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Blind Boy Apollo
and the All-White Astronauts

New Age "Asiatic" thought ... is establishing itself as the
hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. (Zizek)

Tuesday, October 10

the spiritual-industrial complex

As our last episode ended with a link to Roger Kimball's review of John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses, I decided to read that review again. (Hitler loved dogs. Ergo, all Cretans are liars. Neocon logic -- I'm a glutton for punishment.) Noting that it was originally published on First Things, I went over there and poked around a bit until I came across a piece titled Strange Spirits, a review of Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality by Leigh Eric Schmidt.

Publishers Weekly gives the book a starred review, and says...

Princeton religious historian Schmidt provides a sweeping and detailed look at the forefathers, and foremothers, of today's spirituality movement. From Emerson and the American Transcendentalists through early yoga exponents and up to media empress Oprah Winfrey, Schmidt labels, links and differentiates the strains of spiritual ferment and longing woven into American religious and cultural history. He claims the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd has always been here, often linked to progressive social and political activists via a social gospel. Having established the appreciable history of American spirituality, Schmidt's last chapter argues against the common critique of it as narcissistic and vapid. It is rather the changing expression of a broad American spiritual left that can counter today's dominant spiritual right.
I've highlighted a few terms there that I find curiously questionable. It is, for instance, a core axiom of Mystic Bourgeoisie that "the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd" is the very exemplar of narcissism and vapidity. Even if the validity of this axiom could somehow be proved -- which it can't be -- it would make no difference, as this crowd puts little stock in proofs. No matter, though, as my aim is not to proselytize or deprogram vapid narcissists -- merely to out them as such. Think of it as a public service.

As to Left and Right political labels with respect to the preachments of these various self-appointed otherworlders, this is an area in which "common sense" can lead the unwary seriously astray. As my postings here have repeatedly tried to show, there exists a widely unsuspected (but well documented) sympathy between many "alternative spiritualities" and that end of the political spectrum commonly called "the far right." Indicative of this affiliation are views that are overtly racist, inherently autocratic, and deeply wedded to irrational fantasies of imminent salvation -- whether via Sacred Path or Ruling Party, the aim often being to erase the distinction.

Fortunately, the guy who reviewed Restless Souls, Philip Jenkins -- see a few of his books in the sidebar -- is (as they say) alive to these issues. He writes...

I wonder about the progressive and democratic implications of the term "Spiritual Left." America’s esoteric and metaphysical movements have often demonstrated strongly authoritarian currents, which have been further reinforced by the Asian notion of the guru and the teacher-pupil relationship. By the 1930s, many of the American esoteric and occult movements were rampantly pro-fascist.
In this context, Jenkins offers the "worrying parallel" of European Traditionalism, and cites as evidence a book I have recommended here several times: Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century by Mark Sedgwick.

Preceding this, Jenkins has already said...

I fear that Schmidt’s characterization of the Spiritual Left is also excessively rosy, largely due to the limits of his study. He is focusing on thinkers rather than mass audiences -- and on these writers and activists only as they contributed to the metaphysical and spiritual movement. He does not therefore explore the many groups that drew on the same traditions but mingled them with far less palatable occult ideas.


In practice, it is nearly impossible to draw a clear line between the austere thought-world of Schmidt’s "Spiritual Left" and the freewheeling esoteric subculture of lost continents, telepathy, numerology, Rosicrucianism, and the Great Pyramid, not to mention cult communes and compounds. These, I submit, are lineal heirs of the Emersonians, quite as evidently as the ethical splendors of a Howard Thurman. From Schmidt’s exalted account of the elegant world of Progressive-era spiritual thinkers, we would scarcely imagine the mass industry in esoteric and metaphysical ideas from about 1915 on. This marketing boom reached its height in the interwar years with such charter members of the spiritual-industrial complex as Psychiana, MIGHTY I AM, the Silver Shirts of William Dudley Pelley, and a dozen mail-order cults dispensing the wisdom of the ages.

In this passage I have emphasized Jenkins's tip-o-the-hat to Emerson because it's so warranted -- and so richly deserved. American exceptionalism -- a.k.a. vapid narcissism -- had its first and most powerful booster in Ralph Waldo Emerson. In an article titled The Trouble With Self-Esteem (The New York Times, February 3, 2002), Lauren Slater wrote... John Hewitt says in his book criticizing self-esteem, it was maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson more than anyone else who gave the modern self-esteem movement its most eloquent words and suasive philosophy. Emerson died more than a century ago, but you can visit his house in Concord, Mass., and see his bedroom slippers cordoned off behind plush velvet ropes and his eyeglasses, surprisingly frail, the frames of thin gold, the ovals of shine, perched on a beautiful desk. It was in this house that Emerson wrote his famous transcendentalist essays like ''On Self-Reliance,'' which posits that the individual has something fresh and authentic within and that it is up to him to discover it and nurture it apart from the corrupting pressures of social influence. Emerson never mentions ''self-esteem'' in his essay, but his every word echoes with the self-esteem movement of today, with its romantic, sometimes silly and clearly humane belief that we are special, from head to toe.
Romantic, check. Silly, check. Special from head to toe, check. I'm not quite sure how clear it is that "humane" should make the list. Emerson's worshipful tribute to a mawkish völkisch notion of Nature and his paean to a PlaySkool-pantheist faux-Hindoo Oversoul found substantial reverb in some of Friedrich Nietzsche's less savory notions, the subsequent elaboration of which would wreak havoc on the century to come.