42. Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder – PSI: Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain (1970)

“Have you read Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain?” Burroughs asks in a 1973 letter to a man only identified as “Mack”: “It’s all there.”

Indeed it is. Ostrander and Schroeder’s book is a veritable whistlestop tour of all the chic “ESP” theories of the twentieth century. There’s psychokinesis, flicker, mind-reading, thought-communication, journeys outside the body, the astral plane, mana/life-energy/auras, divining rods, acupuncture, and witchcraft.

In the Soviet Union, we are told, the new science was called “pataphysics”. It was silenced under Stalin, quietly permitted under Krushchev and, in the late 1960s, revived and funded massively as part of the Cold War.

There’s a suggestion that it was initiated in response to CIA counterintelligence. The Soviets were led to believe the Americans were developing psychic soldiers. They then invested heavily in psychic soldiers – at which point, rather than celebrating a successful operation, the Americans proceeded to grow paranoid about Soviet psychic research and so threw vast resources at their own psychic weapons programme as well.

Frustratingly, Ostrander and Schroeder seem uninterested in this angle (which is probably the most interesting aspect of the whole case) and instead lead the reader in, like a frog in heating water, from seemingly-skeptical early pieces about high profile Russian psychics until, by the end, we’re in full-blown ESP-land, where Czech scientists are building psychic education boxes and spies are doing battle in the astral plane.

Burroughs was coming out of the deepest phase of his own paranoid psychic research when he read this book, and the tone with which he summarises it appears to be a kind of: “see! I told you so!”

In fact, reading Ostrander and Schroeder’s accounts, one even suspects they might have been reading Burroughs themselves – or perhaps the Soviet higher-ups were!

An early piece explores the potential of “flicker” to unlock nascent psychic potential in the form of inner visions. This, of course, is Gysin/Sommerville’s “dream machine”.

Soviet pataphysicists are also quoted speaking in Burroughsian terms about the nature of space travel and time; that “cosmonauts will travel at such extreme speeds that they will literally need to see the future” in order to pilot their spaceships.

That Burroughs got his idea of timetracks from J.W. Dunne – a former pilot whose first visions came on him after a crash – suggests there might be some kind of natural inclination here for high speed pilots to desire a prescient sixth sense. Working at the edge of your reflexes every day in a battle for survival, it must be tempting to imagine a sense that would give you a few microseconds advantage.

There are also the astral colours. Blue and reddish-yellow are the main ones, with green, red, orange and violet “flares” accompanying them on occasion.

We’ve seen these appearing throughout Burroughs’ more mystical and pseudoscience readings before. They are described by Dion Fortune on the astral plane. The Tibetan Book of the Dead considers them an important part of the encounter with the Gods and Goddesses. Reich, in The Cancer Biopathy, identifies the blue glow (but only the blue) with orgone energy.

From my own perspective, Ostrander and Schroeder’s book is more frustrating than intriguing. They do a lot of setting-up for each story (all of which soon overlap in the mind, being essentially the same: unexpected person does unusual thing, is found to be psychic, is now helping higher-ups in the Party), and the pay-off is then limited by the fact that neither of the writers thinks to ask sceptical questions or even raise other possibilities than pure ESP.

It annoys me particularly because I don’t believe myself entirely closed-minded in terms of ESP. Humans have all sorts of strange qualities that we keep discovering. And yet, used in the typical pseudoscience manner, the idea of ESP or (Russian) PSI seems to be more of a barrier to exploration than an encouragement to it. You find a peasant with an amazing ability to channel spirits – “oh it’s ESP!” end of investigation.

A good example of this from the book is the invention of Kirlian photography by Semyon Kirlian in 1939.

Kirlian photographs were taken by laying objects on a photographic plate and shooting electricity through it. A photo without a lens or a light, essentially, where the image is made by direct contact of the object with the plate when a current is passed through them.

What Kirlian discovered was that living organic objects left an “aura” on the photograph where dead or inorganic objects didn’t.

Immediately we have “proof” of auras, and Kirlian photographs are then used throughout the rest of the book as one of the methods of testing for the presence of psychic activity.

The story that convinced the Soviets to invest so heavily in Kirlian photography concerned a farming engineer. The engineer brought two leaves to be photographed by Kirlian. Both looked identical, even to the engineer’s trained eye.

The photographs showed a healthy ring around one leaf and a patchy/spotty “aura” around the other. The farmer then told Kirlian that one of the leaves came from a field next to a field infected with a plant disease. The problem with this disease, he said, was that by the time you could detect it with the naked eye, the whole field would already by riddled with it.

By sensing the diseased leaf in the “aura”, Kirlian could potentially rescue thousands of crops from destruction.

Now, at this point I put the book down and decided to look into this myself. A quick search into Kirlian photography showed that, yes, it produces these rings and “auras”, but what this actually is is not psychic energy but moisture held in the living organic material creating a “coronal discharge”.

The electricity is evaporating the water and the photo captures it. This accounts for the “recently dead” objects having “auras”, rather than the spirit taking time to leave the body.

The application of Kirlian photography to identify sick leaves is therefore a genius bit of practical science. Sadly, this technique died out when the psychic research programmes did. The other potential uses of the Kirlian technique died with it. Presumably they are all replicable using more complex technology these days anyway…

How many other things discovered by the Soviet pataphysicists and CIA psykers have been lost because of their association with PSI/ESP is unknown, and a shame to think about.

Either way, as important as this book appears to be in confirming all of Burroughs’ wildest suspicions, the fact he only gets to reading it in 1973 suggests it is not as formative on his thinking as one might have thought on first reading. Certainly, all the Burroughsian ingredients are there, but the book confirmed them rather than introduced them to him.