The Use of Talking

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De Occulta Philosophia

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macroanthropos tree of lifeAs you might have guessed by now (see here), I’ve always been fascinated by the strange, the unusual, and the bizarre. During my teenage years I went to an orthodontist in midtown Manhattan and as a reward for enduring the pain, I’d visit the Marboro bookshop a few yards down the block. For those of you younger than I am, Marboro specialized in remainders, publishers’ overstock with substantial markdowns. And almost always on the remainder tables were titles published by Lyle Stuart’s University Books, reprints of long-out-of-print occult titles: A.E. Waite on ceremonial magic, tarot, Rosicrucianism, and the Holy Grail; Montague Summers on vampires; Frank Podmore and F.W. H. Myers on spiritualism; Theodore Besterman on crystals, κτλ.  When, as a college freshman, I discovered Samuel Weiser’s bookshop south of Union Square, I was hooked.

My interest in all this was never practical (well, hardly ever). I had (and have) no belief in the efficacy of the occult arts. But I became increasingly fascinated with the history of occult groups and practices, the impact or non-impact of occult ideas on politics, philosophy, literature and art, the lives of occult practitioners from Dr. John Dee to Aleister Crowley, and the system(s) of correspondences that esotericists use to understand the putative connections between the inner and outer, human and natural  worlds—microcosm and macrocosm—together. 

Occultism has always been a stew of obsolete (scientists say discredited) sciences and philosophies with a long pedigree (/Hermeticism, gnosticism, astrology, geomancy, alchemy, practical and theoretical Kabbalah, scrying, theurgy, and their like), fairly recent additions: Rosicrucianism (a post-Reformation invention) the occult Tarot (a post-Enlightenment production), Freemasonry, spiritualism, and a variety of oriental systems and practices such as yoga (tantric and otherwise). In its present form, it was cooked up mostly in the nineteenth century, by a former seminarian who went by the name of Eliphas Levi (nothing more kabbalistically impressive than a Hebrew name), a Russian-American-Indian-English adventuress named Helena Blavatsky, and Samuel Liddell Macgregor Mathers, a Scots pseudo-aristocrat and psychopomp of the Order of the Golden Dawn. And its capacious arms have opened to welcome extraterrestrials, ancient and otherwise, pyramidology, pseudophysics alternative archaeology, Jungian psychology (which many would say was occult to begin with) and a wide selection of conspiracy theories. All of it, you might say is dross, but it does contain some wonderfully imaginative (and even beautiful) nuggets.

What have I gotten out of all this? Well, not much (my wife would say nothing) that’s of any real use; maybe a certain sensitivity to real or factitious connections But it continues to fascinate (that’s an occult word) me, and I continue to read about it. And in our digital world there’s a lot to read. And a lot to write about, even by a cynical unbeliever. It poses some very interesting questions: Why does its popularity wax and wane from one period to another? Why is do self-professed agnostics and atheists believe parts of it? How has it influenced the development of mainstream philosophy and literature? Why do so many people invest so much time and money in pursuing it?  If you’ve got answers to any of these questions, please let me know.

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Written by hans castorp

August 17, 2013 at 12:36 pm

The Way Out World

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Picture a small room, longer than it is wide, with a door leading into a kitchen. Two pine bookcases, stained brown, stand on either side of a window. Against the opposite wall is a bed, and in the bed a ten-year-old boy is lying in the dark pretending to sleep. Half under the pillow, half covered by the blanket is an old gray portable radio. His father is asleep in the big bedroom (he gets up at 5:30 to go to work). From the living room, on the other side of the thin wall by the boy’s bed, he can hear the sound of the television and his mother’s laughter. From the radio comes some music from Forbidden Planet and then a man’s voice.

Hi, neighbors. This is Long John once again. We’re around from midnight to 5:00 five mornings during the week, and of course on weekends we’re around till 5:30, and that means we’re on the air for some 36 hours. And during that time it’s my pleasure to talk with many interesting people.

The boy has stumbled on this show by accident, The summer before, in a camp infirmary, he had read an old issue of Mad magazine with an article in it titled “The Night People vs Creeping Meatballism.” Though it was illustrated in the typical Mad style, it was an essay, the sort of thing that usually didn’t appear in the magazine. The essay contrasted the Night People, who were hip and interesting, with the Day People, who were Creeping Meatballs. The author was a man named Jean Shepherd, described as a “disk jockey” on a New York radio station. The boy left camp with three resolves that August: he would never go back to camp, he would find Jean Shepherd on the radio, and he would make himself a Night Person.

Back at home, the boy took the family radio into his room and tuned in Jean Shepherd on WOR. It was obvious at first listen that he wasn’t a disk jockey. Oh, he played music, but it was short clips of songs like “The Sheik of Araby,” accompanied on the Jew’s harp. The music punctuated the stories Shepherd told, stories about his his boyhood in Hammond, Indiana, his work in the open hearth, his time in the army. Mixed with or instead of the stories, there were readings of George Ade or haiku, reflections on the iniquity of New Jersey, and commentary on the passing parade. The boy was well on his way to becoming a Night Person, but the end was not yet.

Then, one night, after a holiday spent with the relatives in Brooklyn, the boy lay exhausted in the backseat of the family car. It was very late; the boy asked his father to turn on the radio. Jean Shepherd was not there. Instead, there was a man with a born salesman’s voice interviewing a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. The boy was curious, and soon tried to stay up past Jean Shepherd to listen to this new program. One night the show featured a man who claimed he had ridden on a flying saucer. The boy was hooked. He was now a Night Person.

It was hard to smuggle the family’s radio into his room, and even harder to hide it under the pillow, but somehow he managed. And into his ears poured the strangest assortment of people he had ever heard: not just flying saucer contactees, but mediums, skeptics, radiesthesists, builders of psionic devices that operated even after their circuitry hadbeen replaced with schematics, a barber from Brooklyn with headgear that allowed him to communicate with the Space Brothers (the original tinfoil hat?), and the inimitable Otis T. Carr, the designer of the world’s first flying saucer with antigravity propulsion. When Long John’s book, The Way Out World , came out in the early ’60s, the  boy rushed to Brentano’s on Fifth Avenue to buy a copy. It was the first newly published book he had ever bought.

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I listened to Long John through the sixties and into the seventies. He moved from WOR to WNBC, where he had two or three shows running in different time slots, and when NBC switched to a music format, he moved to WMCA, where he co-hosted with his wife, the former model Candy Jones, and as the cancer that was to kill him progressed, spending less and less time on the air. When he died in 1978, I felt as if part of my life had died with him. I listened to other late-night talkers through the years—Barry Farber, the Amazing Randi (briefly), even, when desperate, Larry King—but none of them (nor Art Bell nor, heaven forfend, George Noory) could hold a hoodoo candle to LJN.

Now what, you may ask, did listening to Long John do for me? Well, it made me a Night Person, which only marriage to a morning person could ameliorate; it caused me to doze my way through first-period classes in high school; it filled my brain up with stuff that, as my wife will gladly tell you, is of less than no use. But useful or not, it’s stuff that remains with me all these years later, stuff that spills out of my mouth at the least opportunity, sometimes amusing for my listeners, but, I’m afraid, more often boring. And it introduced me to a way out world of wackiness that has given me hours and hours of good clean fun.

Since those long ago Long John nights, the paranormal has become mainstream; what used to be called the occult turned into the New Age and from there into a seemingly endless source of romance characters and “reality” TV shows. I’ve always seen “alternate spiritualities,” as they’re sometimes called, as ersatz religions, as me-centered substitutes for God-centered faith, and as such, they have never appealed to me. I’m not a believer in the influence of the stars or dowsing or spirit trumpets or incantations or visitors from Aldebaran. I do get a certain frisson from, if not suspending, then slackening my disbelief and imagining that Bigfoot is lurking in the forest and the deros are pursuing their evil experiments in the bowels of the earth. And I wonder how otherwise normal-seeming people can not so much suspend their disbelief as toss it away.

If I have my wish, the next time I wake up in the middle of the night there’ll be an old gray radio at my bedside. I’ll turn it on, tune over to the left of the dial, and hear the voice of Long John Nebel. In the meantime, there’s the Interwebs; you can listen to Long John here.

And check out The Paracast, where a few of those voices of yesteryear (plus a whole lot of new ones) can be heard weekly, at any hour you like.

Written by hans castorp

January 21, 2012 at 8:26 pm

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