11 August 2010

cold dead hands

This blog's 'book of the month' award goes to the 191 page Immortality and the Law: The Rising Power of the American Dead (Yale University Press, 2010) by Ray Madoff.

Put simply, it's a delight - a lucid, witty, well-researched overview of US law regarding property in the body, wills and estates (transfers to people and transfers for charitable and other purposes), and postmortem personality rights.

For postgrad students or diligent law undergrads it would be a valuable supplement to fundamental works such as Jacobs' Law of Trusts in Australia 7 ed (LexisNexis Butterworths 2006) by Heydon & Leeming or Dal Pont's new Law of Charity (LexisNexis Butterworts, 2010), offering an engaging introduction to how US law treats challenges such as the rule of perpetuities or ongoing commercial exploitation of a persona.

Madoff is complemented by Michael Kammen's Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Death, dismemberment, and memory: body politics in Latin America (University of New Mexico Press, 2004) edited by Lyman Johnson, Molière, the French Revolution, and the theatrical afterlife (University of Iowa Press, 2009) by Mechele Leon and The political lives of dead bodies: reburial and postsocialist change (Columbia University Press, 1999) by Katherine Verdery.

Those seeking something lighter might enjoy Sarah Penicka's 'Lobsang Rampa: The Lama of Suburbia' [PDF] in Sydney Studies in Religion (2005) 113-125. It is a gentle, scholarly study of British plumber Cyril Hoskin who became a best-seller in the guise of Tibetan Lama Lobsang Rampa, an entity whose adventures - including contact with aliens and remnants of Atlantis (conveniently situated in central Asia rather than at the bottom of the sea or the bottom of a glass of whisky - are utterly preposterous but were represented as the truth. If we can accept similar claims from figures such as Grof and Laszlo, in the guise of science, it seems ungenerous to sniff at the fabrications of the late Mr Hoskins.

Penicka notes that
His devotees seem to have no difficulty accepting the trials and tribulations of the hermit’s life, and consider the book to be fascinating. In fact, this is very much a pattern with Rampa: no matter what he wrote, no matter what his detractors (who are generally academics and the media) said against him, and certainly regardless of the revelation of his identity as Cyril Hoskin, he has always enjoyed a healthy following, one that continues today, over a decade after his death.
She goes on to comment that
Rampa supported this lack of questioning into textual sources. Despite the fact that the religious education he describes was heavily dependent on intense familiarity with a large volume of scriptures, Rampa almost never quoted from these and certainly did not encourage his readership to obtain and scrutinise them. Hoskin himself could not read any Tibetan. This is all part of Rampa’s appeal. He presented esotericism with simplicity and his books as a reasonably complete source of knowledge, requiring readers to undertake no further study. ...

To scholars such as Bharati, Lobsang Rampa is ‘the arch-paradigm of esoteric phoniness’, the man in whom an entire tradition of glorification and romanticisation of the Far East culminated, the point at which Theosophy and its ilk blossomed into a widely accessible, easily disseminated, faith-based religion. To Rampa’s followers, he is the first and only man able to consolidate all the truths they had hoped for in one set of comprehensible texts, a man of apparent generosity and warmth whose ultimate origins are of little or no consequence. There can be no doubt that Rampa has encouraged beliefs about Tibetan culture and Buddhism among his followers that are difficult to rectify. One can only hope that the damage to historical fact is balanced by the comfort Rampa affords his followers, who, it seems, are unable to find solace in traditional, more disciplined forms of Buddhism.
As with the parascience questioned elsewhere in this blog, belief in 'Rampa' is an expression of faith. Penicka suggests that -
Hoskin had a ready explanation for his predicament: yes, he had indeed been born Cyril Henry Hoskin. That good gentleman’s soul, however, had long since fled its corporeal form, so that the soul of a Tibetan lama, namely Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, could move in. Rampa’s own body had failed him before his worldly task was complete due to tortures he had suffered at the hands of the Communists in China and of the Japanese in World War Two. In New Age terminology, such an occurrence is somewhat inelegantly termed a ‘walk-in’.

This was an astute assertion. When faced with true believers in Rampa’s identity, even the most sceptical scholars find themselves unable to prove him wrong. Hoskin’s claim that his own soul had moved on, but that of the Tibetan lama was still going strong, is not a claim that can be tested in any empirical way. It is a simple matter of faith, of belief or disbelief, and such faith is exactly what Rampa’s followers (or with a less benevolent eye, his target audience) can provide.