Site Archive: Commentaries
The Complacent Intelligentsia:
Ducking the "New Age" Challenge
A Commentary by John Chambers
Reprinted from The Anomalist: 7
What in the universe is going on? Though hard figures are hard to come by, paranormal experiences seem to be occurring at unprecedented rates as our century nears its close. Take encounters with UFOs, in the form, increasinglyóit seems--of "alien abductions." Though many scoff at the Roper Report figure of five million such encounters as grossly unsubstantiated, the fact remains that Communion author Whitley Strieber alone claims to have received 250,000 letters describing "fourth-kind" encounters with "visitors;" so it seems hard not to imagine that the actual figure must reach into the millions. Another species of paranormal adventure on the rampage is, apparently, encounters with "past lives." In 1956, we knew only of a handful of cases, in particular that of Virginia Tighe/Bridey Murphy; today, with Ian Stevensonís carefully-documented 2,600 case studies, and the more than 5,000 cases that Helen Wambach and Chet Snow report--and given the fact that, according to the U.S. Association of Past-Life Research and Therapies, there are over 3,000 past-life regression therapists practicing in the U.S.A. alone--it seems reasonable to conjecture that the figure for alleged past-life recalls reaches well into the hundreds of thousands.
Similarly with reports of near-death experiences. A 1990 Gallup Poll report that 20 million Americans claimed to have had such an experience was greeted with disbelief among professionals, but reports gathered by Kenneth Ringís center for NDE studies at the University of Connecticut suggest the numbers may indeed go well into the millions. And, in The Channeling Zone, Williams College anthropologist Michael F. Brown reports that "at the height of media interest in channeling in the mid-1980s, one authority declared that a thousand channels practiced in the Los Angeles area alone."
Faced with this mounting evidence that significant new phenomena are shaking up the psychic landscape of humanity, organized science and the intellectual community have tended to dismiss these experiences as hysteria--mere fearful whistlings in the dark by we common folk who needs must prop ourselves up with new gods in times of spiritual crisis. This tendency--a tragic one, since there are those who would argue that awesome mysteries are being unfolded before us--is well-illustrated by the works of even such notable scholars as Anthony Aveni and Harold Bloom.
In Behind the Crystal Ball, Anthony Aveni, the Colgate University Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology has written, according to the press release, "an engaging and enlightening travelogue of the development of popular science and the little known history of magic." And just such a travelogue it is--indeed, nearly a roller-coaster ride--with Aveni taking us at breakneck speed down through the centuries when the universe was seven spheres set one within the other with the earth at the center, when Pythagorus believed all was built on number, when Plotinus thought the stars had souls, and when the leading lights of the Italian Renaissance tried to call down the power of those stars using an 'astral magic' they thought had come from Egypt.
Aveni seeks to impart a patina of respectability to magic and the occult by suggesting that these belief systems represent, in the same way as does modern science, strategies for understanding and coping with the world. And there is much fascinating information in this book, as how could there not be in a volume that finds reason to concern itself with everything from hepatoscopy (divination using an animal's liver, practiced by many ancient peoples, including the Romans) to the extraordinary life of the great alchemist Paracelsus.
But a certain enormous complacency, even an arrogance, informs the section of this volume devoted to the contemporary "New Age"--one so striking that one has to wonder just how much careful research had gone into the earlier parts of the book. It's obvious that Aveni doesn't for a moment believe that any of the New Age phenomena about which he writes might possibly have any real relation to what is actually going on in the universe. This complacency--which accurately mirrors the complacency of the intelligentsia of our time--is reflected in the fact that this section of his book is riddled with inaccuracies.
To cite just a few examples: Aveni writes, "Helen Smith, the renowned turn-of-the-century medium of Geneva, and French author Victor Hugo wrote novels on seances she had conducted while out of body on the landscape of Mars... the French psychiatrist and skeptic Joseph Grasset hurled arrows of hallucination at the ignorant woman as he scientifically picked her argument apart."
But Helene (not Helen) Smith never wrote a novel, nor anything at all, except several pages of a bizarre script she claimed she had channeled from the planet Mars (Smith did paint 'channeled' pictures.). Nor did Victor Hugo ever write a novel based on Helene's seances. He couldn't have, since he was dead when the seances took place in the late 1890s. Helene did claim, however, that one of her spirit controls was the deceased French author himself. Hugo, while alive--from 1863 to 1865, the first two years of his exile on the Channel island of Jersey--did have daily conversations with a large and brilliant group of table-tapping spirits. He didn't write a novel about these experiences, though some feel they richly color the poetry of his old age. Hugo was electrified by his encounters, much of the time believing they were authentic, and insisting that at the very least they enhanced his creative powers fivefold.
There were no psychiatrists when "psychiatrist" Joseph Grasset wrote about Helene in his book that was published in 1910. And, whatever "hurled arrows of hallucination" may mean, it's important to note that the pertinent scientist involved in the investigation of Helene Smith was Theodore Flournoy, the Swiss psychologist/philosopher and Professor of Physiological Psychology at the University of Geneva. A close friend of William James, Flournoy was the trail-blazing psi investigator who scrupulously attended Helene's seances at her house in Geneva for two years. In 1899 he published his masterpiece, From India to the Planet Mars, a painstaking and compassionate study of the medium which showed her to be an early victim of multiple personality disorder. Flournoy also set forth brilliantly in this volume the notion of cryptomnesia--one, but not the only, explanation for past-life recall. Instead of being clever, Aveni ought to have presented to his readers this very real story of human eccentricity, courage, perseverance and genius.
Aveni also writes: "NDEs, like UFO contacts, are almost always positive, frequently joyful, and ecstatic--a reaching out into the great beyond to another time rather than another space dimension."
But the UFO experience that parallels the NDE is that of the abductee, not that of the contactee. And the majority of UFO abduction experiences seem to be horrible, leaving the abductee traumatized for years to come. No one before or after has expressed better than Whitley Strieber, in his 1987 bestseller Communion, the unending terrors experienced by the abductee. Temple University Associate History Professor David Jacobs insists that not only have the aliens invaded us, but they have conquered us; and this distinguished UFO researcher hints darkly that we have much to fear from the consequences of this conquest. Karla Turner, Ph.D, one of the subtlest of the alien abduction author/abductees, who died in early 1996, was convinced the aliens were outright stealing the stuff of our souls; Turner was as stunned at the complacency of her contemporaries as she was at the malevolent acts committed by the ETs she encountered.
Indeed, informed UFO abduction researchers square off over just this point of how horrible the experience really is, with Harvard psychiatrist John Mack asserting that the agonies of abduction may be meant to ratchet our consciousness up several notches and open us out to a higher joyousness. Strieber himself seems to be coming around to this view; but both men further muddy the waters with their contention that the aliens may also be other-dimensional, or may represent our apprehension (fearful because not understood) of some new aspect of our soul that is emerging into consciousness. Along with these complex views goes the belief, advanced by more than one researcher of honor and intelligence, that a sinister alliance exists between the aliens and our own military. Finally, the UFO abduction experience is far darker and more complex than Aveni seems able to imagine. And the Colgate astronomer/professor should be aware that there is a sub-category of NDEs (in stating that NDEs 'reach out into another time' he is confusing them with past-life recall experiences), called FNDEs--Frightening Near-Death Encounters. University of Ohio Religion Professor Dr. Christopher Bache is one of a number of distinguished academics to be currently researching this strange and disturbing phenomenon.
Aveni errs, too, in dismissing Uri Geller without a backward glance. In The Way of the Explorer, moon explorer and psi researcher Edgar Mitchell chronicles some of Geller's more remarkable achievements, and records in a footnote that, "Noted physicists from the U.S., Britain, Denmark, France and Germany all successfully tested Geller and/or "Geller children." They congregated in Iceland in 1977 to report their results and compare theories. Being unable to publish in professional journals, they produced a private volume of their findings entitled The Iceland Papers, with a forward by Nobel physicist Brian Josephson."
So, in the end, the usually thorough and edifying Aveni betrays himself with a cavalier treatment of the data which seems to me to mirror a certain thorough-going contempt. The astronomer/author seems to assume that since everybody knows that New Age phenomena is nonsense, then he needn't bother checking his facts. And this is sad, because the New Age experience cries out for researchers of Aveni's acumen and intelligence; the "best minds of our generation" should be involved in understanding these strange new events that are roiling around in the soul of humanity. But there seems little hope of roping this arch-dismisser of the New Age into what could be one of the great intellectual endeavors of our time.
Harold Bloom, the Yale University English Mega-Professor and modern incarnation of Samuel Johnson, has little more truck with New Age "wisdom" than does Anthony Aveni. At first glance, I thought that Bloom might have performed a great service for the New Age community with his book, Omens of Millennium. For Bloom does a splendid job of locating the roots of modern-day phenomena, such as encounters with angels, prophetic dreams and near-death experiences in some of the more exotic and profound, millennia-old, belief-systems of the Christian Gnostics, Sufi Muslims, and Jewish Kabbalists. And, in so doing, he seems to legitimize-almost to dignify-that range of anomalous phenomena we call "New Age."
But, when all is said and done, it is obvious that Bloom is simply using the New Age as a gigantic stick with which to bash the shallowness of contemporary culture. "I would urge everyone concerned with angels, prophetic dreams, 'near-death experiences,' and the oncoming Millennium to measure our current encounters with these phenomena against the best that has been known and written about them in the past," he writes. "That is the primary purpose of this book: to raise up and illuminate these appearances in order to save them, by returning them to the interpretive wisdom of [these ancient creeds]. Without a context that can serve as a spiritual standard of measurement, we will drown in New Age enthusiasms and wish fulfillments." And, "But, alas, just as we have seen a vast difference in spiritual dignity and cognitive force when we contrast our current preoccupation with angels to past visions in that realm, so there is an ever starker sense of loss when we compare the astral body or figure of Light in the traditions of Gnosis to the manifestations of the Light in post-[Raymond] Moodyan "near-death experience."
There is some truth in what Bloom says. But again, like Aveni, he does not seem to have bothered to have read the documentation of the New Age phenomena for which he feels so much disdain. He dismisses the UFO phenomenon in a word, without reference to the anguished wrestlings of millions of people with this utterly mysterious and often devastating incursion from the Other. Harking back to his sources, he dismisses out-of-hand modern-day encounters with angels, suggesting that only great souls, like Jacob or even Joseph Smith of the Mormons, may speak of having such profound and psyche-transforming encounters: He writes, "What Catholic doctrine shares with the traditions of Gnosis is an emphasis very much absent from our moment, which is the awesomeness or terrifying grandeur of the angels. This difference is one that I repeat, because our current domestication of the angels renders them insipid." But if Bloom wanted great torment to serve as the cachet of, say, the UFO abduction experience, he could have found it in the works of Whitley Strieber and Karla Turner; indeed, such torment is present in many of the contemporary accounts of angel-encounter, and it is not absent from that classic of the near-death experience, Saved by the Light by Dannion Brinkley.
What troubles the author of The Western Canon, that superb attempt by Bloom to reinstate the classical values which we once applied to literature, is, in my opinion, the absence of great literature in the New Age movement. But, indeed, there is hardly any "great" literature anymore anywhere in the world. And here is where a man of Bloom's genius and generosity of spirit could render to that New Age community-and indeed to the community of the Modern World--a very great service: He could read-in a sense uncritically, without any longer assigning such labels as truth or fiction-through the whole "canon" of New Age literature and determine for us all precisely what lies therein and what are the metaphors that seem ineluctably to be emerging.
It is easy to be dismissive of, for example, "channeled material," which seems by its very definition to lack the conscious craftsmanship that we once regarded as an integral part of great, or indeed any, art. But if Bloom were to devour, as he has devoured so many other literatures, the channeled literature of our time--I speak of seminal "entities" like, and I name only a few, Bashar, Seth, the Arcturians, or Kryon--he might find there, not the spiritual wasteland he expects, but the first stirrings of a whole new vision of reality. Not, perhaps, a vision for the elite, but not also, exactly, a vision for the common man--but a vision that is in need of a man of the powers of a Harold Bloom for its proper presentation to the modern world.
Copyright 1999 by The Anomalist