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Religion

When Erik Saw the Devil

Carved pumpkin inspired by Boris Karloff’s movie version of Frankenstein at Van Cortlandt Manor House and Museum in 2015. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

I was reminded this past week of a classic National Review writer, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909–1999). He was an Austro-Hungarian nobleman, a Catholic with monarchist leanings, a high eccentric who attracted Bill Buckley’s attention and kept it for 35 years.

I met Erik only once, when I was an assistant editor at NR and he was passing through New York. It was 1988 and our personal interaction was limited to a handshake, bashful on my part, in managing editor Linda Bridges’s office. I was bashful because I had been interacting with his writing for months before, and my work on him was a reminder of how much I had to learn.

My first editing assignment was to make Erik’s rambling missives “From the Continent,” as his column was titled, publishable. I went to work, at Linda’s request, and did what I thought best: make Erik, elderly European aristocrat, sound like me, a 23-year-old Californian and recent college grad. What could be more obvious? With each article, I realized with a blush that Linda had “stetted” (reversed or restored) almost all my edits. When I finally asked her why, she said, “Because you were taking Erik’s voice away.” It was a lesson not just about editing but about life. As much as possible, in whatever context, we should let Erik be Erik.

That was the extent of my reflections on him, until last week. I’ve had a recurring hunger for other worlds, going back to childhood. I will not try to explain the immediately prompting circumstances, but I was moved to post a request on Facebook. I asked if anyone would be kind enough to send me their supernatural experiences. However they define the term, I would be grateful to have them. I myself have never had an unambiguous experience like that. I received a number of very interesting replies, including one, perhaps the most interesting, from Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn.

Not directly, of course, though it turns out that replies from beyond this Earth would not surprise Erik. A Facebook friend, styling himself the deceased journalist’s “servant,” had been transcribing Erik’s speeches for years. One that he thought was relevant was entitled “Sorcery.” He sent it to me by mail. I received it last Friday afternoon.

It wasn’t just about sorcery but about all the ways that the unseen becomes seen. On October 31, 1997, Erik has been on a speaking tour, stopping at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Del. My correspondent explained, “Since it was Halloween, they thought Erik might deliver a somewhat humorous lecture but it was strictly serious. The fifty attendees were astounded.” I bet they were. In rambling yet magnetic fashion, Erik shared one story after another of direct or indirect experiences of the supernatural.

Those sightings on the other side of the glass, briefly illuminated, can be light or dark. There was a story of a genuine sorcerer, it seems, a Laplander called Per Ootzi. As a young person on a visit to Sweden, Erik met another young man who told how Per Ootzi summoned his fiancée’s engagement ring from 600 miles away.

Erik talked of encounters with missionaries in Port Moresby, New Guinea, with white people in South Africa, about his own experiences in Delhi, India, with soothsayers in Budapest, and much more. He confessed, “Theologically, I am helpless. I can’t make out anything sensible.” I can’t either.

For me, and for those in attendance that Halloween night, the most intriguing story was from 1931. Erik concluded, “There are evil demons, the Devil. I am a very old man, I don’t mind, I will tell you — I saw the Devil. I was not alone.” He was visiting Finland, in a village where English people enjoyed vacationing. Erik claims that some of them were inclined to darker deeds than careless frolicking with friends. There were rumors of desecrated graveyards. Erik took the story back with him to Hungary, where he researched it and talked about it with a friend. The conversation must have got to be very deep. I read:

Slowly, in that moment, to both of us, Satan appeared as Satan appears in primitive books. Naked, reddish, horns, long tongue, trident, and we both exploded laughing. In other words, laughing hysterically. As I later found out, in apparitions of the Devil, this is a natural reaction, that you laugh hysterically.

At dinner that night, I read to my family a couple of Erik’s stories. Our younger kids giggled nervously. Some encounters with the Other Side call up that reaction, for whatever reason. The transcriber recalled that after the speech, someone in the audience asked, “What happened after you finished laughing at the Devil?” Erik answered, “We immediately exchanged notes about what he looked like. There was absolutely no doubt that we had seen exactly the same apparition.” In retrospect, perhaps it’s no wonder I took Erik’s hand shyly.

As the world of public life seems to grow shabbier, more controlling, and more inhuman by the day, I find it encouraging to think of the intuition that many people have had across many cultures that our ordinary experience of life veils from us another world. American culture stood, interestingly, in a somewhat similar place 120 years ago.

Harvard psychologist William James, biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, and other lesser-known scientists and non-scientists investigated the supernatural. Deborah Blum tells the story well in her book Ghost Hunters. Then as now, the reign of the scientific experts was at hand, and sensitive people found it parching:

James [in 1898] wrote to Science magazine, a journal devoted to upholding the research ethic, that he loathed the reverential use of the word “scientist . . . it suggests to me the priggish, sectarian view of science as something against religion, against sentiment,” even against real-life experience.

Erik’s experiences were a tonic for me. 2020 has been hailed by some as the Year of the Scientific Expert, even as the experts proved wrong again and again. It has been a year of fear, isolation, disillusion, against “sentiment” and “real-life experience,” as maybe never before. As the year draws to a close, I was grateful to rediscover the voice of a classic, against the priggish and the sectarian. Let Erik be Erik.

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