Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Occult History, Part Two: The Purposes of History

Like most things in life, the fusion of dubious history and occult philosophy discussed in last month’s post here on The Well of Galabes is overdetermined; that is, it has more causes than the situation really requires. There are in fact quite a few reasons why occultism is well stocked with misplaced continents and the other hardware of alternative history; some of those reasons are quite sensible, but others are frankly rather embarrassing. The sensible ones are the main focus of this month’s essay, but it’s only fair—not to mention entertaining—to talk about the embarrassing ones first.

We can begin with simple salesmanship. Up until quite recently, if you wanted to attract new members to your occult school or magical lodge, or get favorable attention for your occult teachings, you pretty much had to claim some suitably ancient and romantic origin for whatever you were pitching. That’s why, for example, Dion Fortune made so much of  the supposed Atlantean origins of the system of magical work her Fraternity (now Society) of the Inner Light taught and practiced. If you know your way around the British magical scene of the 1920s, you know exactly where that system came from, and Atlantis had nothing to do with it.

What happened, rather, was that Fortune took the standard Golden Dawn system, ditched those parts of it that had turned out to be problematic in practice, and patched and filled the resulting gaps with an assortment of building materials she got from Theosophy, Masonry, spiritualism, Freudian psychology, translations of Sanskrit writings on the chakras by John Woodroffe aka Arthur Avalon, and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. The difficulty, of course, was that if she’d been forthright about the process of occult bricolage that produced her system, she wouldn’t have had any students to speak of.

In the same way, when Julius Evola spoke of Tradition, what he meant by that word was an ideology he duct-taped together, out of raw materials from the pop culture of his own time, to suit his spiritual and political agenda. From Nietzsche and the the Italian Futurists to Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character and J.J. Bachofen’s Mother-Right, if it was considered edgy and interesting in the early twentieth century Italian alt-right scene—and yes, there was such a thing—Evola found a place for it in his supposedly timeless Tradition. What’s more, if you sort through Evola’s version of Tradition and toss out everything that had a straightforward pop culture source, you’ll have very, very little left.

Mind you, Evola knew exactly what he was doing; his invented Tradition was a tool meant for a specific and serious purpose. Fortune seems to have been somewhat less deliberate, and that leads us to the second embarrassing source for alternative history in occultism, which is an overly literal belief in the products of the creative imagination.

Used intelligently, the imagination is one of the great tools of the operative mage. One of the features of the golden age of occult alternative history, in turn, is that using the imagination intelligently was made very, very difficult by a range of unfortunate ideas. The most important of these was the claim, very common in Theosophical literature at the time, that any sufficiently advanced occultist could tap into the “akashic records”—the enduring traces of all past events in the akasha, the subtle fifth element of the Hindu system—and witness exactly what happened at any given point in the past. Of course plenty of people were convinced, or convinced themselves, that they were sufficiently advanced, and proceeded to take the products of their own imaginations far too seriously.

It does sometimes happen that people using standard occult methods get remarkably clear and exact information from the past. It happens much, much more often, though, that they get a mishmash of material from pop culture and the media, thickly interlarded with various kinds of mental static and stray imagery of the sort that plays so prominent a role in dreams. Combine that with a lack of critical thinking skills and a serene conviction that whatever happens to swim before your mind’s eye got there straight from the akashic record, and you have a playground where the most florid sort of make-believe can, and does, romp to its heart’s content.

It’s from this source that you get those vastly detailed, novel-length accounts of life in Atlantis et al. in which wish-fulfillment fantasies of one sort or another play all too obvious a role, whether it’s the spiritual-utopia kind of wish-fulfillment, the hero-with-a-bloodstained-sword kind of wish-fulfillment, or what have you. On a lighter note, that’s where you get Lemurians taking pet plesiosaurs for walkies on leashes, and the other lively touches that grace Scott-Elliot’s once-famous The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria.  It’s all great fun, so long as it’s treated as wish-fulfillment fantasy, and of course it’s not accidental that it lent itself so readily as raw material for pulp fantasy fiction. As a way of knowing anything about the past, though, it’s about on a par with treating The Flintstones as an accurate portrayal of Paleolithic humanity.

Dion Fortune’s Atlantis wasn’t anything like that silly. Like most English Atlantises of its time, it had a lot to do with sex, and it also got turned into pulp fantasy fiction—fans of lurid fantasy may recall a trilogy by Peter Valentine Timlett, The Seedbearers, Power of the Serpent, and Twilight of the Serpent; it’s entirely set in the imaginary past of Dion Fortune’s visions, with a double helping of brawny-thewed heroes, clothing-optional priestesses, rivers of blood, and the like sprinkled on top. In Fortune’s original version, it served as the alleged ancient source for her idiosyncratic and effective system of magic, but there’s no reason to think she faked it deliberately; quite the contrary, she used the standard methods of active imagination to see what she thought were the akashic records, saw Atlantean priestesses doing her kind of magic, and took that as confirmation that she was on the right track.

Alongside the demand for historically based sales pitches and the habit of taking the products of the imagination a little too seriously was a third factor, which I’ve discussed at some length in the other blog—the problematic fit between scientific claims to authority and the tentative and by no means infallible nature of scientific knowledge. In every era, a good many of the claims presented as proven fact by scientific authorities simply aren’t true, and will be discarded in due time as a result of further research. What’s more, people outside the scientific community very often know, and even more often have a well-founded suspicion that certain of the claims being presented to them aren’t true. Much of what passed for nutritional science in Dion Fortune’s time, for example, was known to be nonsense by anybody who paid attention to the relationship between their own diet and their health.

The difficulty here is simply that people who notice the gap between the pronouncements of scientific authority and the realities they experience too often fall into the trap of assuming that the gap is wider than it is. From that comes the habit of thinking that anything scientists denounce is probably true—a habit that gets a lot of use in today’s alternative culture, and got just as much in the days when Dion Fortune and Julius Evola were busily backdating their freshly invented notions to the dawn of time. Practitioners and aficionados of various forms of alternative thought and practice also tend to run in similar circles, and very often find room for each other’s beliefs in their own worldviews—it makes for more pleasant conversations at parties and the like—and so you end up with lost continents straying into occult philosophy, and vice versa, along with many other exchanges of the same sort.

Those are the three main embarrassing reasons why occult traditions have ended up festooned with dubious history. Those account for a great deal, but there’s another, far more serious reason for the Atlantises et al. to be where they are. To make sense of that, it’s going to be necessary to talk about the meanings and uses of history.

The commonsense notion that history is simply a record of what happened is as misleading as it is mistaken. A record of everything that happened in any small town in any normal one-week period would fill volumes; anything beyond that scale would be unmanageable. The task of the historian, rather, is to provide a record of important things that happened—and “important,” of course, is a value judgment, presupposing such questions as “important in what context?” and “important to whom?”

Every account of history, in other words, either is or implies a narrative, and assembles a sequence of past events that are important in terms of that narrative. The most common such narrative in today’s industrial societies, of course, is the narrative of progress—the story that tells us how we left the supposedly primitive and superstitious past behind us and marched onward and upward to today’s pinnacle of sophistication and enlightenment. Another popular historical narrative these days is the tale of the fall from the Golden Age—the story that tells us how we strayed from a supposedly blissful state in the distant past and sank deeper and deeper into today’s morass of corruption and misery. There are other such narratives, of course, but those are the two most popular.

Notice how these narratives impose specific value judgments on the present. From within the narrative of progress, the current state of affairs is good, because it’s the latest result of the march of progress, and all we have to do is keep going in the same direction we’re already going—the direction of progress—and we’ll be on the right side of history, on our way to something even better. (Of course there’s a constant savage struggle among pressure groups to get their agendas recognized as the next step in the march of progress, but that’s quietly swept under the rug by the narrative.) From within the narrative of the fall from the Golden Age, by contrast, the current state of affairs is evil, because it’s the latest and furthest result of our decline, and our only hope is to turn things around and try to head back up the slippery slope we’ve descended. (Here again, exactly what changes count as climbing back up out of the morass are the subject of constant savage struggle, but that’s not something believers in this narrative like to talk about, either.)

The narrative of progress justifies the present, that is, and the narrative of the fall vilifies it. Other narratives put other spins on it—and alternative history of the sort found in occult writings is very often a way to put a different spin on the experience of the present.

That’s what Julius Evola was trying to do, for example, with the potted history he presents in Revolt Against the Modern World. His is a classic example of the narrative of the fall from the Golden Age; his “world of Tradition,” manufactured as it is out of a lumberyard of early twentieth century pop culture motifs, is Evola’s notion of what the world ought to be like, and he uses the time-honored myth of the fall for its usual purpose of castigating the present for its departure from an imaginary past: the same thing that neoprimitivists do, for example, when they bemoan humanity’s abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, or your classic rock-ribbed American conservative does when he compares the present day to an imaginary, apple-pie American past when everyone went to church on Sundays and all the gays and lesbians were safely interned in New York City.

The narratives of progress and fall aren’t actually all that common in occult literature, though. Far more common are cyclical schemes of history. That’s what you get in Dion Fortune, for example: Lemuria rises and falls, Atlantis rises and falls, Egypt rises and falls, and so on; in each age the schools of the Mysteries—that is, the people who are practicing Dion Fortune’s kind of magic—rise and fall with their societies, and then send out seedbearers to carry the wisdom of the ages to the future.

Blavatsky’s sprawling Theosophical vision goes well beyond this sort of simple cyclical pattern. From her perspective, the peoples of Europe and the European diaspora are offshoots of the fifth of the seven root races who will emerge during this cycle of time; most other peoples are offshoots of the fourth, or Atlantean root race, and there are still some descendants of the third or Lemurian root race around, too. The time of the fifth root race began after the convulsions that finished drowning Atlantis, and will continue until another round of vast natural disasters dunks much of our land surface under the waves and pushes up a different set of continents—by one estimate, this will happen by the 26th century, when the sixth root race will begin its history in what’s now western North America.

These are just the smaller cycles, by the way. When all the souls presently incarnated as human beings finish working their way through all seven of the steps marked out by the seven root races, we’ll head on to the next world in the sequence—Jupiter, where we’ll be incarnated in bodies very different from the ones we have now—leaving the Earth to the next batch of souls in line, who are currently going through a similar sevenfold sequence on the Moon. (We were there during the last set of seven steps.) There’s a chain of seven planets, and each batch of souls goes through a sevenfold series of races on all seven of them seven times before it’s off to other modes of spiritual evolution.

Notice how this sort of thinking redefines the present into a shape very different from the ones we’ve just surveyed. From Dion Fortune’s perspective—which is very common throughout occult alternative history—our civilization is rising and falling like everyone else’s did before it, and so the schools of the Mysteries had better get a move on and make sure the wisdom of the ages is in good condition and thoroughly practiced when it’s time to hand it over to the next set of seedbearers.  The turmoil of the present is of practical interest, as the schools of the Mysteries have to pay their rent and keep out of the way of the usual waves of persecution, and it can also function as an early warning system for the time of the seedbearers, but what matters is working the magic and teaching the next generation.

From Blavatsky’s perspective, by contrast, the basic message is “don’t sweat it.” Of course there’s every incentive for individuals to busy themselves with occult study, to practice meditation, and to take up such standard Theosophical sidelines as a vegetarian diet—all this racks up good karma for your next incarnation and moves you up the line toward your destiny as a student and initiate of the Masters, which probably won’t happen for many lives yet. From within the Blavatskian worldview, though, the commotions of modern politics and culture are just the normal hurly-burly of souls going through the fifth cycle of the Earth phase of the fourth round on this planetary chain, nothing to get upset about, while our technology gets a glance of fond amusement from the Masters—oh, look what the little dears are playing with now! I do hope they don’t sink their continent ahead of schedule...

Of course both of these ways of looking at the past, and all cyclical theories of history, have something in common that makes them just as offensive to believers in progress as to believers in the fall from the Golden Age: our age doesn’t really matter that much. It’s not the cutting edge of humanity’s march to the stars, nor is it the festering swamp in which fallen humanity flounders nose deep and sinking fast; it’s simply a well-known stage in a familiar historical cycle, chugging through the usual stages toward an endpoint marked out ages in advance. That’s offensive, in turn, because one of the most jealously defended beliefs of modern industrial culture is blind faith in our own privileged status. We’ve got to be special; we’ve got to be headed for some sort of unique destiny—uniquely wonderful, uniquely horrible, it doesn’t seem to matter that much as long as it’s unique.

That, in turn, is one of the things that occult philosophy is meant to challenge: the frankly childish insistence that we, as one set of intelligent beings living on this particular planet in this particular instant of its long history, are of vast importance in the overall scheme of things. That’s a hangover—very much in the head-pounding, stomach-churning, clinging to the porcelain while repatriating all last night’s party snacks sense of the word—from the great prophetic religions that reshaped the Old World’s spiritual environment starting a little more than two thousand years ago. The idea that the great wheels of the cosmos revolve around the salvation of human beings (or of all sentient beings who, in orthodox Buddhism, can only be saved while in human incarnation) was doubtless worth exploring, and it made a great sales pitch in its time, but it’s played a huge role in feeding the overdeveloped sense of entitlement that shapes so much thinking these days.

All things considered, then, there’s a real point to the use of alternative history as a tool for helping people reshape their understanding of the present, and of their place in the cosmos. I tend to think, though, that other tools might have been used for the same purpose. Cyclic visions of history aren’t limited to occultism, as readers of the other blog will doubtless have noticed by now; there are perfectly sober and secular versions of the same teachings. There are also some very interesting scraps of evidence that suggest that there may have been entire cycles of civilization before the ones we know about, which could be used to undercut the myths of uniqueness on their own, without any need to drag in tame plesiosaurs and priestesses in their underwear.

Next month’s post, though, will explore the cycles of time in a different sense. A previous post talked about the role of astrology in traditional occultism, and the discussion in the comments that followed made it clear that many of my readers would be interested to see more about that. Thus we’ll welcome in the new astrological year on March 21 with a classic mundane chart, cast for Washington DC at the moment of the Sun’s entrance into Aries: the traditional place and time to forecast the influences that will shape the history of the United States over the following six months. See you there!