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Archive for April 2010

The psychohistory of Mystics and Messiahs

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It has been a while. I wanted to blog on the movie 9, but I couldn’t get my head around it – strange post-apocalyptic imagery, a rather conventional narrative and allusions (and direct references) to Paracelsus and esoteric conceptions of body, soul and spirit, combined with a somewhat gnostic metanarrative. Great movie, anyway.

Instead, I put my energy into closing my re-reading of Philip Jenkins’ historical beauty, Mystics and Messiahs. Cults and New Religions in American History (OUP 2000). I slated it for re-assimilation (with a pen this time) because of two things. Firstly Manly Palmer Hall; Sahagun made a few references to it, and it seemed natural to move from close to distanced analysis of the cultic milieu in space and time. Secondly I skimmed D. Frankfurter’s Evil Incarnate (Princeton 2006) and Jenkins’ short piece on Satanism in J. Lewis’ Oxford Handbook on NRMs (2004) when I wrote an article on Satanism, violence and transgression; this made me recall how valuable his analysis was, especially for another article on Satanism, popular culture and the use of H. P . Lovecraft (the violence piece will be published by OUP in the book Violence and New Religions, the second one in a book from Brill, although I am all too late).

In a sense, Mystics and Messiahs is gray and patiently documentary as we move through the cycles of cultic innovation, societal reaction, moral panic, temperance and new innovation. Understandably, this is very entertaining anecdote-wise. The period covered is about 1800 to 2000, where the wheel turns at least 4 times – panics arose around 1830, 1870, 1930 and 1980 with “awakenings” around 1800, 1850, 1880, 1920 and 1960 – although the book concentrates on the parallels between the interwar years and the cult scares of the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless the value of Jenkins’ analysis is not in the details provided, although they are many, but in the scope of his analysis, the observed pattern and the attention to popular culture and occulture.

Regarding scope, I really like books that synthesize a lot of information; that makes my own synthesizing a lot easier. Jenkins is well read and covers important as well as striking groups and individuals with small vignette-like discussions, while frequently backtracking and connecting rhetorical tropes and specific trajectories. I got a real sense of the importance of California, the “cult milieu” and the rise of tabloid media through his chronological treatment. Theoretically, Jenkins lies between the more economic and market-oriented analyses of eg. Stark and Bainbridge (The Future of Religion, 1985 is a good collection) and the more discourse-oriented milieu-centric analyses offered by C. Campbell, Roy Wallis and later Chris Partridge (read The Re-Enchantment of the West, vol. 1-2, 2004-5).

On that note, I never liked the definitions of “cult” and “sect” provided by Stark and Bainbridge; connection to “established” religious institutions and recognizability seems too theological to me. On the other hand, their distinction between “audience cult” (one to many, mediatized), “client cult” (one to one, privatized) and “cult movement” (imploded) is brilliant, specifically when combined with the cultic milieu as background. Roy Wallis’ criteria of epistemological authority and societal tension are much more useful, because groups designated as cults and sects are able to evolve within the conceptual scheme of cult, sect, denomination and church. In essence, Stark and Bainbridge make a theological evaluation, while Wallis makes an organizational one. With Wallis, “cult” and “sect” are polar opposites on a scale, but they can evolve into each other; with Stark and Bainbridge, “cult” and “sect” are logical opposites because of their relation to mainstream society and origins. Thus, a cult can become a church and produce sects, but cannot become a sect in itself, as a cult is produced by fission, innovation or “sporulation”, and a sect by schism.

So both use Campbell’s “cultic milieu”, but in very different ways. Stark and Bainbridge concentrate on religious vitality in the west; when traditional religion is strong, sects are prolific; when traditional religion is weak, cults form. Apparently cults cannot imply schism (although a break from the cultic milieu itself is common – look at the rhetoric on Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan after 1975, for example). In contrast, Wallis looks at new religious movements and categorize them according to internal and external criteria: If totalitarian and leadership-prone, sect; if tolerant and individualistic, cult. Both form from established organizations and the cultic milieu.

Luckily, they can be selectively combined, and I do so in my classes on new religions as a market-perspective, with practitioners, participants, audiences, clients, shops, confidentials and fairs; a milieu-perspective, with tourists, seekers, entrepeneurs, submilieus and occulture; and an organizational perspective, with NRMs, apostates, leaders, devotees and so on. Here, Stark and Bainbridge grows out of Wallis’ initial demarcation, and it seems to work. No textbook in the typewriter yet, though.

All of this is somewhat irrelevant for Mystics and Messiahs, but it felt good to get it out. And a good thing is that Jenkins also selects quite irreverently from sociological theory. He doesn’t care about distinguishing cult and sect (p. 12-18 and note 16 and 18 in ch. 1), and it doesn’t matter until the last chapter, where I feel his future suggestions “towards respectability” is strictly about sects (p. 227-30) and the discussion about  mainstreaming in “oddity and orthodoxy” is about cults and the cultic milieu (p. 230-36). The “cult(ic) milieu” (p. 6, 8-10) and Stark and Bainbridge’s tripartite cult-categorization works fine together with a moderate constructivism, especially regarding anti-cult rhetorics on social problems.

This takes me to the second value of Mystics and Messiahs, namely the suggested pattern or “eternal return” of cult emergence and anti-cult reaction (see p. 13 for the basic model). One funny thing about prognostication is sitting in the future and reading about it – Jenkins suggests a new peak in cult emergence around 2010 (p. 20). If so, I have a job. On a less silly note, there is something really cool, almost psychohistorical about this sociological model. Even if hard-line nomothetical interpretations are discarded, there still remains a cycle of innovation and reaction, where new turns both ignore and selectively appropriate earlier cycles, which is brilliant for prognosis.

On the one hand, memory is preciously short-ranged – a generation or so. Apart from a few historians, sociologists and movie-buffs, nobody remembers the shudder invoked by “voodoo cults” in the 1930s and 40s. When I teach about NRMs, no student knows who the Moonies are and how terrifying they seemed to “regular folks”. The pattern and the recurrence of rhetorical claims of anti-cult activists are thus a colossal blind spot in both media and policy making, as well as for people at large.

On the other hand, there is a selective appropriation of material from earlier periods, both in cultic innovation and in anti-cult rhetoric. For example, the claims of voodoo cults, human sacrifice and ritual murder in 1940s pulp fiction are reproduced in the 1980s Satanism scare literature (p. 135-48, 214-15), and the theory of the cultic milieu specifically targets the wider “cultic memory reservoir” from which cults and sects construct and disseminate their discourse and practices (as well as recruit members). The whole point of proposing occulture in a cultic milieu is to call attention to what lies beneath individual cults and seekers. As such, the book’s extended scope that reaches back to the 1600s facilitates a backtracking which shows the limits of human imagination quite nicely; atrocity catalogues are rather narrowly defined, as are most occultural ideas and practices. For example, Thomas Edwards Gangraena (1646) anticipates most modern cult beliefs and practices as well as anti-cult claims – and yes, he equates heresy to gangrene.

Now we arrive at popular culture and occulture, the third aspect of the book worth mentioning. In contrast to other studies of cults and anti-cult movements, moral panics and demonologies, sociology takes a back-seat to historical reflection of mediatized networks. It is still sociology, but of a more ideographic kind. Good examples are the chapters “Black Gods” and “The Cult Racket: Anticult Campaigns, 1920-40”, which gives the reader a very interesting background for the present-day worries through a detailed analysis of charges: Confidence tricks, sexual perversion, insanity, primitivism and murder. The material spans anti-cult literature, pulp fiction and newspaper exposés, and provides us with a much more comprehensive catalogue of “cultural paths” into the rhetoric of the “killer cult” through re-interpretations of cults from exotic other to local threat.

For example, when Marines were killed in the American occupation of Haiti 1915-44, it was “solely for the sake of the cooking pot” (p. 114, quoting R. Loederer, 1935). The same Loederer remarked that

“only at dead of night could they gather together in the secret places of the forest and celebrate their ancient rituals. On these occasions, the primitive instincts of the blacks were given free rein, and the monotonous rumble of the tom-toms inspired demoniacal dances, mad drinking orgies, and sexual frenzies.” (p. 115)

The same combination of racism and sex is invoked in Fred Miller’s 1913 tract Fighting Modern Evils that Destroy Our Homes:

This as illustrated by the tale of “how lovely Mrs. Prince was fascinated, the fell – a victim to the sad voice, the unctious [sic] personality and the seductive smile of a pagan priest lover from a tropic land where heathen lust-gods rule.” Mrs. Prince fell victim to one of “these swarthy, black-eyed, magnetic, and persuasive priests from the far East”. Miller warned of these “unclean abominations” and exposed (…) “How some of our fairest women listen to the voice of the fire-eyed Oriental and lose honor’s precious jewel.” (p. 129)

This view is promoted by popular movies, journals and books. As today, you do not have to be a fundamentalist Christian cop, worried social worker or daring reporter to be influenced by anti-cult claims; rather than actively seeking information, we are passively “primed” by it, as it is disseminated in popular culture.

This aspect also infuses Jenkins’ discussion of the cultic milieu; for example, the chapter “The First New Age” illustrate the fermentation in the cultic milieu 1870-1920, both through material from the spokespersons themselves and from popular receptions and reinterpretations. As with the biography on Manly Palmer Hall, we get important genealogical trajectories of religious imagination from historical studies such as these, as well as a much more contextual understanding of “conversion” and “recruitment” (or “fit” and “priming”). Esoteric and alternative currents have been here for hundreds of years and they have been popularized for at least 150 years by both adherents and sensationalists.

An interesting dimension is that both NRMs, anti-cult groups and the general public actively and passively engages in what Michael Barkun calls “fact-fiction reversal” (see A Culture of Conspiracy, 2003). In conspiracy culture, he writes, fictional narratives are consistently read as fact (as true accounts of motives, subtle indoctrination or desperate attempts at disclosure), while academic knowledge in general, and especially factual intervention, is considered fictional (as cover-ups or misdirection).

This can be translated into a general strategy in the cultic milieu; H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, for example, and the Cthulhu mythos around it, is used both naively and reflexively as a “true” esoteric current to be used as philosophical literature, symbolic thinking or ritual components.  Al Azif and the Necronomicon has been published several times, and the Cthulhu mythos figures in rationalist Satanism (see A. LaVey’s Satanic Rituals, 1972, p. 175ff and Barton’s The Secret Life of a Satanist, 1990, p. 159ff), esoteric Satanism (see M. Aquino’s The Church of Satan (p. 177ff, 617-19, 654-57, 691-710) and Temple of Set (351ff) e-books or the website of the Satanic Reds here and here for good examples), Left Hand path ritual magic and Chaos Magick (Stephen Sennitt’s The Infernal Texts: Nox and Liber Koth, 1997, includes texts from “The Nameless Sodality” on Cthulhu mythos) etc etc. The frequent appeals to EOD (Esoteric Order of Dagon), The Starry Wisdom Sect and other Lovecraftian groups are also, aside from the obvious appeals to tradition, curious fact-fiction reversals, as new groups with these names substitute fiction with social fact.

As a side note: Although most groups (eg. the Church of Satan) sharply differentiate outer reality and the imaginings of the ritual room and thus retains some sort of genre specificity, some unaffiliated seekers, especially younger ones, go beyond play and into delusion. That is no problem in itself (all religion is willing delusion, so to speak), but it becomes a problem when some invisible line is crossed. The same can be said about the frequent appropriations of traditionalism, fascist aesthetics and nazi occulture; there is “play with gray” and there is unhealthy political leanings. An interesting socio-psychological study could be made on these crossings – perhaps Keith Kahn-Harris’ reflexive anti-reflexivity is a starting point? And on a discursive level: when is play with nazi trappings fun or educational (esoterically speaking) as transgression and deconditioning, and when is it a smoke-screen for political idiocy?

To get back to fact-fiction reversals: Parallel to occultural appropriations, however, Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, alongside William Seabrook and Zora Neale Hurston, for example, keeps alive notions of racial atavism, primitive backwater cults with “tom tom pounding” and human sacrifice, and subversive forces in the shadows. In other words, what I enjoy as brilliant horror literature (and the occasional role-playing evening) and what religious practitioners use (seriously or not) as magical tradition and ritual symbols, can be embedded in other rhetorical contexts outside the cultic milieu, namely anti-cult fears and moral panics. Whether these fact-fiction reversals are conscious or not, they supply viable stereotypes and powerful atrocities that works in a media context. These, in turn, can find their way back into the cultic milieu and supply additional material or even legitimation as they are re-embedded into yet other discourses.

Written by Jesper

April 30, 2010 at 15:06

The “possible sexual component” of Water Angels

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On vacation, I finally found the time to finish the biography Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall by Louis Saragun (Process 2008). I knew little about this “huge avocado of a man” (3) and I mainly chose the book because of the pictures, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a highly entertaining biography of a person who in himself is an important piece of the puzzle that is American occulture.

Manly Palmer Hall is not so much an original thinker; he is rather a mediator (or “teacher” in his own words) of “practical wisdom”, mainly through lectures and core texts such as The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928), Lectures on Ancient Philosophy (1929) and Meditation Symbols in Eastern and Western Mysticism (1988).  His impressive career spans 70 years – he arrives in Los Angeles in 1919 and dies in 1990 – producing some 50 books, 8000 stenographed lectures and several journals while networking with celebrities in both entertainment, business, politics and esotericism. Ideologically, he follows the development within the cultic milieu from New Thought and Theosophy over violet rays and other funny tech-stuff to self-help, with a good dash of patriotic apocalyptics thrown in (112). This makes brilliant reading in itself, but there is more…

In a sense, Hall’s total persona (central works, mythic biography, connections, activities) is a microcosmos mirroring the cultic milieu in the same way his introductory volumes seem to work as gateways into the network by mimicking the associative mind map structure of the milieu itself. I have been working a lot with the concept of the cultic milieu now, and I find the de-territorialized, virtual space of practitioners, media and audiences helpful when dealing with global flows of occulture; at the same time, local manifestations of this virtual milieu, such as the Californian esoteric milieu around Hall and his Philosophical Research Society (now an accredited university) are necessary empirical re-territorializations of the total concept. In essence, we can choose to study one or the other (or both, if we’re overly ambitious), but we have to relate them in order to explain the total process encapsulated in the theory of “milieus”. Thus popular studies such as Saragun’s supply valuable material for theoretical reflection, and Hall could be considered a “critical case” study; he is a well-funded nook in the cultic milieu, supported by the Lloyd family and thus able to produce and network in an entirely different league than our “ordinary seeker”. I developed three embryonic projects along these lines while reading the book.

First off, Hall’s extensive archive of newspaper clippings is a goldmine in understanding the cultic milieu in a genealogical light. We are only introduced to a few examples, but he apparently collected the ads of all competitors as a clever trendspotter (see chapt. 1 and 2, especially pp. 26-34); for example, Pneumandros, the “World’s Ablest Philosophic Critic”, would surely be forgotten if not for the diligence of Hall. Although a teacher and not a Teacher, I have done the same for some years now (my personal favorite is Bettina, the holistic hair stylist), and I think a book is waiting to be written on the connection between confidentials and advertisements and the cultic milieu as mediatized network, tracing the development from newspapers, journals and books over ads in occult shops to meta-sites on the Internet.

Secondly, Hall is more of a conservative esotericist, advocating discipline, patriotism and the “secret destiny of America” during the war; later, he was squarely at odds with the counter-culture as he was pro-Vietnam (196-97), anti-drugs (191-92) and anti-modern art (187-88) (perhaps an esoteric Elvis is an apt metaphor?). As with a lot of pre-WW2 esotericism, he also entertained occult racism and dreamed of eugenics and meritocracy (104-5, chap. 4, 167-171). Because of the Summer of Love and the myth of the counter-culture promoted by commentators and participants (with roots in eg. Annie Besant’s political engagement, perhaps?), popular esotericism and New Age discourse has this vague smell of Leftist egalitarian engagement about it. It is easy to forget the connections that can be made between perennialism and political currents: liberalism, patriotism, fascism, conservatism. Or social Darwinism, racism, nationalism, traditionalism and evolutionism, ideologies that span the entire political spectrum. 

In fact, evolutionist occulture is not odd at all; I think it is the norm when we move back in time. Perhaps this is actually found in embryonic form in the Romantic project with its dual focus on the spiritual aristocrat or genius artist (that develops the self) and the folk with a soul and voice, connected to blood and soil. Indeed, the combination of evolutionism and individualism can explain much about modern-day esotericism. Crowley, for example, was definitely counter-cultural and quite transgressive, but he also practiced patriotism and a moral re-orientation that needs some explanation and understanding not to dismiss as elitist fascism. Early Theosophy’s talk of root races, The Great White Brotherhood and the complicated hierarchy of beings also seems somewhat … problematic today, and is at odds with their humanistic goals of unifying mankind unless you accept the ideological framework. Paganism in the various pagan revivals is intimately connected to nationalist movements, as were the völkisch currents in continental Europe before and between the wars. Much modern New Age is rather crass, condemning Jews and Muslims as “undeveloped souls” slated for karmic destruction (see eg. Damian Thompsons The End of Time). Naturally, esotericism has something inherently elitist and essentialist about it; self-development, secrecy, initiation… but it often flows into vast catastrophic scenarios for the undeveloped masses.

Sometimes Hall is more of a classical liberal; self-help means doing it yourself, and nobody has the right to interfere. Other times, he is more of a conservative patriot (I was frequently reminded of the National Treasure movies, especially when reading about the search for Bruton vault and the lost Shakespeare-manuscripts made by Francis Bacon) or a social Darwinist racist (as when he implies Canadians to be a proto-sixth root race. A good test is to see whether the evolution raises one race/ethnicity above the rest or actively denigrates others). So while it is easy to conflate and confuse political positions and esoteric goals, at least we shouldn’t accept the combination “benign Leftist New Age discourse” as the only expression of esoteric politics – aristocratic perennialist conservatism, egalitarian bourgeois DIY-occulture or neo-fascist nationalism are other possibilities. (Important inspiration can be found in Mark Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World on Traditionalism, N. Goodrick Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism and Black Sun, Michael Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy and Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism).

Thirdly, Hall himself and the various odd characters around him are well represented in the book and give a good impression of the changing styles from the occult 1920s over the patriotic 1940s to the New Age of the 1980s. Look at the picture above; the “Byronic pose” and dramatic cape are indicative of the flamboyance in his life (and yes, it is a William Mortensen and they were friends in the 1930s). He dated Hollywood, doing film treatments and hypnotizing Bela Lugosi. He mingled with the Roerich’s in New York. His career started in a phrenology shop in Santa Monica. While reading the book, you just have to share anecdotes and insanities. And this is where the water angels come in.

You see, Hall had an addiction to enemas late in life. He was also into donuts and malted milk balls, vitamins and cathode ray therapy, healing and blood crystals, but apparently enemas – up to two a day – was the thing. While being a personal health project with his wife Marie early on, they assumed center stage from the late 1980s, supplied by Dr. Fritz and his son (if you need a personal colon cleaner, “Dr. Fritz” sounds safe). This is quite relevant for the “wellness revolution” of today (chronicled by Paul Heelas and Christopher Partridge, for example); as with other elements, Hall was in the avant-garde of spiritual enemas (or perhaps practical spirituality, chap. 5). Which by the way aided in killing him in the end by softening the mucous membranes of the rectal tissue and upsetting the electrolyte balance, as his personal physician, Sterling Pollock, comments (165, 254, 271).

But I digress. What I find very interesting is the double legitimation of so-called “Water Angels”, a colon cleanser marketed by the International Bionics Society (later promoted by Biogenics under Dr. Fritz), and invented by Edmund B. Szekely (163-166). The Water Angel is not just legitimized through pseudo-scientific rational discourse of nutrition, detoxification and other health issues – Szekely claimed that Jesus himself stood behind the spiritual enemas. Using a private translation from Aramaic of a secret Vatican manuscript called The Essene Gospel of Peace (published in 1936), he argued the antiquity and traditional authority of the Son of God vouched for his apparatus:

In that gospel, Jesus urges a group of followers to cleanse their “hinder parts” with an “angel of water”: a colonics device made from a hollowed-out gourd filled with “river water warmed by the sun.” “No man may come before the face of God,” Szekely quotes Jesus as saying, “whom the angel of water does not let pass.” (163)

Thus, the rational authority of “science” is supported by the traditional authority of age and provenance. And Hall, who ironically claimed that modern medicine “was in it for the money”, dutifully submitted to “internal douches” to treat his various ailments. Of course, this type of alternative medicine is part of a wider current; another of Hall’s healers, William Gray, claimed that female indigestion, eczema, bronchial trouble, shortness of breath and heart strain resulted from a “dormant clitoris nerve” (159). Luckily, Gray could channel an electric current through his hand, always under the blouse or skirt: “Close friends of the Halls said that upon contact, the muscles between Gray’s left shoulder and elbow would expand and contract like an electric pump”. Well, yes. But then again, Hall’s wife’s sister Agnes states that the water angel had a “possible sexual component”.

Dr. Fritz, by the way, who was definitely in it for the money, ran a pre-natal dolphin retreat in Hawaii before being Hall’s personal colon cleaner. “The Hawaiian Prenatal Cultural Center”, aka “The Stairway to the Stars”, nearly killed off 1 of 10 white middle-class women submitting to various spiritual health exercises (245-48); reacting to the drama of emergency rescue by helicopter, he exclaimed:

I blew it in Atlantis, but I’m not going to blow it here!

What a beauty.

Written by Jesper

April 9, 2010 at 14:37