Like many others, I occasionally watch The Colbert Report. The other night, he interviewed a guy named Daniel Pinchbeck. This may shock some of the literati and hipster types out there, but I’d never heard of him before. Obviously he was promoting his new book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, in which he claims to be in communication with ancient Mesoamerican Gods and sees powerful hallucinogens as a route to a new harmonic consciousness. Apparently, judging by some early reviews, the main thrust of the book is apocalyptic. Like a perfect neo-romantic archetype out of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, Pinchbeck perceives modern rational capitalist and materialist values as the problem, and encourages shamanic (his word), intuitive and instinctual ways of seeing the world. He is searching for alternate states of consciousness, and also heavily advocates the use of drugs as a means to achieve these states. He appears like a fusion of Carlos Castaneda, Timothy Leary, Oswald Spengler and Woody Allen.
He’s an occultist, of course, and has written about alchemy and magic. Further, he’s participated in primitive rituals involving transcendental states in Africa and South America, and explored the modern manifestations of mysticism and shamanism at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Judging by some of his written work (including a host of articles in Artforum), he has also extensively studied the eddies and backwaters of the Western tradition. He is, for lack of a better term, a student of the weird.
I, too, am a student of the weird. Actually, I’m not just a student — more a historian (as the chair of my old department once said…”the weird needs its historian”). The deep tradition of Western mysticism and other associated alchemies is familiar to me: The Hermetic Corpus; Asclepius and Hermes Trismegistus; the eleusinian mysteries; Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism and Gnosticism; Plotinus, Iamblichus and the Islamic neoplatonists; early Kabbalists; the Albigensians, Cathars and Knights Templar; the mythical medieval alchemist Basilius Valentinus; renaissance thinkers like Pico della Mirandola, Ficino and the Florentine academy; Paracelsus and Van Helmont; Giordano Bruno; John Dee and Robert Fludd; the Rosicrucians (and Descartes); Newton (and his obsession with alchemy); Louis Claude de St. Martin, Swedenborg and Mesmer; the Illuminati and Adam Weishaupt; freemasonry; Eliphas Levi; the symbolists and Gerard de Nerval; Aleister Crowley and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Arthur Edward Waite; Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy and Rudolf Steiner; Wilhelm Reich and the Orgone, etc, etc…
This, however, is a more historical mode than I believe Pinchbeck operates in. His is a thoroughly modern cosmology coloured by the influence of “scientific” symbolism in the occult, a world colored by skepticism and doubt. The twentieth century path is a winding one. The odd amalgam between the physical and psychic sciences and the rise of holistic thinking (something Pinchbeck is also clearly tapped into) in the interwar years were merely seeds which germinated in the dark and shady soil of the Cold War, mutating into new political and cultural forms: paranoia, “alien-nation”, mind control, the CIA and LSD. This last is somewhat rescued and saved, oddly, by one of Pinchbeck’s major influences, the drug-guru himself, Timothy Leary. Still, the dark corners of the post-war American esoteric scene (cf. Anton LaVey) are clearly not alien to him…
And, of course, neither are aliens. Pinchbeck is deeply immersed in what I can only call the X-Files cosmology (UFOs, little green men, crop circles, cryptozoology, alien abductions, etc…). I suspect this is born of a close reading of the cyberpunk/cyberculture scene, with a little of Jung’s Flying Saucers thrown in for good measure. For him, I’m sure some of the c-punks were mystics in mirrorshades. No wonder, since this whole fringe theory edge-of-science, pseudo-science world is rife with esoteric speculation and bad behavior. Among the golden age writers like Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury, the father of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, was just a hack. ‘Nuff said.
Truth is, the history of medicine and science, taken from a certain point of view, is an avenue into all these fascinating esoteric currents, and is the one I took. Pinchbeck sounds conversant with these themes too, speaking of the scientific enterprise like a careful reader of Feyerabend’s Against Method. He sees science as merely one form of myth-making among many. In an essay in Artforum on an obscure early 20th century Italian occultist named Julius Evola, Pinchbeck — in a moment of arrogant elitism — notes that Evola’s “…perspective will only make sense for those who have discovered for themselves that the scientific rationalism of our materialist age is not the whole story.” Really? Who knew.
And yet he adds a level of crazed and earnest lunacy to his claims, pushing ontology well beyond the bounds most philosophers of science would be comfortable with. As one commentator notes, Pinchbeck “outed himself as a crazy fool.” Their discomfort, like anyone in academia who tries to push boundaries, is invariably a function of their need to concern themselves with tenure-review boards and other forms of censure and gatekeeping. Pinchbeck comes to the occult from the more direct route — as a writer, a bohemian, an outsider and an intellectual. No wonder, given his background.
Judging by his biographical details, the Beats were clearly in his blood. His mother dated Jack Kerouac and is a writer and poet in her own right. Pinchbeck’s parents were part of an “outsider elite,” and, perhaps not surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to have rebelled all that much. In this sense, Pinchbeck’s experientialist ideology, and his willingness to let his freak-flag fly, is old news. Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider, written in the mid-1950s, provides an archetype that would require little tailoring to fit Pinchbeck.
The article written about him in Rolling Stone portrays a character I can well imagine having met a hundred times hanging out at the university or the newest hipster bar on the main. His is a circle of Brooklynites who are, superficially at least, little different from the people I know. Disgruntled intellectuals, some pseudo, some not so pseudo, soured and aging graduate students in a race against advanced alcoholism, flakes of all description really.
The difference is that his scene is New York, and it’s the U.S., not Montreal, an aging French provincial outpost turned city of sin out on the very periphery of the empire. Pinchbeck is the most high-end form of scenester there is, pitching his own brand of drug — Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a powerful hallucinogen that provides the out-of-body experience he uses for his shamanistic travels — and trying to get in the pants of any pretty girl that will give him the time of day.
Pinchbeck, you see, is a bit of a notorious letch. This born perhaps of his early life as a big nerd — playing chess and dungeons and dragons before he finally broke through to new horizons. The man is notorious for badgering, begging and whining until girls eventually capitulate to his “charm”. Here he and I differ significantly. He wrote an article in Esquire, for example, entitled “Hey Mister, Can You Dunk” about his experiences learning to play basketball properly in his late 20s! I was always more of a jock than that, and at 16 and 17 used to play pick-up basketball all over the city with guys twice my age. Pinchbeck and I definitely grew up on very different sides of the tracks and his effete qualities are the kind of thing that would have gotten me in more trouble than I was willing to fight my way out of. That is if it ever occured to me to act that way.
Perhaps this is the seminal difference between Pinchbeck’s somewhat fraudulent, self-aggrandizing, media-hungry approach, heavily immersed in a discourse of hedonism, literary elitism and egotism and my more hermetic and stoic search for meaning. I don’t have Pinchbeck’s melodramatic flair, but I don’t think I’d want it either.
Truth is, occult and esoteric knowledge has always been peddled by charlatans, montebanks and frauds of all description and in this regard the 21st century is no different. Anyway, Pinchbeck’s overall message is important — and one that may be crucial to our physical and psychic survival as a species. Here I do agree with Pinchbeck, who, in one of his essays, quotes Malraux to get his essential sentiment across, writing that “The twenty-first century will be mystical, or it will not be.”
Indeed, Mr. Pinchbeck, indeed.