Haunted by Our Amnesia: The Forgotten Mainstream Impact of the Occult/Esoteric “Fringe”

It’s amazing what you don’t learn in school. Even more so, it’s amazing how much “common knowledge” has absolutely nothing to do with the actual facts. I’m not talking about folk wisdom here but the  assumptions that the majority of supposed experts cling to when discussing the reality that underlies our common lives.

Mitch Horowitz, Editor in Chief of Tarcher/Penguin, has been working for several years to mitigate some of the amnesia that has arisen around our collective history. In his book Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, he exposes a few of the forgotten influences that have shaped the American consciousness, from former Vice President Henry Wallace’s engagement with the Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich to the fact that the very materially minded Mohandas Gandhi’s engagement with the Bhagavad Gita was influenced by his relationship to the Theosophical Society in the U.K.

In an article for The Wall Street Journal on filmmaker Vikram Gandhi’s recent documentary Kumaré, Horowitz outlines the process that slowly softens these facts until they become part of the culture:

Historically, Americans have regarded new religious movements with suspicion, if not hostility — at least at first. During the Revolutionary War, the Shaker leader Mother Ann Lee was jailed and harangued by mobs who suspected that her religious pacifism was nothing but a cover for British sympathies. Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was run out of his central New York home in the early 1830s when locals derided his Book of Mormon as a hoax and Smith as an opportunistic fortune-teller.

In 1876, when retired Union Army Col. Henry Steel Olcott conducted the first public cremation service in New York City, he was lambasted in the press as a heathen presiding over a “pagan funeral.”

The list stretches on, snagging names from Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who taught the Beatles to meditate. Over time, however, most of these figures and their practices became mainstream, to the point where meditating seems as common as jogging. Cremations account for more than a third of American interments. And our first Mormon president may be around the corner.

— Mitch Horowitz, “The Secret Wisdom of an Ersatz Guru,” The Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2012

When one starts to look, it’s as if history mirrors physics, where some hypothesize that nearly 84% of the mass in the universe is composed of dark matter. It seems as if the main historical influences that affect us exist in a shadow realm that few give credence to, yet this realm forms the main source of the ebb and flow that pushes us forward. What the media, mainstream science, and academia consider “fringe” is often at the very heart of the issues we face.

Think of it: both the much-lauded leader Mohandas Gandhi and the common funerary practice of cremation (in the context of American culture) have their roots firmly planted in the Theosophical Society, an organization that most people today know of as a New Age joke, if they know of it at all. (See, for example, Gary Lachman’s forthcoming biography Madame Blavatsky: Mother of Modern Spirituality for a look at the ironic “open hiddenness” of both Theosophy and its formidable founder in today’s spiritual marketplace.)

In a nice blog post from 2010, Rebekah Higgitt, Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, brings out this same issue in regard to Isaac Newton. A few weeks before Higgitt’s post — and in fact serving as one of the motivators for her to write it — The New York Times ran an article whose tone and headline (“Moonlighting as a Conjuror of Chemicals“) espoused surprise that, lo and behold, the father of the “classical” model in physics, so long touted as a weapon against all forms of supposed irrational scientific inquiry, was … an alchemist obsessed with unorthodox Biblical hermeneutics!

Higgitt responded:

The real news is not that Newton was involved in alchemy, but the on-going efforts at transcribing Newton’s archive, which demonstrates just how much and for how long alchemy/chymistry was among Newton’s major activities, and the scholarship of [science historian William] Newman and others, which has shown that it was part of the intellectual scenery of the time. The news is that although Newton is a familiar name and a hero of modern science, the world he lived in and the ways he — and his contemporaries — thought are, by and large, very unfamiliar to us today.

However, the thing that bugs me most is the fact that Newton has been “revealed” as an alchemist, or as a magician, over and over again. In recent years the major popular interest in Newton has related to alchemy and prophecy, and such presentations tend to be accompanied by the suggestion that this is a surprising and novel revelation. This process goes back at least as far as John Maynard Keynes and his 1946 essay, “Newton the Man”, which presented Newton as “the last of the magicians”. Keynes had acquired a significant portion of the “non-scientific” part of Newton’s archive (as judged by the scientists who catalogued and divided them in the late 19th century), and he was undoubtedly struck by what he found. But, as I have said in my book, he shouldn’t have been as surprised as he evidently was.

– Rebekah Higgitt, “Newton and alchemy: a constant surprise?teleskopos, November 21, 2010

And yet the trend continues: just a few days ago the Guardian published an article rehashing the question of Newton’s influences. Its title: “Was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer?

“What happens when the rationalists are irrational? When the materialists don’t engage with the material at hand? What happens when our collective history is haunted by the ghosts that drift in the shadows of our amnesia?”

If we follow this thread farther, we find other surprises that shake the foundations of our historical assumptions. Have you ever heard of Cotton Mather? Most know him as a central figure responsible for fanning the flames of the Salem Witch Trials. However, most would not suspect that both his library and his writings were replete with at least a surface-level understanding of the art of alchemy. In fact, alchemy was one of the cultural gifts that the Colonial Pietist groups brought to the New World from Europe.

As the Hermeticist and historian Mark Stavish outlines in his essay “The History of Alchemy in America“:

While alchemy has strained the credulity and pocketbooks of many Europeans since its general appearance in the 16th and 17th centuries, it has also held a fascination for a fair number of prominent and not so prominent Americans as well.

Most of us are familiar with the writings of Thomas Vaughn, Paracelsus, Bacstrom, and dozens of other authorities on the Royal Art, yet it was from colonial America that one of the most famous and mysterious Alchemists arose —  Philalethes.  It is among the apocalyptic Pietists of Pennsylvania, said to have been Rosicrucians fleeing the religious wars of Central Europe, that we also find hints of laboratory alchemy being practiced in their wooden, gothic-structured cloister in Ephrata, on the Pennsylvania frontier.  Even late in the “Golden Game”, the 18th century that is, the illustrious, even then ivy covered, halls of Harvard were teaching their students the theory of the transmutation of metals.  And the Governor of Connecticut and Massachusetts dabbled with quicksilver now and again as well.

– Mark Stavish, “The History of Alchemy in America,” Corpus Stavish (at Hermetic.com), 1996

A quick search of Archive.com or Google Books shows that many of the scanned books on alchemy come from the libraries of Harvard, Cornell, Yale, and other buttoned-down American Ivy League institutions that today would, at least in public, scoff at the idea that any of these ideas hold credence.

Even when mainline historians admit these facts, they often downplay the influence that such ideas have had on the culture. While it’s true that ideas like these have always existed within a region of controversy that keeps them part of a hidden stream, the very nature of such inquiries effects a deep change in the worldview of anyone who begins to undertake them. When, as often happens, these studies are undertaken by community leaders, politicians, revolutionary groups, and religious leaders, to deny that they have had a profound impact on the development of culture amounts to a strange amnesia that can have nothing but an ill effect on the culture itself and a dampening effect on any hopes for progressive development.

In sum, and reapproaching all of these issues rhetorically: What happens when the rationalists are irrational? When the materialists don’t engage with the material at hand? When our scholars aren’t very scholarly in their investigations? What happens when our collective history is haunted by the ghosts that drift in the shadows of our amnesia?

Most importantly, what can we do in this digital age to make amends for these glaring oversights?

(Special thanks go out to Sasha Chaitow, Founding Director of Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, for pointing out the Newton material referenced in this post.)

Image: “Brown lady,” Fair Use, via Wikipedia

About David Metcalfe

In addition to writing De Umbris Idearum, David Metcalfe is the Books Editor for THE REVEALER, the online journal for NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He's also an independent researcher, cultural historian, and artist. He regularly contributes articles and reviews to Modern Mythology.net, Evolutionary Landscapes, Reality Sandwich, and Alarm Magazine.

Posted on September 26, 2012, in De Umbris Idearum and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Interesting how we can omit bits of information that were commonly known at one time when they don’t fit our present concepts. How much did TS influence Gandhi and why don’t we talk about that? So many esoteric contributions to our history, and we seldom discuss their importance.

    • It’s a very deep connection Holly.

      Until he was asked by some UK based Theosophists to help them understand the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi had never read the it.

      And more from Mitch Horowitz’s book Occult America –

      “…while no records survive of the meeting between Blavatsky, Besant, and Gandhi, he later credited Theosophy for instilling in him the principle of equality among the world’s religions, a revolutionary idea to a student from a caste-based society. In this sense, he explained in 1950 to a biographer Louis Fischer, “Theosophy…is Hinduism at its best. Theosophy is the brotherhood of man.” The organization’s motto – No Religion Higher than Truth – appeared to move Gandhi toward one of his central principles: that “all religions are true,” to which he carefully added, “all have some error in them.” A generation later, Gandhi’s idea of universal brotherhood and his ethic of nonviolence touched the heart of an American social reformer and Harvard Divinity School studet named Martin Luther King, Jr.

      Gandhi partnered with the Theosophical Society during India’s independence movement, crediting it with easing relations between Hindu and Moslem delegates to the Indian National Congress, the movement’s policy-making body. So prominent was Theosophy in India’s political life that even the Congress’s founding in 1885 had been instigated by an an early Theosophist, A.O. Hume, a retired Anglo-Indian government secretary who said that he was acting under “advice and guidance of advanced initiates.”

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