One Nation under Many Gods: In a Fractious and Fractured Political Age, New Age Mysticism Still Unites Americans
A version of the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States printed in a 1909 U.S. Government booklet on the Great Seal. According to Henry A. Wallace, this was the version that caught his eye, causing him to suggest to President Franklin Roosevelt to put the design on a coin, at which point Roosevelt decided to put it on the back of the dollar bill.
A newly published article at Salon by Mitch Horowitz is typically insightful and well-written, and well worth your time. And despite the headline, it’s not really about Steve Bannon. I mean, yes, it does contain the revelation that Horowitz knows Bannon, and that his view of the man diverges sharply from the widespread popular one that reigns in the mass media:
Although the media have characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration, I knew him, and still do, as a deeply read and erudite observer of the American religious scene, with a keen appetite for mystical thought.
But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd:
Rather than fomenting secrecy or subterfuge, America’s embrace of esotericism is often characterized by a chin-out earnestness, something that many observers and conspiracy-mongers miss.. . . . Today, cable television producers and radio hosts often urge me to postulate some kind of occult “pact” between the Bushes and the dark side (cue up Skull and Bones). But such things are fantasy. The truth is, Americans have always been, well, a little strange. As a historian, I feel affection for that aspect of American life. Shadowy figures have long hung around the fringes of power in many nations; but rarely have they done so with the ingenuousness and transparency of those I’ve been considering.
And to cap it off, he ends on a note that is positively eloquent and inspiring:
If there is a central principle in American life, one valued across our political spectrum, it is a belief in the protection of the individual search for meaning. The presence and persistence of esoteric and unusual religious ideas in our political culture, including in its most conservative quarters, serves as evidence that that core principle is still working. In the U.S. military, religiously observant service members and veterans can now choose among more than 65 “emblems of belief,” including pentagrams, druidic symbols and every variety of mystical insignia. We are truly one nation under many gods — a fact that unites us across our fractured political divide.
From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, I kept a longhand journal. It was where I learned the sound of my own inner voice and the rhythm of my own thoughts, and where I gained a more conscious awareness and understanding of the ideas, subjects, emotions, and themes that are, through sheer force of gravitational passion, my given subject matter as a writer and human being.
This writing discipline, which was powered by a combination of conscious will and involuntary compulsion (so deeply intermixed that I could never fully figure out where the one left off and the other began), began to alter itself spontaneously with my plunge into Internet culture circa 1995. To condense a very long story to a single sentence, almost from the very minute I entered the Internet fray, my desire to write by hand began to dwindle until it almost disappeared — but it remains something that I deliberately return to from time to time for inner recalibration and recentering, and I invariably find it so full of beneficial, soul-healing effects that I wonder every time why I ever abandoned it to begin with.
Now comes digital culture commentator Tom Chatfield, writing in City Journal about information age anxiety and the danger that we will be utterly swallowed by the vortex of digital noise and distraction that we have created. And he talks cogently about this very issue: the relationship between, and in fact the conflict between, the clear-souled act of writing by hand and the swirl of digital noise and distraction that otherwise cocoons us:
I have noticed, for example, that I think and feel differently depending on whether my cell phone is switched on or off. The knowledge that I am potentially contactable subtly alters the texture of my time. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of American adults have experienced “phantom” rings, thinking that their phones are vibrating or ringing when they aren’t. I now try to build some uncontactable time into each of my days — not because I fear technology but because feeling able to say no as well as yes helps me take ownership of my decisions. Without boundaries, without friction, value slips away.
I sometimes write in longhand simply to re-create some of this friction. When I write with a pen on paper, words flow with the sense that they exist just half a sentence ahead of the nib. The mechanical slowness of writing helps me feel words as objects as well as ideas, with a synesthetic pleasure in their arrival. Composing into a physical notebook helps writing and reverie mix, often unexpectedly: sentences and phrases arrive out of the blue. Pens and paper are themselves simply the technologies of another era. There’s no magic in them, no fetish to worship. It is the experiences they enable — not what they are in themselves — that I value, alongside the gifts of more recent innovations.
Yet I struggle to live up to my own plan. I check my e-mail too often. I ache for the tiny endorsement of a retweet. I panic at an hour’s loss of cell-phone reception. I entrust ever more of my life and library to third parties, from Amazon to Apple, whose “ecosystems” seem to absorb me.
Where is the still point of the turning world where I might stand, understand, and take back control?
— Tom Chatfield, “Anxious in the Information Age,” City Journal 23.3 (Summer 2013)
I can tell you that my own experience parallels that of Mr. Chatfield with uncanny precision. Perhaps yours does as well.
Relatedly, I encourage you to go and read Mitch Horowitz’s recent article about taking a “massive leap forward in your writing through one simple exercise.” And what is that exercise? It’s very simple, and also simply revolutionary, says Mitch:
First, identify a piece of critical writing that you admire — perhaps an essay, article or review — but above all, something that captures the vitality and discretion that you would like to bring to the page. Then, recopy it by hand.
In the action of copying the piece by hand — not typing on a computer or tablet — you will discover the innards and guts of what the writer is doing. Writing by hand, with pen and paper, compels you to become mentally and even physically involved in picking apart the work. You will gain a new perspective on how the writer says things, how he deploys evidence and examples, and how his sentences are designed to introduce details or withhold them for later.
— Mitch Horowitz, “How to Take a Massive Leap Forward in Your Writing through One Simple Exercise,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2013
Mitch goes on to describe how his hand-copying of an article by Jack Curry in The New York Times “reinvigorated my own passion for writing — and led me to focus on metaphysical history, which resulted in my two recent books: Occult America (Bantam, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014).”
Again, my own experience parallels what’s described here, because I myself have gotten enormous authorial mileage from copying down by hand the work of other writers.
And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve got to log off, pick up a pen, and spend some time blackening a few pages in the notebook (as in, a bound stack of real paper pages, not a petite laptop computer) that awaits my real-world attention. But before I do, if any of this speaks to you, then I suppose the upshot is obvious: go thou and do likewise.
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: Read the rest of this entry