Mysticism Kitsch • 26 May 2009

My favorite motto for the practice is still this one:

Ashtanga yoga—reviving the grail quest one true believer at a time.

Might be just me, though.

I remember when the occult—even occult fiction (the kind where professors work out the secrets of the universe in medieval archives) —was something you didn’t really discuss. I read Foucault's Pendulum, the academic-Templar thriller, the summer I was 21. It was sweltering in Washington; there was a shooting in the Capitol building blocks from my office; and I was taking 2 hour runs every night through the woods where they'd finally find that other intern, Chandra Levy. I bough a burlap bag of rice and lived on that plus the hazelnut coffee at Amnesty International, slept in a bedroll in an empty 4-floor townhouse, and spent afternoons off in the dark domed reading room of the Library of Congress. Clever old poems circle the library ceiling, winking down on the study carrels. The best and weirdest is Tennyson:

One God One Law One Element, and One Divine Event Toward Which All Creation Moves.

I'd believed that as a Christian 5 years earlier, and would believe it again as a kind of atheist 10 years hence, but at the time it just made me wonder what inside politics Tennyson knew that I didn’t.

A gorgeous spitfire Columbian named Carlos Salinas, Amnesty's lobbyist for Latin America, stalked the corridors of my office, swearing up one floor and down the other about political violence. He made his nemesis Jesse Helms—whose hearings I monitored for Amnesty that summer—look like a soft-spoken wuss. One afternoon, Carlos heaved in out of the 102 degree swelter after a lunch hour I'd spent answering phones and reading Foucault's Pendulum.

Fuck! Fuck you! This is the first time you're reading it? Fuck! I am so fucking jealous! I can never go back and read it for the first time! It is the best book in the fucking universe!

This from a guy who usually reserved strong emotion for, you know, highland paramilitaries and the parallel state. I crushed on him all summer, beguiled by his profane passions: hatred of Helms and love of the occult. Eco's book is devious.

That winter I'd visited the Victor Hugo/Knights Templar/Illuminati cult in rural Vietnam; and not long after the Editor and I would go to Toledo's Alcazár, where the evil hooded armor of the Templars stands under glass with other clanking generations of medieval "paramilitaries."

Grail and alchemy lore were so good in those years, before Dan Brown ripped off The Chalice and the Blade and the secret history became the mainstream "history" to the tune of 500 million copies. Last summer I got with Ron Howard, a bozo who really only knows how to make movies about high school dances, filming the ultimate Illuminati blockbuster more or less on my windowsill.

Illuminati blockbuster. So wrong! But I found out Saturday that the final product, Angels & Demons, is less bad than feared. There are limits to what soft, uncomplicated guys like Howard and Hanks can generate—compared to the darker academic-illuminati film pairing of Depp and Polanski. But still. I kind of loved it.

Specifically, I kind of love that this is what has become of the western occult, which up until recently was, even as kitsch, profanity-worthy, nudge-and-wink, back-of-the-bookstore. Now it’s an asexual, market-tested cupcake stuffed with Topeka-safe lines about the compatibility of the church and science.

But Sixteen Candles-meets-esoterica feels like a good resolution to many centuries of obfuscation of the “secret knowledge” of the West. Grail lore, the mysteries of alchemy, D&D… what is this but a big old metaphor-game for the evolution of consciousness?

It’s always been so indecent in the West to come out and talk about it, to admit we could believe in such a possibility. So we made it all sub-rosa, generated a whole history of conflict between faith and empirical research. At least it’s gotten progressively less violent by the century.

Now that the occult game has been fairly debased and uploaded—its “secret” nature semicorrupted—is it even fun anymore? I’m still in. Maybe, in these times, revealing what has been occluded won’t kill it. What Dan and Ron and Tom have done is kitchify, denature and demystify a bit of the myth.


  • Posted 26 May 2009 at 1:35 pm | #

    Foucaults Pendulum was one too many library books last month, but perhaps I need to have a rethink, it was soooo big a book, I need a week and a nice week at that.
    I do love this stuff, but it has been a long time since I read Crowley’s Magick, or saw Nastasia Kinski in The Devil Rides Out. Holy Blood and Holy Grail was such a dry read a long time ago… no swearing at all, borrring.

  • Posted 26 May 2009 at 6:56 pm | #

    With all due respect, I think a lot of D&D (at least in the 1980s) was about awkward, exiled teenagers having a common and marginal vocabulary in common, a subculture of sorts if you will, without any meaningful political valence outside of high school clique politics, and also some way to express the inner power, ever sensed but ever captured within the sheer terror of the inevitable and unpleasant consequences of externalized, public manifestation, which is the only realm in which said expression could matter.

  • Posted 26 May 2009 at 7:21 pm | #

    Of course. The “meaning” of a ouija board game or someone’s viewing of Eyes Wide Shut or another person’s readig of some Crowley bio or still another person’s interpretation of The Sword in the Stone is the equally local. Occult fetishes are everwhere. So what? Obviously, most people interpret the occult as a self-serving, atomized search for powers. That’s why it’s sexy on the surface. I’m saying, like these folks and a funny shaman who gave me a talking-to last year, that its durability and interestingness grow out of the esoteric and more inner content. It’s not just gothic self-help.

    Gregor I could not get myself to read Holy Blood, Holy Grail. I’ve tried! It’s probably hilarious. In any case, FP is so fucking good!!!

  • Posted 26 May 2009 at 8:11 pm | #

    Interesting. So maybe that’s why the I Ching and similar contemplation-oracles are just wacky and attributed as ancient, simple-minded superstition — they don’t allow for quick gratification.

    I’ve always wondered where exactly people find the allure of the occult. It’s an easy out from the mainstream, to be sure — to get involved all a person has to do is buy a pentagram and set fire to some particular tidbits and stuff. But it must hold some promise of quick gratification. What do people get from that non-conventional symbolism?

  • Posted 26 May 2009 at 9:22 pm | #

    Well, I will read anything that makes you swear. Its your best endorsement!

  • Posted 26 May 2009 at 9:36 pm | #

    Anything that makes Jimmy Page play the gee-tar like that is okay by me!

    Isn’t Alan Moore the world’s greatest living proponent of Magick? His work is pretty occulty.

  • Posted 26 May 2009 at 9:49 pm | #

    So in a way, one could probably read my lionization of Leone as a sort of occultation. Maybe I’m bs-ing, but I think it works.

  • Posted 26 May 2009 at 10:53 pm | #

    Ok. Alan Moore at

    All I would be urging people to do in Promethea is to explore, in their own way, by whatever means they personally feel comfortable with, using whatever system they happen to feel comfortable with, whether that be Christianity, or paganism, or Hinduism, or anything else, to explore the kind of rich world that I think all of us have inside us. I just want to tell them that that world is there, that there are a variety of ways of exploring it. It doesn’t really matter which way you use, or which system you adopt….

  • Posted 27 May 2009 at 1:47 am | #

    Promethea wasn’t his best but I appreciated his attempt to use the kabbalah as the framework for the story.

    Moore says a lot of very interesting (and sincere) things about magick. unfortunately the good stuff gets buried in a lot of blather. great writer, though. the occult-masonic sub-plot of From Hell is fascinating.

    (comic geeks blow away D&D geeks)

  • Posted 27 May 2009 at 12:38 pm | #

    Hey now, D&D, in a roundabout way, gave me the cool tattoo idea I now wear between the shoulder blades.

    Cool quote from Moore, 0v0. You’re aware, of course, how this “use anything to explore the rich inner world” totally disregards (and I think in very cool ways) the “truth value” we see held up in ways of thinking such as Bible literalism, yes?

  • V
    Posted 27 May 2009 at 2:52 pm | #

    What’s the tat, Patrick?

    Owl, now you made me go and amazon the book. Damn.

  • Posted 27 May 2009 at 4:45 pm | #

    The brief portion of Enlighten Up! that was dedicated to the idea of yogis as Indian boogeymen hooked me. Well, I’m almost hooked. I haven’t progressed to the step where I dig up 23 books on the subject and read all about it. But it’s not surprising that yogis were boogeymen to some components of the Indian culture. It’s funny because yogis in this modern culture are boogeymen and boogeywomen (boogeypersons?) to other components of the culture. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that to some people yogis are modern witches. Um, okay, I guess I’ve wandered pretty far from your topic. Anyway, it seems like boogeymen are to be found wherever the constraining forces of culture are to be found. Which is to say, they are everywhere.

    I suppose D&D provides some interesting tattoo inspirations. I wonder how many people have inked their WoW characters onto their bodies.

  • Posted 27 May 2009 at 7:34 pm | #


  • Posted 27 May 2009 at 7:52 pm | #

    Tat looks like this, without the circle, but with the under-and-overpasses of the lines. I drew it myself, at 4 1/2 inches on a side.

  • boodiba
    Posted 28 May 2009 at 6:53 pm | #

    Jeez I NEVER thought you were going to get to Angels & Demons from where you started 🙂 Good surprise ending. I sank right into your descriptions of your life at the beginning of this too… I feel like I just read a novel!

  • Posted 28 May 2009 at 8:37 pm | #

    Boodiba, my feelings exactly. As I read the first bit I though Owl should be a novelist. I want more of this ‘life that reads as a novel’ stuff!

  • Posted 28 May 2009 at 9:04 pm | #

    It’s time for the Adventures of Inside Owl graphic photo novel!

  • Posted 28 May 2009 at 9:05 pm | #

    Er, I mean ‘photo-graphic novel.’

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