In September 2005, Daniel Pinchbeck had a revelation. In order to save planet earth, he would have to start a global revolution. Such thoughts were not foreign to him, or to many others at the scene of his visitation, the Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada desert.
Many were on his wavelength and shared his ideals. But a strange urgency had come over him, and he went through a kind of personal enantiodromia, when one’s values suddenly turn about face and become their opposite. In a flash, the whole Burning Man scene, full of New Age highflyers, corporate shamans, and psychedelic entrepreneurs (and of which Pinchbeck was a significant part), seemed phony and unreal, an empty shadow world cast by well-heeled seekers of enlightenment, himself included.
He now spread a new gospel, or at least tried to. Rather than culminate the festival with its traditional Wicker Man–like finale, he argued, all the various tribes and clans should work together to create a spontaneous model of what a “regenerative society” would be like as an example for the rest of the world. Rather than return to their lives, they should remain with him and create the kind of new social experience that, as Pinchbeck’s vision had shown him, was absolutely necessary if the planet was going to be saved from ecological meltdown. It would require sacrifice and a total change of being. They would have to work hard and give up a lot. The stakes were high—nothing less than the end of civilization as we know it—and could not be ignored. But it could be done if only they all pulled together.
Two things emerged from Pinchbeck’s vision. One was that he was cast out from Burning Man as an apostate, a fairly common status for visionaries, having failed to get his message across to his people. The other is this book, in which he labors to do just that. If the title suggests a certain impatience, we should remember that a decade passed between the vision and its realization, at least in theory, and that like all visionaries, Pinchbeck is raring to get things going, and has little time for those who might want to drag their heels.
An apocalyptic sense—itself a kind of impatience—informs Pinchbeck’s other work, most recognizably in 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (2006), which concerned certain possibilities for that year according to prophecies associated with the Mayan calendar. In 2016 Pinchbeck is understandably keen to distance himself from his earlier millennial work, yet the unavoidable planetary catastrophe that awaits us if we fail to fulfill the demands of the moment, of now!, casts as disheartening a shadow as any Mesoamerican deity. The end times are upon us again, it seems, only the time lag between prophecy and fulfillment is considerably shorter.
This is a book of three parts. One is a kind of confessional, in which the author repents for his previous life as a kind of celebrity shaman, a mea culpa aimed perhaps at anchoring his message in some personal soul-searching. Here readers may find out more than they need or want to know about his sex life, drug use, and famous friends.
Another part is a disturbing, at times numbing, report on the multiple ecological and environmental crises that face us and which, according to Pinchbeck, the powers that be are doing practically nothing to prevent. If I do not list these here, it is not out of any desire to minimize them. Their number is simply too great, and the stats and studies Pinchbeck musters are equally numerous and, unfortunately, convincing.
We can get an idea of the situation from what Pinchbeck calls Nine Planetary Boundaries, limits of excess that once breached are irreparable. According to Pinchbeck, most of these are stretched to breaking and will soon snap; the result will be a global catastrophe that will bring on the next mass extinction, humans included. I would think anyone aware of our environmental realities will have some idea of the seriousness of the situation, global warming and climate change being only two of the many disasters looming from a many-headed ecological Hydra. Wars over natural resources are another. Social breakdown too. And famine. Mass migrations. The list, I think, is all too familiar, and Pinchbeck adds to it, softening us up, as it were, for the punchline of the book.
Which is this: Pinchbeck sees a hidden evolutionary plan behind our time of troubles. What we are experiencing now is a self-inflicted shock that will, according to him, compel us to make the next step in our evolution. Borrowing from the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and, in my opinion, misinterpreting him, Pinchbeck sees this as humanity’s “transition” to a kind of world-mind.
And this brings us to the book’s third and most important part, from the perspective of Pinchbeck’s vision: his blueprint for the new, regenerative society that must take the place of our current degenerative one, if we are not to go to hell in a handbasket.
I emphasize must. It, and other urgent words like force and impel, are voiced throughout the book by an insistent we, using Pinchbeck as their spokesperson. “Whatever it takes,” Pinchbeck tells us, “we” must “force” and “impel” civilization to, well, adopt his plan for planetary salvation. Things are so bad that nothing short of a wise, spiritually-minded authoritarian elite can effect the kinds of global changes necessary to avert catastrophe in time. The crises we face will force us to give up our personal interests and pursuits in order to find our proper place within the new planetary superorganism that humanity, if it doesn’t blow it, is destined to become.
This means that if today you might be interested in art, literature, philosophy, or some other nonutilitarian (from the point of view of saving the planet) pursuit, forget it. Get with the program and learn how to mulch or to design self-sustaining geodesic domes. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those useful skills, but not everyone is interested in them, even if, according to Pinchbeck, they should be, for the good of the planet. Pinchbeck’s belief that in the future—if we have one—we will have to abandon the idea of a “private sector” because there is “no private interest within an organism” sounds chillingly fascistic, while his calls to forgo our own pursuits for those of the “collective” sound dangerously like similar directives of the Soviet era.
The changes necessary in order to save the world will come about, Pinchbeck envisions, through a cadre of social media gurus spreading the regenerative message through tweets and postings that will make the new world order “ a seductive, hip, glamorous adventure.” Like a benevolent dictator, Pinchbeck sees no wrong in using the mesmerism of advertising—now enrolled in perpetuating the evil system— to covertly persuade people to “transition” to the new state.
One would think, though, that the aim of a truly free and enlightened society would be to reject such measures wholly, rather than use them for our “own good.” And if sages and saints from Buddha to Mother Teresa have had a hard task prodding us to evolve, I doubt if a team of shamanic Mad Men can get the job done in the time remaining. But then Pinchbeck believes that consciousness—yours and mine—is “mass produced by the corporate industrial mega-machine” anyway, so if enough enlightened IT heads are put together, they just might shape “new patterns of behavior and new values for the multitudes,” a “new subjectivity,” just in time. To me this is reminiscent of B.F. Skinner’s dictum that we need to get “beyond freedom and dignity” and submit ourselves to benign social conditioning in order to save the world, and it is just as unappetizing.
Much of Pinchbeck’s master plan smacks of microwaved utopias of the 1960s, like Skinner’s, including chestnuts like free love, or at least guilt-free casual sex, as a panacea for our existential ills, plucked from the countercultural Marxist Herbert Marcuse. How it could pass the author by that love has been free and sex casual for some time now, without the mass “liberation” these developments were supposed to bring about? Freud and Reich were clearly wrong, and Marcuse’s calls for a “polymorphous perversity” adolescent.
Darkly there is also the sense that, as was said in the ’60s, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem—a very dangerous slogan, which can only feed a divisive sense of “us and them.” But Pinchbeck has a vision, and it can be summed up in two phrases, which murmur in the background of this book like a mantra: if only; we must. No one is saying that the times do not require vision. They do. But let us not embrace one that calls for measures as frightening as the dangers that inspired it.
Gary Lachman’s latest book is Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, published by Tarcher Perigee.
Letters to the Sage: Selected Correspondence of Thomas Moore Johnson, Volume One: The Esotericists
PATRICK D. BOWEN and K. PAUL JOHNSON, editors
Forest Grove, Ore.: Typhon Press, 2016. viii + 505 pp., paper, $19.99.
One might think that at this late date the history of both the Theosophical Society and the wider milieu of the esoterically inclined during the late nineteenth century have been pretty well picked over. But new evidence keeps emerging that this is hardly the case. The book in hand, Letters to the Sage, offers remarkable evidence that there is still plenty to be dug up about this significant era.
I would be surprised if one in a thousand—or even one in a million—people have heard of Thomas Moore Johnson, the so-called “Sage of the Osage” (1851–1919). Yet this small-town Missouri lawyer (who lived near the Osage River) had an outsized impact on the early survival of the TS, on the spread of its most important rival, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (HBL), and even on the study of Platonism, Islam, and Sufism in the U.S.
Through an unusual bit of good fortune, Johnson’s descendants managed to preserve the Sage’s papers and correspondence, granting researchers Bowen and Paul Johnson access to review and transcribe the trove.
Letters to the Sage is the initial result, a volume devoted to the letters that Johnson received in his correspondence with many of the heavy hitters of early TS and HBL history and with other esotericists. These include Henry Steel Olcott, William Q. Judge, General Abner Doubleday, Anna Kingsford, Edward Maitland, Damodar Mavalankar, G.R.S. Mead, John Yarker, Thomas H. Burgoyne, and various lesser lights. (Unfortunately, Johnson did not make copies of his own handwritten letters to these folks, so these are mostly letters to—not from—the Sage.)
Patrick Bowen’s seventy-five-page introduction ably establishes Johnson’s significance: he edited and published The Platonist, a groundbreaking philosophical journal for a general, not academic, readership; he was a member of the Board of Control of the American TS in the wake of HPB’s and Olcott’s departure for India, establishing the first TS branch beyond New York at a time when the American survival of the TS was up in the air. In the pursuit of “practical occultism” he joined the HBL, became for a time its leader in the U.S., and assisted in the spread of interest in Tarot and astrology.
The letters collected here are presented in alphabetical order by the correspondents’ names, e.g., W.W. Allen, R.C. Bary, A.N. Breneman, J.D. Buck, Josephine Cables, and so on. This provides a more coherent grasp of Johnson’s sequential interactions with each individual. A short biography is provided for each correspondent, indicating their significance and role in fostering occultism and esotericism as the nineteenth century came to a close.
Admittedly, a certain portion of the letters is of the “I am enclosing $2.00 for a subscription to The Platonist” or the “I have not yet received the HBL manuscripts that were promised” variety. These are not exactly riveting, but they capture the travails of esoteric entrepreneurs and seekers trying to politely accommodate one another while nudging them to fulfill their roles as gurus and students.
More valuable for those interested in the history of esotericism are the letters that provide insight into the claims to wisdom and personal revelation. Thus James M. Pryse, a confidant of HPB in her final two years, writes to Johnson in 1887:
Placing the finger-tip in the ear, one can hear the blood coursing through the arteries, also one can, of course, easily hear the “beating” of the heart. Similarly, astral senses hear the astral light singing along the nerves and in the brain, and the musical tones of the heart.
The soul, being a magnetic force, that has created the body, possesses complete knowledge of magnetism, though obscured by its contact with “matter,” as the occultist progresses, the soul regains its knowledge, and the developed will can free the fluidic (or astral) body from the gross body.
Editors Bowen and Johnson show admirable restraint in judging whether Pryse is exhibiting profundity or shooting the esoteric breeze. The material collected here invites the reader to make his or her own judgment, which is a valuable exercise in its own right.
Letters to the Sage is an important contribution to our understanding of the early years of the TS and the HBL. Many of the correspondents collected here were members of both, hedging their bets on which group might deliver the most insightful goods. (The HBL soon faded from the scene, reincarnating later as C.C. Zain’s Church of Light, which survives to this day.)
The next volume of Letters to the Sage promises to provide Johnson’s extensive correspondence with Alexander Wilder, his closest esoteric friend, who incidentally served as editor for Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled.
Books such as Letters to the Sage are clearly the beneficiaries of the recent revolution in print on demand publishing, which allows small publishers such as Typhon Press to issue books for highly specialized audiences without having to commit to the expense of initial print runs in the thousands. This work may be of primary interest to students of Theosophical and occult history, but the fact that this material is now able to see the light of day is a gift to everyone who has even the slightest interest in the roots of modern esotericism.
Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions and is a frequent contributor to Quest.
Searching Amazon.com recently for Tarot books, I counted more than seventy titles, not including those with their own sets of cards. In a market so crowded, any new book on Tarot needs to earn its place, and to present the Tarot as more than just a system for crude fortune-telling.
To have spiritual value, any type of divination must offer a deep mirror to the enquirer, telling us what might be called the “unknown knowns”—those things we knew, but didn’t know that we knew. Cherry Gilchrist is well aware of this, and brings to her task several essential assets. With a lifetime’s experience of reading the cards, a clear and readable style, and a balanced sense of that indefinable thing, the esoteric, she combines a realistic sense of the Tarot’s history and an unusual willingness to share her own personal history and experience.
The result is a thoroughly engaging book. Tarot Triumphs opens by immediately evoking our creativity, inviting us to visualize the twenty-two Trumps or Triumphs of the Tarot deck as moving tableaux rolling through the streets during a medieval Italian civic carnival. Well-based historically and delightful to read, the exercise sets the Trumps free: they step off the cards and into three living dimensions.
Equally valuable is Gilchrist’s openness about her own Tarot experiences, sketching her encounters with three “Tarot masters”: people who used Tarot in a way that showed her something profound that stayed with her, even (especially?) if it couldn’t quite be put into words. The nervy young 1960s American under threat of being drafted for Vietnam; the enigmatic, slightly sinister man in Cambridge, England; and the plump, bearded Welshman, an esoteric teacher in London: each shook her a little, showing her a new angle on the cards.
The stories are fascinating, and their message is that Tarot requires personal involvement and that it can become part of one’s life. And, showing that Tarot is anything but a male-dominated tradition, the author records watching an old lady reading Tarot—all seventy-eight cards!—for a young couple in an Italian marketplace in 1972. Indeed, Tarot Triumphs is permeated with a sense of Tarot as a living tradition rather than a New Age fad.
Naturally Tarot Triumphs includes discussion of the individual cards—first, brief “keynote interpretations,” and, later, in-depth, reflective discussions, which always avoid dogmatism. Each card is seen as an emblem for reflection and contemplation. There’s advice on the practicalities and ethics of giving readings, exercises with different spreads, and suggestions about the overall structure of the Trumps, which Gilchrist suggests can be seen as three subsets of seven: cards of being, of interaction, and of higher energy—with the Fool as a wild card. There are fruitful suggestions for practice, including study, visualization and creativity.
Methods are offered for three-, four-, and seven-card readings , including the well-known Celtic Cross layout. And—the book’s most valuable gift—there are instructions for the Fool’s Mirror, a layout of unknown origin taught by Gilchrist’s last Tarot master, Glyn the Welshman.
Having experimented with it several times since first seeing this book, I can testify that the Fool’s Mirror is a particularly rich and rewarding layout. In fact, having tried it, I’m not sure I shall ever want to use any other. Its virtues are many. First, there are safeguards: the Fool in certain positions indicates that a reading should be abandoned; also, since the layout uses all twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana, cards like Death or the Hanged Man are expected, and so are less alarming. Secondly, it has drama: the layout is rhythmic and satisfying, and three cards are laid face downward until the main reading is complete: the reading has a touch of suspense, and feels open-ended. And it has completeness. Different areas of the layout, indicating past, present, and future, and outer and inner worlds, intersect. It is particularly effective in inducing an intuitive feel for the situation before detailed reading even starts.
I have only two small quibbles. I would have liked an index: in this richly structured book certain topics can be hard to locate. And I hope the subtitle won’t deter readers who don’t happen to possess the Marseilles Tarot. Users of any authentic Tarot deck would benefit from this book. Indeed, if there’s any Justice (and the lady on that particular card does have her eyes wide open!), Tarot Triumphs is destined to become a classic.
Grevel Lindop is a poet, travel writer, and biographer. His recent books include Luna Park (Carcanet Press) and Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (Oxford University Press). You can read his blog at www.grevel.co.uk.