Study Guide

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon Spirituality

By David Grann

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For a moment during the late nineteenth century, Blavatsky, who claimed to be psychic, seemed on the threshold of founding a lasting religious movement. (4.28)

Grann name drops Blavatsky a few times, but he never makes a real character out of her, probably because that woman could fill a book or two all by herself. You don't need a Ouija board to learn about her either—just the Internet.

The poet William Butler Yeats, who fell under her spell, described her as "the most human person alive." (4.28)

This is another quote about Blavatsky. "Under her spell" is a good phrase to use, because the woman believes herself to be a medium. She could also be a con artist—they're good at casting spells, too. Probably nobody will ever quite know what Blavatsky was.

The rise of science in the nineteenth century had had a paradoxical effect: while it undermined faith in Christianity and the literal word of the Bible, it also created an enormous void for someone to explain the mysteries of the universe that lay beyond microbes and evolution and capitalist greed. (4.29)

This is an interesting way of looking at certain aspects of spirituality. According to this perspective, science starts to explain things in a way the Bible doesn't, the mysteries of the world seem to open up more, not get shut down. You could say that about the Amazon, too: the more it is analyzed, the weirder it becomes.

The new powers of science to harness invisible forces often made those beliefs seem more credible, not less. If phonographs could capture human voices, and if telegraphs could send messages from one continent to the other, then why couldn't science eventually peel back the Other World? (4.30)

Science can't explain everything, so people find ways to fill in the gaps. To some, these metaphysical or spiritual methods of communing with the dead seem like quackery. But just because science can't detect ghosts and spirits, does that mean they don't exist at all, in any form?

Fawcett's interest in the occult had been largely an expression of his youthful rebellion and scientific curiosity, and had contributed to his willingness to defy the prevailing orthodoxies of his own society and to respect triable legends and religions. (17.23)

Fawcett is a contrarian at heart. His society wants to restrict him, so he's going to pack up and go to the Amazon. His society wants him to be religious or scientific, so he's going to find a third path and start chatting up psychics. This is a guy who blazes his own trail, even to the afterlife.

There was a rumor among some officers that Fawcett used a Ouija board, a popular tool of mediums, to help make tactical decisions on the battlefield. (17.23)

Okay, we're willing to give Fawcett the benefit of the doubt with his open-mindedness regarding spiritual exploration. But using a Ouija board to make decisions at war? Well, we guess it's at least one step above trying to use a Magic 8 Ball as a grenade.

[Fawcett] increasingly surrounded himself with spiritualists who not only confirmed but embroidered on his own vision of Z. One seer told him: "The valley and city are full of jewels, spiritual jewels, but also immense wealth of real jewels." (18.14)

What do you think a "spiritual jewel" that Fawcett might find in the Amazon could be? And what would Fawcett place more value on: spiritual jewels or real jewels?

Most suspected [the idol] was fake, but Fawcett, in his desperation, even showed it to a psychic, and concluded that it might be a relic of Z. (18.20)

If money changed hands, you can bet that psychic is telling Fawcett what he wants to hear. There are some who say that if you only want to hear what you want to hear, go to a psychic.

Once, when Joan was competing in a long-distance swimming race in the ocean, she told Nina, "Mother! I feel I must succeed, because if I succeed today Daddy will succeed in finding what he is searching for, and if I fail—they will fail." (22.2)

People often turn to spirituality when they are desperate. Fawcett employs psychics as a last resort, and his family becomes increasingly superstitious the longer he is missing in the jungle. That Ouija board on the battlefield suddenly makes more sense, we guess.

"So I said, 'I will go with you to Afasukugu, but you are crazy. Nobody would build anything at the place of the jaguars.'" (23.34)

It's tempting to make fun of Fawcett's reliance on psychics, but that would disrespecting his spirituality. That puts you in a similar camp to those who bulldoze the sacred places of the Amazon: they don't respect the spirituality of the tribes there, and they destroy it. Would you tear Fawcett's Ouija board in half?

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon Spirituality Study Group

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