An article on the occult in western society
That there persists in western society a widespread ignorance of and fascination for the paranormal and the occult, particularly in pop culture, is well known. The paranormal might be considered to be ‘out there’ on the fringes of society, but its portrayal in books and films has taken firm root the mainstream. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series might have catalysed an explosion in the paranormal romance genre (a sub-genre of fantasy), vampires now the order of the day, but paranormal abilities such as telepathy, clairvoyance and telekinesis, also continue to find their way into plots far and wide. The occult, in the form of magical practice, is a common enough theme in horror, from The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby through to The Matrix. In pop culture, the occult has fused with the paranormal to form a glamourous ‘other’ realm of existence. This ‘other’ has become accepted and acceptable. Writing, filming, reading, watching—it’s all just good fun. Teenagers get into it, dabble a bit; parents watch on assuming it’s just a phase they’ll grow out of, and that those who don’t are suffering from a form of arrested development. Parents are, after all, rational, even when their rationality is coloured by faith. I believe this popular cultural dalliance with the paranormal and the occult to be problematic. It trivialises esotericism to the point of hollowing it out of all meaning. It’s a distraction; one the real occultist will take full advantage of.
From the point of view of the mainstream, conspiracy theories are another ‘out there’ fascination that occupies the minds of nerds, geeks and stoners to the point of obsession. From the point of view of those intellectuals critical of the neo-conservative status quo, conspiracy theorists are paranoid idiots. Not so.
Unlike occult and paranormal fans, those who believe in conspiracy theories are widely vilified and shunned. They are considered to be some sort of threat to rational thought. They point at the corrupt and underhanded machinations of power and are condemned for it. In this piece I show one way that the occult and conspiracy theories are connected, and why it might be that society’s rejection of this second ‘other’ is not only misplaced, but it denies the development of the sort of thinking that will progress humanity beyond the tendency to create dichotomies, which in turn perpetuate hate.
The paranormal and the occult point us in direction of the strange and the unknown. The human mind is suggestible through its quest for explanations of happenstances that appear inexplicable. How many of us have awoken from a dream infused with a potent charge, breathless, our thoughts in suspension as we grapple for meaning? Or observed key life events falling in succession on a significant anniversary: the realisation bringing with it a sense of mystery and puzzlement? Is it that these sorts of things happen accidentally in the random chaos of life, as the rationalists would have it, and only because these events somehow concern us in particular, do we take notice? Or perhaps Jung was right; such occurrences are not merely coincidental but synchronous and therefore significant.
And what of the particularity of that attention we give to this over that, something dramatic over something everyday. Why do some things stand out and not others? I’m not a psychologist and can only suggest that the answer lies partly in our sense of who we are and what we want. The allure of the paranormal and the occult is usually that self-centred. Also, the answer lies in the consequences. We tend not to notice things of no consequence.
The rationalists among us mock those who notice paranormal happenings along with those who find significance in the symbols and glyphs of the occult; those who believe in the predictive truth of divinatory practices such as the I Ching or the casting of the Runes. Yet it seems to me harsh and unfair to dismiss outright individuals who approach the unfathomable mysteriousness of our existence with a measure of awe and wonderment.
When something inexplicable happens—we see a ghost or have a premonition or hear a knock when there’s no one there—many of us wonder if there’s more to our world than meets our eyes. Drawing on the ideas of the well-known specialist in ancient Gnosticism, Gilles Quispel, Professor of History and Hermetic Studies, Wouter Hanegraaff, describes this tendency as a gnostic disposition, a way of knowing distinct from faith (religion) and reason (science). Those with it are drawn to metaphysical explanations of reality. They tend to probe behind the scenes for alternative meanings in addition to those readily accessible on the surface.
If a gnostic disposition is the prerequisite for engaging with occultism, then correspondence is its fundament. From the perhaps trite metaphysical tenet ‘As above, so below’ through to myriad arbitrary associations, such as matching the signs of the Zodiac with gemstones, occultists (or esotericists) derive meaning from this method of interpreting the world around them. Over millennia, out of the correspondence technique of meaning making, occultists have accumulated a vast body of esoteric ‘knowledge’. And for the average occultist, this knowledge is all too easily regarded as absolute and concrete truth.
The most obvious and one of the oldest systems of correspondence, which sets out to interpret our experiences and predict our future based on occult knowledge, is Astrology. Perhaps harmless enough, when in the hands of an eccentric parlour scryer, although knowing how suggestible many of us are, even a prediction concerning the meeting of a future husband can have catastrophic consequences. It is for this reason that I refuse to practice the art.
Astrologers, like most interested in the occult, use the knowledge built up out of the technique of correspondence by applying it to people’s lives. It’s personal and private. Transiting Pluto opposing your natal Moon means you are going through some sort of emotional rebirth—not many are going to state this aloud on a train. Yet it is not occult knowledge that concerns the adept esoteric practitioner. For esotericism is praxis; out of a few simple guiding principles the occultist generates meaning and significance afresh each time.
The adept esotericist is concerned with the manipulation of thought and energy and the harnessing of power for the purposes of transmutation. The adept understands the capacity of symbols to evoke fresh meaning, stimulating the imagination and the intuition and, in ways incomprehensible to faith and reason, transforming consciousness. This, in essence, is Alchemy.
The adept knows this as superior knowledge, which has little to do with the literal correspondences ascribed to symbols by popular culture. Occultism is nothing more and nothing less than the manipulation of whatever forms and forces are at the practitioner’s disposal in order to achieve that which the practitioner desires. That, when all is stripped away, is magic.
There are two kinds of adepts: those who walk the left hand path of darkness and those who direct their minds to the right hand path light. Pioneer of transpersonal psychology, Roberto Assagioli, for example, was a ‘secretary’ of Theosophist Alice A Bailey’s Arcane School, an esoteric training school on the right hand path (despite what some may argue, Alice Bailey’s teachings have nothing whatsoever to do with the left hand path, other than to guard against it). Assagioli used the insights he gained in his esoteric training and used them to develop psychosynthesis, a process largely beneficial in enabling personal development.
On the dark side, the adept in the occult arts knows the susceptibility and suggestibility of the human mind, understands fully the lure of correspondence, and above all, understands how to create thought forms in order to influence how we think about the world around us. Propaganda works in this way, as does ideology. The war on terror is a prime example of such thought manipulation, invoking fear, justifying the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay, whilst creating a blind, one that directed us away from the real war that the power elite has quietly declared on us.
Whether such systems of thought manipulation have developed out of an esoteric way of perceiving the world is perhaps moot. There’s a history to both, and trends emerge out of the flux of our collective existence. But if I were an adept, I would see straight away the opportunity propaganda and ideology present, and I’d be most interested in taking advantage of their existence.
Who are these adepts? Where do they exist?
The Freemasons are probably the most well known occult order. Outwardly they’re a brotherhood, an ‘old boy’s’ network, favouring each other, and ensuring they, and not outsiders, gain and keep power. Inwardly the Freemasons practice secret rites of an esoteric bent, and practice the processes of initiation through a series of hierarchical degrees. Sinister or not? It depends who you read.
There’s always been a sinister side to the occult. In his book, The Occult Roots of Nazism, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke showed how the occult sects of the Hapsburg Empire influenced Nazism ideology, their symbols and ideas proving highly influential. Scholars like Goodrick-Clarke continue to contribute to a growing body of scholarly knowledge on the nature of Western Esotericism and its various streams. For those interested in understanding occultism and the elite, I advise looking to those works, over the dubious scholarship found in the works of Jim Marrs.
Occult orders are hard to know, to study. The metaphysics is abstruse, the practices obscure. The larger orders are more well known. But there also exists smaller, highly secret orders. Professor of political science at Princeton University, Sheldon S Wolin knew of the gravity of the matter when he wrote Democracy Inc. He wrote a chapter on cultism in the power elite, including the Ayn Rand phenomenon of which former head of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan was an acolyte, and the intellectualised elite generated by political philosopher Leo Strauss (Wolin, 167), one with an astonishing lack of empathy when it comes to the rest of us. And then there’s the joke, the mockery, the taunt: Bohemia Grove.
Secret occult orders are fuel for conspiracy theorists: those gnostic thinkers who may or may not stumble on the truth of the matter. Conspiracy thinkers realise that on a mass scale, pop culture dabblers are collectively duped, the paranormal and the occult serving as opiates, otherworldly distractions from the harsh realities of existence under the current regime. Yet on an individual level, those same dabblers in the occult, busy collecting crystals, and engaging in a little candle magic, are protected from the manipulations of the adept by their very self-centredness: Welcome to the New Age. Whereas conspiracy theorists are made vulnerable by their tendency to turn occultism outwards, away from themselves, and towards the world at large.
When I read the number play surrounding 9/11 I was astonished. There were so many number coincidences I decided someone somewhere was having a lend of us. An accident? Pure chance? Yet it was as though conspiracy thinkers were being directed at esoteric significances along the lines of numerology, and I wondered if that were a devise to make those thinkers appear to the outside world as crazy nuts, thus discrediting the entire counter-investigation into who was behind the attacks. And that might seem like a whacky idea as well. And so it goes.
But the propagandists and the misinformers are alive and well and growing fat on the fun they have at our expense.
For if I were an adept, living out a sheltered existence within a power elite, I’d have an awful lot of fun manipulating the minds of those seeking to look behind the scenes to get at the truth, or employing others to do so on my behalf. I’d take great pleasure in dropping them like mice into a labyrinth of lies of my own making. I’d laugh at the way they create their own blinds and veils through believing those lies. And I’d kick back with my copy of The Glass Bead Game and a glass of the finest schnapps.
How do conspiracy thinkers protect themselves against such lies? I argue that the very idea of ‘conspiracy theory’ is a problem for conspiracy thinkers. Theory presupposes some sort of grand plan or plot, one that forms the essence of the theory. The mistake I think conspiracy theorists tend to make is the same as the mistake literal-minded gnostics make—they look to knowledge, to absolutes; they adhere to linear thinking and seek concrete explanations and final causes—everything from alien lizards to the Elders of Zion—just as the literal-minded esotericist may believe in a spiritual hierarchy of ascended masters enacting a Plan for humanity.
Occultism isn’t knowledge; it’s praxis, a process, a way of knowing. Conspiracy is a process too, generally organic and evolving, opportunistic and unscrupulous, at times reckless. There isn’t, necessarily, a plot or master plan. Even if there is, I think it’s best not to adhere to the idea of it. Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery comes closest to the reality.
There is another approach to occultism, one that regards the processes of meaning making through the symbols, glyphs and elements of occult systems lightly, provisionally, without adherence. It’s one I ascribe to and aspire to. It’s a both/and approach, allowing awareness to be transformed without the mind adhering to prescribed meanings as literal truths. It’s mastering occultism as art, not craft. It’s recognising that the veils and blinds created by the supposed adepts are paradoxically their own other, their opposite in a sense, for veils and blinds are the very lenses through which the rest of us think we can see. A conspiracy thinker must also train their mind, learn to see through the veils, become an adept. Learn not to get trapped in the maze. Remain poised between dichotomies; walk the razor edge path of truth.
First appeared in Paranoia magazine, August 2016