Synchronicity: Or…The Occult, Daniel Pinchbeck and Me

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 shaped 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.

12 Responses to “Synchronicity: Or…The Occult, Daniel Pinchbeck and Me”

  1. Tim Says:

    I’m not actually sure Pinchbeck would consider himself an “occultist” per se, based on what I’ve read and interacted with him. But that’s a probably pointless distinction based on what you’re trying to say here…

  2. kimber the wolfgrrrl Says:

    When it comes to Pinchbeck, I’ll give him a few more years before I take him too seriously. There are far too many hucksters in this line of study who quest after knowledge for the reflected mystique, in the hopes of getting a bit of sugar on the side, wink wink nudge nudge. No one’s motives are pure, surely, but I’ll let the test of time galvanize his theories and lend credence to his opinions. :)

    Interesting post! I’ll most certainly be back to check out more.

  3. MN Says:

    We met him yesterday and he was a total prick to us and his audience. He actually chased someone down and asked them if they wanted his autograph. Unfortunately, his rock star status went to his head, and that really sucks because so much of what he has to say is valuable. I won’t be wasting my time, energy, or money on him again.

  4. The Necromancer Says:

    Hmmm…His message is important…The delivery, on the other hand…You could get much of what he says from a critical (radical?) vision of the history of science (e.g. Caroline Merchant’s The Death of Nature), but with a softer touch. Then again, without the rock star approach, it may never reach a wider audience…

  5. Notes on Mind Control « The Necromancer Says:

    […] of a positive slant, too, if you followed the LSD line along the psychedelic path to Leary and even Pinchbeck). To get budding researchers started, I’ve proposed a brief bibliography (with […]

  6. Quotable « The Necromancer Says:

    […] Daniel Pinchbeck, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (New York: Penguin, 2006), pp. […]

  7. Says:

    Saint Martin ou Atkinson…

    Louis Claude Saint Martin, o Filósofo Desconhecido, reencarnou nos Estados Unidos cumprindo uma das missões mais importantes e perigosas em nome do cristianismo e Jesus.

  8. nathan Says:

    Hey all,
    I have been volunteering/interning/working for free at some websites that Daniel helped create called and Through doing that I managed to get good real work during this recession with an Undergrad in Music of all things. Aparently business people like musicians. Anyway, no one is perfect. When you are in the public eye, many of your personal faults are revealed. I am sure most of you have social quirks that if you were being intensely analyzed 24/7 people would think poorly of you as well. I have met Daniel several times but mostly I kept quiet while around him because I have known a few successful musicians in my life and the last thing a public person wants to hear about in private are things that they’ve put their soul into and spent many years of their life completely dedicated to the work involved. I have never personally seen Daniel do anything socially disturbing but I have often heard about it, I honestly like to keep to my own personal business and try to work out my own many faults. I don’t quite understand his sexuality but for some reason people seem to think it is important. I read somewhere in my internet procrastination at work that he had a spinal problem as a young man and had to be in the hospital for at least a year. Also note that there is a lot of social pressure in NYC to be cool, to fit in, dress right, and get laid.

    Maybe this is the hypocracy that people are trying to point out. While he talks about improving the self to improve life around you, he is not making leaps and bounds in his public sexual personna. Working with him and the rest of the “scene” has been interesting and challenging. I think the term “scenester” or “hipster” is prevalant in being involved with these people but not the point whatsoever. That is actually a really old term, I’ve heard my dad talk about hipsters when he lived in new york. The term is so vague, you could call a person who has absolutely no interest in esoterica but is really into fashion a hipster. I think the term should be avoided because it is a judgement made almost fully on the outer core, visual, or material of a person. For that matter a persons sexual failures really doesn’t have much to do with their academic achievement or quality of their work. Who cares if he’s a egomaniacal, hipocritical, elitist! He wrote a book that made you think, become interested, and learn for yourself and that is quite an achievement.

  9. The Necromancer Says:

    You make very valid points. Nobody’s perfect. Actually, I think 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoalt is well-written and wide ranging. But it’s nothing that Castaneda didn’t do with more texture, humility and soul.

    I understand the pressures of celebrity. They are, I suspect, similar to pressures we all have — to fit in, get laid, be cool. Yet there is a contradiction between his behavior and his beliefs, I think. And this isn’t necessarily about sex. Who among us is Sir Percival? More about ontology, I guess.

    You are a bit of a booster for the Pinchbeck cause. That’s fine. All I offer is criticism (which happens to come up first in a Goggle search…). There are other voices in this chorus too. There will be more when the full pop culture impact of his ideas becomes more prevalent.

    I’m not really trying to psychoanalyze Pinchbeck. He does that well himself. If anything, I think he prompts self-reflection. And some intriguing possibilities…

    Heck, I’m a couple of years younger than the guy and what have I done? He’s tremendously productive, successful and talented. How can you fault him beyond asking bigger questions about his ideas and life?

    Which is what I have tried to do…

  10. Justin Says:

    I read this guy’s first book and he smelled like a hack from page two. The New Age movement is wrought with narcissism and people wanting to cash in on indigenous knowledge — financially as well as spiritually — strip mining various cultures for the purposes of evading their own personal crises of meaninglessness.

    Meaninglessness is key here because New Agers’ quest is not to understand the world as it is, but to develop their own egos. It is a fascination with self-identity and a path to weekend warriorship, a way to bliss out on nature — without dealing with the hardship, disease, famine and intense physical labor at the whim and mercy of an unforgiving as well as bountiful Earth. New Agers forget that the hardship, scarcity, lack — these “bummer” emotions influenced the “Earth honoring” rituals and beliefs they have stolen from Native Peoples at least as much as the positive ones.

    New York hipsters don’t know lack, scarcity or hardship. Not getting laid by a different girl every night is not hardship. My problem with Pinchbeck’s writing is not whether or not he is an arrogant prick, but whether or not he has anything real or true to say. I am convinced that he does not. He’s just another Western tourist with a big mouth and nothing substantive to original to say about his acidhead experiences.

    Castenada was the Grandmaster Pimp Daddy of using his bullshitting talents to con, seduce, and shamelessly exploit others–especially women. But at least it can be said he did it with more charm, and so convincingly that he fooled the UCLA anthro department into just handing him a Ph.D for writing a novel! Pinchbeck can’t even manage to pull the wool over the NYT Sunday Book Review! Castaneda was a great storyteller, a genius in fact. It took months of scholarly work and literature review to dig up all the source material for his fantastic stories.

    Yet, people were hurt by the lies and hurt by their own self-deceptions required to buy into the bullshit in the first place. We don’t need shamanism to show us how to do it. Nobody needs a guru to tell them how it is. Everyone is smart enough to discover (not manufacture) meaning for themselves. Unfortunately, most people are too intellectually and spiritually lazy and would happily tug like a child on the coatsleeves of the leading narcissists of our age, begging them for all the answers.

    We don’t need an irrelevent psuedo-Maya apocalypse to inspire us to live better, let alone a million hacks’ crackpot analyses of said psuedo-apocalypse. I’ve never sat down and said, “Gosh, I sure wish I had a better cultural meme to help me figure it all out.”

    The minute we let go of trying to enhance, develop, study, identify and search out meaning for “me” the moment these quests seem like fools’ errands and we can look at life around us without the slimy shellac of dogma and theory that coats every hungry, misguided desire for meaning.

    • sausage Says:

      Hello Justin

      Excellent incisive comment.

      I just read ‘Breaking open the Head’ and I entirely agree with you.

      And bravo for reminding us of Castenada’s fraudulence, it’s important not to forget the motivations at play here.

  11. The Necromancer Says:

    Wow. This is some cold-forged, high-grade criticism, bro. I can’t say I don’t disagree with you about the finer points of this pointed rant. I might be inclined to give Castenada more credit than you do here, especially since I find him to be a pretty high-caliber writer and communicator.

    But as to the rest, the New Age is, as usual, in a constant state of crisis. What passes for real transgressive thought is instantaneously absorbed by the status quo, used to sell and market and aggrandize by those who wish to be aggrandized.

    It’s a tough sell, but maybe that’s the problem — people ought to stop selling (or consulting, as they call it) and start living…

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