Posts Tagged ‘Western Esotericism’
John Robert Colombo reviews the recently published biography of metaphysical writer and teacher Manly P. Hall
Is anyone really comfortable with the words “Western Wisdom Tradition” or “Western Esotericism”? I know that I am unhappy with these words, but try as I might I am unable to find better ones.
I have always liked the words “Perennialism” or “Perennial Tradition,” but they have pretty well been appropriated by Messrs. Guénon, Schuon, and Nasr to describe their early 20th century tradition of introspection influenced by Sufism. Of all the terms in common use, my favourite is “The Perennial Philosophy.” It was coined by Gottfried Leibniz, but most people identify it with the title of Aldous Huxley’s ground-breaking and influential compilation of mystical texts which first appeared in 1945.
I also like the two words employed by the late James Webb, the historian who documented occultism’s rises and falls in excruciating detail in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. He referred to the subject of such studies as “rejected knowledge.” He had in mind knowledge (not merely information, not chiefly wisdom) that was dismissed by one generation of mainstream thinkers only to be embraced by the next generation of such thinkers, yet all the while was highly prized by disciples of occult doctrines and studies: the hidden thought through all the ages. So let me call it, simply, “occult thought.”
Huxley and Webb to one side, there is one person who has done more than anyone else to popularize the notion of occult thought – that there is a current of energy and a set of symbols common to all the religions of the world, to all the philosophies of man, and to all the sciences that have emerged. That person is Manly P. Hall. His name may not be on everyone’s lips, but I have long known it and so have countless millions of North Americans who may be forgiven for regarding it as synonymous with a popular version of occult traditions of thought and practice.
There is a very sketchy biography of Manly Palmer Hall (MPH) on Wikipedia that gives a few of the essentials and more than a few of the inessentials. He was born in Canada, in Peterborough, Ontario, in 1901. (Hence my interest in him and in his works.) He died in Los Angeles in 1990, an influential teacher, a millionaire, who had established in that city his own non-profit research institute. A Freemason must have written the Wiki entry because it exaggerates the influence of Masonry on his life and thought, which I regard as negligible. It ignores some interesting personal facts: he came from a broken home and was a high school dropout; in 1918, he accompanied his mother (who was something of a healer) to Los Angeles, where he met a series of self-styled preachers who led their own small congregations of spiritually dissatisfied men and women (many of the latter elderly and wealthy) and instructed them in the principles that are “behind” or that “transcend” New Thought, not to mention Theosophy, “I Am,” AMORC, etc.
MPH, at the time in his early twenties, was drawn to these men, and them to him. He was an imposing figure of a man, well over six feet in height, though in later years he was given to corpulency (so that his first wife teased him when he reached 300 pounds and described him as her “Canadian bacon”). Photographs reveal a face with chiselled features and with piercing eyes that lend him a somewhat demonic expression. Recordings preserve his soothing voice and his authoritative manner of exposition. He could speak seemingly without effort for an hour and a half on any number of arcane subjects, and at first he did so in the small parishes and study groups throughout the Los Angeles basin. Then he graduated to larger venues including sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
In 1932, despite the Depression, he was able to fund the founding of the Philosophical Research Society (PRS) and house it in a purpose-built, neo-Mayan structure of some beauty on Los Feliz Boulevard close to the famed Griffith Observatory and not far from “Karlofornia,” the science-fiction-strewn residence of the late Forrest J. Ackerman. The PRS structure is now a protected landmark.
The PRS served as MPH’s headquarters and as a magnet for mystically minded Californians who attended the lecture series delivered by MPH and his colleagues. Here he established a gallery of symbolic art of considerable interest and value and a collection of 50,000 books which includes some rare alchemical texts borrowed by C.G. Jung for his studies in this field. From here MPH published and distributed his own books. (There are said to be close to 200 of these, though many of them are little more than booklets or texts of lectures, rather than full-fledged works of continuing interest.) They were sold in bookstores but mainly through mail order. Many PRS publications got as far as Kitchener, Ontario, where as a teenager in the early 1950s, I devoured them, easily digesting their contents.
As I did so I noticed that the writing was breezy and the details were somewhat repetitious. Stock phrases were used and reused to describe the ancient cultures of the past of the Near, the Middle, and the Far East. Everything was always a little bit “mysterious.” There was no scholarship per se, but there was familiarity with classical texts. MPH read these texts and digested them, at least on their moralistic levels, finding in each and every one of them elements of an idealistic philosophy that would remain his mainstay through his life.
The aim of these texts, in his eyes, was to help mankind with a some sort of “divine plan” accessible through “transcendental idealism” – perhaps a faith in the powers of the imagination – that would be character-bracing, spirit-respecting, and morale-building. It seems “the Ancients” (whether Ascended Masters or Prophets or Gurus or Saviours or Sages) had not only messages for their own times, but messages for posterity, for us today.
In his writing there is plenty of theoria but a poverty of praxis. For us “Moderns,” the message has something to do with Right Thinking and being Respectful of the Ancients and what in other circles might be called Positive Thinking. MPH of the PRS was there before Alfred Adler and Esalen and the self-esteem movement that morphed into what passes for New Age thought, EST, and the bromides of Tony Robbins (who is married to a Canadian) or Eckhart Tolle (who is a Canadian).
In point of fact, he predated such movements. He was able to capitalize on the genius of H.P. Blavatsky and the principles of Theosophy. He seemed to have been unaware of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy or G.I. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. But what he had and what he added to his reading and thinking was his own genius – and I hold it to be that. In 1928, at the age of 27, this uneducated young man published his magnum opus, a remarkable work titled “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It is indeed an amazing book and it is still in print. It is one of the biggest and most influential of all the best-sellers in what is now a crowded field.
Open before me is a mammoth copy of “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It is the Diamond Jubilee Edition of Hall’s chef d’oeuvre, and even in its reduced format it is gigantic: It measures 13 inches high, 9 inches wide, with 245 pages – affectingly numbered in Roman numerals (so there are ccxlv double-columned pages). The original edition, which I have examined, is even larger in format. Both the original edition of 1928 and the various reprint editions have forty-eight, full-page plates (brilliantly coloured in the original edition, black-and-white in the reprint editions) with about 190 text illustrations. Although the page is large, the type is tiny. My quick estimate is that the text consists of more than half a million words, completely indexed.
The full title of this amazing work is as follows: “An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolic Philosophy … Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all Ages … Diamond Jubilee Edition … Reduced Facsimile.”
It would take too long to reproduce the entire Table of Contents, but there are forty-five chapters with such chronologically arranged chapter headings as “The Ancient Mysteries and Secret Societies Which have Influenced Modern Masonic Symbolism” (the first) and “The Mysteries and Their Emissaries” (the last). In between, the reader will find the whole panoply of subjects – Pyramids, Isis, Zodiac, Pythagoras, Human Body, Animals, Stones, Magic, Sorcery, Elements, Qabbala, Tarot, Rose Cross, Alchemy, Baconism, Freemasonry, Mystic Christianity, Islam, American Indian Symbolism, etc.
The treasure-trove treatment does full justice to the labours of a young enthusiast, something of an evangelist who has no single secret interpretation of the Book of Revelation but is excited by Holy Scripture in toto, a young man with no foreign languages, no academic contacts, and no publisher’s advance, who researched, wrote, and published this opus on a subscription basis, single-handedly. That in itself is one of the “wonders” of the age.
The book ends with an excited invitation that gives a taste of Hall’s style and moralistic message, surprisingly relevant today: “The great institution of materiality has failed. The false civilization built by man has turned, and like the monster of Frankenstein, is destroying its creator. Religion wanders aimlessly in the maze of theological speculation. Science batters itself impotently against the barriers of the unknown. Only transcendental philosophy knows the path. Only the illumined reason can carry the understanding part of man upward to the light. Only philosophy can teach man to be born well, to live well, to die well, and in perfect measure be born again. Into this band of the elect, – those who have chosen the life of knowledge, of virtue, and of utility – the philosophers of the ages invite YOU.”
Who can resist such an invitation? Hall’s approach reminds me, a bit, of that taken by the scholar Joscelyn Godwin in his most recent book, “The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions.” When I reviewed that book for this blog last year, I wondered, “What do all the ‘wonders’ in Godwin’s book have in common? Is there indeed a ‘golden threat’?” Now I know the answer to that question: The wonders are also found in Hall’s “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” This is Occult Thought in Illuminated Capital Letters!
Also open before me is a copy of the recently published biography of the man himself. It is written by Louis Sahagun, a staff writer with “The Los Angeles Times,” and it is titled “Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall.” It was published in paperback in 2008 by Process Media, Fort Townsend, Washington, U.S.A. (There is a website for the book.)
As a newspaperman, Sahagun covered MPH’s life and work and death – indeed, the way he died is as mysterious as the way he lived is unusual. It might be that in his eighty-ninth year he was murdered. Sahagun investigates all of this and the court cases that followed and the assumption of the PRS into the welkin of an institution that grants a Master of Arts degree in Consciousness Studies. As a biographer with an eye on both the man and the spirit of the times, he effectively compares and contrasts the ambience of Los Angeles, MPH’s favourite city, in the 1920s and in the 1960s. Sahagun knows little about occult thought, but he is effective when he describes what he does know, which is MPH’s milieu.
Overall, MPH emerges as a preacher, a man (like say Fulton J. Sheen or Billy Graham) with a message. That message has nothing to do with Roman Catholicism or Protestant Evangelism, but it has a lot to do with a recognition of arcane symbolism, of the “transcendental” nature of religious paths, of the brotherhood of man, of the powers latent in both nature and human nature, and of the “wisdom tradition” … oops … Occult Thought.
John Robert Colombo is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana and for such collections as “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” In the interests of disclosure: JRC is mentioned by name in the pages of Sahagun’s book. The passage is innocent enough: “Hall was so hungry to be in the public eye that he welcomed the 1988 publication of a book ‘Mysterious Canada: Strange Sights, Extraordinary Events, and Peculiar Places’ by John Robert Colombo, which lumped Hall’s birth in Peterborough with sightings of UFOs and abominable snowmen in Canada, haunted houses and curses.”
John Robert Colombo comments on a new academic study of “the Alice
books” written in light of the tradition of Western Esotericism
It must be fifty years ago that I first read the two “Alice” books –
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and “Through the Looking
Glass and What Alice Found There” (1871). Since then at least once a
week I encounter a reference to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”
in one context or another – Martin Gardner’s “Annotated Alice,” the
Disney movie, passages quoted like “curioser and curioser,” parodies
like “Malice in Blunderland,” mathematical or metaphysical puzzles,
etc. It seems Alice will never die because, as someone once said it
about another fictional character, she never lived.
Freud, Jung, and Adler have offered their interpretations of “Alice”
and her pre-pubertal (or post-Modern) world that the imaginative books
effortlessly create in the minds of their readers “of all ages.”
Although it is certainly no secret that “Lewis Carroll” was the pen-name
of the Oxford don and mathematician named Charles Lutwidge
Dodgson, it is not well known that about the time Carroll / Dodgson
was composing the first of the “Alice” books, he published not only a
four-volume mathematical study called “An Elementary Treatise on
Determinants” but also a series of collegiate monographs devoted to
subjects of passing interest (with such titles as “The New Belfry at
Christ Church Oxford”).
Just as Carroll was the creation of Dodgson, so the “Alice” books are
much more than the adventures of a rambunctious girl, for the books
recount not merely her musings and amusements but her puzzlements when
faced with the greatest questions of all times – the ones that
philosophers enjoy questioning rather than answering. The author is
believed to have modelled his Alice on a “real live” little girl named
Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, whose
family name rhymes with “fiddle.”
Every reader of the books has his or her own image of Alice, usually
the one created by the immensely agile Sir John Tenniel who
illustrated the original editions with his deft lines. My own image is
other than Tenniel’s. I see Alice in two ways: as a lively young girl
and as a full-bodied young woman. This is so because in Toronto, where
I live, we are lucky enough to have two oil paintings of Alice in
public institutions. It is not widely known that the British artist
Arthur Hughes was commissioned in 1863 by the Dodgson family to paint
images of Alice Liddell. The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s
Literature in the Toronto Public Library has the original oil “Girl
with Lilacs”; the Art Gallery of Ontario (currently undergoing a
facelift by the Toronto-born architectural superstar Frank Gehry) has
the same artist’s “The Lady with the Lilacs.” Thus Toronto boasts both
the younger and the older Alice, befitting a city at once younger than
many of the world’s great cities but these days somewhat feistier.
(After all, Toronto will host the next “All and Everything Conference”
in April 2009.)
“Girl with Lilacs,” commissioned by Carroll, depicts a pale, young
girl with large, curious eyes and across her fair features a quizzical
expression. Hughes was undoubtedly familiar with the sketches of Alice
that Carroll himself had executed a year earlier for “Alice’s
Adventures Under Ground,” an early manuscript version of the classic
novel. That accounts for the strong resemblance between the sketches
and the portrait. The other painting, “The Lady with the Lilacs,” is
no evocation of childhood, for it depicts a maiden approaching the
point of full womanhood, and hence as portraiture it is both appealing
and conventional. Between them, the two pre-Raphaelite paintings catch
the sexual ambivalence that we experience with the “real life” Alice:
best caught, perhaps, in the name “Lolita.”
All of this has little to do with the book under review. “Behind the
Looking Glass” was published earlier this year by Cambridge Scholars
Publishing, an academic imprint established in Newcastle, England, by
scholars with an association with Cambridge University. (CSP is not an
imprint of the University, yet its 250 or so titles are worthy of the
Cambridge University Press imprint.)
Here are some bibliographical details: “Behind the Looking Glass.” By
Sherry L. Ackerman. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
ISBN (10): 1-84718-486-3. Cloth-bound, jacketed. Pages: xii + 170. The
list price is close to 30 pounds. There are two Appendices.
Appendix A lists mathematical and other works written by Dodgson.
Appendix B is something I have not seen in some time: “a syllabus” for
a course that introduces philosophy (especially epistemology and
metaphysics) using the Alice books as the launching pad. The course is
titled “Questions Behind the Looking-
Glass: A Carrollian Introduction to Philosophy.” There is as well a
far-ranging Bibliography (with entries for books by Bishop Berkeley,
Annie Besant, Madame Blavatsky, Harold Bloom, etc.) and an Index.
There are no references at all to Gurdjieff or Ouspensky.
The author of “Behind the Looking Glass” is Sherry L. Ackerman, a
scholar otherwise unknown to me. She has her own Wikipedia entry,
which begins as follows: “Sherry L. Ackerman, Ph.D., is Professor of
Philosophy at the College of the Siskiyous, in Northern California,
U.S.A., as well as an international dressage clinician. As an active
scholar with the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, she
has authored numerous papers and journal articles. She is also one of
the American equine industry’s foremost proponents of eco-spirituality
and nature mysticism.” Wow!
Not only was I unfamiliar with Dr. Ackerman but I knew nothing at all
about the College of the Siskiyous, where she teaches. The college’s
website describes itself as “one of the most beautiful community
colleges [sic] campuses in California” with a student population of
2,500. The campus is located “at the base of majestic Mount Shasta,” a
mountain noted for its connections with gurus from India and flying
saucers from outer space.
The author knows exactly what she is doing. She is “deconstructing the
Carroll Myth” and “recontextualizing Carroll.” Never fear that
something valuable will be lost; something of equal or equivalent
value will be gained: “The myth he crafted, however, was neither
social nor sexual … it was spiritual.” Carroll fits hand in glove
into “Victorian esoteric trends.” It seems “The Victorian Cult of the
Child was, more accurately, a reappearance of the Orphic theogony for
the belief in a divine child.” We have here a description of “the
initiatory process” en route to “achieving gnosis.” A tall order.
British society in the middle-to-late-1800s offered Carroll the
Platonic revival and the Theosophical movement not to mention the new
religion of Spiritualism as well as theories about “the Arctic Home of
the Vedas.” It also offered him Christianity. But instead of taking
Holy Orders, as he was required to do to retain his academic
appointment, Carroll waffled: “Carroll chose to sing a new song.
Instead of dogmatic liturgy, he sang the theosophist’s intellectual
hymn to Love and preached from carefully crafted allegory instead of
from a pulpit.”
Dr. Ackerman goes on a bit: “I … feel that I have constructed a
strong preliminary case for a Carroll whose mysticism colored every
aspect of his life. The mystical consciousness considers unity as both
an internal and external focus as it seeks the truth about reality.”
Then, using an idiom from dressage, she takes the bit between the
teeth: “Carroll turns Alice into Odysseus journeying home to Ithaca.
The hero’s journey always involves the departure, an initiation and
the return.” Carroll naturally kept all this to himself. “Carroll
concealed his secret carefully, leaving it so that it could be
understood only by the efforts of the studious and wise.”
Maybe. The words “studious and wise” have a meaning deeper that the
one advanced here but even here they offer a whiff of the esoteric.
While it would be nice to consider readers who embrace Dr. Ackerman’s
thesis to be “studious and wise,” I wonder just how erudite and
sagacious her thesis is. She fails to take into account competing
theories, and she overlooks the work of predecessors like Northrop
Frye, who noted, “I’ve often said that if I understood the two Alice
books I’d have very little left to understand about literature.
Actually I think the Alice books, while they carry over, begin rather
than sum up – a new twist to fiction that has to do with intellectual
paradox & the disintegrating of the ego.”
That insight comes from one of Frye’s Notebooks; in another Notebook
he writes, “I suppose the fascination with Alice is not that she’s a
child in the state of innocence, but that she’s a preternatural child:
what seven-year-old girls would have been like without the Fall.” And
in one of his studies of the Bible, he observed dryly, “In a slightly
different but related area, one feels that Alice could hardly have
held her Wonderland together if she had even reached the Menarche,
much less become an adult.” (The sources are available to any reader
who requests them.)
Dr. Ackerman’s thesis is not novel. For at least two generations now,
scholars like Frye and Harold Bloom have treated imaginative
literature as a species of “secular scripture,” and have regarded it
as “mythopoeic” or “archetypal,” perhaps in an attempt to do away with
such exclusivist critical perspectives as historical criticism,
Marxist, social, biographical, feminist, theological, psychoanalytic,
New Critical, explication de texte, literary critical, etc.
What I do find interesting is what Dr. Ackerman is doing, quite
single-mindedly, and that is exposing her students to is a body of
knowledge and a tradition of outsider thought that was hardly
recognized as such in the anglosphere before the 1960s. She is
introducing them to the tradition of Western Esotericism. Before the
1960s, for instance, it was permissible to cringe in embarrassment
when mentioning W.B. Yeats’s membership in the Hermetic Society of the
Golden Dawn, as one of my own professors did at the time at St.
Michael’s College, University of Toronto; since then no study of the
laureate’s poetry or his politics is complete without at least one
chapter devoted to the Irish poet’s mystical bent and the source of
his cache of esoteric thoughts and occult imagery. No doubt Carroll
was familiar with Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, but is there any
evidence that he actually read and favoured such texts?
While I would enjoy working my way through “Behind the Looking Glass,”
to answer a question like this one, and to describe chapter by chapter
how Dr. Ackerman approaches the texts in question, I feel it would
take up too much space and not really account for the charm and power
of the Alice books. As well, it is more practical here to make a few
general remarks about the author’s preconceptions and the usefulness
of approaching Carroll’s books through the polarized eye-glasses of
* Dr. Ackerman believes that Carroll “did a masterful job of
concealing his secrets from the crowd.” Did he have any secrets?
Martin Gardner is able to solve the philosophical puzzles without
resorting to quadratic equations or mystagogic utterances. Alice
encounters puzzles, not mysteries, and as everyone knows, the
difference between a puzzle and a mystery is that the former may be
“solved” (because all the parts are present if haphazardly so) whereas
a mystery may never be “explained” (because an essential part is ever
elsewhere). It seems to me that Carroll deals with intellectual
puzzles, more than metaphysical mysteries.
* Dr. Ackerman finds Carroll and his works to be “a radical
religio-philosophical counter-response to patriarchal materialism.”
The response is “radical” in the sense of “root” rather than
“revolutionary,” as were the Prophetic Books of William Blake, which
go unmentioned, despite Blake’s “radical innocence.” Is materialism
“patriarchal,” mysticism “matriarchal”? Assumptions.
* Dr. Ackerman uses literature to illustrate philosophy. “‘Matter’ is
not a name in the way that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ is a name. Carroll’s story
about Humpty Dumpty is suggestive of a satirization of Berkeley’s
nominalism. Humpty Dumpty, from this perspective, subscribed to an
extreme form of nominalism, according to which all that is common to a
group of particulars is their being called by the same name.” (In that
passage, a lot hangs on the uncomfortable adjective “suggestive” as
well as on the ugly noun “satirization.”) The analysis continues with
a roll-call of names: Berkeley, Locke, Plato, Euclid, etc. Her
conclusion? “Carroll’s ultimate work-in-progress – the evolution of
his own consciousness – is available, with some literary archeology,
to be showcased.” Perhaps.
* Dr. Ackerman keeps her eyes focused on Carroll himself as much as
she does on his writings: “We find Carroll himself irreconcilably, and
probably unconsciously, suspended between the phenomenal and noumenal
realms.” “It appears that Carroll, like most academics of this period,
confused the map with the territory.” “As previously noted, Carroll
always vehemently denied that ‘Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’ and ‘Lewis
Carroll’ shared the same identity. They were very much two different
personae.” It is difficult to sidestep biographical criticism.
* Dr. Ackerman notes that “Carroll had originally intended to call
‘Through the Looking Glass,’ ‘Behind the Looking Glass’ but, after
more deliberation, settled upon ‘Through.’” She herself has written
the book that Carroll did not write, employing the preposition
“Through,” though it is a book that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson might
well have written, had he lived through the 1960s. So it is a very
serious work but, I feel, somewhat beside the point.
* Dr. Ackerman has an genuine and infectious enthusiasm for the
philosophy that she says lies “behind” the Alice books. So
apparently – nominally anyway – her book belongs to a class of books
that are revisionist in nature, as her work seeks to reinterpret this
imaginative fantasy as a work of philosophical (or better
metaphysical) inquiry. The author is one of nine academics concerned
with cultural studies who have formed a group they call “ContrariWise:
The Association for New Lewis Carroll Studies.” Members of the group
are intent on offering new insights into Carroll, the Alice books, and
other 19th-century works of literature. Good luck to them.
I doubt that “Behind the Looking Glass” will be of interest to the
general reader who recalls from childhood the pleasure of reading the
Alice books. The study offers few insights into those texts, as
literature, certainly not enough to detain the literary critic. But
the study will reward scholars of children’s literature and perhaps
those cultural historians who may wish to trace the possible influence
on Carroll and other imaginative writers of the period of what James
Webb and Joscelyn Godwin after him have characterized as “rejected
knowledge,” that is, the whole tradition of Western Esotericism. If
this trend continues, in another fifty years “Western Esotericism”
will be so well known that it will have to be renamed “Western
John Robert Colombo, the author of many books, studied Literature and
Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is currently a Fellow,
Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto. He twin
interests are Canadiana and “rejected wisdom.” His website is
for more re Sherry Ackerman and Alice at
HIDDEN SOURCES: Western Esoteric Influence on the Arts,
Conference to be held in Cambridge on Saturday 11th October 2008
Hosts: The Cambridge Centre for the Study of Western Esotericism