acumen of the creator, a kind of initiatory ritual that, once complete, would allow them access to even greater divine secrets.


Excerpted from "Strange Frequencies"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Peter Bebergal.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Introduction: "It's a Transmitter! A Radio for Speaking to God!" xv

Chapter 1 The Golem of Boston 1

Chapter 2 In the (Uncanny) Valley of the Dolls 15

Chapter 3 Rough Magic 37

Chapter 4 The Ghost and Ms. Taggart 73

Chapter 5 Guided by Voices 105

Chapter 6 "In a Light Fantastic Round" 137

Chapter 7 Fear and Soldering 169

Postscript 197

Notes On Sources 199

Acknowledgments 209

Index 211

About The Author 221

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