A History of the Impossible
by carlos eire
yale, 512 pages, $35
Yes, but did it really happen?” Every historian who works on supernatural phenomena fears being asked this question. The historian’s training teaches us that we should not give a straight answer, and that it doesn't matter whether something miraculous really happened. The right way to answer the question is to answer a different question—to say something like, “People believed it really happened,” or “People acted like it really happened.” Because to answer the question directly is, for historians, to reveal something about ourselves that lies beyond the scope of our professional identity: It reveals whether we are willing to contemplate the reality of the seemingly impossible.
It is a strategy of avoidance that Carlos Eire, in his latest remarkable and iconoclastic book They Flew, calls “bracketing” the obvious question—the question that a small child might ask. Like a historiographical Moses descending from Sinai to smash our golden calves, Eire uses his book to confront this basic dishonesty at the heart of the way the history of the supernatural is usually told. As Eire observes, even historians are sometimes confronted with other human beings’ disquieting certainty about the impossible. In Eire’s case, it was the matter-of-fact way in which a guide to St. Teresa of Avila’s convent reported the saint’s ecstatic levitations—as if they were just another fact of her biography—that shook his assumptions about reality as a young man, causing him to question skeptical and materialist accounts of apparently supernatural phenomena. How can something so extraordinary, so impossible, be accepted as part of the course of events?
Even historians who adhere to a faith that accepts, in theory, the possibility of miracles are seldom willing to dissent from a methodological orthodoxy that “brackets” the question of whether they really happened. Indeed, if they are eager to be accepted and respected, historians in the academy with personal faith commitments need to work harder than most to demonstrate their “objectivity.” But there is a basic dishonesty inherent in ignoring the fundamental question of whether a miracle really happened, because questions about reality were precisely what mattered to people at the time.
They Flew is, at face value, another valuable contribution to the literature on the importance of the supernatural to the Counter-Reformation—focusing, in this particular case, on reported incidents of levitation, bilocation (appearing in two places at the same time), and transvection (supernatural flight). However, Eire goes beyond the usual analysis of witness accounts and secondhand reports that give insight into people’s beliefs during a key time in church history. He engages directly with the question of whether such things as the ecstatic “flights” of St. Joseph of Cupertino really happened. St. Joseph, a Franciscan friar, reportedly flew while in a state of ecstatic trance, even perching in trees among the birds. Although Eire acknowledges that certainty about such events is ultimately impossible to attain, entertaining the possibility that they really happened leads us to a startling conclusion: It would mean that the material reality we perceive is subject to the intervention of a much more powerful being, one not subject to the laws of physics. In other words, God.
Eire is not quite alone in engaging directly with the question of the reality of supernatural (or preternatural) phenomena. In his book The Devil Within, Brian Levack tried to explain the phenomenon of demonic possession in skeptical terms as a kind of culturally scripted performance. Eire departs from Levack’s approach, not only because he contemplates the possibility that mystics really did fly, but also because he does not give in to the modern instinct to “explain away” strange phenomena. For the historian’s instinct to jump to reductive explanations is the Scylla that lies just across from the Charybdis of refusing to confront questions about reality altogether. Eire invites us to reject both reductivism and dishonesty, and to embrace the anomalous as the anomalous, the strange as the strange, while holding back that twenty-first-century voice that forever calls us to find a straightforward, “rational” explanation.
The study of miracles in this mode of suspended skepticism is, as Eire observes, “a risky liminal field of study, suspended between legitimacy and illegitimacy.” Carlos Eire is not the first academic historian to embark on a “post-secular” rejection of the hegemony of materialist and psychological explanations, but he is perhaps the most influential yet. They Flew may have the effect of emboldening a new generation of historians of the supernatural and preternatural to throw off the “mind-forged manacles” of a postmodern worldview. Furthermore, it may free more historians to be honest about their personal faith commitments without endangering their academic credibility. They Flew feels like a book that changes the atmosphere; Carlos Eire has opened the windows of his discipline and let in fresh air. It is time to ask the biggest questions again.
Francis Young is a British historian and folklorist.
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Photo by Placido Costanzi. Image cropped.