Book Review: ‘Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History’ by Richard Smoley

NOTE: This is a longer version of a review that also appears at New York Journal of Books. The book itself was published just today.


Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History, by Richard Smoley. Tarcher/Penguin. Published February 7, 2013. 240 pages.

Reviewed by Matt Cardin

There’s a handful of writers working today whose books about esoteric religious, spiritual, and philosophical subjects bridge the divide between the small niche audience devoted to such things in earnest and the wider popular audience that has a casual interest in them and occasionally reads occult conspiracy novels like The Da Vinci Code and spiritual self-help books like The Power of Now. Prominent representatives of this group include Daniel Pinchbeck (2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl), Patrick Harpur (Daimonic Reality), Victoria Nelson (Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural), Gary Lachman (Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality), and Mitch Horowitz (Occult America).

Richard Smoley also numbers among them, and with the publication of Supernatural, a book that looks to be aimed squarely at the readers inhabiting this middle ground, Mr. Smoley extends his appeal and his considerable expertise in these areas to a wider audience than he has previously reached. Over the past three decades he has built a stellar reputation as an authority on the alternative, esoteric, and occult streams of Western religion and philosophy. Trained in classics and philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, he rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s as a writer for, and eventually the editor of, the now-legendary magazine Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. He then turned to writing books, beginning with 1999’s Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (co-authored with Jay Kinney, publisher and editor-in-chief of Gnosis) and continuing with additional books on Nostradamus, Gnosticism, and esoteric Christianity, including, perhaps most prominently, Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition.

In Supernatural, Mr. Smoley returns to the broad-based, encyclopedia-oriented approach of Hidden Wisdom by surveying a wide variety of trends and traditions in sixteen separate essays, most of them previously published elsewhere (the majority in New Dawn, the long-running, Australia-based magazine about esoterica and the paranormal). But he does so in a more personal and conversational tone that makes the book more accessible to all types of readers than some of his previous work has been. He has always written beautifully smooth and lucid prose, and has always presented complex, profound, and subtle ideas with striking ease, but here he adds to that elegance a casual, informal tone that generates a sense of simply hanging out with the author and listening to him talk extemporaneously from his insights, experiences, and vast store of knowledge.

This impression is generated right from the first essay, “An Encounter with Ancient Wisdom,” in which he relates the story of his first meeting with a man named Glyn, “the closest thing to a Master that I have ever met,” when he (Smoley) was a college student and a member of a Kaballah group at Oxford in the late 1970s. Mr. Smoley describes Glyn as “short and stocky” with “longish dark hair and a beard, black-rimmed glasses, and a broad face, kindly and shrewd to equal degrees, that somewhat resembled portrait busts of Socrates.” Glyn had a “background in the Western magical tradition,” employed “the Kabbalah and the Tarot as a spiritual vocabulary,” and “moved easily between the mysteries of the Hebrew letters, the epistles of Paul, and the half-forgotten native faiths of the ancient British.”

In describing his three-decade acquaintance with this man, during which Glyn’s chief teaching was centered upon the necessity of cultivating something he called “wide attention” — related, perhaps, to Gurdjieff’s famous teachings about self-remembering and self-observation — Mr. Smoley also recalls his own childhood memories of being present when adults would discuss spiritual and paranormal matters, and suddenly it would happen that “the horizons of the universe seemed to open up subtly and we were surrounded by a vast and limitless space that was both awe-inspiring and somewhat terrifying. . . . [T]he first lesson I learned in my encounter with the ancient wisdom was precisely this sense of scale — the recognition that earthly reality and the mundane quibblings of our daily existence are not the only, or even the most important, reality. And the more that I have seen of the ancient wisdom traditions that have come down to our time, the more I believe that this lesson is fundamental to them.”

“Mr. Smoley has always written beautifully smooth and lucid prose, and has always presented complex, profound, and subtle ideas with striking ease, but here he adds to that elegance a casual, informal tone that generates a sense of simply hanging out with the author and listening to him talk extemporaneously from his insights, experiences, and vast store of knowledge.”

This combination of personal spiritual testimonial and metaphysical word-painting launches the book in a very effective manner, for it makes the rest of the essays unfold under the spell and shadow of Mr. Smoley’s personal presence, so that even when he leaves off with the first-person voice for long spans of paragraphs and pages, the reader always hears him speaking as himself, personal and present.

The remainder of the essays cover a rainbow of subjects and people: Nostradamus, the question of whether prophecy really works, the factual and mythical back story to The Da Vinci Code, the 2012 phenomenon, the French esoteric philosopher René Guénon, Atlantis, the history and influence of Freemasonry in Western civilization, A Course in Miracles, the question of “hidden masters” who transcend the material plane, the reality and importance of the imaginal realm, the New Thought movement and its famous “Law of Attraction,” the mysterious occult book known as the Kybalion, the question of demons and their possible reality, the effectiveness or otherwise of “toxic prayer” aimed at causing harm, and the basic esoteric idea of reality’s dual nature in the pairing of the visible, material realm with a really-existing realm of invisible powers, presences, and principles. His approach in all cases is to give the reader a succinct introduction to and summary of each essay’s subject while offering evaluative thoughts about the subject’s significance, authenticity, reliability, and/or spiritual meaning and importance.

What makes the presentation so engaging, apart from the intrinsic fascination of the subject matter and the wonderful ease and authority with which Mr. Smoley writes about it, is the free-wheeling honesty of his thought process, which leads him to express open (and well-advised) skepticism about many things that a lot of New Agey “true believers” hold dear while simultaneously (and again, well-advisedly) arguing not just for the reality but for the crucial spiritual and philosophical importance of other matters that fundamentalist skeptics and materialists in the modern secular mold — the Richard Dawkinses, Sam Harrises, and Christopher Hitchenses of the world — go out of their way to scoff and gag at.

Apocalyptic thinking and prophecies of imminent global or cosmic catastrophe? Symbolically and psychologically valuable to understand, says Mr. Smoley, but nothing to base your real-world personal plans on. The Da Vinci Code? Full of factual errors and literary faults, he warns, although its idea about the value of “the sacred feminine” is valuable. The New Thought movement and its gospel of wealth and happiness through the magnetic power of positive thoughts, as described in everything from The Power of Positive Thinking to, most recently, The Secret? A huckster-ish exploitation and distortion of some authentic general truths about human consciousness, he advises.

On the other hand, what about demons? “Some of the entities that we call demons,” he says, “are undoubtedly disowned parts of the self” manifesting in a Jungian/Freudian “return of the repressed” fashion,” while “Others seem to exist autonomously, and indeed traditional knowledge insists that the world is full of such creatures.” What about A Course in Miracles, the spiritually channeled book of mystical Christianity hailing from the 1960 and 70s that has become a cornerstone of the New Age movement, and whose “chief goal is to put the student in touch with a level of inner guidance that it equates with the voice of the Holy Spirit,” and which Mr. Smoley himself studied and practiced in earnest for many years? He says it presents a “remarkably logical and self-consistent” worldview that “echoes a number of ancient esoteric teachings. . . . I have been invariably impressed with both the profundity and practicality of the Course.”

His insights are particularly valuable when he talks about the specifically spiritual and paranormal subjects in which he discerns an authentic actuality, such as the existence of demons and the reality of the imaginal realm, and discusses the devilish difficulties involved in evaluating and dealing with matters so directly intertwined with the basic thoughts and consciousness of we-who-evaluate-them. For example, he writes that because of the materialist/physicalist bias of conventional thought, “Contemporary philosophy and psychology are. . . highly skeptical about the independent existence of spirits and demons. On the other hand, these disciplines do not understand the psyche very well. They have no coherent, generally accepted vision of how the mind works, what its pieces are, or what holds it together. I suspect that psychology is at the same state surgery was in, say, 1600, before William Harvey had created an accurate model of the circulation of the blood. And if you have no clear picture of what a mind is, how are you going to tell where one mind starts and another one stops?”

Just about the only criticism that readily suggests itself is that, overall, the book is too short. The essays are all quite succinct, running two or three thousand words on average, but a couple of them barely reach a thousand, and this, combined with the casual tone of the prose, occasionally imparts a lightweight sense that’s inappropriate for such an ably written book about such weighty issues. There’s also a bit too much overlap among the essays from time to time, with information being repeated almost verbatim in a few places (a wrinkle that will probably be ironed out in the final published version; this review is based on an advance copy whose form and content indicate that it has another couple of editorial passes in store for it). And it’s a soft criticism indeed that takes a book to task for being so good that its brevity is disappointing. Supernatural could have run to twice its present length and not begun to exhaust its excellence.

“The reader comes away from the book with the sense that Mr. Smoley really has touched on his stated goal, and that somewhere behind and within the collective and shifting conceptual-cultural kaleidoscope of the subjects he has drawn together, the secret of that true ‘I’ winks at us with a gaze of infinite wisdom and impenetrable mystery.”

In a (likewise brief) preface, Mr. Smoley characterizes the present historical era as a transitional period when, symbolically speaking, “the twentieth century has ended but the twenty-first has not yet begun. The age we live in is a waiting room” where the two worldviews that have dominated the Western ethos, Christianity and scientific materialism, have both fallen into a crisis of authority and legitimacy. His goal in Supernatural, he says, is to examine the alternative Western philosophical and religious traditions to see how they might speak into this impasse. “I believe the questions [raised by these essays] have to be taken seriously in the light of the whole range of human experience,” he writes. “We don’t need to reject paranormal experience en masse to convince ourselves that we’re rational and skeptical people, but we do need to investigate them critically and insightfully.”

He also announces an explicitly spiritual purpose for the book: to call out a theme that he views as “the most important and sublime in all religious literature. It is the concept of the true ‘I,’ the Self that exists within and behind each of our personalities. . . . I don’t believe that anyone can experience this awakening [to the true Self behind the individual ego] without being transformed by it forever. It is to point toward this awakening that this book is ultimately aimed.”

Although Supernatural is not a spiritual instructional text but a broad informational survey, the reader comes away from it with the sense that Mr. Smoley really has touched on his stated goal, and that somewhere behind and within the collective and shifting conceptual-cultural kaleidoscope of the subjects he has drawn together, the secret of that true “I” winks at us with a gaze of infinite wisdom and impenetrable mystery. To generate such a sense is no mean feat for a writer, any writer, to accomplish with mere words on paper.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on February 7, 2013, in Paranormal, Psychology & Consciousness, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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