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

Saturday, July 5

we have always lived in the castle

Andre Breton was among the originators of Dada, and the founder of Surrealism. In his magisterial study, The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry (p. 835), Henri Ellenberger tells this story about him...

As a medical student, Andre Breton was mobilized to work in a military psychiatric unit. Among his patients there was a man who had stood on a trench embankment during battle and, like a policeman directing traffic, had "directed" the flight of the shells around him. The man was convinced that it was a simulated war, with fake weapons, and faked wounded and dead; a proof was that he had always escaped injury. Breton was impressed to see how a young and well-bred person, who appeared lucid, could live in a fantastic world to such a degree.
Well-bred and lucid myself (making certain allowances, and if not young), I am also impressed -- though granted, living in a much larger fantasy, and fantastic to a far greater degree. No, "impressed" is hardly strong enough. I am, to say the least, amazed.

But that's not how I found that story. I got there searching for a particular slice of background about Herbert Silberer, an early member of Freud's circle in Vienna. In the same paragraph, Ellenberger continues...

Once he heard the words: "There is a man cut in two by the window," and he saw the corresponding image. Breton seems to have been unaware that this type of dream had been thoroughly investigated by Herbert Silberer, who had shown that the hypnagogic image was a symbolic representation of the state of the dreamer who was halfway between the states of waking and dreaming.
The reason I was researching Silberer will emerge. But perhaps this is as good a place as any to insert a passage I found in his Problems of Mysticism and Its Symbolism (Kessinger Publishing reprint, 2006, p. 151).
The service of having rediscovered the intrinsic value of alchemy over and above its chemical and physical phase, is to be ascribed probably to the American, Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who published his views on the alchemists in the book, "Remarks upon Alchemy and the Alchemists" ...
Because, you see, it was in Ethan Allen Hitchcock that I was primarily interested, about whom Silberer says a page later, "The discoveries made by Hitchcock are so important for our analysis, that a complete exposition of them cannot be dispensed with."

These are clearly precursors to -- and undoubtedly sources of -- Carl Jung's later fascination (nay, obsession) with alchemy. In the case of Hitchcock, I would have to say "much later," as Ethan Allen Hitchcock was an advisor to Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. Were I not opposed in principle to the overuse of exclamation marks, I would add several to that last sentence.

That Wikipedia page also adds that "Hitchcock was a Rosicrucian and a member in [the] Washington D.C. club along with Lincoln."

Along with Lincoln? (making an exception: !!!)

Is this one of those weird internet conspiracy theories we hear so much about infecting the populist online encyclopedia? Or am I just impossibly naive about these matters? Clearly, some more digging was in order.

Well, here's something.

President Lincoln possessed no directive, authoritative power, due to his public office, and was under the Law of Silence. General Hitchcock did possess authority and made no effort to hide the fact that there was an active center of the Fraternitas in Washington, DC, which he and other members attended. The three: Abraham Lincoln, General Hitchcock and Dr. Randolph were known as The Peerless Trio, or Unshakable Triumvirate.

Well... not very convincing, as that appears on a site called "soul.org" (pardon my skepticism). It is glossed by a note that says: "Refer to the book about General Hitchcock, Fifty Years in Camp and Field, p.484." While this book does indeed exist, searching it for "Law of Silence," "Fraternitas," "Peerless Trio," and "Unshakable Triumvirate" yielded precisely nothing. Oh well. So as far as I can determine without much deeper research, the jury is out on Abe's alleged Rosicrucianism.

However, I found something far more credible in Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, which Publishers Weekly calls a "richly documented and sympathetic study." Library Journal calls it "the definitive account." These assessments are important to note, so that the following is not taken as gratuitous bad-mouthing.

Her introduction to spiritualism had probably taken place first in Lexington from the household slaves and then in Springfield from the white prophets who appeared in the Midwest during the early 1850s. Thereafter rarely a season passed without a spirit conveyer standing on the stage of the Masonic Hall and answering, with suitable melodrama, immensely difficult and intimate questions about the local persona being exhibited. As early as 1842, when the Lincolns boarded at the Globe, a mesmeriser using some sort of apparatus had drawn electrical power from the heavens and cured the spasms of a fellow boarder's facial tic....

No matter when Mary Lincoln became a believer, by 1862 she had so many spiritualist friends that she lacked only a medium for a séance -- and had that sometimes.

But the way I found this Lincoln connection was by poking around in a chapter titled "Swedenborg's Sanity" in Emanuel Swedenborg: Scientist and Mystic (Yale University Press, 1948), where author Signe Toksvig writes on page 157...

In brutal brevity: Was Swedenborg insane?
The book's later (1983) publication by the Swedenborg Foundation provides a big clue that Toksvig answers that question in the negative. Note that the closer one gets to Swedenborg, and to all that has devolved from him -- via, for instance, Blake, Emerson, William James, et al -- the more elastic become definitions of "sanity." But never mind that. On page 160, we get this...
...another champion of Swedenborg's sanity was Ethan Allen Hitchcock, the scholar (and incidentally soldier) who was called to be President Lincoln's and Secretary Stanton's adviser during the Civil War. Hitchcock wrote a clear and well-documented book, in which he noted the similarity of many of Swedenborg's ideas and expressions with those of the "hermeneutical" writers -- the very ones whom Swedenborg once had stigmatized as "occult" -- writers who in all ages out of the Kabbalah, nature mysticism, and various kinds of Neoplatonism had constructed "secret" systems, sometimes crudely "magical," sometimes of elevated religious philosophy, disguised from heresy hunters by "occult" terms.
btw, the "well-documented book" was Hitchcock's Swedenborg, A Hermetic Philosopher. Despite this argument for the Swedish seer's alleged sanity, Toksvig had previously told us (p. 156)...
In 1746 after a year's social experience with spirits, [Swedenborg] noted privately that, "in company with other men, I spoke just as any other man, so that no one was able to distinguish me either from myself as I had been formerly, or from any other man; and, nevertheless, in the midst of company I sometimes spoke with spirits and with those who were around me; and perhaps they might have gathered something from this circumstance."
Gathered something? You think?

But none of these concerns about possible psychosis seems to have discouraged Henry James, Sr. (father of Henry, the writer, and of William, the <koff> psychologist), who recovered from his spiritual "vastation" of 1844 by deeply devoting himself to the twisty wisdom of Emanuel Swedenborg.

In fact, Ralph Waldo Emerson -- who introduced Henry, Sr. to his pal Thomas Carlyle (see Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question) and stood as Godfather to the precociously paranormal little Willie (see The Varieties of Religious Experience) -- included Swedenborg as one of only six so-called Representative Men (full text here) in his essay Swedenborg or, The Mystic.

As happens in great men, he seemed, by the variety and amount of his powers, to be a composition of several persons,—like the giant fruits which are matured in gardens...
Well, at least I can agree with that much.

Oy.

----

I've taken you through all this backwards, of course. But it shows, I think, that we have always lived in the castle. Which is to say, Shirley Jackson and Kafka aside: America, in its soul and essence, has always been completely barking mad.



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