When the new age is at leisure to pronounce,
all will be set right
William Blake, Milton, 1804–10
We have entered a new new age. Executive philanthropists and corporate shamans are Airstreaming Burning Man and embracing psychedelic therapies; chill-out rooms and floatation tanks are being swabbed out and dusted down in London’s clubland; witchcraft and occultism are trending on social media and once-marginal esoteric and spiritualist artists are entering major galleries and collections. The roster of recently exhibited artists with vibrant new-age auras spans 150 years and would include: Marjorie Cameron, Bonnie Camplin, Georgiana Houghton, the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, Hilma af Klint, Paul Laffoley and Austin Osman Spare. ‘As Above, So Below’, a celebration of spiritual art, runs between April and August at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, while, in the same month, ‘The Transported Man’, an exhibition on magic and belief, will open at The Edith and Eli Broad Museum, Michigan, and ‘Mystical Symbolism’, a show inspired by Joséphin Péladan’s 1892 Rosicrucian Salon, will go on display at the Guggenheim, New York, in June. You might get the impression that the art world is searching for something it has lost.
What we tend to think of as the ‘new age’ was a predominantly US phenomenon of the 1970s and ’80s: a time of unprecedented scientific and spiritual experimentation. Astronauts were conducting telepathy tests, UFO sightings became a presidential prerequisite (both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan reported seeing them), the CIA hired spoon-benders and psychics, astrologers advised the White House and the postmodernist disavowal of absolute truths took hold in centres of learning. The systemic deceptions of Watergate and the Vietnam war had revealed that, since nothing was true any more, any idea, no matter how far out, could now be accepted; or, to paraphrase Vladimir Bartol via William Burroughs: if nothing was true, then everything was permitted.
Mind, body and spirit gurus built great empires upon the ashes of the 1960s dream, opening the gates of the spiritual supermarket to a new caste of self-improving om-nivores, who were encouraged to create their own realities, viewing outward wealth as a reflection of inner purity and poverty as a matter of choice – if not in this lifetime, then in a previous one.
But, really, this was no new age. It was just one strand of a golden thread of idealism and optimism that runs throughout human history: a dream of a shining past and a twinkling future, tarnished only by a perpetually disappointing present. In the West, we see these themes illuminating Plato’s Atlantis, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, the works of William Blake, Emanuel Swedenborg and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Helena Blavatsky’s theosophical corpus, the musical Hair (1967) and a multitude of psytrance flyers.
The new age is eternal, like the quantum foam at the heart of the universe, but if we were to insist on a convenient starting point for understanding contemporary new-age ideas, we might consider London’s The New Age journal – edited from 1907 to 1924 by the ardent socialist, Yorkshireman and Nietzschean, Alfred Orage. The New Age carried reviews, commentary and fiction from the day’s leading progressive cultural figures, including D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and HG Wells, but a significant proportion of each issue was also devoted to the philosophical and metaphysical questions that fascinated Orage. In the spirit – if not the name – of theosophy, The New Age merged Western enlightenment science with exotic, ancient wisdoms to explore newly modern worlds of relativity, metaphysics, telepathy, life-after death, runes, dervish dancing and ancient spiritual art and literature.
Orage’s fascination for Friedrich Nietzsche never left him. After World War I, he folded The New Age and fell under the spell of the guru’s guru, George Gurdjieff, whose focus on will and personal development (when not unburdening his followers of their money and their lovers), focused on the self: a newly modern idea that would form the core of the later 20th century’s new-age paradigm.
Today, fulfilling the doctrine of eternal recurrence espoused by both Nietzsche and Blavatsky, the new age has re-emerged into a bold new world. This world is essentially telepathic: ideas are transmitted instantaneously worldwide and our terraformed social-media landscape makes creating our own realities an opt-out, rather than an opt-in proposition. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that large chunks of our 21st-century world feel like they’ve been ripped out of the US countercultural magazine Whole Earth Catalog (1968–72) – the young trippers and dreamers of 1970s California engineered it that way. This is, and should be, a time of wonders for those who can afford to enjoy it, but we’re only just beginning to understand how things might go wrong.
The barrage of information swarming over the wires is throttling us and calls to disentangle from the international complexities of our contemporary networked existence are understandable. But when feelings override facts and unrealistic, unrealized hopes are replaced by a rejection of the modern world, the clamour for simpler, more spiritual times can lead us down dark paths. Orage sought to reconcile his socialist and Nietzschean tendencies under the new age banner. Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump et al. represent the populist face of a neo-traditionalist movement whose intellectual figureheads, like ‘Putin’s Rasputin’, Aleksandr Dugin, explicitly channel mid-century spiritual elitists, such as René Guénon and Julius Evola, who longed to return the world to a feudal, Manichean dark age. It’s hard to imagine a vision more at odds with Blake’s ‘New Age’ or Hair’s ‘Age of Aquarius’, but they share spiritual roots and a common cause, if not the same desired outcome.
Back in the 1970s, the underground philosopher Robert Anton Wilson warned of the dangers of becoming lost in your own ‘reality tunnel,’ within which, having successfully created our own realities, we see only the beliefs and cultural attitudes that we want to see, and everything else becomes maya: illusion. Today, those reality tunnels have expanded to become the mirrored media domes inside which millions of us spend our lives, our beliefs and habits perpetually reinforced by algorithms and exploited by cynical technocrats. The ultimate new-age symbol, the pyramid, represents a golden age of spiritual knowledge and scientific advancement, yet it’s also a stark totem of vertical, hierarchical, totalitarian power.
What happens if you turn a pyramid upside down?
Main image: Paul Laffoley, The Thanaton III, 1989, oil, acrylic, ink, and vinyl lettering on canvas; painted wooden frame, 1.9 x 1.9 m. Courtesy: the Estate and Kent Fine Art, New York
First published in Issue 185