Is Occultism “the Metaphysic of Dunces?” An Occultist Confronts Modernity 

a car in the mist - photo Pramod Tiwari

The following is adapted from the introduction to the author’s Uncertain Places: Essays on Occult and Outsider Experiences (Inner Traditions, Nov 8, 2022).

To write on metaphysical themes is to live in a state of constant uncertainty. The simple fact is: we do not know the foundations of reality and when or whether anomalous experiences are “real” or subjective; whether repetition equals validity; and, finally, how to weigh individual testimony. We possess statistical evidence as good as any for the anomalous transfer of information, or ESP, in laboratory settings — but that fact raises more questions than it answers and is rejected by a modernist intelligentsia that regards countervailing evidence to materialism as the catechist does heresy.

Indeed, metaphysics and modernist thought have never fully gotten along. The authors I most admired in my late teens and early twenties were political thinkers Irving Howe (1920–1993) and Michael Harrington (1928–1989). If they thought at all about esoteric spirituality, to which I later dedicated myself, they probably would have considered it trifling, more or less agreeing with Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor W. Adorno that “Occultism is the metaphysic of dunces.”[1]

Regardless, by my early thirties my passions for intellectual experiment shifted away from politics and toward the occult. I would like to believe that I took my literary heroes’ critical style, if not their approbation, with me. The factors that drove my shift were both personal and philosophical. My outlook had always included the spiritual, by which I mean the extra-physical. Yet I came to feel that much of modern intellectual culture excluded or neglected spirituality as a legitimate field of inquiry. 

The defining principle of modernist philosophy is that life, in all its expressions, results from unseen but detectable antecedents. In politics this might mean economic clashes and inevitable cycles of revolution (Marx); in biology, evolution and natural selection (Darwin); in psychology, childhood trauma and sexual repression (Freud); in physics, time-space relativity (Einstein); in human performance, self-image (James); in health and illness, germs and microbes (Pasteur); and so forth across myriad fields. I believe that the modernist approach must also encompass the spiritual — or, in my sounding, the occult. The existence of nonlocal intelligence and metaphysical influence are not innately opposed to modernist thought. Such concepts clash only with the modernist sub-philosophy of materialism, or the belief that matter creates itself.

Yet materialism, which has dominated our intellectual culture since the Victorian age (and accounts for statements such as Adorno’s), covers fewer and fewer bases of life in the twenty-first century. The natural sciences are increasingly defined by quantum data, interdimensional formulas, and fields like neuroplasticity, which uses brain scans to demonstrate the capacity of thought to alter neural matter. Our ordinary reference points of life are in greater flux today than at any time since Darwinism upended what it meant to be human in the Victorian era.

We like to ennoble ourselves with the notion that every bend in our path is precipitated by some internal epiphany; but we get led by outer terrain as much as or more than private determination. Preceding my shift in focus, I got fired from a conservative political press. They wanted a progressive editor to expand their list and it was supposed to be my “dream job.” I started over as an editor at what was then a backwater New Age publisher. The turn of events seemed random if fleetingly painful. But was there some portent in it?

Ebru Yildiz, photo credit - Uncertain Places cover

Rather than view my new job as a springboard to a more respectable position, as many friends encouraged, I instead embraced the self- developmental philosophies I encountered. I grew intrigued with the prospect, alluded to earlier, that the mind possesses causative qualities, a claim often associated with “positive thinking” and variants of practical or therapeutic spirituality. Through the study of related ideas, both ancient and modern, spiritual and psychological, as well as my personal experiments, I came to regard many concepts of practical metaphysics as tantalizing, defensible, and powerful. I came to believe, and still do, that the popular literature of mind power, or New Thought, conceals rejected stones. 

In the Talmudic book Pirkei Avos, or Ethics of the Fathers, a student asks a teacher: “What is the best way to live?” The teacher responds: “Find a place where there are no men, go there, and there strive to be a man.” That became my guiding principle within the corner of the spiritual culture I occupied. When I experienced feelings of exile, I took succor from John Milton’s Dread Emperor: “Here we may reign secure, and in my choice.” I would develop and not flee from the uncertain place where I found myself. My interests and personal dedication expanded to the work of philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff; my publishing list grew to include an unusual range of authors, living and dead, from filmmaker David Lynch to esoteric scholar Manly P. Hall to philosopher Jacob Needleman to the intellectual eminence of esoterica (and a personal source of inspiration) Richard Smoley. I strove, above all, to foster a climate where outsider spiritual thinkers could write seriously and be taken seriously. 

All of this activity served a greater and, for me, culminating purpose–rediscovering myself as a writer. Writing careers are made by the right marriage of author to subject. For me, that moment arrived when I realized the need to document and defend the lives and careers of the founding lights of modern occultism. If you do not write your own history, it gets written for you, often by people who misunderstand or are unconcerned with the values and driving factors behind your work. This is among the reasons why I disclose myself as a “believing historian” — a designation that actually describes many historians of religion, who often emerge from the congregations they write about.

Whatever satisfaction I feel with Uncertain Places is tempered by an attendant somberness: it is difficult to present a selection of one’s work without experiencing the turning of a personal page. I felt a transition begin to stir within me in the closing days of the first summer of Covid. At that time, I masked up and entered a used bookstore in the Catskills town of Kingston, New York. For the first time, I did not know what section to look in. I wandered, of course, to the occult aisle, filled with golden oldies and names that I love, from Neville Goddard to Carlos Castaneda. Yet I felt oddly unmoved. Where, I wondered, if you will allow me some excess, is the hammer of the gods? This question arose from a conviction that I reached in recent years and to which I allude at various points in this book: the spiritual search is the search for power. It is the reach for expansion. It is not about losing oneself in the numinous whole but finding oneself as a creator. This is true however much we prevaricate over or reject the term “power” for its seeming brutality.

Let me be clear: I invoke power to indicate humanity’s wish to construct, strive, make, and grow. I believe in pursuing my search with reciprocity, the principle at the back of most ethics. Power without reciprocity is force. It is unrenewable. Next to reciprocity, my other key principle is nonviolence, which I mean not exactly in the physical sense, but rather doing nothing to denigrate or dehumanize another person or community, or to deprive another of the search for self-potential that I claim for myself. Finally, I am the sole object of my experiments. No one else’s life or safety is under my purview other than if I am called to its defense.

In the preceding passage, I framed the ethics of the spiritual search as it exists for me. Let me expand on the purpose of the search — on what power is for. As alluded, I see generativity as the essential human need. If one takes seriously the Scriptural principle that the Creator fashioned the individual in Its own image, then it stands to reason that our imperative to create follows from that act. As the Hermetic dictum puts it: “As above, so below”[2] The exercise or frustration of our creative impulse determines, more than any single factor, the happiness or despair that mark our lives. If I am right that our existence consists of both physical and extra-physical qualities, it follows that spirituality is a valid path by which to pursue the type of power I am describing. 

Everything in life eventually gets taken away from us, from our physicality to our certainties. Since I take seriously the principle of extra-physicality, I assume that something survives death. But I do not know. The one thing that is provably eternal is a question, and I hope I will deepen your questions. 


[1] Adorno’s reference appears in his essay “Theses Against Occultism,” written in 1947 and published in 1951 in his Minima Moralia.

[2] I often refer back to this principle. The phrase appears in the late-ancient Greek-Egyptian manuscript called The Emerald Tablet. For generations, The Emerald Tablet was considered a work of pseudo-Hermeticism created in the medieval era. In the early twentieth century, however, scholars located Arabic versions of The Emerald Tablet that date to at least the 700s or 800s AD. This suggests a still-earlier source because much of the original Hermetic literature was preserved in both Greek and Arabic. One of the first English translations of The Emerald Tablet came from Isaac Newton (1642–1727): “Tis true without lying, certain and most true. That which is below is like that which is above.”