I’m always on the lookout for skeptical depictions of mediums in fiction, such as Robert Browning’s delicious poem “Mr. Sludge the Medium.” I just found another example where I least expected, and I wanted to share it with readers of Swift.
Latin American literature is famous for “magical realism” and its fiction is replete with ghosts and spooky doings. Yet I found a thoroughly skeptical view of a medium in Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.”
The protagonist is taken to a séance by a friend. The medium is a widower who discovered the spirit world during a phase of abject loneliness after his wife died, and he comments that séances not only allow one to continue seeing and hearing departed loved ones, but they are entertaining and are a great way of killing time. His description makes it sound like a séance is comparable to watching a movie or a sports event, only more boring. In his unimaginative version of the other life, the spirits get sick, fall in love, get married, reproduce, travel… the only difference is that they don’t die. He calls up several spirits from Purgatory and engages in stunningly inane conversations, “How are you? It’s so nice to hear you. Pray for me. Give my regards to X.”
The protagonist’s friend asks the medium to call up someone who is in Hell. The medium, without even hesitating, explains that he can only contact spirits in Hell during the first 3 days of uneven months and even then you can barely hear their voices.
The protagonist asks the medium to contact his brother John, who promptly comes and tells him (through the voice of the medium) not to worry about him because he is with God and is praying for him constantly. The protagonist thinks to himself that his “brother’s” message is a bit surprising, considering that he is an only child!
On the way home, he kids his friend, saying that all the poetry and mystery of the afterlife have been destroyed for him, that he can no longer be agnostic but has been forced to recognize that the afterlife is real – and now he has to live with the certainty that death turns everyone into imbeciles, and he can only look forward to an eternity of cretinism and boredom.
Vargas Llosa is listed as a humanist laureate by the International Academy of Humanism.
This article was originally published in Swift, the online newsletter of the James Randi Educational Foundation.