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.