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Posted November 7, 2009
Starts Out Fascinating But Ends Slowly
I actually picked this book from the shelves on impulse after glancing at its jacket description. I thought it would be a interesting read. It started out quite interesting as it examined the history of occult beliefs and practices in America. There many things to be learned from this book. I knew very little about Mother Ann, the Universal Friend, Edgar Cayce, and even the history of the Ouija board. Those parts of the book were fascinating. This book is one of those quick overviews of a side of American that many people do not always acknowledge, our tendency to be often believe things in the face of fact.
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Posted March 20, 2010
Mitch Horowitz: Occult America--The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation. A Review By Raj Ayyar
Mitch Horowitz leads us on a fascinating journey through an alternative U.S. history - a landscape peopled with colorful eccentrics, inspired visionaries and self-help savants. Contrary to a certain stereotype about the hardboiled pragmatism and muscular materialism of the American, Horowitzian America offers us a peek into a radically different, occult America, whose thumbprint was felt as far as Asia, through movements like the Theosophical Society.
However, throughout the book, Horowitz emphasizes the uniquely American quality of occult experimentation in the US. American occultism is rooted in do-it-yourself American individualism and equal access. Apparently, in the house of the American occult there are many mansions, ranging from hand-holding séances to good, old-fashioned self-help and positive thinking approaches, from Joseph Smith to Edgar Cayce.
Among other uniquely American features of the different occult movements is the belief "that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality," (Occult America, p. 257). The New Age slogan 'you create your own reality' has deep roots in the history of the American Occult. New Agers may be surprised to learn that the Law of Attraction, popularized by Esther and Jerry Hicks and by the best selling book and DVD 'The Secret', has a long history in American Occultism. Horowitz traces LOA back to Andrew Jackson Davis, the Seer of Poughkeepsie in 1855. "The Law of Attraction meant that whatever a person dwelled upon in their thoughts would manifest in events good or bad, joyous or catastrophic in their earthly lives." (Occult America, p.96).
Horowitz points out that in the context of slavery in the American South, such thinking could seem a 'naively cruel calculus'. (ibid. p.96.) It is hard to disagree with Horowitz when he argues that the Law of Attraction presupposes an American middle class level of comfort and stability. In fact, one could go further and argue that the Law of Attraction can be easily linked to a do-it-yourself, 'get rich quick' capitalist ethic.
On the other hand, Horowitz does not pause to consider how this business of reality creation with thoughts and feelings, can be a profoundly self-empowering calculus, as studies of the placebo effect have shown. Within certain limits, the Law of Attraction can infuse one with the energy, trust and confidence to change one's circumstances from illness to good health, from poverty to a state of material comfort, from struggling to a life of relative ease.
There are some astonishing counter examples to the bourgeois halo surrounding the Law of Attraction and this business of creating reality with one's thoughts, feeling and beliefs. Horowitz points out that Wallace Wattles (author of 'The Science of Getting Rich'), one of the 19th century self-help gurus featured in 'The Secret', had a Utopian socialist vision married to the gospel of wealth. Wattles had a great admiration for American socialist Eugene Debs and hoped that the use of mind power to generate wealth would go hand in hand with fighting for the oppressed, and the creation of an equitable social order.
There is another interesting section of Horowitz's book, dealing with how iconic leaders of 19th Century African - American movements such as Marcus Garvey, were greatly influenced by New Thought.
'Occult America' takes the history of the occult and the New Age out of the alleys and byways, and places it squarely within mainstream Americana.
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Posted November 6, 2010
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