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turn off your mind
THE MYSTIC SIXTIES AND THE DARK SIDE OF THE AGE OF AQUARIUS
By GARY LACHMAN
The Disinformation Company Ltd.Copyright © 2001 Gary Lachman
All rights reserved.
spawn of the magicians
In 1960 a book appeared in France with the unusual and striking title Le Matin des Magiciens, The Morning of the Magicians. Its authors were Louis Pauwels, a journalist who had edited a hostile book on the enigmatic Russian teacher G. I. Gurdjieff, and Jacques Bergier, a physicist and practising alchemist. They had met while working on a series of articles on contemporary science for a popular Parisian journal. According to Pauwels, André Breton, the Black Priest of surrealism, was instrumental in bringing them together. Perhaps. In any case, the meeting seemed providential, because Pauwels and Bergier soon discovered they had much in common, not the least of which was a dissatisfaction with the artificial limits of modern science.
Pauwels, who had edited the newspaper Combat after the war, had already spent several years investigating 'alternative' schools of thought, delving into the worlds of Swami Vivekananda, the orientalist René Guenon, Gurdjieff's strange system of self-development and Breton's own brand of dream reality. Bergier too had pursued an eccentric path. He had worked under the physicist André Helbronner, whose particular field of study was the transmutation of elements in less abstract terms, alchemy. After Helbronner was murdered by the Nazis at Buchenwald, and Bergier himself had spent time at Mauthausen, Bergier became a secret agent, working with the Allies in the last days of World War Two. On one mission he discovered a secret cache of uranium, proof the Germans were working towards their own atomic bomb; later he wrote a book about his adventures.
In the 1950s, Bergier's name was linked to that of the weird-fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft, who had gained a critical acclaim in France denied him in the States. But the strangest item on Bergier's CV was his meeting in 1937 with the mystery man Fulcanelli. The last of a centuries-long line of alchemists, and author of Le Mystere des Cathedrales (1925), the man called Fulcanelli - his real name was unknown - was thought to be an 'adept', a devotee of the Great Work and seeker of the philosopher's stone. By most accounts he found it, survived the war and disappeared after the Liberation, never to be heard from again.
They decided they should write a book, exploring their ideas. For five years they gathered material, haunting libraries, periodical rooms, searching through newspapers, scientific journals and obscure bookshops. Their book would show how forgotten disciplines like alchemy had parallels with developments in modern physics, and how this suggested that the science of the future might be altogether more like magic. 'As a preliminary to understanding the present', they wrote, 'one must be capable of projecting one's intelligence far into the past and far into the future.' So they pored over ancient texts, abandoned practices, strange reports of phenomena the official organs had ignored, and also devoured the latest scientific journals. Their publisher, Éditions Gallimard, expected a modest success. Pauwels' critique of Gurdjieff had done fairly well. Even in the atmosphere of le nouveau roman, it seemed a decent readership still existed for works on magic, mysticism and the occult.
When the book finally appeared on the Parisian bookstalls, its effect was little short of amazing. France had a history of interest in the occult - it was only a decade since Gurdjieff himself had died - but Paris in 1960 was the capital of futility, nihilism and dreary 'authenticity'. It was the Paris of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, of 'nausea' and 'the absurd', of alienation and of being engage, of black turtlenecks and Waiting for Godot. In such an atmosphere, a book on magic would be the last thing one would think would do well. But within weeks of its publication, Le Matin des Magiciens had both banks of the Seine talking about alchemy, extraterrestrials, lost civilizations, esotericism, Charles Fort, secret societies, higher states of consciousness, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
In the cool nihilistic milieu of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Beat Hotel and the Olympia Press, Pauwels and Bergier's book, and soon after their magazine, Planete (1961-1969), had the effect of a flying saucer landing at Café Deux Magots. Even Le Monde took notice and ran two long articles on the success of Planete. Suddenly there were more things on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Jean Paul. A new and exciting vision coupled science with esotericism and presented a living, fascinating and above all meaningful cosmos. According to the authors of this strange work, human beings could step out of the cramped limits of their 'historical moment' and stretch out into space. They could dive deep into the mind, hook up with Atlantis or tune into emanations coming from Alpha Centauri and points beyond. Science, dreaded enemy of bearded Beats and pipe-smoking existentialists, wasn't bad. Linking alchemy and quantum physics, Gurdjieff and neurophysiology, Le Matin des Magiciens presented science in a swirling, intoxicating alliance with the occult. It was the way forward, which was also a recovery of the past, and a vindication of the present. 'Only a contemporary of the future', the authors wrote, 'can truly be of the present'.
Primed on the hallucinatory worlds of surrealism, the public were open to what the authors called 'fantastic realism'. The message got across. People bought the book. The post-war years of aimless drift had created an appetite for something new, a hunger for worlds beyond the Boulevard Saint Michel. Le Matin des Magiciens, nearly six hundred pages long and filled with chapters like 'The Example of Alchemy' and 'A Few Years in the Absolute Elsewhere', went into many editions. When translated into English as The Dawn of Magic (1963), and in the States as The Morning of the Magicians, its success was repeated. By 1971 a Mayflower paperback edition quoted over 1,000,000 copies sold. There was even an American edition used as a primer for teaching French. And at the height of its popularity Planete had a bi-monthly circulation of 100,000 - impressive for a magazine that at 5.50 fr. was not considered cheap.
There had, of course, been other weird, cranky bestsellers. In 1950 Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision revived the catastrophe theory of cosmology, and claimed that in the past a comet sprung from Jupiter had nearly hit the earth, creating havoc, sinking Atlantis, and, among other things, 'proving' several miracles in the Bible. Lost civilizations had been a staple of occult thought since at least as far back as Madame Blavatsky. And in 1956 an eccentric Englishman named Cyril Henry Hoskins had a hit under the odd pseudonym Tuesday Lobsang Rampa with The Third Eye, The Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama, in which he tells of having his pineal gland opened through trepanning - an idea that would catch on with quite a few people in the sixties. There was no shortage of unusual books. But no one had put the pieces together - 'correlated the contents of the mind' as H. P. Lovecraft warns his readers never to do - into an overall vision of things, nor linked them with the latest advances in science, like quantum physics and genetics.
As Mircea Eliade, historian of religion, said of this 'dawn of magic', 'what was new and exhilarating ... was the optimistic and holistic outlook ... in which human life again became meaningful and promised an endless perfectibility'. Man was called to 'conquer his physical universe and to unravel the other, enigmatic universes revealed by occultists and gnostics'. He was also called on to create a new world, a better civilization, free of the prejudices and superstitions of the past. As Eliade recalls, the book made a reader feel that the most exciting moment in history was happening right then, and that he or she was a part of it. Pauwels and Bergier brought together the future and the past, science and mysticism, philosophy and the occult, with a powerful, inspiring optimism and a new vision of human society - just about everything the sixties were about. When, in 1969, the first man set foot on the moon, and half a million love children 'set their souls free' at the tribal gathering at Woodstock - the two events happened within weeks of each other the occult decade came to an end as it had started, with Pauwels and Bergier's vision of futuristic science and ancient wisdom.
MEETING THE MAGICIANS
I first came across The Morning of the Magicians in 1975. I was nineteen, living on the Bowery in New York City, working as a musician on the punk rock scene, surrounded by the debris of the sixties generation. Hippies still hung out in Washington Square Park, but by the mid-seventies they were mostly considered a joke. Yet in second-hand bookstores more interesting remnants of the counterculture could be found: The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Diary of a Drug Fiend, Steppenwolf, The Psychedelic Experience - and The Morning of the Magicians, which by this time had gained the status of an underground classic.
Too young to have taken part in the sixties revolution, I was fascinated by its traces, like the remains of some cultural Atlantis. I bought the book - the Avon paperback edition - captured by its strange, psychedelic cover. Gazing at the contents page, topics tumbled over each other like a waterfall of information. There was no central argument, except the belief that modern science, with its materialist, mechanistic vision, had too narrow a view of man and the world. The authors spoke of the philosopher's stone, immortality, ancient spacemen, UFOs, the lost continent of Atlantis, ESP, precognition, higher consciousness. Odd bits of information and curious anecdotes were strung together in a breathless narrative. Pauwels (he did most of the writing) tells of a meeting with an alchemist - Fulcanelli again - at the Café Procope in 1953, and relates his experiences of an awakened state of consciousness. He tells of his time studying under the mysterious teacher Gurdjieff, and of his encounters with an assortment of esotericists. There were strange dreams of the future, mystical experiences, odd synchronicities and weird, fantastic cosmologies.
Few books that followed in the sixties occult revival weren't indebted to it in some way. To list titles would amount to including several publishers' lists for the years 1963 to 1969, but many people had their first encounter with Gurdjieff, the Golden Dawn, Madame Blavatsky and a host of other eccentric thinkers through reading Pauwels and Bergier. What is curious about the book now as I look at it is how it seemed to presage some of the central ideas that would dominate the decade. Ideas not only of an occult nature, but ones that would fuel the whole counterculture movement. Of course, not everyone in the sixties read The Morning of the Magicians - although it was very popular. And it is not a particularly deep book. The fact that it was badly researched, poorly documented and full of inaccuracies led critics to quickly dismiss it as a crank work, and gave it the reputation of being - in the words of one early reader who knew Pauwels and Bergier - 'a masterpiece of confusionism', as well as an 'adroit commercial undertaking'. But in one sense that doesn't matter. What interests me here isn't whether what Pauwels and Begier wrote was true, but the influence it may have had on the decade that followed. If there is anything like a zeitgeist or Jung's collective unconscious, one needn't have read the book to have somehow picked up on some of the ideas it discussed.
SPACE GODS FROM THE STARS
One theme of The Morning of the Magicians that would have a profound influence on the mystic sixties is the idea that in the ancient past earth had been visited by extraterrestrials - that, in fact, our evolution from apes to human beings was a direct result of contact with these visitors from the stars. 'We do not reject the possibility of visits from the inhabitants of another world,' Pauwels and Bergier wrote, 'or of atomic civilizations that vanished without leaving a trace ...' In ufology, this is known as the ancient space god theory.
The idea that the earth had been visited by aliens in the ancient past burst upon popular consciousness in the late sixties, giving rise to extremely successful books, television shows and films. The hit psychedelic movie of the decade, Stanely Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was a direct result of it. The film was based on two earlier works by the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: his short story, 'The Sentinel' (1950), in which a four-million-year-old extraterrestrial artefact is discovered on the moon; and his novel Childhood's End (1954), in which mankind is 'harvested' by a superior alien race, as the seed from which a godlike mutant consciousness will emerge. With its mind-blowing special effects finale, the film soon became a favourite with hippies, frequently blitzed on LSD.
But the idea had in fact been around for some time. In a general sense it can be seen as an example of the perennial myth of a golden age, an idea that would gain much currency with the counterculture as the sixties moved on and anticipation of the Age of Aquarius grew. In this sense it goes back to Plato and the story of Atlantis, found in the late dialogues Timaeus and Critias, about which we will hear more later.
Others spoke of a golden age as well. In The Secret Doctrine Madame Blavatsky said that mankind descended from previous inhabitants of the planet, what she called 'root races', who lived on Atlantis and another lost continent, Lemuria, which existed somewhere in the Pacific. Later, the idea that mankind was somehow 'seeded from the stars' found its way into theosophical doctrine. Annie Besant, who inherited the leadership of the Theosophical Society after Blavatsky's death, claimed that man's rise from bestiality was accomplished with the help of visitors from Venus.
Another writer who suspected that aliens had an interest in mankind was Charles Fort, who plays a large role in The Morning of the Magicians (Pauwels and Bergier devote a whole chapter to him). In the early part of the last century, Fort, an ex-newspaper reporter, spent more than twenty years scouring the stacks of the New York Public Library in search of strange facts and weird mysteries. In his classic Book of the Damned (1919), he remarked that 'we are property', and speculated that the earth might be owned by some more advanced extraterrestrial civilization, who check up on their real estate every now and then.
Science fiction had a hand too. In 1944 Ray Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories, one of the best science-fiction pulp magazines on the stands, printed a story, 'I Remember Lemuria', by one Richard S. Shaver. In it Shaver told of a civilization of 'deros' - detrimental robots - living in an underground world. Deros were the secret rulers of the planet, enslaving mankind with mind-controlling rays emanating from their hidden empire. Soon after, Palmer was inundated with letters from readers who claimed that Shaver's story wasn't fiction but fact, and that they too had encounters with the deros - shades of the alien encounter stories of our own time. Palmer eventually devoted an entire issue of Amazing Stories to 'The Shaver Mystery', which by this time he claimed was not invented. Taking a leaf from C. G. Jung's book, Palmer declared Shaver's tales of an underground race were racial memories of an ancient civilization that had once ruled the planet. In 1947, three years after Palmer first published Shaver's tale, Kenneth Arnold, a civilian pilot flying in western Washington State, reported seeing strange aircraft in the sky. The modern age of flying saucers had begun, and other writers continued the theme.
In a chapter of The Morning of the Magicians called 'The Vanished Civilizations', Pauwels and Bergier give evidence for visits from alien civilizations in mankind's past, hauling out a barrage of ancient mysteries that have become the staple fare of the genre: the Pyramid of Cheops, the great heads of Easter Island, electric batteries discovered in the Baghdad Museum, the famous Piri Re'is map that dates from 1513 and shows the coast of Antarctica as it would look free of ice, and the strange figures on the plain of Nazca in Peru, to name a few. All suggest to Pauwels and Bergier that it was possible that in the past the planet was visited by beings of a higher, more technically advanced civilization. (As I am not concerned with their proofs but with their thesis, I leave it to the interested reader to follow their argument.) A few years later, in One Hundred Thousand Years of Man's Unknown History (1963), Pauwels and Bergier's countryman Robert Charroux continued the theme, adding the idea that Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed by an atomic explosion, and that the Ark of the Covenant was an electric condenser. Although to their many readers these speculations were shattering, they were really an example of a style of thought called Euhemerism, which explains supernatural mysteries in terms of ordinary fact. Euhemerus, a Greek thinker of the third century BC, believed that the gods were humans who were divinized after death. In this sense there is nothing mystical about the idea that the gods of ancient peoples were really extraterrestrials. What made them gods to early humans was their advanced technology, rather like old stereo-typical stories of white hunters encountering primitive tribes, who revere them because of their 'thunder sticks'. That the Ark of the Covenant was really an electric condenser constitutes no proof of God. If it were true, all it could show is that the kind of technology we associate with the modern age was available to people in the past. As Antoine Faivre, who holds the chair in the History of Esoteric and Mystical Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe at the Sorbonne, remarked, 'One of the tricks of Le Matin des Magiciens was to present religious mysteries as scientific enigmas, and scientific enigmas as sacred mysteries.'
Excerpted from turn off your mind by GARY LACHMAN. Copyright © 2001 Gary Lachman. Excerpted by permission of The Disinformation Company Ltd..
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