Haunted by Our Amnesia

The Forgotten Mainstream Impact of the Occult/Esoteric “Fringe”
by David Metcalfe (Originally published at The Teeming Brain)

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: Historically, Americans have regarded new religious movements with suspicion, if not hostility — at least at first. During the Revolutionary War, the Shaker leader Mother Ann Lee was jailed and harangued by mobs who suspected that her religious pacifism was nothing but a cover for British sympathies. Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was run out of his central New York home in the early 1830s when locals derided his Book

” The list stretches on. to the point where meditating seems as common as jogging. when retired Union Army Col.” The Wall Street Journal. however. 2012 . Cremations account for more than a third of American interments.of Mormon as a hoax and Smith as an opportunistic fortune-teller. Henry Steel Olcott conducted the first public cremation service in New York City. most of these figures and their practices became mainstream. In 1876. snagging names from Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. who taught the Beatles to meditate. Over time. September 13. And our first Mormon president may be around the corner. “The Secret Wisdom of an Ersatz Guru. – Mitch Horowitz. he was lambasted in the press as a heathen presiding over a “pagan funeral.

and academia consider “fringe” is often at the very heart of the issues we face. It seems as if the main historical influences that affect us exist in a shadow realm that few give credence to. (See. Think of it: both the much-lauded leader Mohandas Gandhi and the common funerary practice of cremation (in the context of American culture) have their roots firmly planted in the Theosophical Society. if they know of it at all. where some hypothesize that nearly 84% of the mass in the universe is composed of dark matter. Curator of History of Science and Technology . Gary Lachman’s forthcoming biography Madame Blavatsky: Mother of Modern Spirituality for a look at the ironic “open hiddenness” of both Theosophy and its formidable founder in today’s spiritual marketplace.) In a nice blog post from 2010. Rebekah Higgitt. yet this realm forms the main source of the ebb and flow that pushes us forward.When one starts to look. it’s as if history mirrors physics. for example. What the media. mainstream science. an organization that most people today know of as a New Age joke.

However. or as a magician. and the scholarship of [science historian William] Newman and others. the world he lived in and the ways he — and his contemporaries — thought are. and such presentations tend to be accompanied by the suggestion that this is a surprising and novel revelation. very unfamiliar to us today. 2010 . but the on-going efforts at transcribing Newton’s archive. – Rebekah Higgitt.at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. November 21. In recent years the major popular interest in Newton has related to alchemy and prophecy. brings out this same issue in regard to Isaac Newton. which presented Newton as “the last of the magicians”. which has shown that it was part of the intellectual scenery of the time. lo and behold. by and large. which demonstrates just how much and for how long alchemy/chymistry was among Newton’s major activities. Greenwich. the thing that bugs me most is the fact that Newton has been “revealed” as an alchemist. and he was undoubtedly struck by what he found. A few weeks before Higgitt’s post — and in fact serving as one of the motivators for her to write it — The New York Times ran an article whose tone and headline (“Moonlighting as a Conjuror of Chemicals“) espoused surprise that. he shouldn’t have been as surprised as he evidently was. “Newton the Man”. Keynes had acquired a significant portion of the “non-scientific” part of Newton’s archive (as judged by the scientists who catalogued and divided them in the late 19th century). as I have said in my book. “Newton and alchemy: a constant surprise?” teleskopos. over and over again. the father of the “classical” model in physics. This process goes back at least as far as John Maynard Keynes and his 1946 essay. The news is that although Newton is a familiar name and a hero of modern science. But. was … an alchemist obsessed with unorthodox Biblical hermeneutics! Higgitt responded: The real news is not that Newton was involved in alchemy. so long touted as a weapon against all forms of supposed irrational scientific inquiry.

the illustrious. even . gothic-structured cloister in Ephrata. the 18th century that is. Most of us are familiar with the writings of Thomas Vaughn. that we also find hints of laboratory alchemy being practiced in their wooden. Its title: “Was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer?” “What happens when the rationalists are irrational? When the materialists don’t engage with the material at hand? What happens when our collective history is haunted by the ghosts that drift in the shadows of our amnesia?” If we follow this thread farther. most would not suspect that both his library and his writings were replete with at least a surface-level understanding of the art of alchemy. Paracelsus. alchemy was one of the cultural gifts that the Colonial Pietist groups brought to the New World from Europe. In fact. said to have been Rosicrucians fleeing the religious wars of Central Europe. Even late in the “Golden Game”. we find other surprises that shake the foundations of our historical assumptions. Bacstrom. Have you ever heard of Cotton Mather? Most know him as a central figure responsible for fanning the flames of the Salem Witch Trials.And yet the trend continues: just a few days ago the Guardian published an article rehashing the question of Newton’s influences. yet it was from colonial America that one of the most famous and mysterious Alchemists arose – Philalethes. As the Hermeticist and historian Mark Stavish outlines in his essay “The History of Alchemy in America“: While alchemy has strained the credulity and pocketbooks of many Europeans since its general appearance in the 16th and 17th centuries. and dozens of other authorities on the Royal Art. it has also held a fascination for a fair number of prominent and not so prominent Americans as well. However. on the Pennsylvania frontier. It is among the apocalyptic Pietists of Pennsylvania.

. “The History of Alchemy in America. and other buttoned-down American Ivy League institutions that today would. the very nature of such inquiries effects a deep change in the worldview of anyone who begins to undertake them. and reapproaching all of these issues rhetorically: What happens when the rationalists are irrational? When the materialists don’t engage with the material at hand? When our scholars aren’t very scholarly in their investigations? What happens when our collective history is haunted by the ghosts that drift in the shadows of our amnesia? Most importantly. Founding Director of Phoenix Rising Digital Academy. what can we do in this digital age to make amends for these glaring oversights? (Special thanks go out to Sasha Chaitow.com or Google Books shows that many of the scanned books on alchemy come from the libraries of Harvard. as often happens. culture. at least in public. Yale. these studies are undertaken by community leaders. for pointing out the Newton material referenced in this post. And the Governor of Connecticut and Massachusetts dabbled with quicksilver now and again as well. Even when mainline historians admit these facts. revolutionary groups. 1996 A quick search of Archive. and religious leaders. When. politicians. – Mark Stavish. writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art. In sum. they often downplay the influence that such ideas have had on the culture.) David Metcalfe is an independent researcher. and consciousness.” Corpus Stavish (at Hermetic. to deny that they have had a profound impact on the development of culture amounts to a strange amnesia that can have nothing but an ill effect on the culture itself and a dampening effect on any hopes for progressive development.com). halls of Harvard were teaching their students the theory of the transmutation of metals. Cornell. While it’s true that ideas like these have always existed within a region of controversy that keeps them part of a hidden stream.then ivy covered. scoff at the idea that any of these ideas hold credence. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich.

Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press. He writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes.com. . R. For more information on Santa Muerte. David Metcalfe and Liminal Analytics. and The Daily Grail. Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy. Andrew Chesnut. a collaborative project hosted by Dr.The Revealer. 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.com. check out http://skeletonsaint. The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. Disinfo. and the sanctification of death in the popular faith traditions of the Americas. the online journal of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. Alarm Magazine. Modern Mythology. His writing has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011).

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