For someone who has had a fairly deep involvement with language, who has made his living as a writer of one sort or another for over 25 years, who has thought himself sensitive, even sophisticated with respect to inflection and nuance, I was stunned to discover my callow naivete when it came to New Age code words.
And right there I have to stop to say something about the clever but unfortunate phrase "New Age." Clever because it doesn't mean anything. Unfortunate because it does. But whatever you may have thought it meant, it doesn't mean what you were thinking. So, as in a computer program, loop back to the "clever" subroutine. And as to figuring it out: you're fucked.
This should not be so complicated. "It's really simple," you'll hear New Age boosters explain. Except that's the end of the "explanation," leaving you feeling like a concept-ridden complexity junkie so strung out, my God, on linear rationality, that you can't even accept the fundamental Now.
If you have never personally experienced such a non-communicative communication, perhaps you're too young to remember when people actually identified themselves as New Age. True, some still do, and you'll still find it represented in your local bookstore -- though you may have to ask for the "Metaphysical" section. But the label has gone out of fashion, as fashions will. Even New Age Journal, once the Bible of the Aquarian Age, has changed its name to Body + Soul.
You will, however, hear people praise some book, for instance, only to immediately qualify their unqualified recommendation by saying: "It's a little New Agey, but still..."
I have a public service newsflash for such people. If it's about advice from chummy angels or answers to thorny existential questions wafting out of your inner light, if it's about curing cancer with vegetables or making relationships work by anything involving "archetypes," if it's about salvation by Plan 9 From Outer Space -- or any of the many variations on this theme -- then whatever it is you're talking about, you're not talking a little New Agey. You're talking willing suspension of disbelief in perpetuity!
But that was Now. This is then.
One day we were talking. About some important matter. Must have been. I think. Though I can't for the life of me remember what it was. And she said something, accompanied by an appropriately respectful drop in her voice, about Jesus.
I was taken aback. Oh my. It seemed so... (and here I have to say that my Roman Catholic upbringing kicked into automatic)... well, so Protestant.
"Jesus?" I said. "You're what, then? A Christian?" I was surprised, as I'd never seen any indication of that, and I thought I knew her pretty well.
"I'm spiritual," she said, "but not religious."
Recall my remark about callow naivete here, because I was truly impressed. What a succinct and utterly apropos response. I congratulated myself once again on my good taste in women.
Spiritual but not religious. I'd somehow managed to miss the mantra -- amazing, when you think how ubiquitous it's become -- and many tears would fall before I realized the similarly formulaic composition of so many other seemingly heartfelt sentimentalities.
"I want to integrate body, mind and spirit," she would say, and I was wrapt in joyous contemplation of this veritable goddess I'd had the good fortune to discover. Somebody stick a fork in me.
It was only after my rude awakening, let's call it, that I began to notice the same phrases on the lips of others. But how can this be, I wondered -- still so clueless that, looking back, it's a wonder I ever mastered breathing. Seeing the same buzzwords in books finally broke the thrall. When, in some random used bookshop, I first encountered Spiritual, But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, I remember just staring at the cover for the longest time.
"Oh," I thought. "It's some kind of movement."
And that was the beginning of my research for this book about the Mystic Bourgeoisie. The title represents my attempt to capture that elusive certain something that so characterizes Boulder, Colorado, the place I've lived, off and on, for 30 years now. Something about the Mystic East, the Mystic Arts, the Mystic into which Van Morrison's brain allegedly disappeared. Something about the lilly-white wannabe-upper Amerikan Middle Class.
you don't love me anymore
henley - heart of the matter
As I said to a friend recently, I never wanted to eat lunch in this town again anyway.
As to the title of this post, Spiritual But Not Jewish, it's just something that was banging around in my pre-dawn dreams this morning. Spiritual but not monotheistic. Spiritual but not Judeo-Christian, not Middle Eastern, not... Oh, how to put this? Not swarthy.
I woke up laughing -- recognizing at the same time, of course, that it's no laughing matter. Though you have to admit that race as a whole is an altogether funny notion. Take being White, for instance. The last census taken here indicates that Boulder is 88.33% Caucasian. Never mind that 99% of Americans (including me) couldn't locate the Caucasus on a map if our lives depended on it, which in a sense, they do. Personally, I think someone fudged that figure, as the only people of color you see around this burg are either working in 7-Elevens or playing paintball.
Now here's the thing about being Caucasian: it's sort of a moveable feast. If you don't believe me, have a look at How the Irish Became White -- the cover looks like a scene from that Steve Martin movie, The Jerk: "I was so glad to be going home. I remembered the days when I sang and danced with my family on the porch of the old house." And his mother says: "Navin, I'd love you if you were the color of a baboon's ass."
Or even better, take a look at How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. The Publishers Weekly review says that author Karen Brodkin...
...notes how "Jewish whiteness became American whiteness" after WWII, when Jews began to speak as whites and Jewish intellectuals "contrasted themselves with a mythic blackness."
So you see? Micks, hymies, caspers, coons, it's all relative.
Note this does not mean it's all good. I was hanging out at Barnes & Noble last night and, as I was smoking a cigarette out front with my iced espresso -- soon to be a punishable offense, I'm sure, here in the land of pluperfected body, mind and spirit -- I noticed a bumper sticker on a van parked in the lot. It said: It's All Good. I decided right there that I need one that says:
NO IT'S NOT ALL GOOD
you fucking morons!
Precisely why it's not all good is a long story. I could write a book. But for now, let's start with Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752 - 1840), who was extremely interested in race. As you can probably guess from the guy's name, he was German, and one of his favorite pastimes -- measuring skulls to determine racial characteristics -- caught on in a big way with his fellow countrymen in the 20th century. In Race: The History of an Idea in America (p. 37-38), we read that...
It was Blumenbach who coined the word Caucasian to describe the white race. It is curious that this word -- which is still widely used -- is based upon a single skull in Blumenbach's collection which came from the Caucasian mountain region of Russia. Blumenbach found strong resemblances between this skull and the crania of Germans. Therefore, he conjectured that possibly the Caucasus regions may have been the original home of the Europeans.
The Wikipedia entry for Caucasian race explains further, that...
The reason the Caucasus had such an attraction to Blumenbach and other contemporaries was because of its proximity to Mount Ararat, where according to the Biblical account, Noah's Ark eventually landed after the flood. Blumenbach believed that the original humans were light-skinned, that the Caucasians had retained this whiteness as a constant, and that darkness of skin was a sign of change from the original.
And thus, we return to the realm of the spirit -- not that we ever really left it. Religion has been at the root of all racism from the beginning. In fact, racism has defined what much of religion is about -- those people and these people, the outsiders and the insiders, the damed and the saved, them v. us. None of which is new or even marginally surprising. 'Twas ever thus.
Historically, organized religion has led to some notable horrors, the Holocaust being among the more recent. Before that there were the Crusades, the Inquisition, the genocide of an entire continent's indigenous population to make way for God's manifest destiny for America. And since then, all manner of "ethnic cleansings," each justified by some incontrovertible dogma or doctrine demanding Six-Sigma cultural purity.
In part, the spiritual-but-not-religious dogma-less dogma of the New Age has sought to end-run complicity in the modern horror show -- little realizing that disorganized religion is no guarantee of absolution. And then come the disclaimers. "Why, some of my best friends are African Americans. Some of my best friends are Jews!" Uh-huh.
But racism isn't about Jews or blacks or browns or pinko Reds. It's about the Other. The dark and dangerous unknown. Terra incognita. As it said on the old maps: here be dragons. And on the edges of our modern inner cities: here be... [pick your poison]. In less politically correct times, there were billboards that said, in big letters: "Nigger, don't let the sun go down on you in this county."
me and Martha, we were standing upstairs
white man say don't want no niggers up there
leadbelly - bourgeois blues
Boulder? I doubt there were ever such signs here. But there didn't need to be. I've been reading The Stand lately -- I find much needed comic relief in tales of endemic contagion -- and I laughed out loud when I came to this bit on p. 637...
Now this house, which Nick had told her was in the Mapleton Hill section of Boulder (Mother Abagail just bet there hadn't been many blacks living up here before the smiting plague)...
You don't need to know the story -- or even how the sentence ends -- to get the point. Mapleton Hill is a neighborhood I'm quite familiar with. Though Stephen King's book was first published in 1978, he could write that today and still be right on target.
Now let's take a little ride. It's only a few miles. From Mapleton and 9th Street -- the center of the Mapleton Hill district -- take 9th south to Canyon, then Canyon east to 28th. Turn left on 28th, then hang a right on Pearl. Look for the Barnes & Noble store on your left. There it is, see? Over next to Whole Foods. Once you make it through the people who can't drive for shit but buy the biggest SUVs they can get their mitts on, park, go in. Find the Religion section -- or maybe you'll have to look in New Age. It's getting hard to keep track. Now see if you can find -- you probably can -- two old books that are lately beginning to climb the charts again: Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, and Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. If you find them, you'll notice they're both by the same guy: Mircea Eliade.
While racism may not be about race, the Jews have received more than their "fair share" of its effects, and before he became a bigtime professor and founder of the so-called history of religions, Eliade was very much on the distribution end of things. In Romania, his home country, he was a vocal supporter of the Legion of the Archangel Michael and its more "active" wing, the Iron Guard. The "action" consisted in killing Jews -- murdering them, in the streets, in their homes, in death trains that wandered the countryside in high summer with the ventilation slats nailed shut -- and causing to be killed, by their enthusiasm for the sport, hundreds of thousands of others.
These were Eliade's friends. But you won't read about that in the New Age section. And you won't read anywhere that he ever, even once, expressed remorse.
What you might find, though -- if the bookstore is really excellent -- are a couple works by Eliade's University of Chicago protege, Ioan Culianu: Eros and Magic in the Renaissance and Out of this World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. As you can maybe tell, Culianu wrote about lots of things that were "a little New Agey" -- magic and the occult, astrology, alchemy, mystical traditions, altered states of consciousness, out-of-body and near-death experiences, and like that. He used to; he doesn't any more. Not since someone reached over the top of a men's room stall in 1991 and put a bullet in his head.
But maybe that was unrelated to all of the above. And maybe it is all good. To this day, in both cases, no one can really say for certain.