An Occultist in Manhattan
Reconsidering Western Hermeticism
I am writing a book based on Secret Histories and Spiritual Revolutions, my recent course on the history of the Western hermetic tradition. The introduction is here. I will publish the book in irregular installments via this newsletter. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.
It still seems bizarre to me that I became an occultist. I was a kid in hyper-materialist Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s — a period depicted in films like Taxi Driver and Annie Hall, expressed by the taut anxiety of New Wave bands such as The Voidoids and Talking Heads. My parents were artists — my father, Peter Pinchbeck, an abstract painter living in SoHo, my mother, Joyce Johnson, a memoirist and novelist on the Upper West Side — and atheists. In fact, through my early life, I can’t remember meeting anyone who held a sincere religious or mystical belief.
As a teenager, I joined the prevailing cult of non-belief. This was, after all, the worldview shared by my teachers, my parent’s friends, all of my friends — by everyone I knew. We all believed that God was dead. Science had proved human consciousness to be an accidental result of neurological complexity. End of story.
Until I rediscovered psychedelics in my late twenties, I was a hardcore skeptic. I never imagined I would pursue a different type of knowledge — that I would undergo initiatory journeys into non-ordinary states of consciousness, and discover, for myself, an entirely different relationship to reality.
Scientific materialism, today, remains the default setting for our technical, financial and academic elites. The liberal establishment has not changed its views over the last decades. Secular humanists, whether liberal or conservative, still control the mainstream and academic discourse. They see mystical, supernatural, and psychical experience as curious hangovers from our atavistic past, worthy of study by anthropologies and sociologists, but irrelevant and meaningless beyond that.
My first book, Breaking Open the Head, on psychedelic shamanism, helped launch the contemporary psychedelic movement. Published by Random House in 2002, it was the first book in a generation to take the psychedelic experience seriously. I received respectful reviews from The New York Times and other mainstream outlets. For Breaking Open the Head, I went to Gabon to undergo the Bwiti initiation, the Amazon in Ecuador for ayahuasca, and visited a Mazatec mushroom shaman in Oaxaca. I interviewed the famous psychedelic chemist Sasha Shulgin and also explored transformational festivals like Burning Man when it was still a fringe event.
My book was, in some ways, a forerunner to Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind and Hamilton Morris’s Vice series. Both came more than a decade later. However, while Pollan and Morris focus on the psychological and scientific aspects of the psychedelic experience, I also described the paranormal, occult dimensions of reality that one can encounter through these substances. In fact, the contemporary psychedelic renaissance remains largely in denial of these area. They don’t mesh with the new narrative of psychedelics as therapeutic and entrepreneurial “wonder drugs.”
During the last centuries, Modernist movements in art, culture, and philosophy supported science in demystifying the world. The goal was to tear down all false idols, dismantle delusional hopes. The Anglo-European effort to demystify the world started with the Enlightenment, but reached its crescendo in the late 19th and early 20th Century.
In The Disinherited Mind, Erich Heller defined the dominant trends of 18th Century European thought as rationalism and romanticism. He called them “the twin creatures of spiritual chaos… the one abhorring, the other worshipping the irrational aspect of man.” He noted, “In the absence of a genuine supranatural order, human beings were thrown back on their purely naturalistic resources, with analytical skeptical reason on the one hand, and disorganized emotions on the other.”
We still live within this schism.
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