Dreams, Evolution, and Value Fulfillment--A Seth Book, Vol. I by Jane Roberts; introductory essays and notes by Robert F. Butts (Prentice-Hall: $15.95)
Can the dead communicate with us, and, if so, do they tell us anything worth learning? The more than 1.5 million readers of the "Seth" books have said yes to both propositions, but this latest example of literary mediumship makes one wonder whether such communication is worth the effort.
Seth, supposedly, is a departed spirit (i.e., a dead person) who spoke through a medium and poet, the late Jane Roberts. She conveyed his messages until her own death in 1984, and her publishers believe there's enough of an audience eager for still more of Seth's pearls of wisdom to justify publishing this new book.
Since 1970, the books Roberts and her husband, Robert Butts, compiled of Seth's philosophical teachings have been among the most popular of publishing's most peculiar genre: "channeled" literature. There are dozens of books that are allegedly composed in whole or in part by personalities "no longer focused in physical reality," as the Seth books put it. Years after they died, Jesus, Shakespeare and William James, among others, have all purportedly sought out earth-bound writers to transcribe their thoughts from the afterlife. Hundreds of thousands of readers have apparently found these works inspirational and helpful, despite the suspension of disbelief they require. Seth is perhaps the most prolific (and soporific) of all these "ghost-writers."
First Encounter in 1963
Jane Roberts first encountered her loquacious spirit-world tutor in 1963, when he allegedly began sending messages through the Ouija board with which she and her husband were playing. Her psychic experiences were described by her in a fascinating and credible-sounding way in "The Seth Material," a book published in 1970 that also featured generous quotations from Seth himself. But there is still no definitive, scientific evidence that the phenomena Roberts reported were, in fact, genuine.
The Seth books all contain variations on a few central themes common to occult literature. Your thoughts create your reality . . . you have lived before and will live again . . . time and death are temporal illusions . . . and so on. These sorts of ideas may strike scientific-minded readers as absurd, but they've been comforting and instructive for many people--among them Shirley MacLaine, who cited the Seth books in "Out on a Limb."
With this eighth book in the Seth series, our ghostly guru returns once again to these basic messages, but now his scope has become more ambitious. He wishes to address nothing less than the origins of the universe and of mankind.
Some Amateurish Musings
The problem is that few but the most devoted Seth buffs will have the patience to wait around for the history lesson. Standing in the way are more than 100 pages of amateurish musings on existence, cats and whatever else Butts finds interesting. In earlier books, his role had been more limited. But with his wife's death, he's apparently felt free to publish his private jottings, and, unfortunately, his editor seems to have left them untouched.
The bulk of the so-called "essays" that open the book is a mind-numbing, pointlessly detailed diary of his wife's failing health. In the hands of a more skilled writer, all this might be poignant, but here it's just distracting. In a philosophical work, I'd rather not hear about Jane Roberts' infected bedsores. Butts' shameless padding becomes downright ghoulish when Jane, too weak to write or conduct seances, has her verbal comments transcribed by him in the same format they'd used in earlier books for Seth's messages. It's as if she'd already become just another ghost.
Finally, preceded by Butts' meandering introductions, "Seth" is allowed to speak for himself in a few chapters. (Roberts dictated these messages before falling ill with a thyroid disease and entering the hospital.) "Consciousness formed matter," Seth tells us. "The universe dreamed itself into being." Challenging both creationists and scientists, Seth argues that the world and the various species did indeed evolve, but from an omnipresent divine force he calls "All That Is." We're also told that humans first existed in a ghost-like state before having bodies, among other unproven contentions. But despite occasional flashes of eloquence, Seth's dry, turgid prose will quickly lull most readers into the dream state he so admires. In fact, one begins to long for the bliss of the afterlife after being tormented by phrases like these: ". . . no objectivity of itself could contain the entire reality of subjective events that existed within divine subjectivity." Huh?
Part II of this book will be issued in the fall, but I'd advise readers to wait until the spirit world provides us with a better class of writer--a Voltaire or an E. B. White, perhaps--before bothering with any more "channeled" books, especially if they're dictated by Seth.